Friday, September 30, 2016

Science advances one funeral at a time

Quotations from Max Planck starting with the one with which I am most familiar. From Wikiquotes.
Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, daß ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, daß ihre Gegner allmählich aussterben und daß die heranwachsende Generation von vornherein mit der Wahrheit vertraut gemacht ist.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie. Mit einem Bildnis und der von Max von Laue gehaltenen Traueransprache. Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag (Leipzig 1948), p. 22, as translated in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp. 33–34 (as cited in T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).
Paraphrased variants:

Die Wahrheit triumphiert nie, ihre Gegner sterben nur aus.
Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out.
Science advances one funeral at a time.
Other quotes.

Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination.
As quoted in Advances in Biochemical Psychopharmacology, Vol. 25 (1980), p. 3

Embrace the power of AND

From Public perceptions of expert disagreement: Bias and incompetence or a complex and random world? by Nathan F. Dieckmann, et al.

Marginally interesting but unsurprising. Knowing the systemic forecasting errors to which "experts" are subject (see Tetlock et al), you would think the researchers would embrace the power of AND. From the abstract:
Expert disputes can present laypeople with several challenges including trying to understand why such disputes occur. In an online survey of the US public, we used a psychometric approach to elicit perceptions of expert disputes for 56 forecasts sampled from seven domains. People with low education, or with low self-reported topic knowledge, were most likely to attribute disputes to expert incompetence. People with higher self-reported knowledge tended to attribute disputes to expert bias due to financial or ideological reasons. The more highly educated and cognitively able were most likely to attribute disputes to natural factors, such as the irreducible complexity and randomness of the phenomenon. Our results show that laypeople tend to use coherent—albeit potentially overly narrow—attributions to make sense of expert disputes and that these explanations vary across different segments of the population.
Here's what the power of AND can do for you:
People attribute disputes among experts to Incompetence AND Bias due to financial or ideological reasons AND Irreducible complexity and randomness of the phenomenon
That pretty much covers it. Incompetence, Confirmation Bias and System Complexity are indeed at the heart of most disagreements and failures to replicate research. Doesn't matter what their intelligence, people seem to have it about right.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Intellectual processing power versus knowledge manipulation

From Spotlight Site: Marginal Revolution by Robert Cottrell.

He is actually reviewing and praising the blog site, Marginal Revolution. I agree that it is one of the better sites out there. I liked Cottrell's opening observation though.
When we are very young, intelligence approximates to processing power. Raw data from the world streams into our senses, and our brains deduce rules from it.

When we are older, approaching middle age, intelligence approximates much more to memory. Our brains recall and manipulate the information that has passed through our senses in the decades gone by. The intelligent person conjures analogies, connections, precedents, where the average person blanks out.

I’m beginning to believe it.

From Wikiquote. A quotation for our times.
When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. I’m beginning to believe it.
- As quoted in Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941) by Irving Stone, Ch. 6.

Silver lining

A silver lining of a sort I suppose.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

London's Fleet River

Oh, dear.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Culture over race

From Haitian-American fact of the day by Tyler Cowen. This is an example why I believe it is important to focus on class and ethnicity (as a proxy for culture) as opposed to race or any of the many other victimhood groups.
Despite all of their adversities, Haitians had rather low crime rates. Martinez and Lee’s 1985-95 study reported a homicide victimization rate of 16.7 for Haitians, which was lower than those for non-Hispanic whites and Latinos and far lower than the rate for American blacks. In fact, the Haitian crime figures may be inflated, since over 54 percent of the suspected killers of murdered Haitians were African American. In other words, the Haitian victimization rate is not an especially good indicator of Haitian offending, because, contrary to the usual situation, Haitians were the victims of an inordinate number of out-group killings. They were believed to have been only 3.5 percent of the murder suspects at a time when they were 14 percent of Miami’s general population.
The source of text is from The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America by Barry Latzer.

Math and reality conspire against the preferred SJW narrative

Yesterday I commented in Insight Backed By Data that 60% of homicides are committed in the 62 largest cities which have about 20% of the US population.

In today's Washington Post there is an article, Violent crime is rising. But that’s not the most provocative finding in the FBI’s big new report. by Max Ehrenfreund.
Murders in the United States jumped 11 percent last year, according to federal data released Monday, but nonviolent crimes declined, an unusual divergence that's puzzling criminal justice experts.

While an increase in homicide is usually associated with more minor crimes as well, that was not the case in 2015. The number of murders nationally increased by the largest percentage in decades, but violent crimes overall increased just 4 percent and property crimes declined 3 percent.


Still, what to make of the sudden increase in homicides is not clear. Some criminologists say the data is evidence against the "Ferguson effect" -- a popular theory that suggests homicides have increased because police have become reluctant to interact with potential criminals on the street. According to this argument, cops fear becoming involved in a violent altercation that could result in protests such as those in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C.
Those of the left have long been in denial that there is a Ferguson Effect despite the striking rise of homicides in cities that have reined in policing activities. I see the evidence as pretty strongly indicative that there is a Ferguson Effect but Ehrenfreund raises an interesting objection.

There is no inherent reason that violent crimes (murder) have to be correlated with non-violent crime (such as burglaries) but I am willing to take it as a reasonable assumption that there is a general correlation.
Police can deter potential criminals not just by being a watchful presence on patrol. They can stop people who appear to be involved in criminal activity, talking with them to gather information or to disperse people who are fighting. Police can also search civilians for firearms, knives or tools for breaking locks and windows.

These activities make committing all kinds of crimes more difficult, not just homicide. If the increase in homicides were due to hesitance on the part of police to stop civilians, some criminologists say they would expect an increase in other "street crimes," including burglary and robbery.

However, just 3.1 percent more cars were stolen last year, and the number of robberies increased just 1.4 percent. The number of burglaries declined 7.8 percent, according to the new federal data.
That is a reasonable objection to the Ferguson Effect.

Is there an explanation? There might be others but I suspect that it has something to do with yesterday's post.

Let's take it as settled that the predominant portion of murders occur in city environments. The numbers suggest 60% of murders occur where only 20% of the people live. What about property crimes? Violent crime is a fraction of all crimes (fortunately).

Here is my rough speculation. If most of the violent crime is happening in a circumscribed area among only a small portion of the population, you might have quite different correlations between property crime and violent crime in the two areas.

I am guessing that the secular trend of declining crime in the rest of the country continues. Policing practices there have not changed materially and the secular trend dominates anyway. Both violent crimes and property crimes decline.

In the dense areas within city limits, where there has been a trend to reduce policing, there has been a sharp increase in murders. Because those areas dominate the number of murders, whatever happens to the murder rate in cities is going to dominate the rate for the nation as a whole. A number-based example likely will better illustrate what I am thinking.

Let's assume for purposes of an example, that there are 100 murders in the country and that 90% of them occur within city limits and 10% of them occur everywhere else and there is an overall secular decline in all crime, including violent crime. Cities are 20% of the population and everywhere is 80% of the population. Let's further assume that police in the cities, because of Ferguson-like riots and protests, adjust their policing practices so that they no longer stop-and-frisk, no longer proactively attempt to identify suspects, reduce presence on the street, etc. As a consequence, the murder rate within the city rises by 10% whereas in the rest of the country, the secular trend continues and there is a reduction of 10% in the number of murders outside the city.

City murders therefore increase from 90 to 99 and murders everywhere else fall from 10 to 9. Total number of murders is now 108, i.e. an 8% increase in the murder rate while 80% of the population continues to experience a 10% decrease in violence.

Now what about property crime? Let's assume that there is the same positive correlation between violent crime and property crime everywhere but the ratio of violent crime in the city is different from that everywhere else. Let's assume that 50% of property crime is in the city and 50% is everywhere else. In year 0, in the city, there are 90 murders and 50 property crimes whereas everywhere else, there are 10 murders and 50 property crimes. In the city, there is a ratio of 1.8 violent crimes to property crimes whereas everywhere else there is a ratio of 0.2 violent to property crimes.

If there are the same trends as above (city increases by 10% and elsewhere decreases by 10%) then property crimes increase to 55 in the city and decrease to 45 elsewhere but the overall volume of property crime remains the same. Property and violent crime are equally correlated in their respective areas but are differentially consequential.

Total crime (violent and property) has gone from 140 (90+50) in the city to 154 (99+55) in the city where 20% of the population lives whereas 80% of the population sees their total crime going from 60 (10+50) to 54 (9+45). Overall crime for everyone goes from 200 incidents (140+60) to 208 (154+54), an overall 4% increase.

In this hypothetical example, the mystery of Ehrenfreund's paradox is resolved. Reduced policing in the cities can lead to an increase in overall crime and especially an increase in violent crime without a corresponding increase in property crime. It all depends on the relative rates of crime between property and violent in the city as well as the degree of concentration of crime between city and everywhere else.

Now whether or not the actual numbers bear this out is another question for which I do not have time at the moment to document. I am pretty comfortable with the estimate from yesterday (60% of violent crime occurs among 20% of the population). I am also pretty comfortable with the assumption that the ratio of violent crime to property crime is higher in cities AND that the ratio of total property crime is probably more balanced between the city and everywhere else.

Under the circumstances then, the statistics are absolutely feasible that violent crime (concentrated in the cities) rises while overall crime and particularly property crime decreases.

That also remains consistent with the more causal explanation of the Ferguson Effect, i.e. cities which reduce their policing do actually see an increase in the violent crime rates.

It seems to me that the Ferguson Effect is alive and well despite the efforts to disguise or hide it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The power is not in persuasion but in setting the agenda via omission and commission

From Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini.
The central tenet of agenda-setting theory is that the media rarely produce change directly, by presenting compelling evidence that sweeps an audience to new positions; they are much more likely to persuade indirectly, by giving selected issues and facts better coverage than other issues and facts. It’s this coverage that leads audience members—by virtue of the greater attention they devote to certain topics—to decide that these are the most important to be taken into consideration when adopting a position. As the political scientist Bernard Cohen wrote, “The press may not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.
I agree. The power is not in persuasion but in setting the agenda via omission and commission.

Insights backed by data

This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation which lends credence to the argument originally advanced by Scott Adams. Adams said,
On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist. At least I couldn’t find any that looked credible.

But we do know that race and poverty are correlated. And we know that poverty and crime are correlated. And we know that race and political affiliation are correlated. Therefore, my team (Clinton) is more likely to use guns to shoot innocent people, whereas the other team (Trump) is more likely to use guns for sporting and defense.

That’s a gross generalization. Obviously. Your town might be totally different.

So it seems to me that gun control can’t be solved because Democrats are using guns to kill each other – and want it to stop – whereas Republicans are using guns to defend against Democrats. Psychologically, those are different risk profiles. And you can’t reconcile those interests, except on the margins. For example, both sides might agree that rocket launchers are a step too far. But Democrats are unlikely to talk Republicans out of gun ownership because it comes off as “Put down your gun so I can shoot you.”
Of course, Adams is a humorist, but he is also an extremely observant and insightful commentator. His comment above, I think, does shed light on an aspect of the gun conversation that is rarely discussed.

From the juxtaposition of a couple articles this morning, where the discussion is about rising crime, I wondered to what degree major cities are responsible for most of violent crime.

Again, strictly back-of-the-envelope. I looked at this report that records the number of murders in the 62 largest metropolitan police departments. Since this is a quarterly report, I multiplied the result by 4 for an annual number. The result is that 5,629 of all murders in the US occur in the city limits of our largest cities. There are about 10,000 murders a year, so our largest cities account for 56.3% of all murders.

I then looked at the population size of our 62 largest major cities. That comes to 53,734,289, or about 17% of the total population of the US.

So, very roughly, 60% of murders occur in cities that account for 20% of the population.

Which brings us back to Scott Adams' insight. Virtually all major cities, even in quite conservative states such as Texas, are run by Democrats. The fact is that 60% of murders occur in cities run by Democrats and those cities account for only 20% of the population. That supports the notion that
Democrats are using guns to kill each other – and want it to stop – whereas Republicans are using guns to defend against Democrats.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Labels do not make arguments

A great line from Star Trek, I, Mudd
SPOCK: Specifics, Doctor. Labels do not make arguments
Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, Misogynist, etc. Many of our politicians no longer make arguments. They sling labels hoping to do damage without thought.

A Youtube of the exchange between Spock and Bones.

The slow plugging of SJW myths in an effort to displace real knowledge

This is just sad. "Matthew Gabriele is a professor Medieval Studies in the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech and has published widely on religion and violence in the Middle Ages." He authors a piece in the Washington Post, Five Myths About the Middle Ages. This isn't history, this is a soft-headed postmodernist, critical theory attempt to rewrite history to serve the social justice warrior view of the world, drawing moral equivalents where there are none.

As always, just enough reality seeps in to lend the piece some modicum of credence but were this written by a freshman in a Middle Ages history class thirty years ago, it likely would have been tossed out as so much gibbering. That it now is published in a national paper is simply a sad indictment of the decline in our credential intellectuals who have lost the path of civilization and civic discourse.

What is the problem with debunking myths? Nothing unless the debunking is the replacement of one set of nuanced assumptions with another set of untrue myths. Let's look at Gabriele's anti-historical declarations one at a time.

MYTH NO. 1: Christianity and Islam were constantly in conflict. Gabriele claims,
Then, throughout the Middle Ages, from Iberia to North Africa to the Middle East, Christians and Muslims behaved like the neighbors they were.
This whole section of debunking is simply modern myth-making in the service of social justice equivalencing. From the 700s Islamic forces occupied southwestern Europe (Iberia) and then southeastern Europe (the Balkans, including Constantinople and Greece). Subjugation of one people by another does not make them neighbors. This guy is a professor?

Until the Islamic forces were ejected some seven hundred and a thousand years later, there was constant tension, skirmishing, warfare, bloodshed and tragedy. Sure, there were intermittent periods of cessation, accommodation, truces, etc. but no one would claim that because there were occasional days without battle that there wasn't a Vietnam War.

There is a glimmer of reality providing cover for Gabriele's nonsense. One might make the case that there was something close to a fusion in Sicily between the Italian populations, the Greek populations and the Arab populations. Tentative, tenuous and occasionally very productive. But episodic and rare exceptions do not undermine the truth - For nearly a thousand years, Europeans and Arabs were in continuous conflict owing to the occupation of major portions of Europe by Arab invaders.

MYTH NO. 2: Everyone deferred to religious authority. Here Gabriele is more deceiving than he is wrong. He sets up a straw man nobody is defending.
But not everyone spent all their time thinking about God, and some were critical of religious authority.
That's right. But religion played a much larger role in life than today. In fact it is probably near-impossible for us, as modern, largely secular, Westerners to understand the role of theocracy in the Middle Ages. No, not everyone deferred to religious authority but most everyone did and to a far greater degree than today. Religious institutions had real power and to claim that was a myth is simply wrong.

MYTH NO. 3: Europeans in the Middle Ages were white and Christian.
Oh, dear. Critical theorist alert. Race is a social construct nonsense ahead.
In fact, although nowhere near as diverse as any modern metropolis, medieval Europe pulsed with difference, both racial and religious.
The fact that Europe pulsed with religious and ethnic diversity does not mean that it was not white and Christian. Europeans, as all people everywhere, were highly attuned to out-group mentality by ethnicity and by religion. There were not British people, there were Welsh and Irish and English and Scots and vive la difference. And there were not simply Scots but lowland and highland Scots not to mention the Shetlanders and Orcadians. The capacity for distinctions between and among out-groups based on ethnicity, religion, customs, class, etc. is almost endless. In fact much like modern social justice warriors and their ever fining identity distinctions.

But the fact that there were lowland Scots and highland Scots and Shetlanders and Orcadians does not mean that they weren't all white. The fact that there were dozens if not hundreds of conflicting variations of Christianity does not mean that they weren't all Christian.

If Gabriele is claiming that a 1% minority of non-Christian populations means Europe wasn't Christian, then he is right. If Gabriele is claiming that a less than 1% racial minority (Arabs, Berbers, occasional Africans or Asians) constitutes a non-white Europe, then he is right.

But of course, that is not what people mean. Europe was white and it was Christian. In his obeisance to the ideological convictions of social justice (critical theory), Gabriele misses several opportunities to make a better case. That Europe was virtually entirely white is inescapable. But Europe was by no means entirely Christian. Paganism remained a strong and large presence well into the near modern era.

Gabriele is simply wrong here, hostage to his SJW fevers.

MYTH NO. 4: Everyone thought the Earth was flat.

OK, fine, Gabriele is broadly right here though largely irrelevant. In the pre-modern era, the status of the earth as flat or round was not a hotly contested issue among the populace but that there was a uniform view of the world as flat is dismissable. That idea is simply the means of moderns to condescend to ancients.

MYTH NO. 5 These were the ‘Dark Ages.’

I concede half marks here. Gabriele says:
Many interpret the Middle Ages as a period when intellectual inquiry went dormant and the dominance of religion either stopped the progress of mankind or actively worked against those few brave souls trying to lift humanity up.
He's right. There is a tendency to associate the collapse of Rome as a lapse into stasis and contraction. That was largely the case. But over the thousand years from 500 and 1000, there was movement and motion and, eve, some progress. But the flows were large, erratic, and usually self-cancelling. Productivity and progress is made and then you lose a third of your population to the plague. Some local thug brings together a respectable conglomeration of a nation-like entity and then is struck down by a fever and things fall apart, the center will not hold. These were Dark Ages but not pitch black - there were glimmers and some glacial progression in aggregate, on average.

So all Gabriele is doing is pitching a modern set of ideologically inspired myths to replace the more fact-based "myths" which are largely true and to which we are largely accustomed. He is a polluter of cognitive waters to serve a dissembling end. Ugh.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thanks critical theory. No trust in any information

From 10 facts about the changing digital news landscape by Katerina Eva Matsa and Kristine Lu at Pew Research.

There is a strong inclination in some quarters to lament the low level of education, or intellectual curiosity, or knowledge among Americans, Millennials, Voters, etc. It is a generic complaint, more subjective than objective and often entails a fair swag of virtue or status signaling.

But there are many interesting questions attached to the trope. Just how much information do you need to have in order to make a good decision? What is your risk tolerance? What are the consequences of the decision? What are the circumstances? What is the cost of additional information gathering? What are your goals? How are those goals prioritized? What are the trade-off sensitivities? And on.

The research by Matsa and Lu sheds a little bit of light in a fashion that forces some interesting questions on the lamenters. Take, for example, the issue about the degree of trust you have in various sources of information.

Click to enlarge.

Ouch. Most people do not have a lot of trust in Local News Media (22%), even less in National News Media (18%) and still less in Family, Friends, Acquaintances (14%). It would have been interesting to see the latter grouping broken out. I suspect that there might be higher numbers for Friends and Family.

Fortunately, there is virtually no trust in Social Media (4%).

Well, if no one trusts information they get from Social Media, Mainstream Media, or from their family and friends, where else are they getting their information that they trust more?

I suspect that these low trust numbers are actually an indicator of general skepticism. People are skeptical of all sources of information. As long as it doesn't slough into jaundice and cynicism, a healthy dose of skepticism is healthy. In fact, we have long been advocating that schools teach critical-thinking. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that critical-thinking in terms of the capacity to create evidence based arguments that have logical integrity has not been much of a success. In fact, there is some evidence that the emptying out of knowledge has also decreased the capacity for critical-thinking.

But this Pew data seems to indicate that an emphasis on critical-thinking might have been effective in lessening everyone's trust in all sources of information.

If there is low trust, then there is low value. If there is low value, then there is not much engagement which is one of the other Pew findings.
While many Americans get news from social media, few are heavily engaged with news.
As evidenced by:

Looking at the data this way would seem to reformulate the tropes. If people don't spend much time with news and they don't trust the news and they don't engage with the news all that much, then how do they populate their cognitive landscape in a fashion that allows them to make the decisions that are important to them?

I suspect the answer is that most of the questions that are important to them are radically different from those that the chattering classes want to be important, that direct experience might be a far larger component of decision-making than abstract information, and that values and motivation also play a greater role than data.

There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, a city of 18 million

From The Bangladeshi Traffic Jam That Never Ends by Jody Rosen.
If you spend some time in Bangladesh’s capital, you begin to look anew at the word “traffic,” and to revise your definition. In other cities, there are vehicles and pedestrians on the roads; occasionally, the roads get clogged, and progress is impeded. The situation in Dhaka is different. Dhaka’s traffic is traffic in extremis, a state of chaos so pervasive and permanent that it has become the city’s organizing principle. It’s the weather of the city, a storm that never lets up.

Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey. Like other megacities of the developing world, Dhaka is both a boomtown and a necropolis, with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class and a lively cultural and intellectual life that is offset by rampant misery: poverty, pollution, disease, political corruption, extremist violence and terror attacks. But it is traffic that has sealed Dhaka’s reputation among academics and development specialists as the great symbol of 21st-century urban dysfunction, the world’s most broken city. It has made Dhaka a surreal place, a town that is both frenetic and paralyzed, and has altered the rhythms of daily life for its 17.5 million-plus residents. Not long ago, the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper published an article titled “5 Things to Do While Stuck in Traffic.” Suggested activities included “catching up with friends,” reading and journaling.


“Bangladesh is not so much a nation as a condition of distress,” wrote the journalist William Langewiesche in 2000. It sounds like an overstatement, but to behold the gridlocked streets of Dhaka is to see distress in action, or rather, in inaction. The stalled traffic in the capital city is symptomatic of the nation’s broader woes, in particular population growth, which is moderate by the standards of the developing world, but disastrous given the size of Bangladesh.

Fundamentally, traffic is an issue of density: It’s what happens when too many people try to squeeze through too small a space. Bangladesh is the 12th most densely settled nation on earth, but with an estimated 160 million citizens it is by far the most populous, and the poorest, of the countries at the top of the list. To put the matter in different terms: The landmass of Bangladesh is one-118th the size of Russia, but its population exceeds Russia’s by more than 25 million.

Bangladesh’s density problem is magnified in Dhaka, in part because, practically speaking, Dhaka is Bangladesh. Nearly all of the country’s government, business, health care and educational institutions, and a large percentage of its jobs, are concentrated in Dhaka. Each year, 400,000 new residents pour into the capital, a mass migration that has made Dhaka the world’s most densely settled megacity, and one of the fastest growing.

The town that those millions inhabit almost completely lacks the basic infrastructure and rule of law that make big cities navigable. There are just 60 traffic lights in Dhaka, and they are more or less ornamental; few drivers heed them. The main problem with Dhaka’s anarchic streets, though, is that there aren’t enough. The Daily Star has reported that just 7 percent of Dhaka is covered by roads. (In places like Paris and Barcelona, models of 19th-century urban planning, the number is around 30 percent.) Footpaths are also an issue. There are too few sidewalks in Dhaka, and those that exist are often impassable, occupied by vendors and masses of poor citizens who make their homes in curbside shanties.

Friday, September 23, 2016

I shall focus on the positives: her essay is nothing less than a masterwork of petulance and stupidity.

From A Defence of Lionel Shriver: Identity Politicians Would Kill Literature if They Could by Timothy Cootes.
Cootes does a good summary of the existentially unserious spat:
Saul Bellow once described the experience of reading the literary quarterlies of the fifties and sixties, after their takeover by the academy. He recorded feeling “first uncomfortable, then queasy, then indignant, contemptuous and finally quite bleak, flattened out by the bad writing.”

If you have followed the events and aftermath of the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, you may have experienced a very similar emotional reaction. In this essay, I hope to arrest that sense of bleakness, but first, a brief summary is in order.

To put it uncharitably, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a sensitive plant, had a tantrum during the keynote address by Lionel Shriver. Her ire was caused — or triggered, as the kids say — by what is a very conservative notion nowadays: writers of fiction can write about whatever they damn well please.

Shriver took aim at the devotees of identity politics, who occupy and conquer today’s university campuses. Recently, they have no-platformed controversial speakers, carved out intellectual “safe spaces”, and have now kicked off a panic about “cultural appropriation”. Shriver explained:
Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” — ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability — are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

A fantastically stupid idea, yes, and one that betrays a reactionary contempt for a cosmopolitan and humanist ethos. It has real world implications, too: sushi is off the menu in the university cafeteria; there is a prohibition on the white man’s donning of a sombrero; and, worst of all, severe restrictions on the writing of fiction, which relies, unsurprisingly, on the author inventing, inhabiting and stealing the experiences of others.

No longer, however. Today’s moral puritans dictate that you may only tell a story if it is your story to tell. Literary segregation, in other words: white characters for the white authors, and gay experiences for the gay writers, and, well, you get the idea. Step across this line and you invite the charge of gross insensitivity at best, bigotry and racism at worst.

Award winning author, Lionel Shriver accepts none of this, and rightly so. Hers is “a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best” she declared.

Her speech was a masterly takedown of the latest left-wing lunacy.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was less than impressed, storming out of Shriver’s speech in the first few minutes. And for the professionally outraged, a thought unpublished or unexpressed is a thought wasted, and, lo and behold, her hissy-fit was transmogrified into an article at The Guardian.

Now, I know there has been a lot of criticism at Yassmin’s expense, and I won’t take more than my ration. In fact, I shall focus on the positives: her essay is nothing less than a masterwork of petulance and stupidity. One seldom finds the chaotic mindset of the social justice crowd so neatly encapsulated.
Read the whole thing for an entertaining take-down of the academically foolish.

People might demonstrate isolated transactional irrationality but they tend to be systemically rational.

The academy can be extremely narrow-minded, intolerant and faddish, especially in the social sciences. It matters not how many research failures are revealed, they continue dogmatically believing in whatever trendy thought has recently emerged at the expense of real world experience.

One trend in the past five years or so has been the emerging conviction, trumpeted in books and articles, that the human mind is irredeemably illogical, irrational and incapable of consistent thought. Much of this depends on lab experiments on small numbers of usually middle class, affluent twenty-year olds, conducted under unrealistic conditions.

An example has been the joy with which sociologists greeted the Implicit Attitude Test which seemed to reveal that everyone was strongly biased against African-Americans. Sociologists being ideologues primarily from the Frankfurt School of reformed Marxism and broadly committed to critical theory celebrated the discovery of what they wanted to be true. But then it emerged that African-Americans taking the test were also biased against African-Americans. Then it was discovered that IAT results had no correlation to observed behaviors outside the lab environment. IAT is dying a slow death but cognitive pollution, once spread in the public discourse, like oil from a shipwrecked tanker, sticks around a long time.

At last we have a journalist/researcher willing to declare, in the context of the faddish conviction that all humans are irrational, that the emperor has no clothes. From The Irrational Idea That Humans Are Mostly Irrational by Paul Bloom.

My position on the irrationality claim is that indeed there are circumstances where humans are irrational but that the appearance of irrationality usually arises from biases on the part of the researcher, and/or because the goals and priorities of the subject are not understood, and/or because the context in which the decision is being made is not understood.

Bloom goes along with some of this.
My bet is that the relevant factor in variation in rationality, including moral reasoning, is not about different types of people, but different types of situations. If you want to see people at their stupidest, check out national politics, which is replete with us-vs.-them dynamics and virtue signaling, and where the cost of having silly views is harmless. Unless I’m a member of a tiny, powerful community, my beliefs about climate change or the arms deal with Iran will have no effect on the world, and so it’s not surprising that people don't work so hard to get those sorts of facts right.

It’s revelatory, then, that we do much better when the stakes are high, where being rational really matters. If I have the wrong theory of how to make scrambled eggs, they will come out too dry; if I have the wrong everyday morality, I will hurt those I love. So if you’re curious about people’s capacity for reasoning, don’t look at cases where being correct doesn’t matter and where it’s all about affiliation. Rather, look at how people cope in everyday life.


Look at the discussions that adults have over whether to buy a house or where to send their kids to school, or consider the social negotiations that occur among friends deciding where to go for dinner, planning a hike, or figuring out how to help someone who just had a baby. Or even look at a different sort of politics—the type of politics where individuals might actually make a difference, such as a town hall meeting where people discuss zoning regulations and where to put a stop sign.

My own experience is that the level of rational discourse in these situations is high. People might be self-interested, but they know that they are involved in decisions that matter, so they work to exercise their rational capacities: They make arguments, express ideas, and are receptive to the arguments and ideas of others. They sometimes even change their minds.
I like his point about the importance, not just of context, but of consequentiality. The more consequential the outcome, the more people invest in making informed decisions.

Blooms point ties to the other recently popular notion that voters are irrational and fail to vote their own interests. The higher the level of the election, the less critical it is to make a well-informed decision because of the less degree of impact within the election (one vote out of however many), as well as the weak relationship between national politician statements and actions. There is no point in investing time and effort becoming mini-experts, as some academics would wish, if the causal relationship between investment and outcome is so weak.

Know the goals, know the proxy measures used, know the priorities, know the perceived trade-offs among goals, know the context, know the relative costs - only then do you even begin to be in a position to consider whether irrationality is in play. Short of that, as a talking head, all you are doing is substituting your opinions and biases over everyone else's interpretations. It is a totalitarian/authoritarian mindset rather than a classical liberal one in which everyone is deemed to have equal agency and respect.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hyperbolic inflation

Interesting research from Use of positive and negative words in scientific PubMed abstracts between 1974 and 2014: retrospective analysis by Christiaan H. Vinkers, Joeri K. Tijdink, and Willem M. Otte.
Objective To investigate whether language used in science abstracts can skew towards the use of strikingly positive and negative words over time.


Results The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%. Comparable but less pronounced results were obtained when restricting the analysis to selected journals with high impact factors. Authors affiliated to an institute in a non-English speaking country used significantly more positive words. Negative word frequencies increased from 1.3% (1974-80) to 3.2% (2014), a relative increase of 257%. Over the same time period, no apparent increase was found in neutral or random word use, or in the frequency of positive word use in published books.

Conclusions Our lexicographic analysis indicates that scientific abstracts are currently written with more positive and negative words, and provides an insight into the evolution of scientific writing. Apparently scientists look on the bright side of research results. But whether this perception fits reality should be questioned.
We lament data overload and I obsess about cognitive pollution (memes that are objectively untrue but which are treated as true) but this research provides a peek into a different issue; hyperbolic inflation. A review might deem a book Good in one decade, then Great, then Magnificent, then Groundbreaking, then Exceptional. It is the equivalent of grade inflation. If not anchored to some sort of stable and objective basis, inflationary hyperbole leads to a loss of capacity to make relative distinctions.

The thinking person faces four challenges in the modern cognitive environment: Fraud (evergreen), data overload, cognitive pollution and now hyperbolic inflation.

Grand Master trolling in Amazon

Hillary Clinton and Tom Kaine have new book out, Stronger Together. At the point I went to Amazon to look at the reviews, there were 504 of them. If the election were based on Amazon stars, Clinton would lose in a landslide. 83%, or 418 readers, give it the worst rating, a single star. Only 14% give it the highest, five star, rating. 3% give it something in between. A bi-modal distribution of people either loving it or hating with six times as many hating it as loving it. Ouch.

I have to guess that, with these extreme numbers, the Trump people must be running some subtle sabotage campaign. If so, Gand Master level trolling. On the other hand, maybe it is simply emergent order; there are a lot of people out there who despise Hillary Clinton.

Separate from how and why this is occurring, I enjoyed the humor of the comments.

From the Top Customer Reviews at Amazon, here are the first few. I have cleaned up some of the button scripts.

1.0 out of 5 stars Health Warning!
By chjhorses on September 16, 2016

Pre-ordered an autographed copy but had to return it after this week's announcement as I was worried it was contaminated with pneumonia bacteria. I didn't want to end up exposed to the illness like her grandkids in Chelsea's apartment she was playing with on 9/11 after she collapsed, or the little girl she was hugging in the street afterwards. Thought about ordering the Kindle version but I thought it might open my device up to being hacked by communist countries. I wasn't too surprised to see Tim Kaine on the front cover giving the traditional National Socialist salute, I felt it fitting. Strongly recommended for those who believe the USA isn't anything special and should be more like the peaceful utopias of North Korea, Iran, or Cuba.

Comment 230 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars The Art of the Shakedown by Hill and Tim
By Elaine on September 16, 2016

I bought this thinking it would be a how-to book. I wanted "How to set up your own Foundation for fun and profit." Also, would like to have seen a chapter on "Ten easy steps to setting up your own secure server in a bathroom."

I do hear there's going to be a sequel, tentatively called "The Art of the Shakedown." Should be interesting.

Comment 150 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?

1.0 out of 5 stars Unbelievable turn of events..........
By Daniel B. on September 14, 2016

I was going to read this book.....I really was. But just as I got started, I found myself under sniper fire, passed out, and fell and hit my head. After that I got double vision and had to wear glasses that were so damn thick I couldn't even see to read. Then I had an allergic reaction to something and started coughing so hard I spit out what looked like a couple of lizard's eyeballs, my limbs locked up, and I passed out and fell down again, waking up only to find out I had been diagnosed with pneumonia 2 days earlier. Somehow I managed to power through it all, but it's a good thing I was able to make a small fortune on this random small trade in the commodities market (cattle futures or some such thing) and then, miracle of all miracles, a few banks offered me a few million to just talk to their employees for a few minutes - and all that really helped out because I swear I was dead broke and couldn't figure out how I was gonna come up with the 6 bucks to pay for this book, let alone pay the $1,500 for my health insurance this month. I still want to read it, but, honestly, what difference at this point does it make? I hear it sucks anyway.

33 Comments 1,561 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?

1.0 out of 5 stars Please don't bother...
By UrbanLegend on September 14, 2016

I have to start by saying I am a registered independent voter, and more importantly, a life-long independent thinker. I have voted for more D's than R's in my life, as well as several third-party candidates. This is the lamest, weakest, most politically-absurd book ever written, as far as I know. Save your money for food for your family just in case she is elected.

5 Comments 1,062 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars Not enough!
By James on September 14, 2016

I was pretty disappointed with this book. When the subject of the book is one of greatest criminals in American history I was really hoping for more.

Anyone can be a criminal, but how do you become the GREATEST criminal? that is what readers really want to know.

A step-by-step guide on how to monetize political influence, how to flaunt criminal behavior and even daringly project ones own criminal behavior onto other people -- specifically other political opponents -- is what I, and I think I can speak for everyone, would really want from Hillary.

For example, How do I get the head of the FBI to conjure up non-existent legal standards for my law breaking? What kind of dirt do I need on the FBI for the head of the organization to lie under oath about the need for "intent" to mishandle classified information when an intent requirement is nowhere to be found for this law? Furthermore, how do I get the FBI director to look the other way from the obvious intent of setting up the server in the first place, telling staffers to remove classified headings, telling the company monitoring my server to use bleachbit to delete all the emails AFTER getting a subpoena? This is truly groundbreaking criminal excellence that needs to be explained and shared. Hillary claims to be about fairness so her keeping all these tips to herself isn't very "fair" to the rest of us aspiring criminals.

How about a step-by-step explanation for how I can project my illegal dealings with the Russians into a negative narrative for my political opponent?Read more ›

19 Comments 1,298 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars Gave me Pneumonia
By USC90 on September 14, 2016

The chapter where Hillbilly talks about her battle with Parkinson's Disease was difficult to read. Difficult because it was missing from the book.

3 Comments 616 people found this helpful.

1.0 out of 5 stars I got a copy of this book from someone in ...
By Ron NYC on September 14, 2016

I got a copy of this book from someone in my office. First, I don't know why Kaine is giving the Nazi salute on the cover. I couldn't get past the first third off the book before realizing that she is actually charging people to read her ideas and Trump gives specific policy information on his website for free. Even though I didn't pay for the book, I want my money back.

6 Comments 613 people found this helpful.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass

From The Academy, January 12th, 1878, quoting Lord Melbourne.
What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.
Dovetails with Philip Tetlock's research on forecasting. Experts have a poorer record of accuracy than informed non-experts. Pretty much the story of all post-WWII policy in general and virtually all foreign aid and philanthropic initiatives in particular.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Time discounting as a root cause

From Labor Force Participation and Video Games by Alex Tabarrok.

Is unemployment among young males driving them to play more video games or does playing more video games make them less employable. I agree with Tabarrok's conclusion.
Overall, the video game worry is a bit too reminiscent of the Dungeons and Dragons panic, or the earlier panics that books and radio were ruining children’s minds, for me to jump on board.
Tabarrok has another observation which fits with a line of my thinking that is relevant to other issues as well: Future discounting.
Perhaps the issue is that video games like slot machines are so enticing that young people discount the future too heavily or don’t recognize the future cost of not being in the workforce. Maybe. Perhaps what we really need is a 3D, virtual reality, total sensory simulation, awesome video game that is so expensive that it encourages people to work.
I have wondered for some time whether many of our issues, sociological and economic, might be tied to increasingly high discounting of the future. If you are uncertain about the future, it depresses long term planning, family formation, fertility, structured risk taking, etc. Absent these things, you lose economic progress, innovation, and a slew of other desirable outcomes.

Socialism (high degrees of regulatory control and redistribution) has this effect. I have wondered whether an increasing secularization of culture might also have the same impact. This line of thinking says that it is the discounting that is the real issue. Video games, lack of religion, reduced freedom are simply things which increase time discounting.

Monday, September 19, 2016

You can't stop the signal, Mal

A statement of fact or optimism?

Expand for full picture, click here.

That’s the problem with established models. They stay the same, while the world changes.

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit is famously succinct in his commentary. From OIL PRICES: NOT AS IMPORTANT AS WE THOUGHT?. The post is about research on the role of oil prices on an economy. Reynolds' comment is distilled wisdom:
That’s the problem with established models. They stay the same, while the world changes.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hide it better

From Concern Over Colin Powell’s Hacked Emails Becomes a Fear of Being Next by Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos.
A panicked network anchor went home and deleted his entire personal Gmail account. A Democratic senator began rethinking the virtues of a flip phone. And a former national security official gave silent thanks that he is now living on the West Coast.

The digital queasiness has settled heavily on the nation’s capital and its secretive political combatants this week as yet another victim, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, fell prey to the embarrassment of seeing his personal musings distributed on the internet and highlighted in news reports.

“There but for the grace of God go all of us,” said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman for President Obama who now works in San Francisco. He said thinking about his own email exchanges in Washington made him cringe, even now.
I have long speculated that there was a possibility that the internet, and its absence of security, might have the unintended consequence of making people more ethical. In religion, the existence of an omnipotent being who can see your every action and thought, serves, at least to some small degree, as a moderator of personal behaviors and thinking. If all your bad thoughts are on display, then you have an incentive to constrain bad thoughts.

My speculation was that nothing is secure on the internet and therefore people would eventually realize that everything they say and do is ultimately visible. In that environment, perhaps secular people might begin to constrain bad thoughts and actions.

The article by Fandos and Shear would seem to indicate that my optimism is misplaced.
Washington may be behind other big cities in learning that lesson. Bankers on Wall Street have favored very brief emails since their conversations were splashed across front pages because of lawsuits filed after the financial crisis. In 2010, Goldman Sachs executives used the acronym “LDL,” for “let’s discuss live,” when a conversation turned at all sensitive.

Hank Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs chief executive, refuses to use email. Ben S. Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, once set up an email account under the pseudonym Edward Quince in the hopes of greater privacy.

Similar precautions have been common in Silicon Valley since a 2009 Chinese state cyberattack on servers at Google and other tech companies. In Hollywood, a breach at Sony Pictures in 2014 spilled out gossipy secrets and persuaded film crews, actors and executives alike to adopt security measures they once considered paranoid. Studios have turned to a new class of companies with names like WatchDox that wrap screenplays with encryption, passwords and monitoring systems that can track who has access to confidential files.
People are realizing that indeed the internet is insecure. Rather than moderate their behavior and communications, they are simply trying to find more secure ways to behave as they did before. So much for naive moral optimism.

To love another person Is to see the face of God

The closing Finale to Les Miserables seems to echo sentiments we are seeing across Europe and the US, a revolt of the hoi polloi against the self-anointed elites.


Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share,
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring
When tomorrow comes...
Tomorrow comes!
It is the prior verses which hold the liberating message though.
Now you are here
Again beside me
Now I can die in peace
For now my life is blessed...

You will live, Papa, you're going to live
It's too soon, to ever say goodbye!

Yes, Cosette, forbid me now to die
I'll obey
I will try.
On this page
I write my last confession
Read it well

When I, at last, am sleeping
It's the story
Of one who turned from hating
A man who only learned to love
When you were in his keeping.

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief
At last, at last behind you
Lord in Heaven
Look down on him in mercy.

Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.

Take my hand
I'll lead you to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting

And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.

Click here for the original.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Least productive economic sectors are growing the fastest

Hmmm. This is via Workplace sentences to ponder by Tyler Cowen but it is actually quoting Matthew C. Klein (gated).
…In the past sixteen years, 94 per cent of the net jobs created were in education, healthcare, social assistance, bars, restaurants, and retail, even though those sectors only employed 36 per cent of America’s workforce at the start of the millennium…

Average hourly pay in these sectors, weighted by their relative sizes, has consistently been about 30 per cent lower than in the rest of the economy…

And since typical jobs in bars, restaurants, and retail involve far fewer hours than normal, weekly pay packets for workers in these growing industries were more than 40 per cent lower than workers in the rest of the economy. Average weekly earnings are now 3 per cent lower than they would have been if the distribution of employment had stayed the same as in January, 2000…
Two thoughts.

In developmental economics, the standard model is that as countries develop, they move up the productivity curve, old industries shedding jobs and relocating to countries earlier on the curve while pioneering and developing higher productivity new sectors. Typical example might be TVs, pioneered in the US. Production started here, then moved to Japan. As Japan developed, TV manufacturing moved to Korea. Then to China. Now towards places other countries like Vietnam.

Klein observation provides a twist to that. Education, healthcare, social assistance, bars, restaurants and retail are all notoriously lower productivity. This doesn't feel like we are moving up the productivity curve. Is this a hidden dynamic simply not observed before even though it might have been there? Or is this something new and, if so, what does it presage?

The optimistic argument might be that in an era with excess capital and low investment opportunities, we are simply reaching deeper into the investment barrel. Perhaps these sectors are growing precisely because they are inefficient.

Caveat is the retail sector. It has already experienced one massive shift in productivity improvement with the rise of precision retailing pioneered by Walmart. Walmart's productivity story and its impact on macroeconomics is too little told. Decent quality goods at low prices has been one of the most welfare enhancing events of the past forty years. Far greater than any single government policy in that time frame except perhaps the deregulation of telecommunications.

Still, all our growth occurring in sectors that are characterized as low productivity, low wage, unstructured work environments and nearly entirely consumption would seem at least mildly alarming.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

We shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred

From Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
I am afraid that is something of the dynamic we are experiencing right now. 80-90% of Americans live perfectly satisfied lives in their communities and among one another, rich and poor, old and young, black and white, male and female. At the margin, there are policy issues, differences of opinion and differences in manners. But most people politely ignore the marginal issues and look for their common ground. At least, that's what I see and what some of the data supports.

At the far margins though, those at polar opposites of the ideological spectrum, the 10-20% who are emotionally impassioned believers, the effort is not to find common ground, extend goodwill or seek common respect. For the 10-20% who are emotionally impassioned, the desire is to draw lines, build walls, exclude, ostracize, tribalize, divide. I don't need to listen to you because you are a fellow citizen with a range of experiences, wealth of knowledge, and opinions. I don't need to listen to you because we diverge on one critical issue and on that basis, I am empowered to castigate, exclude, destroy. That is what seems to be the shared norm at the far extreme of both ends of the spectrum.

What is different now is not that the extremes differ from one another or from the great center. That has always been true. I hypothesize that what feels different now is due to one extreme now being dominant in a few key sectors. If academia, entertainment, media were all dominated by people with views of the center, I speculate that there would little sense of apocalyptic times. Instead, academia, entertainment and media are all substantially dominated by some of the most extreme voices of one end of the spectrum. It rubs the great center the wrong way and panics the convinced percentage on the other end of the spectrum that the end-times are on us and every routine, normal election cycle, represents a potential extinction event.

Fortunately, human systems tend to be self-correcting and these apocalyptic visions will pass. Regrettably the self-correcting mechanisms may grind fine but they grind slow.

. . . and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension

A wonderful voice from the past with a muscular endorsement of universalism over the frantic cognitive desiccation arising from identity politics and multiculturalism. W.E.B. Du Bois we need you now on our campuses. From The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, Chapter VI, Of the Training of Black Men by W.E.B. Du Bois.
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Affordable Beer Act

I usually agree with Megan McArdle but I think, in this instance, she is off mark. From Don't Make Colleges Pay for Student-Loan Defaults by Megan McArdle.
Incentives matter. This is a fundamental tenet of economics: People respond to their incentives. If something in a market seems to be going wrong, it’s because the incentives have gotten screwed up.

Looking at the market for education, it’s hard not to think that there’s something wrong with the incentives. Tuition keeps going up and so does debt. The percentage of people who are not paying off that debt — either because they are in default, deferment, or an income-based repayment program — is staggering. Naturally, a lot of folks would like to get the government in there to start tweaking those incentives until the market stops being so crazy.

One issue involves the incentives that schools have to ensure that their graduates get value out of their degrees. At the moment, a school can enroll you in practically any program, and the government will lend you money for tuition and living expenses, whether or not that degree is likely to produce the means to repay the loan. Since schools are often in a better position to know the economic value of their degrees than naive potential students, that twists the incentives. Eventually, the student will pay, either with money or trashed credit. If the loan defaults, taxpayers will pay too. The school has the most information about the transaction and yet it has the least at stake. No wonder we have such high tuition, so many dubious degree programs and such a troubling rate of default.

So why not make the schools care? That’s the idea behind “risk sharing,” a reform plan that is hot in Washington. The details come in various flavors, but the core is the same: When graduates default, their schools would be on the hook. That's already true to a small degree, but a school’s default rate has to be egregious before the government will take action. Ideally, risk-sharing would remove those thresholds for government action. Every time a student defaults, the school would pay some fraction of the lost money.

It sounds like an economist’s dream: simple, elegant and even just. Unfortunately, when you start digging into the details, it starts looking less elegant and more complicated.
She's right, it is complicated. Her concern is that
Penalizing schools with high dropout rates would undoubtedly deter schools from preying on naive students with no college graduates in their family background. But it would probably also discourage schools from admitting those sorts of students, because they are the ones who are more likely to default.
True enough. But that's the point. We don't want schools admitting students who will end up in debt and without a productive degree to show for it. Yes, it will have a disparate impact. All that argues for, though, is some marginal degree of attentiveness. Is there a policy approach that can ensure that the very poorest have the ability to graduate with a worthwhile degree. If so, let's implement it. What we should not do is keep immiserating poor students by having them take on debt loads for activities that won't improve their lives.

I think McArdle has been diverted by trying to create a poor analogy to an aspect of healthcare. These are not comparable dynamics and therefore her conclusion, I think, is wrong.

All that being said, the reward for reading is in the comments section. McArdle has generally excellent commenters and they have fun with this proposition,

Fish Heads • 2 days ago

We need an Affordable College Act, or ACA, with a mandate that everyone pays tuition whether they are in school or not. The cost curve would be bent downward, saving the average family a whopping $2,500 per year. Professors could finally get the raises they deserve, and college football coaches would no longer be overworked and underpaid. I'll be in my safe spot.

Jeff R. Fish Heads • 2 days ago

I liked Bernie Sanders' plan: college is getting more expensive, therefore the federal government should make it free. Simple, effective, well-reasoned, unobjectionable.

evadderf • 2 days ago

CRAFT BEER is getting more expensive, therefore the federal government should make
it free. Simple, effective, well-reasoned, unobjectionable.


Ron Bruno • 2 days ago

The Affordable Beer Act-- as it turns out the possibilities for affordable legislation are endless.

Sigivald • 2 days ago

The Affordable Affordable Act Act.


Ann_In_Illinois • 2 days ago

Venezuela has led the way! I've been wanting a flat screen TV. When should I start stockpiling toilet paper?

eyethink2 • 2 days ago

If the thought of free beer makes you want to stockpile toilet paper, I don't want any of what you're having to drink. :)

eyethink2 Ron Bruno 2 days ago

I'll drink to that.

Jeffn • 2 days ago

I think we should push for this, actually. I figure when they start rationing beer, 20 or 30 states will secede within a month.

You can have my Hoppy IPA when you pry it from my frosty, dead fingers.

oilman_15106 Fish Heads • 2 days ago

OH would that be the $2500 a year in health insurance savings I am supposed to be getting?

SgtFraggleRock oilman_15106 • 2 days ago

Hey, at least you got to keep your doctor, right?

Yancey Ward SgtFraggleRock • 2 days ago

Hello, Doctor Hibbard Nick!

SgtFraggleRock Yancey Ward • 2 days ago

"You've tried the best. Now try the rest."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From favored visitors to vermin

That's something I didn't know. I thought Canadian Geese simply stopped migrating owing to an abundance of overwinter food. Apparently that's not quite the whole story. From Anatomy of a Miracle by William Langewiesche.
Canada geese used to have a better reputation. They were visitors from the distant north who graced New York each fall and spring, igniting people’s imaginations and providing essential connections to the vastness of the continent beyond the city. When they passed overhead in their majestic formations they seemed destined for faraway places. In the early 1960s, however, the situation began to change, after state wildlife agencies came up with a bioengineering scheme whose purpose in part was to enhance state revenues by stimulating the purchase of bird-hunting licenses. The agencies captured breeding pairs of an endangered but supersize subspecies known as the giant Canada goose, and by clipping their wings forced them to settle permanently into authorized nesting grounds along the Eastern Seaboard and elsewhere in the United States. The offspring of these clipped-wing geese imprinted to the new locations, and, having lost the collective memory of migration, became full-time resident populations. Simultaneously, it seems, other Canada geese may have given up on migration simply in response to changes in farming techniques, which left a new abundance of corn on the ground in the Midwest and the Middle Atlantic states. Then came Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the banning of certain pesticides and chemicals harmful to birds, the imposition of environmental-protection laws, and the associated gentrification of former farmlands in places such as Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The newly non-migratory giant Canada geese settled comfortably into a paradise with few predators, where hunting was frowned upon, where food was abundant, and where there were plenty of golf courses, corporate lawns, and protected wetlands to dominate. Nationwide their population grew from about 200,000 in 1970 to four million today. In New York they now vastly outnumber their migratory cousins. They are magnificent birds in flight, partly because of their size—with wingspans up to six feet. But they are also insatiable overgrazers and prodigious defecators—territorial and overprotective of their young, traits they share with many of their human neighbors. So, in a shift of public emotion, they are no longer seen as honored visitors but as vermin and pests.

Monday, September 12, 2016

In USA, high status men have more offspring than low status men (reverse among women)

Well, this is interesting, even though it is a generation old. I wonder if there is current data somewhere?

I have seen not dissimilar graphs for class but I don't believe I have ever seen one by gender.

How to interpret? Not much of a clue beyond its face value. In many ways this mirrors ancient social tropes. I wonder to what degree and in which direction this might have changed in the intervening 22 years? I wonder what the graphs look like by group cultural origin? How does this tie into Gregory Clark's work where he documents upper class higher offspring survival as a mechanism for disseminating high class culture into lower classes? So many questions.

And what is going on with the women element of the data? Upper class women having fewer children is a disapproved reality going back to Caesar Augustus complaining and trying to come up with a solution to get upper class women to have more children.

Economically it is entirely consistent with theory. Childbearing has significant career and monetary costs to the mother, IF she has high human capital (education, opportunities, status, etc.) A highly educated woman with a well-launched career gives up a lot financially in order to have children, regardless of how supportive might be her husband and company. Anything that costs more is consumed less. In terms of opportunity cost, children have a higher cost to upper class women, therefore they have, all other things being equal, fewer children.

Lower class women, potentially having lower human capital (status, opportunities and education) suffer less opportunity cost and indeed, from a life cycle insurance perspective, might be net beneficiaries of having children. Something that has a lower cost (and higher benefit) is consumed more.

So economic theory is consistent with the observed data.

But what about biological (evolutionary) theory? In what evolutionary scenario does it make sense that nominally (recognizing that all human life has equal inherent value) better off females should reproduce less? I guess, that is the part of the equation that makes least sense to me from a thinking perspective. Reminds me of that Idiocracy trailer.

Click to see full screen.

UPDATE: High Status Men (But Not Women) Capture the Eye of the Beholder from 2008.

UPDATE: The more I think about this, this is really just a data based visualization that is, perhaps, a corollary to the theory of hypergamy. I am still left with the question: hypergamy, assortative mating, and differential fertility by gender and class - what is the net impact of these somewhat divergent (and in tension) theories and realities?

An over-reliance on elite print-news sources can be disorienting

Jonathan Chait is an interesting writer. Definitely among the elite of the chattering class but usually more self-aware than most of his compatriots and more willingly honest. He has had a number of good articles this campaign season but that doesn't include this most recent, Matt Lauer’s Pathetic Interview of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Is the Scariest Thing I’ve Seen in This Campaign by Jonathan Chait.

He is quite honest about his commitment to the Democrats and therefore to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is a shocking anathema to him. It is no great surprise that those who benefit from the status quo should wish for the status quo to continue, no matter how corrupt it might be.

This is an interesting admission though, relating to the recent interview conducted by Matt Lauer of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major-party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer. And the reality transmitted to them from Lauer matches the reality of the polls, which is a world in which Clinton and Trump are equivalently flawed.
I have not watched the interview but from all accounts I have seen, Lauer did indeed question both Clinton and Trump about equally. Or rather more equally than is common.

Chait's beef is that he reads the elite rags of the privileged chattering class and that based on those sources, he knows that Trump is "an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian" and that Clinton is "a normal politician with normal political failings." He worries Lauer is not conveying that superior knowledge to the "average undecided voter," i.e. to the masses.

Chait is most exercised that Lauer spent much of his time questioning Clinton about her choice to avoid FOIA law and Department of State requirements that she use secure government accounts for all her official correspondence. Chait claims
The impression an uninformed or even moderately informed viewer would receive from this interview is that the email issue represents a sinister crime, perhaps completely disqualifying from office, rather than an unjustifiable but routine act of government non-transparency.
Chait is a bright and informed man. How is it possible that he could claim that this was a "routine act of government non-transparency." One of the reason's (among many) that the e-mail controversy remains germane is that it was not routine. In fact, it was exceptional. No other Secretary of State relied solely on a private network of her own concoction for all her official correspondence. And no other Secretary of State has been caught so completely misrepresenting (whether through culpability or carelessness remains to be seen) all her actions related to the e-mail server. This is by no means routine. This is Nixonian 18 1/2 minutes missing from the tape terrain.

You get the feeling that perhaps Chait must be suffering a massive confirmation bias filtering event. He claims that
Her decision to follow Colin Powell’s advice is a legitimate blot on her record.
as if he is unaware that Powell has publicly disclaimed ever giving her such advice. From the UK Times
“Her people have been trying to pin it on me,” Mr Powell said of the email controversy. “The truth is she was using [her private email server] for a year before I sent her a memo telling her what I did”
Let's revisit Chait's other blind spot. His claim that Hillary Clinton is "a normal politician with normal political failings."

We have had female politicians reach virtually every height (other than the Presidency or Vice Presidency) in our democratic system in the past hundred years. We have had wives fill out their deceased husbands terms many times. It is uncommon but by no means unknown. However, it is relatively rare that we have had a female politician try and leverage her own political career, Eva Peron-like, from her husband's. I am sure there must be some parallel at the state level at some time but I can think of no comparable example at the national level in the past fifty years. Hillary Clinton's near complete dependency for her political career on her husband's career is certainly not normal.

And speaking of Eva Peron, Hillary Clinton and Foundations, I came across a startling consonance from the lyrics of Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. From the song And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out).
Eva's pretty hands reached out and they reached wide
Now you may feel it should have been a voluntary cause
But that's not the point my friends
When the money keeps rolling in you don't ask how
Think of all the people guaranteed a good time now
Eva's called the hungry to her--opened up the doors!
Never been a fund like the Foundation Eva Peron!


Now cynics claim a little of the cash has gone astray
But that's not the point my friends
When the money keeps rolling out you don't keep books
You can tell you've done well by the happy grateful looks
Accountants only slow things down, figures get in
the way
Never been a lady loved as much as Eva Peron!
Hillary Clinton's career is also not normal in terms of the breadth and depth of her scandals. From way back at the beginning in 1978 you have the Hillary Rodham cattle futures controversy. 38 years of financial questions and scandals. Not to mention her role in suppressing rape claims against Bill Clinton, suppression of bimbo eruptions, tawdry favor trading with Travelgate, Rose Law Firm missing billing files, Whitewater, the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan collapse, the Clinton Foundation as a slush fund, trading State Department access for donations to the Clinton Foundation, and of course, most recently, the e-mail server and its attendant controversies (security, classified information, lying, etc.)

Controversies about money, sex, influence peddling, obstruction of justice, misconduct towards others, hiding evidence, lying under oath, access selling, fraud. That's a pretty broad set of controversies and over nearly four decades. There is nothing normal about that.

That profile of corruption is, very fortunately, rare. Sure, there are plenty of politicians that fall afoul of the law or accepted moral norms. That happens all the time. Money OR Sex OR Corruption OR Obstruction of Justice, etc. But that's OR not AND. Nobody has the whole package of venality as does Clinton.

The closest comparable politician I can think of in modern times for duration and variety of scandal is the former Governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards of "Laissez les bons temps rouler" fame. The only differences between Edwards and Clinton is that he was at a local level and she is at the national level and that he was brought to account for his crimes.

Contrary to Chait's claim, Hillary Clinton is not "a normal politician with normal political failings." In that regard she is indeed exceptional. That Chait might think otherwise seems a testament to industrial strength confirmation bias or to an over-reliance on "elite print-news sources" which are essentially Clinton campaign operatives with by-lines.

It is not Lauer or the American public that is alarming in this instance. It is the insulated world of the chattering classes.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

We have demonized those who produce

Good old Thomas Sowell. He is trenchant in his comments.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Class based inflation rates?

So here's my question. I know, from Cowen's Second Law that the answer must be yes.

Is there any research on class-based inflation rates.

What I am thinking is that the Middle Class, the Lower Class, and Upper Class (or whatever nomenclature is preferred) have distinctively different consumption patterns. They buy different things in different amounts.

All consumption gets dumped into one big pot of data to derive a single inflationary index such as the Consumer Price Index.

But what if, based on the difference in consumption patterns, there are material differences in perceived inflation rates.

More specifically, I would speculate that the lower class of consumers probably face a lower inflation rate. They consume basic commodity items that are exposed to the most extreme competition which in general ought to keep inflation low.

I would guess that the upper class face the second lowest inflation rate owing to consumption opportunism. A much higher proportion of your consumption is purely optional so you can more easily choose to switch between categories of consumption based on market signals. Maybe exotic vacations are especially expensive this year and so instead you upgrade your car because the industry is in a downturn and offering great deals.

In this hypothesis, the middle class are the ones who take it in the neck. They are buying more than commodities but are also more financially constrained to patterns of established purchasing. They don't switch between categories of purchases, at best they postpone them. There is also an element of keeping up with the Joneses which likely makes them less responsive to adjusting spending patterns even if there are inflationary pressures.

Over the past few years, there seems to me from anecdotal conversations that there is a much higher perceived inflation rate than is reflected in the actual averaged data and there is certainly little apparent concern about inflation from the policy elite. But the policy elite are in the upper class. Perhaps they experience a materially lower effective inflation rate than do the much larger middle class?

I don't know, but it seems perhaps plausible.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Attractiveness or gravitas?

From Effects of Instructor Attractiveness on Learning by Richard Westfall, Murray Millar & Mandy Walsh

It's psychology research so caveat lector.

From the abstract:
Although a considerable body of research has examined the impact of student attractiveness on instructors, little attention has been given to the influence of instructor attractiveness on students. This study tested the hypothesis that persons would perform significantly better on a learning task when they perceived their instructor to be high in physical attractiveness. To test the hypothesis, participants listened to an audio lecture while viewing a photograph of instructor. The photograph depicted either a physically attractive instructor or a less attractive instructor. Following the lecture, participants completed a forced choice recognition task covering material from the lecture. Consistent with the predictions; attractive instructors were associated with more learning. Finally, we replicated previous findings demonstrating the role attractiveness plays in person perception.
I wonder if it is attractiveness per se, which I believe is quite conceivable, or whether it might not be fastidiousness. What I mean by that is whether people's assessment of attractiveness might be influenced by how the person is presented - not just their features but how they are dressed, etc. The old adage is that the clothes makes the man and I could conceive of a mechanism that delivers the above results not based on attractiveness but on perceived seriousness.

In other words, an unkempt slovenly person comes in to lecture. Are you going to accord them the seriousness that their expertise might deserve? I suspect not.

Alternatively, someone comes in dressed as a professional and presents themselves confidently. Do you take them more seriously and up your attentiveness game? I don't know but I suspect that the above results might be tied to that mechanism of gravitas signaling over simply attractiveness.