Daily Digest 28/7/2015: More of an annotated bibliography?

Well this is a bit of a cop-out, since I didn’t really have time—or mental bandwidth—to do very much non-thesis reading. But I did come across a bunch of interesting articles on hyperinflation in game economies which I’m saving here for later, as well as two Straits Times articles on an interview with Minister for Social and Family Development, Tan Chuan Jin, and a personal account from a Filipino migrant worker in Singapore on a little social ritual of hers.

Hyperinflation in virtual economies

No time to go through what is a fascinating topic in macroeconomics and economic modelling: the dynamics of the price level. It is apparently a common design flaw in MMORPGs that prices tend to shoot up because too much game currency gets released. The Neopets article and the Gaia Online reddit thread have also included discussions on staff-user dynamics. Apparently both these games experienced hyperinflation soon after a new management team took over—talk about economic mismanagement! And the collective hive mind of the user forum is not slow to notice either.

(Though I disagree with the Alt Crit piece: Neopets isn’t an example of capitalism’s failure but of a failure of regulation or governance.)

(And Brad Plumer’s Washington Post article mentions a certain Yanis Varoufakis, an economist for Valve, which as we all know has now achieved notoriety for an entirely different section of his CV.)

Changes in Singapore’s social policies

I like both of the policy shifts in those ST articles very much—or, if these reviews go the way I would like them to go, I’d like them very much. Supporting single mothers and vulnerable children is something I’m keen to work on myself. I’ve argued on Quora that from a demographic point of view, the experience in Europe is that policy regimes which reinforce “traditional” family structures (such as those that do a poor job of supporting single mothers and fathers) tend to have lower fertility rates. But this isn’t just about the national-survival/baby-making imperative. A country does better when it invests in its human capital. Singapore is a tiny country and every bit of human capital is precious, which is why I was also intrigued to see the minister talking about intervening to help vulnerable children.

I pitched a senior essay on the impact of childcare on educational ‘success’ (narrowly defined) in later life. The proposed study unfortunately died from lack of data (I wanted to run surveys in schools; MOE didn’t want to give me that access). So I’d go further than the minister and say that we need to revise our social policies so that every child has an equal chance of success—not just identifying vulnerable groups, but pumping enough resources to them such that we neutralise the accident of birth. The two Roemer articles cited above describe how equality of opportunity should be conceived, and propose how to reform education spending in the US to achieve that. This should be replicated for Singapore, except we don’t have publicly-available data on intergenerational transmission of income (though we know it exists). I’ll definitely try to find time to elaborate on the idea of equality of opportunity and how to realise it.

And lastly, Mr Tan mentioned the recent elderly abuse case. That screams low social capital—a level of networks and ties between neighbours that is so low, some people are entirely disconnected from it. (Which is ridiculous given that Singapore’s public housing is so public it might as well have been designed as a panopticon—so public, in fact, that we need a law that criminalises nudity at home.) It should really be seen in the same vein as that perennial lament, the loss of “kampung spirit,” the strength of ties that characterised a kampung community, that we lost as we transitioned to modern, atomised life. We need sociologists and anthropologists examining the phenomenon of social ties in HDB blocks—how they are formed, maintained, and broken; what prevents them from being formed—and we need an expansion of the social services. (If there are any articles or theses floating out there on the topic, which I’m sure there are, I’d love to see them.)

Migrant workers’ lived experiences

This was a touchingly well-written insight into a utilitarian act given social meaning. Why do migrant workers continue to queue physically to remit money home, when they could far more easily send it online? (These are some of the best sociological puzzles: why do humans do useless or inefficient things?) The answer: to draw strength from, and renew faith through, the ritual of remitting their wages back and being among their compatriots engaging in the same ritual.

I only wish it hadn’t been so short.

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