Monday, June 25, 2012

Inequality and collective action

In our asymmetric commons dilemma game (irrigation games) we do in the lab and in the field we find that trust and inequality are driving factors that explains the results. The initial trust in others explain the initial level of contributions, but high levels of inequality of extraction of the resources lead to lower levels of contributions to maintain the infrastructure. Cooperation is conditional and the response to inequality in the game shows this.
 The Spirit LevelThe book "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett - two health scientists - discusses the role of inequality to many aspects of societies. They show that more equal societies of the developed nations experience better health, lower crime and less obese. These statistical relations can even been found among the 50 states of the USA. So, equality plays an important role, but how? 
   Behavioral economists, like Ernst Fehr, have proposed long time ago inequality aversion as an explanation of the results in social dilemma experiments. Most participants in the experiments value equality of earnings. This explains why most of us may prefer more equal societies, but it does not explain why inequality causes all kind of other effects.
Rich countries with high levels of income inequality, like the UK and the USA, experience a poor health outcome - also for the rich. A possible reason for this is that health partly relate to public goods and bads. Viruses do not distinguish between rich and poor hosts. Having poor quality health for the very poor indirectly affect the health conditions of all.
There has been critique on the book by people arguing that the correlations found are cherry picked. These critiques have been debunked and I think the main argument of the book seems plausible and in line what we observe in our experiments. But economists also argue that some level of inequality is needed. We need to aspire better lives and be motivated to work hard to reach the level of the wealthy neighbor. How to evaluate equality also is affected by the different ways we can look at fairness. Is it fair if everybody gets the same share of the pie, or is it fair if some get a bigger share because they work harder?
   Explaining the observed relationships will take more time. I assume that there are thresholds in societies of what levels of inequality we accept or not. And these thresholds might be culturally defined. But how does this explain the patterns found in the book? Certainly more research need to be done.
   The authors of the book don't wait and started an organization Equality Trust that tries to stimulate for more income equality in the UK.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lin Ostrom (1933 – 2012) - Some personal memories

Lin Ostrom died today. She is a role model in many different ways. She was modest but persistent to pursue controversial questions in novel ways. Her interdisciplinary approach was natural to her. But such an approach was not widely accepted and the importance of her struggle of doing this interdisciplinary work was long not appreciated beyond a small community of scholars. In recent years her work got increasing recognition, including her Nobel. She opened the path for new generations who do interdisciplinary work on social-ecological systems.

I met her at a workshop of the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm in 2000. I experienced immediately a strong intellectual bond. I assume many others have had this experience too. Although I was not very well known with her work, we immediately found out that we had similar research interests. I presented at that workshop a paper on how to look at institutions and institutional change from an immune system perspective, and I was happily surprised she liked it. I was critical on a proposal she showed me on using agent-based models to study land use change. She invited me to visit Indiana University since they got the grant J. I did in January 2001. During that month I start seeing the world differently, namely seeing rules and incentives everywhere. We started a paper on modeling endogenous rule change in a population of agents harvesting a common resource.

My challenges to find a long term intellectual home in the Netherlands led me decide in Spring 2001 to ask Lin what she would think if I quit my job at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and come for some years to Bloomington. She warned me that it would be difficult to get back to a disciplinary road. I never regret my decision move to Indiana University. She has created a very stimulating environment with diversity of disciplines, ranks, color, etc. Unfortunately, Indiana University itself did not fully recognize the importance of interdisciplinary programs and I moved to Arizona State University in 2005 for a regular faculty position. Lin agreed that this would be better for me. Later I could convince her to accept a part-time research position at Arizona State University that enabled us to create a center for the study of institutional diversity (CSID) (named after her 2005 Magnus Opus “Understanding Institutional Diversity”). With Marty Anderies, who also was at the 2000 meeting in Stockholm, we developed a conceptual framework to study robustness of social-ecological systems, which was the intellectual foundation for CSID.

I stayed with Lin and Vincent for a week in April, just a few weeks ago. Lin was doing chemo and experienced many health challenges. Still she was energetic and did not wanted her health problems to be an excuse to miss a meeting. Despite her challenges she was optimistic. At the Planet under Pressure conference in March in London, Lin was called the hero of the conference. I agree. Moreover, for her risk taking, constructive attitude, curiosity, and persistence, she was a hero of the scientific community. 

I will miss her.