Cause and Effect in the Swiss Alps

Posted in In My Opinion...

A friend sent me an interesting point of view on the forces driving tax policy:

http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3651

Interesting read... for some reason, it lead to a particular line of thought from my personal life that I sent back to him. To paraphrase...

When I was a kid, one of the books my mom got me was "Barry, The Bravest St. Bernard." It was the true story of a working Saint owned by a monastery in the Alps. Barry was reputed to have saved 40 people lost in the snow over his 12 or so year life. We had a Saint at the time ourselves. Santa was.... "less productive." Each night, he would begin the process of converting a large cake-pan full of Chuck Wagon and two cans of Alpo into a similar-sized pile of steaming dog exhaust, and complete the process each following morning on his way out to the swamp to sleep in the stream where it was cooler. Secretly... I think I always wanted Santa to be more like Barry. I know my dad did and he was a bit less close to the vest on this point.

So back in the early 90's, my friend Ken from Cascade and I had a free Friday-Sunday in Zurich on a 4 week job we were doing all across Europe (the good parts... mostly). When I read the story of taxing height, I thought of just how screwed Ken would be, since he's about 14' tall. As we drove down to Interlaken in our rented Mercedes (which someone else was paying for) to have coffee and chocolate at the base of the Eiger on the veranda of the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel, we passed a sign showing us which exit to take for Berne. That sign stimulated the memory of Barry from my childhood. I recalled the story to Ken, and that the book said Barry had been stuffed and was on display in a big national museum there... an inelegant fate for such a heroic dog, but you know how practical the Swiss are.

In the process of telling Ken about Barry, I flashed back to a conversation with one of my new-grad-student teaching assistants from the mid-80's He was like a lot of gung-ho watch-me-run-out-in-front-of-my-brains standard-issue grad students looking to impress anyone that will listen with what new mathematical crap he learned earlier that day. At that time in my life, I was of the unforgivable habit of exiting boring conversations with look-at-me "academics" by changing the subject to something completely unrelated to the current topic, and enjoy them work at keeping the connection. It was something like: "Blah blah blah stochastic processes blah blah blah to conserve system resources blah blah blah"..... "That reminds me of a dog story.........."

So, the kid hears a story about monks hauling tons of food up into the Alps for dozens of their massive dogs to get through the winter... with an on-the-fly conjecture that if Barry were famous for saving 40, then the others must have saved fewer... and that there must be some distribution to that that is "probably Gaussian" (hey... I should be in one of the Rj/Dj think tanks!). This meant that some must also have been exceptionally unproductive (like Santa or the Rj... er... never mind) and contributed just about nothing to winter life in the Alps other than warming up the mountains via their eat/exhaust cycle. This implied a rather significant burden on the monks who had to drag all that food up to feed them. My concluding question was something like... how do you know the pecking order of rescue productivity and balance that with the expended effort to feed them?

Well, it took him less than a fraction of a second to offer: "That is a trivial problem... every time a dog saves someone, I would brand his ear with red hot pliers so you could tell at a glance which would get the most food. First the right ear and then the left. Over time, the dogs would figure out that the ones that rescue the most people eat better and the monks could tell at feeding time who was most effective."

I can offer two reactions... One is that the initial expression of his theory may have excessively credited the ability of DOGS to discriminate subtle long-term comparative trends in reward-space in the face of a separate new intense, and probably unpopular procedure whose timing might be more easily associated by the DOGS with the desired act (rescue). I do have doubts that the former would ultimately rise above the latter to become the dominant mechanism driving winter behavior in the Swiss mountains. My second reaction is that, structurally, it sounds a bit like "taxing job creation and motivation." Exploiting the structural similarity, one might restate a new world economic mechanism as "create a job, have your ear branded with red-hot pliers." Maybe it will work... In any case, I'm glad we were in some miles-long tunnel because I might have driven our asses off the Alps laughing at his seemingly serious proposal.

Footnote: Barry was apparently shot dead by someone he was trying to rescue. I believe I read the shooter froze to death shortly after taking Barry (his potential rescuer) out. Probably nothing for Saint Bernards (or job creators) to learn from that part.