Thursday, April 30, 2015

Access, anonymity, civility - pick two.

I like succinct summaries of trade-offs. The classic is the manufacturing one of "Cheap, good, quick; pick two." Then there is Milton Friedman's "You cannot simultaneously have a welfare state and free immigration."

Megan McArdle is usually pretty incisive. I like this summary from Twitter's Harassment Problem Is Just Business.
We shouldn’t have to face a trade-off between having a decent online community and having Twitter be an economic success. But life is full of trade-offs. Online communities have been struggling to solve the problem of abusive behavior for decades, and no one has come up with anything that consistently allows a system to be a) open to the public, b) anonymous, or at least pseudonymous, and c) civil. These three desirable features seem to be impossible to assemble in one package. Which is why so many websites have shut down their comments sections.
Access, anonymity, civility - pick two.

Incredible headlines

Science sometimes yields brilliant new discoveries. Sometimes it yields incredible headlines.
Ancient megadrought entombed dodos in poisonous fecal cocktail by David Shultz

The patina of wishfulness

From Gaining Momentum by the ILO - Bureau for Employers' Activities. I offer this chart with some hesitancy as I do not know the definitions being used or the quality of the data. That said, the list of countries with the highest percentage of women in managerial workforce is quite interesting and broadly consistent with other data I have seen.

Of the OECD countries, the country so often lambasted as a female unfriendly, patriarchal knuckle-dragger, the US, comes out ahead of all the other OECD countries. By a lot.

Click to enlarge.

The nearest OECD country to the US is New Zealand with women forming 40% of all managers in the workforce compared to 42.7% for the US. In other words, the US female managerial representation rate is 7% (42.7-40.0/40.0) higher than its closest OECD rival. How does the US do compared to those Scandinavian paragons of female friendly social policies designed to enable women to achieve more? Sweden - 35.5%, Norway - 32.2%, Finland - 29.7%, and Denmark - 28.4%. The US female managerial representation rate is 36% higher than the average for the Scandinavian countries.

Nothing like hard numbers to strip the patina of wishfulness off the facts of reality.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nobody can change it except the electorate themselves

After the Ferguson events I noted in Letting ideology trump effectiveness that
Such magical thinking leads to magical solutions which is what Capps is attacking. Capps points out that the problem is not actionable racism on the part of the [Ferguson] police department but the funding governance of the municipality. I agree, that is a real moral crime and if you don’t solve that problem, you will still have a gross problem that is destructive to the lives and well-being of the citizens of Ferguson. If you have a black police chief and an entirely black police force, but they are still sourcing 30% of the municipal revenue from criminal fines, then Ferguson will be no better off than it was before. Once again, we are letting race obsession stand in the way of improving the lives of citizens.
Along comes Baltimore to bolster the conclusion that these are not issues of racism as some small portion of our activists and pundits wish to make it out to be. The issue is citizen participation and government effectiveness. In Baltimore, the Mayor is black, the Police Chief is black, about half the police force is black, the Chairman of the Board of the Baltimore Public Schools is black as is the Schools CEO. Per the Justice Department's findings in Ferguson, these race circumstances should preclude police violence and rioting. But of course it doesn't because the issue is not, no matter how loudly it is trumpeted, about race. It is about civic engagement on the part of the electorate and effective governance. By always interpreting everything through the lens of race, we misdiagnose the problem and its root causes. Without understanding the real root causes, we fail to rectify the problems.

Jason L. Riley has an excellent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, The Lawbreakers of Baltimore—and Ferguson.
Broad diversity is not a problem in Baltimore, where 63% of residents and 40% of police officers are black. The current police commissioner is also black, and he isn’t the first one. The mayor is black, as was her predecessor and as is a majority of the city council. Yet none of this “critically important” diversity seems to have mattered after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died earlier this month in police custody under circumstances that are still being investigated.

Some black Baltimoreans have responded by hitting the streets, robbing drugstores, minimarts and check-cashing establishments and setting fires. If you don’t see the connection, it’s because there isn’t one. Like Brown’s death, Gray’s is being used as a convenient excuse for lawbreaking. If the Ferguson protesters were responding to a majority-black town being oppressively run by a white minority—which is the implicit argument of the Justice Department and the explicit argument of the liberal commentariat—what explains Baltimore?

[snip]

Chicago’s population is 32% black, along with 26% of its police force, but it remains one of the most violent big cities in the country. There were more than 400 homicides in the Second City last year and some 300 of the victims were black, the Chicago Tribune reports. That’s more than double the number of black deaths at the hands of police in the entire country in a given year, according to FBI data.

Might the bigger problem be racial disparities in antisocial behavior, not the composition of law-enforcement agencies?

[snip]

The violent-crime rate in Baltimore is more than triple the national average, and the murder rate is more than six times higher. As of April, city murders are 20% ahead of the number killed through the first three months of last year. But neither Mayor Rawlings-Blake nor Mr. Young needs any lectures from the media on Baltimore crime. The mayor lost a 20-year-old cousin to gun violence two years ago. And earlier this month Mr. Young’s 37-year-old nephew died from a gunshot wound to his head. Even the families of black elites in a city run by black elites can’t escape this pathology.
Other commentators see the problem not in terms of race but in terms of partisanship and government policies. See, for example, Riot-Plagued Baltimore Is a Catastrophe Entirely of the Democratic Party’s Own Making by Kevin D. Williamson. Williamson's article is red-meat partisanship but his argument is quite strong (though I think he misses the target to some degree.) Williamson points out that all the cities where there is urban unrest are governed by old-guard, unreformed, single-party political machines, characterized by both prosecuted and unprosecuted corruption, all of which happen to be Democratic.

Williamson is basically saying that Democratic urban policies are responsible for the problems we are seeing and that the Democratic politicians are not being held accountable.
A few weeks ago, there was an election in Ferguson, Mo., the result of which was to treble the number of African Americans on that unhappy suburb’s city council. This was greeted in some corners with optimism — now, at last, the city’s black residents would have a chance to see to securing their own interests. This optimism flies in the face of evidence near — St. Louis — and far — Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco . . .

St. Louis has not had a Republican mayor since the 1940s, and in its most recent elections for the board of aldermen there was no Republican in the majority of the contests; the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, effectively a single-party political monopoly from its schools to its police department. Baltimore has seen two Republicans sit in the mayor’s office since the 1920s — and none since the 1960s. Like St. Louis, it is effectively a single-party political monopoly from its schools to its police department. Philadelphia has not elected a Republican mayor since 1948. The last Republican to be elected mayor of Detroit was congratulated on his victory by President Eisenhower. Atlanta, a city so corrupt that its public schools are organized as a criminal conspiracy against its children, last had a Republican mayor in the 19th century. Its municipal elections are officially nonpartisan, but the last Republican to run in Atlanta’s 13th congressional district did not manage to secure even 30 percent of the vote; Atlanta is effectively a single-party political monopoly from its schools to its police department.

American cities are by and large Democratic-party monopolies, monopolies generally dominated by the so-called progressive wing of the party. The results have been catastrophic, and not only in poor black cities such as Baltimore and Detroit. Money can paper over some of the defects of progressivism in rich, white cities such as Portland and San Francisco, but those are pretty awful places to be non-white and non-rich, too: Blacks make up barely 9 percent of the population in San Francisco, but they represent 40 percent of those arrested for murder, and they are arrested for drug offenses at ten times their share of the population. Criminals make their own choices, sure, but you want to take a look at the racial disparity in educational outcomes and tell me that those low-income nine-year-olds in Wisconsin just need to buck up and bootstrap it?
Williamson takes some time out to document the magnitude and persistence of the corruption in the Baltimore Police Department and then returns to his main theme.
Yes, Baltimore seems to have some police problems. But let us be clear about whose fecklessness and dishonesty we are talking about here: No Republican, and certainly no conservative, has left so much as a thumbprint on the public institutions of Baltimore in a generation. Baltimore’s police department is, like Detroit’s economy and Atlanta’s schools, the product of the progressive wing of the Democratic party enabled in no small part by black identity politics. This is entirely a left-wing project, and a Democratic-party project.

When will the Left be held to account for the brutality in Baltimore — brutality for which it bears a measure of responsibility on both sides? There aren’t any Republicans out there cheering on the looters, and there aren’t any Republicans exercising real political power over the police or other municipal institutions in Baltimore. Community-organizer — a wretched term — Adam Jackson declared that in Baltimore “the Democrats and the Republicans have both failed.” Really? Which Republicans? Ulysses S. Grant? Unless I’m reading the charts wrong, the Baltimore city council is 100 percent Democratic.

The other Democratic monopolies aren’t looking too hot, either. We’re sending Atlanta educators to prison for running a criminal conspiracy to hide the fact that they failed, and failed woefully, to educate the children of that city. Isolated incident? Nope: Atlanta has another cheating scandal across town at the police academy. Who is being poorly served by the fact that Atlanta’s school system has been converted into crime syndicate? Mostly poor, mostly black families. Who is likely to suffer from any incompetents advanced through the Atlanta police department by its corrupt academy? Mostly poor, mostly black people. Who suffers most from the incompetence of Baltimore’s Democratic mayor? Mostly poor, mostly black families — should they feel better that she’s black? Who suffers most from the incompetence and corruption of Baltimore’s police department? Mostly poor, mostly black families.

[snip]

The evidence suggests very strongly that the left-wing, Democratic claques that run a great many American cities — particularly the poor and black cities — are not capable of running a school system or a police department. They are incompetent, they are corrupt, and they are breathtakingly arrogant. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore — this is what Democrats do.
I believe that Williamson's argument has substantial merit. We know that many/most Democratic Party public policies are detrimental to the well-being of citizens and the economy. But I think looking at this strictly from a partisan perspective is likely just as deceiving as looking at it solely from the perspective of race.

Where Williamson focuses on the failure of bad government policies as espoused by Democrats, I think there is somewhat different dynamic going on. Yes, the Democrats run on popular but destructive policies. But they win on those policies. Our system of republican representative democracy is rich in checks and balances which should ensure that there is no established center of power that is able to exploit the citizenry. Williamson flirts with the core issue without quite addressing it directly.

Why do citizens keep electing corrupt, dysfunctional, ineffective mayors, councilmen, representatives, etc.? Perhaps the issue is not that the Democrats have controlled all the major cities for fifty and more years and have exacted a terrible vengeance by imposing well-intended but misguided and destructive policies. Perhaps the issue is really about one-party government.

We know internationally and domestically that for a democracy to function, there have to be real choices between alternative positions and those alternatives have to be viable. You have to have real competition for votes. In most these cities, the Democrats have been in power for several generations with near absolute control. My argument is that we would likely see similar dysfunction today in any city that was Republican for fifty or more years. The problem is not necessarily particular bad policies but the political sclerosis that comes from lack of real political competition. Every stable system picks up parasites, in this instance, the parasite of insider dealing, rent seeking, regulatory capture, explicit corruption and the soft corruption of indirect favors. The only way to shake these parasites is to have real electoral competition.

Aspects of this diagnosis are seen in The Rise and Decline of Nations by Mancur Olson, The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter, Doing Bad by Doing Good by Christopher J. Coyle, and Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott.

My opinion is that race has very little to do with Ferguson or Baltimore. While specific government policies are clearly much more direct contributors than race, I think that policies are also not the whole story. Just as you can make all the elected officials African-American (the Ferguson DOJ recommendation) and it won't make any difference (see Baltimore), I think it is also true that you could fix particular government policies but you would still have a problem if you do not have viable alternatives battling the incumbents for the favor of the electorate. Individual policies are good or bad to some degree but the bigger problem is if you only have the same stale smorgasbord of failed policies with no opportunity to try something new.

Williamson keeps asking for us to identify "someone to blame for what’s wrong." He's right to do so. Checks and balances only work if there is transparency and accountability. However, in one party systems, which is what we have in most cities, there is notoriously little transparency and even less accountability.

I think we will continue to have these problems until there is real competitive elections at the local level. But how you make that come about is unclear. People are choosing the candidates that they want. More realistically, I think people are accepting the candidates with which they are presented because the cost of engagement in the political arena is so high. But until we can get the electorate to insist that both parties present viable candidates and have real political contests, we will remain mired in insider dealing, rent seeking, regulatory capture, explicit corruption and the soft corruption of indirect favors.

So who is to blame for Ferguson, for Baltimore, for Detroit, etc. It is easy to say that it is the Democrats and true to an extent. But returning the same party to power on a continuous decadal basis is a choice by the citizens of those cities. They have gotten what they chose. And really, nobody can change it except the electorate themselves.

There never was anything by the wit of man . . .

On the limits of knowledge from the preface to the Book of Common Prayer
There never was anything by the wit of man so well-devised or so sure established which in continuance of time has not been corrupted.
A nice riposte to "The science is settled."

Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy by Louis C.K.

Louis C.K. on the importance of maintaining some sense of perspective and proportion. Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy.



The page was appropriate to the dignity of the subject; the mere sight of it tuned one’s mind.

From The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft by George Gissing, a bibliomane's bibliomane. Gissing touches in the interplay between words, ideas, physicality, and aesthetics.
The joy of reading the Decline and Fall in that fine type!  The page was appropriate to the dignity of the subject; the mere sight of it tuned one’s mind.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Eerily pertinent

Tweeted out before the Baltimore events but eerily pertinent.



Revelations of argument consistency

James Taranto authors Best of the Web at the Wall Street Journal. Among his talents is a sharp eye for failures of logic when making an argument as well as evidentiary inconsistencies within an article.

It is easy to read down an article's paragraphs and fail to catch contradictions. I am impressed by his catching this one in today's Best of the Web, relating to an article in Fox News, Supreme Court justices appear divided in historic gay marriage arguments. Taranto notes:
Two Articles in One!

“Now, same-sex couples can marry in 36 states and Washington, D.C., a sign of the dramatic change in public opinion.”—FoxNews.com, April 28

“Only 11 states have granted marriage rights to same-sex couples through the ballot or the legislature. Court rulings are responsible for all the others.”—same article
And it is an interesting point. If only 11 states' legislative representatives have passed laws or citizens have voted through the ballot process to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples, your claim to a sea-change in public opinion is weak. I do believe there has been a major change in public attitudes but perhaps not as significantly as I had been assuming.

Context and effect size

I nearly fell for it. From School Vouchers Help Low-income Minority Students Earn a College Degree by Doug Gavel. I am inclined to believe that increasing choice is almost always beneficial to customers and citizens, partly because it does give the consumer more choice but also because it serves as an antidote to the sclerosis, rent seeking, and regulatory capture which set in when there is no competition and little choice.

The findings.
A break early in life can result in large gains later on. Certainly that is the case for many low-income minority students in New York City. A new study conducted by Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of the Harvard Kennedy School finds that minority students who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
10% and 35%? Wow. Those are great numbers. I was about to skim over to the next article when I scanned down further in the article . I was looking for the absolute effect size. If the intervention raised college graduation rates from 60% to 81% (a 35% increase), then that is likely well-worthwhile.

Presumably there was a cost to the voucher program and that cost has to be set against the benefits derived from the program.

So what was the base performance which improved 35%?
Bachelor’s degree attainment was 9 percent for the minority members of the control group; it increased to 12 percentage points among those who used a voucher, an increment of 35 percent.
Good for the one's who did graduate. However, an increase of 3% points off a small base isn't actually moving the dial all that much. 35% improvement sounds great but it is really just an incremental step and likely one whose costs are not covered by the improved outcomes achieved.

Too bad.

Their ignorance is hard to imagine and it can be discovered only by accident

From Road-side Dog by Czeslaw Milosz.
You have no idea what is going on in the heads of people who walk by you. Their ignorance is hard to imagine and it can be discovered only by accident. This does not mean you are wise and they are stupid: simply that everyone garners information up to a certain level only, and is unable to reach higher. Space is limited, and they may be unaware of what is happening in the next street. Also, time is limited, and events, which for you happened yesterday, for them are sunken in the fog of an indefinite past. Thus TV, print can transform and alter as they please everything that is and has been. We should wonder not at the power of propaganda but at the modest amount of knowledge which somehow gets through.

You can't simultaneously have diversity and equality

Just a thought.

You can't simultaneously have diversity and equality. They are tautologically exclusive of one another. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other.

So which is it to be?

Red Grapes

Its a changing world. From China’s Vineyards Overtake France’s as Europe Uproots Its Grapes by Rudy Ruitenberg.
China now uses more land for growing grapes than France, the world’s largest wine exporter and home of the most expensive bottles from the Burgundy region.

Chinese vine planting increased by about 5 percent last year to an estimated 799,000 hectares (1.97 million acres), according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, known by its French acronym OIV. France’s grape area slipped about 0.1 percent to 792,000 hectares.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Review of Lost in Shangri-La

I finished Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Suckoff and would recommend it. From the blurb:
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over Shangri-La, a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hiltons bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.

But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friends shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.

Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainsidea journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white manor woman.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivors diary, a rescuers journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined triodehydrated, sick, and in paintraversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.

By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.
Among the things I found striking was that the area in which their plane crashed was essentially unknown. There had been an explorer through part of the area just before the war but for all intents and purposes, there was a extensive valley in the mountains, home to some 50-100,000 stone age tribesmen who had had no contact with western civilization. That's what I find remarkable. Well into the modern era a large area both by geographical size and by population are unknown and untouched.

What the blurb does not address is that the three injured survivors managed to make their way through the jungle on their own to an open plain from which they were able to signal search planes. It was another few days before a stick of ten paratroopers, including a couple of medics, were parachuted in to both tend to their wounds and protect them from the elements and the unknown surroundings. It was then a further six weeks before they were able to be extracted from the Shangri-La valley. The mountains were too high, the intentions of the stone-age inhabitants unknown, there were still numerous Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungles, and the three survivors were still recovering from their injuries which all precluded a march out of the valley. Ultimately the army landed a glider in the valley which could be snatched via a tow rope attached to a tow plane.

An enjoyable read about a neglected theater of the war. Reminds me to some small extent of a very good from the 1980's, Missing Plane by Susan Sheehan about the later rediscovery and recovery of the crew of a crashed bomber in New Guinea in WWII.

We spell away the overhanging night

The Cool Web
by Robert Graves

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose's cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children's day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Recognizing alternative accounts

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either option.

Interpreting data

I usually agree with Heather Mac Donald's analysis of crime issues but I am wrestling with this book review, Running With the Predators a book review by Heather Mac Donald.

The book being reviewed is On the Run by Alice Goffman and came out last year. As Mac Donald describes.
The year 2014 also saw the publication of a book that addressed precisely the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement ignored. Alice Goffman, daughter of the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, lived in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood from 2002 to 2008, integrating herself into the lives of a group of young crack dealers. Her resulting book, On the Run, offers a detailed and startling ethnography of a world usually kept far from public awareness and discourse. It has been widely acclaimed; a film or TV adaptation may be on the way. But On the Run is an equally startling—if unintentional—portrait of the liberal elite mind-set. Goffman draws a devastating picture of cultural breakdown within the black underclass, but she is incapable of acknowledging the truth in front of her eyes, instead deeming her subjects the helpless pawns of a criminal-justice system run amok.

At the center of On the Run are three half-brothers and their slightly older friend Mike, all of whom live in a five-block area of Philadelphia that Goffman names Sixth Street. Sixth Street, we are told, isn’t viewed as a particularly high-crime area, which can only leave the reader wondering what an actual high-crime area would look like. In her six years living there, Goffman attended nine funerals of her young associates and mentions several others, including one for “three kids” paid for by local drug dealers, eager to cement their support in the community.
I read a number of reviews at the time the book came out and came away with three impressions. First was that Goffman had produced a remarkable look into a world often glossed over. Second was that she showed immense courage and likely sacrifice to conduct the research under the conditions she did. Third was that her detailed, intimate anthropological field work highlighted the ethical challenges that arise in such situations. From the examples offered in the, often favorable, reviews, it was clear that she became sufficiently close to her subjects to effectively, through sins of omission, become an accomplice to some of their crimes. At least from an ethical perspective. Mac Donald offers a critical example.
It is remarkable enough that Goffman, seeing the lawless behavior of Sixth Street’s “dirty people,” still views them as helpless victims of a racist criminal-justice system. She has clearly been captured by her subjects. After Chuck is killed, she chauffeurs Mike around the neighborhood, Glock in his lap, as he seeks to find and gun down the murderer. She feels “ashamed and sorry” about being white, when Miss Linda’s extended family complains about there being a white girl in their midst. (Such pervasive antiwhite antagonism is perhaps the best-kept secret about black inner-city culture.) Goffman refuses to give the police information about the crimes she has witnessed.
The substance of Goffman's critique is that the criminals in her book are substantially victims of the criminal and policing system whereas Mac Donald takes the opposite view that the criminals in Goffman's book are in the situations they are in due to their own serial bad decision-making.

Mac Donald attributes Goffman's inability to maintain perspective to an ideological vision.
Revealingly, Goffman explains how she arrived at her incongruous interpretation of Sixth Street’s malaise. As a graduate student at Prince-ton, she had been casting about for a theme for her still-growing ethnographic material. Princeton was a “hotbed” of mass-incarceration theory, she says, which holds that American prison practices have “cease[d] to be the incarceration of individual offenders and [have become] the systematic imprisonment of whole groups,” in the words of sociologist David Garland. Eureka! Under the tutelage of Bruce Western and other criminal-justice critics (and with obvious influence from the writings of Michel Foucault), Goffman comes to see that her “project could be framed as an on-the-ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying systems of policing and surveillance. I was documenting the massive expansion of criminal justice intervention into the lives of poor Black families in the United States.”

Yet Goffman’s material refuses to conform to this template. To her credit, she devotes a chapter to “clean people”—individuals who have no dealings with the criminal-justice system. A group of young men on Sixth Street try to steer as clear as possible from the “dirty people.” They remain at home at night, playing video games together. They drink beer, rather than smoke marijuana, because there are drug tests at their jobs, which include security guard, maintenance man, and convenience-store clerk. If they lose their jobs, they don’t start dealing drugs; they rely on friends and family until they find another position. When they break traffic laws, they pay off their fines and recover their driving licenses before they start driving again. Their unassuming rejection of criminality comes as an enormous relief after the squalid behavior of Goffman’s closest associates. Their respect for the law should be celebrated and studied, as Robert Woodson has long advocated.
This is different from the ideological blinkers of, for example, a Sabrina Rubin Erdely (of UVA Rape Hoax infamy) who went looking for a story that would support her thesis and, in the absence of such stories, ended up accepting the fabulist concoctions of a disturbed young woman instead. This is a different situation. It appears by all accounts that Goffman has produced an incredible story based on facts. The problems appears not so much to be the facts as the interpretation thereof. As with Erdely, Goffman had a worldview she wanted to communicate and she has used the facts available to reveal that worldview. Her fault appears to be not in the reporting but in the analysis. She embeds herself in her subject's world and she reports it as they interpret it, abandoning the scientific method of questioning the facts and the interpretation in order to deal with alternate hypotheses.

I think Mac Donald is fundamentally correct in her criticism of Goffman. However, I do think Mac Donald steps over a very real issue. Living at the edge of poverty, people often have extremely chaotic lives which in turn makes the probability of a bad decision much more likely. When a bad decision goes wrong, there then tends to be a quick and catastrophic cascade of negative consequences. That is terrible. But what intelligent policies can be undertaken to change that?

We have tried and will continue to try to square the circle but often we have competing good goals backed with competing good intentions that end up working against one another. The classic example is child-support. A man fathers a child out of wedlock and the state properly holds him accountable for contributing financially to the welfare of that child. But if that father is low skill and edge of poverty, it is only a jay-walking fine away from falling behind in child support payments which then trigger garnishments, arrests, court appearances, criminal records, etc.

It is right that we should have child-support laws. It is right that we should enforce them. But how do we prevent those laws and enforcement from making a bad situation worse? Similar with crime. It is right to have those laws and it is right to enforce them. We can't lose sight of the greater majority of people in a high crime neighborhood who are law abiding and need protection from criminals. But those laws and punishments have disproportionate consequences on people at the margin.

Sometimes, the effort to do right leads to bad outcomes. A lot of people in Goffman's book end up getting trapped through multiple court ordered appearances for parole violations and things of that nature. You can look at that and say it is bad that they are being jerked around on minor parole violations. On the other hand, you can acknowledge that they are out of jail as systematic effort to give people second chances and they have blown their second chance by failing to comply with reasonable conditions.

I think Mac Donald is broadly right overall and that she does a good job of demolishing Goffman's central thesis. The problems these individuals have are largely self-created and the tragedies are not a consequence of a systemic racism in the legal and criminal system. On the other hand, I think Mac Donald fails to acknowledge a very real situation that Goffman does document which is that we have a lot of good goals, we have good intentions, we have multiple policies to achieve those goals but that too often those goals and policies are both contradictory of one another and exact too great a price on those most vulnerable in our society.

Those who fail, largely fail through their own actions but we would all benefit if we could find better ways to prevent them from failing in the first place.

UPDATE: A compelling critique of On the Run in Ethics On The Run by Steven Lubet. It turns out, as well, that Goffman destroyed all her notes from the six years of research. All we are left with is her word that the things she says happened, actually did happen.

The Harvard of safety schools

From George Washington University’s Swastika Problem by Kevin D. Williamson. Williamson is concerned about the decline of free speech on university campuses and the rise of intolerance and totalitarian restrictions in the progressive cause. His wide ranging article roams about the plains of Free Speech, picking at many issues and serving up many examples of egregious university behaviors. Kind of interesting but nothing particularly new. Except for this wonderful line.
George Washington University (“the Harvard of safety schools,” as alumnus Dan Foster calls it) has a swastika problem.
Stanford is the Harvard of the West, Notre Dame the Harvard of the Midwest, Emory (or is it Duke?) is the Harvard of the South. Everyone wants to claim the mantle. But I love that wonderful play, "The Harvard of safety schools."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good question - Greedy voters or greedy companies?

Having just come across Philip Greenspun's blog, I find he is full of great questions. I love fresh perspectives.

Here's one his questions:
Why are the stories about U.S. corporate tax avoidance about corporate greed rather than non-corporate greed?
The background that leads to his question.
“Ten Percent of S&P 500 Companies Avoid Paying U.S. Taxes” is a Bloomberg story that a friend cited on Facebook in disgust: “Plutocracy on parade.” The article notes that “At 35 percent, the U.S. corporate rate is the highest in the developed world.” (Actually closer to 40 percent if you include state taxes on corporate income; see KPMG and compare to the European average of less than 20 percent) So there are two potential stories here:

American corporations, their owners, and their managers are greedy because they are trying to avoid double taxation of profits by converting to REITs or they are trying to avoid the U.S. corporate tax on worldwide operations by moving to low-tax foreign jurisdictions.

Americans who don’t invest or work in private corporations are the world’s greediest people when it comes to demanding a share of the profits generated by fellow citizens who do invest and work in such corporations.

Story #1 seems to be all that we ever get. Nobody seems to be interested in why Americans who aren’t involved in a company feel entitled to take 40 percent of the company’s profits (and go to the polls to elect politicians who will take it for them)

The practising that went before

To Magdalena Mulet, Margita Mora & Lucia Graves
by Robert Graves

Fairies of the leaves and rain,
One from England, two from Spain,
You who flutter, as a rule,
At Aina Jansons’ Ballet School,
O what joy to see you go
Dancing at the LĂ­rico:
Pirouetting, swaying, leaping,
Twirling, whirling, softly creeping,
To a most exciting din
Of French horn and violin!
These three bouquets which I send you
Show how highly I commend you,
And not only praise the bright
Brisk performance of tonight
(Like the audience), but far more
The practising that went before.
You have triumphed at the cost
Of week-ends in the country lost,
Aching toes from brand-new points,
Aching muscles, aching joints,
Pictures missed and parties too,
And suppers getting cold for you
With homework propped beside the plate,
Which meant you had to sit up late.
From dawn to midnight fairies run
To please both Aina and the Nun.

Old Boy's Club as a toothless tiger

From *How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs* by Tyler Cowen
…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization. HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees. Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm. First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.
I'll keep my eye open for this book. Could be interesting.

For all the talk about Old Boys Clubs and other such mythical beasts of the fevered imagination of Social Justice Warriors, the above description reads much more true. Sure, there are group affiliations but rarely of a singular nature. In other words, it is imagined that there is discriminatory favoritism based on where you graduated from school, what social club you belong to, etc. As with all imaginary root causes, it does have a grain of truth.

People in dynamic, competitive, uncertain systems always face the issue of dealing with strangers (as peers, subordinates, bosses, clients, suppliers, etc.) about whom they know very little. It costs time and money and risk to get to know them in greater depth, an action also constrained by the reality that there are only 24 hours in the day. Faced with this dilemma people do tend to fall back on heuristics and stereotypes but they also fall back on affiliative groups.

If I am hiring a new staff consultant, there is only a small amount I can glean from an interview and a resume and even from a background check. I will know something more than nothing, but not near enough to make an accurate prediction as to whether this person will be net additive to the organization's value. However, if someone I know also knows this candidate and is willing to endorse them, all of a sudden I have a lot of indirect information. The recommender has skin in the game because they would not make a recommendation that might put our own relationship in jeopardy. Consequently such a recommendation carries a lot of weight. In addition, someone from my affiliative social network who also knows this candidate is able to match knowledge of me and the candidate in a more impartial fashion.

Where Social Justice Warriors and others go off the rails is in imagining that the Old Boys Club consists of some insular, selective, restricted group based on historical stereotypes. The reality is that we are all members of many and disparate voluntary self-selected affiliative associations including church, business, university, high school, sports teams, professional associations, clubs, neighborhood associations, political groups, volunteer associations, etc. The number is effectively limitless.

If I am in business I look to all these affiliations, in which there is usually some form of intra-group facilitation and assistance, for business leads, introductions, wisdom, experience, recommendations, endorsements, etc.

The old trope that business deals get done in an Old Boy's Club is true to the extent that the Club is all natural social affiliations any individual has and is false to the extent that it is intended to indicate some stable group of individuals tightly linked and mutually reinforcing at the expense of everyone else.

By positing some fixed, stable and exclusive group of decision-makers constituted of individuals that club together based on birth or education, SJWs send people down the wrong path. That is not how decisions are made and until individuals recognize that much more of the outcome rests in their own decisions, then they will be wasting their time attacking the chimera of the Old Boys Club instead of building their own affiliative social networks and they will not progress.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Why did people think that this case was strong?

From Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins wrap-up by Philip Greenspun. Click the link for the background.
The jury has returned and Kleiner Perkins is not guilty of sex discrimination.

How is it possible to lose a lawsuit like this in one of the most plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions in the world? As noted in my previous postings (first; second), it was hard to explain why the partners of Kleiner Perkins wanted to make themselves poorer by promoting an unqualified man in favor of a qualified woman. Discrimination of any kind might make sense for a manager at a government agency. His or her salary won’t change if less qualified or productive people are hired to fill jobs. His or her customers cannot be wooed away by a more efficient competitor. But almost anyone should be able to understand that for a VC partnership, indulging in discrimination will personally cost the partners. In addition, Pao had the “bad fact” of the affair with the married co-worker, a circumstance that most people can understand might lead to on-the-job problems.
Greenspun asks a great question.
Why did people think that this case was strong? My theory is that American journalists and pundits, nearly all of whom have no technical education or experience with industry that depends on engineering, simply wanted to write about gender discrimination. Here’s an example from Forbes: “Cracking The Boys Club: Jenny Lee On What It Means To Be The Top Woman In Venture Capital” (March 25, 2015). Forbes talks about VC being a “boys club” (headline) and implies that the U.S. VC world is not “open to female venture capitalists”. These statements are directly contradicted by the woman who is supposedly the subject of the piece. The interviewee, who actually some experience with venture capital and engineering, says that VC “is capitalism at its ultimate. To do well you have to understand this point. No one is going to be nice to you because of your age, or where you come from or your gender. The VC industry is about survival of the fittest, and that’s the same mindset we give to our entrepreneurs.” When pressed as to why there are few female VCs she points out that less than 10 percent of her engineering class at Cornell were female.

Plainly Ms. Pao would be close to $200 million richer today if the jury had been 12 journalists from the New York Times and other publications that reported on the case as though the guilt of Kleiner Perkins had been established prior to trial. Denied a place in the jury box, what are these folks writing now? That this lawsuit was somehow useful in “starting a conversation.” None of the articles about how great this is for the nation mention the fact that it had to cost Kleiner Perkins at least $10 million in legal fees and distraction/time.
I would file this, along with so much else in the mainstream media as advocacy journalism blinded by an unawareness of their own differentiation from the great majority of Americans.

This is what you get for $200,000?

Heh. For all that Sommers is poking some fun, I have wondered about this very thing.



I have recruited and hired hundreds of people over the years in half a dozen countries. My general observation is that appearances count for very little but that they do sometimes shed light on underlying behaviors and values.

Generally, you are looking for three things necessary to create value: 1) ability to fulfill some specific knowledge and/or skill set, 2) ability to fit in with the company's culture as well as the client's culture, and 3) the demonstrated capacity to adjust, adapt, and grow over time and with changing circumstances. In particular, you are looking for a self-directing, low maintenance employee. Every organization which I have ever managed has exhibited the Pareto Distribution of Management Time Consumption. 20% of employees (and usually a much smaller number) account for 80% of the time an executive has to spend on employees.

A resume gives you some indication of skills and knowledge and experience but they are at best indicative. You'd think that face-to-face interviews are more valuable but they also are prone to certain systemic errors. For all the time and research, for most companies, it appears that after a few critical hurdles, it is very much a hit and miss process in terms of whether who you hire actually fulfills your hopes and expectations. All that said, I set most store in terms of evidence that reveals something about the person's behaviors and values.

From the link. The Oberlin College student self-reports:
On April 1, I interviewed for a programming job at OnShift, a Cleveland-based tech company that makes medical shift scheduling software. Two weeks later, I received a phone call from the recruiter who had contacted me about the position, saying that they would not be hiring me. The hiring director had relayed to her that they would have hired me based on my personality and technical abilities, but would not be doing so because of the way I looked. I was informed that my appearance “looked more like I was about to go clubbing than to an interview,” and that the run in my tights, coupled with my mild lateness — which I had informed them of earlier, due to my afternoon class — suggested to them that I was “unprofessional and not put together.”
It is the student's interpretation that she was "denied a job on an all-male development team for what I looked like."

But is that likely how it occurred? An alternate explanation from the company's perspective, given only the information that the writer, Elizabeth Bentivegna, provides might run along different lines. I can imagine the interviewer notes might look something like "Candidate appears to have the technical skills we are seeking and was poised and pleasant to speak with. However, the candidate was late to the interview, wore attire inappropriate to a business environment, and did not appear careful even about the details of her presentation (runs in her stockings). This would seem to indicate carelessness (being late), lack of familiarity with business norms (inappropriate attire) and poor attention to detail (runs in stockings). Given the numerous other well qualified candidates, let's pass on this one."

I have no idea whether that is what actually happened but it seems as reasonable a conclusion, or more so, as Bentivegna's conclusion. If you are new to the professional workplace, it is easy to discount the details and context about which you might know nothing.

Given the rest of her letter, it would appear that OnShift dodged a bullet. There are a lot of indications of a high maintenance employee including:
Jumping to conclusions ("I was denied a job on an all-male development team for what I looked like.")

My "experience has definitely helped me care less about what people think."

I carry a grudge ("I have a few more things to say to OnShift and anyone in tech who considers themselves an ally of women.")

I communicate in two modes, OUTRAGE and Cliches ("pull your heads out of the sand and face the winds of change".

"The concept of “professionalism” in terms of dress is outdated and oppressive from many angles."

Your primary goal should be to serve my ideology ("You cannot cherry-pick which parts of progressivism you embrace.")

You are in business to serve me ("You cannot stretch out your hand to those in need and yank it back on a petty whim.")

It shouldn't matter what I look like ("But it doesn’t matter what I looked like precisely.")

You should hire based on what I think the requirements should be rather than what you think the requirements should be ("Why was my ability to code not enough?")

I demand compassion ("if you do not show your candidates adequate compassion, you’re not going to get one.")
I did find this line of her argument interesting. She seems to acknowledge that it is reasonable for a company to want its employees to appear professional. "When a man needs to look “professional,” he puts on a suit. Done." So the importance of attire is accepted. The apparent issue for Bentivegna is that OnShift did not accept her perception of what constituted professional attire for a woman. Despite the hundreds or thousands of books on variations of Dress for Success, Bentivegna appeared to be under the impression that "a fitted black T-shirt, a red skater skirt, black tights (yes, with a run, the horror!) and a black cardigan" might constitute professional attire. Unless she is taking Abby Sciuto as her role model, this does not match any known standard of professional attire. Given that she is attending Oberlin College, I find it hard to believe that Bentivegna would actually be that unaware or have done so little research. Her description almost sounds like she was making a statement along the lines of "I don't accept your bourgeoise definitions of professional attire."

Later, Bentivegna has set up some hypothetical questions which she has for OnShift, including this revealing one.
So you think she’s a brilliant programmer but doesn’t seem professional enough? Hire her so you can mentor her and help her become a better working woman. We don’t need to have our actions scrutinized and ripped apart in search of error. We need guidance and an opportunity to show the world what a woman in technology looks like. And after everything we have been subjected to, you need to roll out the red carpet for us.
This seems to reveal a mindset where there are no other candidates and where it is the company's obligation to serve and provide for the employee and take on the obligation of improving the employee rather than the reality that it is the employee who seeks to create value for the employer.

Callow, self-centered, and staggeringly unaware children of privilege or in the throes of an ideology are nothing new.

What is striking is not so much the behaviors of the author of this embarrassing screed. What is striking is that Oberlin College is doing so little to help its students understand and prepare for the business world. Oberlin costs $200,000 for a four year degree. This is what you get for $200,000?

One explanation for triggering hysteria

From What Plato Said About Trigger Warnings by James Poulos.
From a traditionally liberal standpoint, the intellectual inconsistency displayed by Oberlin’s outraged students is frightful. When they harass, they are freedom fighters; when they feel harassed, they are victims of terrorism. One group of students who organized an alternative to the Sommers event warned that any “toxic, dangerous, and/or violent” people would be screened out. “We’re pretty cool,” said one, crystallizing the apparent hypocrisy with a knowing half-joke. “We only bite people we dislike.” Trigger warning indeed!

But rather than mocking Oberlin’s rancorous undergrads, it’s imperative, in spite of it all, to understand them. At stake is not just our niceness or meanness, but our ability to make sense of the world we live in. Fact: We really do not want the culture war to become a fight between demonized, depersonalized, thoroughly “othered” camps.

We hesitate, however, to embrace such forbearance, because traditional liberalism has failed so hard in explaining the source of our mutual rancor. From the standpoint of traditional liberalism—what with its cherished “values” like “openness,” “tolerance,” and “conversation”—there is just no way to access the phenomenon of today’s culture war, or the psychology of its frenzied combatants.

With apologies to liberalism, it’s time to hark back to a much earlier philosophical framework in order to escape the black hole suction of the culture wars.

Lucky for us, one flare up in particular at the Sommers event shows how more ancient wisdom can explain our fury. As Sommers recounted:
Told students that women could narrow wage gap by changing majors from, say, sociology to engineering. Room erupted. Horrified gasps & jeers.

From the perspective of mainstream, old-school philosophical liberalism, this is inexplicable. From Plato’s perspective, however, it makes perfect sense.

In the Republic, Plato presented Socrates as claiming that different types of political regimes follow one upon the next in a depressing slide from the rule of the best to the rule of the worst. Plato’s Socrates theorizes that society declines this way because we humans imitate each other even in spite of ourselves. Although succeeding generations reject the flawed models of their forebears, their attempts to improve those models can’t help but smuggle in the flawed ideals at their heart. By trying to fix what’s broken, we only get better at brokenness.

Plato’s Socrates explains that one generation’s love of honor strikes its children as too warlike, cruel, and hard a life to secure happiness. So the children replace it with a love of money. But their children see oligarchic life as too materialistic, shallow, and all-consuming to secure happiness. So they replace it with a love of all things equally. From there, says Plato’s Socrates, this “democratic” taste for respecting all values causes a new generation to embrace tyranny in political life and trivia in cultural life—where, in the parlance of our times, “lol nothing matters.”

Another way of putting this is that the democratic “soul” wants to defend the equal value of everything because only that kind of equality protects our ability to choose what to love in accordance with what we find meaning in. From this standpoint, both money and trivia are too crass and empty to give our lives meaning. We need to make life safe for meaning. And in a world where the triumph of money and the triumph of trivia threaten it at every turn, extremism in the defense of meaning is no vice at all.

Why would a call for more women in engineering provoke a hideous outcry? Because, Plato might say, although the longing to close the wage gap is strong, it is not as strong as the longing to protect and privilege the meaning of experience. It is an attack on the primacy of meaning for people like Sommers to propose that sociology (which today is almost synonymous with the study of how to politicize meaning) must be sacrificed to increase monetary equality. By giving up the study of sociology in favor of playing the patriarchal game by its own rules, the logic runs, women risk achieving marginal higher wages at the cost of dismantling the apparatus of social justice.
Well, that's one explanation.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Well intended but poorly argued

An interesting account, College for the Masses by David Leonhardt.

Leonhardt appears to be in the advocacy corner for creating circumstances under which more students can attend university. He has seized on a couple of research papers that he thinks support his position. But I am not sure that they do, based on his reporting of the results of those papers.

Leonhardt poses a number of persistent and legitimate questions about university education.
How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.
What both papers appear to support is the relatively uncontested evidence that completing university has a material financial benefit, to the tune of a 20% income premium over those who do not attend university. But that doesn't answer the questions being asked.

The income premium is only earned by those who complete college, not those who enroll and don't complete. There is a real cost in terms of postponed income when attending university. There are loans that might have to be taken out. Lost income and future interest payments might be well worthwhile if the degree is completed and the credential premium earned. But only if completed.

While elite universities have six-year graduation rates in the high nineties, for most others the rates are down in the sixties and lower. You can't just count the benefit to those who graduated. You have to count the costs incurred by those who enrolled but didn't complete. Those costs can be crippling and take decades to pay off. Without taking into account both costs and benefits to the entire population of university attendees, either the researchers or Leonhardt have put their thumb on the scale to arrive at the predetermined conclusion that attending university is an ineffably good thing.

Leonhardt's original questions are good ones. There is demonstrable evidence that completing university increases personal productivity (and other good life outcomes). But what we need to know is what can government properly and effectively do to make it as easy as possible for everyone who can gain productivity from the university experience to do so while not incurring any costs for people who can't benefit from university (because they fail to complete). Until you unlock the issue of being able to accurately predict those who can complete university and properly and fairly distinguish them from those who can't, then you aren't going to make much progress. Currently we make it as easy as possible for everyone to attend university and we celebrate those who graduate and count their benefits from attending. We ignore the costs of failing to graduate. Costs to the attendee and the costs to the taxpayers who is on the hook for loans that will never be repaid.

And lurking under all this is Leonhardt's disdain for two-year colleges/community colleges. Places where you can increase your productivity without, ideally, incurring the crippling costs associated with the structured four year program. My interpretation is that Leonhardt suffers from that common prejudice among the clerisy that if you can give people the outward attributes of the middle class (university education, home ownership, etc.) then the increase in personal productivity will magically follow.

As many of the commenters to his article are pointing out, productivity flows from the behavioral attributes (self-control, self-discipline, perseverance, commitment, etc.) that enable successful completion of university. It is those attributes which lead to increased productivity, not the credential. Until you have a way of fostering those successful behaviors, you will just be wasting individual and taxpayer money by flushing ever more bodies through the higher education mill.

We want to find the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to enable people to increase their own personal productivity at any stage in their life. University might be the answer for some. Nothing in this reporting of the research tells me that they actually know how to figure who would benefit.

To find political tolerance, seek religiously affiliated universities. For partisan homogeneity, seek public institutions.

From Faculty Partisan Affiliations in All Disciplines: A Voter-Registration Study by Christopher F. Cardiff and Daniel B. Klein.
ABSTRACT: The party registration of tenure-track faculty at 11 California universities, ranging from small, private, religiously affiliated institutions to large, public, elite schools, shows that the “one-party campus” conjecture does not extend to all institutions or all departments. At one end of the scale, U.C. Berkeley has an adjusted Democrat:Republican ratio of almost 9:1, while Pepperdine University has a ratio of nearly 1:1. Academic field also makes a tremendous difference, with the humanities averaging a 10:1 D:R ratio and business schools averaging 1.3:1, and with departments ranging from sociology (44:1) to management (1.5:1).Across all departments and institutions, the D:R ratio is 5:1, while in the “soft” liberal-arts fields, the ratio is higher than 8:1.These findings are generally in line with comparable previous studies.
Nothing really new here. It is well established and long established that universities in the US suffer an extreme ideological imbalance that is also unreflective of the at-large population.

What caught my attention were the five universities that came closest to a partisan balance. Two religiously affiliated universities Point Loma Nazarene University and Pepperdine University had the closest to a representative partisan ratio of Democrats to Republicans with ratios of 1.0, 0.9, respectively. In other words, counter to stereotypes, religious universities were the most politically diverse in the California sample and the state institutions (with a greater obligation to support diversity and to reflect the demographics of the state) were by far the most unrepresentative with ratios of between 7 and 9 Democrats for every Republican.

The stereotype is of religiously affiliated universities being more dogmatic and hewing to a particular belief system and less tolerant of those who depart from the orthodoxy. This is a great example of measurement refuting stereotypes or of measurement disabusing us of illusions. From this small sample, it appears that religiously affiliated universities are actually the ones that are most philosophically diverse and tolerant.

Economics of soft corruption

In an age of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized recording and surveillance tools, it has become hazardous for those seeking to buy political or regulatory favor to do so with explicit transactions of the old form: I will give you $X million in return for a favorable decision for this bid for work with the government or for this regulatory change which will be beneficial to my commercial interests.

In local politics, at least in my state, there is, instead, a lot of soto voce corruption. Nothing that is illegal but favors that are done at two and three removes. Donor X gives to Recipient Y's cause or foundation, Recipient Y being a confidante or patron of Politician Z with regulatory or commercial purview over Donor X's industry. Nobody is bribing anyone but the taxpayers interests are not being served and ethics are not being minded.

As an economist, the lack of causal connectivity between the actions of Donor X and the regulatory decisions of Politician Z poses a problem. From a real world perspective, you know there is an issue but being able to measure it is problematic.

Consequently, A Quick Guide to the Questions About Clinton Cash by David A. Graham caught my eye. The Clinton Foundation has long struck me as at best a minefield of conflicts of interest and at worst, self-serving soft corruption. Its low rate of expenditures on activities that are demonstrably philanthropic in nature heightens that concern.

I have long wondered whether Hillary Clinton's continued role in politics, first as Senator, then as Secretary of State and now as a second-run Presidential candidate might not simply be a means of keeping the cash flowing. Her baggage train looks like that of an ancient potentate, her positions mixed, muddled and contradictory, her retail political skills negligible and indeed destructive, her tin ear deaf to the common vernacular, etc. Her age and health might be issues. There seems like an almost inexhaustible number of reasons why she perhaps ought not to run. So why is she running? Hunger for power is the easy answer and cannot be discounted. But I have wondered as well for a couple of years whether her running isn't the means of keeping the cash flowing into the Clinton Foundation and into their personal accounts. What will happen to the flow of donations and payments for speeches if she drops out and there is no Clinton running for any position of authority? My suspicion is that the money tap closes at that point.

Graham provides a data point which bolsters that cynical economic view.
While the Times story focused on the policy implications of money coming into the Clinton Foundation, it also pointed to the other side of that coin—that Hillary Clinton's time at Foggy Bottom was lucrative for the Clinton family. ABC digs more deeply into that, and finds that Bill Clinton's speaking fees doubled or tripled once his wife become secretary of state:
Where he once had drawn $150,000 for a typical address in the years following his presidency, Clinton saw a succession of staggering paydays for speeches in 2010 and 2011, including $500,000 paid by a Russian investment bank and $750,000 to address a telecom conference in China.
Some of the groups shelling out to hear the former president speak also had business before the State Department. Department ethics officials reviewed the speaking engagements, but apparently rarely, if ever, objected. As with the other cases, there's no clear proof of a quid pro quo, but it's also hard not to imagine that those paying Bill Clinton might have hoped it would give them extra access or sympathy with Hillary Clinton. ABC's scoop partly follows on Schweizer's book.
Bill Clinton's speeches have a going rate of X. His wife becomes Secretary of State and, nothing else changing, those same speeches are now valued in the marketplace at 3X - 5X. From a strictly economic perspective this is strong evidence for the expectation on the part of donors that payments to Bill Clinton will yield benefit in the future in terms of decisions Hillary Clinton will make. That doesn't mean that that benefit was delivered, merely that the donors expected that it would be.

In social sciences, the null hypothesis is that nothing makes a long-term, scalable, replicable difference

From The Null Hypothesis in Education is Hard to Disprove by Arnold Kling.
In education, the null hypothesis is that nothing makes a long-term, scalable, replicable difference. That is:

1. Take any pedagogical innovation or educational intervention.

2. Subject it to a controlled experiment.

3. Evaluate the experiment’s outcome several years later.

4. If the experiment works, attempt to replicate the experiment in more situations.

By the time you reach step 4, if not sooner, you will be unable to show that the innovation makes any difference in outcomes. What this suggests to me is that in the long run it is the characteristics of the students that determine outcomes, at least on average. Think of an individual student as “predestined” to reach a certain outcome. An educational intervention can disturb their path to the predestined outcome but will not change the outcome. I do not literally believe this model, but it is a null hypothesis that is difficult to disprove.
I would expand this null hypothesis to the social sciences in general, not just education.

I would also argue that this is an example of the argument I have made elsewhere on Thingfinder, that one of the challenges in the social sciences is that the pace of social change (along with technology, regulation, demographic, etc.) effectively precludes the application of the scientific method. You can never step in the same river twice. You run a longitudinal study showing pedagogical practices X in grade school in the 1970's are associated with desirable life outcome changes Y in the 2000s. According to the scientific method, you now have to replicate these findings. But technological, regulatory, societal, and other changes mean that there are material differences between your grade school population in 2015 and your grade school population in 1970. You are now, on an empirical basis, comparing apples and oranges. In other words, for reasons beyond your control, you cannot actually replicate the conditions of your experiment conducted in 1970 in 2015.

That is the tragedy and paradox of social sciences. They want to be respected like the hard sciences and yet the nature of the field precludes them from using the methodologies and techniques which allow the hard sciences to be respected. Social Sciences can give us indications or informed speculation but it struggles to produce anything that is robust and replicated.

Critical thinking and an intolerance of alternative points of view cannot coexist

Well, yeah.



Thursday, April 23, 2015

Calling out classist privilege

I have seen a lot of people criticize Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for her brand of feminism claiming that you can have it all if you will only "lean in." The specific criticism has been "fine to lean in, if you can afford it." This has been a subset of the not uncommon criticism of current feminism which is that it is a fiercely classist movement seeking to advance the interests of privileged upper class women at the expense of all men and most women.

This artcile, The True Cost of Leaning In by Hannah Seligson begins to put some meat on those argumentative bones. As Seligson points out,
How much do you have to spend on household help to replace a traditional at-home mom—someone to do the schlepping, cooking, cleaning, child care, and laundry? About $96,261, according to Investopedia.
I am not confident in Seligson's close to $100,000 figure. I suspect that the figure is more likely in the $30-60,000 figure for a solidly middle class family. But precision isn't so important in this argument as simply having a concrete number with which to test the suppositions. On that basis I will use Seligson's figure.

So your job has to pay you at least $100,000 in order to cover the costs of not being at home with a child. Approximately 75% of all households earn less than $100,000 and about 90% of individuals earn less than $100,000. And $100,000 is the minimum you have to earn to make it worthwhile by covering your outflows. If you want to actually have some take home pay, that has to be on top of the $100,000. So let's say your goal is to have at least $50,000 on top of the replacement costs of $100,000, then you are looking at finding a job earning $150,000. You are already in the top 5% of earners.

So Sandberg is really only talking to the privileged upper class 5% of women. 100% of men and 95% of other women are not invited to the conversation based on Seligson's reporting. Seligson drives home the classist elitist message.
In the face of these spiraling costs at home, it’s hardly a mystery why many women choose to lean out of modest-earning careers.

If this all sounds elitist, let’s remember that even though Sandberg does her best to get folksy and put on her I-am-every-woman-persona, she isn’t. The dead giveaway is when she recounts an anecdote from her senior year at Harvard about how she forgot to connect the Freudian id to Schopenhauer’s conception of the will on a European intellectual history exam. I’m sorry, this book is a primer for women with impressive pedigrees—the types who apply, and land, jobs at McKinsey, who work in prestigious government jobs, and get plum internships as high school students. This is the breed of women who are fast-tracked for success, but get stymied for a number of reasons, one of which is the cost of child care and the lack of planning for it.

Increasing your odds of literary posterity

I have long been fascinated with the question regarding what factors are there which might predict which books succeed or fail. Which ones might not sell at all, which ones sell well for a couple of years but then fade out, which ones are runaway bestsellers, which ones last for decades and longer in print and which one last centuries? To make it concrete - Why, of the thousands of children's books published before 1970, is it that Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (first published in 1947) which sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year nearly seventy years later, indeed outselling virtually all but the hottest of bestsellers.

Or is it all a matter of chance and serendipity. I suspect that chance and serendipity play their roles, important roles, but it also seems to me that there are some underlying commonalities.

The Bizarre, Complicated Formula for Literary Fame is a book review y Joshua Rothman of a new book, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame by H.J. Jackson.
Jackson never denies the excellence of Wordsworth’s poems, or the brilliance of the novels of Jane Austen, whom she also writes about. But she does show, convincingly, that a number of other factors, some of them quite bizarre, help literary fame to endure.

Take Wordsworth: it helped, Jackson shows, that he wrote so many different kinds of poems. During his lifetime, people enjoyed reading long, philosophical poetry, and many readers, including Wordsworth himself, assumed that poems like “The Excursion” would insure his fame. Later, though, when tastes in poetry changed, it was the shorter poems in “Lyrical Ballads” that kept his readership from dwindling. It was another stroke of fortune that Wordsworth happened to write poems suitable for children; they could be included in textbooks, gaining him new generations of fans. Many of his poems take place outside England, but, early on, Wordsworth became associated with the Lake District; as a result, for hundreds of years, tour guides, travel writers, and other people interested in the cause of Lake District tourism have kept him in wide circulation. Moreover, because his poems contain so much vivid nature imagery, they lend themselves to illustration. Illustrated books tend to sell well. (Jackson is too serious a scholar to mention the perfection of Wordsworth’s name; I, unencumbered by scholarly sobriety, will note here that it’s a perfect advertisement for his literary greatness.)
Here's the code for literary greatness per Jackson.
From the examples of Wordsworth and a few other writers—Austen, Keats, and their almost-forgotten contemporaries, Mary Brunton and Barry Cornwall—Jackson derives a “checklist” of fame-enhancing characteristics. The first step, of course, is to be a talented writer, although you don’t have to be transcendentally great (“Longevity sets a high standard,” Jackson writes, but it’s “not stratospheric”). Once that’s out of the way, it helps to get along with your extended family, since, after you die, it’ll be your nephew who assembles your “Collected Poems.” It’s also a good idea to leave something artfully unfinished or unpublished—letters, a diary, half of a novel—so that your descendants can dig it up and, by publishing it, renew interest in you. (Don’t leave too much behind, or you’ll bury the good stuff.) She finds that a “shrine,” if you can manage it, is also a plus: “Choose a pretty place to live (or die) in,” Jackson writes, and “die young.” All these occurrences contribute to a compelling “personal myth,” which is worth a hundred good reviews.
Not having read the book but from other items in the article, along with my own elaboration, I would summarize differently. In order to achieve literary longevity you want to:
Write well

Write for many years

Write for many audiences

Write in many forms

Write on many topics

Write voluminously (but not incontinently)

Have many friends

Be involved in many communities

Be associated with at least one place/issue/community

Write about the quotidian as well as the unique

Engage people beyond the literary
Nothing is guaranteed but I suspect that these attributes substantially increase your odds for literary posterity.



The leaders of tomorrow are one tick short of a working cuckoo clock

Remind me not to cross Heather Wilhelm. From Attack of the Leftist Snowflakes by Heather Wilhelm.
On college campuses across America, an army of leftist snowflakes — a generation long told they’re special, fragile, and never, ever wrong — is on the march, aiming to squelch any threatening idea that “triggers” uncomfortable thoughts. On the downside, these marauding bands have sparked an epidemic of protests, hysteria, and Nathaniel Hawthorne-style banishings. On the upside, they’re doing a heck of a job alerting the nation that a significant portion of the “leaders of tomorrow” might be one tick short of a working cuckoo clock.

Witness Christina Hoff Sommers, a well-known author, former philosophy professor, and, most recently, a YouTube star. Sommers, who describes her approach as “equity feminism,” is a refreshing change from mainstream modern feminism, which long ago click-clacked aboard the crazy train, ripped up all return tickets, and then hit the bar in the club car hard — not in a fun way, alas, but rather to weep and mutter various bad words over low-grade apple martini knockoffs garnished with mascara smears. Partnering with the American Enterprise Institute, Sommers has made a splash with her “Factual Feminist” video series, in which she calmly challenges and debunks oft-accepted and frequently absurd feminist talking points.
While I prefer arguments to be more substantive, and Wilhelm does get to the meat of the issues later, it is amusing to see this author flex her mockery wings.

Wilhelm does prompt a question though. Just how big is this army of leftist snowflakes? They make headlines. They shout and scream. They banish speakers and suppress opinions they don't like. I acknowledge all that.

With my third child getting ready to head off to college, I have spent the past half dozen years making some dozens of college visits all across the nation, though mostly the Midwest, South and Northeast. Some things stand out. Parents want their kids to be educated but that goal barely gets a head nod. Most universities, particularly liberal arts universities, tend to focus on four selling points - 1) Good food, 2) Lots of student clubs, 3) Access to professors and 4) Service opportunities to "the community". International semesters abroad get mentioned fairly often. Nice residential rooms occasionally get a mention as does campus technology, but usually a distant mention at best.

Actual learning, academic achievement, job placement, etc. usually are not dealt with at all, or cursorily, or statistically deceptively.

So yes, I can see where there is an impression of an army of callow, low cognitive wattage, irony-immune, leftist snowflakes but what are the numbers? Most of the big public engineering or STEM type universities I have visited seem to carry a much lighter social justice nonsense burden. Are we talking about 10% of the university population that are devotees of these Gramscian memes? 5%? An extremely vocal 1%. It would be interesting to know.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Alternate explanations

An interesting argument on a subject with likely little partisan heat. Americans are forgetting how to write checks, Google data show by Christopher Ingraham.

Here's solid evidence to support that Americans are writing fewer checks:
Today, Americans are writing fewer checks than ever. According to the Federal Reserve's most recent study of how Americans pay for things, "the number of checks paid declined more than 50 percent since 2000." Meanwhile, electronic and card payments tripled over the same period.
But that's not what the headline is arguing. It argues we are forgetting how to write checks.

What evidence is there that people knew how to write checks but have forgotten?
Here's an interesting fact: falling check use has been accompanied by a rise Google searches for "how to write a check." Today, those searches are nearly five times as prevalent as they were 10 years ago. And each year, those searches peak in late August and early September -- when kids are returning to college. Students living off-campus for the first time are likely facing the daunting task of writing their first check, for an electric bill, a cable payment, or, especially, for rent.
That's reasonable evidence but searches are a proxy, albeit a pretty good one, for not knowing how to write a check. It is also probably significant that there is an annual spike when kids go off to college. However, there are some loose ends. The spike might possibly explain the timing, but most kids graduating high school make some sort of transition to independence. They join the army, they join the workforce, they move out of the house. All of them are likely to be facing the task of writing checks for the first time.

But did kids know and have forgotten how to write checks? Not likely. They either knew or they didn't know, it seems unliekly that they simply forgot.

Are there alternate explanations for why people are searching on how to write checks. Yes. The geographic distribution of the searches is probably significant.
Looking at the geography of check befuddlement, searches for "how to write a check" appear to be clustered in the Northeast -- Pennsylvania leads the pack, followed by Delaware, New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii. There are a lot of colleges in the Northeast, which fits the hypothesis of confused college kids driving the trend. But it doesn't explain why there are also a lot of people looking for check-writing help in Oklahoma, or in Louisiana.
Ingraham properly notes, to support his hypothesis that lack of knowledge of check writing is a demographic cohort issue, that there are a lot universities in the Northeast. However, what else is notable about the map in the article? The most prevalent searches are in areas with high immigrant populations. 15% of the US population is now foreign born and all of them have to become accustomed to American practices including how to write a check. So perhaps, searches on how to write checks is not an issue of native born kids forgetting how to write checks, or even not knowing how to write them in the first place. Perhaps it is the foreign born population which is driving those searches.

There is nothing riding on whether Ingraham is right or wrong. All this is is an exercise in revealing how easy it is to get caught up in Just So stories about the causes of a phenomenon and leaving unexplored alternative explanations, well, unexplored.

The efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry

From The echoes of Walt Whitman’s ‘Drum-Taps’ book review by Richard Kreitner. Kreitner quotes an earlier review from 1865 by a reviewer, no less than Henry James, reviewing Walt Whitman's Drum-Taps.
In October 1865, a 22-year-old wordsmith living on Ashburton Place, behind the Massachusetts State House, filed what has to be one of the nastiest book reviews ever published. The volume before him was “an insult to art,” a brash and haughty Henry James told readers of The Nation, a then-months-old New York weekly. Written in free verse, each line beginning “in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal,” the book demonstrated, according to James, “the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

The poet himself James found downright distasteful. “Mr. Whitman,” he harrumphed, “is very fond of blowing his own trumpet.”
Well. There you have it.

With coercion, nobody wins unless someone else loses

This article, All Pay Raises Are Not Created Equal by Jared Pincin & Brian Brenberg, is pretty standard economics but there is a chrystalizing statement which is worth capturing.
Rising wages driven by a growing economy mean more opportunity for both businesses and job seekers. But when politics is behind a pay increase, nobody wins unless someone else loses.
I don't have much to add. Simple and true.

Why would you let your children read books by racist, sexist bigots?

There is certain strain of extremist intolerance in America today, mostly circulating in universities and in the media. People who believe that America is a uniquely racist and sexist country, oppressing people of color and women in ways that are worse than in the past and worse than elsewhere in the world. They believe that there is readily identifiable and widespread male privilege, white privilege, institutionalized racism, and patriarchy. They have supped at the table of European Marxist scholars and social critics of the 1960s and 70s and have received an understanding that most of the rest of us fail to grasp. They espouse critical thinking and tolerance while blindly following ideology and suppressing discourse and dissent everywhere they can.

They can be found in MFA programs and are heavily concentrated in any university Studies program, in English Departments, in Anthropology, and terribly thick in Education, Sociology and Psychology.

They are delusionists of course. Generally they are inconsequential and marginal so what they think and do has no significant impact on the welfare of the commonweal. Independent of whatever, non-doctrinal writing talent that they might have, they are generally woefully bereft of even the most basic numeracy. Lately though, it seems, they are becoming more and more comfortable pulling back the curtain and revealing just how racist and sexist they are, how bigoted, how ignorant, and how authoritarian.

Is this a good trend or bad? It's good to know who the authoritarian bigots are but it is disturbing that they are so proud of their bigotry. Bull Connor was terrible in his racism but his downfall was his willingness to be so blatantly racist.

There is a common belief among a certain vocal class of writers that the publishing industry is horribly discriminatory against people of color and women authors. The evidence proffered is that only 15% of children's books are about or authored by people of color (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans) versus 34% of the general population. Also offered as evidence of discrimination is the fact that usually about 65% of the elite Caldecott Awards for illustrated children's books are awarded to men.

Fair enough. Two isolated facts. What about the whole context? Have people of all colors won all of the top children's awards at different times? Yes. Are some of the bestselling authors and illustrators people of color? Yes. Do most of the major publishing houses have imprints that focus on books by and about people of color? Yes. Are there major independent publishers who concentrate solely on literature by and about people of color? Yes. Have the number of books by and about Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans been steady or rising in the past twenty years? Yes. Aren't the Newbery Awards (children's literature and the counterpart to the Caldecott for children's illustration) usually awarded about 65% to women? Yes. So this is not an issue of redlining or preclusion. It is an issue of proportionality.

Are there counterfactuals that might explain the disparate numbers? Sure. Social Justice Warriors might be focused on their perception of Social Justice but publishers have to focus on what sells. They have to make a profit. There is evidence that some types of by and about books simply don't sell well. Winning a Caldecott or Newbery virtually assures a long print life for a title, usually of more than forty years. There are some still in print from the very first Newbery award in 1922.

There is a corresponding award for books by-and-about African Americans called the Coretta Scott King Award which is administered by the same American Library Association which administers the Newbery and the Caldecott and which is also awarded annually. Unlike the other two, a winner of a King award is usually, despite the attention and fanfare, out-of-print within five or ten years. For whatever reason, people simply aren't buying those books.

A second counterfactual is that there is a much stronger correlation between winners of any award and the number of books they have written and the number of years they have been published. Most award winners have been writing/illustrating books for more than a couple of decades before they win an award. It isn't race or gender that is predictive, it is volume of work and duration of work. Simplistic evidence of the old adage that practice makes perfect.

Yet another counterfactual, particularly to the claims of a male dominated publishing industry has to do with the actual numbers involved. 60-90% of editors, agents, teachers, librarians are women. From first writing to actual reading by children, at every step of the way, women are the majority of the participants determining outcomes. It would appear difficult to make the argument that all these professionals are under some male hypnotic spell (transmitted by the "male gaze?") which causes them to discriminate against women authors.

So there's the context. A lot of evidence against the proposition that the publishing industry discriminates based on sex and race and hardly any evidence for that argument. More tellingly, the social justice warriors are never able to advance a causal mechanism for the discrimination. How exactly is this happening (given that it is illegal to discriminate based on race and gender)? Sure, there are anecdotes of the "My friend said . . " sort or "They rejected my manuscript and I am sure it was because . . . " sort. But that is anecdote. We love stories but when it comes to reality, we need data and evidence. The social justice warriors are either unwilling or unable to make the specific and concrete case that editor X or publisher Y discriminated against me in this fashion with these results.

In short, it is not true that the publishing industry is dominated by men and there is no evidence that there is any discrimination based on race or sex. But that should be no impediment to a lovely social signalling cause. I am for X even if there is no evidence of X. Its as if we are back in the stone ages associating thunder with angry gods, simply because.

Someone at the recent annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference asked 23 writers about what message they wanted to send to straight white male publishing. The answers are in 23 Writers With Messages For Straight White Male Publishing. It is pitiable that there were at least 23 writers willing to accept the implied but factually incorrect premise the publishing industry is dominated by straight white males. But indeed there apparently were 23 people who were willing to offer an opinion about a subject about which they appear to be factually ignorant. But there's always someone or some people in a crowd if you look for them hard enough. The flat-earthers, the evolution denialists, etc. What struck me was the readiness, in a professional environment among people who nominally are well educated and likely to self identify as liberal and tolerant, for them to express explicitly racist and sexist opinions. And not just express them but advertize them (see 23 Writers With Messages For Straight White Male Publishing for the pictures).

The messages they want straight white male publishers to hear are:
Read less straight white men

Get over it

We owe you nothing

Grow up

Sit down and let us abolish you

She's coming for you

We are not tokens

You've not doomed us. You've doomed yourselves.

Hire women. Diversity makes you strong. (In an industry already dominated by women)

We don't need you

Take a vacation (a long one)
The sophomoric presumption, ignorance and arrogance are quite startling. There's no tolerance or acceptance or respect in this lot.

Why on earth would you let your children read anything by these bigots? Too bad they did not attach their names to their cards. They are perfectly free to express their opinions. It would be nice for them to identify themselves so that readers are able to make informed choices about which authors to support by buying their books.

UPDATE: From Most authors earn less than minimum wage from their writing, survey finds by Nick Clark. The key finding probably underpins the tantrums illustrated above.
The report, compiled by Queen Mary, University of London, concluded: “There is a high concentration of earnings in a handful of successful writers whereas most do not earn much at all.”

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said: “While it’s always been a profession where the biggest authors earn disproportionately more, what’s concerning to see is that the inequality is getting wider.”

[snip]

The bottom half of writers – those who received less than £10,432 in 2013 – earned just 7 per cent of total earnings between them. “It appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a good living while most do not,” the report said.
Many try, most fail. Failure has to have a cause other than one's own inabilities. Hence the eager hate of the dreaded "other", in this case straight white males.