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Over-Population and Depression: What Humans Can Learn from Calhoun's Rodent Utopia

Between 1968 and 1970, American ethologist John B. Calhoun (1917-1995) conducted a behavioral study of captive mice within a nine-square-foot enclosure at a rural facility in Poolesville, Maryland. Within the enclosure known as Universe 25, several pairs of mice bred a population, which ultimately swelled to 2,200. Eventually, they established social orders that created inside and outside factions, and soon mating ceased altogether.

The study confirmed his grim hypothesis, based on earlier studies of the Norway rat in small settings. In his theory he suggested that overpopulation spawns a breakdown in social functions. That, in turn, inevitably leads to extinction.

Though wildly controversial when first made public, Calhoun's theory has raised concern over the years that the social breakdown of Universe 25 could ultimately serve as a metaphor for the trajectory of the human race. Consequently, the “rodent utopia project” has been a subject of interest among architects, city planning councils and government agencies around the world.

Early Rodent Studies

Calhoun began his experimental research on rodents in 1947, when he studied an enclosed group of Norway rats at a barn in Rockville, Maryland. Supplying the critters with unlimited food and water, he expected to see their population swell to 5,000 over the course of the 28-month experiment. However, the population capped out at 200 after subdividing into smaller groups, each of which comprised merely a dozen individuals.

Continuing with these studies during the 1950s, Calhoun set up a more complex enclosure to examine how further groups of rodents would behave in a sterilized, predator-free environment. Over the course of these experiments, the same sequence of events would transpire each time:

  • The mice would meet, mate and breed in large quantities.
  • Eventually a leveling-off would occur.
  • After that, the rodents would develop either hostile and cliquish or passive and anti-social behaviors.
  • The population would trail off to extinction.

In 1962, Scientific American published Calhoun's observations from his research in the article "Population Density and Social Pathology," wherein he coined the phrase "behavior sink" to describe the results of overcrowding — namely the breakdown of social functions and the collapse of populations — in the enclosed rodent environment. Hitting the public just as vast urban expansion saw growing numbers of college grads flocking to big cities for work opportunities, many viewed the article as a warning of what could happen to the human race if populations continued to rise at their current rate.

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Minimum Wage, Maximum Discrimination

Since the days of Adam Smith, economists have sought a set of social institutions which permit “neither dominion, nor discrimination,” to use Nobel Prize–winning economist James Buchanan’s phrase. In this, economists are joined by all people of goodwill—including those in the Biden administration, which has enshrined equity and inclusion as cornerstones of how they’ll govern.

What separates the economist from other social do-gooders, however, is an unflinching focus on the means used to achieve noble goals. It’s therefore with alarm that I consider the Biden administration’s dual focus on “diversity and equityand its doubling down on the “fight for $15.” I’m alarmed because the minimum wage impedes our ability to foster a society genuinely built on “diversity and equity.”

Here’s the straight talk on the minimum wage that you probably didn’t learn in school: the minimum wage has been a powerful weapon in the arsenal of racists and bigots. Economists have illuminated the devastating effects of the minimum wage on minorities with empirical evidence and entire books on the subject, but to see one reason why the policy targets minorities, first consider a little basic economics.

Consider the demand side of the labor market. Firms will hire fewer workers if the government criminalizes voluntary agreements to work for less than $15 per hour. This is an uncontroversial point to make about virtually any other market. If the price of apples doubles, people buy fewer apples. They buy more oranges instead. Employers do the same thing. Under the minimum wage, they start buying more machinery, like the kiosks you see in Panera. The upshot: fewer jobs.

Now let’s consider the supply side of the labor market, where the higher minimum wage attracts new workers to the labor market—those, like college students, who might have sat on the sidelines otherwise. The upshot: more job seekers.

Fewer jobs plus more job seekers means that more people will be searching for jobs than there are jobs available—a labor surplus. In other words, the minimum wage creates a “buyer’s market” in labor, because it causes job seekers to line up in front of employers who have limited jobs to offer.

Suppose an employer receives a hundred applicants for a job opening. How does he choose whom to hire? Without the minimum wage, whoever wants the job most will outcompete other jobseekers by offering to work for less.

With a minimum wage, the employer can’t say: “Who will work for $14.95?” If he does, he’s a criminal; he literally violates the law. Since he can’t just pick the most eager job seekers, he needs some alternative way to select from his hundred applicants. When you have a surplus of labor in a market with a minimum wage, prices aren’t allowed to adjust, so the employer picks from that surplus based on personal preferences. These may include race, sex, gender, religion, or other personal characteristics that have little to do with productivity. In fact, in the past, it has included just that. Faced with more job seekers than there are jobs available, a bigoted employer bears little cost when he refuses to hire a member of a group he dislikes. He knows someone else in the applicant pool will be from his preferred group....[    ]

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Two-thirds of academic year lost on average globally due to COVID-19 closures

UNESCO figures show two-thirds of an academic year has been lost on average worldwide due to COVID-19 closures.

Data released from UNESCO’s interactive monitoring map shows that one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 800 million students still face significant disruptions to their education, ranging from full school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in another 48 countries.

Globally, schools were closed “for an average of 3.5 months (14 weeks) since the onset of the pandemic,” according to a release.

That figure rises to five and a half months, or 22 weeks, equivalent to two-thirds of an academic year, when localized school closures are taken into account.

Breaking down the data by region shows the duration of school closures varies greatly, from five months or 20 weeks of “complete nation-wide closures on average” in Latin America and Caribbean nations, to the lesser two-and-a-half months or 10 week average in Europe.

Oceania, a geographical region comprised of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Palau, Tonga, Samoa and more, had an average school closure of one month.

When factoring in localized school closures, the data shows “the duration of complete and localized closures exceeded seven months, or 19 weeks, on average in Latin America and the Caribbean, compared to the global average of five-and-a-half months, or 22 weeks,” the release states.

Schools are now fully open in 101 countries, and world governments have been attempting to minimize countrywide school closures – at the pandemic peak in April 2020, 190 countries had countrywide closures, down to just 30 countries as of Sunday.

“Prolonged and repeated closures of educational institutions are taking a rising psycho-social toll on students, increasing learning losses and the risk of dropping out, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, in the release. “Full school closures must therefore be a last resort and reopening them safely a priority.”  [ ... ]

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