Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Month: March, 2013

What evolution can teach us about breastfeeding and natural childbirth

IMG_0109This little guy is my son, Soren, born March 13 (and the reason I haven’t posted for a while). In the photo, hours after birth, he is hooked up to electrodes, a blood pressure cuff, and various paraphernalia of the modern medical establishment, a result of having to undergo CPR to restart his heart and breathing as he emerged from a cesarian. He is doing great now, but it is clear that modern medicine saved his life (and possibly that of my wife), probably 2-3 times over between the long labor, the cesarian, and the resuscitation. (He is doing great now.)

Like many in our generation and social class, especially here in Quebec, we had wanted to have a “natural childbirth,” i.e., to see if we could deliver without any anaesthesia or other interventions of modern medicine. Unlike many of our friends, we had not signed up with a midwife or birthing center: the public hospital here in Sherbrooke has an excellent maternity ward, and nurses are trained to help with natural or medicalized childbirth, or any combination, depending on the wishes of the parents.

Despite my preference for “natural,” I was also acutely aware that childbirth is different than other aspects of nature: in this case, natural implies very high levels of both infant and maternal mortality. In contrast to breastfeeding, where all the evidence points to breast milk being superior to any technologically developed infant formula, “natural” childbirth does not always equate to good childbirth. As is often the case, this is clearer when seen in the light of evolution:

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A modern history of Japan and Korea in one figure

jap-kor fig

The y-axis? Whatever you want it to be…

We can, of course, add in the West:

jap-kor-west fig


Ah, the beauty of the logistic function…

Higher tax rates are “hire” tax rates: Raising marginal tax rates on the rich should help create jobs for small businesses


In all the US economic and political debates these days, one of the primary claims of conservatives is that raising marginal tax rates on the rich – the percentage of tax the rich pay on their income in the highest brackets – will hurt job growth because many small business owners, who file taxes as individuals, will have to pay higher taxes and will thus have less money to hire new workers. The typical response of those on the left and center is to argue that the tax only affects net income, after deducting expenses like workers’ salaries, and the effect shouldn’t be that large. The left thus argues that whatever harms may befall the job market are minor compared to the benefit of increased revenue.

I think both sides are wrong and missing something important. Raising marginal rates on high income brackets should actually have the opposite effect: it should encourage small businesses to hire more. I am not an economist, and there are numerous empirical studies dealing with this issue, often reaching varied conclusions. The analysis here cannot compete with a solid empirical study, but given the lack of empirical consensus, I think it is important to point out the logical error being made based on economic theory.

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