Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The fire with which we must play

I am beginning to get serious about engaging with Allan Bloom's classic, The Closing of the American Mind, still in print and topical this quarter of a century later. I have long postponed reading the book through simple prejudice. Laments about the shortcomings of the new generation have been with us since stylus was put to clay. However, I have, like some sort of literary dog sniffing about, been sampling some passages and on the basis of the erudition in plain sight, have started reading it.

This passage in particular caught my attention.
Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticize false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly. As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.
Behind every utopia there is a spirit of totalitarianism at work. "Man is perfectible and I will do it come hell or high water" seems to be the essence. Utopian visions are anathema to freedom and always end tragically.

But Bloom is right on two counts. Utopianism is dangerous but inspirational and a simple throwing up of the hands and a muttered "That's life" is equally unproductive.

Back to the old golden mean then - you are treading a thin line between the motivation and inspiration that comes from a vision of what the world could be (a vision of the City on the Hill) and at the same time, in the same breath, working with the constraints, trade-offs and sacrifices that come with realism. The delicate teetering and tottering down that fine balance is what we call the good life.

A frightening disregard for civil rights and human nature

From a column, How can America inspire the Slacktivist Generation to action? by Dana Milbank.

It serves, I think, as an example of muddled thinking. Whether Milbank is a muddled thinker, or an ideologue or whether it is simply the product of having to produce an opinion on schedule, I don't know.

He starts off with an observation which I think to be interesting and true.
My patriotic gesture was a form of Slacktivism — a uniquely American form of engagement in which statements are made without any real sacrifice. The Slacktivist gets icy water over the head to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease, or tweets out hashtags to fight kidnapping in Nigeria (#BringBackOurGirls). The Slacktivist wears color-coded bracelets for causes, “likes” causes on Facebook — and goes to see a Seth Rogen film to defy North Korea.


The problem is that the nation’s wars have been detached from any notion of sacrifice for the country — except for the fewer than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military.
I agree. I first became aware of this as an issue probably thirtyfive years ago and more as a philosophical question. Can you have altruism without sacrifice? I still do not have a good answer with which I am comfortable but my inclination is that the answer is no. Unless you meangingfully share in the cost of your action on behalf of others, and particularly unless you share in the consequences of your action, then I would argue that you cannot be meaningfully be said to be acting altruistically. The field of economic development is rife with not only with failed initiatives to improve the lives of those in developing countries but failed initiatives which have left the recipients of that altruism worse off than before. I suspect that sacrifice is indeed a necessary component of real altruism.

Milbank bolsters his charge of the moral deficiency of the citizenry with:
In mid-December, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual “civic health indicators” (volunteer work, contact with friends and family, confidence in institutions) and found a “broad decline” in 16 of 20 areas. The study was backed by the Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Similarly, Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that volunteering in 2012 (the most recent data available) was at the lowest percentage (25.4 percent) since the government started counting in 2001.
I think it is at this juncture that Milbank goes off the logical rails.

Why are people volunteering less? Why is there a decline in civic health indicators (which, I not having read the report, I am disinclined to grant credence to)? Milbank's root cause?
The cause of this is fairly clear: Americans are not being asked to serve their country.
It is a classic non sequitur combined with post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy producing a predictable totalitarian response. It is not grossly unfair to tug at Milbank's words just a little bit to arrive at - You are ineffective because you do not serve the State.

Milbank ties the decline in volunteering to the fact that the Great Generation which fought World War II is now passing. To bolster this claim, he brings on an expert.
John Bridgeland, who worked on national-service initiatives in the Bush White House, sees the decline of military service as the cause of Washington’s problems. “The World War II generation that served together had higher levels of charitable contributions, volunteering, voting, social trust, trust in one another,” he told me. “Even the gap between rich and poor was at its lowest levels. This greatest generation had an ethic of service that transcended politics and partisanship and belief.”
Yes. That cohort was a remarkable cohort to whom we owe much. But let's not gloss over World War II as an abstract notion. 250,000 Americans died in the process that built intragenerational trust and sense of sacrifice. Even accepting the argument that sacrifice caused a higher ethic of service, I think Bridgeland and Milbank gloss over a more critical question. Why has that ethic of service apparently declined?

I am not certain that people are less inclined towards service towards others today than in the past. It is a complicated beast and can take many forms, and consequently is very hard to measure. I am just not certain that Milbanks premise of a decline is even real. But accepting for argument's sake that it is, then is the fact that generations subsequent to the Great Generation have not had a similar existential shared experience a bad thing? I think Milbank is barking up the wrong cherry tree from which he has been picking cherries.

I suspect that Bridgeland actually points us in the right direction. As we have increased transparency in our institutions, making all the warts and transgressions much more apparent (but still not enough transparency) and as we have fostered cultural relativism and identity politics, there has been a corresponding decline in public trust in all institutions. Those trust levels are at historical lows. I became first aware of this in the 1980s with the headline revelations about the high living of the senior executives of United Way. At that time it was not uncommon for civic minded companies to pressure their employees, particularly their professional/managerial employees to contribute some percentage of their paycheck to United Way as a part of giving back to the community. This coercion was bad enough but was particularly galling when faced with headlines of how those contributions were being wasted and frittered away on executive excesses.

You can track the scandals since then in education, in church, in Federal government, in local government, in just about every institution toughing our lives. Faced with a continuing barrage of exposed malfeasance and incompetence, is it any wonder that the public might have become more cagey about how and where they contribute their time and money?

The Gramscean memes out of the academy have not helped. With a framework of cultural relativism and identity politics, why give?

I think what has happened is that Americans are as generous as ever but that they are having to find different ways of fulfilling that generosity. That is what Milbank is missing.

So what is Milbank's solution to what I regard as a non-problem and a faulty diagnosis? He wants to increase trust and generosity by expanding
national service — military and other forms — to 1 million 18- to 29-year-olds each year, up from the current 100,000. While far from mandatory national service, this would be enough to create a social expectation that each 18-year-old would either join the military or spend a “service year” after high school earning a stipend serving in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and the like. They figure it would cost about $10 billion in taxpayer money and another $10 billion in private funds.
There is sloppy thinking at every step of his argument but this part is archetypal of the totalitarian mind which sees humans as unfree, lacking agency and subject to a mechanistic view of human behavior. We will fix your slacktivism by forcing you to share a service experience.

Milbank skirts a fairly central issue. Is this voluntary or not? He says it is far from mandatory but those are weasel words. It is either mandatory or not. Which is it? If it is mandatory national service, then you are curtailing citizen's freedom for some national purpose. What is that purpose and why is the curtailment of citizens freedoms necessary to accomplish whatever the stated end might be? Milbank doesn't answer those questions.

On the other hand, if it is not mandatory, then why would anyone join this national service? What are the benefits to them as individuals? Why would we believe that this national service is beneficial to either the participants or to the recipients? What is the good being done today by the 100,000 already involved in some national service? And how is this any different than some sort of modern day make-work Work Progress Administration?

Milbank references that it would only cost about $20 billion but leaving the cost justification up in the air. This is not a serious economic analysis. Given that the $10 billion in government funds has to be borrowed, then there has to be some measurable benefit exceeding the cost of that borrowing in order to make it worthwhile. Milbank avoids addressing that issue at all.

Like so many utopian totalitarians, Milbank does not like to engage with numbers. If he did so, he might realize that his recommended solution to the imagined problem is negligible. In World War II, our military was expanded to some 13 million men and women, nearly 10% of the entire population of 133 million and 16% of the adult population. Probably another 13 million were indirectly involved in the war effort in terms of industrial production. So roughly 32% of the adult population was directly and indirectly involved in the war effort. Such a massive common effort is likely to create a common sense of purpose and sacrifice.

What are the comparable numbers that Millbank is proposing. There are approximately 44 million 18 -29-year-olds and he wants 1 million of them to do some sort of non-existential national service. 2.3% percent with a shared experience versus 32% in World War II. Either Milbank hasn't thought this through or he's not really serious about this.

The upshot is that Milbank has provided a good example of the type of cognitive pollution which gums up our national discourse. He identifies a putative problem (people aren't sacrificing enough for their country), he thinks the reason is that people haven't shared an existential threat, and he wants to entice (or force, it is not clear) 2.3% of the generational cohort to engage in a common national service of no known purpose.

It all sounds good and positive at the conceptual level but this is pure cognitive pollution. More than that, it displays a disregard for civil rights and human nature that is fairly profound and quite frightening.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Visualizing the eight skills contributing to skilled reading

A very interesting representation of the multiple aspects or skills associated with reading. This illustration is from Approaching Difficulties in Literacy Development edited by Felicity Fletcher-Campbell.

Click to expand.

When children arrive in Kindergarten or First Grade at four or five years old, there is already a three year gap in reading capability and that gap widens the longer they are in school. In other words, there is a Matthew Effect in which the early proficient readers build an accelerating momentum as they read more and more. Cunningham and Stanovich have shown that this beneficial effect is true even when controlling for IQ. Regardless of IQ, the extent to which you practice enthusiastic reading at an earlier age forecasts differentially positive reading capabilities at an older age compared to non-enthusiastic readers.

From this diagram you can see there are eight strands which independently and interactively contribute to skilled reading. Very useful. Since all this occurs before school age, it has implications for new parents in terms of how they speak and read with their very young children.

The discipline of asking hard questions of hard problems

In dealing with complex systems, our capacity to establish a meaningfully robust cause-and-effect relationship between inputs and outputs becomes negligible. We might believe that voluminous habitual reading at an early age is a critical activity to establish the habit and discipline of reading and that the habit of reading is causative of good life outcomes (status, income, productivity, health, education attainment, etc.). That argument on its own is very difficult to establish because of the multitude of confounding variables (neighborhood, school, household income, parental education attainment, health circumstances, familial structure, sibling circumstances, etc.). After some fifty years, we have the rudiments of evidence to support that argument but it is a fragile foundation.

Now try and extend the argument to an equally sensible proposition: the types of books that you read will have a influence and possibly determinative effect on life outcomes. If you read books that reinforce the positive/productive bourgeois values, will you more likely demonstrate those values later in life to your benefit? If you read morally ambiguous books with themes of abuse and failure and calamity, will you be more predisposed to believing those to be inevitable and accede to life's reverses? There are even more barriers to establishing that linkage including sequence of reading, age of reading, reading capabilities, etc.

There is a term for the challenges in identifying the causal variables (and the size effects of those causes) - complex adaptive systems. In a complex adaptive system, not only are there numerous causative variables, but the system is constantly evolving in a fashion that both changes the population of causative variables as well as changing the size effect for each of those causal variables. For example, if you run a meticulously planned and executed longitudinal reading study starting with a large number of participants starting in 1950 and running for 65 years, and establish some material correlations or even causative relationships between early reading and life outcomes, can you confidently believe those lessons learned to be still valid in 2015 for new-borns today entering a world of vastly changed economic circumstances, familial structures, technological capacities, etc.? That's the problem with complex adaptive systems: after spending time and money, the closer you get to being confident that you understand a causal relationship, the more likely that the context has changed rendering the finding moot. It is a social sciences variant of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for major social issues: You can't act quickly and with confidence. You can act slowly and with confidence or quickly without confidence but not both simultaneously.

Megan McArdle touches on this uncertainty in Everything We Don't Know About Minimum-Wage Hikes. Talking about the quality of research regarding the impact of minimum wage hikes and referencing one of the most robust studies (which was not meaningfully robust).
Pretty neat, huh? Here's the problem: That study only covered what happened to 410 stores over a period of less than a year. I'm not quarreling with the design of their study, mind you; there are very good reasons to stick with a limited sample over a short period of time. Over longer time periods, more and more extraneous factors will start to swamp your results: changes in state labor law or tax policy, local recessions, a municipal ordinance banning cheap restaurants with lurid signs.
McArdle is pointing out a very real-life situation where our knowledge frontier does not support our making fact-based decisions. The economics of minimum wage are terrifically complex with an inordinate number of contextual and confounding variables. We do not know the full range of pertinent variables or how they interact and cannot reliably predict the outcome of a policy change in minimum wage. How will it affect productivity, employment, income, consumption, etc.? We simply do not know, and at this point after several decades of research are not likely to know in any reasonable timeframe.

What we are left with is a desire to make things better but without the knowledge to do so with any predictability. All we are left with are faith-based initiatives, i.e. a speculation that if we do X we will achieve Y but with no convincing evidence or rationale for believing that.

The proper counsel is to try to break the problem down into ever smaller increments in order to get to some foundation of concrete actions that can be executed with high confidence and keep experimenting and adding elements till the larger goal is achieved. What usually happens instead is that we remain focused on the big picture and the bold action and, because it is faith-based, it is a dichotomous decision. We either have the votes to implement the bold action or we don't. If we don't, the issue goes away for a while. If we do have the votes, we then are locked in to a long experiment (think of the multidecadal Head Start program which has never achieved its intended goals despite close to $10 billion a year).

Usually these exercises in faith-based altruism end ruinously. But we keep doing it.

An example where confident action is advocated in the face of uncertain information comes in Stop Trying to Save the World by Michael Hobbes.
Armed with his rigorously gathered results, Kremer founded an NGO, Deworm the World. He launched it at the 2007 World Economic Forum and committed to deworming ten million children. He was feted by the Clinton Global Initiative; GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson pledged $600 million worth of deworming treatments a year, enough for every infected primary school student in Africa. The World Health Organization issued a statement of support. Kenya asked him to help create a national program to deworm 3.6 million children. Two states in India initiated similar programs, aiming to treat millions more. The organization now claims to have helped 40 million children in 27 countries.

But wait a minute. Just because something works for 30,000 students in Kenya doesn’t mean it will work for millions of them across Africa or India. Deworm the World’s website talks a lot about its “evidence-based” approach. (It has now been folded into an NGO called Evidence Action.) Yet the primary evidence that deworming improves education outcomes is from Kremer’s single Kenya case and a post-hoc analysis of deworming initiatives in the American South in 1910. In 2012, the organization said that it had treated 17 million children in India, but didn’t report whether their attendance, school performance, or graduation rates improved.

I keep thinking I’m missing something really obvious, that I’m looking at the wrong part of their website. So I call up Evidence Action and ask: Are you guys really not testing how deworming affects education anymore?

“We don’t measure the effects on school attendance and school performance,” says Alix Zwane, Evidence Action’s executive director. At the scale they’re going for in India, entire states at a time, splitting into control and treatment groups simply wouldn’t be feasible.

Kremer tells me that enough trials have been done to warrant the upscaling. “There’s more evidence for this than the vast majority of things that governments spend money on.” Every time you want to build a new road, you can’t stop to ask, Will this one really help people get from place to place?

“Meanwhile,” he says, “there’s a cohort of children that, if you don’t implement the policy now, will go through years of schooling without treatment.”

It’s an interesting question—when do you have enough evidence to stop testing each new application of a development idea?—and I get that you can’t run a four-year trial every time you roll out, say, the measles vaccine to a new country. But like many other aid projects under pressure to scale up too fast and too far, deworming kids to improve their education outcomes isn’t the slam-dunk its supporters make it out to be.
And here's the kicker.
In 2000, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a literature review of 30 randomized control trials of deworming projects in 17 countries. While some of them showed modest gains in weight and height, none of them showed any effect on school attendance or cognitive performance. After criticism of the review by the World Bank and others, the BMJ ran it again in 2009 with stricter inclusion criteria. But the results didn’t change. Another review, in 2012, found the same thing: “We do not know if these programmes have an effect on weight, height, school attendance, or school performance.”
In this instance, a well intentioned advocate ran a successful program in a single country and did a rigorous review of the very positive benefits. Based solely on that single experience, they then scale to multiple locations in multiple countries but with no further evidence of efficacy.

These are good people seeking to solve real problems. What can you do?

I would argue that there is a conceptually simple and behaviorally difficult approach that everyone could adopt. Acknowledge that reality is hiding from you and ask whether you have worked hard enough to find that reality which might be true and useful. Is the effect real? Is it material? Do we understand the causes? What is the context? What are the critical assumptions? Can we change it? Can we measure success? What are the trade-offs? It is most commonly the case that these uncomfortable questions have been glossed over and assumptions made without an empirical basis for those assumptions.

The issues are often real. We usually want to help. The argument is usually logically persuasive. But how do you distinguish persuasive ideas from effective ideas? Try the idea in controlled conditions and see if it produces the results expected. Then incrementally expand the test to a larger and larger set of circumstances. Slower and less glamorous and more demanding but also more likely to be contributive and less likely to have significant unexpected consequences.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Without encroaching upon the powers reserved to the authorities of the respective States or to the people

From John Quincy Adams' First Annual Message, December 6, 1825.

I am struck by two aspects.

One is the optimism bordering on joy of the opening statement.
In taking a general survey of the concerns of our beloved country, with reference to subjects interesting to the common welfare, the first sentiment which impresses itself upon the mind is of gratitude to the Omnipotent Disposer of All Good for the continuance of the signal blessings of His providence, and especially for that health which to an unusual extent has prevailed within our borders, and for that abundance which in the vicissitudes of the seasons has been scattered with profusion over our land. Nor ought we less to ascribe to Him the glory that we are permitted to enjoy the bounties of His hand in peace and tranquillity -- in peace with all the other nations of the earth, in tranquillity among our selves. There has, indeed, rarely been a period in the history of civilized man in which the general condition of the Christian nations has been marked so extensively by peace and prosperity.
And then there is the recitation in the final paragraph of one of the critical attributes of the American system of government which is so absent elsewhere - the checks and balances arising from the division of authority and the acknowledgment that all power resides within the citizens themselves. Emphasis added
Finally, fellow citizens, I shall await with cheering hope and faithful cooperation the result of your deliberations, assured that, without encroaching upon the powers reserved to the authorities of the respective States or to the people, you will, with a due sense of your obligations to your country and of the high responsibilities weighing upon yourselves, give efficacy to the means committed to you for the common good. And may He who searches the hearts of the children of men prosper your exertions to secure the blessings of peace and promote the highest welfare of your country.
It is easy to forget in today's environment where gargantuan government agencies are constantly seeking, almost always with good intent (initially), to find ways to exert authority without having to explicitly seek authorization from citizens, that at one time division of power was taken very seriously and was a bedrock assumption of not only citizens but of the political elite as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Real causes versus imaginary causes

There was an interesting article in the New York Times last week, A Brand New World In Which Men Ruled by Jodi Kantor. Kantor looks at the career outcomes for a very favored cohort, the Stanford graduating class of 1994. Favored because they were at an excellent school, among excellent fellow students, located at the epicenter of Silicon Valley and just at the threshold of the internet boom.

The article is well written and interesting but like so much in the MSM, there is always an angle or an agenda. In this instance, the author is emphasizing that there are career differentials between the men and women of the graduating class of 1994. It is the classic Gramscian meme/obsession that disparate outcomes must be both the result of: systemic intention (there being no acknowledgment of emergent order) and culture (denial of individual agency and personal choices). The author does not hide that this privileged cohort have been anything but successful. She is pointing out that there is differential impact and subtly implying that it is the consequence of something other than chance and personal choices and priorities. She makes the implication without making the argument, presumably because there is so little to support the argument that there is meaningful discrimination.
In some fields, the women of the class went on to equal or outshine the men, including an Olympic gold medalist and the class’s best-known celebrity. Nearly half the 1,700-person class were women, and plenty were adventurous and inventive, tinkerers and computer camp veterans who competed fiercely in engineering contests; one won mention in the school paper for creating a taco-eating machine.

Yet instead of narrowing gender gaps, the technology industry created vast new ones, according to interviews with dozens of members of the class and a broad array of Silicon Valley and Stanford figures. “We were sitting on an oil boom, and the fact is that the women played a support role instead of walking away with billion-dollar businesses,” said Kamy Wicoff, who founded a website for female writers.

It was largely the men of the class who became the true creators, founding companies that changed behavior around the world and using the proceeds to fund new projects that extended their influence. Some of the women did well in technology, working at Google or Apple or hopping from one start-up adventure to the next. Few of them described experiencing the kinds of workplace abuses that have regularly cropped up among women in Silicon Valley.

But even the most successful women could not match some of their male classmates’ achievements. Some female computer science majors had dropped out of the field, and few black or Hispanic women ever worked in technology at all. The only woman to ascend through the ranks of venture capital was shunted aside by her firm. Another appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine as a great hope for gender in Silicon Valley — just before unexpectedly leaving the company she had co-founded.

Dozens of women stayed in safe jobs, in or out of technology, while they watched their spouses or former lab partners take on ambitious quests. If the wealth among alumni traveled across gender lines, it was mostly because so many had wed one another. When Jessica DiLullo Herrin, a cheerleader turned economics whiz, arrived at the tailgate party, her classmates quietly stared: She had founded two successful start-ups, a living exception to the rule.
What is unsaid is often as interesting as what is claimed. What explains success in the tech industry? No one really knows but there are lots of useful correlates. The outstanding achievers tend to have STEM backgrounds, tend to be risk takers, tend to be monomaniacal in pursuit of achievement, etc. It is a correlation not an established causation. There are lots of exceptions.

But if a STEM background is one of the predictive variables, then how many of the women in the Stanford graduating class of 1994 were STEM graduates? Kantor doesn't say and I don't know. But if Stanford parallels the education industry at large, then only about 20% of the STEM graduates were women. As other universities have seen, Kantor acknowledges that there is a higher attrition rate among female STEM graduates than among males: "Some female computer science majors had dropped out of the field, and few black or Hispanic women ever worked in technology at all."

Right off the bat then, one would expect there to be disparate levels of achievement in Silicon Valley if women are already underrepresented in STEM and even those who are STEM graduates, leave the field.

The other thing unstated is that the overwhelming majority of men in the graduating class of '94 had very similar outcomes as those of the women. The men, like the women, went on to successful lives as doctors and lawyers and artists and engineers and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and so on. Only a few became runaway successes in the field of technology and the very few among the 1,700 graduates who did, did so from a series of path dependent decisions and choices.

The article goes on and on filled with lots of great anecdotal examples. Kantor seems to want the evidence to indicate that there is some systemic obstacle to female success but the facts just don't seem to support her, "Few of them (women in the tech industry) described experiencing the kinds of workplace abuses that have regularly cropped up among women in Silicon Valley." Kantor seems in the article to be arriving at the same place as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Claudia Goldin - acknowledging that individual choices determine the disparate outcomes and frustrated that more women are not making the types of choices that position a person, male or female, for success.

Seek the truth in data and experience and eventually, and usually at some cost, you get close to it. Seek to bend experience and data to your convictions and "all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

The arrogance of an imposed but unstated worldview is captured in the headline to this article as it appeared on the front page of the Times.

Brevity sometimes forces transparency. To be fair, Kantor would not have been the one to have chosen the headline to the article she wrote but I think it is revealing of the habits of mind of the New York Times (and to which they are substantially blind).

Let's look at the headline: "A Future Unrealized for Stanford Class of '94 Women". How was the future unrealized? As the article indicates, the class of '94 women by-and-large all went on to successful lives as doctors and lawyers and artists and engineers and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and so on. The future that was unrealized was that the women would make exactly the same trade-off decisions as the rare number of men who became outstanding business and financial successes. The women, like most of the other men, made different decisions based on different priorities and therefore garnered different benefits. We would all like to be technology industry billionaires but we are not all equally willing to postpone marriage and family, work the punishing hours to the exclusion of social and family commitments, take financial make-or-break risks, etc.

The subheading is equally revealing: "How an industry devoted to overturning barriers let a gender gap stand unchallenged." I don't think it is too pedantic to see a lot of unstated and misguided assumptions buried in those thirteen words. The technology industry is not devoted to overturning barriers. That is a motive assumed by the NYT headline writer. The industry is devoted to making money. It just so happens that that often means overturning barriers but the motive force is pursuit of profit, overturning barriers is simply a common means. In addition, as the article makes clear, the technology industry is agnostic as to what the talent looks like, it simply wants plentiful, cheap, productive talent.
The frenzy had an unlikely effect on some members of the Stanford Review group: They were becoming cheerleaders for women in technology, not for ideological reasons, but for market-based ones. “Conservatives must acknowledge their role to expand the free labor market and kindle social progress by championing female technologists,” wrote Joe Lonsdale, another former Stanford Review editor and the co-founder of Palantir, a data analysis company, in The Review a week before the reunion. Like many others, he was finding that the biggest obstacle to starting new companies was a dearth of technical talent so severe they worried it would hinder innovation.

“Everybody here has a huge incentive to get all the talented people we can, and that includes 50 percent of the population,” said Mr. Sacks, who a few weeks later joined and invested in a fast-growing start-up whose employees were 40 percent female, high by industry standards.
Why believe that disparate outcomes are the result of some hidden malevolent societal process when it seems like there is little or no evidence to support that interpretation and when there is overwhelming evidence to support that disparate outcomes are a function of disparate choices, behaviors, abilities, and decisions? As long as we are chasing the will-o'-wisp of imagined discrimination, we fail to focus on helping people understand the impact of their own choices and how to make better such choices.

UPDATE: Letters to the New York Times editors echoing my assessment.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Categorizing a person

An intriguing suggestion from Chip Conley. From his tweet:
4 spots in one's home define a person: what's on bedside table, what's in the medicine cabinet, what's in fridge, & how many TVs they have

Weak, but consistent data for the positive impact of curiosity

From Wikipedia traffic per capita by country [OC] from Data Is Beautiful.
Click to enlarge.

Interesting though with definitional constraints. This is the number of Wikipedia pages accessed per month per capita of internet users in each country. Countries with very low internet usage may still have a high score if those few users are using it intensively. See the comments for all the comments about the shortcomings of this particular graph in terms of how it can be interpreted.

Still, it gives a hint at an issue I have long been mulling. IQ is one thing and it certainly has some useful forecasting properties. On the other hand, it is not near perfect. One of the additional explanatory variables for positive life outcomes is what psychologists variously refer to as grit, perseverance, self-control, self-discipline or diligence. IQ and Perseverance together explain much of the variance between any two individuals, but still not all.

I have often wondered, and never seen much research addressing the question, as to the contribution of intense curiosity in life outcomes. This is particularly relevant to my interests regarding the degree to which the habit of enthusiastic reading may or may not contribute to good life outcomes. My question specifically is whether those individuals, ceteris paribus, who are actively curious might not also have better life outcomes. The logical case flows from curiosity leads to greater acquisition of knowledge, leads to enhanced perception and insight, leads improved problem solving, leads to improved productivity, leads to enhanced life outcomes. But is it true?

I don't know, but this chart, for all its weakness, is consistent with that argument. Without even correcting for wikipedia views per total population (versus just the population of internet users) there is a reasonably positive correlation (I haven't run the numbers but it looks like 0.5-0.7 perhaps) between Wikipedia accessing (i.e. curiosity) and any of a number of crude measures of well-being such as PPP GDP per Capita, PPP Wealth per Capita, Longevity, Average Years of education attainment, etc.

Its not good data but it is supportive of the hypothesis in that it does not refute the conclusion.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Why are fields susceptible to critical theory and postmodernism also characterized by low income and low intellectual rigor?

Just an observation. The other day, in When data verifies impressions, I mentioned that along with Studies, Anthropology, English:
Other sources seem to indicate a prevalence of postmodernism and critical theory among the psychology, sociology, communication and education departments as well.
Quite separately from that conversation, I was checking anticipated incomes by university major (here is one source and a second and a third).
I noticed that those degrees that are most prone to postmodernism and critical theory are also those with the lowest employment prospects (except for the education department) and the lowest starting and career average incomes.

It is not particularly surprising but it does prompt a question of causation and directionality.

Low income degrees tend to be clustered around very human relation fields which also tends to be fields with little objectively determined domains of knowledge. If you are going to be an electrical engineer there is a very broad and deep domain of empirically established knowledge which is invariate from New York to Nicaragua to Nigeria to the Netherlands to North Korea. It is a field that is both in demand and requiring high levels of knowledge acquisition to a very precise degree. None of which is true for, say, Sociology which has only a small domain of invariant knowledge and which is taught dramatically differently by country and culture.

So is the prevalence of discredited critical theory and postmodernism in the lower Humanities fields a consequence of some historical path dependency or is it perhaps because those fields require less intellectual rigor and therefore are more receptive to CT and PM, or is it that people in those fields are angry and envious of their low income valuation and therefore more receptive theories such as CT and PM which deflect responsibility for outcomes from personal agency to systemic explanations?

I don't know but it is striking to see the clear correlation between receptiveness to CT and PM and low income and low cognitive rigor.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

One million mummies

Interesting. From Cemetery with one MILLION mummies unearthed in Egypt: 1,500-year-old desert necropolis is the largest ever found by Richard Gray.
It is thought that the mummies were buried around 1,500 years ago, between the 1st and 7th Century AD, when Egypt was controlled by the Roman and Byzantine Empire.

Unlike many famous mummified remains discovered in Egypt, these were found in mass graves and appear to be ordinary citizens rather than royalty or other important figures.

Yet scientists are baffled about where the huge numbers of mummies came from - the remains of a nearby village is too small to warrant such a large cemetery and the nearest town, named Philadelphia after King Ptolemy II Phiadelphus, has its own burial sites.

Archaeologists have also uncovered a bizarre range of mummies, including one man who is more than seven feet (213 cm) tall.

They have also discovered that the mummies appear to be clustered together by hair colour, with those with blond hair in one area and all of those with red hair in another.
I have been reading about Ancient Egypt with some avidity for forty or more years and never knew there was a blond or red haired population.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

We see the emergence of a new sense of justice, founded on the assumption of moral equality rather than on natural inequality

We are always trying to understand the unique role that Western Civilization has played in the modern world. Was it due to technology, to economic systems, to happenstance, to geography? There are innumerable arguments and theories.

One of the relatively undisputed points is that the role of the individual in the social system is unusual in the West with the associated ideas of personal responsibility, mastership of one's destiny, agency, liberty, etc. There is a new book out, Inventing the Individual by Larry Siednetop which is reviewed by David Gress in Where ‘I’ Comes From.
‘What is the West about?” asks Larry Siedentop, an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford. Years of reflecting on the character of Western societies lead him to an answer that resembles the one given by most political thinkers: namely, that the West is about liberty, with official authority deriving from the people themselves and with official institutions having only a limited say in the conduct of the citizen and the course of society. But Mr. Siedentop’s full answer is unusual. In “Inventing the Individual,” he asks where the Western understanding of liberty comes from and finds—unlike most political thinkers—that its source is Christianity.

This part of the answer, as Mr. Siedentop notes, may prove irritating, because it flies in the face of the comfortable idea that democratic liberty, like modern science, grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment and, in particular, out of the Enlightenment’s struggle against a reactionary and oppressive church. Not so, he says. Western freedom centers on the notion of the responsible individual endowed with a sovereign conscience and unalienable rights, and that notion emerged, in stages, during the centuries between Paul the Apostle and the churchmen of the Middle Ages.

Mr. Siedentop begins his analytical narrative by contrasting ancient ideas of family and cosmos with the ideas provoked by early Christianity. In the ancient world, he says, the individual did not exist as such. Everyone had his place within a hierarchy, which in turn determined all aspects of existence. The core unit was the family, ruled by the “paterfamilias.” Similarly, the fundamental maxim of Roman law was to “give each his due,” which meant assigning to each a particular status within the all-encompassing web of social and legal norms: the father as ruler of the family, the emperor as ruler of the state and its people, and the slave as a “human tool” subject to the will of his owner. Roman law presumed indelible distinctions: slave-free, citizen-alien, master-follower.

Christianity, as preached by St. Paul in the first century and by St. Augustine in the fourth, promised something quite different, and revolutionary. “In Paul’s writings,” Mr. Siedentop writes, “we see the emergence of a new sense of justice, founded on the assumption of moral equality rather than on natural inequality.” A Christian idea of individual dignity, Mr. Siedentop says, led to what we call the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This notion incorporated a new principle of justice and fatally undermined the idea of “giving each his due.” Only a century after Paul, a church father could write that “one mighty deed alone,” meaning the incarnation, “was sufficient for our God to bring freedom to the human person.”
Sounds like an interesting thesis with much intuitive appeal.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The power of hatred is so strong that opponents of hatred motivate their supporters by hating the haters

Hat tip to John Stuart Mills On Being Offended at Other People’s Opinions or Private Conductby Miles Kimball.

Kimball points out a new paper The Political Economy of Hatred by Edward L. Glaeser. This appears very timely given the assassination of two police officers on the 20th as a direct consequence of the politically driven protests and channelled hatred exploiting the Ferguson and NYC verdicts.
What determines the intensity and objects of hatred? Hatred forms when people believe that out-groups are responsible for past and future crimes, but the reality of past crimes has little to do with the level of hatred. Instead, hatred is the result of an equilibrium where politicians supply stories of past atrocities in order to discredit the opposition and consumers listen to them. The supply of hatred is a function of the degree to which minorities gain or lose from particular party platforms, and as such, groups that are particularly poor or rich are likely to be hated. Strong constitutions that limit the policy space and ban specific anti-minority policies will limit hate. The demand for hatred falls if consumers interact regularly with the hated group, unless their interactions are primarily abusive. The power of hatred is so strong that opponents of hatred motivate their supporters by hating the haters.
I think this hardly veiled effort by advocates and their supporters in media to generate hatred toward particular groups (for example towards fraternity members, towards white males, towards homemakers, towards conservative women, towards police, towards bankers, towards patriots, towards individualists, etc.) is what is undermining the great Gramscian game.

If we could get rid of the Gramscian memes without all the hatred it would faster, easier, better and not nearly so destructive to all concerned.

Monday, December 22, 2014

It's not that these words don't have meanings. It's that their meanings have been rendered meaningless.

From Liberal Newspeak by Daniel Greenfield. An interesting interpretation of language, communication, media, etc.
Liberal Newspeak is the hybrid product of advertising, academia and bureaucracy. It takes ideas from creative leftists, rinses them in conformity, uses techniques from the ad world to make them as safe as possible and then shoves them down everyone's throat.

Newspeak's objective was to enforce linguistic schizophrenia as a means of subdividing personalities, killing rational thought and making opposition into a form of madness. Liberal Newspeak's is less ambitious. It settles for muddling your brain. Like modern advertising, its goal is to make you feel comfortable without actually telling you anything.

Liberal Newspeak is the chirpy announcer in a drug commercial soothingly telling you about all the fatal side effects while on screen couples have romantic picnics and go whitewater rafting. That is the job of most of the news media. Forget outliers like MSNBC which caters to a self-consciously prog crowd. The media's real job is to be that announcer telling you that if you vote liberal, your taxes will go up, your job will go to China and you will die, without getting you upset about the terrible news.

The dictionary of Liberal Newspeak is full of empty and meaningless words. Community, Care, Access, Sharing, Concern, Affordability, Options, Communication, Listening, Engage, Innovating and a thousand others like it are wedged into sentences. Entire pages can be written almost entirely in these words without a single note of meaning intruding on the proceedings.

It's not that these words don't have meanings. It's that their meanings have been rendered meaningless. The techniques of advertising have been used to pluck up words that people once felt comfortable with and wrap them around the agendas of the liberal bureaucracy.
And I don't think this is solely a Left issue. It might predominate there but I think this aversion to pursuit of facts and truth is common across the full spectrum. All of us as citizens have to reverse it, not simply fight one party or the other.

I think Greenfield is on to something interesting. The Gramscian strategy of the old Soviet Union of fostering postmodernism and critical theory as means of undermining the intellectual foundations of the West has paid huge dividends without benefitting anyone. The cognitive pollution is pervasive. Part of what Greenfield is pointing out is that postmodernism and critical theory themselves are not really the threat. They long ago lost any intellectual rigor or support. The marketing of those ideas is what has been incredibly successful.
Liberal Newspeak isn't the work of the engineers of the left, but its marketers. It doesn't bother with frontal attacks on language. Instead it reframes everything in comforting language while teaching you to use the appropriate terms that change the context completely. It owes less of its perversity to Marxism than it does to Madison Avenue. The language that was used to convince millions to buy junk that was bad for them or that they didn't need is used to convince them to buy liberalism.

While the implications of Liberal Newspeak are ominous, its tones aren't. It deliberately embraces the feminine side of language. It strives to be comforting, nurturing and soothing. It never tells you anything directly. Instead it makes you read everything between the lines. It rarely answers questions. Instead its answers indirectly explain to you why you shouldn't even be asking the questions.

Liberal Newspeak is a language of preemption. It preempts questions and ideas. Its terminology is so vague that specific questions require a convoluted assemblage of words. The more specific the question, the more convoluted the sentence, until asking even a simple question is like trying to make a wish with a genie. And then the sheer amount of words makes the meaning impermeable.

You can't think in Liberal Newspeak. You can only feel good or bad, angry or self-satisfied. There is no room for thoughts, only feelings. You can feel guilty in Liberal Newspeak. You can be outraged, self-righteous or concerned. But you can't weigh one idea against another because it isn't a language of ideas. It's a vocabulary of emotional cues that could just as easily be taught to a smart animal.
One of the consequences is unintended consequences.
Liberals policies go awry so often in part because Liberal Newspeak makes propaganda easy, but practical planning very difficult. The language they use is designed to make people comfortable with uncomfortable things, but descends into meaningless waves of bureaucratese when discussing any specifics. That is the difference between marketing ObamaCare and making ObamaCare work.
Greenfield points out one of the attributes that makes the marketing so effective - there is no there.
Liberal Newspeak is full of terms about listening, engaging and sharing, but it's a closed loop.

It's language as a command and control mechanism for establishing conformity. There is no room for debate in Liberal Newspeak. Arguments are settled with emotional resorts to the dominant political agendas of the day.

There is no way to disprove anything in Liberal Newspeak. All you can do is denounce your opponent's lack of ideological conformity while claiming that your experience gives you special insight into the form of oppression that the political agenda is meant to solve.
And this is where we are now.
Newspeak was concerned with the manipulation of meaning, while Liberal Newspeak is concerned only with emotional cues tied to identity. It doesn't replace meaning, it displaces it. It has emotions, but no ideas. It is the noise that takes the place of the signal and the hum that ends a conversation. Its purpose is to take an individualistic culture where ideas were proven through adversarial contests of the intellect and reduce it to a conformity that promises safety in exchange for never thinking again.
How do we take back the conversation, focus on real problems and expand the knowledge frontier to find real solutions to problems that people really want solved. That is the antidote to the Gramscian infections of the mind.

But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it

Hat tip to John Stuart Mill on Being Offended at Other People’s Opinions or Private Conduct by Miles Kimball

From On Liberty By John Stuart Mill
But the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place. On questions of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of an overruling majority, though often wrong, is likely to be still oftener right; because on such questions they are only required to judge of their own interests; of the manner in which some mode of conduct, if allowed to be practised, would affect themselves. But the opinion of a similar majority, imposed as a law on the minority, on questions of[Pg 158] self-regarding conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people's opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference. There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person's taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. It is easy for any one to imagine an ideal public, which leaves the freedom and choice of individuals in all uncertain matters undisturbed, and only requires them to abstain from modes of conduct which universal experience has condemned. But where[Pg 159] has there been seen a public which set any such limit to its censorship? or when does the public trouble itself about universal experience? In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine-tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions, and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are tolerably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?
So much of what is at the center of political dispute these days seems not to bear on actions to bring improvement to individuals and to society but rather the indulgence of personal preferences and a desire to impose those personal preferences on all others. As Mill says, so much more eloquently:
There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.
Focus on implicit bias, microaggressions, historical determinism, cultural relativism, etc. are all simply tools to try and extend the power of majority coercion into the private domain of beliefs and behaviors.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Municipal moral turpitude

From Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance by Alex Tabarrok.
In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I noted that Ferguson raises an unusually high rate of revenues from fines.
You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”
It doesn’t inspire confidence, therefore, when we learn that Ferguson plans to increase its reliance on police fines as a source of revenue.
Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.
Missouri’s attorney general, however, wants to enforce limits on predatory fining:
Missouri’s attorney general announced lawsuits against 13 of this city’s suburbs on Thursday, accusing them of ignoring a law that sets limits on revenue derived from traffic fines. The move comes after widespread allegations of harassment and profiteering by small municipal governments against the poor and minorities.
…demonstrators have frequently complained about a perceived hypervigilance to minor traffic violations in St. Louis County’s patchwork of 90 municipalities. Many of those cities have their own courts and police departments, but some are only a few square blocks in size and have populations smaller than some high schools.
“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory.”
For all that the national press has tried to make an issue of the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, neither has resonated with the public, principally, I believe, because in both cases the individuals had criminal records, were involved in criminal activity and, most critically, because both were resisting arrest. Neither should have died but in both cases, their death has been seen as primarily a consequence of their own behaviors rather than due to police brutality.

The Ferguson flames have been fanned because it serves political purposes but I am afraid that the politicians have distracted from what appears to me to be a critical underlying issue - the relationship between the armed governors and the governed. I think the loss of trust in the Ferguson case is not driven so much by police behavior as by the perceived predatory behavior of the local government as manifested in the fines discussed above.

An overpopulation of criminal statutes, an overcriminalization of infractions and a potentially capricious enforcement of those statues are surefire means of driving a wedge between government and governed. More than that, it is contrary to all the precepts of American culture. Everyone agrees that people should be punished proportionately for their clear crimes. What people object to is the capriciousness, the deviousness, and the foolishness.

Punishment is intended as a mechanism for modifying behavior. It is an affront to one's sensibilities to see government use the criminal process to both raise money and criminalize otherwise law-abiding citizens. Use of fines as a means of funding municipal services and operations is a cruelly regressive form of taxation as well as a means for politicians to avoid making hard decisions. It is, in my view, one of the worst forms of class discrimination. If you want a municipal service, pay for it through your taxes, don't shift the burden to someone else. Especially don't shift that burden to the future taxpayers or to the current residents least able to pay. All this is the most shocking thing out of Ferguson and yet it is the aspect which attracts the least attention and that is the thing that is perhaps most tragic of all.

Ferguson is not about race, or police brutality, or changing demographics, or even poverty. It is about consent of the governed and the moral turpitude of some forms of government.

With all that said, read the comments to Tabarrok's post as well. The commenters raise many related issues and highlight that there are many common goods to this topic which involve hard trade-off decisions.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

When data verifies impressions

There is a new paper out which appears interesting, Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science by Jonathan Haidt, Philip E. Tetlock, et al. Leafing through it, this graph caught my eye on page 53.

The population being measured is academic psychologists.

In researching the pervasiveness of Gramscian memes it has become apparent to me that the spread of postmodernism and critical theory seems to have reached some sort of tipping point in the late 1980s. I graduated in 1982 and completed my masters in 1985. Some of the implications and ideas couched in postmodernism and critical theory were already circulating but they were by no means common or in the mainstream. Judging by the Group of 88 in the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax (from my post, The imbalance cannot last) by 2006 postmodernism and critical theory had taken over the following departments (their percentages being the percentage of professors in each department being willing to condemn and punish students without due process, merely based on their class and their race).
80% African and African-American Studies
72% Women's Studies
60% Cultural Anthropology
45% Romance Studies
42% Literature
32% English
31% Art & Art History
25% History
0% Biological Anthropology and Anatomy
0% Biology
0% Chemistry
0% Computer Science
0% Economics
0% Engineering, all departments in the entire school
0% Genetics
0% Germanic Languages/Literature
0% Psychology and Neuroscience
0% Religion
0% Slavic and Eurasian Studies
Other sources seem to indicate a prevalence of postmodernism and critical theory among the psychology, sociology, communication and education departments as well.

The chart from Haidt's paper covers only psychology and is in terms of conservative/liberal or party affiliation but it provides a trend line which matches my experience. Gramscian memes are far more prevalent on the liberal end of the scales such that they can be taken as close substitutes. These Gramscian schools of thought, so contrary to American culture, did indeed reach their critical mass in select departments only in the late 1980s or early 1990s and beyond. It explains a lot. President Sullivan (Sociology) of UVA's instinctive inclination towards group punishment based on no evidence (in the recent UVA Gang Rape Hoax), Professor Susan J. Douglas (Communications) in her recent It's Okay to Hate Republicans screed, Sabrina Rubin Erdely (author of the UVA Gang Rape Hoax article) was class of 1994 with a major in English.

These purveyors of Gramscian memes seem to be the product of a relatively recent self-destructive turn in academia. Between MOOCs, reduction in education loans, declining university revenues, tough economic environments for graduates, (particularly those with low value degrees such as studies or sociology or communications), it is likely that the education system will purge itself of much of this cognitive pollution over the next couple of decades. The faster it happens, the better and the less damage done to the lives of young people led astray by naive enthusiasm for poisonous totalitarian utopias.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Modern helots?

From All Net Jobs Growth Since 2007 Has Gone to Immigrants by Ryan Lovelace.

This is interesting and helps address a seeming paradox of the past year or so. Many headline economic indicators have been improving over the past year but clearly in terms of both measured public sentiment and in terms of just anecdotal experience the broader public isn't believing it. This paradox is captured in an article today, WH Hails Economic Gains But Poll Finds Few Concur by Alexis Simendinger.

I have set this paradox down to three possible causes: 1) That much of the headline numbers that were improving were differentially beneficial, i.e. the benefits were going to a small subsection of the public while the middle class economic experience continued to worsen, 2) aside from class disparate impact, there is also geographical disparate impact with Washington, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities doing very well while large swaths of the rest of the country continued to struggle, and 3) cherry picking of statistics - yes the unemployment rate has improved in the past year but the labor force participation rate has plunged and not recovered. But the above Lovelace article sheds some additional light on the mismatch between the numbers and the public sentiment.
All of the net gains in in jobs since 2007 have gone to immigrants — both legal and illegal — according to a new report from the Center for Immigration Studies, meaning that fewer native-born Americans are working today than were at the end of 2007.

From November 2007 through November 2014, the number of employed native-born Americans has decreased more than 1.45 million, while the number of employed immigrants has risen by more than 2 million (as the immigrant population grew rapidly, too), according to data compiled by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Native employment has still not returned to pre-recession levels, while immigrant employment already exceeds pre-recession levels,” the report says. “Furthermore, even with recent job growth, the number of natives not in the labor force (neither working nor looking for work) continues to increase.”

Native-born Americans accounted for nearly 70 percent of the growth in the population aged 16 and older, the report notes, and yet fewer of them are working now than were in 2007.
There are some really interesting, and possibly disturbing, implications in those numbers. What are the barriers, personal, psychological, institutional, legal, cultural, etc., that could explain this differential in work rates? And more pertinently, what can or ought to be done about it?

Thursday, December 18, 2014


by Sir Henry Newbolt

In seventeen hundred and fifty-nine,
When Hawke came swooping from the West,
The French King's Admiral with twenty of the line,
Was sailing forth to sack us, out of Brest.
The ports of France were crowded, the quays of France a-hum
With thirty thousand soldiers marching to the drum,
For bragging time was over and fighting time was come
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

'Twas long past noon of a wild November day
When Hawke came swooping from the West;
He heard the breakers thundering in Quiberon Bay,
But he flew the flag for battle, line abreast.
Down upon the quicksands roaring out of sight
Fiercely beat the storm-wind, darkly fell the night,
But they took the foe for pilot and the cannon's glare for light
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

The Frenchmen turned like a covey down the wind
When Hawke came swooping from the West;
One he sank with all hands, one he caught and pinned,
And the shallows and the storm took the rest.
The guns that should have conquered us they rusted on the shore,
The men that would have mastered us they drummed and marched no more,
For England was England, and a mighty brood she bore
When Hawke came swooping from the West.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Confusing the goal of being more productive and effective with the goal of simply being better rewarded, regardless of contributions

A provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day. Women at Work: A Guide for Men by Joanne Lipman. Her thesis:
I am convinced that women don’t need more advice. Men do.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love men. I’ve spent my career as a journalist at publications read primarily by men. All my mentors were men. And most professional men I’ve encountered truly believe that they are unbiased.

That said, they are often clueless about the myriad ways in which they misread women in the workplace every day. Not intentionally. But wow. They misunderstand us, they unwittingly belittle us, they do something that they think is nice that instead just makes us mad. And those are the good ones.
I love men, but they sure are stupid. Got it.

Then follows a long piece of cognitive pollution. It looks like a real argument with quotes and all but it is basically speculation based on prejudices. Don Surber initially focuses on the data aspect of the article.
Frankly, it read like a parody of a feminist piece. Its worst offense was its use of the long-discredited 77-cents-for-every-dollar-a-man-made nonsense. It was one of several faux statistics in the piece.

The point of her piece was that men have to understand the rules of women in the workplace, and not that women have to understand the rules of business. She uses a wifely logic:
I’ve been at countless meetings at various news organizations where a male editor, suggesting a story idea, loudly declares something like: “We need a piece on the drop in gas prices!” A woman, making the same point, might ask hesitantly: “Has anyone noticed that gas prices are falling? Do we know why?”

Both are saying exactly the same thing: Get me the damn story on gas prices, and get it now.
It's the old if-you-really-love-me-you'd-know-what-I-mean routine.

But actually they are not saying the same thing. One is giving an order (“We need a piece on the drop in gas prices!”), the other is asking pointless questions (“Has anyone noticed that gas prices are falling? Do we know why?”). The problem is the second speaker is not saying what she means, which means she is a poor communicator, which makes her a bad boss. The whole piece is that kind of passive-aggressive nonsense.
Helen Smith is even more direct.
Women have no idea what men in the workplace are dealing with when they work with women. And men, despite what the author thinks, are not there to babysit women by telling them to ask for raises, brushing away tears and “twisting” a woman’s arms to ask for her own promotion. If the author of the piece wants women to be respected, stop guiding men to do their work for them. If women want respect in the workplace, give them real tips on how to get it, don’t expect their bosses and co-workers to take time away from their own jobs to teach a woman how to do hers. And isn’t it sexist that the author thinks that all women need such babysitting? Most, I hope, are more capable than this author gives them credit for.
I focus on the communication aspect and the intersection between opinions and reality.

Complex enterprises are heavily dependent on effective communication. That can be accomplished by everyone sharing a common culture or by creating a common culture or by fostering direct communication or by fostering critical thinking. I posted three years ago about the efficiency of communication when you have a common culture at It contained the three words “but if not … ”

There is a place for politeness and consideration but ultimately a complex system depends on clarity and transparency. If any class of employee is more timorous than required (and it is a revealing assumption on the part of Lipman that she assumes women are so), then the action is not to accommodate temerity but to foster clarity.

Lipman has fallen into the same uncomfortable position as Anne Marie Slaughter (Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter) and Claudia Goldin (A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter by Claudia Goldin) who both have come to the conclusion that companies and professional men are doing everything they need to do in terms of being fair and yet women are still not able to have families and achieve everything that professionals without family obligations achieve. Goldin and Slaughter and now Lipman want businesses to shift their focus from serving customers with maximum efficiency and effectiveness and instead focus on making professional women as successful (regardless of their behaviors and productivity) as men by changing the business in a fashion that is less efficient and effective.

I have argued that this is not a gender issue, it is a family structure issue.

Slaughter and Goldin and Lipman are focused on how to make upper class, educated women more successful in the workplace. I think that it is unfortunate that they have ended up not focusing on how women can become more successful, but rather have ended up focusing on how businesses and others can change themselves in order to reward those women better. The first goal I believe to be valuable and admirable. I think the second goal is destructive and devaluing of women.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

RIP Merlin December 15, 2014

He was a handsome Boxer dog, with us for ten years.

He was a boon friend to the children.

Always mischievous.

A wonderful vocalist.

Always up for adventure.

Good friend and big brother to all the other animals, especially his good buddy Jinx.

He is forever in our hearts.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Productive arguments

From Bill Otis on ‘George Will, missing the mark on overcriminalization’ by Paul Cassell.

An interesting discussion. Often, policy debates are across the political spectrum, left and right. There can be so many embedded prejudices and assumptions that it is quite difficult to address the logic and evidence of the argument. Much of the debate frequently devolves immediately into ad hominem attacks and tearing down strawmen arguments rather than an actual engagement with the substance of the argument.

I find this post interesting because it is essentially within one end of the spectrum, in this case, the right. George Will makes an argument about overcriminalization and I think he is broadly correct. All laws are backed, ultimately, by the threat of sanctioned coercion up to and including the use of force which causes death. Not every law is likely to result in such an outcome but it is a feasible outcome with some degree of possibility, whether low or high. The question has to be, are we willing to use force to back up this law? If we are not willing to use force, then we probably should not pass the law because it either will not be enforced, or it will be enforced selectively. Either outcome undermines the rule of law. If we are willing to see deadly force used to uphold the law, even if a low probability, then that has to be a potential cost that has to be acknowledged.

Another conservative, Bill Otis, however, has some material disagreements with George Will and presents them in a logical and compelling fashion. All the arguments are proceeding from evidence and logic with few strawmen or ad hominem attacks. Suddenly this is both an enlightening and productive argument.

Then the commenters leap in and point out that while Otis's comments are pertinent in terms of logic and the law, they ignore both context and economics. They then address a number of Otis's arguments with Will by taking an economic perspective on the issue.

For example, Will makes the argument that the death of Eric Garner is a tragedy because it is a logically necessary consequence of the premise that the State has the authority to enforce its laws, including laws relating to taxes. Eric Garner is selling cigarettes and depriving the State of its tax revenues and reducing the market for legitimate store owners selling cigarettes. The State enforces the law with deadly force and Eric Garner dies. Doesn't matter what legislatures intended. All laws are backed with deadly force used by the State.

Otis raises numerous logical questions. Among them:
First, it might strike some that a tax on cigarettes, and criminal penalties for not paying it, are illustrations of criminalization run wild, but … are they really? Is the sales tax on furniture, tires, lemonade or a thousand other items likewise the emblem of overreach? Why would that be? Why is the taxation of cigarettes categorically different?

State sales taxes have been with us for a very long time. Did they get to be the menace of Criminalization Run Amok just last week? Are they the menace of Criminalization Run Amok at all? Will does not directly assert, and he certainly does not demonstrate, any such thing, but his thesis depends on it.

I don’t like sales taxes better than anyone else, but if state governments are to be funded, they seem like as good an idea as any. Neither such taxes nor criminal penalties for evading them had previously been thought to be the hallmark of despotism; indeed, conservatives generally prefer sales taxes to income taxes, on the theory that it’s better to tax consumption than production.
These are good questions that have to be addressed.

Which the commenters then begin to do. They point out that the opposition is not to consumption taxes per se but the distorting effects of taxes (such as sin taxes for cigarettes) and the associated opportunities for rent seeking and regulatory capture which so often run in parallel with high taxes. They point out that in economic terms, the State is trying to enforce a monopoly on cigarettes sales that directly benefits the State through high tax revenues. Eric Garner's crime, in economic terms, can be recast as the crime of encroaching on the State's self-interest in maintaining tax revenues. We are once again back to Will's point of overcriminalization from a slightly different angle.

It goes back and forth between Will and Otis and the commenters, focusing on facts and logic and context. There is some snarkiness but the ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments are reduced. Now that is a productive conversation.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The naive but clueless optimism of the academic

Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge has a new paper out. In Nudge Sunstein argues that smart people in government ought to frame things in a way to trick people (nudge them) into making decisions that the clerisy thinks is good for them.

He's back.
“Partyism” is a form of hostility and prejudice that operates across political lines. For example, some Republicans have an immediate aversive reaction to Democrats, so much so that they would discriminate against them in hiring or promotion decisions, or in imposing punishment. If elected officials suffer from partyism - perhaps because their constituents do - they will devalue proposals from the opposing party and refuse to enter into agreements with its members, even if their independent assessment, freed from partyism, would be favorably disposed toward those proposals or agreements. In the United States, partyism has been rapidly growing, and it is quite pronounced - in some ways, more so than racism. It also has a series of adverse effects on governance itself, above all by making it difficult to enact desirable legislation and thus disrupting the system of separation of powers. Under circumstances of severe partyism, relatively broad delegations of authority to the executive branch, and a suitably receptive approach to the Chevron principle, have considerable appeal as ways of allowing significant social problems to be addressed. This conclusion bears on both domestic issues and foreign affairs.
I am beginning to think that Sunstein is not the smart but naive fellow I have long considered him to be. He's getting to sound downright dangerous.

There's that tell in the abstract. Sunstein's diagnosis is that there is more extreme partyism than in the past and that is "making it difficult to enact desirable legislation." But desirable to whom? Our system makes it very hard to pass legislation which does not have a broad base of support (though notoriously some do slip through even with all the safeguards). If legislation is not broadly supported, that must mean it is not desirable to most people. What Sunstein, who perhaps is Jonathan Gruber's soulmate, appears to be suggesting is that the Constitution is rather a nuisance because it prevents passage of legislation which he considers to be desirable.

His solution to this diagnosis is "broad delegations of authority to the executive branch" and adoption of the Chevron principle. What is the Chevron principle you ask? So did I. It's basic meaning is that courts should defer to technocrats in interpreting and applying the law except where that application is blatantly illegal. So Sunstein's solution to legislative inaction (owing to fundamental disagreements among the citizenry) is to hand over power to the executive and to the experts. That has worked out so well in the past. Its nice to see progressive academics dipping back into the classics. What would Aristotle call this form of government advocated by Sunstein? A dictatorship? An oligarchy? An aristocracy of the intellectual elite? Not an Aristotelian term, but perhaps a technocracy?

Sunstein as a postmodernist, critical theorist doesn't sound quite right. However, abandonment of: rule of law, consent of the governed, natural rights, checks and balances, personal agency, etc. are all hallmarks of those stepchildren theories of Marxism.

That inclination to hand over decision-making to the "elite", whether by IQ or birth or social standing, has always been a tendency in Europe. In the US there has long been an observable inclination to disavow that there are betters. There are only citizens and there is a system of government that ensures that everyone's voice is heard and that the rights of minorities are protected from the elites and the mobs. It is these differences that underpin Jean-Fran├žois Revel's observation "that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Consent of the governed holds those with fascist inclinations in check. It probably helps that those who are governed, in the US, are also well armed courtesy of the Second Amendment, a probably underacknowledged form of check and balance.

I try and make sure that I read a range of opinions, but the abstract put me off. None-the-less, I downloaded the pdf. It follows the abstract pretty closely, fleshing it out with some bits and pieces of data. But it is pretty easy to pinpoint the weakness in Sunstein's argument. There are two critical passages that undermine his argument.
What I am urging here is that many disagreements are not really about values or partisan commitments, but about facts, and when facts are sufficiently engaged, disagreements across party lines will often melt away.
This is simply nonsense. There is a pretty broad and deep pool of research that suggests that it is very hard, and very rare to get people to change their minds about an issue, policy, or course of action simply by providing them with more and better information. Sunstein has to be aware of this body of research. If aware, though, he can't make the above assertion.

I think Sunstein also glosses over the issue of values. It is not, in my experience, the values that create problems, so much as the relative weightings in an environment of constraints. We can, and usually do, all agree that security, education, economic growth, health, liberty, freedom of speech, etc. are all good things. It is not the goals on which people usually disagree, it is the relative prioritization and the associated trade-offs. Some people value security above all else and are quite comfortable trading off liberty and rights for more security. Others value security, but are quite willing to accept greater risk in order to have more freedom of speech. Facts won't make much difference on the prioritizations and even less on the acceptable trade-offs between multiple good goals. Sunstein is simply wrong in making this assertion.

The second assertion that highlights the weakness of Sunstein's assertion is this:
Broad delegations to the executive branch make a great deal of sense, at least (and this is an important proviso) if officials within that branch can be trusted to make decisions with careful reference to the facts. In my view, institutional characteristics of the executive branch justify a degree of trust, at least as a general rule. The reason is that the executive branch – again as a general rule – tends both to have a great deal of technical expertise and to treat technical issues as they should be treated. Ironically, it has a degree of insulation from day-to-day politics, enabling it to focus on questions as specialists do. To the extent that this is so, there are significant advantages in allowing the specialists to do their work, subject of course to ultimate legislative control, but not to the day-to-day conflict made inevitable by partyism.
IF "officials within that branch can be trusted to make decisions with careful reference to the facts." That's a mighty big IF.

We know Sunstein trusts the Executive and the experts to make the right decisions. That makes sense. He is part of the body of experts and is occasionally also part of the Executive. What about the public? According to Pew Research, only 19% of the public trusts government to always or most of the time do the right thing.

After the NSA disclosures, Lois Lerner scandal, Gibson Guitars, IRS sharing of personal information with the White House, etc., is it any wonder that there is such a high level of mistrust? And given those scandals, why would Sunstein believe that the future behavior of government will be better? If you accept Sunstein's condition that his argument is predicated on the trustworthiness of government, then you have to accept that that condition is not met and therefore this argument is simply anemic speculation with no substance. Even by the apparently lax standards of the The Rolling Stone, this argument wouldn't pass muster in most publications.