Sunday, August 31, 2014

Revivifying history

I just finished Three Empires On the Nile by Dominic Green which I highly recommend as wonderful narrative history as well as insightful analysis that subtly draws parallels to today's headlines.

From the blurb-
A secular regime is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers. Caught between interventionists at home and fundamentalists abroad, a prime minister flounders as his ministers betray him, alliances fall apart, and a runaway general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the armies of God clash on an ancient river and an accidental empire arises.

This is not the Middle East of the early twenty-first century. It is Africa in the late nineteenth century, when the river Nile became the setting for an extraordinary collision between Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. A human and religious drama, the conflict defined the modern relationship between the West and the Islamic world. The story is not only essential for understanding the modern clash of civilizations but is also a gripping, epic, tragic adventure.

Three Empires on the Nile tells of the rise of the first modern Islamic state and its fateful encounter with the British Empire of Queen Victoria. Ever since the self-proclaimed Islamic messiah known as the Mahdi gathered an army in the Sudan and besieged and captured Khartoum under its British overlord Charles Gordon, the dream of a new caliphate has haunted modern Islamists. Today, Shiite insurgents call themselves the Mahdi Army, and Sudan remains one of the great fault lines of battle between Muslims and Christians, blacks and Arabs. The nineteenth-century origins of it all were even more dramatic and strange than today's headlines.

In the hands of Dominic Green, the story of the Nile's three empires is an epic in the tradition of Kipling, the bard of empire, and Winston Churchill, who fought in the final destruction of the Mahdi's army. It is a sweeping and very modern tale of God and globalization, slavers and strategists, missionaries and messianists. A pro-Western regime collapses from its own corruption, a jihad threatens the global economy, a liberation movement degenerates into a tyrannical cult, military intervention goes wrong, and a temporary occupation lasts for decades. In the rise and fall of empires, we see a parable for our own times and a reminder that, while American military involvement in the Islamic world is the beginning of a new era for America, it is only the latest chapter in an older story for the people of the region.
That's a somewhat adequate description but not quite complete.

There were actually four empires involved - There was the Egyptian Empire consisting of Egypt and its conquests in what are today Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. There was the Ottoman Empire to which Egypt was bound. There was the British Empire, most of whose leaders desperately wished to remain disentangled from Egypt on principled grounds (Prime Minister Gladstone) and/or pragmatic grounds (Prime Minister Salisbury) but who, despite their best efforts, ended up with Egypt as a colony. And then there was the putative empire of the new Caliphate sought by the Mahdi which was intended to encompass the whole world.

There is tragedy all around, missed opportunities, fecklessness, maniacal altruism, determined pursuit of self-interest, ignorance, and naive optimism. There are Turks in Constantinople, the Turkish aristocracy and landholders in Egypt, the local Egyptian landed gentry, the emerging Egyptian reformers of the middle class, the British adventurers, chancers, anti-slavers, mercantilists, Imperial strategists, the Egyptian fellahin, the secularists, the moderate Islamic practitioners, the Dervishes, the millennialists, the Christian do-gooders, the urbanists, the militant Islamists, the innumerable African tribes with ancestral enmities, the slavers, military reformers, etc.

Everyone had an interest, some were well intended, some felt like they were pragmatic realists, and almost nothing went the way anybody hoped.

Reading this is like seeing some of the restored Renaissance paintings after the grime of centuries has been removed. After becoming accustomed to the dark filtering of accumulated crud, you are suddenly seeing a picture as it was once seen in all its depth and vividness. We have become accustomed to two-dimensional cardboard representations of complex history in which bad Europeans do evil things to innocent natives; Men suppress women; Modern economies undermine wonderful traditions; Slavery was a European institution; Technology conquers all; Outcomes were always obvious; etc. But it was never so. Some parts of that are true, many parts not true, and by far the biggest problem is that most of what was happening is left out completely.

It is interesting to contrast this book to the only two other accounts that any in the mainstream reading public are likely to have read regarding the tragedy of Sudan in the 19th century - Winston Churchill's My Early Life and his The River War. Neither of these are inaccurate per se but they are both accounts rendered from a particular perspective. That perspective, vivid and exciting, has a lot more in common with H.G. Henty than a deeply methodical academic study.

Green manages to retain much of the adventure and sense of wonder while rounding out the perspective. He has done an astonishing job of uncovering contemporary accounts by and about the Mahdi, the Egyptian nationalists, the reformers, The Ottomans, the Turkish aristocracy, etc. It is amazing to me because the whole Mahdi movement was essentially a preliterate society, and the nationalists and reformers were often outlawed and spied upon, making written testimonials extremely dangerous and therefore rare.

Likely, Three Empires On the Nile is revelatory to most who have been fed only the modern monocular pablum informed by trends in academia. But for the rest of us, it is a gripping, vivid, well-rounded story of great complexity and tragedy. For all that, it is also incredibly topical. ISIS, Boko Haram, Arab Spring, the Rotherham tragedy, they are all present in Three Empires - different names but the same actions and the same forces. This is a story with roots that are 150 years old and yet is still roiling on with no diminishment and with no clear outcome.

Climate science - We simply aren't there yet.

Two different articles on different subjects but both related to our understanding of global climate change. They illustrate, I think, why there is such a gap between the small, vocal band of self-interested advocates (UN IPCC) and the broader mass of the informed public (meteorologists and everyone else). Advocates like to characterize everyone else as science deniers, knuckle dragging apologists for polluting industrialists. The reality, I think, has always been more complex.

The fundamental challenge is that environment and climate are two knowledge frontiers where we are still discovering fundamental knowledge at a fairly rapid clip. The skeptics, other than the few true knuckle dragging apologists, accept that there is climate change. Climate is a dynamic system and is always changing. Their question is not about whether climate is changing or even whether or to what degree human activities are a material contributor to change. Their question is whether our body of knowledge allows us to make useful and informed decisions. Do our models and the data reconcile with one another (no)?, can our models make usefully accurate forecasts or backcasts (no)? and are we still discovering elements of causation which materially affect our understanding of the dynamics of climate (yes).


From Davy Jones’s heat locker from The Economist.
Over the past few years one of the biggest questions in climate science has been why, since the turn of the century, average surface-air temperatures on Earth have not risen, even though the concentration in the atmosphere of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has continued to go up. This “pause” in global warming has been seized on by those sceptical that humanity needs to act to curb greenhouse-gas emissions or even (in the case of some extreme sceptics) who think that man-made global warming itself is a fantasy. People with a grasp of the law of conservation of energy are, however, sceptical in their turn of these positions and doubt that the pause is such good news. They would rather understand where the missing heat has gone, and why—and thus whether the pause can be expected to continue.

The most likely explanation is that it is hiding in the oceans, which store nine times as much of the sun’s heat as do the atmosphere and land combined. But until this week, descriptions of how the sea might do this have largely come from computer models. Now, thanks to a study published in Science by Chen Xianyao of the Ocean University of China, Qingdao, and Ka-Kit Tung of the University of Washington, Seattle, there are data.
It is too early to know if Dr. Tung and Dr. Chen's results are correct or to what degree they are correct but it hardly matters. They illustrate how primitive is our understanding of the relative influences on climate. There is much, much more to be known.

From Models challenge temperature reconstruction of last 12,000 years by Scott K. Johnson.
Climate records, like tree rings or ice cores, are invaluable archives of past climate, but they each reflect their local conditions. If you really want a global average for some time period, you’re going to have to combine many reliable records from around the world and do your math very carefully.

That’s what a group of researchers aimed to do when (as Ars covered) they used 73 records to calculate a global overview of the last 11,000 years—the warm period after the last ice age that's called the Holocene. The Holocene temperature reconstruction showed a peak about 7,000 years ago, after which the planet slowly cooled off by a little over 0.5 degrees Celsius until that trend abruptly reversed over the last 150 years. That behavior mirrored the change in Northern Hemisphere summer sunlight driven by cycles in Earth’s orbit.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by the University of Wisconsin’s Zhengyu Liu delves into a problem with that pattern—and it’s not what climate models say should have happened.

The researchers used three different global climate models to run a series of computationally intensive simulations spanning the last 21,000 years. The simulations were responding to the orbital change in sunlight and the documented increase in greenhouse gases.

The global average temperature in the models did not peak and decline, however, unlike the Holocene temperature reconstruction. The models show that warming out of the last ice age slowed down markedly around 12,000 years ago, but still continued gradually—temperatures increased by about another 0.5 degrees Celsius before the last couple millennia. That puts the peak of the Holocene reconstruction about 1 degree Celsius higher than the temperatures in the models reach.

So, the models and reconstruction of historic temperatures don't agree. Understanding why requires thinking about that orbital change in a little more detail.
I think the challenge is not that anybody really disagrees that change is happening. Its that no one agrees what the change is or, most importantly, how it is happening.

Even if everyone agreed about the reality and direction of change, we still can't do all that much until we have a reasonably robust knowledge of causation. We simply aren't there yet.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Facts versus convenient narratives

Two different articles within the last week but both exhibiting the dangers of epistemological closure owing to ignorance or ideological commitment.

First there was The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets by Douglas Preston. After years of government obstruction and obfuscation, the eventual application of science to archaeological remains yielded interest new knowledge.
The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”
Then today there is New Study Offers Clues to Swift Arctic Extinction by Joshua A. Kritsch.
Seven hundred years ago, the Dorset people disappeared from the Arctic. The last of the Paleo-Eskimos, the Dorset had dominated eastern Canada and Greenland for centuries, hunting seal and walrus through holes in the ice and practicing shamanistic rituals with ornate carvings and masks.

Then, they promptly ceased to exist. Modern archaeologists have scoured troves of Arctic artifacts, searching for clues to the Dorset’s sudden extinction. Did they assimilate when the Thule, ancestors of the modern Inuit, advanced from the Bering Strait with dog sleds, harpoons and large skin boats? Or did they die out, victims of either an unfortunate epidemic or a violent prehistoric genocide?

Now, scientists have begun to chip away at this and other mysteries of the New World Arctic. In a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers analyzed 169 ancient DNA samples to study the origins and migration patterns of early Arctic cultures. The results point to a single, genetically distinct Paleo-Eskimo population that thrived in isolation for more than 4,000 years, only to vanish in a matter of decades.
What's the connection? A strong dose of anti-scientism when science comes up against preferred ideological positions. The spirit of curiosity and exploration, so manifest in the Age of Enlightenment and Rationalism lives on but it has to perpetually battle against trolls seeking to amass power in a zero-sum game against others.

I saw a similar manifestation out in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde where all the park signs and education documents wanted to emphasize the role of climate change and environmental despoliation as causes of the relative sudden disappearance of Pueblan populations. They couldn't completely ignore violence, conflict and invasion, but they did their best to do so. There seemed such a strong desire to maintain the myth of the peaceful noble savage that it was standing in the way of honest representation of the known information.

The Kritsch article betrays the same desire to make inconvenient facts fit a preferred narrative. Obviously there is still much we don't know about the peopling of the Americas other than that we know our current knowledge is probably materially incomplete. Regardless of our level of certainty, there are still some facts and Kritsch does his best to disguise or subordinate those that are inconvenient. As quoted above, he does acknowledge that the paleo-Eskimo disappearance might be the result of "violent prehistoric genocide" but that is the only place in the nearly 1,000 word article where that possibility is mentioned. The discussion is about inbreeding or climate change as the primary theories for their disappearance even though both theories are weak. There is no discussion about the not improbable possibility of simple displacement by destruction. Animal and human, that is not an infrequent outcome.

What seems to be at the heart of the issue is that we have a popular (at least in academic and political circles) narrative of peaceful native Americans living an Edenic and pacific existence before the intrusion of disruptive and wilfully genocidal Europeans. The science does not support that narrative at all, it is far more nuanced and contradictory and complex with no good guys and no bad guys. But if your objective is current-day advocacy for Native Americans, then a simple morality tale is very convenient.

Were it to become widely known that Native Americans were not simple children of nature without original sin, that they also conquered and killed others who had become before them, then the morality tale for advocacy purposes is shot to pieces. It is a lot easier to complain about subjugation if you did not in turn subjugate.

I don't think stripping away myth from reality is such a bad thing. As long as we relegate people to fairy tale status, we covertly deprive them of agency and the capacity for full humanity. Crimes were committed and tragedies endured. Those are realities that have to be faced and sometimes addressed. But to distill it into a binary of childlike innocence suffering at the hands of evil is a disservice to the facts and to all individuals involved.

Chinese Politburo - Tell me what you are concerned about but leave it up to us to fix

Well this is very interesting. Study of Internet censorship reveals the deepest fears of China's government by Mara Hvistendahl.
Behind China’s vaunted Internet censorship are throngs of specialized police officers, fake commentators, and ever-changing technologies. But China watchers have puzzled over the system’s modus operandi. Some posts are swiftly culled, whereas others on seemingly more sensitive topics are left untouched. In the most revealing study yet of Chinese censorship, researchers describe today how they peered behind the curtain to find out what China’s censors—and presumably the government officials operating behind the scenes—fear most.

When political scientist Gary King of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University and Ph.D. students Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts began examining censorship in China in 2011, many scholars assumed that calling for policy changes, criticizing government leaders, and raising sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 were verboten. To test that assumption, the trio downloaded millions of social media posts from more than 1300 sites between January and July 2011, then selected roughly 127,000 of them to examine in more detail. They watched in real time as posts were taken down. Censorship in China, King says, is “like an elephant tiptoeing around. It leaves big footprints.”

In most cases, censors reacted swiftly, deleting messages within a day of posting. They also seemed to follow a surprising logic. The researchers found that posts on topics they themselves classified as highly sensitive were only slightly more likely than average to be deleted—24% of posts, versus 13% overall. That was “completely unexpected,” King says. They next looked at bursts of posts following significant events. During events with potential for collective action, the vast majority of posts were censored—regardless of whether they supported or criticized the state.
That study, published in American Political Science Review in May 2013, was blind to posts that never went online in the first place because they were snagged in an automated censorship filter. To truly understand what is censored in China, King and colleagues realized, they would need to write their own posts. And that meant creating an unprecedented participatory experiment on China’s blogs, microblogs, and forums—one that “probes much deeper than earlier studies,” says Noah Smith, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was not involved with the study.

Over three 1- to 2-week periods last year, the researchers oversaw assistants in China and the United States who opened 200 user accounts at 100 sites and then authored 1200 unique posts. Some commented on events involving collective action, such as volatile demonstrations over government land grabs in Fujian province. Others responded to events involving no collective action, like a corruption investigation of a provincial vice governor. For each event, the assistants authored both pro- and antigovernment posts. Posts created by the team advocating collective action were between 20% and 40% more likely to be censored than were posts not advocating it, the team reports online today in Science. Posts critical of the government, on the other hand, were not significantly more likely to be censored than supportive posts—even when they called out leaders by name. “Criticisms of the state are quite useful for the government in identifying public sentiment, whereas the spread of collective action is potentially very damaging,” Roberts explains.
I love this. I spend a lot of time carping and complaining about poorly designed experimental work generating cognitive pollution. This is a delightful example of smart work adjusting to its own weaknesses to yield useful information.

The upshot is that the government (local or central) is much more concerned about efforts at collective action than they are about criticism per se. Indeed, I am guessing that they are being quite smart about not just using criticisms to identify "public sentiment" but probably also using such criticism to shape the government agenda. The increasing focus and public demonstrations of punishment for corruption are incompatible with individual elite members but are wholly compatible with a strategic desire to maintain elite power.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The class blindness of the clerisy

What exactly is the root error in this argument made in Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? by Nicholas Kristof that concludes that
racial stereotyping remains ubiquitous, and that the challenge is not a small number of twisted white supremacists but something infinitely more subtle and complex: People who believe in equality but who act in ways that perpetuate bias and inequality.
The bulk of the article is a dog's breakfast of assorted sociology/psychology studies without providing the necessary context that most sociology/psychology studies are withdrawn or cannot be replicated. The problem is especially acute in the field of bias research where 70% of findings among major papers cannot be reproduced.

Kristof is eager to find that everyone is influenced by stereotypes, that those stereotypes influence people's actions and that those actions have disproportionately negative consequences on particular populations. All true up to a point but not true in the way Kristof is trying to get to.

What is stereotyping? Stereotyping - Expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual. Stereotypes are a cognitive solution to the empirically inescapable truth that we do not know everything about everything and everybody. In the absence of detailed specific knowledge, we substitute averages and other proxies such as past experience. Dog bit you once? You are probably instinctively hesitant of all strange dogs for some period afterwards without knowing anything about the particular dog.

Some stereotypes are well founded on averages, some are inadequately founded on unrepresentative experiences. It doesn't matter how they originate, the mind conjures them with the scraps of epistemological evidence it has and then refines the rules as it goes along. Are stereotypes unfair? Certainly. Are they avoidable? No. They are a necessary function in the context of our limitations. All you can do is be conscious of them and modify them as evidence accumulates for or against a given stereotype and to avoid stereotypes completely when evidence about the individual is readily available.

Stereotyping has nothing in particular to do with race. It is something we do about everything about which we know too little. Last time you came over to Aunt Mae's she gave you some freshly baked bread which was horrendously salty. She may or may not be a terrible baker but if that one loaf (versus all her baked goods) is all you you have to go on, then that is the template you have to work with.

Kristof is eager to look down on everyone else with their noxious sotto voce stereotypes and biases without recognizing that he has committed the Fundamental Attribution Error - The tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. Far easier to look down one's moral nose at the shortfalls of others than to understand that the absence of knowledge is the source of the stereotype. He does violence to common sense and logic in his pursuit of moral certitude and purity.

You are asleep in your home. You wake and hear someone knocking around downstairs. The first stereotype is that there is someone up to no good. Ockham's Razor prevails. There are all sorts of alternate scenarios with putatively innocent causes. But absent any other information than knowing that someone is where they shouldn't be, it is not unreasonable to assume that that unexpected guest is less than well-intended.

Kristof is one of those flawed pundits who have created a world where everyone earns a couple hundred thousand dollars, has never had a run in with the law, is well educated, never overindulges in the grape, or makes mistakes. In that world, and it does exist (selectively) the stereotypes that exist can afford to be ignored because there are few consequences. You wake to the noise and you know it can't be someone because your $100/month alarm system is turned on. You don't have to worry your sheltered head. For others, that is not the case.

The refusal to recognize that stereotypes are a coping mechanism in a world of incomplete information where decisions can be both momentous and need to be made near instantaneously is a huge class issue for the clerisy and they muddy the waters by ignoring it in their ever continuing efforts to cultivate moral rectitude.

Friend - someone who would help you move a body

From Is it really true that “three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends”? by Eugene Volokh. Volokh is dissecting the faulty mathematics underpinning an absurd claim, "three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends". Not only is the methodology flawed in the underlying study, and not only has the author of the article then also misinterpreted the already faulty conclusions. As if that were not bad enough, there is a complete failure to define what constitutes a friend. Given residential assortation, a fundamental result of people's freedom to choose, I do suspect that there are significant skews on different criteria for any particular population. However, this study, as Volokh demonstrates, does not support that conclusion.

Volokh's article is a reasonably good skewering of cognitive pollution. The real value is in the comments where one commenter clarifies the importance of definitions, particularly the definition of "friend".
Unless you can nail down the definition of "friend", there's nothing to discuss.

English is particularly poor in single words describing relationships between people. I tend to reserve the word "friend" for "would help you move a body" relationships. My wife will use "friend" to describe someone she's spoken to twice and doesn't know the full name of.

He's taking the slow train

An interesting example of pseudoscience and epistemological closure. As usual in the field of Psychology. From How Do Liberal and Conservative Attitudes About Obedience to Authority Differ? The Surprising Result of My Study by Jeremy Frimer.
As far as I was concerned, bible-thumping social conservatives were like obedient robots. When Uncle Sam called them to arms, heels clicked and hands met temples. When the preacher demanded chastity, zippers ascended toward belt-buckles. When the boss told them to fire an employee, conservatives reached for a pink slip. Social conservatives asked no questions, even when the command was arbitrary or the cause indecent.

The way I saw it, this slavish obedience to authority and tradition on the part of conservatives was the true source of the culture war between liberals and conservatives over foreign war, abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and racial inequality. They way I saw it, conservatives clung to old, near-sighted ways of thinking and fell in line with the dictates of the "man in charge." If only conservatives would think for themselves -- like liberals do -- the war would be over and we could get on with life, governance, and progress. Or so I thought.
Frimer is rather heavy handedly setting himself up for praise for abandoning a gross stereotype that had no foundation.

Without providing any of the details of his experiment (probably meaning that it lacks scientific rigor), Frimer reports that he and his team discovered that both liberals and conservatives are equally obedient to authorities that they view as legitimate. So obedience to authority is a function of legitimacy rather than an independent trait.

What is missing is any sort of exploration of all sorts of other attendant issues. Some people will obey authority on a tactical basis in order to undermine it on strategic basis (or vice versa). Some people obey authority, not because they like authority, or view the authority as legitimate, but because they believe it is in their own self-interest. And on and on. Surviving most your professional life on a profoundly shallow and objectively incorrect stereotype would seem to disqualify one from continuing long in the profession. But that's the beauty of the university. You don't have be either right or useful to be employed.

This faux confessional approach to science grates. The contrast to Jonathan Haidt's work is marked.

I have spoken of Haidt's experimental work in which he discovered to his surprise that conservatives and liberals were equally committed to fairness, the difference being that conservatives define fairness as rule of law (equal application of the law to everyone) whereas liberals tend to define fairness as equality of outcomes. Finding a useful distinction and clarification is quite a useful advance (Haidt). Finding that your personal stereotypes and prejudices were unfounded is less useful.

Frimer may be travelling the same path to Damascus as Haidt but he's taking the slow train.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

62% of men, for example, said that only the winning players should be awarded trophies

As reported in Should Only Winners Get Trophies? by Alex Tabarrok.

A poll asked: "Do you think all kids who play sports should receive a trophy for their participation, or should only the winning players be awarded trophies?"

You can see right off the bat an unexamined assumption that likely will skew the results: "Do you think winning players are rewarded with trophies on a fair basis?"

With that caveat, the results:
Overall, an estimated 57% Americans said that only the winning players should be awarded trophies but there were big differences according to gender, race, politics, education and income. 62% of men, for example, said that only the winning players should be awarded trophies compared to 52% of women. These results are consistent with experiments in which women tend to shy away from competition (perhaps with long-run consequences in the workforce). Whites opt for trophies to the winners-only at 63% compared to African Americans at just 44% and Hispanics at 39%. A whopping 80% of libertarians say that trophies should go only to the winners compared to conservatives at 63% and liberals and progressives both at 53%. More educated respondents were more likely to opt for trophies for only the winners. Trophies for the winners also increased strongly in income which could be because people with high income feel that they are winners or perhaps because people with high incomes are the types of people who enjoy competition.
Certainly intriguing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

They told me it was all about patriarchy and now I find out its about hierarchy.

From From Assortative to Ashortative Coupling: Men's Height, Height Heterogamy, and Relationship Dynamics in the United States by Abigail Weitzman and Dalton Conley.
Drawing on two different cohorts from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the authors show that (1) height-coupling norms have changed little over the last three decades, (2) short, average, and tall men’s spouses are qualitatively different from one another (3) short men marry and divorce at lower rates than others and (4) both men’s height relative to other men and their height relative to their spouse are related to the within-couple distribution of household labor and earnings. These findings depict an enduring height hierarchy among men on in the spousal marriage market. Further, they indicate that at least one physical characteristic commonly associated with physical attraction influences the formation, functioning, and stability of longer-term relationships.
Emphasis added.

They told me it was all about patriarchy and now I find out its about hierarchy.

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States

Two separate reports out of Ferguson, Missouri, lending credence to an emerging concern I have had over the past couple or three years: the corrupted role of local government and government unions in the creation and maintenance of citizen disempowerment and poverty.

I posted about the role of government employee unions as barriers to responding to community interests.

Then there is this horrifying account of the role local government judicial system plays in destabilizing and bankrupting local families through court related fees, Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison by Alex Tabarrok.
Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees….Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned. Unpaid criminal justice debt also results in damaged credit reports and reduced housing and employment prospects. Furthermore, failure to pay fees can mean a violation of probation and parole terms which makes an individual ineligible for Federal programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds and Social Security Income for the elderly and disabled.
It is worth noting that this is a grotesquely significant class issue. If you are professional and/or wealthy enough, you can buy your way out of tickets, points, and inconvenience. Not by bundles of cash slipped under the table but right out there in the open through the municipal code. The local government is consciously choosing to financially exploit the wealthy, subjugate the poor and simultaneously undermine the rule of law. Quite a trifecta.

Then there is this report on the local corruption/travesty/mismanagement in Atlanta. A range of interest groups, urban planners, big businesses got together a few years ago and decided that Atlanta had the opportunity to create a network of connected bike trails by converting abandoned rail lines. The project is known as the Beltline. As often happens with such projects, there was a lot of excitement (who wouldn't be if you are government insider or contractor with all that money dangling around), a lot of happy talk and a lot of discussion about a wide range of benefits and no discussion of costs.

There was no conceivable business case for the multi-hundreds of million dollar project. Not wanting to burden an already overloaded city budget, the city decided to borrow the money from the Atlanta Public School School system on the theory that over the decades, the new trails would improve real estate values which would then improve tax revenue to the city and the APS. The first payments have come due and the city has failed to repay APS for the contracted instalments on the loaned money. The reason? It would be hard on the budget. They're not even pretending that there is any contractual dispute. It comes down to a simple power play against APS and the residents of the city on behalf of the big donor contractors: "We don't have the money in the existing budget so we won't pay it back to the schools".

Again, perfectly legal corruption that harms the citizens and benefits the plutocracy. No wonder the Tea Party is such a force and why trust in local (and federal) government is so low. The long echoing cry "Clean up City Hall" is alive and well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mutualistic cooperation

Early days in the research but intriguing in its implications. From Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative by Avital Andrews.
If you know that someone knows something that you also know, does that make you more likely to cooperate with them? A new study out of Harvard suggests the answer is yes.

Social psychology has plenty of studies that examine altruism, but there hasn’t been much research that looks into its obscure cousin, “mutualistic cooperation”—that is, when people cooperate to benefit each other and themselves.


The resulting study, published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that when people have common knowledge, they’re much likelier to act in each others’ best interest.

“Because it may be costly to engage in a coordinated activity when no one else does so, attempts to coordinate can be risky when it is unclear what other people will do,” the paper explains. “If one protester shows up he gets shot, but if a million show up they may send the dictator packing"
I find this suggestive on two fronts.

In economics, there is the concept of Transaction Costs, "a cost incurred in making an economic exchange." When you buy a $100,000 house, your total cost is not $100,000. There is the time you spent searching for the home. There are the agent fees, the inspection fees, mortgage costs, insurance costs, etc. which can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of the transaction. You might pay $15,000 all up in order to buy the $100,000 home. That is not insignificant. Transaction costs are a material, though sometimes necessary, drag on an economy. The more you can lower transaction costs, the more activity you get.

There is something very similar going on in decision-making. You might call it epistemological transaction costs.

If you and I and the rest of the team are working off of a pool of common knowledge, I can better anticipate what decision you are going to make and can better prepare for efficient discussions. I can materially lower the epistemological transaction costs. Now there is a counter-issue. Uniformity of knowledge also tends to reduce the diversity of knowledge, i.e. the capacity to subject a decision to rigorous review from multiple perspectives. So there is always a dynamic tension going on between the efficiency that comes from lower epistemological transaction costs (uniform knowledge) and the longer term effectiveness that arises from more diverse knowledge.

This ties in with the central argument E.D. Hirsch was making back in the mid-1980s with his classic, Cultural Literacy. There is some core body of knowledge, without which it becomes difficult to function effectively and equally with others who share that knowledge. Hirsch was approaching the issue substantially from a social justice perspective. If we can figure out what the common core of knowledge is to function as an equal participant, we can begin to eliminate some of the inequalities that exist.

Cultural Literacy is the informing thought behind the educational effort known as Common Core.

Multiculturalism and Cultural Literacy (Common Core) can appear to be in conflict with one another but they are the ying and yang of a dynamic epistemological system. You need at least some diversity of knowledge, experience, and behavior for the system to evolve but you also need some common base of shared knowledge to facilitate trust and easy decision-making. It is not an either-or issue so much as a golden mean issue (where the mean is always shifting based on exogenous circumstances.)

Where do we get these people?

This is pretty unbelievable. Government to Track ‘False, Misleading’ Ideas on Twitter by Jon Gabriel.
The federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track “misinformation” and hate speech on Twitter.

The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.

The “Truthy” database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.”
One G-man’s “social pollution” is another free man’s First Amendment right. The very term sounds like something out of a 1920s Italian fascist tract. And why is the federal government even deciding which ideas are “false and misleading,” let alone tracking them?

According to the project’s grant, the service “could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”
Chillingly Orwellian. And quintessentially bureaucratic. Have we indeed educated a population that fails to see the oxymoron of restricting false and misleading ideas in order to preserve open debate? Of course, this is from the same great institutional mind that gave us "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Is this misreporting by a conservative news site? Perhaps. But going to the links, it doesn't seem so. You can sort of see how this transitioned from a really intriguing idea to a really Orwellian one.
The project also seeks to discover why certain Internet memes go viral and others do not.
That's an interesting idea to research. But then seeking to utilize that knowledge on behalf of the government to control the political conversation? Time to bring back tar and feathering. I hope that outrage and mockery will put this particular genie back in the bottle.

As a side note - pretty witty conversation in the comments section including:
Frank Soto
NSF reading 1984:

“So do you think we could make this work?”

John Davey
Did they lift this thought police concept whole cloth from the end of 1982′s Pink Floyd The Wall?
♫There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me♫

To paraphrase: The “dark night of fascism is always descending on the Republicans and yet lands only in the Democratic Party.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance

From Sherman in Gaza by Victor Davis Hanson. Hanson is one of those writers (like Peter Green) who bring a deep knowledge of history to their perspective of modern day events. Past is not always prologue and sometimes what appear to be historical parallels turn out not to be less than perfect analogies. You have to argue closely to establish the foundation that some historical event will actually shed light on the present.

Which Hanson does. Hanson is also one of those writers who attract a pretty high quality of commenter. There is usually nearly as much to be learned from the additional information and arguments among the commenters as there is from the original article.

In this article, Hanson draws a parallel between Sherman's campaign in the South at the end of the Civil War and the actions taken by the Israeli Defense Forces.
William Tecumseh Sherman 150 years ago took Atlanta before heading out on his infamous March to the Sea to make Georgia “howl.” He remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood figures in American military history. Sherman was an attritionist, not an annihilationist — a strategist who believed in attacking the sources that fuel and field an army rather than butting heads against the army itself. To review his career is to shed light on why the Israeli Defense Forces were both effective in Gaza and hated even more for being so effective.

Much of the South has hated William Tecumseh Sherman for over a century and a half, but not because his huge army killed thousands of young Confederate soldiers (it did not). Grant did that well enough in the horrific summer of 1864 outside Richmond. Rather, Sherman humiliated the plantationist class by staging three long marches during the last twelve months of the Civil War — from Tennessee to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Savannah, and from Savannah up through the Carolinas. In each of these brilliantly conducted invasions, Sherman, with a few notable exceptions, sought to avoid direct fighting with Confederate forces, either outflanking opposing armies that popped up in his way, or entrenching and letting aggressors wear themselves out against his fortified lines. He did enormous material damage, as he boasted that his enemies could do nothing to impede his progress — humiliation being central to his mission.
Instead of fighting pitched battles, Sherman was interested in three larger strategic agendas. War in his mind was not a struggle between militaries so much as between the willpower of entire peoples, distant though they be from the battlefield. One chief aim was iconic. Sherman sought to capture cities or traverse holy ground that might offer his forces symbolic lessons that transcended even strategic considerations. He wanted to capture the important rail center of Atlanta before the November 1864 election and thereby ensure that the war would continue under a reelected Lincoln rather than be negotiated into a meaningless armistice by George McClellan. By taking the South’s second-most-important city, Sherman reminded the Union that the northern strategy was working and that Lincoln, as the architect of it, deserved support.


Sherman envisioned his wave of unapologetic ruin as dividing the populace and sowing dissension, and thus encouraging tax delinquency, desertion at the front, and loss of confidence among the elite. In all of these aims, he was largely successful.


Sherman’s rhetoric was bellicose, indeed uncouth — even as he avoided killing as many southerners as he could. He left civilians as mad at their own leaders as at him. For all that and more, he remains a “terrorist,” while the bloodbaths at Cold Harbor and the Crater are not considered barbaric — and just as the world hates what the IDF did in Gaza far more than the abject butchery of the Islamic State, which at the same time was spreading savagery throughout Syria and Iraq, or than the Russians’ indiscriminate killing in Ukraine, or than what passes for an average day in the Congo.

Sherman got under our skin, and so does the IDF. Today we call not losing very many soldiers “disproportionate” warfare, and leaving an enemy’s territory a mess and yet without thousands of casualties “terrorism.” The lectures from the IDF about the cynical culpability of Hamas make the world as livid as did Sherman’s sermonizing about the cowardly pretensions of the plantationist class.

We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance, especially when they humiliate rather than kill us — and teach us the lesson that the louder and more bellicose often prove the more craven and weak.
I suspect that last observation, "We tend to hate most deeply in war those who despoil us of our romance", informs some of the bitterness in many of our political debates. In an increasingly open world with ready and constant access to information, the pretensions of any advocate become harder and harder to maintain. Without a logical or evidentiary leg to stand on, advocates more and more resort to oppo research, ad hominem attacks, deception, and misdirection.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Diversity and shaped perception

An interesting couple of experiments reported in Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder by Bettina Chang.
Is a city council with five white members and one black member diverse? Considering the current debates on racial representation in politics and policing in Ferguson, Missouri, it’s a sensitive question.

The answer, researchers find, depends not only on if you are white or a minority race, but which minority race you belong to.


In other words, if a team did not contain at least one member of their own racial group, the participants considered it less racially diverse. This “in-group representation effect” was stronger for blacks than for Asian Americans.
In business circles, there is, in general, a far more sophisticated understanding and investment in diversity than in academic circles, I presume because there are real world consequences to businesses. Diversity in the business community is better understood to be diversity of knowledge, behaviors and experience rather than the academic interpretation of diversity as racial or gender mix.

That's not to say that most big businesses don't go through the motions of diversity displays in the academic terms, but it is usually "diversity" for marketing and brand building purposes rather than diversity for making better decisions and better outcomes.

Academics have been very reluctant to explore whether there is evidence to support their contention that racial and gender diversity actually yield better decisions and outcomes. The evidence is decidedly mixed, principally because the flow of causation is not established. Most big successful growing companies start out non-diverse and as they grow and marketing and brand become more important, they invest in the appearances of diversity without the core decision-making process participants becoming more diverse. Consequently, because the two events are correlated (growth and increasing diversity) it is usually assumed without evidence that the latter causes the former.

This weakness in argument is by no means confined to the issue of diversity. It has a long and broad history. Tom Peters' longstanding bestseller of the mid 1980s, In Search of Excellence, had this same issue of unvalidated directionality of causation. They looked at dozens of successful companies and then identified eight attributes they had substantially in common: bias for action, staying close to the customer, mix of autonomy and entrepreneurship, people based productivity, hands on management, value driven, strategically focused, lean staff, and balanced loose-tight properties (i.e. maintaining a dynamic balance between centralized/decentralized organization). The assumption was that these eight practices caused the company's success. The subsequent bankruptcy, scandals and acquisition of many of these companies by others made it somewhat clearer that the causation of success was different than the observed attributes. In other words, some of the observed attributes were the baubles of success, not the cause of it.

While there is a dearth of research on whether and to what degree theoretical diversity drives improvement in outcomes, this new research begins to scratch away at some of the host of issues which plague the field. In this particular case, it addresses the issue of perceived diversity. Perhaps this is marginally related to the issue I have posted about regarding the lambasting of tech companies for lack of racial and gender diversity when in fact less than 30% of their employees are white males. The accusation of lack of diversity can only be made if you conflate Asians with Whites which seems an extreme form of shaped perception but perhaps that is it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Interesting is not the same thing as useful

From the unfailingly interesting Language Log blog, THE by Mark Liberman.
The post in question is "Reading Macroanalysis 4: On the matter of 'the'", New Savanna 8/13/2014, and the "detail" in question is a cited difference in the frequency of the word the between a collection of of 19th century British novels and a comparable collection of 19th-century American novels:
Chapter 7, “Nationality” is pretty straightforward. I don’t have much to say about it except for a puzzle that Jockers presents at the beginning. He points out that, because British and American writers have different practices concerning the word the, that word is about 5 percent of the word tokens in his corpus of 19th Century British novels, while it is about 6 percent of the tokens in the American novels.
The discussion is interesting in and of itself but I think it also serves as an example of a larger issue. The first, and often quite challenging, question is whether the claim of a 20% surfeit of the usage among American writers is accurate. Is the statement really true? A lot of time and intellectual effort can be spent validating of refuting a claimed "fact".

This is followed in turn by a generation of hypotheses seeking to explain what is causing the statement to be true. All that is perfectly conforming to the scientific method and part of the process by which the boundaries of knowledge are expanded.

The interesting question that usually receives relatively little attention is some form of "So what?" Is it relevant? Is it material? Does it matter?

This is brought home in the final paragraph where Liberman is still trying to figure why there is the different usage rate of the. He introduces other new information.
Thus part of the reason for the somewhat more frequent use of THE by male speakers in the Fisher transcripts is probably the somewhat more frequent use by female speakers of e.g. possessive pronouns:
         Males       Females
my      0.461%      0.650%
your    0.211%      0.215%
her      0.062%      0.113%
his       0.058%      0.070%
our      0.079%      0.105%
their     0.132%      0.145%
TOTAL 1.00%        1.30%
Women use possessive pronoun "my" 41% more often than men do. Fascinating. But does it mean anything?

It is not enough to know if something is true or not. You have to know whether it is useful as well.

It is great to be able to spend time speculatively trying to determine cause and effect and significance. Great discoveries almost by definition arise from looking at something in a new way or with greater intensity than it has been before. But you don't know until the outcome whether the time invested in exploration actually will yield something useful.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Where is the problem if people are being represented in the fashion they have chosen?

A very substantive article with some disturbing implicit questions; Is segregation the problem in Ferguson? by Jonathan Rodden.

Rodden is dealing with the immediate issues arising from the riots in Fergusson, Missouri but his research has significant implications. His first argument is a complete demolition of the hypothesis that there are riots in Fergusson because it is so segregated. In fact, as Rodden makes clear, it is one of the most integrated communities in the US.
While most of St. Louis County’s residents live in municipalities that are either homogeneous or internally segregated or both, Ferguson and its North County neighbors stand out for their relative heterogeneity and internal desegregation. Moreover, the income gap between blacks and whites is smaller in these municipalities than elsewhere.
Racial segregation and income inequality have been favored explanations among the clerissy for any societal woes. From Rodden's evidence, it appears that there is little causative relationship. He notes that:
Racial segregation is declining rapidly in the United States, and North St. Louis County is ground zero. For those who see value in the preservation of sustainable multiracial neighborhoods, the low-slung middle-class suburban houses of Ferguson and Florissant might be as good as it gets in the United States.
He offers an alternate explanation.
The immediate problem in Ferguson is neither residential segregation nor its demise. Rather, as many have pointed out, it is that the racial integration of the community has not been reflected in the municipal government and police force, whose racial composition still reflects the status quo of the 1980s.
At one level that makes a sort of sense. On the other hand, I wrestle with the reality that elections happen every two or four years. If there were issues, you would have expected, absent some blatant gerrymandering, for political power to have shifted. The residents of Fergusson have the government that they elected. How is that a problem?

The really startling observation is about why and how entrenched power structures prove unresponsive to demographic change.
Recent research by political scientists has shown that small but well-organized interest groups, such as unionized teachers and municipal workers, benefit handsomely from low-turnout off-cycle elections. Historically, off-cycle elections have been a favored strategy of established ethnic groups in American cities who wished to keep immigrants and minorities out of power. In North St. Louis County, the most organized groups are white homeowners who have been in the same neighborhood since the 1970s, along with police officers and municipal employees who benefit from the status quo, and they have been able to dominate local elections.
Essentially Rodden is saying that unionized government workers (teachers, municipal workers, and police officers) are the mechanism which prevents local government from being responsive to residents. This is a claim long made by conservatives and it is surprising to find it so blatantly made and supported in an MSM organ such as the Washington Post.

The implied observation that is not made explicit is that teacher, municipal worker, and police unions, which are overwhelmingly affiliated with the Democrat Party are the cause of the power imbalance in Fergusson (and elsewhere).

I accept Rodden's argument to some degree. I find it likely that there are entrenched interests and in a small municipality such as Fergusson, the various unions are likely a material, if not deciding, factor. I still can't work my way past the fact that there have been many elections since Fergusson became majority minority. Where is the problem if people are being represented in the fashion they have chosen?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart

From Liberal Education and Responsibility by Leo Strauss
Certainly, there are some rules of thumb. Almost every year I meet once with the older students of my department in order to discuss with them how to teach political theory in college. Once on such an occasion a student asked me whether I could not give him a general rule regarding teaching. I replied: "Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart." I meant by this: do not have too high an opinion of your importance, and have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Most started life as legitimate complaints

From The Persistence of Ideology by Theodore Dalrymple. A very informed and closely argued essay. Well worth a read.
At the end of his essay, however, Fukuyama—more concerned to understand the world than to change it, by contrast with Marx—implicitly raised the question of the role of ideology in the world’s moral economy. With no ideological struggles to occupy their minds, what will intellectuals have to do or think about? Virtually by definition, they like to address themselves to large and general questions, not small and particular ones: as Isaiah Berlin would say, by temperament, they are hedgehogs, who know one large thing, not foxes, who know many small things.


As it turned out, of course, we did not have long (let alone centuries) to suffer existential boredom. Our dogmatic slumbers—to use Kant’s phrase for the philosophic state from which reading David Hume roused him—had barely begun when a group of young fanatics flew commercial airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, thus demonstrating that pronouncements of the death of both ideology and history were somewhat premature.

In truth, we should have known it, or at least guessed it, without needing to be reminded. Fukuyama’s concluding sentences contain a hint of the psychological function that ideology plays. It is not just disgruntlement with the state of the world that stimulates the development and adoption of ideologies. After all, disgruntlement with society there has always been and always will be. Dissatisfaction is the permanent state of mankind, at least of civilized mankind. Not every dissatisfied man is an ideologist, however: for if he were, there would hardly be anyone who was not. Yet ideology, at least as a mass phenomenon, is a comparatively recent development in human history.

Who, then, are ideologists? They are people needy of purpose in life, not in a mundane sense (earning enough to eat or to pay the mortgage, for example) but in the sense of transcendence of the personal, of reassurance that there is something more to existence than existence itself. The desire for transcendence does not occur to many people struggling for a livelihood. Avoiding material failure gives quite sufficient meaning to their lives. By contrast, ideologists have few fears about finding their daily bread. Their difficulty with life is less concrete. Their security gives them the leisure, their education the need, and no doubt their temperament the inclination, to find something above and beyond the flux of daily life.


Benda meant something much wider by it, though support for Communism would have come under his rubric: the increasing tendency of intellectuals to pursue lines of thought not for the sake of truth, or for guiding humanity sub specie aeternitatis, but for the sake of attaining power by adopting, justifying, and manipulating the current political passions of sections of humanity, whether national, racial, religious, or economic. The political passions that Benda most feared when he wrote his book were nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism, which then had plenty of intellectual apologists, and which indeed soon proved cataclysmic in their effects; but really he was defending the autonomy of intellectual and artistic life from political imperatives.


Ideological thinking is not confined to the Islamists in our midst. The need for a simplifying lens that can screen out the intractabilities of life, and of our own lives in particular, springs eternal; and with the demise of Marxism in the West, at least in its most economistic form, a variety of substitute ideologies have arisen from which the disgruntled may choose.

Most started life as legitimate complaints, but as political reforms dealt with reasonable demands, the demands transformed themselves into ideologies, thus illustrating a fact of human psychology: rage is not always proportionate to its occasion but can be a powerful reward in itself. Feminists continued to see every human problem as a manifestation of patriarchy, civil rights activists as a manifestation of racism, homosexual-rights activists as a manifestation of homophobia, anti-globalists as a manifestation of globalization, and radical libertarians as a manifestation of state regulation.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

More choice versus better choice

From Facts about food by Tyler Cowen.
Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”
I love it when people measure things and turn up unexpected relationships.

In this instance, I am particularly intrigued by the trade-off implied in terms of choices. Making the personal choice versus choosing to let the chef make the choice. You technically have less freedom in the second scenario but by essentially outsourcing the decision to an experienced expert, perhaps the utility of reduced choice is more than compensated for by better choices.

Vacations, we don't need no stinking vacations.

From The decline of the week-long vacation (America fact of the day) by Tyler Cowen.
Nine million Americans took a week off in July 1976, the peak month each year for summer travel. Yet in July 2014, just seven million did. Keeping in mind that 60 million more Americans have jobs today than in 1976, that adds up to a huge decline in the share of workers taking vacations.

Some rough calculations show, in fact, that about 80 percent of workers once took an annual weeklong vacation — and now, just 56 percent do.
This ties in with a report I heard the other day on NPR, possibly from the same source research, lamenting the rise of number of people who take no vacation in a year.

My analysis. Post World War II we had a command and control economy on a war footing with allocations, pricing, capital controls, and other centralized decision-making. In the forty years to circa 1985 there was a slow loosening of the centralized aspects of control and a shift to more rule-based regulations. It is hard now to imagine that price controls were still seen as a legitimate and effective policy tool as late as the eighties, that the airline, rail, trucking, telecommunications, banking and other industries were in many respects not just regulated but controlled. The long prevailing policy heuristic assuming that all people lived in families and that there had to be a "living wage" was a part of the larger mental mind set of centralized control and standardization - part of the legibility which James C. Scott describes in his Seeing Like a State.

The gradual loosening of central control caused continuing improvements in efficiency and resource allocation that helped fuel one of the longest cycles of increased productivity and prosperity. Similarly, the abandonment of the living wage heuristic, in part as a result of the atomization of society arising from the broad range of civil rights legislation of the sixties, in particular freeing up labor force participation for all citizens, likewise helped fuel rising prosperity.

The stereotype of all women at home back in the fifties and all men at work earning a living wage that was broadly equal is substantially a myth and a product of the imagination of the privileged elite. The stereotype might have been true for educated professionals but educated professionals were an insignificant slice of the populace.

But the decentralizing of the economy married with technology enablement has led to an unexpected emergent order. For those who do work, they are able and willing to work voluminously and continuously with immense remuneration in historical terms. Everyone else is much more marginalized, pursuing a range of activities, but again, pursuing them necessarily on a continuous basis. Laid of professionals, former manufacturing workers, new participants in the labor force, everyone is seeking safe sustainable full time work and that is simply much less available than in the old centralized economy. Those who are secure run fast and continuously to stay secure. Those who seek full time employment run fast and continuously to catch that train.

The paradox is that the enormous increases in systemic efficiency achieved allows much greater material prosperity for much lower incomes than in the past but at the cost of greater effort and insecurity.

Vacations, we don't need no stinking vacations.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Brazil and China - Reputations and Reality

From Brazil on the short end of a 7-1 score by Scott Sumner. An interesting and constructive conversation in the comments section. Sumner is trying to identify what are the variables that explain the persistent difference in economic performance between China and Brazil as well as determine why there is a perception of Brazil doing so well.
Remember that Brazil is a sophisticated country that has been exporting products like commuter airliners to the US for many years. They have a huge internal market and a fabulous agricultural sector. Waterpower and lots of resources. Modern big cities. We aren’t talking about Lesotho or Laos.

And their per capita income is $12,200 and going nowhere. It’s a mystery to me. And it’s also a mystery as to why they get such a good press. Why aren’t they expected to grow like China? The soft bigotry of low expectations? Is the mental image of Brazil the beach life in Rio, whereas the mental image of China is hard-charging, sharp-elbowed businessmen in Shanghai and Shenzhen? What do you think?
I checked online and it looks like Brazil has averaged 1.5% RGDP growth over the past 3 years. In contrast, RGDP in China has been rising at about 7.5% per year. In per capita terms that’s a roughly 7-1 advantage to China. Ouch. (Sorry to my Brazilian readers for mentioning 7-1, but I just couldn’t resist.) What could explain such a vast difference?
I hadn't looked at comparative per capita GDP numbers in a good while and was surprised by this.
Perhaps it’s because Brazil is about 20% to 25% richer, and richer countries tend to grow more slowly. But that would explain only a slight difference. Both are solidly middle income countries, thus the two growth rates should not differ that much.
I would have estimated that China had passed Brazil some years ago.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it

A very erudite and insightful essay. From Liberalism’s Beleaguered Victory by Abram N. Shulsky.

A very interesting point which I rarely see mentioned when discussions center on the causes of strife around the world.
Liberalism meets with further opposition when the stresses and strains of the transition to modernity are particularly difficult. In the later developing countries, this transition is likely to occur at a faster rate. In the case of England, development of a modern liberal society didn’t occur faster than the rate at which various discoveries enabled industrialization and urbanization. For later adopters, the paradigm of what a developed society looks like already exists, as does the necessary technology, and foreign investment can expedite the transition. Hence, societal change is likely to be more rapid for late adopters than for early ones, creating greater social tension and disorganization, which further erodes liberalism’s popularity and credibility.
And then there is this observation.
Other difficulties stem from more inherent problems or weaknesses of liberalism. Its origins lie in certain philosophic premises, concisely and memorably spelled out in the truths of the Declaration of Independence, concerning the rights with which all men are endowed and the establishment of governments by consent of the governed to protect those rights. As the document says, these truths were then regarded as self-evident; it is reasonable to say they are now hotly contested.

The loss of belief in these principles is reflected, for example, in the works of Comte and his assertion that mankind’s thinking proceeds from a theological stage, via a metaphysical one, to a mature, positive one. In this mature stage, man no longer believes he understands the essence of things, but contents himself with knowledge on the model of modern natural science—knowledge of the “how” but not of the “why” or the “wherefore.” The philosophic bases of liberalism fall within the “metaphysical” period; as the social sciences evolve into a “positive” phase, they concern themselves not with rights or any other kind of self-evident truths that relate to the fundamental character of society (more generally, values), but only with the knowable, objective relationships among variables. The switch to a more “positive” social science holds out the possibility of a more efficient and effective management of society, such as was promised by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. But it does so at the cost of potentially weakening the hold of core liberal beliefs on society at large.
I think that last point is important. It seems like a lot of discussion are over-focused on how do we solve this preferred problem at all rather than figuring how to do so within the context of core liberal beliefs. In other words, the problem takes precedence over the principles. In the short term, most problems are more easily solved by working outside of constraining principles than within them. In the long term, not so much.
Modern politics, and the modern natural science that developed along with it, depend crucially on de-emphasizing certain human concerns, especially the concern with the afterlife and immortality (a concern at the center of the Christianity that dominated Europe for centuries). Politically, this meant that opinions about salvation had to be regulated either by the political authority (as in Hobbes) or relegated to the private sphere (as in Locke). In either case, the individual’s passionate concern for the fate of his immortal soul had to be tamed or contained; it was no longer to affect actions he might take in the public sphere, at least none that could not be sufficiently motivated and defended on a non-religious basis.
You can look at deemphasizing "the concern with the afterlife and immortality" as a philosophical or psychological or religious issue. Alternately, you can look at as an increase is the time discounting rate. If you are concerned with the far distant future, you have a low discount rate. If you are concerned only with the here and now you have a very high time discount rate. The accumulation of capital is critically dependent on both a high degree of self-control and postponement of gratification as well as a low discount rate on the future. You have to believe that the capital saved through postponed current gratification will be rewarded in the future. Religion tends to both encourage self-control and encourages a low time discount rate. I think Shulsky is right that there is an unintended consequence occurring. By discounting religion in order to foster individualism, there is an inadvertent subversion of progress because the discounting of religion also leads to less self-control and a higher time discount rate.
Shulsky summarizes his argument thus.
So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.
I think Shulsky is right. Our greatest threat is not from exernal sources or constraints. It is from the abandonment of our core classical liberal principles by our intellectuals. Fortunately, the broad public of our nation are, to a much greater degree than the intellectuals, still wedded to classical liberal ideals. Cycles and cycles. Sometimes intellectuals are the vanguard, sometimes it is the despised bourgeoisie.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Oft reported, never actually seen.

Two articles on the radar screen this morning, Women's Studies Departments Are Failing Feminism by Elizabeth Segran and then Princeton and Wellesley May Re-inflate Grades by Paul Caron.

From Segran's article.
For three years, I taught feminist theory to undergraduates while working on my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. There was a time when Berkeley was the epicenter of radical feminism: In the 1970s, women’s rights activists regularly stormed campus buildings, demanding birth control, abortion, self-defense classes, and childcare. But when I started teaching in 2007, nothing particularly radical was happening anymore.

Far from being sites of activism and empowerment, Berkeley’s Women’s Studies classes were weighed down by theory and jargon. Using departmental guidelines, I crafted a syllabus that was meant to help my students think critically about gender, but what that really meant is that we spent our days wrestling with dense and difficult texts, parsing the works of Gayatri Spivak, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler. We devoted inordinate amounts of time to asking whether gender and sexuality were social constructs, rather than biological facts. We casually threw around words like “subalterneity,” “essentialism,” and “phallogocentrism” as if they really meant something.
When talking with people from Studies programs, it has been my experience that they are often passionate about the ideas, and naive beyond comprehension in terms of trying to relate those ideas to the real world in which everyone else operates. The jargon and theory are abstractions that they use as barriers to comprehension. When you start drilling down into specific definitions and logical consistency, it quickly emerges that there has been little critical thinking or comprehension of what they have been studying for four years. I don't think it is the student's fault. They have been hoodwinked. They have been sold a bill of goods. Boldness in imaginary theory has been presented as critical thinking.

In Segran's article the real value is in the discussion going on in the comments. I don't have the impression of New Republic being a particular hotbed of conservativism but the commenters are certainly taking Segran to task for the weak argument.

Caron's link might have part of the explanation for this paradox of a field of study claiming to be based on bold critical thinking but actually being a cacophony of discordant ideas. Granted this data is from a single university, but it does not contradict other evidence I have seen.

There is the traditional and common divide between the objective fields of study (sciences, maths, et al) and the more subjective fields such as the humanities. But even within the humanities, there is a material range. Women's Studies is the field of study with the second largest grade inflation. Apparently, you have to work hard to get something less than an A-.

It would appear that Women's Studies is highly subjective, has little objective information, is riddled by theory and jargon, has no standards of rigorous performance, and therefore likely has little empirical or logically rigorous discussion of ideas and applications. Perhaps this breeds a high degree of confidence (see all these high grades) with a low capacity to argue (jargon laden field irrelevant to outsiders and unaccepting of exogenous information).

It is easy to look at the long running myths constantly propagated by advocates as a function of ideological purity, as proto-religious belief systems: War on Women, Rape Culture, Gender Wage Gap, Patriarchal discrimination, etc. All these are mainstays of media discussion despite repeated debunking by multiple sources here and abroad.

But perhaps there is more than just ideological conviction. Perhaps there is actually an incapacity to actually argue a point or to accept confounding data. I suspect insularity, failure to deal with empirical information and absence of reasoned and logical arguments all contribute to a state of mind incapable of perceiving the reality in which everyone else lives.

Peter Wood in Campus Activism: The Fight for Imaginary Victories has a good summary of this curious state of affairs.
Campus activism is, by and large, the world of make-believe. Whenever students occupy a president’s office, Tinkerbell is not far away. Whenever faculty demand a boycott, Professor Dumbledore winks at Professor Snape.

The premise behind campus activism is always the same. The college campus is a microcosm of the larger world. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens at Oberlin or Sweet Briar is imagined to rock the foundations of the old order. Patriarchy trembles. The Zionist Entity is called to account. The coal-breathing capitalist Earth warmers feel the chill of a generation walking on their graves.

That premise, of course, is always mistaken. It matters not a whit to the energy producers that Pitzer College chose to divest from fossil fuel companies, or even that Stanford, with its much larger endowment, decided to pull out of coal company investments. Israel will do what it needs to do to defend itself against its enemies, regardless of what resolutions the American Studies Association passes. “Patriarchy” stalks the American college campus the way the plesiosaur stalks Loch Ness: oft reported, never actually seen.

A mistaken premise, however, is still a premise, and we anthropologists have written many books about the way people organize their lives around interesting misconceptions. If you believe that witchcraft causes unfortunate events, protecting yourself from witches becomes a significant preoccupation. This is especially so if everyone else in your village is worried about witches too. From such preoccupations arise communities that appear to outsiders to be dominated by irrational fears and sometimes destructive obsessions. The classic anthropological text, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) by the great British investigator, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, deals with a central African tribe. Evans-Pritchard neatly showed that given the Azande premise of invisible, malevolent witches, the anti-witch precautions made perfect sense. And there is no way to prove that when a termite-ridden granary falls over and kills someone, a witch didn’t arrange it. The Azande had developed what today’s climate activists call the “precautionary principle.” In the absence of evidence, better to assume the witches are at work.

Indeed, when I go through the list of things campus activists are now focused on, it is hard not to think of the Azande. Our college campuses are busy fretting over numerous imaginary dangers, which of course forestalls them from thinking seriously about some real problems.
All of this ties in to this noxious article in The Atlantic. The premises behind the article are both racist and misandrist. Tallying Female Workers Isn't Enough to Make Tech More Diverse by Adrienne Lafrance. Again, the commenters rescue an otherwise execrable article by logical and reasoned arguments pointing out both the flawed premises and the confounding evidence in the article itself. Lafrance is irked that only 30% of the workforce in technology companies are women.

Lafrance wants to accuse the tech companies of both racism and misogyny. Her approach prompts the biblical admonishment "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

Lafrance wants to believe that all roles ought to be in proportion to demographic representation. If 50% of the population is female, then 50% of the workers ought to be female. She strips away all diversity of individual opinion, culture and decision-making.

For an investigative reporter, she is curiously innumerate. She thinks she has a damning point when she observes:
Company-wide representation of women might be 30 percent, but the percentage of women in tech and engineering roles at Google and Yahoo, for instance, was about half that.
So women are about 15% of the tech and engineering roles in tech companies. And what percentage of technical and engineering degrees (the pathways into technical roles) are earned by women? 15%! Apparently Google and Yahoo are admirably hiring people in a gender and color blind fashion. Lafrance's beef is actually with all those women, such as herself (Journalism major) who chose not to pursue technical studies.

But making the argument that women, against their wishes, should be taking more technical and engineering degrees, is not the argument that Lafrance wants to make. Perhaps it is too boring. Much more rewarding and entertaining to make baseless accusations against successful companies.

But the most egregious violence against reason, evidence and logic is the assertion:
This drumbeat of diversity data has been anticlimactic, not least because it shows what most people already expected: that leaders in technology are overwhelmingly hiring white men.
The data in her own article show that males are about 70% of the workforce and that about 40% of the workforce are people of color (primarily Asian). That means that about 28% of the workforce are white men. I don't think there is anyone outside of the academy, and apparently MSM, who would equate 28% of the workforce as being overwhelming.

So really, what is it that allows apparent misandry and racism in a mainstream publication to be acceptable, as long as it is aimed solely at white men?

I am guessing that the answer lies in the academy and its abandonment of reason and evidence in popular fields and its unwillingness to debate protected ideologies.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds

Heh. From Only Stupid People Call People Stupid by Megan McArdle.
I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here)." It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A political Bizarro World

Yet another example of the Political Party reversal I discussed in Success? Serving Others. I said:
I think I have mentioned it in the past in the context of foreign affairs and international relations but I am struck by the reversal of the stereotypes I carry from my youth (and which to some extent you still see today) between Democrats and Republicans.

In my youth I had the impression of Democrats being the party for global engagement, trade and exchange and the Republicans being isolationist and xenophobic. Today it is, in terms of policy, largely the reverse. When exactly did that happen?

Likewise with the stereotypes around interpersonal relations. Democrats were the ones who were about individualism, community involvement, serving others, giving more than receiving and Republicans were supposed to be about greed and self-interest and subjugation of individual to national interests. Today, in terms of policy and measured evidence, it seems again like the roles have been reversed.
James Taranto points out a new example of Political Party Reversals in Loyalty Oafs. Back in the 1950's and McCarthyism, Loyalty Oaths were administered by government and private parties to ensure that Communists were not employed by the government or industry. G.K. Chesterton had a humorous comment on the touching American faith in asking straight questions and expecting straight answers. From G.K. Chesterton's What I Saw in America. He is relating to the different practices and how "A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is to laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticise it as if he comprehended it. To illustrate his point he describes his visit to the American Embassy for his visas.
The officials I interviewed were very American, especially in being very polite; for whatever may have been the mood or meaning of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have always found Americans by far the politest people in the world. They put in my hands a form to be filled up, to all appearance like other forms I had filled up in other passport offices. But in reality it was very different from any form I had ever filled up in my life. At least it was a little like a freer form of the game called 'Confessions' which my friends and I invented in our youth; an examination paper containing questions like, 'If you saw a rhinoceros in the front garden, what would you do?' One of my friends, I remember, wrote, 'Take the pledge.' But that is another story, and might bring Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson on the scene before his time.

One of the questions on the paper was, 'Are you an anarchist?' To which a detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, 'What the devil has that to do with you? Are you an atheist?' along with some playful efforts to cross-examine the official about what constitutes an [Greek: arche]. Then there was the question, 'Are you in favour of subverting the government of the United States by force?' Against this I should write, 'I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.' The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down, 'Are you a polygamist?' The answer to this is, 'No such luck' or 'Not such a fool,' according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated the rhetorical question, 'Shall I slay my brother Boer?'--the answer that ran, 'Never interfere in family matters.' But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, 'I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.' Or, 'I intend to subvert by force the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into Mr. Harding at the earliest opportunity.' Or again, 'Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.' There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.
But back to the topic of Loyalty Oaths. Republicans used to be fans of Loyalty Oaths back in the 1950's. "Are you now or have you ever been . . ." etc. But as Republicans have become (or returned to) their Classical Liberal roots (Adam Smith, David Hume, Locke, et al.), they moved away from that statist nonsense.

So who is calling for loyalty oaths now? Democrats! Or at least a Democrat pundit, Jonathan Alter in The United States Needs Corporate "Loyalty Oaths". There could be all sorts of discussion about the specifics of the proposal. What strikes me though, is the Political Party Reversal. It is as if we are occupying a political Bizarro World (of the Superman comics of my youth).