Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Taken as a whole, opinion was hostile to the middleman

A series of passages from the recently read Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Combative to the point of provocative but as usual crammed with unexpected facts or interpretations of facts. Page 71. Sowell's argument in this chapter is that there is significant evidence that the prejudice that is seen against traders such as Jews, Ibo, Chinese, Lebanese, etc. is not against them as minorities but against them in their function.
An often-cited economist's account of rudimentary economic activities within a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany during World War II showed the economic and social role of middlemen among the men in the camp. Prisoners of war were fed by their captors, while the monthly shipments of Red Cross packages supplemented their food and provided a few amenities like chocolates and cigarettes. All prisoners received the same material goods but of course they valued different items differently. Non-smokers traded cigarettes for chocolates. Sikhs among the prisoners traded away canned beef for jam or margarine.

On days when the Red Cross packages arrived, direct one-on-one trades created chaos in a camp with more than a thousand prisoners. Camp authorities sought to bring some order into the situation by setting up bulletin boards on which prisoners could make their offers of trades. But what proved to be even more efficient arose spontaneously among the prisoners themselves: Particular prisoners would circulate around the camp, trading back and forth - playing the role of middleman among their numerous fellow prisoners, who traded with one another without coming into direct contact. The other prisoners saved themselves the bother and the middlemen ended up with more material goods, in effect charging for their services.

The middlemen who emerged in this informal economy were not necessarily ethnically different. Those individuals who played the middleman role in the camp ranged from a Catholic chaplain to a Sikh. Moreover, the needs they met, though seemingly trivial from the perspective of a larger and more affluent society, were matters of "urgency," according to a British economist who was one of these prisoners. Things like cigarettes, jam, razor blades and writing paper meant a lot in the grim conditions of a prisoner-of-war camp.

The other function of middlemen - lending and charging interest - also arose in the camp. As prisoners' supplies of cigarettes or sugar ran low near the end of the month, those who had saved these items would provide them to those had run out - in exchange for a pledge to pay back more than was lent when the next Red Cross package arrived. The economist among them was fascinated to see many of the economic phenomena associated with a complex market economy appearing spontaneously in these primitive conditions. But he also noted social and political phenomena generated by the work of middlemen:
Taken as a whole, opinion was hostile to the middleman. His function, and his hard work in bringing buyer and seller together, were ignored; profits were not regarded as a reward for labor, but as the result of sharp practices. Despite the fact that his very existence was proof to the contrary, the middleman was held to be redundant...
Here, in a microcosm, was the fundamental problem of the middleman down through the centuries and around the world. In the prisoner-of-war camp, at last these misconceptions were not compounded by the additional factor of ethnically different middlemen and there was no market
for political demagoguery.

Facing limits is a contentious exercise in making choices

From The twilight of entitlement by Robert J. Samuelson.
Weighed down by these contradictions, entitlement has been slowly crumbling for decades. The Great Recession merely applied the decisive blow. We’re not entitled to many things: not to a dynamic economy; not to secure jobs; not to homeownership; not to ever-more protective government; not to fixed tax burdens; not to a college education. Sooner or later, the programs called “entitlements,” including Social Security, will be trimmed because they’re expensive and some recipients are less deserving than others.

The collision between present realities and past expectations helps explain the public’s extraordinary moodiness. The pandering to the middle class by both parties (and much of the media) represents one crude attempt to muffle the disappointment, a false reassurance that the pleasing past can be reclaimed. It can’t.


In the post-entitlement era, people’s expectations may be more grounded. But political conflicts — who gets, who gives — and social resentments will be, as they already are, sharper. Entitlement implied an almost-limitless future. Facing limits is a contentious exercise in making choices.
This is most visible in Europe where the issues and tribulations are much more advanced than here. Never-the-less we would be well served to watch that canary in the coal mine. We have to make smart changes to establish a new affordable post-entitlement equilibria. Unfortunately, it seems few of our politicians are prepared to make hard trade-off decisions that are painful today but necessary for tomorrow. A reluctance which we as voters reward by punishing those that actually do attempt hard decisions.

It’s not youth that passed us by, but adulthood.

From Against Eternal Youth by Frederica Mathewes-Green. She discusses the stark contrast between the way adults are portrayed in movies today versus in the 1930-50's.

I grew up in Sweden in the early 1970's when there were only two TV channels, both government owned, both operating for only a few hours a day. Even such a restricted schedule posed a challenge as to how it might be filled given a limited budget. The answer was to purchase very cheap content which meant American movies from the 1900s to the 1940's, avant-garde films from various Western European countries (avant-garde meaning state produced films of such intellectualism and sophistication that they had never been viewed by anyone outside the immediate family of the actors and producers), and existential cartoons from Soviet Bloc countries such as East Germany, Poland, and Bulgaria.

This, by the way, in combination with dark and inclement weather for nine months of the year, is an excellent, though hard to replicate, regimen for encouraging people to become enthusiastic readers.

As a consequence of such circumstances, I was reared on such classics as Arsenic and Old Lace, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc. I understand exactly what Mathewes-Green means.
The adults in these films carry themselves differently.

They don’t walk and speak the way we do. It’s often hard to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be — as though they were portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don’t have any more.
Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn’t an observation about the actors themselves (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately); rather, it is about the way audiences expected grownups to act. A certain manner demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the manner of children, or even of adolescents such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a boyish, floppy-haired ditherer till he was forty. Compare Bette Davis’ strong and smoky voice with Renée Zellweger’s nervous twitter. Zellweger is adorable, but she’s thirty-five. When will she grow up?
Future historians will have to sort out our plight — how a whole generation could forget to grow up, while still attempting to raise a younger generation and lead the most powerful nation in the world through times of war and terror. The skills of adulthood are not ones we know how to use. Being kittenish, or obscene, or adorably perplexed — we can do that. But gathering the gravity and confidence that signals full maturity is beyond our capabilities. It’s not youth that passed us by, but adulthood.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A way of life that has been tested before and found wanting

A series of passages from the recently read Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Combative to the point of provocative but as usual crammed with unexpected facts or interpretations of facts. Page 63.
Whether black redneck values and lifestyle are a lineal descendant of white redneck values and lifestyle, as suggested here, or a social phenomenon arising independently within the black community and only coincidentally similar, it is still a way of life that has been tested before and found wanting, as shown by its erosion over the generations among whites who experienced its counterproductive consequences. By making black redneck behavior a sacrosanct part of black cultural identity, white liberals and others who excuse, celebrate or otherwise perpetuate that lifestyle not only preserve it among that fraction of the black population which has not yet escaped from it, but have contributed to its spread up the social scale to middle class black young people who feel a need to be true to their racial identity, lest they be thought to be "acting white." It is the spread of a social poison, however much either black or white intellectuals try to pretty it up or try to find some deeper meaning in it.

Facts, stories, and catalysts for inquiry

I don't like the partisanship and underlying anger in this article, The Difference Between Newtown and Boston by Jonathan S. Tobin , but the author does have an intriguing insight.

In what ways are the tragedies of Newton (primary school massacre) and Watertown (Boston terrorist bombing) the same and/or different from one another and, given the similarities, why are they reported differently and why do they have such a different impact on the political process?

All interesting questions. From the article.
One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.

The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.
I would argue that both events are legitimate catalysts to reflection on existing policies as well as an opportunity to reconsider root causes.

Bearing in mind the old legal adage that bad cases make bad law and the paraphrase, exceptional events make bad policy, what might be made of comparing Newton and Watertown?

In Newton, the perpetrator is known. The reasons for his actions are known to the extent that they are knowable. He had a history of mental illness. The means by which his actions were committed are also known. He stole the weapons from his mother. For whatever reason, the analysis of Newton quickly devolved in to two simplistic root causes, both of which are correct as far as they go. 1) The tragedy occurred because of mental illness. 2) The tragedy was facilitated by relatively easy (though illegal) access to weapons. These root causes are treated as exclusive of one another when in fact they are entirely compatible.

I view the former issue (mental health) as the greater of the two issues in part because I believe mental health and substance dependency are tightly related and have far reaching consequences. "Solve" mental health and substance dependency and numerous social pathologies plunge such as homelessness, burglary rates, murder rates, number of massacres, suicide rates, domestic violence, prison overcrowding, morbidity issues, healthcare costs, education attainment, disparate group impacts, etc. "Solve" gun access and at most you might reduce the murder and suicide rate. Maybe.

But the interesting consequence of Newton was a proposed legislative package which all parties, both proponents and opponents, acknowledged would have had no preventive impact on Newton and which would have little or no impact on future crime rates. In essence, a classic Non Sequitur. The Newton tragedy was hijacked to achieve an unrelated political goal. This was in itself a tragedy because we omitted having the discussions that might have been beneficial to all communities - what can be done to improve access to and the effectiveness of good mental health care and what can be done to help people with substance addictions? Those might have had some prophylactic impact on future tragedies but we never got to that conversation.

In Watertown, the perpetrators are known. The reasons for their actions are suspected (with some evidentiary basis) but are not completely understood. The perpetrators chose to adhere to a violent, exclusionary and destructive dogma. The means by which the tragedy was committed are also known. They used commonly available knowledge and materials to create bombs to kill and maim. For whatever reason, the analysis of Watertown is quickly devolving in to two simplistic root causes, both of which are correct as far as they go. 1) The route to radicalization was quick, complex and unpredictable. 2) The tragedy was facilitated by religious fervor and perhaps law enforcement incompetence. These root causes are treated as exclusive of one another when in fact they are entirely compatible.

It is hard to see where Watertown will go in terms of policy implications but it appears that it will go nowhere.

Instead of examining both these tragedies as political events, could we achieve more by looking at it as a catalyst for understanding rather than simply as a knee-jerk response of how do I use this to advance a pre-existing political agenda. I think we could.

What Tobin does is call attention to unstated assumptions and unseen perspectives.

In both Newton and Watertown it would be immensely easy, if Americans were as crude as the newspapers make them out to be, to simply blame the mentally ill and Muslims for the respective tragedies.

The newspapers barely mentioned discrimination against the mentally ill in the context of Newton. There were a few advocates of the mentally ill that expressed concern but the whole issue was marginal to the broader discussion. By and large the newspapers appeared indifferent to any concern that Newton would lead to increasing discrimination and violence against the mentally ill.

On the other hand, post-Watertown, the concern that all Muslims should not be tarred with the same brush is a leitmotif in most the major papers. Of course, they should not be, but on what basis is that concern on the part of newspapers (increased prejudice against Muslims) greater than the concern for discrimination against the mentally ill? The FBI hate crimes figures indicate that hate crimes against Muslims are up by a factor of 4-6X or so from the late 1990s (with a one year spike after 9/11). But despite such later Muslim-related terrorist incidents as the Fort Hood massacre or the DC sniper, anti-Muslim hate crimes have remained pretty steady between 125-175 crimes per year for a dozen years.

Of course the desired number is zero hate crimes but out of a total population of some 310 million, those are pretty low numbers. Context and perspective are also critical. Anti-Jewish hate crimes continue to run 4-5X as high as anti-Muslim hate crimes without an apparent media concern that there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism.

The theoretical concern about a potential anti-Muslim backlash is of course valid. But what if all the evidence indicates that in fact Americans are extraordinarily tolerant and that there is no evident causative relationship in recent years between terrorist acts committed by Muslims and the number of individual hate crimes committed against Muslims? Where does that lead us with regard to the Mainstream Media's obsession that there might be such a backlash? Either, the MSM are ignorant of the data, in which case, shame on them, or they are inveterate bigots with a disparaging and unfounded view of their fellow Americans.

This latter interpretation would be supported by the reported 2006 incident in which NBC solicited Muslims to walk around a NASCAR event in the hopes that it would elicit some evidence of anti-Muslim behavior (reported at MNBC), a hope that apparently was dashed. It is little wonder that the public so little trusts the traditional media when the media's prejudice against the public is so vividly on display.

It seems to me that:

1) By failing to look at Newton and Watertown disinterestedly and with negative capability, the media has helped forestall meaningful discussion about real root causes and possible policy changes that might make a real beneficial difference in the lives of Americans.

2) The MSM would be well counseled to read the Sermon of the Mount: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" The prejudices and biases of the media help perpetuate unsupported prejudices (Americans are biased against Muslims) and at the same time shutoff discussion about real issues that need addressing (mental healthcare).

3) There is an unacknowledged assumption on the part of the members of the press that every tragedy can be "solved."

4) There is a deep reluctance to engage with facts, data, and hard trade-offs. It is nice to say that we ought to be better at discerning the mentally ill who pose a danger to themselves or others or to say that the intelligence services ought to be better at discerning when on the continuum dogmatic complaining ends and terroristic impulses begin. It would be nice if we could do those things but likely unrealistic. Fundamental laws of liberty and practicalities of expense and the variability of human nature all intrude and constitute a fortress-like wall.

5) Humble inquiry will move us forwards towards better answers, usually incrementally but the nature of the MSM beast precludes such approaches. A steady one percent improvement a year in anything is fantastic news that goes unreported whereas a once-off variant outcome gets all the attention.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Greatly disinclined to exact and careful reasoning

A series of passages from the recently read Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Combative to the point of provocative but as usual crammed with unexpected facts or interpretations of facts. Page 23.
A Southerner said to Frederick law Olmsted: "The fact is, sir, the people here are not like you northern people; they don't reason out everything so." Olmsted himself likewise concluded from his travels in the antebellum South that Southerners were "greatly disinclined to exact and careful reasoning." As late as the First World Ward, white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi scored lower on mental tests than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. At higher levels of achievement, the contrast between the South and other regions was even more stark. A study of leading American figures in the arts and sciences in the first half of the nineteenth century found most clustered in the Northeast, while vast regions of the South ”Virginia alone excepted” were without a single one.

The kinds of statistical disparities found between Southern whites and Northern whites in the past are today often taken as evidence or proof of racial discrimination when such disparities are found between the black and white populations of the country as a whole, while others have taken such disparities as signs of genetic deficiencies. Yet clearly neither racial discrimination nor racial inferiority can explain similar differences between whites in the North and the South in earlier centuries. This should at least raise questions about such explanations when applied to blacks of a later era who inherited the culture of white Southerners.

Hidden deceits and trust

This is insignificant but interestingly revealing. Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey of some 1,000 adults regarding their level of basic science knowledge, as reported in Public’s Knowledge of Science and Technology .

The findings themselves are of a like with past such surveys. There were two items which I found interesting, one in terms of the finding itself and the second with regard to the fashion in which the Research Center chose to report it.

The first item was that:
Overall, men outperformed women on the quiz, though in many cases the differences are modest. On average, men answered 8.6 items correctly, compared with 7.7 items for women.
Given that men and women have the same IQ this is a little surprising. I can construct a story in which this is explained because more men than women go into the sciences and technology, and/or that many more men work and work continuously and that working outside the home might increase the probability that you are exposed to more and a wider range of science knowledge but I would have to set that against the fact that more women attend university than men. So an intriguing little mystery of probably no substance given the notorious fallibility of such surveys.

But the second, and I think the more fascinating, item was the way the Center chose to present the information. A couple of days ago I posted (Negative Capability and Dogmatic Simplists) about Keats' idea about Negative Capability, the capacity to take an impression of the world without imposing pre-existing assumptions on it. It appears that the Center has a Negative Capability issue.
Overall, men outperformed women on the quiz, though in many cases the differences are modest. On average, men answered 8.6 items correctly, compared with 7.7 items for women.
If you do the math, men outscored women by 12% which in most processes is a fairly material differential. That is not a modest difference. Clearly that is something that the Center did not want to emphasize and so, instead of reporting the percentage differential as they did with all their other results, they reported the raw numbers, apparently on the assumption or hope that readers would not do the calculation.

Why do that? Why not simply report the results rather than try and hide them?

It seems that there are three possible explanations. One - that there is a margin of error on all responses that is greater than 12% and so even though men outscored women by 12%, it is not a meaningful differential being within the margin of error. If the margin of error is greater than 12% then the whole survey is of virtually no value and Pew would obviously not want to bring attention to that.

Two - This a freak result arising from an unrepresentative sample. This would invalidate the whole survey, again something Pew would not wish to draw attention to.

Third - The result is accurate but Pew does not like the result itself or its implications. For example, one might wish to believe that there is no difference between the sexes or one might be concerned about the sociological and political implications (if men are better informed on STEM than women then that differential might contribute to other unequal outcomes).

This is much ado about nothing. Its just a survey with a suspect finding. But it throws some light on hidden biases. Little deceits such as this might explain why "Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly."

It would be ironic if a survey that could be read as designed to show up the ignorance of the American public, inadvertently provided evidence to support that the canny American public are indeed right to not trust the media.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

It was not the skill that was lacking, but the enterprise

A series of passages from the recently read Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Combative to the point of provocative but as usual crammed with unexpected facts or interpretations of facts. Page 21.
Not only in the South, but in the communities from which white Southerners had come in the Scottish highlands, in Ulster, and in Wales of an earlier era, most of the successful businessmen were outsiders. Even the poorest highland Scots would not skin their horses when they died. Instead, "Scots sold their dead horses for three pence to English soldiers who in turn got six pence for the skinned carcass and another two shillings for the hide." This was not due to a lack of knowledge of skinning. In earlier times, when Scotland and England were at war, one of the atrocities committed by the Scots was skinning captured English officers alive. During the sixteenth century border feuds, the "Johnston-Johnson clan adorned their houses with the flayed skins of their enemies the Maxwells." It was not the skill that was lacking, but the enterprise.

There is no Frigate like a Book

Emily Dickinson
There is no Frigate like a Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry

This Traverse may the poorest take
Without offense of Toll;
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Unexpected facts.

A series of passages from the recently read Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell. Combative to the point of provocative but as usual crammed with unexpected facts or interpretations of facts. Page 13.
Any broad-brush discussion of cultural patterns must, of course, not claim that all people - whether white or black - had the same culture, much less to the same degree. There are not only changes over time, there are cross-currents at a given time. Nevertheless, it is useful to see the outlines of a general pattern, even when that pattern erodes over time and at varying rates among different subgroups.

The violence for which white Southerners became most lastingly notorious was lynching. Like other aspects of the redneck and cracker culture, it has often been attributed to race or slavery. In fact, however, most lynching victims in the antebellum South were white. Economic considerations alone would prevent a slave owner from lynching his own slave or tolerating anyone else's doing so. It was only after the Civil War that the emancipated blacks became the principal targets of lynching. But, by then, Southern vigilante violence had been a tradition for more than a century in North America and even longer back in the regions of Britain from which cracker sand rednecks came, where "retributive justice" was often left in private hands. Even the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan has been traced back to "the fiery cross of old Scotland" use by feuding clans.

Seventy-eight per cent of the business students offered some kind of help to the stranger

From Are wealth-motivated people less likely to help? by Tyler Cowen.

Two points. While a small study, this is a good example of the critical difference between studies that measure hypotheticals, abstract thought experiments, or loose proxies for the variable you are actually interested in versus those studies that measure the actual behavior, the revealed preference in economic parlance.

Second, the "intrinsic religiosity" is a hint at the core role of culture in decision-making.
Seventy-eight per cent of the business students offered some kind of help to the stranger. Sixty-six per cent went so far as refusing to leave the stranger or giving him/her their mobile phone. The degree to which the students reported being wealth-driven was not associated with their levels of helping. Neither was their self-reported willingness to accept an illegal stock trading tip off. Being in a hurry also made no difference, neither did the content of the speech they were about to give. A factor that was linked with helping behaviour was “intrinsic religiosity” – that is, pursuing religion as an end in itself, not for the sake of status or other gain.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I left it to mend itself

h/t Robin Bates at Better Living Through Beowulf.

From She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Mr. Hardcastle speaking.
There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.

The idols of the market are the most troublesome of all

From Francis Bacon in Novum Organum

For whatever reason, Bacon has always been somewhat absent from my reading. Perhaps it has been the translations. For whatever reason, all of a sudden I am finding much with which I agree and am pleased to see an ancient articulate my nebulous thoughts.
The idols of the market are the most troublesome of all, those, namely, which have entwined themselves round the understanding from the associations of words and names. For men imagine that their reason governs words, whilst, in fact, words react upon the understanding; and this has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive. Words are generally formed in a popular sense, and define things by those broad lines which are most obvious to the vulgar mind; but when a more acute understanding, or more diligent observation is anxious to vary those lines, and to adapt them more accurately to nature, words oppose it. Hence the great and solemn disputes of learned men often terminate in controversies about words and names, in regard to which it would be better (imitating the caution of mathematicians) to proceed more advisedly in the first instance, and to bring such disputes to a regular issue by definitions. Such definitions, however, cannot remedy the evil in natural and material objects, because they consist themselves of words, and these words produce others; so that we must necessarily have recourse to particular instances, and their regular (p.350) series and arrangement, as we shall mention when we come to the mode and scheme of determining notions and axioms.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In the past, people never asked for help unless they needed it

A quite interesting article in the New York Times, Danes Rethink a Welfare State Ample to a Fault by Suzanne Daley. The article recaps the state of welfare reform in Denmark. This is akin to the reforms that the Swedes had to put through in the 1990s and with which they are still tinkering.

The fundamental challenge of course is how do you maintain systemic productivity in order to afford the "free" stuff which is nice but not productive. What rarely is discussed is the larger issues regarding tactical and strategic, short term and long term trade-offs. And most critically, what is not discussed are the unintended consequences. If we implement a systemic realignment of values which are likely to affect future productivity, how do we avoid unintended consequences which might include the undermining of the cultural values which create the productivity necessary to sustain the system?

Socialism usually can be made to work for a generation or two with a culturally cohesive population that has a pre-established work ethic and futurity orientation. Once you introduce low transparency and remove consequences to behaviors and actions, which is one of the side-effects of welfare systems, it takes a while to see what the strategic long-term results are. But the results are usually predictable - a diminution of personal responsibility and accountability, a fraying of communal bonds, increases in financial irresponsibility (personal bankruptcies), destruction of sustainable budgets, reduction in productive engagement (work force participation), etc.
Denmark has among the highest marginal income-tax rates in the world, with the top bracket of 56.5 percent kicking in on incomes of more than about $80,000. But in exchange, the Danes get a cradle-to-grave safety net that includes free health care, a free university education and hefty payouts to even the richest citizens.

Parents in all income brackets, for instance, get quarterly checks from the government to help defray child-care costs. The elderly get free maid service if they need it, even if they are wealthy.

But few experts here believe that Denmark can long afford the current perks. So Denmark is retooling itself, tinkering with corporate tax rates, considering new public sector investments and, for the long term, trying to wean more people — the young and the old — off government benefits.

“In the past, people never asked for help unless they needed it,” said Karen Haekkerup, the minister of social affairs and integration, who has been outspoken on the subject. “My grandmother was offered a pension and she was offended. She did not need it.
I recently posted about Sweden's reforms and experience at the frontier between personal agency and communal support: Sweden, Socialism and Culture. The Scandinavian countries are in some way the canary in the coal mine. They are strong and productive cultures which went the furthest the fastest in attempting to explore the possible balance between communal welfare systems and personal agency. Now that they have found the furthest limits, they are retrenching to try and find what is sustainable. Other countries (think Greece, Argentina, etc.) with weaker communal bonds or cultures less oriented towards the future and personal agency, are far less able to undertake such reforms and instead simply go over the financial cliff to the detriment of all.

Where are the games of yesteryear?

h/t Robin Bates, Where are the Toys of Yesteryear?
Ballad of the Games of Yesteryear

By Scott Bates

Oh, tell me where, in what fair lands
Lie all the games we used to play,
The gliders launched with rubber bands,
Trucks, trains, and marbles, kites, croquet,
Diabolo and bilboquet,
Kick the Can and Ducks and Deer;
Where are the toys of yesterday?
Where are the games of yesteryear?

The stockings stuffed with jelly beans
We used to open starry-eyed
Now swell with murderous machines
Designed for kiddy fratricide;
Malevolent monsters lurk inside
The packages of Christmas cheer
Angrily waiting to get untied . . .
Where are the games of yesteryear?

Computer wars are grimly in
And guts and gore are all the go,
Death Stars invade the Planet Minh,
And cosmic killers run the show;
“As Barbie’s kissing G.I. Joe,
Six slimy aliens appear…”
(Which costs, of course, a lot of dough)–
Where are the games of yesteryear?


Consumer Parent, spare thy purse,
Waste not thy wealth on guns and gear;
Go buy a book—you could do worse—
And dream of games of yesteryear.

Negative Capability and Dogmatic Simplists

From How to Think Like Shakespeare: The Positive Value of Negative Capability by Daniel Honan.

An interesting piece. To my jaundiced eye, it moves from academic blather to a usable concept. I barely understand Keats' initial commentary in a letter.
What quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.
Wikipedia is marginally better on Negative Capability:
Negative capability describes the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomenon free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one's own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was first used by the Romantic poet John Keats to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge.
But later in the article there is a line which I think lies at the heart of the issue:
Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a "thoroughfare for all thoughts." Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.
This is close to a formulation I have been playing with arising from a frustration with what I have taken to calling dogmatic simplists; those that seek to explain something which is clearly beyond our frontier of knowledge despite how interested we might be in it, as well as those who seek to ascribe the products of complex, non-linear, chaotic processes to simple single causes.

For example, we are all intensely interested in being more productive (or at least are interested in the benefits that arise from productivity) and therefore have a strong interest in understanding the means by which currently productive countries became productive. This entails knowledge from multiple fields including history, economics, philosophy, religion, sociology, psychology, etc. We have dozens of case studies to examine and interpret but for which the data is of mixed quality. And regrettably, all these case studies occur with their own unique contexts and historical parameters. However, from these case studies we seek to identify patterns that would allow us to formulate policies and make reliable predictions (If you do A, B, and C, then you can expect outcomes X, Y, and Z). In other words, what are the root causes that allow countries (and individuals) to become productive?

This is, to me, intensely interesting stuff. Sadly though, most our public experts and commenters completely fail to acknowledge either the weaknesses of the data and case studies or the complexities inherent in the processes involved. Everything comes down to simple causes of complex outcomes: All you need are natural resources, or financial resources, or good government, or good institutions, or a future oriented culture or simply a productive culture, or the right technology mix, or the right topographical conditions, or democracy, or the right religion, etc. Each explanation has its ardent advocates and each is right to some small extent. But none are sufficient on their own - it is much more complex than that.

Other examples of dogmatic simplists at work: Climate change is due primarily to CO2, Gender wage differentials are primarily due to discrimination, Poor education results are due primarily to underinvestment in teachers, Poverty is caused by bad luck, Group disparate impact must arise primarily because of prejudice, etc. All of these are plausible elements of the complex truth but it is unlikely any one of them is the single or even primary contributor to the outcome.

Reading through the rest of Honan's essay and the related links I think they are getting at the same conclusion at which I have arrived. That is, to be productive and make better decisions, you have to:
Listen and observe
Seek patterns but not impose them
Acknowledge ambiguity
Practice humility - confidence in a truth does not make it true
Act confidently, mindful of the uncertainty
Celebrate the strengths of fact and reason but recognize their limitations
Remain open to awe
Accept that all Truths are conditional upon the next revealed Truth.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

But no one could definitely say what was true and what was bunk

From The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty, page 54.

Describing the emergence of the scientific method in the field of health.
But no one could definitely say what was true and what was bunk.

One physician had attempted to change that. On May 25, 1747, twenty-two years before Napoleon's birth, an experiment took place on board the Royal Navy warship Salisbury that would change the course of medicine.

The doctor's name was James Lind, and he was a Royal Navy surgeon and a specialist in diseases that affected mariners. Just thirty-one, the Scottish-born doctor had sailed all over the world as a surgeon's mate, watching men die from typhus and scurvy from the west coast of Africa to the ports of Jamaica. He knew that the two maladies killed far more sailors than the king's enemies ever managed to. Lind would do remarkable work in the understanding of both.

Lind's 1747 experiment looked at scurvy. Twelve sailors who had the illness were divided into six groups. The accommodations and diet of all the sailors were identical, but each received a different remedy: one group received cider; one got seawater; another, "elixir of vitriol"; the fifth group, two oranges and a lemon; and the sixth, a mix of spices and barley water. It was the first documented clinical trial in medical history.

"I shall propose nothing dictated merely from theory," wrote Lind. "But shall confirm all by experience and facts, the surest and most unerring guides." This in itself was revolutionary, in an age when so much superstition and ancient theory overlay the world of medicine. When the sailors who received the citrus recovered completely, and the others did not, Lind had proved that orange and lemon juice was the true and universal corrective for the disease. He had created a blind test whose results were irrefutable.

It wasn't the oranges and the lemons that constituted the breakthrough, as using citrus had been one of the folk remedies against scurvy for well over a century. And, in fact, Lind didn't propose that scurvy was a deficiency disease caused by lack of a mineral (vitamin C, as it turned out) contained in the fruit. He thought that moist air blocked the pores in scurvy patients, and that lemon juice helped toxins escape the body through the skin. But he didn't need to know why the cure worked so long as he knew that it did. This is what the blind test proved. He had invented a way of evaluating medical knowledge.

When it came to the other great killer of mariners, typhus, Lind made signal contribution in a 1763 paper. The Royal Navy at the time took anybody for its ranks, often by force: slums, criminal courts, and taverns were swept for new recruits, who often came to the ships infested with lice and bacteria. The surgeon recommended that the newcomers be sent to a receiving ship and quarantined there for a few weeks to see if any diseases revealed themselves. They were given hot baths, and their old clothes were thrown away and a fresh set provided. By the time the men went on board their new ships, the sick had been culled from their ranks.

The British Admiralty didn't implement the typhus-defeating quarantine until 1781 and didn't fully provide an allotment of citrus until the 1790s, but when these measures were implemented piecemeal, the results were astonishing. In the months before the 1795 Battle of Quiberon, Lind instructed that provision ships carrying fresh vegetables and citrus fruits be ferried to the twenty-three ships of the line blockading French Ports. On the day of battle, out of 14,000 men, only about 20 were listed as sick and unfit for duty, an unheard-of number for an eighteenth-century fleet. One of Lind's biographers estimated that his recommendations added the equivalent of six warships to the British fleet that day, in which the British decimated the French. The Royal Navy's policy of blockading ports, so devastating to Napoleon's plans for defeating the English commercially, would have been unthinkable had scurvy or typhus been allowed to ravage its crews.

Taking Lind's warning about noxious air seriously, British captains paid attention to the cleanliness of their ships, regularly airing them out and scouring the bedding and sailors' clothing. The incidence of typhus in the Royal Navy dropped dramatically. Lind remarked that for the first time in history, sailors "enjoy a better state of health upon a watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world."

The navy's procedures proved that a large military institution could keep infectious disease at bay indefinitely. In a sense, typhus had been "cured." But there were many times when the mystery of typhus was believed to be solved; in fact, it was "solved" over and over again, but the insight kept slipping away.

Why didn't Lind's insight hold? Why didn't Dr. Larrey and his colleagues adopt Lind's protocols for preventing typhus? And why, at the very least, didn't they use his idea of the blind test to evaluate different treatments and prevention methods?

Simply put, because the breakthrough Lind ushered in - the idea of an empirical test that measured the effects of disease on all men uniformly - went so radically against the reigning ideas of the time: specificity and miasmism. The blind test entered a different mental and theoretical world than exists today. Medicine was not the uniform place we know, where s discovery in Berlin or California is tested, reviewed, published, put through clinical trials, and then adopted worldwide. Lind couldn't with one stroke realign centuries of though on the humors, on the origins of different fevers and the effects of weather. Medicine was a spooky art, and Lind's insights would need many decades, and further breakthroughs in the areas of disease theory, to change history.

What Dave Is Made Of

H/T Ethan Siegel, Weekend Diversion: Fluoridated Water: Science, Scams and Society

Monday, April 22, 2013

All smell is disease

I am reading The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty, an account of the role typhus played in Napoleon's catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812. We had our critical War of 1812 in which we suffered 2,300 KIA and 15,000 died from other causes over 32 months. Large as that looms in our history, in contrast, on the other side of the globe, Napoleon invaded Russia with an army of some 700,000 men. The six month campaign resulted in some 600,000 French and Russian military deaths and perhaps as many again Russian civilian deaths.

Talty is in places a clunky writer and there is a straining to make typhus THE cause of defeat, rather than simply one (though a critical one) among several contributing factors to this nearly incomprehensible disaster. That said, it is a good read, full of interesting asides and insights.

He does a good job of recalibrating our modern mind, with all its knowledge and assumptions, to the realities of the time. Page 50.
To understand what the Grand Armee's doctors were thinking as they tried to save these dying men, one must understand the complex and often contradictory state of medical thought on disease in the early nineteenth century. The theory of humors developed by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. was still the dominant mode of understanding health and sickness. According to it, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood were perfectly balanced in the healthy person. When diet or routines introduced an excess or a shortage of one of the humors, disease appeared.

But competing theories, superstitions, and straight-out quackery were layered over this belief. Medicine was very much an intuitive art as opposed to a rigorous science, and what treatment one received could vary widely, depending on what school of thought one's physician favored. There was no universal cure for certain diseases. Age, occupation, living situation, physical build, and even temperament were key factors in determining the cause and cure for diseases. In addition, one had to consider the circumstances under which the victim had fallen ill: Was a northwest wind blowing? Was he depressed? Had he been exhausting his vitality by drinking to excess? Each patient was a world unto himself. This was a concept called "specificity."

Specificity was fatal to the idea of common diseases and common treatments. One man's cure was considered useless for the next patient, who had a different set of life factors to consider.

When it came to infectious diseases, there were two working theories: miasma and contagion. Miasma remained the dominant disease theory of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. The influential English doctor Thomas Sydenham championed the idea beginning in the mid-1600s and developed the notion that noxious vapors emerged from the earth's rotting center and infected the air of towns and villages, which were then struck by epidemics. It was dark view of Mother Earth, much different from our own. Odor was a telltale sign of danger to one's health. "All smell is disease," wrote the English sanitary activist Edwin Chadwick.

The theory dissipated through European and American life. In Jane Eyre, the orphan asylum where Jane and her sisters live sits in a forest dell that is a "cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence" and that eventually causes a typhus epidemic that kills a number of the girls. Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" contains perhaps the most palpable description of miasma in modern literature. The twenty-first-century reader might interpret the passage as a gothic premonition of death, but the nineteenth-century one would also see something else - a realistic portrayal of airborne disease:
But the under-surfaces of the huge masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion. "You must not - you shall not behold this!" said I, shuddering, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. ". . . The air is chilling and dangerous to your frame."
The doctors who advocated miasmism weren't only following tradition, they were obeying common sense. Who could believe disease was spread by invisible organisms that somehow floated from body to body, instead of the odors from rotting corpses that one could smell and even taste on the tongue? Which made more sense? The idea of contagion was more radical in its view of a hidden world of germs. The miasma theory fell in easily with centuries of folklore about the dangerousness of swamps and bogs, and it chimed with the evidence of one's own senses. It's no wonder that it proved remarkably resilient.

Contagion - the idea that disease spreads by direct contact or indirect contact - was the father of modern germ theory. Its roots went back to the Muslim statesman and medical thinker Avicenna in the eleventh century. By the nineteenth century, it had many supporters but just as many detractors.

The wise -- as opposed to most of the highly educated

From When Good People Do Bad Things by Dennis Prager.
The wise -- as opposed to most of the highly educated -- know, among many other things, that when you give people something for nothing, you produce ungrateful people; that when you obscure the differences between men and women, you end up with many aimless men and angry women; that when you give children "self-esteem" without their earning it, you produce narcissists who enter adulthood incapable of handling life; that if you do not destroy evil, it will proliferate; and that if you are kind to the cruel, you will cruel to the kind.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Probably by someone well known

From Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast by Tom Wolfe.
While Malcolm Muggeridge was the editor of Punch, it was announced that Khrushchev and Bulganin were coming to England. Muggeridge hit upon the idea of a mock itinerary, a lineup of the most ludicrous places the two paunchy pear-shaped little Soviet leaders could possibly be paraded through during the solemn process of a state visit. Shortly before press time, half the feature had to be scrapped. It coincided exactly with the official itinerary, just released, prompting Muggeridge to observe: We live in an age in which it is no longer possible to be funny. There is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.
He then provides an example from his own work.
I first wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities for Rolling Stone, producing a chapter every two weeks with a gun at my temple. In the third chapter, I introduced one of my main characters, a thirty-two-year old Bronx assistant district attorney named Larry Kramer, sitting in a subway car dressed as my friend had been dressed, his eyes jumping about in a bughouse manner. This was supposed to create unbearable suspense in the readers. What on earth had reduced this otherwise healthy young man to such a pathetic state? This chapter appeared in July of 1984. In an installment scheduled for April of 1985, the readers would learn of his humiliation by a wolfpack, who had taken all his money plus his little district attorney's badge. But it so happened in December of 1984 a young man named Bernhard Goetz found himself in an identical situation on a subway in New York, hemmed in by four youths who were, in fact, from the South Bronx. Far from caving in, he pulled out a .38-calibre revolver and shot all four of them and became one of the most notorious figures in America. Now, how could I, four months later, in April of 1985, proceed with my plan? People would say, This poor fellow Wolfe, he has no imagination. He reads the newspapers, gets these obvious ideas, and then gives us this wimp Kramer, who caves in. So I abandoned the plan, dropped it altogether. The Rolling Stone readers' burning thirst, if any, to know what accounted for Assistant D.A. Kramer's pitiful costumer and alarming facial tics was never slaked.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The number who lived faithfully a hidden life

From George Eliot in Middlemarch.
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Friday, April 19, 2013

It's all in the day's work.

Tommy Atkins is a familiar nickname for the British squaddie, what Americans call a grunt in the military - your front line soldier. Rudyard Kipling drew attention to the poor and inconsistent treatment of the man upon whom all count for defense from foreign arms with his poem Tommy. A poem which still has currency today.

I was in the library helping my son find source books on the arms race preceding World War One and found this account in 1914, The Days of Hope by L. MacDonald.
"The great Duke of Wellington stood on the path which runs round the ramparts of Walmer Castle on a sunny day in July 1843. Near him, standing at attention, was a young Staff Officer of the Adjutant-General's Department. He had just asked a question on a small matter of detail which the War Office thought should, as a matter of courtesy, be referred to the Commander of the Forces. A name typical of the British private soldier was required, for use on the model sheet of the soldier's accounts to show where men should sign.

The Duke stood gazing out to sea while the young officer waited, searching in a long memory stored with recollections for a man who typified the character of Britain's soldiers. He thought back to his first campaign in the Low Countries where he had fought his first action with his old Regiment, the 33rd Foot. When the battle was over and won, Wellesley rode back to where little groups of wounded men were lying on the ground. At the place where the right of his line had been lay the right-hand man of the Grenadier Company. Thomas Atkins. He stood six foot three in his stockinged feet, he had served for twenty years, he could neither read nor write and he was the best man at arms in the Regiment. One of the bandsmen had bound up his head where a sabre had slashed it, he had a bayonet wound in the chest and a bullet through the lungs. He had begged the bearers not to move him, but to let him die in peace. Wellesley looked down on him and the man must have seen his concern. 'It's all right, Sir,' he gasped. 'It's all in the day's work.' They were his last words. The old Duke turned to the waiting Staff Officer. 'Thomas Atkins,' he said.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Truth is not to be sought in the good fortune of any particular conjuncture of time, which is uncertain, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal

From Francis Bacon in Novum Organum
Some dispositions evince an unbounded admiration of antiquity, others eagerly embrace novelty; and but few can preserve the just medium, so as neither to tear up what the ancients have correctly laid down, nor to despise the just innovations of the moderns. But this is very prejudicial to the sciences and philosophy, and, instead of a correct judgment, we have but the factions of the ancients and moderns. Truth is not to be sought in the good fortune of any particular conjuncture of time, which is uncertain, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal. Such factions, therefore, are to be abjured, and the understanding must not allow them to hurry it on to assent.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It was too good to keep to myself

From What baby names say about everything else by Ruth Graham.
Names research suddenly became much, much easier because of one curious dad. In 1997, Michael Shackleford was an employee of the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Baltimore; his wife was pregnant and he was determined to avoid giving the child a common name like his own. With his access to Social Security card data, he wrote a simple program to sort the information by year of birth, gender, and first name. Suddenly he could see every Janet born in 1960. He could see that the number one names in 1990 were Michael and Jessica. He realized this could be important. “I knew that my eyeballs were seeing this list of the most popular baby names nationwide for the first time,” he recalled recently. “It was too good to keep to myself.”

There is no room for caprice, and caprice is the core of man

Letter from Ray Bradbury to Richard Matheson on January 22, 1951. From Out of the Nursery to College, Back to the Nursery by Robert M. Woods. This is Bradbury talking about the context leading to Fahrenheit 451.
One thing I would like to re-emphasize and detail, if ‘The Fireman’ ever goes into book form, is the fact that radio has contributed to our ‘growing a lack of attention’ simply because we tune in, see five minutes of one thing, ten minutes of other [sic], half an hour of this, an hour of that. This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again . . . Also, I want to re-emphasize the fact that we haven’t time to think anymore. The great centrifuge of radio, television, pre-thought-out movies, etc. gives us no time to ‘stop and stare.’ Our lives are getting more scheduled all the time, there is no room for caprice, and caprice is the core of man, or should be the tiny happy nucleus around which his more mundane task can be assembled.”
Interesting in part because it so closely echoes Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death which I am currently reading.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Stricter in their morals and more religious

From What if we all died at forty? by Tyler Cowen.

An interesting question. There are many speculative essays out there justifying some belief or policy or action based on evolutionary psychology. This is a parlor game masquerading as science. Our capacity from our current context to comprehend the reality of a past context is strained and Cowen's question is a good test of that limit.

Some of his answers:
One question is how child-bearing norms will evolve. There will be considerable pressure to have kids at age eighteen or so. (It might be considered unethical to have a child at age thirty-five, although if the fertility rate falls enough the economy might shift heavily into orphanages and this could be considered virtuous nonetheless.) I predict many people would become much stricter in their morals and more religious, and they will have children quite early.

Other people would attempt to maintain a collegiate lifestyle through their death at age forty. There would be a polarization of outcomes and approaches to life. Old age as an equalizer, and as an enforcer of responsible savings behavior, would be gone.

The likelihood of warfare would rise, if only because the sage elderly won’t be around and male hormones will run rampant.

Credit would be harder to come by and the rate of home ownership would fall. The rate of voting turnout will go down, as would the degree of wealth inequality and the amount of innovation. Federal discretionary spending, as a percentage of the budget, would rise.
But it is a doubly interesting question. How your behavior changes might depend on whether you are dealing with the certainty of death at 40 (certainty) or if you are simply dealing with a foreshortened life span (you might still live to seventy but the odds are against it). Are the answers to the two different formulations the same?

If in the future we extend life spans to 150, what would be their future speculations about behavior change when life spans were only 70-80? Alternatively, what will be our beliefs, values, behaviors, and expectations when we live to 150?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance

From Francis Bacon in Novum Organum
The greatest, and, perhaps, radical distinction between different men's dispositions for philosophy and the sciences is this; that some are more vigorous and active in observing the differences of things, others in observing their resemblances. For a steady and acute disposition can fix its thoughts, and dwell upon, and adhere to a point, through all the refinements of differences; but those that are sublime and discursive recognise and compare even the most delicate and general resemblances. Each of them readily falls into excess, by catching either at nice distinctions or shadows of resemblance.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sweden, Socialism and Culture

From The Swedish Model Reassessed: Affluence Despite the Welfare State by Nima Sanandaji.
The Swedish model is often dramatized in the public policy debate, described as either a social democratic utopia or a failed socialist experiment. These views are far from the truth. Sweden is a successful country in terms of low poverty rate and long life expectancy. However, these factors have much to do with Swedish culture that existed already when taxes were still relatively low.

As Milton Friedman has previously noted, the millions of US residents of Swedish descent also have a low poverty rate. As is shown in this report, they combine this with a living standard that is over 50 percent better compared to Swedes living in Sweden. The transformation of Sweden from an impoverished agrarian society to a modern industrialized nation is a rarely mentioned, but quite significant, example of the role of free markets.

One should remember that the golden age of Swedish entrepreneurship, where one successful firm after another was founded in the small country and gained international renown, occurred during a time where taxes and the scope of government were quite limited. Sweden shifted to radicalized social democratic policies in the 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s.

However, this transformation was not successful, as it led to long-term diminished entrepreneurial growth, lagging behind in terms of wealth compared to other industrialized nations, and an erosion of previously strong work and benefit norms.
The move towards high taxes, relatively generous government benefits, and a regulated labor market, is related to the situation in which Swedish society has had difficulty integrating even highly-educated immigrants, and where a fifth of the population of working age are supported by various forms of government handouts.

It is, however, important to remember that Sweden, like other Nordic nations, has compensated for these policies by improving economic liberty in other fields. Some reforms, such as the partial privatization of the mandatory pensions system and voucher systems in schools and health care surpass what has been possible to implement in most developed nations.

Swedish society is not necessarily moving away from the idea of a welfare state, but continuous reforms are implemented towards economic liberty within the scope of welfare. The rise of government has been stopped and even reversed in recent
years. The nation is again returning to the free market policies which served it so well in the past.
Living in Sweden 1970-75, I attended an international school with children from the four corners of the world, with children from developed economies as well as what was then still termed third world economies. I recall a 9th grade debate on Socialism and the Swedish experience and the consensus being that Sweden had made a success of the theories of socialism but in a fashion that could only be achieved in a culture such as Sweden's. Which is much the conclusion that Sanandaji comes to via a much more rigorous and data based route than our junior high school discussion.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Number of books in the home

I am always looking for data that sheds some light on the real outlines of reading: how much do people read, how often, where, what types of reading material, how much do they spend, etc.

One long standing question is how many books are present in the average home. From Falling Behind: New evidence on the black-white achievement gap by Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt. They are looking at reading from the perspective of race achievement gaps but they do have this nugget, referencing data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.
The number of books in the household is a useful proxy for the home environment’s contribution to academic success. Adjusting the test-score data for this factor reduces the gap even more. On average, black students in the sample had 39 children’s books in their home, compared with an average of 93 books among white students. Taking this difference into account cuts the black-white test-score gap to less than a fourth of a standard deviation in math and completely eliminates the gap in reading. The gap between white and Hispanic students also shrinks.
In another report, Non-cognitive Skills and the Gender Disparities in Test Scores and Teacher Assessments: Evidence from Primary School by Christopher M. Cornwell, David B. Mustard, and Jessica Van Parys, also using Early Childhood Longitudinal Study data, they indicate:
# Books in the home
Kindergarten - 81.7
First Grade - 112.36
Second Grade - 135.98
Third Grade - 117.91
but with very large standard deviations. They don't specify, in a fashion that I can identify, whether these are total books or children's books.

In another report by Fryer and Levitt, The Black-White Test Score Gap Through Third Grade, they indicate
Number of Children's Books in the Home

Total, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian
Kindergarten 61.4, 81.4, 32.3, 35.8, 33.8
First Grade 74.6, 102.5, 31.6, 38.8, 40.1
Third Grade 76.8, 103.8, 33.3, 44.9, 43.4
So in total, since this data is all sourced from the same longitudinal study, it is a little confusing as to what the actual numbers are. My basic take-away is that the average home has somewhere between 60 and 120 children's books but that there is substantial variation based on race (and I would suspect even more variation based on class/income). So no solid answers but at least indicative.

Friday, April 12, 2013

This period of intense social crowding was one of great innovation

From Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. Page 162.
During the height of the Ice Age, between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago, modern humans gave up on northern Europe, abandoning what is now Britain, northern France, the Low Countries, Germany, and most of Poland. Small groups may have wandered into these areas during the summers, but they left no traces of their visits. Europeans retreated into the warmer areas around the Pyrenees and the Balkans and north of the Black Sea.

This period of intense social crowding was one of great innovation. Artwork flourished among the dense populations of southern Europe. New technologies were developed, such as spear-throwers that allowed hunters to launch projectiles toward their prey wih great force. Groups seem to have heightened their cultural distinctions from each other, as if they were marking off separate territories for themselves.

Diligence is the mother of good luck

I have over the years come across the following quotation a number of times, always attributed to Thomas Jefferson.
I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.
I like the sentiment and I suspect it masks a profound truth - That the harder you work, the more likely you are to place yourself in the position of taking advantage of auspicious opportunities.

That said though, this just didn't sound like anything I had ever read by Jefferson. Turning to Quote Investigator, it turns out that my sense of something being off was correct.
The saying has been ascribed to Jefferson for a few decades. However, the valuable Thomas Jefferson Monticello website states that there is no evidence to support the attribution [TJGB]:
Neither this statement nor any variations thereof have ever been found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings.
The earliest appearance of this aphorism known to QI is in a 1922 collection titled “Listen to This” by Coleman Cox who composed a large number of sayings. This book was a successor to a collection titled “Take It From Me” by Cox. The copy of “Listen to This” at the HathiTrust repository has gold lettering on the cover stating that it was gift to the industrialist Henry Ford [CCGB]:
I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.
This theme has been reflected in adages for quite a long time. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists the following proverb which it dates to the late 16th century [OXDL]:
Diligence is the mother of good luck.
I like the fake Jefferson quote better but "Diligence is the mother of good luck" will do.

Truth vs. Weight

Interesting. From People in the South are not so fat after all -- and they lie less by Mike Oliver. Not unlike the issues in the 1948 election when surveying by phone vs. direct interview provided such different forecasts of the outcome.
The notion that the South is the fattest comes primarily from a nationwide telephone survey done by the Centers for Disease Control, in which the surveyor asks for height and weight, among other things, Howard said.

That survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), shows the South as the most obese, with Mississippi and Alabama, the number one and two fattest states respectively.

But the UAB researchers found that when people were actually weighed, the numbers didn't add up.

Mississippi was fourth and Alabama was in the middle of the pack, Howard said.

The numbers come from UAB's long-running REGARDS (Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke) study.

"We have this big REGARDS study, and we've shown there is more hypertension, diabetes and stroke in the South so we were thinking the South would have more obesity too," he said.

When the numbers didn't reflect that thinking, REGARDS researchers thought they were wrong.

"Everything said we are not the fattest but scientists are trained to think 'what did we do wrong?' "

But over time, they flipped the thinking realizing maybe they were right and there's a significant "differential misreporting" at work here, Howard said.

By comparing the BRFSS self-reported weight data with the REGARDS scale-weight data, researchers found that most everyone fudges, or underreports, their weight when asked on a telephone.

Turns out that Southerners fudge less, he said.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The lame in the path outstrip the swift who wander from it

From Francis Bacon in Novum Organum
The idols of the theatre are not innate, nor do they introduce themselves secretly into the understanding; but they are manifestly instilled and cherished by the fictions of theories and depraved rules of demonstration. To attempt, however, or undertake their confutation, would not be consistent with our declarations. For, since we neither agree in our principles nor our demonstrations, all argument is out of the question. And it is fortunate that the ancients are left in possession of their honours. We detract nothing from them, seeing our whole doctrine relates only to the path to be pursued. The lame (as they say) in the path outstrip the swift, who wander from it, and it is clear that the very skill and swiftness of him who runs not in the right direction, must increase his aberration.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose - "Since we neither agree in our principles nor our demonstrations, all argument is out of the question."

It is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions

Richard Feynman, quoted in Richard Feynman on How Scientists Can Believe in God by Ross Pomeroy.
I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Science and forecasting

From Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. Page 154.
Science works by proposing explanations and then seeing if they can be demonstrated to be wrong. If the explanations work well in many cases and are not obviously contradicted, they gradually will be accepted. If the explanations forecast patterns not previously noticed, then they will be held with even greater confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

It comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet

From No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent by Kory Stamper.
English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Monday, April 8, 2013

An area of science largely unencumbered by facts

From Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. Page 140.
The origin of language is an area of science largely unencumbered by facts, so hypotheses tend to multiply out of control. This problem is not new. In 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all discussions of the origin of language from its meetings as a a waste of time.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Some academic at Cambridge who sold 2,200 copies

From How Debt Ruins Systems, an interview of Nassim Nicholas Taleb by Nick Gillespie. Taleb has a new book out, Antifragile: Things that Gain with Disorder.
reason: But you’re not going to say that the market is always right, and that 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong?

Taleb: No. My point is that someone who just arrived in a limo does not take lectures on finance from someone who just took the subway. That’s the idea. You can take ideas, maybe, but you don’t take instructions about how to write a book. So if you want to write a book, either take instructions from the Harry Potter lady or take instructions from Seneca, who survived 2,000 years. But definitely not from some academic at Cambridge who sold 2,200 copies.
What makes a system fragile? Taleb argues Centralization, Leverage (unsecured debt), and Unaccountability. I don't disagree. I might put it somewhat differently. What has driven the rise of the West in the past 500 years and what features are shared with the (antifragile) Confucian systems? Many elements but most of them being aspects of Agency (distributed decision-making and accountability), Transparency (access to high quality information and data), and Competition (striving and consequences).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Constraints and innovation

From Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. Page 98.

Again with the economics. In this case, agriculture arises because of space constraints requiring intensification of productivity for survival.
The first people in the world to domesticate plants and animals were the occupants of towns such as Jericho in the western part of the Middle East. But elsewhere other groups of hunter-gatherers also were beginning to experiment with farming. Between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago, agricultural societies sprang up in eastern and southeastern Asia, New Guinea, Africa, Central America, South America, and eastern North America.

The development of agriculture in so many places within a relatively short period has led to much speculation among archaeologists. One hypothesis was that ancient peoples exchanged ideas through some sort of prehistoric grapevine. This speculation was often applied not just to agriculture but to pottery making, iron smelting, and other technologies as well. Usually it was couched in terms of a superior civilization bestowing the fruits of its culture on a benighted people too ignorant to invent anything for themselves.

But the more closely archaeologists looked at these so-called diffusionist theories, the more unrealistic they seemed. No evidence supports the idea that the various centers of agricultural development communicated with one another. Uninhabitable deserts, impassable oceans, and vast distances separated these regions. If widely separated ancient peoples had been in regular communication with each other, human history would have been quite different.

In the case of agriculture, other forces must have caused its independent development in numerous places around the world. The quest to identify these forces has long attracted scholars of a particularly ambitious cast, many of whom have fallen prey to the desire for simple, concise explanations of exceedingly complex events. They have cited, for example, climate change, population fluctuations, or even the appearance of a solitary genius as the trigger for agriculture.

But the origins of agriculture don't resemble a law of nature at all. Throughout the world, people responded in particular ways to particular circumstances, and their responses resemble something that is much more familiar to us - a narrative. These accounts have plots, characters, settings - all the elements of a good story. And each story is different, which is why it is so hard to come up with a single explanation for the origins of agriculture.

But the stories have common themes, even if they play out differently. One such theme is population growth. In many parts of the world, hunter-gatherer societies expanded in numbers right before the advent of agriculture. In previous millennia, if wild plants and animals became scarce, foraging peoples could simply move. But by 12,000 years ago or so, that option became less viable in many places, because moving meant coming into conflict with other people living off the land. Finding ways to use the land more intensively must have seemed the easier option.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Psychology - bad poetry disguised as science

From There Is Only Awe by Rachel Aviv, a book review of Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

I came across this book sometime in the late seventies or early eighties and dipped into it occassionally. I was fascinated by its ideas but knew it was beyond my immediate boundaries of knowledge. This article is a nice retrospective of the author and the book, his only book. I like this line from Jaynes describing the field of psychology as
bad poetry disguised as science

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Self-discipline and the good life

From You Are a Terrible Investor and You Should Stop That by Megan McArdle.

Another list for good living. Or rather for good retiring.

McArdle is following up on another writer's comments about those who try and game the market.
And yet, there is an easy way to avoid this, if you follow three simple rules:

1) Save at least 15% of your income
2) Put the money in index mutual funds
3) Leave it there until you retire.

This is proven, with the power of economic science, to be the best way to retire comfortably. And yet, so few of you do this. When I suggest that you should save more, many of you write me emails implying that this advice is only slightly less ridiculous than suggesting that you move to Cuba and become a tuba player in Xavier Cugat's band.

Then, because you haven't saved enough, you become very anxious about your investments. You can't just sit back and get what the S&P is returning, because that's not nearly enough to retire on! You need to actively manage your funds for higher yield.

Unfortunately, almost none of you are the kind of stock pickers who can do better than the S&P, year in and year out. (Don't feel bad: neither are the professionals. On average, after you account for management fees, actively managed mutual funds do somewhat deliver somewhat lower returns than you could get by just throwing darts at a list of stocks.)

In fact, as Arends points out, many of you are doing even worse than that, because you buy high and sell low. Markets are herd phenomena, and you should never forget that you are part of the herd. When everyone is stampeding into a stock, that's the worst time to buy, because it means that the price is probably too high. But that's when you're going to want to buy, because--momentum! Plus it feels safer when all of your neighbors are doing it.

Biological determinism

From Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. Page 61.

A nice summary of some points countering biological determinism. Not complete but well established.
* When IQ tests were developed in the early twentieth century, people from different parts of Europe had different average scores. At that point, heredetarians used these differences to distinguish among Nordics (northern Europeans, roughly speaking), Alpines (eastern and central Europeans), and Mediterraneans (southern Europeans). Today the descendants of these immigrants score equally well on IQ tests. Yet the same arguments are now applied, through a sort of bracket creep, to African, European and Asian Americans.

* If genetics were the cause of IQ differences, then African Americans who have higher proportions of European genes should score higher on IQ tests than those with fewer European ancestors, but no such effect has been found. The critical difference is not whether a person is genetically African American; it is whether a person has been treated as an African American.

* Throughout the twentieth century, IQ scores have been going up for all groups, according to a variety of tests conducted in many different countries. These rises have occurred much too rapidly to be the product of genetic changes. They must result from better diets, better health care , and better education.

* Many studies show that children who receive good prenatal care and early childhood education on average score higher on IQ tests than children who do not. Since proportionally more African Americans than European Americans live in poverty in the United States, their scores on IQ tests tend to be lower.

* When researchers tracked down the children born to German mothers and U.S. soldiers during the Allied occupation of Germany in World War II, they found no difference in the IQ scores of children with African-American versus European-American fathers.

* Minorities in many countries score lower on IQ tests than do the majorities, regardless of their ancestry. An example is the Buraku of Japan, a minority that is severely discriminated against in housing, education, and employment. Their children typically score ten to fifteen points below other Japanese children on IQ tests. Yet when the Buraku immigrate to other countries, the IQ gap between them and other Japanese gradually vanishes.
I would add the phenomenon of reversion to mean among emigrant children. High IQ immigrants (doctors, engineers, etc.) come to the US and their children typically score higher than the native population. By the third generation though, without ethnic mixing, the grandchildren of emigrants typically have IQs reflective of the local population.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

63% time bound loss of productivity due to multiculturalism

From The Authors of The Org Answer Your Questions by Stephen J. Dubner

The question asked is whether there are productivity related costs to organizations/departments working together who have distinctly different cultures. While this is in the context of business, it does relate to the much larger issue of immigration and assimilation - what is the optimum or maximum degree of cultural variability you can accommodate within a society and still function productively?

A couple of professors conducted a behavioral lab experiment to begin to quantify the nature and magnitude of some of the issues associated with merging two organizations. Their paper is Cultural Conflict and Merger Failure: An Experimental Approach by Roberto A. Weber and Colin F. Camerer.

It is a behavioral lab experiment with all the caveats and skepticism that appropriately go with that.

The findings? Read the article for the details of the experimental structure.
As they repeated the task, the pairs found that IMing produced a shorthand that helped them identify pictures more quickly and accurately. Camerer and Weber give the example of one manager who, in the first round, describes a picture as “The one with three people: two men and one woman. The woman is sitting on the left. They’re all looking at two computers that look like they have some PowerPoint graphs or charts. The two men are wearing ties and the woman has short, blond hair. One guy is pointing at one of the charts.” A few rounds later, the description is abbreviated to “PowerPoint.” It took just a few rounds to get vastly more efficient, and after twenty rounds, pairs were able to reduce their time from over four minutes to less than fifty seconds.

You can think of that shorthand as a kind of culture. Then Camerer and Weber disrupted these nascent cultures by adding a second employee under each manager. Each group then repeated the task with the established pair plus the newbie. Managers were paid based on the average speed of their two charges, so most stuck to their “PowerPoint” shorthands to communicate with their old partners. Why not? It had worked before.

But the old methods didn’t work with the new addition. The new management groups argued about how to identify scenes. Predictably, frustration followed (“I don’t care if they’re wearing ties – just tell me if you see the PowerPoint!”). It wasn’t pretty.

But, after playing a half-dozen times or so, the new groups became accustomed to a merged culture, or shorthand, and most got their times back under a minute.
This ties a lot of interests that I have posted about in the past together. Are there productivity differences resulting from the structure and nature of different languages? (See the post, The English language hasn't got where it is by being pure) What are the costs associated with integrating two cultures? To what degree is culture a mechanism for distilling complex learned experiences into heuristic (thus lowering epistemological costs) instructions for increased productivity (and therefore survival)? What are the productivity returns to increased practice?

The numbers from this experiment are at best indicative but interesting none-the-less. So twenty cycles of practice led to an 80% improvement in productivity (over four minutes down to forty-eight seconds). When merged (two thirds old group and one third new group), they went from forty-eight seconds to 130 seconds for the first round post merger. As with the first firm, they were able with multiple rounds of practice to regain their former productivity. The implication, for business at least, is that there is potentially an exceptionally high loss of productivity at the time of a merger, which given exogenous circumstances, might imperil the enterprise. Anybody who has been through a merger knows this to be true experientially and the fact that the majority of mergers fail provides additional evidence.

Of course the experiment misses all sorts of critical nuances. When you have a merger of complimentary capabilities, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum. Sometimes, even though different, the cultures have enough in common to ease the transition and mitigates the loss of productivity. Not infrequently, a merger of cultures introduces enough variability to strengthen the enterprise (variation leading to learning and adaptation) without threatening it. Ad infinitum.

Still, 63% lost productivity is an interesting benchmark and provides at least some sort of ballpark figure for assessing the likely impact of a merger of two cultures.

When you are speaking of nations rather than businesses, and reality rather than lab experiments, 20 rounds is probably 2 generations and the loss of tactical productivity is paid before the possible strategic benefits become apparent. Hence the drama around multiculturalism and immigration.

In my beginning is my end

From T.S. Eliot in the quartet poem, East Coker.
In my beginning is my end
It seems that the sought chalice of modern classical liberalism is the refutation of the hoary truth of Eliot's line. How can we structure a system in freedom that also frees people as hostages of history?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Not just worthless but dramatically misleading


Rasmussen Reports, a highly reputable polling organization released a report this Easter weekend, 64% Believe Jesus Christ Rose From the Dead. They did the same survey a year ago Easter and had this result back then: 77% Believe Jesus Rose From the Dead. Hands up if you believe that 13% of Christians lost their faith in the foundational precept of their religion in a single year. That out of 225 million Christians, nearly 30 million lost their faith in one year?

If you don't believe that, and I don't, then what is going on with the numbers? Same sample size (1,000), same question, same margin of error.

I can't see any obvious reason to explain this other than that these surveys are dramatically less reliable than we are led to believe and that they are much more sensitive to timing or context or weather or sampling error, etc. With a margin of error of +/- 3%, a statistical fluke of sampling high one year and low the next (i.e. a maximum error range of 6%) would still leave a dramatic drop in faith of 7%. Still well outside the realm of believability.

I am usually deeply skeptical of most surveys anyway but this is a quite remarkable piece of evidence if you wished to make the argument that most surveys are not just worthless but dramatically misleading.