Monday, December 31, 2012

What gets done rides on rhetoric not logic

From "Public Sentiment Is Everything": Lincoln's View of Political Persuasionby David Zarefsky via Althouse.

Abraham Lincoln
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Lincoln appears to me to be making the practical observation that an argument built on logic and data is well and good but what gets done rides on rhetoric not logic.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The distant unknown is distrusted

From U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High by Lymari Morales reporting the results of a recent Gallup poll.

So, from the 1970's to today trust in the media has fallen from a high of 72% to 40% and distrust has risen from 28% to 60%. If the media were a single company with a brand, these numbers would be disastrous. Actually they are disastrous any way you look at it.

A well functioning, productive society is associated with high levels of trust. For trust in the fourth estate to have fallen so sharply and steadily is not a good sign, particularly as it parallels a similar collapse in trust in politicians and institutions.

Of course the fun thing about a fact devoid of context is to juggle it around and speculate. In this instance, speculate about why there might be such a collapse.

My speculation is that the collapse of trust might be driven by three factors: 1) An increasing geographic, physical, and societal separation between media practitioners and the public, 2) A homogenization of media weltanschauung that is at odds with that of the public, and 3) Poor quality control.

Separation - As the media industry has consolidated, there are fewer and fewer employees and they are concentrated in ever fewer locations. Whereas a few decades ago 70-90% of the content of your local paper might have been generated locally by local news reporters, today 70-90% of the content is generated remotely by a news service. We tend to trust people we deal with or see are part of our community to a greater extent than we trust faceless people elsewhere.

Homogenization - America is an extraordinarily heterogeneous country with diversity of religion, ethnicity, orientation, class, income, party affiliation, ideology, education attainment, geography, etc. The media industry is dominated by a certain caricature which is grounded in reality: college level or greater education, income at or well above national average, major metropolitan location, white, secular, Democratic Party affiliated, liberal oriented, etc. The fact that the media industry is both relatively homogeneous and that that homogeneity is quite different than the rest of the country is likely a source of distrust.

Quality control - The discrepancies between what people experience and what they see reported become more transparent as the technological infrastructure enables every person to be a reporter all the time, anywhere. It is not that the media always gets it wrong, only that they are more often wrong than they wish to acknowledge and that error rate is becoming more obvious to the broader public.

There is probably more going on and each of these elements warrant a discussion but at least it is a stab at framing the conversation.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Duck or Rabbit

I have never seen this duck-rabbit illusion before. Neat. I saw the duck first and took a while to get to the rabbit. As with most of these illusions though, once you see it, its obvious.

There’s a moral imperative not to do something that’s likely to make matters worse

From So What Are We Going to Do About It? by Eugene Volokh.
But let me offer a concrete analogy (recognizing that, as with all analogies, it’s analogous and not identical). Every day, about 30 to 35 people are killed in the U.S. in gun homicides or gun accidents (not counting gun suicides or self-inflicted accidental shootings). And every day, likely about 30 to 35 people are killed in homicides where the killer was under the influence of alcohol, or in alcohol-related drunk driving accidents, again not including those who died in accidents caused by their own alcohol consumption. If you added in gun suicides on one side and those people whose alcohol consumption killed themselves on the other, the deaths would tilt much more on the side of alcohol use, but I generally like to segregate deaths of the user from deaths of others.

So what are we going to do about it? When are we going to ban alcohol? When are we going to institute more common-sense alcohol control measures?

Well, we tried, and the conventional wisdom is that the cure was worse than the disease — which is why we went back to a system where alcohol is pretty freely available, despite the harm it causes (of which the deaths are only part). We now prohibit various kinds of reckless behavior while using alcohol. But we try to minimize the burden on responsible alcohol users, by generally allowing alcohol purchase and possession, subject to fairly light regulations.
But on balance the answer to “what are we going to do about alcohol-related deaths?” is “not much, other than trying to catch and punish alcohol abuse.” And if someone says, “you’re obviously not serious about preventing drunk driving and alcohol-related homicide, because you’re not proposing any new alcohol bans or alcohol sales restrictions,” our answer is generally, (1) “just because there’s a problem out there doesn’t mean that we should impose new regulations that are likely ineffective and possibly counterproductive,” and (2) “punish misuse of alcohol, rather than burdening law-abiding users.”
We should certainly consider proposals that aim to ameliorate the problem, and weigh their costs and benefits. But we should not presume that there’s somehow a moral imperative to Do Something. In fact, there’s a moral imperative not to do something that’s likely to make matters worse.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Its opponents eventually die

Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck translated by F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp.33-34
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What is Cupid's credit score?

From Perfect 10? Never Mind That. Ask Her for Her Credit Score by Jessica Silver-Greenberg.
The credit score, once a little-known metric derived from a complex formula that incorporates outstanding debt and payment histories, has become an increasingly important number used to bestow credit, determine housing and even distinguish between job candidates.

It’s so widely used that it has also become a bigger factor in dating decisions, sometimes eclipsing more traditional priorities like a good job, shared interests and physical chemistry. That’s according to interviews with more than 50 daters across the country, all under the age of 40.

“Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test,” said Manisha Thakor, the founder and chief executive of MoneyZen Wealth Management, a financial advisory firm. “It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”

It’s difficult to quantify how many daters factor credit scores into their romantic calculations, but financial planners, marriage counselors and dating site executives all said that they were hearing far more concerns about credit than in the past. “I’m getting twice as many questions about credit scores as I did prerecession,” Ms. Thakor said.
For all their biases, I love the amount of content that the New York Times generates. That said, they do have a tendency to try and spot emerging trends before they are real. This might be one of those instances.

However, it does pose an interesting conundrum. I am keen that in general, we need to pay close attention to how we represent reality through our measures and believe that measurements are a critical element to good decision-making. That said, I am left somewhat wary of the implications of heavily relying upon credit scores in the affairs of the heart. Assortative mating based on education, income levels, religion, etc. is already prevalent. Adding credit scores into the mix makes practical sense from a logical perspective but still. . .

Silver white winters that melt into spring

From the New Yorker's The Hundred Best Lists of All Time compiled by Gary Belsky

Number 82 on the list is Maria Kutchera’s “My Favorite Things” (“The Sound Of Music”). Indeed, what a great list.
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things!

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things!

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eye lashes
Silver white winters that melt into spring
These are a few of my favorite things!

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember
my favorite things
and then I don't feel so bad!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pat solutions always trump complex root causes

From Reynolds’ Law by philo.

Reynold's Law:
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
It is the classic confusion between correlation and cause. It is also a special form of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, confusing "They have homes and education because they are middle class" with "They are middle class because they have homes and education."

Good intentions are never a substitute for logical, empirical decision-making and often obscure the decision that actually needs to be made. Everyone who has had a career in management or strategic consulting knows just how prevalent it is for very well intentioned and very intelligent people to become confused about the difference between the problem and the solution. As a simplistic example, highways are a solution to a particular problem - usually the speed or cost of transporting goods and/or people. What we are really trying to solve is the cost or speed problem. Highways are just one among many possible solutions. But people will latch on to a conceptually easy solution without addressing the real problem. Building highways becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end (cheaper, faster transportation).

Likewise with government policies and people. What so often happens is that we try, with the best of intentions, to increase the welfare of people rather than trying to create the circumstances which allow them to be more productive. We ought to be encouraging the attributes that allow people to be productive (self-discipline, self-awareness, focus, future orientation, empathy, risk moderated decision-making, work ethic, saving, etc.) rather than encouraging the consumption that is made possible by that productivity.

Reynold's Law suggests that for a variety of reasons, governments tend to become blindly wedded to enabling consumption without focusing on production. Regrettably, and as repeatedly demonstrated, if everyone consumes and no one produces, in short order there is nothing to consume.

Why the aversion to defining the real problems (and their root causes)? Perhaps Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men has the answer - "You can't handle the truth!" The truth is that for most major issues, the problems are hard to define, measure and quantify; there are multiple roots to the problem; the nature of the root causes makes them unamenable to effective action; and, not to be discounted, the actual root causes betray some of our cherished assumptions.

The sociological research strongly supports the historically common sense observation that certain attributes (self-control, self-discipline, focus, effort, commitment, tolerance, etc.), easily identified as middle-class virtues, on average lead to very positive outcomes in terms of productivity. In other words, middle class virtues lead to prosperity.

We have several decades of academia and pundits who have attempted to make the case that deviations from the well trodden path of middle-class virtues are not incompatible with prosperity. And at a theoretical level that is true. There are some individuals who can indulge in serial liaisons, alcohol and drug abuse, criminal actions, etc. and still be productive. That ignores that those individuals are rare. On average, people who do these things and forgo the attributes of the middle-class, usually end up with terrible life outcomes and low productivity. What is theoretically feasible is not practically achievable. In pursuit of theoretical ideals, the pundits condemn too many to terrible outcomes.

In our schools, which is more common? That we teach everyone that the sky is the limit, anyone can do anything, that there are no norms that cannot be successfully breached? Or do we teach that customary virtues such as diligence, hard work, saving, honesty, focus, responsibility, etc. are the reliable pathways to success?

Of course both messages are conveyed but I would wager that the latter message (the only one that can be counted on to deliver) is the poor cousin.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A shorter work could not possibly have done justice

From Moral Sense and Social Science by John J. DiIulio, Jr., a disquisition on James Q. Wilson and his works. On the role and relevance of books.
Wilson's body of work—the books and the rest—is beautifully written but simply too vast to be easily summarized. So let me confine my attention to The Moral Sense and several of Wilson's other books. He would applaud that focus, for he held an old-fashioned idea about the importance of books, namely, that almost no academic article, popular essay, op-ed, or (heaven forbid) blog posting, however trenchant or timely, can do the sustained intellectual heavy-lifting, refine the writer's understanding, and illuminate the reader's mind, the way a good book can. As a collegiate debating champion, Wilson knew the difference between winning an argument, on the one hand, and understanding something for oneself or teaching it to others in a way that, as he often said, is "general, meaningful, and true." Good books on complex empirical subjects leave the reader convinced that a shorter work could not possibly have done justice to the subject.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Disparity of power

David S. Landes in Wealth and Poverty of Nations, page 63-4, identifies three conditions or factors that cannot coexist.
1) Disparity of power
2) Private access to power
3) Equality of groups or nations
This is like the old manufacturing adage; "Faster, cheaper, better - Pick two"

Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt

Attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr
Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whenever we are willing

Hesiod in Theogony.
We know how to say many falsehoods that look like genuine things,
but we can also, whenever we are willing, proclaim true things.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Trade-offs, competition, choices, excellence and unintended consequences

From The Plight of the Alpha Female by Kay S. Hymowitz.

Hymowitz can be rather incendiary sometimes but like other excellent writers, she always comes back to the numbers. What do the numbers tell us? You always have the usual caveats around what is measured and how it is interpreted but far better to start with something that is measured than something that is guessed.

In this instance, Hymowitz examines the numbers behind gender, roles, choice, and achievement.
How big is the gender gap at the top? Very big. Only 4 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, as are 9 percent of chief financial officers. Women occupy a mere 16 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. The research and advocacy group Catalyst has collected other relevant numbers: just 20 percent of law-school deans, 23 percent of federal judges, and 27 percent of state judges are women. In medical schools, 13 percent of deans and department chairs and 19 percent of full professors are women. Less than a quarter of university and college presidents are female. Women hold 90 seats out of 535 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 17 out of 100 in the Senate. Slaughter notes that many of the women in high-level government jobs she encountered during her State Department stint are leaving; men will succeed almost all of them.
One of the assertions that frequently comes up in the field of books and literature is the accusation that women are discriminated against in the awards that they receive. After the last go around on one of the listservs, I looked at the data and if I recall correctly, found that indeed women did tend to win only about 25-35% of the literary awards. Where the analysis hit something of a brick wall was in terms of determining how many women were in a position to win, i.e. how many women writers were there. If women are only 25-35% of writers, then there clearly is little evidence of discrimination if they then only win 25-35% of the prizes.

What Hymowitz' collection of numbers above indicates is consistent with what I found regarding prizes - they go to those that spend the greatest amount of time (both volume and duration) towards achieving the top role. Hymowitz's numbers indicate that women reach the top ranks of the various fields at rates of 4 - 27%, with a modal percentage across various fields of 17%.

I had a post back in June, Only 20% of the top linked articles were by women, which explored this topic from a mathematical perspective. Since the choice of which articles to link would seem to be entirely free from discrimination issues, why would there be such a large imbalance. Hymowitz's numbers are entirely consistent with the hypothesis that disparate imbalances in achievement are entirely a function of the volume and duration of hours necessary to achieve excellence in a field and that choices about family structure and roles within the family are the primary determinants of who is willing and able to make the investments necessary to achieve excellence. I have a related post, not so much about gender as about excellence and productivity, How do you balance rewards between current productivity and anticipated future productivity?

Where this is leading me is the speculation that, if free choices of individuals and families are responsible for disparate impact rather than discrimination and bias, then perhaps we are focused on the wrong problem. Perhaps we have reached the point of declining returns by investing effort in removing ever smaller vestiges of discrimination. Perhaps the focus should instead be on a different problem - are there ways to ensure that women are able to generate a higher level of return (of productivity) on their skills and experiences, in the context of lower worked hours and lesser work continuity. There are not obvious answers but I bet that is a more rewarding problem on which to focus.

One further observation from Hymowitz:
Unintended consequences happen in America as well. One study of 70 top law firms by The Lawyer found that the most competitive, least family-friendly, “super-elite” firms had more female equity partners than did firms with heavily used family-friendly policies. “The results seem counterintuitive,” one commentator on the study wrote. “Who would guess that women would fare better on the equity barometer at firms where the odds of making partner are ridiculously slim for everyone? By the same token, wouldn’t you expect that at the less competitive, two-tier firms (especially those with well-established part-time or flexible policies), there’d be women equity partners popping out at every corner?”
This is very close to the point Sowell was making in post I had, Moderation in principle is always a vice. Sowell is criticizing affirmative action because of the negative consequences of academic mismatch and pointing out that left to competition based on objective standards, the outcomes will be better and fairer for everyone.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Moderation in principle is always a vice

Old Thomas Sowell, when he's on a roll, he rolls. From The Perversity of Diversity by Thomas Sowell in which he reviews Mismatch and in which he discusses academic mismatch and affirmative action.

Read the whole thing for an extraordinarily succinct criticism of the ethos of affirmative action. Pithiness abounds.
Anyone who follows public policy issues can easily think of policies that help one group at the expense of some other group. What is rarer, however, is a policy that on net balance harms all groups concerned, even if in very different ways. Affirmative action policies in the academic world can claim that rare distinction.
As always with Sowell it all comes down to "But what are the facts?" Emphasis added:
The empirical data presented in Mismatch shows that black students admitted to colleges and universities where the other students have higher academic qualifications do not graduate as often, graduate with much lower grades, and, when they start out trying to major in difficult subjects like mathematics, the natural sciences, engineering, or economics, they end up majoring in much easier subjects with much less of a payoff in terms of their careers in later life. Moreover, black students with very similar academic qualifications who attend predominantly black colleges succeed in graduating with degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, and economics far more often. Nor is this simply a matter of their being granted college degrees while having less knowledge of their subjects. Predominantly black colleges are 17 of the top 21 colleges whose black graduates go on to receive Ph.D.s in scientific, mathematical, and technical fields.
17 of 21 - Wow!

And these numbers are even more astounding.
In short, black and other minority students seem to learn better at institutions where the other students are similar in academic qualifications. The same conclusion is implied in data on what happened after affirmative action in admissions was outlawed in the University of California system. When racial preferences were banned by the voters in California, there were dire predictions that this would mean the virtual disappearance of black and Hispanic students from the University of California system. What in fact happened was a 2% decline in their enrollment in the University of California system as a whole, but an increase in the number of black and Hispanic students graduating, including an increase of 55% in the number graduating in four years and an increase of 63% in the number graduating in four years with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.

Instead of the predicted drastic decline in enrollment in the system as a whole, there was a drastic redistribution of black and Hispanic students within the University of California system. Their enrollment dropped at the two most elite campuses, Berkeley and UCLA—by 42% at the former and 33% at the latter. But their enrollment rose by 22% at the Irvine campus, 18% at the Santa Cruz campus, and 65% at the University of California at Riverside. After this redistribution, the number of black and Hispanic students who graduated with degrees in science, mathematics, and engineering "rose by nearly 50 percent," according to Sander and Taylor. The number of doctorates earned by black and Hispanic students in the system rose by about 20%.
Again, improvements of 55%, 50% and 63% in the graduation rate, STEM enrolment, and in academic achievement? Wow! That is a phenomenal success. That sounds like a win all around.

The other thing I like about Sowell is that he does challenge sloppy thinking.
The authors of Mismatch draw policy conclusions from their work. The most obvious conclusion might seem to be that group preferences in academic admissions should be ended. But Professor Sander and Mr. Taylor see that as a virtually impossible thing to achieve, and indeed see a beneficial role for "a race-neutral system of smaller, socioeconomic preferences" focused on increasing the enrollment of people from lower income backgrounds, whether such people are black or white or whatever. They apparently see a role for thoughtful statesmanship toward that end by the Supreme Court, which is now considering academic affirmative action issues yet again, after having tried judicial statesmanship before, in earlier decades.
Preferential treatment based on individuals from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds? I am absolutely inclined that direction. But then Sowell reproves me.
I could not disagree more with the distinguished authors of this outstanding study. It was precisely by trying to be judicious social engineers and statesmanlike legislators that Supreme Court Justices have left affirmative action a bleeding sore on the body politic that will not heal, but which only produced polarizing bitterness on all sides. The time is long overdue for them to carry out their judicial function and recognize that the 14th Amendment means what it plainly says about "equal protection of the laws."
He is right, there is a sharp tug between logic and sense of fairness. Thomas Paine had something to say about that in The Rights of Man.
Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Failure will pile up on failure

Quite fascinating. Lane Kenworthy in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, It's Hard to Make It in America, makes the argument that equal opportunity is desirable. He then goes on to argue that unequal outcomes is due to inequality of birth and childhood circumstance. These are reasonable arguments to make. The children of the wealthy do, on average, have a better chance of becoming wealthy themselves and the children of the poor do, on average, have a better chance of remaining poor than random chance would indicate. So how does a community, particularly a heterogeneous community facilitate increased opportunity to all members of society?

Kenworthy lays out the various root causes of low personal productivity which by and large in his account consists of identifying those things that the wealthy have that the poor do not. He doesn't actually look at the root causes of individual personal productivity but makes the simplistic conclusion that the differences in productivity must arise from those things that the wealthy have and the poor do not.

It is not as if Kenworthy is unaware of the likely real sources of disparate outcomes and reduced personal productivity. In fact, he lays out just such a program as identified by the Brookings Institution, a program:
that focuses on the benefits of the "success sequence": first education, then a stable job, then marriage, and then children.
All the sociological evidence is consistent with this. Those that graduate high school, work full time and get and stay married (without children before marriage) have a less than 2% chance of living in poverty.

But knowing what needs to be done is different from knowing how to make it happen. This is where Kenworthy's argument begins to jump the logical and empirical rails. Education, work, marriage, children are substantially driven by personal choices and behaviors. Kenworthy essentially dismisses these actions to achieve personal success by observing that:
Getting people to change their behavior and routines is very difficult, so the benefits of such programs are inevitably modest.
Wow! We know what people ought to do but it is hard to get them to do that so we shouldn't expect much on that front. Really? That's your conclusion? James Heckman has done some great work on the role of behaviors (or non-cognitive skills as he terms them) and their role in life success. It is pretty rock solid research. How you behave and the decisions you make are the single biggest predictor of beneficial life outcomes. But Kenworthy would have us believe that since it is hard to get people to change their behaviors and make better decisions, we ought simply to give up on that front.

So instead of pursuing strategies that are known to work, Kenworthy seeks a work around. And what would that work around be? It would be an effort to provide the resources to replicate the outward manifestations of the wealthy. This ignores the real question - what is it that the wealthy are doing that increase the prospects of their progeny. Once we know that, we can then figure out how that knowledge can be used to benefit the poor and break the cycle of poverty. We know from both macro-economic development as well as at the level of the individual that the problem of poverty is rarely simply an absence of resources - it is behaviors, and culture, and values, and institutions, and knowledge, and beliefs and decision-making.

What Kenworthy recommends instead is that we continue all the existing programs that have already been pursued for the past forty years except with greater funding. Better day care, home visits by nurses, more money for better pre-school, better access to university through subsidies, reducing prison time as a form of punishment, allow the Federal Reserve to pump money, improve the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase affirmative action, etc.

This is nonsense on stilts. In an environment of constraints, as we are likely to face for the foreseeable future, there is no means of making additional resources available. Most these programs have already failed to achieve the desired results and there is no reason to believe that increasing their funding would improve their results and even less reason to believe that those funds can actually be made available.

I said this article was quite fascinating. That was probably a poor choice of words. It is outrageous that a nominally sentient professor at a nominally reputable university should be offering such a poor argument in such a prestigious magazine. If all we are going to do is retail already failed proposals with no chance of success and if we thereby avoid addressing the real root causes, failure will pile up on failure. This is misdirection of an almost malevolent form. Simply amazing.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tablet to tablet, scroll to scroll

Some quotes from an interview in A Compelling, Chutzpadik History Of 'Jews And Words' from NPR's Weekend Edition, Saturday December 1, 2012.
For thousands of years the Jewish people have been forced to move around — fleeing bigotry, slavery, pogroms, famines and tyrants. But words are portable, and to Jews — who are among those known as "the People of the Book" — they are precious possessions. As Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, write in their new book, Jews and Words, "Ours is not a bloodline, but a text line."
On what it means to be a "Jewish atheist"

Oz: "We regard Judaism as a civilization, not just as a religion. I think there are many, many ways to be a Jew. And one of those ways to be a Jew is to be a nonreligious Jew. The heritage contains, first and foremost, books, texts, spiritual creativity. And religion is only one of the components of this magnificent heritage."

Oz-Salzberger: "But part of the poetry is that we can pick and choose our legacies as we please. Every generation anew. And we feel very much at home with some of the heritage and not so much at home with other parts, and we feel entitled to be lovingly selective."
On the relationship between the early itinerant nature of Jews and their dependency on words

Oz: "For thousands of years, we Jews had nothing but books. We had no lands, we had no holy sites, we had no magnificent architecture, we had no heroes. We had books, we had texts, and those texts were always discussed around the family table. They became part of the family life, and they traveled from one generation to the next — not unchanged, not unchallenged, but reinterpreted in each generation and reread by each generation."
On the evolution of the idea of chutzpah from the Hebrew term for the court of justice

Oz-Salzberger: "The term is beit din chatzuf, which is a court of justice which is not manned according to the rules, but its ruling still passes as legal and viable. So there is a sense of transcending the laid laws which has been part and parcel of the mainstream, the healthy mainstream of Judaism, and we love it very much. We call it, in several places in our book, we call it 'reverent irreverence.' People did believe in God. But they often made no bones about critiquing the Lord, and shouting at him, and waving a fist at him and thinking that he got it wrong. This irreverent reverence is part of what has been called, in modern times, the 'chutzpah tradition,' which we deeply relate to as Israelis and as modern human beings."

Oz: "The very term 'Israel' means 'he who struggles with God.' This is the literal, dictionary sense of the word 'Israel.' So chutzpah is built into this civilization. A pupil is not expected to obey, to follow and to learn by heart. A student is expected to say a chiddush, which means something new, something original, something of his or her own interpretation of the sacred texts."
[snip] And best of all
And by the way, I don't think we are worried about the future of the book either. ... Because in many ways our bookishness has come now — you know, looking at it from antiquity until today — full circle, tablet to tablet, scroll to scroll. And back with the tablets and the scrolls with a vengeance."
I love it - tablet to tablet, scroll to scroll.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future

I believe it to be an arguable but inescapable truism that civilization has three goals - produce enough to ensure survival and continuity. How you achieve those three goals; productivity, survival and continuity, is of course a rich story of widely divergent choices. All three goals hinge to some extent on birthrates.

Ross Douthat has a column touching on these issues, More Babies, Please commenting on the recent decline in fertility in America. Fertility rates have been an age old concern of all cultures and civilizations. Any society that does not produce enough new members to replace the existing cohort inherently condemns itself to non-existence and simply serving, regardless of past accomplishments, as a case study in cultural suicide. It is easy to get dramatic and alarmist but fertility is one of those unavoidable Copybook Headings of Kipling.
Finally, there’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were “very important” to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)

Government’s power over fertility rates is limited, but not nonexistent. America has no real family policy to speak of at the moment, and the evidence from countries like Sweden and France suggests that reducing the ever-rising cost of having kids can help fertility rates rebound. Whether this means a more family-friendly tax code, a push for more flexible work hours, or an effort to reduce the cost of college, there’s clearly room for creative policy to make some difference.

More broadly, a more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.
An additional symptom which Douthat does not draw particular attention to is that the retreat from childrearing reflects a focus on consumption over investment. It is the ultimate vote of no confidence by a society upon itself.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Freely arrived at personal choices

Hat tip Ann Althouse. In the judgment from a Supreme Court case, Cantwell v. Connecticut, in 1940.
In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

The essential characteristic of these liberties is that, under their shield, many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed. Nowhere is this shield more necessary than in our own country, for a people composed of many races and of many creeds. There are limits to the exercise of these liberties. The danger in these times from the coercive activities of those who in the delusion of racial or religious conceit would incite violence and breaches of the peace in order to deprive others of their equal right to the exercise of their liberties, is emphasized by events familiar to all. These and other transgressions of those limits the States appropriately may punish.
Too many people too eager to legislate manners, to reduce choices of free people, and to constrict communication between people. There are limits of course but it seems many people wish to set the perimeter very close to home rather than far out on the distant horizon. Sharp differences do arise but as long as there is no harm, the default assumption should be no foul. There are too many people focusing on fostering divisions by race and class and religion and too few focusing on real problems and real root causes. Lovely to see plain language recalling to us the importance of fundamental principles.

If you take any newspaper report on virtually any subject, but especially political and policy, you will usually find a surfeit of exaggeration, vilification and false statement. This has led to the development of fact checkers at many papers but with the thoroughly ironic twist that most of the "fact-checking" itself becomes an exercise in exaggeration, vilification and false statement. It is almost as if there is a systemic aversion to truth seeking and truth telling. And the sad reality is that on many issues, we are at the frontier of our knowledge and that there is no truth that is actually settled.

The conflict is that the agenda to achieve social justice (as defined by equal outcomes) is inherently in conflict with the agenda to achieve maximum liberty. The more choices people are allowed to make, the more variant and unequal will be the outcomes.

When you determine that it is desirable that "many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed", you perforce have to accept that all these differences will yield very different outcomes. Some of those outcomes will be desirable and others not.

When people are free to make their own choices and they make bad choices, to what extent do you protect them from the consequences of those bad choices? And then what happens if they make further bad choices? What is the burden on others to protect them in a free society?

In a perfectly free society with everyone exercising their freedom around character, opinion and belief there will inherently be greater inequality. More freedom is likely to lead to greater inequality. All those that get educated, get married and stay married, get employed and stay employed do ever better, widening the gulf between those that make other choices such as not becoming educated, not marrying, and maintaining only a fitful relationship with work and effort.

These are deep and difficult waters. There are many pat answers but life is too messy for any of them to actually be good or comfortable answers. And most of all we seek to avoid having to make hard trade-off decisions at all. But that is the rub: in a complex multi-variable, high variability, human environment where people are maximally free to make their own choices, to what extent do you protect people from the consequences of their own bad decisions, to what extent do you allow them to continue to make bad decisions and how large an inequality do you tolerate when the gulf arises from freely arrived at personal choices?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why has our culture become degraded

From Is the Enemy Us? a book review by Claire Berlinski.
In his new book, Bruce Bawer has proposed an answer to vexing questions: Why has our culture become degraded? Why have our politics become polarized? And why has our public debate coarsened? Bawer locates the source of these misfortunes in the changes that have taken place in American higher education over the last generation—above all, the emergence of multicultural “identity studies.” The academy, he observes, is “the font of the perfidious multicultural idea and the setting in which it is implanted into the minds of American youth.”
Berlinski gives Bawer credit for his efforts but
Yet I’m not persuaded by his ultimate argument that our cultural rot emanates fundamentally from the universities. In the first place, these very universities also — still — produce the world’s deepest study of the humanities. Is it fair to associate, say, the Southern Oregon University Center for Shakespeare Studies with the aforementioned stammering bimbo, Michele? Does the syllabus of Miami University’s “Dostoevsky as a Social Philosopher” suggest any preoccupation with Frantz Fanon? This is perhaps not Bawer’s point, but given his conclusion — that parents have been categorically deceived in placing their faith in higher education — it is not unreasonable to point out that many American universities still provide an outstanding introduction to the traditional canon.
I share Berlinski's position - Something is rotten in the state of Denmark but it is hard to pinpoint either the nature of the disease or its cause. Our universities are a great source of intellectual renewal and innovation but they also seem to have been very successful in starting all sorts of counterproductive intellectual hares which have ended up harming both individuals and the nation. One area where I suspect that universities are particularly vulnerable is the criticism that they have not been successful in transmitting the existing culture (the source of current success) with any sort of integrity. It is almost as if large swaths of academia are fundamentally unaware of intellectual and cultural sources of prosperity. Cultural illiteracy seems rampant with an ever narrower circle of common ground for people to share.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Making good the implicit usefulness of the liberal arts

From Are the Liberal Arts Useful? by Samuel Goldman. I am certain that they are and am also certain that theory and practice diverge significantly and that the promise of a liberal arts education is too often undelivered. Goldman identifies some of the reasons for this failure.
Despite the vagueness of his argument, Durden seems to be on the right track. In America, especially, no argument for the liberal arts is likely to succeed unless it navigates between the extremes of public and private virtue. In other words, it has to make a plausible case that study of the liberal arts will actually help students find and succeed in rewarding careers. In trying to make that case, however, Durden avoids an important question. For whom are the liberal arts likely to have that effect?

The answer, I suspect, is relatively few of the students currently enrolled in higher education. As my old professor Jackson Toby has observed, students who enter college with strong preparation in reading and writing, abstract reasoning, and simple concentration can profit a great deal from study in the liberal arts. But students who lack these skills are unlikely to learn much in college. And that’s almost always too late for fundamental remediation.

The conclusion that the liberal arts are useful for students who are prepared to benefit from them before entering college is backed up by Durden’s CV. Although he doesn’t mention it in the piece, Durden attended Albany Academy, a respected private day school, before taking his double B.A. at Dickinson.

That doesn’t mean Durden was child of privilege. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was the first in his family to attend college. But it does mean that he began higher education with the skills he needed to make good the implicit usefulness of the liberal arts. Students who struggle with basic tasks in reading and writing can’t do that, no matter who their parents are.
Our failure to deliver a consistently high and comprehensive education in K-12, the roots of which failure are many, complex, and politically unpalatable, roils on, undermining the actual value matriculates are able to obtain from university.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The complicated acrobatics we perform in the modern world

Ironing Out the Wrinkles—The Complexities of Madeline L’Engle by Cara Parks reviews a recent biography of children's author Madeline L'Engle. It describes a complex life led in part by fusing wilful fantasy and reality, the subjective and the objective.
What emerges from this patchwork biography is not just a portrait of contradiction, but a portrait of a woman who was balancing—sometimes ineptly—the roles of mother, wife, and celebrated author. L’Engle published her memoir A Circle of Quiet at age 54 in 1972, the same year Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX. Roe v. Wade would be decided the following year. “For young women who as preteen girls a decade earlier had caught compelling reflections of themselves in the out-of-sorts yet stupendously purposeful character Meg,” Marcus points out, “the new book came just in time to offer some guidance through the minefields of mid-twentieth century American womanhood.” As Marcus makes clear, L’Engle took this responsibility quite seriously, answering hundreds of letters, leading countless writing workshops and retreats, and taking on numerous speaking engagements.

But what many of her readers craved was a personal testimony that could serve as a roadmap for their own development. It was something she could not, or would not, offer, preferring to tell a story that she felt hewed closer to a subjective truth. “Something might be factually correct but still lead you to the wrong conclusion,” says her friend Barbara Braver. Indeed it might, but our current age has no patience for useful fictions presenting themselves as fact. In another interview, one of L’Engle’s former fiction editors tells Marcus that the Crosswicks Journals contain “a memoir ethos drawn from another time.” Marcus, on the other hand, has correctly identified that readers today appreciate full disclosure and are willing to sift through competing narratives.

That is why for the early-twenty-first century reader, Marcus’s book is more instructive than the memoirs L’Engle left behind. The contradictions of L’Engle’s life offer the best insights into the complicated acrobatics we perform in the modern world in order to satisfy the competing claims of love, family, success, and ambition.
Earlier I came across this research report, More Facebook friends means more stress, says Business School report from University of Edinburgh.
A report from the University of Edinburgh Business School has found that the more groups of people in someone's Facebook friends, the greater potential to cause offence. In particular, adding employers or parents resulted in the greatest increase in anxiety.

Stress arises when a user presents a version of themself on Facebook that is unacceptable to some of their online 'friends', such as posts displaying behaviour such as swearing, recklessness, drinking and smoking.

Ben Marder, author of the report and early career fellow in marketing at the Business School, said: "Facebook used to be like a great party for all your friends where you can dance, drink and flirt. But now with your Mum, Dad and boss there the party becomes an anxious event full of potential social landmines."
Complicated acrobatics indeed. As we become more connected there are fewer secrets, less discretion, an absence of nuance which enriched (and troubled) earlier environments. The desirable attribute of transparency is just a small divide away from a glaring antiseptic light.

Learning to construct our individual and distinctive environment with wilful choices of connections and non-connections and selected opacity will be one of the key competencies of the future. It is a strange, wonderful new world we confront, made up of all the old knowledge and wisdom rearranged in new ways to which we are not yet accustomed.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Its power of totally involving all people in all other people

I picked up Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy at a used book store the other day. In glancing through it, I find no reason yet to alter my conclusions in a post a year ago, One is bowled over by their originality, i.e. McLuhan was insightful but not systematic.

Emphasis added:
Any technology tends to create a new human environment. Script and papyrus created the social environment we think of in connection with the empires of the ancient world. The stirrup and the wheel created unique environments of enormous scope. Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike. In our time the sudden shift from the mechanical technology of the wheel to the technology of electric circuitry represents one of the major shifts of all historical time. Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the public. Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale. What we have called “nations” in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people.

The unique character of the “public” created by the printed word was an intense and visually oriented self-consciousness, both of the individual and the group. The consequences of this intense visual stress with its increasing isolation of the visual faculty from the other senses are presented in this book. Its theme is the extension of the visual modalities of continuity, uniformity, and connectiveness to the organization of time and space alike. Electric circuitry does not support the extension of visual modalities in any degree approaching the visual power of the printed word.
There's the heart of it - "its power of totally involving all people in all other people". We have created an infrastructure of enormous opportunity to all people in virtually all places. In an environment of information abundance, the critical tasks become filtering, connecting and assimilating information into a coherent and productive framework. What enables one person to realize their potential likewise enables another to dissipate their potential in random searches and intellectual dalliances.

There has always been a premium on self-control, goal orientation, diligence, responsibility, etc. In an environment rich in opportunity and distraction, the premium becomes even greater and the likely individual outcomes will become even wider and those on the wrong side of the outcome distribution curve will rail even more about luck and the randomness of fortune.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Maps, Territory, and Reality

I am reading It Ain't Necessarily So by David Murray, Joel Schwartz and S. Robert Lichter which examines the role of the media in creating errors in the transmission process between original research and communication to the public. They identify multiple forms of error which are committed by journalists, one of which is captioned as Don't Mistake the Map for the Territory. Don't Mistake the Map for the Territory gets at the issue that there is always reality and then there is the proxy of reality which we represent through measurement. A reported increase in crime (the map) may or may not reflect an actual increase in crime (the territory). Reasons for a reported increase that might not reflect an actual increase include a change in definitions, a change in the population being measured, an improvement in measurement techniques, etc.

Here is a very pertinent example of the importance of not mistaking the map for the territory. The maps lie: Australian scientists discover Manhattan-sized island doesn’t actually exist from The National Post.

"Sandy Island" appears on Google Maps despite not actually appearing to exist.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Maintaining perspective

Carl Sagan in Cosmos, page 193.
For as long as there been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

If the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood

From The Federalist Papers, No. 62
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.
Wise men back then. Congress needs a refresher course.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

It was the distortion of the banking system to achieve political ends that ultimately caused the crisis

From Seeds of subprime review by Nigel Lawson.

It is reassuring to see someone with different views and greater expertise confirm one's own suspicions about complex issues. In this instance, former UK Labour front bencher Oonagh McDonald has written a book being reviewed by Nigel Lawson which accords the bulk of blame for the 2007 financial crisis to government policy facilitated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That is the tentative conclusion I arrived at some time ago and have scanned new reports for anything that might undermine that conclusion. Instead, McDonald's book seems to affirm the conclusion.
McDonald’s verdict is both well-founded and unsparing: “As pivotal players in the market, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must take a large slice of the blame. But above all, it was the distortion of the banking system to achieve political ends that ultimately caused the crisis.” What she does not do is draw any wider lessons. Yet there are, I believe, at least two important lessons to be drawn.

The first is that government-sponsored enterprises, or what in the UK would be called public-private partnerships, are to be avoided like the plague. Designed to secure the best of both worlds, they invariably end up exhibiting, if not the worst of both worlds, the benefits of neither. In particular, they escape both the discipline of effective state (ie Treasury) control and the discipline of the marketplace.

Systemically important banks, considered too important to fail, come very close to being in this category – which is why they need to be as limited in scope and as small a part of the overall banking scene as is practicable.

The second is that the efficacy of financial regulation is strictly limited. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in common with the rest of the US financial sector, were subject to detailed regulation. For reasons well described in this book, it failed completely.
My perspective is that this is yet one further example of good intentions joined with fallible politicians deploying complex solutions to achieve desired outcomes but with virtually no clear comprehension of the inherent complexity of the system being manipulated and no systemic feedback mechanisms to exact accountability.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Make no mistakes and you make no progress.

I recently blogged about a longitudinal study of 268 Harvard men from the late 1930s (What goes right is more important than what goes wrong). A book review of the last report of the study, Their Right Stuff: The evolution of the Harvard guinea pigs book by Christopher Caldwell has more information.

I had mentioned in my earliern post that, "Longitudinal studies are great but you have to be careful about how they evolve over time". It seems that I was more correct than I realized. Caldwell maps the many twists and turns of the Grant study.
Not to beat around the bush, the Grant study was a study in eugenics, as that term was understood in the 1930s. This was just a decade after Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding Virginia’s sterilization policy on the grounds that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” One of the study’s early leaders, the anthropologist Earnest Hooton, hoped it would lead to “effective control of individual quality through genetics, or breeding.”

A mesomorphic (muscular) body type was a sign of the right stuff; blubbery endomorphs and gangly ectomorphs were less promising. But Sigmund Freud had made inroads into American academia, too. So the Grant study was, from the outset, an uneasy mix of phrenology, somatotyping, race theory, and psycho-analysis. Not only did the young men have their skulls, pulses, and scrota measured; they also took Rorschach tests and filled out questionnaires about how they’d been toilet trained and how often they masturbated.

The study was barely a decade old when the revelations of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement brought its original eugenic slant into disrepute. But there had to be some use for those hundreds of blue-blood men on the hook to be studied intimately for a lifetime, and a use was found. In 1954, the tobacco industry gave the study money to look for “the positive reasons” that people smoke. For a decade after 1972, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sponsored its research, and Vaillant published his book The Natural History of Alcoholism in 1983.
Caldwell's review is a capstone to three other books I am currently reading: It Ain't Necessarily So (a discussion of the many slips between research and knowledge), The Half-Life of Facts (an exploration of the development and accretion of knowledge) and The Signal and the Noise (an investigation of how we make sense from data).

It seems marvellous to me that the Grant study should have been undertaken in the first place. Hugely expensive, invasive, and at the frontiers of knowledge, it is no wonder that over its seventy years, there should have been so many changes in the nature of the study. Caldwell is quite clear about the short-comings of the study, how it was administered and how subject it was to bias and fads.
Vaillant is particularly insistent that “defense mechanisms”—character adjustments that allow psycholo-gically wounded humans to adjust to, and overcome, their pain—“are not just one more dogma of the psychoanalytic religion.” He even developed a four-stage hierarchy to prove that mature defense mechanisms, such as humor and altruism, produce a better adjustment to life at age 65 than immature defense mechanisms, such as psychotic distortion and hypochondria. In other words, his study has proved that an ability to adapt predicts an ability to adapt.

Vaillant’s boldest conclusions generally take this form: tautologies presented as if they belong in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He sets up a “Decathlon of Flourishing”—a rather redundant list of career, health, and family outcomes—and then speaks of a “capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” Since Vaillant has already defined flourishing as an ability to enter and nurture relationships, this is not a surprise. He also establishes that a person who is well-integrated (i.e., able “to surmount common problems which confront him such as career choice, competitive environment, and moral and religious attitudes”) is more likely to flourish later in life. In other words, people who are good at addressing life’s problems do better at life than those who are not.
For all that, it is an example of exploratory science - bold, original well-intended by the lights of the time. Progress is not made by logic but by exploration and discovering the problems as we proceed. Later science builds on the errors of earlier science. Make no mistakes and you make no progress.

Perverse incentives and inequality

An interesting post, Is This Why Americans Have Lost The Drive To "Earn" More by Tyler Durden. Durden is looking at the aggregate net impact of a multitude of well-intended and important public policies (health, income, housing, etc.) and identifies that there is a range between $30,000 and $65,000 of income where it is technically worthwhile in the short term to not work any harder; you are as well off or better off relying on various government support programs than if you were to work harder.

See the horizontal dotted line, marked as the Highest Welfare Cliff, in his graph.

I don't know whether his numbers are rigorously right but the challenge of perverse and unintended incentives is by no means an unknown problem, though it has garnered more attention in the past in Europe (with its more comprehensive and robust social programs) than in the US. The fundamental issue of mixed and poorly understood incentives is familiar to the private sector as well. Years ago I had a telecom client and their problem was that they were experiencing major ebbs and flows in monthly demand for different types of services (and the consequent impact on revenues). Some of their services had much better profit margins than others, so this lack of predictability was an important issue.

The root cause was traced to the sales incentives for different services that were being pushed by the customer service/sales area. Each division of the company had their own programs for promoting different services (voice, internet, cable, cell, etc.), all programs uncoordinated with one another. The sales guys knew to a penny their net benefit from the different incentive programs and adjusted their behaviors accordingly. Each division was constantly tweaking their sales incentives with the consequence being that the sales guys were constantly changing their focus based on the net benefits to them. Hence the unpredictability - no one was looking at the whole complex picture.

So it is not surprising therefore that there is a problem of negative incentives to personal productivity. The question is what can be done about it. Just as you can't be half pregnant, you can't be partly motivated over a life cycle of productivity. The more you coast at the beginning, the less you are likely to achieve at the end. Cultural values will carry many people across this disincentive gulf. They will educate themselves and their children, work hard, and save for the future because that is the right thing to do for them, regardless of the incentives of government programs. But some unknown portion of the population will behave like the incentive-based sales force. They will seek to optimize their current "income" based on the net impact of various government programs, regardless of the long term impact on one's personal productivity.

This is yet another illustration of the fact that when it comes to the Human System (complex, chaotic, homeostatic, hidden feedback loops, etc.), you can't rely on good intentions but instead have to focus on actual outcomes. In this instance, not only are you undermining the types of behaviors that are the foundation for long term prosperity (both for the individual and the community) but you are also exacerbating other problems unintentionally.

Durden is probably correct with his numbers. What needs to be examined is the extent to which those counter-productive incentives have an impact on people's behaviors. I suspect that it is material though hopefully not catastrophic. If the counter-productive incentives do indeed have a real and material impact on people's behaviors, you likely have at least two undesirable consequences.

First is the more obvious one - if people respond to the tactical incentives and reduce their personal effort, they are likely reducing their long term strategic productivity; to their and the the country's detriment.

The second consequence is perhaps less obvious. If there is this broad mire of disincentive towards hard work between the income ranges of $30-65,000, then you likely will drive people to either end of the distribution. Some people will abandon themselves to low income choices because of the support they receive from government programs which shield them from the full consequences of those choices. They become captive clients of the state with little prospect of escape. In other contexts, people would be outraged at this malevolent disenfranchisement.

Other people, recognizing the mire but committed to their own prosperity, will work that much harder to enter the higher levels of income where one can once again benefit from one's own efforts.

As people, responding in their own fashion to the perverse incentives, migrate to one end of the spectrum or the other, you will necessarily have a thinning out of the middle. This movement to the extremes from the middle would mean that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest would widen.

The increase in the income gap between the bottom and top quintile in the past forty years is well established (though it is unclear whether the widening has any sort of real world consequence). Regardless of whether widening income gaps are important for any reasons other than a residual sense of "fairness", people have struggled to explain exactly what has caused the increasing gap. Globalization, outsourcing, offshoring of manufacturing, changing demographics, changing family structures, the transition to a knowledge economy, etc. have all been advanced as the mechanism that explains increasing income inequality.

What Durden's graphs and numbers point to is the possibility that increasing income inequality is a result of government policy.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advanced education associated with poor decision-making hygiene

There are multiple statements and studies that I have seen in the past few hours which coalesce into a fairly jaundiced aggregate view of the self-perception of educated elites. There is a grave tendency for policy arguments to devolve into sophisticated slander of one's opponent and ad hominem attacks rather than engaging with the policy argument and its attendant evidentiary issues.

The science communication problem: one good explanation, four not so good ones, and a fitting solution by Dan Kahan

Kahan addresses four popular explanations for public policy disagreement. These popular explanations for opponents taking different positions are all really forms of ad hominem attacks in that they do not engage with the actual argument but instead attempt to demonstrate the defectiveness of the opponent. Kajan indicates why each of these explanations is inadequate and unsupported by evidence. The four arguments are:
* Science Denialism (my opponent is stupid)
* Misinformation (my opponent is gullible)
* Bounded Rationality (my opponent is ignorant)
* Authoritarian personality (my opponent is a subservient follower)
In a second paper from Kahane, Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study, he concludes that
subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition
A while ago, I posted about the proclivity of the most educated tend to make worse financial decisions than others (Course credit wise, financially foolish).
But college-educated people were more likely than those with high school or less education to be above this 40 percent threshold - considered to be a risky amount of debt for most households.

The association between more education and higher debt was true even after taking into account the fact that people with more education tend to have higher incomes.
Finally George Will has an opinion column (Colleges have free speech on the run) citing a researcher indicating that
those with the highest levels of education have the lowest exposure to people with conflicting points of view.
I can't find an original citation on that research.

Collected together these seem to indicate that advanced education is associated with poor decision-making hygiene. The drumbeat of coincidental articles is striking - the more educated you are, the more likely you are to interpret things through an ideological filter, the more likely you are to misinterpret risks, and the less likely you are to listen to others with differing views. If it were all true - OUCH! While there are nuggets of truth in amongst all these observations, I suspect things are better than presented. But there is sufficient meat to the observations that it ought to reign in intellectual hubris just a bit.

There are always more plausible accounts of social phenomena than are actually true

From The science communication problem: one good explanation, four not so good ones, and a fitting solution by Dan Kahan.
There are always more plausible accounts of social phenomena than are actually true. Empirical observation and measurement are necessary--not just to enlarge collective knowledge but also to steer people away from dead ends as they search for effective solutions to the society’s problems.
We so often come up with a plausible explanation for a phenomena and then, rather than testing it directly, we simply proceed as if the conceptualization of a plausible explanation is the same as proving it with messy objective empirical data.

It has to be some combination of both

There is a debate in biology as to whether evolution is primarily driven at the gene level (Dawkins), the individual (Darwin) or at the group level (Wynne-Edwards). The debate ebbs and flows over time. While much of the discussion is couched in either-or terms, I think the reality is that evolutionary forces act at all three levels but with varying intensity based on ill-perceived contextual circumstances. As I said earlier, the Human System is multivariate, complex, chaotic, non-linear, homeostatic, self-correcting, contextually sensitive, dynamic, heterogeneous and ridden with tipping points and hidden feedback loops. This is true in biology and it is true in other fields such as economics, politics, etc.

There is a corresponding debate about the sources of human economic differences. Some wish to make the argument that one’s position in life is simply a matter of “luck”. While exogenous shocks are a matter of routine, it is clear that shocks on their own do not determine outcomes. It is the response of individuals (and groups) which determine the consequences of shocks. Some economists/sociologists/political theorists posit that differences in individual and group outcomes is driven primarily by geography (Diamond), history (Landes), culture (Huffington and McCloskey), social institutions (Acemoglu and Robinson), national IQ (Lynn and Vanhanen), human capital development (Lucas), rule of law and property rights (DeSoto) or values and behaviors (Heckman and Murray). Just as with the case of biological evolution, the argument is usually cast in either-or terms (with usually some sort of mild concession that it is more complicated than that, a concession then obviated by the binary arguments then made) but the reality is almost certainly that all of those elements are consequential at different times and under different contexts. It is also probably true that there is some sort of hierarchy of potential impact. My personal guess would be that the hierarchy might be culture, history, rule of law, institutions, values and behaviors, geography, human capital development, and finally national IQ (and I suspect that national IQ is not only a red herring but also simply incorrect).

I mention this because of an interesting blog post on the emerging implications of the field of epigenetics by Timothy Taylor, Fetal Origins and Epigenetics: Interview with Janet Currie.
One of the things I talked about in my Ely lecture was what mechanism might underlie the long term effects, and I raised the idea of “epigenetic” changes as one possibility. The way I like to think about that is you have the gene, which only changes very slowly when you have mutations. But then kind of on top of the gene you have the epigenome, which determines which parts of the gene are expressed. And that can change within one generation. There are animal experiments that do things like change the diet of guinea pigs and all the baby guinea pigs come out a different color. It can be pretty dramatic. ... The idea is that the fetal period might be particularly important because these epigenetic switches are being set one way or another. And then once they’re set, it’s more difficult to change them later on.

I think we haven’t really been able to look at all of the implications of that given the limitations of the data. We don’t have very much data where we can follow people from, say, in utero to some later period. But, that’s where the frontier is, trying to do that kind of research and make those linkages....

I think a really interesting thing about the fetal origins hypothesis for public policy is that if it’s really important what happens to the fetus, and some people think that maybe the first trimester is the most important or the most vulnerable period, then you’re talking about women who might not even know that they’re pregnant. It really means you should be targeting a whole different population than, say, 15 years ago, when we thought, oh, we need to be targeting preschool kids instead of kids once they reach school age. Now we’re kind of pushing it back. Then it was, “We need to be playing Mozart to infants.” Now the implication is that we’ve got to reach these mothers before they even get pregnant if we really want to improve conditions.

Epigenetics implies that it does not make sense to talk about nature versus nurture. If nature is the gene and nurture is the thing that sets the switches, then the outcome depends on both of those things. So you can’t really talk about nature or nurture in most situations. It has to be some combination of both.
This ties together both the idea of evolution (genes) and development (epigenetics).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

These epigenetic switches are being set one way or another

Via Timothy Taylor in Fetal Origins and Epigenetics: Interview with Janet Currie. The Human System is multivariate, complex, chaotic, non-linear, homeostatic, self-correcting, contextually sensitive, dynamic, heterogeneous and ridden with tipping points and hidden feedback loops. I suspect that research in epigenetics will be extremely fruitful as well as tremendously problematic.

Just imagine the implications. We at one time sought to ameliorate poverty by simply transferring money from adults to adults. That turned out to be a bandaid and did not fix the underlying problem of family dysfunction. We then changed our focus to the children of poverty and invested in schools and programs. No fixes. We then shifted our focus further upstream to programs such as Head Start. Still no fixes. Now, with epigenetics, we are headed yet further upstream. But what are some of the implications? They are huge for issues of gender roles, right to life vs. choice, sociological impacts, etc.
One of the things I talked about in my Ely lecture was what mechanism might underlie the long term effects, and I raised the idea of “epigenetic” changes as one possibility. The way I like to think about that is you have the gene, which only changes very slowly when you have mutations. But then kind of on top of the gene you have the epigenome, which determines which parts of the gene are expressed. And that can change within one generation. There are animal experiments that do things like change the diet of guinea pigs and all the baby guinea pigs come out a different color. It can be pretty dramatic. ... The idea is that the fetal period might be particularly important because these epigenetic switches are being set one way or another. And then once they’re set, it’s more difficult to change them later on.

I think we haven’t really been able to look at all of the implications of that given the limitations of the data. We don’t have very much data where we can follow people from, say, in utero to some later period. But, that’s where the frontier is, trying to do that kind of research and make those linkages....

I think a really interesting thing about the fetal origins hypothesis for public policy is that if it’s really important what happens to the fetus, and some people think that maybe the first trimester is the most important or the most vulnerable period, then you’re talking about women who might not even know that they’re pregnant. It really means you should be targeting a whole different population than, say, 15 years ago, when we thought, oh, we need to be targeting preschool kids instead of kids once they reach school age. Now we’re kind of pushing it back. Then it was, “We need to be playing Mozart to infants.” Now the implication is that we’ve got to reach these mothers before they even get pregnant if we really want to improve conditions.

Epigenetics implies that it does not make sense to talk about nature versus nurture. If nature is the gene and nurture is the thing that sets the switches, then the outcome depends on both of those things. So you can’t really talk about nature or nurture in most situations. It has to be some combination of both.
"It has to be some combination of both." - Too right as they say in some parts of the world. Epigenetics is one of those knowledge frontiers that well warrants further study.