Micromotives and Macrobehavior (3)

Infine, per chi si fosse appassionato a Schelling, vediamo insieme come ragiona su un problema demografico, quello della scelta del sesso dei figli (ricordiamoci che quando scriveva non c’era la tecnologia per farlo, che adesso è invece disponibile):

Imagine that it were possible to choose in advance the sex of children. It is an easy idea to toy with; there is no difficulty in knowing what it means.

We can already choose whether to have children at all, at what age to have them, how many to have and how to space them over time; we can even somewhat control the sex compo­sition by, for example, stopping when we already have a boy and a girl or trying again if we don’t yet have what we want. Exercising a choice of sex would not le ad to any new kinds of families: all the family combinations of boys and girls already exist.

Our interest is in the consequences, not the technology, and in how we deal with a choice that has never mattered before. But the technology itself can affect some of the questions we want to pursue. For example, is the technology under the control of the mother alone or does it require cooperation between the parents; will it be known whether or not the choice was exercised and to whom will it be known; and if a girl is decided on and a boy is born is it likely due only to the imper­fect reliability of the method, or due to carelessness, or due to cheating? If a child ever wonders whether he or she was “wanted,” the advent of contraception can affect the child’s acceptance of a positive answer; will the technology of sex choice be such that the child will know what sex its parents tried for, and how likely it is they succeeded?

Leaving those questions behind, let’s speculate on how people would choose if they did choose. Speculate is all we can do. There is no real evidence. We cannot investigate what people do in fact choose, because they do not in fact choose. And even if we ask them, as several researchers have done from time to time, it is hard to take the responses very seriously.

It is a little like the question, what would you ask for if you caught an enchanted sturgeon and were offered three wishes to let it go free? Not expecting the opportunity, you are unlikely to spend much time making plans for it. The sex of children is a question about which most people – not everybody but most people – are unprepared, especially people who have not yet had their first child. Nobody would dream of making a decision within the short time the interviewer will wait for an answer; and no couple is going to attempt to reconcile any dif­ferences they have, or even delicately explore each other’s preferences, for the sake of providing a hypothetical statistic in a survey.

There have been attempts, now that contraception has been widespread and additions to American families can be inter­preted as partly intentional, to look at any sex preferences that may be revealed in actual choices of whether or not to go on and have another child. The idea is simple: if families with two girls or two boys more frequently have a third child than families with one of each, this could mean that people want at least one of each and keep trying if they don’t get them in the first two. But the statistics don’t show much, and there are other interpretations. It is widely observed that families with girls and families with boys are different kinds of families. Most parents agree on that. It is possible that families with two girls, in deciding to have a third child, are not seeking a boy but find children a pleasure and, since two are not too many, they look forward to a third; however, a family with two boys may face a different noise level, or be slightly less satisfied with family life, or, equally satisfied, be more impressed that two is a large number. Or maybe boys and girls have a different effect on relations between the spouses or any­thing else (like the divorce rate) that has a statistical influence on the birth of a third child. In other words, we couldn’t be sure that we were observing preferences for either boys or girls if we did find some of these differences in the census figures.

Furthermore, there are at least two ways that preferences might change if the choice became an actuality. There are many cultures in which boy babies are a sign of virility or of God’s favor; there is a slightly coercive tradition that fathers want boys, and the congratulations sound more self-assured when the father has announced a boy. Even grandparents have been known to offer condolences when a third child is a third girl. All of that may evaporate once it’s known that the sex of the baby indicates nothing more than whether the mother took a blue pill or a pink pill. The father who insists he really is glad that his second child is a girl like the first won’t be thought merely keeping his chin up if it’s clear that, had he wanted a boy, he could have had one.

And a new set of social and demographic influences will come to bear on the choice if parents have to observe and anticipate sex ratios that depart from the approximate 50-50 in which boys and girls have traditionally been born. If the sex ratio within the ethnic groups or region or social class with which parents identify their children for school, marriage, and career, departs substantially from the historical ratios, and especially if there are government programs to tilt the incen­tives, people will have to think about the relative merits of being in the majority or minority sex. How they would make those calculations is at present just more speculation, but it is a fair guess that they would make them. If the little boy reports that two-thirds of his kindergarten class are little boys and only one-third girls, his parents will reflect on those figures before deciding whether their next should be a girl or a boy.

Will people be glad to have this choice available? Or will it just add one more decision to make, one more source of con­flict, one more opportunity far remorse, when life is already full enough of decisions and married couples have enough to disagree about?

Demographically, the main effects wilI be the aggregates – ­the overall sex ratio, or the ratio within particular age groups, ethnic groups, socio-economic groups, and other groups within which social life and marriage occur. But there could be effects on family itself, although it is hard to know how to appraise them. Far example, if the main direction of choice were toward balanced families – a boy and a girl in two-child families – fewer boys would have brothers and fewer girls would have sisters, more boys would have sisters and more girls would have brothers. With today’s technology, half the boys in two-child families have brothers; with a technology that leads to mixed families, none of them would.

For the overall ratio, we can do a little arithmetic to get an idea of the differences that various choices could make. A pref­erence that appears to show up in interviews and question­naires in America and Western Europe is a desire far at least one boy. This sounds like a modest male preference, but may not indicate a preference at all if people also wish to have at least one girl. There has also been occasionally observed in the surveys of hypothetical preferences some desire to have a boy first. These two choices could reflect the same preference: if you want at least one boy, a boy first relieves the suspense.

To get a feeling for the arithmetic, consider what would happen if every family elected a boy first. The result depends on whether the choice is to have a boy first and leave it to luck thereafter, or a boy first and balance out with a girl. The arithmetic also depends on how many families end up with a single child, how many with two or three or four. Suppose every family had first a boy and subsequent children at random. The one-child families would be all male, the two-child families would be three-quarters male, the three-child families would be two-thirds male, and so forth. Given the family sizes in this country, the children born in that fashion would be 70 percent male and 30 percent female, a ratio greater than two-to-one. If every family had first a boy and then alternated girls and boys so that an even-numbered family would have equal numbers and an odd-numbered family one more boy than the girls, births would be 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls. In this popula­tion, no girl would be without a brother; three-fifths of the girls would have no sisters and a third of the boys would have no brothers.

Suppose all families want at least one boy but will take what the lottery gives them until the last child and then, if they do not yet have a boy, choose a boy. Except for families that know in advance that they want only one child – and these are far fewer than the 21 percent in the United States that actually have only one living child – the effect will be small; only families that would have ended up all girls will be affected, and they will have a single boy in place of a girl – and even that will not happen in families that stop having children before they complete their plan.

What are the consequences of an imbalance in the sex ratio? Of all our institutions, monogamous marriage is the one most directly concerned. But in that regard there are already imbalances. First, there are geographical differences ranging from an excess of women in the Washington area to a large excess of men in some Western states and especially Hawaii and Alaska. Second, young women of an age to marry have recently outnumbered young men of an age to marry in this country because of the tendency for husbands to be older than wives at fìrst marriage; with new births increasing at 3 percent per year, as they did for the quarter century that ended in 1956, a three-year age difference means that the women are drawn from a more recent population that is almost 10 percent larger. Third, women live longer than men in this country, and there is a large excess of unmarried women over unmarried meno The ratio is nearly 4 to l in the age group beginning at 45. The difference in life expectancy for men and women in their early twenties is six or seven years; and the young woman who marries a man three years older can expect on average to outlive him by a full decade. Evidently the near equality of male and female births coexists with sizable im­balances for important age groups.

What does the government do, as a matter of policy, if boys and girls are born in very unequal numbers, or even if the ratio fluctuates in cycles, evening out in the long run but leaving large alternating imbalances in successive age groups? At the level of “technical policy,” the problem is probably no harder than coping with inflation or unemployment, energy, changes in the birth rate, or changes in the ratio of elderly retired to the working population. The government could attempt to “stabilize” the birth ratio by a variety of fiscal mea­sures, like differential income tax deductions, differential eligi­bility of men and women for military service, arrangements for differential college tuition, and a variety of favoritisms and affirmative actions discriminating by sex. It wouldn’t be easy to devise successful policies, but it wouldn’t be analytically dif­ferent from so many things that the government presently tries to stabilize.

But the social and even constitutional implications are awe­some. Imagine the government’s having to have a policy on a “target” sex ratio for births. Imagine that Presidential candi­dates had to debate whether it’s better for men to exceed women by 5 percent or 10 percent or not at all, or for women to exceed men. Besides the need to incorporate a multitude of sexually discriminatory rewards and penalties throughout the government’s expenditure and revenue and regulatory pro­grams, there would have to be a policy on the “correct” num­bers of men and women to have.
There are already people who argue that federal programs to help the poor with family planning have racial implications, even racial motives. Imagine having explicit demographic tar­gets: a President proposing measures that would hold inflation to 4 percent, unemployment to 5 percent, and excess little boys to 6 percent.

So it isn’t only parents who might like to be spared some of the choices that would have to be made if this particular technology became available. There are some things – the weather may be one, and the sex of a child at birth another – that it is a great relief to be unable to controI. The lottery dispenses arbi­trary justice indiscriminately, but it may beat having to dis­criminate (pp. 197-203).

Micromotives and Macrobehavior (2)

Schelling, Thomas C. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: W. W. Norton. 2007.

Lasciatemi aggiungere una seconda cosa, più tecnica, alla prima recensione.

Schelling elabora, nel primo capitolo di questo libro, una serie di considerazioni molto interessanti sul rapporto tra economia e altre scienze sociali, con molti punti in comune con le mie concezioni (ammesso che questo possa interessare qualcuno).

What this book is about is a kind of analysis that is characteristic of a large part of the social sciences, especially the more theoretical part. That kind of analysis explores the relation between the behavior characteristics of the individuals who comprise some social aggregate, and the characteristics of the aggregate.

This analysis sometimes uses what is known about individual intentions to predict the aggregates […]. Alternatively this kind of analysis may do what I invited you to do – to try to figure out what intentions, or modes of behavior, of separate individuals could lead to the pattern we observed. If there are several plausible behaviors that could lead to what we observed, we can look for evidence by which to choose among them.

There are easy cases, of course, in which the aggregate is merely an extrapolation from the individual. […]

[Other] situations, in which people’s behavior or people’s choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don’t permit any simple summation or extrapolation to the aggregates. To make that connection we usually have to look at the system of interaction between indi­viduals and their environment, that is, between individuals and other individuals or between individuals and the collectivity. And sometimes the results are surprising. Sometimes they are not easily guessed. Sometimes the analysis is difficult. Sometimes it is inconclusive. But even inconclusive analysis can warn against jumping to conclusions about individual intentions from observations of aggregates, or jumping to con­clusions about the behavior of aggregates from what one knows or can guess about individual intentions. […]

Notice that in all of these hypotheses there is a notion of people’s having preferences, pursuing goals, minimizing effort or embarrassment or maximizing view or comfort, seeking company or avoiding it, and otherwise behaving in a way that we might call “purposive.” Furthermore, the goals or purposes or objectives relate directly to other people and their behavior, or are constrained by an environment that consists of other people who are pursuing their goals or their purposes or their objectives. What we typically have is a mode of contingent behavior – behavior that depends on what others are doing.

In other sciences, and sometimes in the social sciences, we metaphorically ascribe motives to behavior because something behaves as if it were oriented toward a goal. […] But with people it’s different. […] We can often ascribe to people some capacity to solve problems – to calculate or to perceive intuitively how to get from here to there. And if we know what problem a person is trying to solve, and if we think he can actually solve it, and if we can solve it too, we can anticipate what our subject will do by putting ourself in his place and solving his problem as we think he sees it. This is the method of “vicarious problem solving” that underlies most of microeconomics.


Nevertheless, this style of analysis undeniably invites evaluation. It is hard to explore what happens when people behave with a purpose without becoming curious, even concerned about how well or how badly the outcomes serve the purpose. Social scientist are more like forest rangers than like naturalists (corsivo mio).


What makes this evaluation interesting and difficult is that the entire aggregate outcome is what has to be evaluated, not merely how each person does within the constraints of his own environment. […] How well each does for himself in adapting to his social environment is not the same thing as how satisfactory a social environment they collectively create for themselves.

Among the social sciences the one that conforms most to the kind of analysis I have been describing is economics. In economics the “individuals” are people, families, owners of farms and businesses, taxi drivers, managers of banks and insurance companies, doctors and school teachers and soldiers, and people who work for the banks and the mining companies. Most people, whether they drive their own taxis or manage continent-wide airlines, are expected to know very little about the whole economy and the way it works. […]

Somehow all of the activities seem to get coordinated. […] Tens of millions of people making billions of decisions every week about what to buy and what to sell and where to work and how much to save and how much to borrow and what orders to fill and what stocks to accumulate and where to move and what schools to go and what jobs to take and where to build the supermarkets and movie theaters and electric power stations, when to invest in buildings above ground and mine shafts underground and fleets of trucks and ships and aircraft – if you are in the mood to be amazed, it can amaze you that the system works at all. Amazement needn’t be admiration […].

What I asked you to be amazed at, and not necessarily to admire, is simply the enormous complexity of the entire collec­tive system of behavior, a system that the individuals who comprise the system needn’t know anything about or even be aware of. If we see pattern and order and regularity, we should withhold judgment about whether it is the pattern and order of a jungle, a slave system, or a community infested by parasitic diseases, and inquire first of all what it is that the individuals who comprise the system seem to be doing and how it is that their actions, in the large, produce the patterns we see. Then we can try to evaluate whether, at least according to what tbe individuals are trying to do, the resulting pat­tern is in some way responsive to their intentions.

In economics it often appears that a lot of this unmanaged and unguided individual activity leads to aggregate results that are not too bad, indeed about as good as could be expected if somebody took command and figured out what ought to be done and had a way to get everybody to do what he was supposed to do. Two hundred years ago Adam Smith characterized the system as one that worked as if some unseen hand brought about the coordination.

ActualIy, economists do not usually make careful observa­tions, compare what they observe with alternatives they can imagine, and judge the results to be good. What they do is to infer, from what they take to be the behavior characteristics of people, some of the characteristics of the system as a whole, and deduce some evaluative conclusions. […]

The result is often characterized by the statement that “the market works.” By “market” is meant the entire complex of institutions within which people buy and sell and hire and are hired and borrow and lend and trade and contract and shop around to find bargains. A lot may be wrong with the deduc­tive reasoning of economists, but when they state the conclu­sion carefully and modestly they have a point. The free market may not do much, or anything, to distribute opportunities and resources among people the way you or I might like them dis­tributed, and it may not lead people to like the activities we wish they liked or to want to consume the things we wish they wanted to consume; it may encourage individualist rather than group values and it may fail to protect people against their own shortsightedness and self-indulgence. It may lead to asymmetrical personal relationships between employee and employer, lender and borrower, and attach too much status to material attainments. The market may even perform disas­trously where inflation and depression are concerned. Still, within those serious limitations, it does remarkably well in coordinating or harmonizing or integrating the efforts of myri­ads of self-serving individuals and organizations.
For my purpose there’s no need to reach a judgment about just how well the “free market” does what is attributed to it, or whether it does it at a price worth paying. I am interested here in how much promise the economist’s result has outside eco­nomics. If economists have studied the matter for two hundred years and many of them have concluded that a comparatively unrestricted free market is often an advantageous way of let­ting individuals interact with each other, should we suppose that the same is true in all the rest of those social activities, the ones that do not fall under the heading of economics, in which people impinge upon people as they go about pursuing their own interests? Presently I shall enumerate and discuss some of those other activities (aside from choosing seats in an audito­rium), but as illustration let me mention the languages we speak and how we speak them, whom we marry and whether we have children and what names we give ourchildren, whom we live near and whom we choose for friends, what games we play and what customs we develop, what fashions we pursue, whether we walk the streets or stay indoors, how we drive cars or make noise or smoke in public, the pets we keep and how we manage them. Then there are eating and drinking habits, and the times of day for going to lunch; littering and habits of cleanliness and sanitation; the transmission of jokes and gossip and news and useful information; the formation of parties and movements; and whether we wait in line far our turn.

All of these are activities in which people’s behavior is influenced by the behavior of others, or people care about the behavior of others, or they both care and are influenced. Most of these activities are substantially free of centralized manage­ment in many societies, including our own, or subject to sanc­tions and proscriptions that work indirectly. […] And though people may care how it all comes out in the aggregate, their own decisions and their own behavior are typ­ically motivated toward their own interests, and often impinged on by only a local fragment of the overall pattern. Hardly anybody who marries a tall person, or a short person, is much motivated by what it will do to the frequency distribu­tion of body height in the next generation. But the next gener­ation’s notions of what is tall and what is short will be affected by whether in this generation tall people marry tall people and short people short, or tall and short marry each other, or every­body marries at random (pp. 13-24).

Concrezioni calcaree

Premetto che non mi auguro la morte di nessuno (se non in momenti di particolare irritazione, e del tutto metaforicamente). Meno che ami mi auguro che qualcuno muoia “per mano poliziotta”, come dice il poeta.

Fatta questa premessa, il processo di beatificazione a furor di popolo dell’ultrà ucciso domenica scorsa mi irrita profondamente.

La Chiesa cattolica chiama santo o santa quel battezzato in cui riconosce, in vita e dopo la morte, la presenza straordinaria dello Spirito Santo e della Volontà di Dio, che è detto 3 volte santo (cioè santo per antonomasia). Per i cattolici, dunque, il santo rivela nel suo agire quotidiano qualcosa di Dio, qualcosa che i fedeli possono seguire e imitare e che possa venire presentato come modello di vita cristiana a tutte le comunità. L’esempio del santo deve contribuire a unire i fedeli, superando le differenze e a costruire sui valori comuni che fondano il Cristianesimo: l’amore per Dio e quindi per il prossimo, il perdono, il soccorso ai deboli, il rispetto della dignità umana, il resistere alla tentazione dell’egoismo e della violenza (Wikipedia).

Quale esempio ci possa aver dato Gabbo in vita non lo so. So che cosa è stato fatto in suo nome domenica, e per quanto riguarda il funerale devo dire che i suoi amici non piacciono per niente.

Però il primo miracolo ce l’abbiamo (mi pare che per la canonizzazione ne servano 3). I giornali hanno riportato la notizia che Gabbo aveva in tasca dei sassi. Gli “ambienti investigativi di Arezzo” hanno precisato che nei pantaloni di Gabriele sono stati ritrovati due sassi, uno “delle dimensioni di 8×6 cm e 3 centimetri di spessore, e l’altro di 4x4cm e 3 centimetri di spessore, sassi atti ad offendere”. Nella conferenza stampa di ieri, il legale della famiglia ha detto: ma che sassi e sassi, erano “concrezioni calcaree”.

Miracolo dunque? La trasformazione dei sassi in concrezioni calcaree, o viceversa? E perché mai un aspirante santo dovrebbe tenersi in tasca delle concrezioni calcaree? Boris è un razionalista, e si permette di dubitare. Offre dunque una spiegazione scientifica. Chi di voi non abita a Roma, probabilmente non sa che l’acqua di Roma è particolarmente ricca di sali, e in particolare di carbonato di calcio. A chi non è capitato di lavare un paio di jeans, appenderli per asciugarli e scoprire che nelle cavernose tasche, per un fenomeno naturale molto frequente, si sono formate stalattiti e stalagmiti? Nessun miracolo e nessun intento criminoso, dunque: la scienza spiega tutto.

Qui sotto un’immagine delle tasche dei jeans di Boris, dopo un lavaggio senza Calfort.