Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Are we confusing money with well-being? New Zealand's leaders believe so.
New Zealand's recent budget policy puts the health and well-being of its citizens over economic growth.
- Economists and politicians have traditionally focused on economic growth to set policy and measure how citizens fare.
- New Zealand has become the first country to put well-being, not growth or production, at the center of its economic policy.
- Calls for "purposeful capitalism" are emerging in other countries, including the United States.
Politicians love to flaunt economic growth. A healthy gross domestic product (GDP) means an economy is doing well, which means the country is doing well, which means its citizens are doing well. It's all thanks to sagacious policy crafted by our savvy political leaders.
That's the rosy narrative anyway. In truth, GDP measures the average of per capita output in an economy overall, but tells us little about the prosperity of individual citizens.
For example, GDP can increase in tandem with income inequality. Social mobility can be quashed even within a prosperous economy. Corruption can take root in rich countries. And production measurements can ignore consequences such as environment degradation.
Some economists argue that our love affair with GDP needs to end and be replaced with more robust economic measurements. As Nobel Prize laureate Michael Spence told The Atlantic:
"Many of us think we would benefit from a multi-dimensional approach that captures things people care about. Missing from [economic] growth are many things: health, distributional aspects of growth patterns, sense of security, freedoms of various kinds, leisure broadly defined, and more."
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken up that call. Last month the island nation unveiled its new well-being budget, a policy designed to put the health and happiness of its citizens at the economic fore.
Happiness as a benchmark of success
Prime Minister-designate of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern before her swearing in. Photo credit: Governor-General of New Zealand/Wikimedia Commons
New Zealand's new economic policy will shift away from growth and production as a measure of economic success. As noted in New York Times, its new focus will be on "goals like community and cultural connection and equity in well-being across generations." While other countries have reconsidered traditional economic metrics, New Zealand is the first to initiate such a wellbeing-guided policy.
"This is not woolly, it's critical," Ardern said at the World Economic Forum's 2019 meeting in Davos. "This is how we bring meaning and results for the people who vote for us. It's not ideological either. It's about finally saying this how [sic] we meet expectations and try and build trust back into our institutions again, no matter where we are in the world."
The revised policy sets five priorities for New Zealand's governmental spending: thriving in the digital age; improving mental health services; reducing child poverty; developing a low-emission, sustainable economy; and addressing inequality, especially among the country's Maori and Pacific Island peoples.
The new policy has earmarked nearly NZ$2 billion for mental health services. (New Zealand has one of the highest teen and young adult suicide rates among Western democracies.) Resources have also been designated for child poverty and long-term shelter for the homeless, more than NZ$1 billion and NZ$200 million respectively.
Of course, not every New Zealander is onboard with the budget's new direction. "New Zealanders won't benefit from a government that is ignoring the slowing economy and focusing instead on branding," Amy Adams, a lawmaker in the opposition National Party, said in a statement to the Times. "We're facing significant economic risks over coming years, but this government is focusing on a marketing campaign."
A well-being paradigm shift?
As noted by the World Economic Forum, it will take years for New Zealand to refine its goals and then quantify the results, but other countries' well-being experiments will help us gather data in the meantime.
The United Arab Emirates employs a Minister of State for Happiness and a National Program for Happiness and Well-Being. The program sets benchmarks for happiness and fosters conditions of well-being that allow employees to thrive within the country's economy.
Elsewhere, Bhutan uses a Gross National Happiness index to evaluate its citizens well-being and incentivize policymakers. The index measures nine categories, among them health, education, time use, living standards, and community vitality.
Neither country has budgeted for well-being as New Zealand has, and they still use the GDP growth standard. But both have supplemented traditional economics with more purposeful economic thinking.
Capitalism: the root of all happiness
Can a more purposeful capitalism take root in the United States and other Western democracies? That answer will depend on a whole host of variables, among them New Zealand's successes and failures. However, there are already calls for similar changes to take place stateside.
In his book The War on Normal People, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang laid the foundation for what he calls "human-centered capitalism." Yang wants to establish a universal basic income that gives Americans over the age of 18 $1,000 a month, no strings attached. Yang's so-called "freedom dividend" is the centerpiece of his policy, but his aim is wider is scope. He wants the market to support human experiences it previously undervalued, such as the arts, parenting, teaching, the environment, community connections, and disenfranchised groups.
"We must make the market serve humanity rather than have humanity continue to serve the market. We must simultaneously become more dynamic and more empathetic as a society," Yang writes.
Similarly, the Green New Deal supports a multiplex of ideas that would feel at home with a wellbeing-based capitalism. To name a few: universal health care, a right to affordable housing, the restoration of Glass-Steagall, and debt relief for students and homeowners.
New Zealand is a small island nation — and so out of the way that it's often forgotten by mapmakers. Yet, it could be the start of some big changes in how we measure progress and happiness.
- 10 reasons Finland's education system is the best - Big Think ›
- Want to feel better? Science says to care for your dog - Big Think ›
- Want to feel better? Science says to care for your dog - Big Think ›
- GDP vs. happiness: Lessons from Bhutan - Big Think ›
- Deepak Chopra: Radical wellbeing leads to peak performance - Big Think ›
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.