Free food for health and the environment

To motivate choosing vegan or environmentally friendly or healthy food, one option is to provide it for free. If people have eaten their fill, they are less likely to buy extra, whether meat or unhealthy. There are tradeoffs of course – any free resource tends to be overused.

For free food to be environmentally friendly, it should not be wasted and disposable utensils should be avoided. Food waste can be reduced by providing small portions to be eaten on the spot, with unlimited free refills of these small portions. All-you-can-eat restaurants already use this strategy by providing only small plates and bowls. The oversight of the food servers and other eaters and their disapproval of wasting food is a social deterrent.

The use of disposable dishes may be reduced by not providing any, requiring people to bring their own utensils, but some will then bring disposable and some will substitute away from the free food toward buying (unhealthy, delivered) meals in disposable containers. It is an empirical question whether the potential use of disposables outweighs the benefit of switching people to healthy and environmentally friendly eating. A dishwasher next to the food station eases the use of reusable kitchenware. Handheld foods (buns, sandwiches, wraps, whole fruit) do not require dishes.

Free food may lead to overeating and increase obesity. Any free resource tends to be over-used, especially if in limited quantity or available for a limited time. The latter overuse motives are eliminated by making the free food continuously available, but this exacerbates potential overeating. The obesity effect can be reduced by offering only healthy food without the somewhat addictive additives sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate. Foods like celery, iceberg lettuce, whole linseeds that provide fewer calories than it takes to chew and digest them (given inefficient human digestion, as opposed to the calories measured by the burn method) may actually reduce obesity when distributed for free. Again, it is an empirical question whether the potential costs of overeating and obesity neutralise the benefit of substituting towards healthier and environmentally friendlier foods.

Given how cheap basic healthy foods are (rice and other dry grains under a dollar per kilo, cabbage, bananas, lemons, dry peas and lentils two dollars per kilo), the social benefit of providing these for free may outweigh the deadweight loss of taxation to finance their purchase. In this case, the government would actually save money in the long run (over the average life expectancy) by offering free food. Cooking the foods would increase the costs slightly, but not much if it is done continuously in bulk by machines (rice cookers, bread machines). No need to wash the cookers if a new batch goes in within hours and the heat sterilises the machine. Or the machine can wash itself if it is connected to a water supply, a drain and a soap dispenser and either has a mixing blade in it like a blender or the water supply has sufficient pressure to flush out the soap residue.

Prefereeing increases the inequality of research output

Why do top researchers in economics publish almost exclusively in the top 5 journals? Random idea generation and mistakes in the course of its implementation should imply significant variance of the quality of finished research projects even for the best scientists. So top people should have more of all quality levels of papers.

Nepotism is not necessary to explain why those at top universities find it easier to publish in top journals. Researchers at the best departments have frequent access to editors and referees of top journals (their colleagues), so can select ideas that the editors and referees like and further tailor the project to the tastes of these gatekeepers during writing. Researchers without such access to editors and referees choose their projects “blindly” and develop the ideas in directions that only match gatekeeper tastes by chance. This results in much “wasted work” if the goal is to publish well (which may or may not be correlated with the social welfare from the research).

In addition to selecting and tailoring projects, those with access can also better select journals, because they know the preferences of the editorial board. So for any given project, networking with the gatekeepers allows choosing a journal where editors are likely to like this project. This reduces the number of rejections before eventual acceptance, allowing accumulating publications quicker and saving the labour of some rounds of revision of the paper (at journals that reject after a revise-and-resubmit for example).

A similar rich-get-richer positive feedback operates in business, especially for firms that sell to other firms (B2B). Top businesspeople get access to decisionmakers at other organisations, so can learn what the market desires, thus can select and tailor products to the wants of potential customers. Better selection and targeting avoids wasting product development costs. The products may or may not increase social welfare.

Information about other business leaders’ preferences also helps target the marketing of any given product to those predisposed to like the product. Thus successful businesspeople (who have access to influential decisionmakers) have a more popular selection of products with lower development and marketing costs.

On the seller side, firms would not want their competitors to know what the buyers desire, but the buyer side has a clear incentive to inform all sellers, not just those with access. Empirically, few buyers publish on their websites any information about their desired products. One reason may be that info is costly to provide, e.g. requests for product characteristics reveal business secrets about the buyer. However, disclosure costs would also prevent revealing info via networking. Another reason buyers do not to publicly announce their desired products may be that the buyers are also sellers of other products, so trade information for information with their suppliers who are also their customers. The industry or economy as a whole would benefit from more information-sharing (saving the cost of unwanted products), so some trading friction must prevent this mutually beneficial exchange.

One friction is an agency conflict between managers and shareholders. If managers are evaluated based on relative performance, then the managers of some firms may collude to only share useful information with each other, not with those outside their circle. The firms managed by the circle would benefit from wider sharing of their product needs, because outside companies would enter the competition to supply them, reducing their costs. However, those outside firms would get extra profit, making their managers look good, thus lowering the relative standing of the managers in the circle.

Popularity inequality and multiple equilibria

Suppose losing a friend is more costly for a person with few contacts than with many. Then a person with many friends has a lower cost of treating people badly, e.g. acting as if friends are dispensable and interchangeable. The lower cost means that unpleasant acts can signal popularity. Suppose that people value connections with popular others more than unpopular. This creates a benefit from costly, thus credible, signalling of popularity – such signals attract new acquaintances. Having a larger network in turn reduces the cost of signalling popularity by treating friends badly.

Suppose people on average value a popular friend more than the disutility from being treated badly by that person (so the bad treatment is not too bad, more of a minor annoyance). Then a feedback loop arises where bad treatment of others attracts more connections than it loses. The popular get even more popular, reducing their cost of signalling popularity, which allows attracting more connections. Those with few contacts do not want to imitate the stars of the network by also acting unpleasantly, because their expected cost is larger. For example, there is uncertainty about the disutility a friend gets from being treated badly or about how much the friend values the connection, so treating her or him badly destroys the friendship with positive probability. An unpopular person suffers a large cost from losing even one friend.

Under the assumptions above, a popular person can rely on the Law of Large Numbers to increase her or his popularity in expectation by treating others badly. A person with few friends does not want to take the risk of losing even them if they turn out to be sensitive to nastiness.

Multiple equilibria may exist in the whole society: one in which everyone has many contacts and is nasty to them and one in which people have few friends and act nice. Under the assumption that people value a popular friend more than the disutility from being treated badly, the equilibrium with many contacts and bad behaviour actually gives greater utility to everyone. This counterintuitive conclusion can be changed by assuming that popularity is relative, not a function of the absolute number of friends. Total relative popularity is constant in the population, in which case the bad treatment equilibrium is worse by the disutility of bad treatment.

In order for there to be something to signal, it cannot be common knowledge that everyone is equally popular. Signalling with reasonable beliefs requires unequal popularity. Inequality reduces welfare if people are risk averse (in this case over their popularity). Risk aversion further reduces average utility in the popular-and-nasty equilibrium compared to the pooling equilibrium where everyone has few friends and does not signal (acts nice).

In general, if one of the benefits of signalling is a reduction in the cost of signalling, then the amount of signalling and inequality increases. My paper “Dynamic noisy signaling” (2018) studies this in the context of education signalling in Section V.B “Human capital accumulation”.

„People should have a choice” works both ways

Initiatives to counter unhealthy and destructive habits (smoking, gambling, junk food consumption) by taxing or restricting the addictive goods and services are often opposed with the argument that people should have a choice. One counterargument is that removing temptations from one’s future self is also a choice that people should have. For example, banning oneself from casinos. Similar registries could be instituted to ban oneself from buying alcohol or tobacco – the sales already require checking ID, so all that is needed is to compare the person’s identity against a database. For example, using a machine-readable ID which causes the machine to display “Do not sell” for people who have put themselves on the relevant list. Countries with universal machine-readable identification documents can use their existing systems for this. Examples are the European Union national identity cards.

Other ways to remove temptations from one’s way are restrictions on advertising, eliminating vending machines from a building, liquor stores near schools, alcohol and tobacco from the more visible areas of grocery shops. Just like people should have a choice to block spam emails, calls, web browser ads, they should have a choice to ban street advertising (of addictive goods or anything else) in their residential or work areas. Removing a public ad restricts some people’s right to see it, but empirically most people do not want to see more marketing in public spaces or elsewhere. Symmetrically, displaying a public ad restricts people’s right to avoid seeing it, so the question is how many people’s rights are restricted by banning vs allowing advertising.

The problem of annoying public advertisements may be resolved by smart glasses like Google Glass if these can detect advertisements appearing in the field of view and block these or replace with other images before the user sees these, similarly to how adblock software in browsers works.

The smartest professors need not admit the smartest students

The smartest professors are likely the best at targeting admission offers to students who are the most useful for them. Other things equal, the intelligence of a student is beneficial, but there may be tradeoffs. The overall usefulness may be maximised by prioritising obedience (manipulability) over intelligence or hard work. It is an empirical question what the real admissions criteria are. Data on pre-admissions personality test results (which the admissions committee may or may not have) would allow measuring whether the admission probability increases in obedience. Measuring such effects for non-top universities is complicated by the strategic incentive to admit students who are reasonably likely to accept, i.e. unlikely to get a much better offer elsewhere. So the middle- and bottom-ranked universities might not offer a place to the highest-scoring students for reasons independent of the obedience-intelligence tradeoff.

Similarly, a firm does not necessarily hire the brightest and individually most productive workers, but rather those who the firm expects to contribute the most to the firm’s bottom line. Working well with colleagues, following orders and procedures may in some cases be the most important characteristics. A genius who is a maverick may disrupt other workers in the organisation too much, reducing overall productivity.

Diffraction grating of parallel electron beams

Diffraction gratings with narrow bars and bar spacing are useful for separating short-wavelength electromagnetic radiation (x-rays, gamma rays) into a spectrum, but the narrow bars and gaps are difficult to manufacture. The bars are also fragile and thus need a backing material, which may absorb some of the radiation, leaving less of it to be studied. Instead of manufacturing the grating out of a solid material composed of neutral atoms, an alternative may be to use many parallel electron beams. Electromagnetic waves do scatter off electrons, thus the grating of parallel electron beams should have a similar effect to a solid grating of molecules. My physics knowledge is limited, so this idea may not work for many reasons.

Electron beams can be made with a diameter a few nanometres across, and can be bent with magnets. Thus the grating could be made from a single beam if powerful enough magnets bend it back on itself. Or many parallel beams generated from multiple sources.

The negatively charged electrons repel each other, so the beams tend to bend away from each other. To compensate for this, the beam sources could target the beams to a common focus and let the repulsion forces bend the beams outward. There would exist a point at which the converging and then diverging beams are parallel. The region near that point could be used as the grating. The converging beams should start out sufficiently close to parallel that they would not collide before bending outward again.

Proton or ion beams are also a possibility, but protons and ions have larger diameter than electrons, which tends to create a coarser grating. Also, electron beam technology is more widespread and mature (cathode ray tubes were used in old televisions), thus easier to use off the shelf.

Training programs should be hands-on and use the scientific method

The current education and training programs (first aid, fire warden, online systems) in universities just take the form of people sitting in a room passively watching a video or listening to a talk. A better way would be to interactively involve the trainees, because active learning makes people understand faster and remember longer. Hands-on exercises in first aid or firefighting are also more interesting and useful.

At a minimum, the knowledge of the trainees should be tested, in as realistic a way as possible (using hands-on practical exercises). The test should use the scientific method to avoid bias: the examiner should be unconnected to the training provider. The trainer should not know the specific questions of the exam in advance (to prevent “teaching to the test”), only the general required knowledge. Such independent examination permits assessing the quality of the training in addition to the knowledge of the trainees. Double-blind testing is easiest if the goal of the training (the knowledge hoped for) is well defined (procedures, checklists, facts, mathematical solutions).

One problem is how to motivate the trainees to make an effort in the test. For example, in university lectures and tutorials, students do not try to solve the exercises, despite this being a requirement. Instead, they wait for the answers to be posted. One way to incentivise effort is to create competition by publicly revealing the test results.

Directing help-seekers to resources is playing hot potato

In several mental health first aid guidelines, one of the steps is to direct the help-seeker to resources (suggest asking friends, family, professionals for help, reading materials on how to cope with the mental condition). This can provide an excuse to play hot potato: send the help-seeker to someone else instead of providing help. For example, the therapist or counsellor suggests seeing a doctor and obtaining a prescription, and the doctor recommends meeting a therapist instead.

The hot potato game is neither limited to sufferers of mental health issues, nor to doctors and counsellors. It is very common in universities: many people „raise awareness”, „coordinate” the work of others or „mentor” them, „manage change”, „are on the team or committee”, „create an action plan” (or strategy, policy or procedure), „start a conversation” about an issue or „call attention” to it, instead of actually doing useful work. One example is extolling the virtues of recycling, as opposed to physically moving recyclable items from the garbage bin to the recycling bin, and non-recyclable waste in the other direction. Another example is calling attention to mental health, instead of volunteering to visit the mentally ill at home and help them with tasks. Talking about supporting and mentoring early career academics, as opposed to donating part of one’s salary to create a new postdoc position, thereby putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.

All the seeming-work activities mentioned above allow avoiding actual work and padding one’s CV. Claiming to manage and coordinate other people additionally helps with empire-building – hiring more subordinates to whom one’s own work can be outsourced.

To motivate people to do useful work, as opposed to coordinating or managing, the desirable outcomes of the work should be clearly defined, measured, and incentivised. Mere discussions, committee meetings and action plans should attract no rewards, rather the reverse, because these waste other people’s time. More generally, using more inputs for the same output should be penalised, for example for academics, receiving more grant money should count negatively for promotions, given the same patent and publication output.

One way to measure the usefulness of someone’s activity is to use the revealed preference of colleagues ( Some management and coordination is beneficial, but universities tend to overdo it, so it has negative value added.

Dark-coloured buildings and cars are silly

Many buildings in Australia, especially new developments, are black, dark grey or brown, or at least the roof is. Many cars are black (other dark colours are less prevalent). The dark colouring increases both cooling and heating costs, because it absorbs and emits solar and infrared radiation faster. In addition, the dark buildings are depressing and ugly. Dark-coloured cars are more difficult to notice, especially in low-visibility conditions, thus have more accidents. White or yellow vehicles are the safest (Lardelli-Claret et al. 2002, Solomon and King 1995).

For cars, the choice of black colour is probably caused by the owner’s desire to seem wealthy by making the car look expensive – limousines in films and popular culture are often black. For buildings, the association in people’s minds between colour and price is weak. If anything, light-coloured houses, reminiscent of Mediterranean villas and the White House, may slightly raise the owner’s status. The reason for dark-coloured roofs may be the cost – tar paper is a cheap material, easy to install. Windows may appear dark due to the one-way glass used. However, for walls, the cheapest material is usually bare concrete, as shown by its choice for purely functional structures (warehouses, barriers, piers, military buildings). For private dwellings, wood or brick may be the cheapest. Neither concrete, wood nor brick is particularly dark in colour, so the choice to build black or brown houses is puzzling. Maybe it is an architectural fad – fashions often trump practicality.

Gambling deterrence mechanism

Compulsive gambling is driven by the hope of winning a large amount, so one way to deter gambling addiction is to forbid paying out winnings to people registered as having this problem. In a one-shot interaction, casinos and lottery organisers clearly have an incentive to keep both the stakes and the winnings, but problem gambling is repeated. Sufficiently patient casinos are motivated to establish a reputation for paying out winnings, if the punishment is small or unlikely enough, because such reputation attracts other gamblers, which increases the long-run expected profit of the casino. The gamblers are not interested in reporting the casino for illegally paying out, because they benefit from the payout, and the closure of the establishment would prevent them from satisfying their craving.

However, the gamblers’ desire for big winnings, even with very low probability, can be used to motivate them to report – the law can offer a large sum to anyone who proves that a casino made an illegal payout. The reward can be financed from an even larger fine levied on the law-breaking casino. The reward should of course be in addition to any winnings of the whistleblower if the latter is a patron of the casino, because a gambler should not lose money by reporting. Gamblers are impatient, unlike casinos, so the repeated interaction with an establishment does not outweigh an immediate payout, even if collecting the payout leads to less opportunity to gamble in the future.