Saturday, April 30, 2016

And very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

From Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. It is interesting how the same words can yield new or additional insight over time.

Smith is famous for the term invisible hand of the marketplace. The concept that in a complex system, individual actions towards one goal can unintentionally yield system wide benefits not otherwise planned for. Here is that famous passage clearly and vividly rendering a complex concept.
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
As an International Economics major, I am well familiar with the passage, having revisited it a number of times over the years. Familiar as it is, some minor nudge in perspective can yield additional insight.

In this instance, for whatever reason, my cognitive focus shifted to the end of the passage rather than the beginning.
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
And really, it is the sentence in the middle.

"I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." Looking around the OECD and the US, we are nearly buried with illustrative examples of this quarter millennia old drop of wisdom. Here in the US we have the subprime mortgage market debacle engineered by bureaucrats seeking to increase the public good by forcing banks to make riskier loans. We have the cash for clunkers boondoggle which now make used cars so much more expensive for the poorer income quintile population. We have the billions of dollars that have disappeared down the rathole of solar panel manufacturing subsidies and for corn ethanol conversions which manage to make both energy and food more expensive. We have the trillion dollar student loan bubble about to burst all over us and which, under the noblest of guises, has immiserated so many futures. We have the billions of pounds of weight people have gained following government food guidelines.

Smith's observation is well supported today. And of course he has to add that dour Calvinist knife twist, "It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."

Something so stupid you don't have to dissuade a sentient being from doing it, but rendered more artfully. It echoes of Orwell's comment about an idea so stupid only an academic would believe it to be true.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Contact crony capitalism

Rent seeking and regulatory capture are common forms of commercial and political sclerosis, cronyism and corruption. de Rigby describes one such example which, as a contact wearer, has long stuck in my craw.

From Congress and Crony Capitalists Want to Take Over the Contact Lens Market: Special interests collude with government to hurt consumers. by Veronique de Rugy.

This corruption is a debasement of the democratic process and undermines citizen trust in government. Government has important functions to fulfill but what happens when, through this kind of corruption, it is no longer trusted to do so. Left and Right ought to both be able to agree on this but instead both collude to fleece the private citizen.
The intensity with which some American companies try to use the government to trick or deceive consumers is astonishing. Yet the extent to which lawmakers seem content to cater to these crony pursuits never disappoints, either. Case in point: the current attempt to protect contact lens sellers from competition at the expense of consumers.

An estimated 40 million Americans wear contact lenses. That's a $4 billion industry. Thanks to the heavy-handed government regulation of all things health care, contacts already cost more than they should. However, if an ongoing effort to reduce competition through government cronyism were to succeed, costs might soon rise even more.

What makes the contact lens market unique—and also leaves it extra vulnerable to crony intervention—is the fact that customers are required by federal law to obtain a prescription from a licensed optometrist in order to purchase lenses. It is a rare instance where prescribers are also sellers, which leads to a cozy relationship between manufacturers and the doctors who can steer patients toward their brand.

Prescriptions are brand-specific. This makes it difficult for consumers to shop around. Choosing a different brand would require paying for another exam in order to obtain a new prescription.

The simplest solution would be to do away with the gatekeepers altogether and allow the purchase of contact lenses without a prescription. It works just fine that way in Europe and Japan, but manufacturers and doctors nevertheless protect their legal mandate through lobbying by citing health concerns, even as the same manufacturers happily sell to overseas markets without the same requirements.
It is even worse than de Rigby indicates. She's discussing federal law. Many states require that a consumer have a new eye examine at least every two years before they can reorder their contacts. This is simply a make-work program by legislators for donation-rich opticians. Sure, the individual should periodically get their eye's checked, particularly, after a certain age, for glaucoma and the like. But enforcing that recommendation by holding hostage prescription refills is simply government coercively transferring money from consumers to opticians via the inducement of political donations. Disgusting.

My prescription for contacts has not changed in some fifteen or twenty years. But every two years, I have to make three or four hours available to go and get my eyes checked anyway, simply in order to get my prescription refilled.

If the government is so clearly on the side of the deep pockets and against the citizenry, why would we trust them to make good decisions on really important issues. Contact lenses are just a reminder that we shouldn't.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Rather, income redistribution is a tax against other people becoming wealthy.

I have seen this argument put differently before, but never quite so pithily. Why do wealthy celebrities support high tax proposing progressive politicians? It is a strategy for securing one's status as part of the wealthy elite by decimating the rising competition.
Last week, my wife told me that Michael Stipe, the lead singer for one of the favorite bands of my youth, had opened a rally for Senator Bernie Sanders. I knew the guy was an insufferable lefty, but it still got me thinking about why rich celebrities love to support socialists, seemingly against their own interest.

And then I realized — like a snail coming late to a conclusion that everyone else has long since reached — that it actually is in their best interests to support these policies because “income redistribution” — as opposed to “property redistribution” — doesn’t impact the already-wealthy all that much. Rather, income redistribution is a tax against other people becoming wealthy.

Sanders is not proposing that the rich pay their fair share: he’s proposing that people becoming rich cough-up the money they’re busy earning. Those like Stipe have already made their fortunes. Sure, Sanders’s high taxes will have some impact on his further income, but Sanders isn’t proposing to confiscate Stipe’s existing wealth; it’s the next musician — the one who isn’t already filthy rich — who will be paying 80% of his income, thus preventing him from ever reaching the lofty status of those like Michael Stipe.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mistaking choices for bias

A rather interesting example of a common phenomenon. Reporters are often susceptible to the ideological orientations of the left leaning academy and prone to believing some things that are simply not true. The fact that few are quantitatively oriented or have formal grounding in statistics and logic makes the situation even worse. The right sees this as evidence that journalists are a fifth column intentionally advocating for left positions. I think it is much more subtle than that. I don't dispute the empirical fact that most journalists skew Democrat and progressive based on their political donations.

I think the mechanism by which this is revealed is not conscious bias. Instead, I think the bias shows up in two forms. The first is in the matter of what gets reported and what does not. They can't report everything and they tend to report on things that appear important to them (and their editors). What remains unreported are often just as important but not pertinent to their particular political leanings. Corruption, hard and soft, is rife in many major metropolises. For the right, that is one among many indications that big government cannot be trusted and those stories are dramatically underreported. For those of a left persuasion, I think the mental framing is that humans are inherently weak and subject to temptation. It is a dog bites man story and therefore not interesting and indeed is underreported.

The second way that the bias manifests is in the journalist's priors, those assumptions they make in advance. The story is reported in the context of those priors which may be either simply wrong or they may distort the factual data.

The instigating article is from Tax Policy Is Widening the Gender Gap by Victoria Bateman. The argument being made is there in the headline. Another gender grievance. But is it true that tax policy is widening the gender gap?
With British politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, making public their tax affairs, the OECD’s new Taxing Wages report could not have come at a better time. For those tired of Piketty-style class warfare, the report comes as a welcome departure. Move over, class warriors: It’s single people and women who really lose out from our tax and benefit systems.

Economists often look at the tax wedge -- the difference between the total labor costs to an employer and the net take-home pay of the corresponding employee. Income taxes are just one of a number of factors that can drive a wedge between the two figures, reducing incentives to employment. The tax wedge calculated by the OECD captures much more: the sum of income tax, social security contributions (paid by the employer and the employee) and payroll taxes, netted for any cash transfers (or “benefits”), all expressed as a proportion of the labor cost. The higher the tax wedge, the greater is the overall tax on labor.
The article is full of interesting empirical information which is reported but not generally elaborated on. The elaboration comes later in the article.
As the OECD notes, where governments choose to tax family income instead of individual income, “the second earner is effectively taxed at higher marginal tax rates than a single individual would be,” disincentivizing paid employment. Where countries provide tax allowances and tax credits to families (both of which are regularly justified on the grounds of equity), they come with a similar adverse effect, as has been the case in Italy.

Quantitatively speaking, the difference in tax between primary and secondary earners is certainly significant. For a family with two children in which the primary earner is receiving the average wage, the tax wedge on the secondary earner (who is assumed to earn two-thirds of the average wage) was 37.8 percent across the OECD in 2014. This compares with 26.7 percent for the primary earner, a difference of over 10 percentage points.

Where the majority of secondary earners are women, this means that women are being taxed more than men, which raises issues of fairness and potentially affects women’s labor force participation. According to a report published last year by the European Commission, fiscal disincentives facing female secondary earners are a particular problem in Belgium, Germany, Slovenia, Portugal and Luxembourg. Three of that list -- Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg -- have a high proportion of women in part-time as opposed to full-time roles. Joint tax filing (or joint elements) in these countries also means that the tax effectively paid by the second earner is dependent on -- rather than independent of -- the income of the primary earner.

It seems that the tax and benefit system is implicitly working against the achievement of gender equality in the workforce. Rather than blame the private sector for exacerbating inequality, it might be time for the state to look more carefully at how its own labor market interventions are impacting the gender gap.
Because, presumably, of her prior assumptions, Bateman fails to make a distinction. It is possible for two apparently contradictory statements to both be true. Based on her own reported information, it is obvious that "The tax policy is gender neutral" is true as well as that "Women are, on average, more heavily taxed than men." The reason is not that companies are discriminatory or that government is malevolent. The reason that both statements can be true rests with patterns of individual choices.

"The tax policy is gender neutral" is true because the government is not taxing by gender but by type of taxpayer condition. In other words, it is not distinguishing between male and female tax payers but between primary and secondary earners, regardless of sex. It is observable for a variety of economic and policy reasons, that the secondary earner is usually taxed at a higher rate.

It is also true that "Women are more heavily taxed than men." This is because, again for a variety of usually social and familial reasons, people make sets of decisions about the nature of the work they are willing to do and that women more often end up, within their family circumstances, as the secondary earners and therefore more heavily taxed because they are secondary earners (not because they are women.) In families where the male is the secondary earner, he will be taxed at exactly the same rate, given the same circumstances, as the female secondary earner.

The more accurate argument, compared to that made by Bateman, is that "On average, women's choice of work patterns, more often lead them to being taxed at a higher rate than men who make different patterns of choices." The more succinct headline might, "Secondary earners are taxed at a higher rate than primary earners."

It would appear that Bateman subscribes to a prior assumption that women are unfairly treated in the marketplace and therefore she reads the gender neutral tax policy as one more burden that working women bear. In fact, the burden falls equally on men and women and only differs because men and women, as individuals and as family units, make career and work decisions that yield the outcome where women are more often the secondary earner.

Because of her priors, Bateman draws the wrong conclusion from the data.

Because she draws the wrong conclusion, conservative readers conclude that this is one more instance of victim advocacy.

I don't think this is deliberate ideological advocacy. It is simply careless reporting, a result of priors and lack of numeracy.

Which is a pity, because there is a lot of useful and interesting information in the article.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales in Europe.

Needed to brush up on my Erasmus and so resorted to Wikipedia. Some interesting information:
Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales in Europe. He is credited with coining the adage, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." With the collaboration of Publio Fausto Andrelini, he formed a Paremiography (collection) of Latin proverbs and adages, commonly titled Adagia. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the phrase "Pandora's box", arising through an error in his translation of Hesiod's Pandora in which he confused pithos (storage jar) with pyxis (box).
Wow - 10-20% of all book sales. I know the absolute sales were still low in such early days of the printed book, but still. That is an incredibly dominant literary/intellectual/theological position for one person to hold, particularly given that the Bible probably accounted for 50% or more of all book sales at that time.

Man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing

Yeah, that's kind of a pervasive problem. From Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy.
You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Playfulness and Piety

From Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.
The professional man lives off ideas, not for them. … He has acquired a stock of mental skills that are for sale. The skills are highly developed, but we do not think of him as being an intellectual if certain qualities are missing from his work—disinterested intelligence, generalizing power, free speculation, fresh observation, creative novelty, radical criticism. At home he may happen to be an intellectual, but at his job he is a hired mental technician who uses his mind for the pursuit of externally determined ends. It is this element—the fact that ends are set from some interest or vantage point outside the intellectual process itself—which characterizes both the zealot, who lives obsessively for a single idea, and the mental technician, whose mind is used not for free speculation but for a salable end. The goal here is external and not self-determined, whereas the intellectual life has a certain spontaneous character and inner determination. It has also a peculiar poise of its own, which I believe is established by a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Income mobility from circumstantial change versus from inherent change

A thought prompted by some material in Thomas Sowell's recent book Wealth, Poverty and Politics. He writes so prolifically that you always have to be careful to claim a book as being his most recent. If it's more than a few months old, it seems, there may be another more recently published.

Sowell is discussing the advocacy interest and concern about declines in income mobility in the US (and in the OECD more broadly). Income Mobility being measured in many different fashions but broadly trying to capture the capacity of children to move up or down the income quintiles compared to their parents. A society with very low income mobility would have most kids remaining in the income quintile of their parents, be that high or low. In a society with high income mobility, a child would have only a twenty percent chance of remaining in the income quintile into which they were born, all the rest moving up or down essentially randomly.

This is part of the advocacy/ideology aspect that is often hidden in the debate of income mobility. It assumes that outcomes are essentially a matter of chance and that therefore any child has an equal probability of being in any one of the five income quintiles.

Of course we know that that is not true but no one is willing to identify what the precise "natural" level of income mobility might be. We know that children of college educated, two income working parent households are highly likely to remain or rise in their income quintile compared to their parents on a probabilistic basis. In other words, at the level of the individual, there are no guarantees but at the level of the population, there are probabilistic/predictable trends.

The postmodern/critical theory ideologist try and ascribe this to better nutrition, better schooling, more test prepping, etc. They want the outcome to be the results of material advantage. Regrettably for their position, the actual evidence doesn't support that. Upper income children are less likely to use test prep services. High SES children in thinly populated areas where everyone uses the same public school, have similar life outcomes to those of their SES peers in rich urban areas where the highest quintile do attend expensive private schools.

Mobility is fraught with these issues of irreconcilability between empirical evidence and what the ideological wish to be the case.

What no one is contesting (or at least very few) is that income mobility has declined in all developed nations. After World War II there was an increase in income mobility till around circa 1980-2000 with declines since then. Perhaps this is a data quality and measurement bias issue. Could be, but I suspect not. I am guessing that the directional trend is real though the absolute numbers might be off.


I wonder if a different perspective might be that of societal sorting?

Prior to World War II nearly half the population lived in the country and a large majority were in country/small town. In other words, materially isolated from the ebbs and flows of civilizational life in the big cities.

Post World War II, 15 million servicemen saw the world, were extracted from their cloistered environments and tasked with developing skills based on their IQ (via the Army equivalent testing). They gained experiences, knowledge and skills. Some returned to the country and small towns but after the war there was a major increase in urbanization approaching the 80% of today. People now living in much more intense, complex and competitive urban environments which demand the most of their cognitive capabilities.

On top of that, pre-WWII we sent 5% to college and now we send 30% to college. To get into the best of those universities, you have to take IQ tests (SAT and ACT) which force a harsh ranking of potential.

On top of that, post-WWII we had first increased national sorting and then global sorting based on increased connectedness. The national highway system followed by containerization of shipping supplemented by digital telecom, the internet, smartphones, etc. In a highly integrated, competitive world, there is further sorting based on capability.

Military IQ sorting, followed by university IQ sorting followed by urban capability sorting, all in the space of thirty years.

I wonder if we didn't have a high degree of pre-WWII isolation (rural, bad roads, little communication, marginal sorting) followed by a high degree of post-WWII sorting (urbanization, global connectedness, IQ sorting in all facets of life, etc.) for thirty years. By circa 1980-2000, perhaps we had done most of the transitioning? People who, through isolation, might have been locked into isolation in lower quintiles, had burst those bonds and advanced into the upper quintiles warranted by their IQ/Behaviors/Capabilities. In that period we would have seen high income mobility as people moved between quintiles in a relentlessly growing national economy.

But after nearly two generations of sorting, perhaps people are roughly in the "right" quintiles reflective of their core capabilities. Sure there will be individuals moving up and down based on variance of circumstance, but perhaps the big shifts are passed. Given that IQ and critical pro-social, life enhancing behaviors are substantially heritable, if people have settled into their "proper" quintiles based on their capabilities, we would expect that future income mobility will indeed be lower than it has been in the past.

This raises the specter of unintended castes. We have in the past counted on income mobility to take the strain off of contextual societal stresses. In other words, if most people believed that there was the prospect of bettering their own lives or that of their children, there was likely some good flex in the system. If, after sixty years, people are reasonably settled in their prospective quintiles, it seems to me that the system becomes much more fragile. If that safety valve is done, then what?

If what I am speculating is true, then the only real solution is to find ways that enable people to change their own interior life circumstances more effectively than in the past. In the past, people could move from low opportunity environments (such as remote country) to high opportunity environments and improve their prospects, regardless of their native capabilities. Likewise with communication technology, logistical infrastructure, etc. If we have gotten most the benefit out of those aspects, then all that remains is changing/improving native capabilities.

A much harder task but one that probably has some potential, but only once we focus on it with clarity.

56% of our air war in Afghanistan is by drone

Always interested in tipping points. The headline of this article is anodyne, Afghan drone war - data show unmanned flights dominate air campaign by Josh Smith but the more explicit intro paragraph is interesting.

The article is cluttered with factoids and data that hasn't been synthesized to match the narrative. You have to work a bit to make sense of it. What it comes down to is this:
Drones fired more weapons than conventional warplanes for the first time in Afghanistan last year and the ratio is rising, previously unreported U.S. Air Force data show, underlining how reliant the military has become on unmanned aircraft.


Data reviewed by Reuters show strikes by unmanned aircraft accounted for 56 percent of weapons deployed by the Air Force in Afghanistan in 2015, up dramatically from 5 percent in 2011.
AI, drones, autonomous weapons. Moore's law, digitization and all our other technological capacities are fast changing both the nature and the capacity of our military systems in ways that are yet unfamiliar. Not necessarily bad, just unfamiliar.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.

From The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter. This was published in 1964. Here we are fifty-two years later and much of Hofstadter's commentary is entirely fresh and relevant including his opening sentence.
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.
He explains his choice of terminology.
I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Does that sound like a description that has pertinence today? I am thinking of Campus Rape Hysteria, the fixation on Racism as an explanation for everything, the original Anthropogenic global warming claims, the myth of Gender Wage Discrimination, etc. All these have some small foothold in real world circumstances but "It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant."

Some more tidbits:
In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.


The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.


One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.


The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent — in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world.
A fascinating and deeply informative read from beginning to end.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Ruthlessness in political life

Having stumbled across an interesting quote by Richard Hofstadter, I researched him a little bit. An interesting thinker. Lots of good quotes.

From The Age of Reform: from Bryan to F.D.R. by Richard Hofstadter.
It is possible that the distinction between moral relativism and moral absolutism has sometimes been blurred because an excessively consistent practice of either leads to the same practical result — ruthlessness in political life.
Amen. My preferred dictum is: Everything moderation, including moderation.

Friday, April 22, 2016

It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.

From Richard Hofstadter as quoted in Samuel P. Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, 1981.
It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.
There is a strand of public discourse which tries to downplay American Exceptionalism. I understand why, for ideological reasons and for simple political expediency this is important to those such proponents. Based on my experience of living in multiple countries on five continents over nearly six decades, it is my experience that the US is indeed an exceptional country for many, many reasons. This belief is backed up with extensive reading of history but it is in the lived experience where you can see the exceptionalism most clearly.

One of the aspects of exceptionalism is the powerful sense of Americanism. We see and acknowledge differences among ourselves. He's from the South, she's Catholic, he's rich, she's a doctor, etc. But in general these categories function overwhelmingly as adjectives intended to provide background and context. They are not categories intended to capture and constrain. In the past forty years with the advance of progressivism and postmodernism, there has been an effort to define people both as Identities and as Victims. By race, gender, and class primarily, but there is a lot of flex in the ideology.

But that subscription to postmodern ideas of constrained (and constraining) Identity are still thankfully rare in the US, prevalent only in the academy and, when it is convenient, in the entertainment industry and among some class of politicians. Fortunately, most Americans still believe in American exceptionalism and believe all Americans to be fellow adherents. I will judge you on how you behave, what you do and what you accomplish rather than based on your accent or region or race, etc. If we mesh, wonderful. If we don't, we can go our own ways without interfering with one another.

It is an estimable position to take. We are an ideology of freedom and liberty. Thank goodness. And that is exceptional.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pareto Optimality

Pareto Optimality from Wikipedia. So many important concepts sometimes you need to refresh.
Pareto efficiency, or Pareto optimality, is a state of allocation of resources in which it is impossible to make any one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off. The term is named after Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), an Italian engineer and economist who used the concept in his studies of economic efficiency and income distribution. The concept has applications in academic fields such as economics, engineering, and the life sciences.

Pareto improvement is defined to be a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off, given a certain initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals. An allocation is defined as "Pareto efficient" or "Pareto optimal" when no further Pareto improvements can be made.

The archaeology of ideas and knowledge

I love this story. It is the archaeology of ideas and knowledge. It is part of the larger reexamination currently underway, finally acknowledging the accumulating evidence of the past few decades that, 1) We really don't know near as much about diet and nutrition as we pretend we do, 2) that much of the received wisdom of the past fifty years was simply wrong, and 3) the wrong knowledge led to bad recommendations that are likely to have been materially harmful to individuals and the population at large.
If biology has an Indiana Jones, it is Christopher Ramsden: he specializes in excavating lost studies, particularly those with the potential to challenge mainstream, government-sanctioned health advice.

His latest excavation — made possible by the pack-rat habits of a deceased scientist, the help of the scientist’s sons, and computer technicians who turned punch cards and magnetic tape into formats readable by today’s computers — undercuts a pillar of nutrition science.

Ramsden, of the National Institutes of Health, unearthed raw data from a 40-year-old study, which challenges the dogma that eating vegetable fats instead of animal fats is good for the heart. The study, the largest gold-standard experiment testing that idea, found the opposite, Ramsden and his colleagues reported on Tuesday in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).

Although the study is more than just another entry in the long-running nutrition wars — it is more rigorous than the vast majority of research on the topic — Ramsden makes no claims that it settles the question. Instead, he said, his discovery and analysis of long-lost data underline how the failure to publish the results of clinical trials can undermine truth.

Absent a time machine, it’s impossible to know how publication of the study, conducted in Minnesota from 1968 to 1973, might have influenced dietary advice. But in an accompanying editorial, Lennert Veerman of Australia’s University of Queensland concluded that “the benefits of choosing polyunsaturated fat over saturated fat seem a little less certain than we thought.”
It is well known that there is a strong publication bias which skews our knowledge and interpretation of things. Science publications (and general newspapers) have a strong propensity to publish research with strong and unexpected claims and scientists have a strong propensity to submit only studies with strong and unexpected claims.

If one study finds that there is a strong effect (regardless of the issue), it is likely to be published. If nine other scientists run similar studies and find no effect, their work tends to go into the file cabinet, which is essentially what happened in the above reported case. The consequence is that the field sees one positive study and no contradicting studies and then, incorrectly, concludes that the effect is real.

Of course human desires and expectations come into this. It takes courage to buck the received wisdom. Institutions who grant funding are notoriously reluctant to go out on a limb. Those conducting the investigation are rarely agnostic about the outcomes. Lots of good reasons why science doesn't proceed as quickly and as effectively as it might, particularly where it comes to fundamental issues about complex human systems in which many stakeholders have vested interests.

Still, this is an interesting example of all those issues in play.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

And George my lawful king shall be - until the times do alter

From Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia. Every now and then I come across a reference which rings a bell but which I can't pin down immediately. Recently, I came across the Vicar of Bray in a George Orwell essay. I recognize the name, but what is the context and background. I am drawing a blank.

Nowadays we laud a business or person who is alacritous in adapting to new circumstances. But sometimes adaptability and consistency are awkward mates.
The Vicar of Bray is a satirical description of an individual fundamentally changing his principles to remain in ecclesiastical office as external requirements change around him. The religious upheavals in England from 1533 to 1559 (and then from 1633 to 1715) made it impossible for any devout clergyman to comply with all the successive requirements of established church.


The figure described was Simon Aleyn between 1540–1588, as such, he preached the Bible and oversaw the baptism, confirmation, marriage and burial of his hundreds of parishioners in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth as the church minister of the 15 square miles (39 km2) almost wholly agriculturally cultivated parish, today much reduced, see Bray.

The main work of Thomas Fuller (d.1661), "Worthies of England", describes this man:[1]
The vivacious vicar [of Bray] living under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again. He had seen some martyrs burnt (two miles off) at Windsor and found this fire too hot for his tender temper.

This vicar, being taxed [attacked] by one for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling, said, 'Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this - to live and die the Vicar of Bray'.[2]

— Worthies of England, Published 1662
Here is one lyric recounting the moral gymnastics required from living in exciting times.
In good King Charles' golden time, when loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high churchman was I, and so I gained preferment.
To teach my flock, I never missed: Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist or touch the Lord's anointed!

And this be law, that I'll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.

When royal James possessed the crown, and popery came in fashion,
The penal laws I hooted down, and read the Declaration.
The Church of Rome, I found, did fit full well my constitution
And I had been a Jesuit, but for the Revolution.

When William was our King declared, to ease the nation's grievance,
With this new wind about I steered, and swore to him allegiance.
Old principles I did revoke; Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke, a jest was non-resistance.

When Royal Anne became our queen, the Church of England's glory,
Another face of things was seen, and I became a Tory.
Occasional conformists base; I blamed their moderation;
And thought the Church in danger was from such prevarication.

When George in pudding time came o'er, and moderate men looked big, sir
My principles I changed once more, and I became a Whig, sir.
And thus preferment I procured From our new Faith's Defender,
And almost every day abjured the Pope and the Pretender.

The illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession
To these I do allegiance swear - while they can hold possession.
For in my faith and loyalty I never more will falter,
And George my lawful king shall be - until the times do alter.

This is my own, my native land!

The Lay of the Last Minstrel
by Sir Walter Scott
Canto Sixth

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung.

Do we have a genetic disposition driving us towards pathological altruism?

Here is a purely speculative thought I woke with this morning, the product of several tangential conversations over the past few days in combination with somnolent noodling.

The predicate is the observation that in many countries, particularly in the US, the bottom quintile of income earners objectively live better lives than royalty and aristocrats a hundred and more years ago. This type of observation goes all the way back to Adam Smith when he observed that the meanest laborer in a market economy with division of labor commanded products unavailable to monarchs of yore. A more modern version is the entertaining I, Pencil by Leonard Read.

Our poorest citizens live longer, healthier lives than Pharaoh did. They have more education than Pharaoh could have had. Their daily environment is safer, more comfortable and more sophisticated than Pharaoh's. There is only one way, that I can think of, in which our poorest quintile come off worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh could command people. He had autocratic control over large numbers of people who operated at his beck and call, either as concubines or as builders of his pyramids.

That single distinction is what leads to the thought.

We see all around us people who are materially well off. But we have two sociologically peculiar conditions. Our government structures are notorious for attracting people who are willing to flout the law in order to exercise the coercive power of government. They may or may not get rich from their political position but they appear to be happy with the reward of commanding others. The second phenomenon is that of those who actually lead productive lives. It is not uncommon for them to undertake enthusiastic but almost pathological acts of altruism. I will help you no matter how much it harms you seems to be the spirit.

From that tissue of an observation, it makes me wonder. Do we have a gene that compels us towards dominance and control of others? It might tie together and explain both sets of phenomenon above.

Despite all the objective evidence that the poorest quintile are orders of magnitude better off than the top quintile of a century ago, they see themselves as worse off as does everyone else. And if we are compelled by a biological urge to dominance then, no matter how good their physical well-being, because they are positionally and tautologically worse off simply by being definitionally bottom quintile when our biology compels us towards the top quintile.

Similarly, in a democratic republic based on the consent of the govern, such a gene would explain the compulsion of people towards both government power as well as the pathological altruism where the privileged seek to coercively fix the underprivileged.

Obviously there are all sorts of other issues and contributors in these outcomes, but it makes me wonder.

UPDATE: Possible support from Science explains why it's so easy to get sucked into fights on the Internet by Brian Resnick.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Shirky Principle

Clay Shirky quoted by The Technium in The Shirky Principle.
Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.
Echoes The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities by Mancur Olson. His thesis was on the lines that in a stable society, eventually growth and prosperity are subverted by interests groups who strangle the politic through rent seeking and regulatory capture (my words, not his).

Common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally

From Fifty Orwell Essays by George Orwell.

From the essay, Nonsense Poetry, 1945.
Aldous Huxley, in praising Lear's fantasies as a sort of assertion of freedom, has pointed out that the "They" of the limericks represent common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. "They" are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, "It's absurd
To encourage this bird!"
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that "They" would do.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Hard humor

Anyone who has been involved in the implementation of complex business processes, product launches, transformational projects, or start-ups can laugh bitterly at this.

Click to enlarge

Love the project documentation panel.

Race, class, reporting and measurement

A trio of data from Gallup supports my contention that in America we have a class issue masquerading as a race issue and that things will not get better until we examine real root causes rather than politically expedient but false root causes.

Post Ferguson there is plenty of headline wailing that would make one think that suddenly police and the court systems are treating all blacks very badly. The usual caveat applies: averages don't excuse individual incidents of miscarriages of justice. However, averages can put things into relative perspective.

Despite Unrest, Blacks Do Not Feel More Mistreated by Police by Frank Newport. One set of data comes from this Gallup question:
Can you think of any occasion in the last 30 days when you felt you were treated unfairly in the following places because you were black? How about in dealings with the police, such as traffic incidents?
The answer is that 80% of blacks think they are treated fairly and that number is nearly the same as twenty years ago.

That's interesting right off the bat. It suggests that all the noise is arising from some mix of the aggrieved 20% and/or some portion who think they are themselves treated fairly but assume that others are being treated unfairly. This concern for others, while possibly well motivated, also underpins both virtue signalling and pathological altruism. There is a long and sorry history of people seeking to make the lives of others better and instead, making them worse.

Well, maybe people feel like things are much the same but that race relations is moving up in the list of priorities of things to be concerned about?

Nope. From Worry About Terror Attacks in U.S. High, but Not Top Concern by Justin McCarthy. In a list of thirteen problems facing America, Race Relations doesn't crack the top ten. It is number eleven in the list. Race Relations, Climate Change and the Availability of Affordable Energy are the three bottom concerns. You wouldn't think that to be the case from reading the mainstream media. Race Relations and Climate Change are important for academics, ideologues and policy pundits, but not of great interest to the non-elite.

You can see why policy pundits, ideologues and academics might not want to talk about the things most people are concerned about. For virtually all of the top ten concerns there is good data supporting worsening of trends despite government efforts: Healthcare, the economy, crime and violence, terrorism, hunger and homelessness, the Social Security system, drug use, quality of the environment (one of the few where there is objective data supporting continued improvement), unemployment and illegal immigration. Most of these are getting worse, in most cases despite government action, and in some cases because of government action.

So people are not reporting more unfairness and there is no change in the level of concern about race relations in the past twenty years. What could be driving the increased media coverage?

From the same report there is some insight though. For a dozen years from 2002 till Ferguson in 2014, concern about race relations held reasonably steady at about 22% being very concerned. In 2014 it was only 17%. Then, in the two years since Ferguson, concern has nearly doubled to 35%, but incident rates have not changed. What's the explanation? If there is no increase in individual level incidents and no change in perception of unfairness and that being very low, and there is no change in overall concerns, then the increase cannot be explained by reality but only by the proffered perception of reality. I.e. this is mainstream media reporting and not reality.

Or, at least, that's one interpretation that fits the facts.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The incredible sadness of being a university protester

The fractious authoritarianism of some groups of university students (and professors) has caught a lot attention in the past year. While administrator's native instinct seems to be to try and placate the students no matter how absurd their demands, it now seems post Missouri University (professor actively depriving students of their civil rights, break the law and going against university policy, for which she was subsequently fired) and post Emory University (activist students are sent into trauma by chalkings on sidewalks, "Trump 2016" and demand protection by administrators who then respond by issuing a letter both supporting free speech and at the same time indicating that it needs to be controlled so that people aren't upset, setting in motion nationwide mockery), administrators are beginning to take a firmer stand. See this account of the administration's response at Ohio State University when confronted by protesting Afrikan Black Coalition demands, Finally - A College President Finds a Backbone by Steven Hayward. Clear the building or you will be arrested and expelled. Seems appropriate for threatening and endangering behavior.

What caught my eye, though were some of the critical, fundamental demands of the protestors. As an aside, at the beginning of these student protests last year, someone put together a site that tracked all the demands being made at universities across the nation. Having glanced at the site I simply assumed that it was a right oriented group that had done this in order to draw attention to the absurdity of the demands. In trying to validate the reported demands at Ohio State, I sought a central aggregator of demands and came across the same site again, The Demands. I see now, on closer inspection, that it is in fact a genuine site sponsored by the Black Liberation Collective. Caught by Poe's Law again.

There was a demand for more locally sourced food in the dining room. Of course there were demands for divestment of various Fortune 500 companies that had somehow drawn their ire. But then there was this sad, sad and very revealing demand.
We demand complete, comprehensive and detailed access to the Ohio State budget and investments immediately, as well as personnel to aid students in understanding this information.
To paraphrase the demand: Give us information that we can use to increase our demands and with which to remand you. Oh, and provide us the experts to understand what we are looking at.

I think that is in the running for lamest demand yet. Certainly it is one of the lamest. A self-acknowledgement of a complete absence of even rudimentary financial or mathematical skills. They could not be clearer in their unconscious self-acknowledgment of intellectual incapacity and absence of life skills. It really is sad.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Incompatible goals

That would seem to be it in a nutshell.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A statistically significant uptick in crime rates

More emerging evidence supporting the hypothesized Ferguson Effect, i.e. reduction in police activities lead to increased criminal activity. A hypothesis that would seem reasonable on the face of it but which is hotly contested, mostly along ideological lines.

From De-Policing by Stephen Rushin and Griffin Sims Edwards. The abstract:
Critics have long claimed that when the law regulates police behavior it inadvertently reduces officer aggressiveness, thereby increasing crime. This hypothesis has taken on new significance in recent years as prominent politicians and law enforcement leaders have argued that increased oversight of police officers in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri has led to an increase in national crime rates. Using a panel of American law enforcement agencies and difference-in-difference regression analyses, this Article tests whether the introduction of public scrutiny or external regulation is associated with changes in crime rates. To do this, this Article relies on an original dataset of all police departments that have been subject to federally mandated reform under 42 U.S.C. § 14141 — the most invasive form of modern American police regulation. This Article finds that the introduction of § 14141 regulation was associated with a statistically significant uptick in crime rates in affected jurisdictions. This uptick in crime was concentrated in the years immediately after federal intervention and diminished over time. This finding suggests that police departments may experience growing pains when faced with external regulation.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The more nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past.

From The Age of Reform: from Bryan to F.D.R. by Richard Hofstadter.
While early American society was an agrarian society, it was fast becoming more commercial, and commercial goals made their way among its agricultural classes almost as rapidly as elsewhere. The more commercial society became, however, the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left behind. And the more rapidly the farmers' sons moved into the towns, the more nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past. The American mind was raised upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural people and rural life that I have chosen to designate as the agrarian myth. The agrarian myth represents a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins.

Like any complex of ideas, the agrarian myth cannot be defined in a phrase, but its component themes form a clear pattern. Its hero was the yeoman farmer, its central conception the notion that he is the ideal man and the ideal citizen.
I have no end of respect for Thomas Jefferson (another advocate of the yeoman farmer ideal) but I also have clear recollections of my grandmother's stories to me as a child of her own childhood, telling of farm life, its joys and its heartbreaks. She made that remarkable journey in a single lifetime from a log cabin in her youth to telling stories to her grandchildren gathered around her in a comfortable apartment with clean water, indoor plumbing, heating and air-conditioning and no end of conveniences that had not existed even in the imagination in her youth. She had fond recollections of her people and experiences but no misplaced sentimentality about the meaning of being a yeoman farmer. It was a hard, unremitting and unforgiving life. Romance is a nice emotional frill but it should not blind us to reality. It is easy to romanticize that which we have left behind. We left it for a reason.

They taught me all I knew

I loved reading this to the kids when they were young. Our public discourse would be so enriched if we all deployed our six serving men.
"I Keep Six Honest Serving Men ..."
by Rudyard Kipling in The Elephant Child

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends'em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Light in the loafers

This essay on the politics of language choice and the evolution of euphemisms brought to mind a recent conversation. The essay is The Reality-Denying Politicization of the English Language by Victor Davis Hanson.
Orwell also wrote about a futuristic dystopia ruled by a Big Brother government that created politicized euphemisms to reinvent reality.
The examples Hanson provides are:
Justice-involved youth, a euphemism for criminals (from our Attorney General, Loretta Lynch)
Climate chaos, a euphemism for weather
Sanctuary cities, a euphemism for local governments that do not enforce rule of law
Man-caused disaster, a euphemism for Islamic terrorism
The recent discussion that this recalled was the old term, "He's light in the loafers."

I hadn't heard it in years. I asked around to see how many people knew the term, and did some googling. Only people above forty or fifty recalled the term. Younger people hadn't heard of it at all. It seems like the phrase may have circulated perhaps 1950s-1970s.

I knew it as a euphemism for an effeminate man or, more explicitly, a gay man. It was an alternate, and gentler, allusion to someone rather than making a judgmental characterization. That understanding seems to have been the common one for the euphemism. Some people understood it to have a wider range, from light in the loafers meaning somewhat less than manly all the way up to an extravagantly effeminate man.

I can see why there was the need for the euphemism in an era when homosexual activity wasn't only frowned upon, it was a prosecutable offense (think Oscar Wilde). To call someone a homosexual was to call them a criminal. Thus the euphemism to capture the essence but without being explicit.

Why has it passed from common parlance? For the same reason it was brought into being in the first place. When homosexuality was a crime, we wanted a euphemism. Now that LGBT have been "normalized" de jure and in most places de facto, there is no longer any need to euphemize. "He's gay" or "She's lesbian" no longer refers to a criminal state but to an orientation.

In that regard, it is nice that the circumstances requiring the euphemism have gone. On the other hand, what a marvellously dexterous wording. Socially we are richer but linguistically we are just a little bit poorer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Alas, Babylon

Taking a break from work on Saturday, I spent a couple of hours browsing books at a used books store. I came across a title that rang a bell but which I have never read. Outside of my normal reading furrows but it is a classic of its kind. It is Alas, Babylon, a member of that cadre of books dealing with the post-nuclear apocalypse which included On the Beach by Nevil Shute and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. Published in 1959, 1957 and 1960 respectively.

Brought Alas, Babylon home and sampled it to determine where in the "to be read" pile it ought to go. The opening paragraph is a wonderful evocation of an America only two generations gone but feeling so distant. And yet the evocation is humanly eternal.
In Fort Repose, a river town in Central Florida, it was said that sending a message by Western Union was the same as broadcasting it over the combined networks. This was not entirely true. It was true that Florence Wechek, the manager, gossiped. Yet she judiciously classified the personal intelligence that flowed under her plump fingers, and maintained a prudent censorship over her tongue. The scandalous and the embarrassing she excised from her conversation. Sprightly, trivial, and harmless items she passed on to friends, thus enhancing her status and relieving the tedium of spinsterhood. If your sister was in trouble, and wired for money, the secret was safe with Florence Wechek. But if your sister bore a legitimate baby, its sex and weight would soon be known all over town.
I liked this passage as well which both captures a nostalgia for how the world could be (slowing things down, visiting and socialising, people loving books again) as well giving us a peek into how technological changes, in this case, air conditioning, were being seen as affecting America then. The scene is of the town librarian and takes place a good while after the nuclear attack.
Alone of all the people in Fort Repose, Alice continued with her regular work. Every morning she left the Wechek house at seven. Often, ignoring the unpredictable dangers of the road, she did not return until dark. Since The Day, the demand for her services had multiplied. They slowed when they overtook her, shouted a greeting, and waved. She waved back and pedaled on, a small, brave, and busy figure. Watching the car chuff past, Alice reminded herself that this evening she must bring back new books for Ben Franklin and Peyton. It was a surprise, and a delight, to see children devour books. Without ever knowing it, they were receiving an education. Alice would never admit it aloud, but for the first time in her thirty years as librarian of Fort Repose she felt fulfilled, even important.

It had not been easy or remunerative to persist as librarian in Fort Repose. She recalled how every year for eight years the town council had turned down her annual request for air conditioning. An expensive frill, they'd said. But without air conditioning, how could a library compete? Drugstores, bars, restaurants, movies, the St. Johns Country Club in San Marco, the lobby of the Riverside Inn, theaters, and most homes were air conditioned. You couldn't expect people to sit in a hot library during the humid Florida summer, which began in April and didn't end until October, when they could be sitting in an air-conditioned living room coolly and painlessly absorbing visual pablum on television. Alice had installed a Coke machine and begged old electric fans but it had been a losing battle.

In thirty years her book budget had been raised ten percent but the cost of books had doubled. Her magazine budget was unchanged, but the cost of magazines had tripled. So while Fort Repose grew in population, book borrowings dwindled. There had been so many new distractions, drive-in theaters, dashing off to springs and beaches over the weekends, the mass hypnosis of the young every evening, and finally the craze for boating and water-skiing. Now all this was ended. All entertainment, all amusements, all escape, all information again centered in the library.
I bought Alas, Babylon on speculation but having perused it, I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Deinstitutionalization, Sweden edition

From Sweden: A Beggar on Every Corner by Ingrid Carlqvist. I lived in Sweden as a child from 1970-75 and retain much fondness for the estimable Swedes. I keep an eye on them in the news which is why I saw this article. I had not realized Sweden had also deinstitutionalized their mentally ill recently.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Today, Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg are among the cities with the most beggars per-capita in Europe. More and more people feel uneasy about the beggars, who sometimes are even aggressive.

Things started to change in 1995, when a reform of the psychiatric care system led to the closing of psychiatric hospitals and the discharge of patients. People who had been institutionalized for many years were suddenly expected to fend for themselves, with a little help from the government on an outpatient basis. The idea was that it was undignified to keep people locked up in hospitals year after year, but in many instances the alternative turned out to be even worse. Many former psychiatric patients could not manage to cope with daily life outside the hospitals, and ended up as drug-users, homeless and begging on the street.
The article is making the argument that the prevalence of begging, while first surging with deinstitutionalization, had now become dominated by immigrants.

That is a separate issue. It is the deinstitutionalization that interests me.

The US deinstitutionalized the mentally ill in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the belief that new antipsychotic wonder drugs could control mental illness conditions and the promise of half-way facilities to ease transitions and serve as a safety net. The underlying concern was that mental institutions were expensive, subject to barbarism, and were subject to abuse in the sense of committing inconvenient people rather than truly mentally ill people.

The promise has not been delivered on. Medications are much harder to maintain in a non-supervised environment and half-way facilities were prone to the same budget cutting as the institutions. One critic has characterized the deinstitutionalization reforms as simply the transfer of the ill from one institution (hospitals) to another (prison). And indeed, the mentally ill (about 3% of the population) are dramatically over-represented in prison where some 50% of inmates are considered to demonstrate some aspect of mental illness, most commonly depression, followed by bi-polar conditions.

The mentally ill are responsible for some 10% of all murders and ~50% of mass murders.

I knew about the US situation reasonably well. It is interesting to see that the Swedes have experienced similar outcomes. Politicians want to save money. That is understandable. Reformers are legitimately concerned about abuse and institution conditions. Those are verifiable concerns. And the mentally ill have few to advocate for them.

Nobody, as far as I can tell, has struck the right balance between cost, concern, and protection of rights. As long as we are chasing the chimera of racial and gender discrimination (except where there are real demonstrated crimes), we appear not to have the capacity to also deal with what, I suspect, are the much more consequential ethical and social challenges of mental illness and substance abuse. Would that we had the honesty to focus on real problems. The solutions are hard to see but they warrant pursuit.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons

From Chapter 1 of On Liberty by John Stuart Miles. It is dense writing but insightful. I have bolded the statements I think of particular pertinence to our present circumstances, particularly in universities where it would appear, there is not much reading of Mill.
But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit—how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control—is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says, a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blameable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and roturiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings: and the sentiments thus generated, react in turn upon the moral feelings of the members of the ascendant class, in their relations among themselves. Where, on the other hand, a class, formerly ascendant, has lost its ascendancy, or where its ascendancy is unpopular, the prevailing moral sentiments frequently bear the impress of an impatient dislike of superiority. Another grand determining principle of the rules of conduct, both in act and forbearance, which have been enforced by law or opinion, has been the servility of mankind towards the supposed preferences or aversions of their temporal masters, or of their gods. This servility, though essentially selfish, is not hypocrisy; it gives rise to perfectly genuine sentiments of abhorrence; it made men burn magicians and heretics. Among so many baser influences, the general and obvious interests of society have of course had a share, and a large one, in the direction of the moral sentiments: less, however, as a matter of reason, and on their own account, than as a consequence of the sympathies and antipathies which grew out of them: and sympathies and antipathies which had little or nothing to do with the interests of society, have made themselves felt in the establishment of moralities with quite as great force.
The last item strikes me as a synopsis of the current election cycle. The rent-seekers and their captured political class (Republicans and Democrat) have had a marvellous run for 30-40 years. They have passed laws and regulations which have enriched themselves to the detriment of the other 80% of society. Now, in Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the other 80% are showing that "the prevailing moral sentiments frequently bear the impress of an impatient dislike of superiority."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The problem is that many believe the fairy tales

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia happily has not ever occupied any of my time. I was aware of it coming out and its being tagged as priv lit but other than that, very few neurons turned towards it. I see it a lot in used bookstores but have never felt called to take it home.

I understand now why. Recently a colleague recommended that I listen to the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, in a TED talk on Your Elusive Creative Genius. Twenty minutes not particularly well spent but it certainly crystallizes my aversion.

To start with, I read the book blurb:
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.
I can see why my instincts led me away from this particular book and I now begin to understand the specifics of the pejorative description assigned to it as priv lit.

Here is a description of priv lit from Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-Lit and the New, Enlightened American Dream by Joshunda Sanders.
But Eat, Pray, Love and its positioning as an Everywoman's guide to whole, empowered living embody a literature of privilege and typify the genre's destructive cacophony of insecurity, spending, and false wellness. Let Them Eat Kale Eat, Pray, Love is not the first book of its kind, but it is a perfect example of the genre of priv-lit: literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women's hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial.
More succinctly, Sanders characterizes it as Wealthy, Whiny, and White. Other reviews include The Expensive, Unattainable Lie that is Eat Pray Love by Martha Ross and Eat, Pray, Merch: You Can Buy Happiness, After All by Disgrasian. The latter focuses on the rampant consumerism related to the Eat, Pray Love movie.
Eat, Pray, Love has a soundtrack, a home furnishings line, a clothing line, a jewelry line, a tour package that follows author Elizabeth Gilbert’s itinerary across Italy, India, and Indonesia, a fragrance, a tea, and, for its piece de marketing resistance, an unprecedented three-day selling orgy on the Home Shopping Network, beginning Aug. 6, a week before the movie opens, of “more than 400 items across a variety of categories, including beauty, electronics, home decor, travel, cooking, jewelry, accessories, and ready-to-wear,” including, as Variety reported this week, a line of lip glosses from Lancome, for whom Julia Roberts, star of the movie, is a spokesperson.

The question is, will the book and movie’s targeted demo fall (eat)prey(love) to this? Gilbert’s bestselling memoir is ostensibly about spiritual enlightenment, and this merch run-up to the movie version’s release could be perceived as its opposite, an orgasm of tie-ins, of products designed to make a woman of a certain age feel young, beautiful, adventurous, exotic—at least for the few minutes following her ripping-open of the product packaging—a marketing strategy that’s almost comically venal, the brainchild of some licensing whiz who knows well and good that women buy shit to feel happy and why make bones about it. You can’t read about the movie’s three-day HSN tie-in, for example, without stumbling across the same fact over and over, that HSN estimates its demo is “83 percent female between the ages of 30-50 years old with an above average income.” There isn’t even any foreplay to this Eat, Pray, Lovemaking, it’s all just: You know you want it. Bam.
The TED talk was suggested to me as an example of effective presentation. And, in many ways, it is. If you are willing to suspend disbelief, indeed, if you are willing to suspend sentient thought, you can enjoy 20 minutes of a narrative arc. An attractive storyteller spinning a narrative that is easy to listen to. It is humorous, entertaining, attractive.

But it doesn't take too much thinking to begin to see the issues that the reviewers highlighted: Self-indulgence, Self-orientation, Self-complimenting, Mystical nonsense, Name dropping, Mountains-out-of-molehills drama making, Faux challenges, Attention seeking, Narcissistic consumerism, Callowness, Seeking sympathy for success, etc. Now I understand the accusations of priv lit. This is privileged self-indulgence on steroids, devoid of seriousness and divorced from reality.

I congratulate Gilbert on her success; I would not wish otherwise. But I understand now my instinctive aversion. If anyone derives inspiration from this, wonderful. I do not.

My only residual concern is that this fairy tale self-delusion is manifested in many corners of our culture - in media, entertainment, pundits, universities, policy makers. Its nice to have fairy tales but lord protect us from such believers.

UPDATE: From Althouse on July 2, 2016, Eat Pray Love... pick 2 following Gilbert's announcement that "I am separating from the man whom many of you know as 'Felipe' — the man whom I fell in love with at the end of the EAT PRAY LOVE journey." Presumably on the basis that a personal tragedy from someone who made her name based on over-communication cannot be private and therefore permits commenting, Althouse's commenters have a fun time commenting.
Mary Beth said...
That book taught me self-control. I never read it, but I eventually managed to not roll my eyes anytime it was mentioned. I consider that a personal victory.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars is one of the most painful accounts to read, relating, as it does, the tearing apart of the golden age of Ancient Greece. From Thucydides, III 69-85, The Civil War at Corcyra come words that have a contemporary ring.
In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties. The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any.
Trust is very low at this point in time, in part because of the actions taken by formerly trusted institutions and in part because those actions have been hidden by making words "change their ordinary meaning" as if the citizenry wouldn't recognize that they are being lied to.

Of course it isn't a new problem. George Orwell classically had his Politics and the English Language addressing this very issue as well.
It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

We call it a political movement

Thursday, April 7, 2016

That half of the argument is pretty much the whole of the argument

Interesting information from Donald Trump and America’s Post-constitutional Politics by Fred Siegel.

Siegel's argument is something along the lines of "the plutocrats win."
The winners in Obama’s America, where the stock market has doubled even as wages have stagnated, have been the big guys—big business, big labor, big government. Unelected bureaucrats have never had it so good. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, created 159 new boards, commissions, or programs. Elected officials more and more resemble these job-for-life bureaucrats, likelier to die in office than to be fired (or voted out) for cause. In 2014, 95 percent of sitting members of the House of Representatives won reelection, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; most of those who left went to work as lobbyists or political operatives. Washington, D.C. recently passed Silicon Valley as the richest region in the U.S.: seven of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties are in the D.C metro area. Not incidentally, Washington now has the highest rate of fine-wine consumption in the United States.
But here is the information that caught my eye.
In this context, liberal complaints that the “mainstream media” have given Trump extensive free coverage don’t add up to much. In truth, there has been no such thing as a “mainstream” press since 2008, when, in a manifestation of the country’s political polarization, much of the media enlisted in the Obama campaign. The presidents of CBS and NBC have siblings on Obama’s national security staff who helped orchestrate the catastrophe at Benghazi. Key members of the White House staff are married to prominent national reporters for ABC and CNN. The morning news at CNN is anchored by Chris Cuomo, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and brother of current New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has considered a presidential run. George Stephanopoulos, the anchor for ABC’s Sunday morning show, is a former senior advisor to President Clinton and maintains a connection to the Clinton Foundation.
I have seen this type of information in bits and pieces before but nothing quite as extensive as this. And I am not sure that even this list is complete. I think there are more examples of the marriage between the Democratic Party and Media.

The question for me is whether there is a comparable listing on the other side of the aisle. Are there mainstream media figures married to members of the Republican Party? Granted, the mainstream media is overwhelmingly Democrat, but still, it is possible. Even the average Fox and Wall Street Journal reporter leans Democrat (as opposed to their editorial boards).

I am sure there must be some comparable examples of leading Republicans married to mainstream conservative reporters, but I can't think of any.

We have one half of an argument with no voice for the other half but I suspect this is an instance where that one half of the argument is pretty much the whole of the argument.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

We have been distracted for several centuries

From The ages of distraction: Busy, distracted, inattentive? Everybody has been since at least 1710 and here are the philosophers to prove it by Frank Furedi.

The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day.

The first time inattention emerged as a social threat was in 18th-century Europe, during the Enlightenment, just as logic and science were pushing against religion and myth. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1710 entry from Tatler as its first reference to this word, coupling inattention with indolence; both are represented as moral vices of serious public concern.

Philosophers and moralists at the forefront of cultural construction characterised the ‘habit of inattention’ as not simply a stand-alone moral failing but the source of other vices. In An Essay on Truth (1770), the Scottish moral philosopher James Beattie, who gained a reputation for voicing the moral anxieties of his epoch, located inattention as the source of the ‘criminal habits’ that ‘debase the moral faculty’. He asserted that ‘we have contracted many evil habits, which, with proper attention, we might have avoided’. Beattie associated inattention with ‘unkindness and dissatisfaction’ and warned that if this vice was allowed to flourish, social order would be undermined.
Interesting throughout.

Furedi's comments got me to thinking. What does the data say?

Click to enlarge

It says that we have, as Furedi indicates, long been concerned about distraction, inattention and laziness (and the connection between the three.) Those concerns subsided somewhat post-1850 to a long term steady state till circa 1980 when concern about distraction once again began to rise. We are twice as concerned about distraction as we were three of decades ago.

Both Ngram Viewer and Google Trends both indicate that we express much more concerned about distraction than we do about inattention.

That is an interesting distinction. Distraction generally comes from the outside (such as the internet, Twitter, or Facebook) whereas inattention is almost strictly a personal failing of the individual. Interesting to speculate about that distinction.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

25% of the world's billionaires . . .

Interesting testament against credentialism in education. From Facts about billionaires by Tyler Cowen (he is quoting another journalist).
Research shows that about a quarter of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs dropped out of university or high school before going on to join the financial elite, a greater proportion than those who achieved masters degrees.
On the other hand, about 5% of global billionaires have earned a PhD compared to 1.7% in the population at large, so PhDs are significantly overrepresented.


Previously unbeknownst to me, today is Hocktide. Thank you twitter.

The origins are here:

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Love the attributed origins. We forget so much.
Women for the noble act that they did in the destruction of the Danes, whych so cruelly reigned in this realme have a date of memorye thereof called hoptide, wherin it is leaful for them to take men, bynde, wasshe them, if they will give them nothing to bankett . . . (Quoted in Journal of Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 (1957), 178)
This account also contains the popular explanation of the custom, that it commemorates a time when a group of Saxon women outwitted and captured some invading Danes.
As people become more mobile, we lament the loss of a sense of community. But more is lost than that sense of belonging. We lose the community memory of times past as commemorated in local customs, sayings, and adages. Not all memories are committed to paper. Some of them are embedded in our customs and habits.