Thursday, August 31, 2017

Here where this long ridge tells of days now done

Untitled, by William Morris.

In this sweet field high raised above the Thames
Beneath the trenched hill of Sinodun
Amidst sweet dreams of disembodied names
Abide the setting of the August sun,
Here where this long ridge tells of days now done;
This moveless wave wherewith the meadow heaves
Beneath its clover and its barley-sheaves.

Across the gap made by our English hinds
Amidst the Roman's handiwork, behold
Far off the long-roofed church; the shepherd binds
The withy round the hurdles of his fold;
Down in the foss the river fed of old,
That through the long lapse of time has grown to be
The little grassy valley that you see.

Rest here awhile, not yet the eve is still,
The bees are wandering yet, and you may hear
The barley mowers on the trenched hill,
The sheep-bells, and the restless changing weir,
All little sounds made musical and clear
Beneath the sky that burning August gives,
While yet the thought of glorious Summer lives.

Ah, love! such happy days, such days as these,
Must we still waste them, craving for the best,
Like lovers o’er the painted images
Of those who once their yearning hearts have blessed?
Have we been happy on our day of rest?
Thine eyes say "yes," but if it came again,
Perchance its ending would not seem so vain.

The best thing you can do for zombie cultures is, don’t be one of them

From How Civilizations Die by Davis P. Goldman. Goldman writes a column under the pseudonym Spengler, a hat tip towards the German historian Oswald Spengler. In How Civilizations Die, Goldman identifies 23 somewhat apocalyptic Spengler's Universal Laws. I am pretty skeptical of millenarian cycles, but they do serve as an interesting prod to thinking and speculation. And I certainly do agree with Universal Law 23.

Regrettably, we have a surfeit of violently enthusiastic millenarian zombies mucking things up for everyone else.
Spengler’s Universal Laws
1. A man or a nation at the brink of death does not have a “rational self-interest.”

2. When the nations of the world see their demise not as a distant prospect over the horizon, but as a foreseeable outcome, they perish of despair.

3. Contrary to what you may have heard from the sociologists, the human mortality rate is still 100 percent.

4. The history of the world is the history of humankind’s search for immortality.

5. Humankind cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality.

6. You don’t know who’s naked until the tide goes out.

7. Political models are like automobile models: you can’t have them unless you can pay for them.

8. Wars are won by destroying the enemy’s will to fight. A nation is never really beaten until it sells its women.

9. A country isn’t beaten until it sells its women, but it’s damned when its women sell themselves.

10. There’s a world of difference between a lunatic and a lunatic who has won the lottery.

11. At all times and in all places, the men and women of every culture deserve each other.

12. Nothing is more dangerous than a civilization that has only just discovered it is dying.

13. Across epochs and cultures, blood has flown in inverse proportion to the hope of victory.

14. Stick around long enough, and you turn into a theme park.

15. When we worship ourselves, eventually we become the god that failed.

16. Small civilizations perish for any number of reasons, but great civilizations die only when they no longer want to live.

17. If you stay in the same place and do the same thing long enough, some empire eventually will overrun you.

18. Maybe we would be better off if we never had been born, but who has such luck?

19. Pagan faith, however powerful, turns into Stygian nihilism when disappointed.

20. Democracy only gives people the kind of government they deserve.

21. If you believe in yourself, you’re probably whoring after strange gods.

22. Optimism is cowardice, at least when the subject is Muslim democracy.

23. The best thing you can do for zombie cultures is, don’t be one of them.

Obfuscating ideologically unacceptable research findings

Woof. I am pretty well educated and test pretty highly on reading comprehension. I still had to work hard to interpret the results of Long live your ancestors’ American dream: The self-selection and multigenerational mobility of American immigrants by Joakim Ruist. The abstract is:
This paper aims to explain the high intergenerational persistence of inequality between groups of different ancestries in the US. Initial inequality between immigrant groups is interpreted as largely due to differently strong self-selection on unobservable productive characteristics that are also highly persistent across generations. If these characteristics are responsible for a larger share of total inequality between immigrant groups than between individuals generally, the former inequality will be more persistent. This explanation implies the additional testable hypothesis that the correlation between home country characteristics that influence the self- selection pattern – such as the distance to the US – and migrants’ and their descendants’ outcomes will increase with every new generation of descendants. This prediction receives strong empirical support: The migration distance of those who moved to the US around the turn of the 20th century has risen from explaining only 14% of inequality between ancestry groups in the immigrant generation itself, to a full 49% in the generation of their great-grandchildren today.
Perhaps I am dense but it is not crystal clear what Ruist is saying. Academic obfuscation tends to occur under any one of three cases - when the academic is in a complex field (philosophy or physics), when the academic's findings are socially or ideologically unacceptable, or when the academic is in a bereft field (gender studies or ethnic studies).

Given that Ruist's native tongue is likely Swedish, this is an impressive level of structured obfuscation. But is it due to A) complexity, B) unacceptability, or c) mediocrity? I am going with B.

Ruist is testing a hypothesis I first heard from my father (a chemical engineer with an inquiring mind in all fields) sometime in the 1970s.

The hypothesis is that American exceptionalism was in part based on the how expensive and dangerous it has always been to immigrate to America. Only those who were the brightest and most motivated would elect to undertake the expense of immigration and the risk of death and/or destitution. This natural process of self-selection ensured that the US immigrant population constituted the best and the brightest. The corollary hypothesis was that the cultural attributes and behavioral motivation which brought such self-selected immigrants to the US would also persist through familial culture over time. We got the best people and their values persist over time.

I think this is what Ruist is testing and it is what he is finding support for. Interestingly, I did some research on this a few years ago using Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results are at US Education: Expensive and ineffective? Not so fast. I found the same thing as the Ruist and consistent with the hypothesis above: American cultural/ethnic groups outperform all their cultural peers. White Americans outscored Europeans, Asian Americans outscored everyone in Asia, Hispanic Americans outscored everyone in Central and South America, and African Americans outscored everyone with large Black populations.

Why do I suspect that this finding is unacceptable and therefore needs to be cloaked in obfuscating language? The implication is that culture matters, that some cultures are superior to others, and that culture is persistent over time. The dominant (and violently insistent) belief in academia is postmodernist critical theory blank slatism. That no culture is better than another, that all people can be engineered to be identically gifted, and that the state policy is better than familial behaviors.

Ruist's research, and the PISA numbers, stand in support of the hypothesis that life outcomes are heavily influenced by cultural values, that there is a founder effect related to the self-selection of immigrants and that the cultural values of those immigrants persist over time.

He leads his flock where they were wont to stray

An Anglican Bishop
by Raymond Tong

This Church of England bishop knows the way
to make his many doubts a source of praise.
Promoting every creed and each new craze,
he leads his flock where they were wont to stray.
An excellent summary of the decline of confidence within institutions and therefore the decline of confidence in institutions.

From The Spectator, September 5, 1987

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A prescient twenty-seven year old forecast

In 2008, Jonah Goldberg published Liberal Fascism. From Wikipedia:
In the book, Goldberg argues that both modern liberalism and fascism descended from progressivism, and that before World War II, "fascism was widely viewed as a progressive social movement with many liberal and left-wing adherents in Europe and the United States". Goldberg writes that there was more to fascism than bigotry and genocide, and argues that those characteristics were not so much a feature of Italian fascism, but rather of German Nazism, which was allegedly forced upon the Italian fascists "after the Nazis had invaded northern Italy and created a puppet government in Salò."

He argues that over time, the term fascism has lost its original meaning and has descended to the level of being "a modern word for 'heretic,' branding an individual worthy of excommunication from the body politic", noting that in 1946, the socialist anti-fascist writer George Orwell described the word as no longer having any meaning except to signify "something not desirable".
I am familiar with Goldberg's thesis.

But I was unaware of an antecedent. I am cleaning out old files and in doing so came across this piece, The Rise of Liberal Fascism, by Paul Johnson in the English The Spectator. Johnson is generally a religiously traditional (Catholic) Burkean conservative with a strong foundation in Classical Liberalism, i.e. what we now call a conservative.

The article is 27 years old and could have been ripped from today's headlines and Twitter outrage. Indeed, the subtitle to the article is "The media: Paul Johnson deplores attempts to censor opinions on sex and race."
Benito Mussolini was a Marxist, once highly commended by Lenin, and the fascism he founded was essentially a Marxist heresy. Fascist Left and Fascist Right have much in common, especially their taste for street violence and their hectoring intolerance. Wearisome though it often is, civilised democrats have to be on perpetual stand-by to keep both at bay. To make life even more difficult for reasonable people, there is now a third threat, what I call liberal fascism. It is constituted not so much by liberals themselves as by the well-organised and increasingly aggressive pressure groups liberal triumphalism has spawned. Its two most dangerous manifestations, as I have pointed out before, are the race relations industry and the homosexual lobby, though is a growing number of other objectionable groups, such as the animal rights campaigners. What worries me is not so much the demands of these liberal fascists as the willingness of the rich and powerful, both people and institutions, to bow to them. There is the stench of cowardice in the air, as in the original fascist heyday of the Thirties.
It is worth bearing in mind that Johnson was born in 1928 and therefore was a boy and young adult in the thirties when fascism was not a history lesson in class but a movement in the streets. Johnson was there at the birthing.

The core of the article is a discussion of a dust-up in the US around negative commentary about some LGBT issue. It is interred in the nineties and would be of interest only to historians of the emergence of this nascent movement of postmodernist, critical theory multiculturalism working in the guise of civil rights.

Johnson finishes with:
Unless liberal fascism is resisted, starting from now, it is only a matter of time before the same system of censorship is imposed here. It will, needless to say, be the work of precisely those people who complain that the Government's ban on IRA terrorists, masquerading as Sinn Fein politicians, appearing on British television screens to advocate mass-murder, is a gross denial of freedom of speech. It would not at all surprise me if an incoming Labour government makes it actually unlawful to criticise homosexual practices, since the homo-lobby is now well dug into the party at every level. As it is, the victory of the race relations industry in suppressing debate on immigration is now more or less complete. The recent treatment of Norman Tebbit, one of the few MPs who still has the courage to challenge the censors, is significant. I don't at all agree with Tebbit on Hong Kong, or even with his remark about the 'cricket test'. But it was a perfectly fair comment on an issue which passionately concerns the public and on which free discussion is essential. Yet one Labour MP immediately demanded his prosecution and much of the press comment has been unconscionable. The incident shows how deeply the roots of liberal fascism have penetrated our tolerant soil, and I for one am determined to grub them up. Who is with me?
In two paragraphs, Johnson's diagnoses the problem (totalitarian Marxism in its postmodernist, critical theory, multiculturalist guise) and the likely progression of elitists suppressing debate around issues of immigration, rule of law, equality before the law; intolerant suppression of variant opinions; mob justice over debate; etc.

Twenty-seven years. The renunciation of postmodernist critical theory as evidenced by Sanders, Trump and Brexit was a long time coming but we are at the inflection point where the citizenry has begun to stand with Johnson and is beginning to demand a return to the classical liberal precepts of democracy, rule of law, equality before the law, libertarian tolerance, etc. A long time coming and much to resolve but perhaps the descent towards totalitarian authoritarianism has been arrested. Or at least, put on notice.

Learned Hand, the singing jurist

Magnificent. I have always been impressed by the works of Judge Learned Hand (not least because of that most magnificent name.)

I was unaware, however, that there were recordings of him. And least of all would I have expected a sea ballad. But there it is.


Double click to enlarge.

The Iron Merrimac

The iron Merrimac, with others at her back,
Commanded by Buckanoy and the Grandee-O,
From Norfolk started out for to put us all to route,
And to capture little Yankee Doodle Dandy-O.

The Cumberland went down, Minnesoty fast aground,
Which made the Yankee cause look quite disastee-dO,
When, hark, three hearty cheers, and the Monitor appears,
And the music struck up Yankee Doodle Dandy-O.

The rebel shot flew hot, but the Yankees answered not
Till they got within a distance neat and handy-O.
Then said Worden to his crew, "Boys, let's see what we can do,
Oh, we'll fight for little Yankee Doodle Dandy-O!"
At the end of the recording, Hand provides the little he knows of the origin of the song.
"That song I learned about, I should suppose 60 years ago in Elizabethtown, which is a very small village in the Adirondack Mountains, Essex County, New York, about eight miles from Lake Champlain. It was then sung by boys of my own age, a few, and I know nothing more about it than that. I think possibly it was sung by my uncle's hired man, who had been in the Civil War, but that I'm very uncertain of. I don't know where we boys picked it up."
I was quite astonished how almost English Hand sounds. I can hear the patrician accent of William F. Buckley but the cadence is much more English accented than I ever notice with Buckley.

The other thing I take away from this little fragment of a cultural artifact is an echo of that time when people still knew friends and family who had fought in the Civil War, when the sorrows and tragedy of that apocalyptic contest were still being processed. You get a feel of that shadow time from the works of cartoonist and humorist James Thurber, particularly his short stories and autobiographical sketches. As in The Night the Bed Fell, where the action is set in the 1910s but refers to his grandfather, a veteran of the Federal Army and prone in his dotage to reverting back to his Civil War days.
Grandfather, who usually slept in the attic bed when he was with us, had disappeared some days before. (On these occasions he was usually gone six or eight days and returned growling and out of temper, with the news that the Federal Union was run by a passel of blockheads and that the Army of the Potomac didn't have any more chance than a fiddler's bitch.)
Or this slightly longer story in My Life and Hard Times, Chapter 2 - The Car We Had to Push.
Our poor old Reo came to a horrible end, finally. We had parked it too far from the curb on a street with a car line. It was late at night and the street was dark. The first streetcar that came along couldn't get by. It picked up the tired old automobile as a terrier might seize a rabbit and drubbed it unmercifully, losing its hold now and then but catching a new grip a second later. Tires booped and whooshed, the fenders queeled and graked, the steering-wheel rose up like a spectre and disappeared in the direction of Franklin Avenue with a melancholy whistling sound, bolts and gadgets flew like sparks from a Catherine wheel. It was a splendid spectacle but, of course, saddening to everybody (except the motorman of the streetcar, who was sore). I think some of us broke down and wept. It must have been the weeping that caused grandfather to take on so terribly. Time was all mixed up in his mind; automobiles and the like he never remembered having seen. He apparently gathered, from the talk and excitement and weeping, that somebody had died. Nor did he let go of this delusion. He insisted, in fact, after almost a week in which we strove mightily to divert him, that it was a sin and a shame and a disgrace on the family to put the funeral off any longer. "Nobody is dead! The automobile is smashed!" shouted my father, trying for the thirtieth time to explain the situation to the old man. "Was he drunk?" demanded grandfather, sternly. "Was who drunk?" asked father. "Zenas," said grandfather. He had a name for the corpse now: it was his brother Zenas, who, as it happened, was dead, but not from driving an automobile while intoxicated. Zenas had died in 1866. A sensitive, rather poetical boy of twenty-one when the Civil War broke out, Zenas had gone to South America--"just," as he wrote back, "until it blows over." Returning after the war had blown over, he caught the same disease that was killing off the chestnut trees in those years, and passed away. It was the only case in history where a tree doctor had to be called in to spray a person, and our family had felt it very keenly; nobody else in the United States caught the blight. Some of us have looked upon Zenas' fate as a kind of poetic justice.


Now that grandfather knew, so to speak, who was dead, it became increasingly awkward to go on living in the same house with him as if nothing had happened. He would go into towering rages in which he threatened to write to the Board of Health unless the funeral were held at once. We realized that something had to be done. Eventually, we persuaded a friend of father's, named George Martin, to dress up in the manner and costume of the eighteen-sixties and pretend to be Uncle Zenas, in order to set grandfather's mind at rest. The impostor looked fine and impressive in sideburns and a high beaver hat, and not unlike the daguerreotypes of Zenas in our album. I shall never forget the night, just after dinner, when this Zenas walked into the living-room. Grandfather was stomping up and down, tall, hawk-nosed, round-oathed. The newcomer held out both his hands. "Clem!" he cried to grandfather. Grandfather turned slowly, looked at the intruder, and snorted. "Who air you?" he demanded in his deep, resonant voice. "I'm Zenas!" cried Martin. "Your brother Zenas, fit as a fiddle and sound as a dollar!" "Zenas, my foot!" said grandfather. "Zenas died of the chestnut blight in '66!"

Grandfather was given to these sudden, unexpected, and extremely lucid moments; they were generally more embarrassing than his other moments.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Bourgeois values restoration as a public policy

In All cultures are not equal, I comment on the tempest in a teacup between some Penn professors who make the startlingly banal claim that there are patterns of values and behaviors which are more or less conducive to good life outcomes and a variety of hysterical postmodernist critical theorist who regard this patently self-evident claim as akin to Hitler or white supremacy. I wish I were making it up but these are the crazy years as we each the end times of postmodern critical theory where it the stresses of its own contradictions and failures begin to tear it apart.

But in thinking about the folderol it did prompt a thought. It seems to me that there is an interaction and graduation between, to use James Heckman's terminology, cognitive and noncognitive skills.

Cognitive skills are those associated with thinking - IQ of course but some of the finer subsidiary components such as maths, verbal, spatial, memory, etc. Noncognitive skills are those associated with motivation, integrity, futurity, work ethic, disposition towards saving, conscientiousness, etc.

In the past fifty years we have become exceptionally good at identifying and channeling people with high cognitive skills through SAT, ACT and college admissions. We find them and then channel them into flagship state universities or into private elite universities. We have also, as an unintended side effect, facilitated a couple of generations of assortative mating, creating a new, partially heritable elite. We then channel them into a handful of hothouse, dynamic cities. No wonder so many become somewhat divorced from the lives and concerns of the other 85% of the population. The cognitive elite are on a fairly remorseless and inexorable conveyor belt of talent.

As Heckman points out, however, it is not only cognitive skills which create value. The noncognitive skills mostly associated with bourgeois values (motivation, integrity, futurity, work ethic, disposition towards saving, conscientiousness, etc.) also are sources of productivity and value.

If you think about it, there is a natural matrix to be derived from these skills. A first attempt to begin to explore those trade-off gradations is below.

Click to enlarge.

Happy are those blessed with both high IQ and high non-cognitive skills. Their lives, absent exogenous tragedies, are golden. The world is their oyster. Really bright and really diligent, persevering, sociable, reliable, future-oriented, etc. In virtually any economy anywhere, anytime, they land on their feet.

Then there is everyone else with all sorts of variation and balance between cognitive and noncognitive skills. I have attempted to capture some of those recognizable stereotypes that you find in any large organization or society.

In addition to Cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills, there is a third important dimension not captured in this matrix and that is "Acquired Skills." Acquired skills would be things from knot-tying and first aid, through spread sheet familiarity and cooking to team management and surgery. Things which have an academic base but in which proficiency is only acquired through practice. Cognitive, noncognitive and acquired are all important constituent elements to good life outcomes. Not any one of them is a silver bullet towards improved life outcomes. Rather, the argument is that all three are critical and that our current portfolio of policies does not address all three nor with an marked effectiveness.

From the mid sixties onwards, with the GI Bill and low tuition and high economic growth and SAT/ACT and later, student borrowing, we removed a lot of barriers towards optimizing human capital across the nation. It became unusually possible to match the best and brightest into the highest reaches of academia. Undoubtedly this capacity is part of what has continued to fuel the American economy.

What the Wax and Alexander article is pointing out is that in the same time frame, from about the mid-1960s onwards, just as we got good at finding and channeling cognitive talent, we also became disdainful of and indeed dismissive of cognitive skills. Let it all hang out, pursue your passion, be all you can be, don't be a square, color outside the lines, etc. We loosened societal norms. Obviously there was some aspect of this loosening of norms that was/were highly beneficial such as ensuring that all women had an equal opportunity to make a full range of life choices and not just traditions ones. Unlocking the institutional and legal barriers to any sort of minorities whether by race, ethnicity, orientation, etc.

Not their words but I think Wax and Alexander are obliquely saying that we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We forgot or ignored Chesterton's story of the fence. In our enthusiasm to clear the road of all obstacles, we ignored that some of those "obstacles" were actually safety rails. We lost our capacity to acknowledge the value attendant to traditional bourgeois values and behaviors.

As documented by Charles Murray, we ended up with a tragic situation where the cognitive elite were bright enough to maintain the bourgeois values, reinforcing their remarkably privileged condition of being bright and well behaved. But out of misplaced tolerance, they championed bourgeois values only among themselves and left everyone else to make their own decisions. Indeed, an argument could be made that the elite unintentionally went further and espoused policies that actively undermined the old bourgeois values among others which so benefited themselves.

Those not blessed with the good fortune of high cognitive skills, indeed challenged by low cognitive skills, suddenly found themselves without the safety net of high non-cognitive skills. This ended up being an avoidable tragedy. While there is not much we can do to affect IQ and cognitive skills, there is actually a fair amount that we can do to build and reward non-cognitive skills.

I am by no means advocating for the disassembly of the cognitive conveyor belt. Finding and cultivating the best minds is a pretty worthwhile practice for everyone.

What I am suggesting is that perhaps we need to find the will and means to re-cultivate the bourgeois value system which has been so demonstrably successful in all classes in all countries and to do it for everyone. There is a limit to how much that cultivation might be able to achieve but I suspect that it would at least increase the capabilities of many people of more modest cognitive abilities and provide them a means towards achieving better life outcomes.

Almost as important, I wonder if a focus on non-cognitive skills might also serve to thin the bubble and restore some awareness of and sympathy towards fellow Americans among the high cognitive/high noncognitive class. I speculate that some of the disdainful claims from within the high cognitive/high noncognitive bubble (bitter clingers, antipathy towards others, bible clutchers, basket of deplorables, etc.) is sourced to the elite conflating high IQ with high noncognitive capabilities. Because they belong to that group in the privileged elite, I suspect that they assume anyone not like them must also not have high noncognitive potential. They essentially dehumanize everyone not like them.

If we refocus on a common effort to raise noncognitive skills, to restore bourgeois values, I wonder if that might not open the eyes of the privileged to the real human value of everyone else? Perhaps that is a pipe dream but restoring a shared valuation of the importance of bourgeois values would, I think, be a step in the right direction for everyone.

The wind just curls away to nothing

Wedding Song
by Lawrence Sail

Perhaps even here, among the airiest moments
Of wishing, there can be pre-emptive stillness –
As when the bride, gingerly easing out
Of the limousine, pauses, barely a foot on the ground.

Or when the double-handed knife is poised
Above the hard and soft of the cake. When the pen
Inclines to its shadow, but the nap remains unscathed.
When the bell's clapper is still sounding the air.

Or when the vocative rings are still empty,
Held at the trembling tips of fingers that soon
Will almost eclipse them. When for a moment the light
Seems to thicken to a slanting smoke of dust.

And this, perhaps, is how love stows its gifts
Away, in little traces of silence. As when
The wind just curls away to nothing and even
The everyday waves of the lake are cured of time.

From The Spectator, 9 October, 1993

Understanding how we’re equal even when we’re different

An interesting and odd piece, The Conversation Google Killed by William Saletan.

James Damore is the Google engineer fired for publishing a factual summary of the state of knowledge regarding how biology influences the choices men and women make. Independent reviews of the science supporting Damore's argument are here and here.

The oddity is that Saletan is struggling to respect Damore's critics while at the same time acknowledging that Damore was simply and respectfully, to use an otherwise hackneyed phrase, speaking truth to power. Saletan is struggling to treat Bill and Michael from the old English adage as moral equals.
Meek Michael thought it wrong to fight
Bully Bill, who killed him, thought it right.
Saletan refutes Damore's critics and their straw man criticisms of Damore.
Damore has been widely vilified as a pig. That’s nonsense. In his memo, the 28-year-old engineer acknowledges sexism and praises feminism. He criticizes stereotypes and restrictive gender roles. He notes that it’s irrational, not just wrong, to judge anyone on the basis of sex. He affirms the liberal principle that we should “treat people as individuals.” He also accepts the progressive principle that we should “correct for existing biases.” He writes: “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.”
Saletan wants to find a means of having a dialogue between those seeking truth through better understanding and those seeking to impose a static and rigid morality divorced from reality. That's what makes the article so peculiar. Saletan makes it clear why Damore should be part of the dialogue but not why the denialist ideologues should be. He tries to put the burden on Damore, claiming that had he spoken more clearly, there could be a more constructive conversation. While it is polite of Saletan to believe that, I don't think the facts support it.

I don't think it was the format of Damore's communication which was the problem. The problem was that Damore was presenting evidence counter to the cherished beliefs of his opponents. It didn't matter that Damore and his opponents were seeking to achieve the same goal (greater female representation). The problem was that Damore was using an evidenced-base approach to achieve that end and the evidence was incompatible with the ideological beliefs of his critics.

I was finding Saletan's squirming effort to avoid putting the onus on Damore's critics rather irritating and was on the verge of abandoning reading the article. And then I got to this paragraph which I think is actually the most interesting in the essay.
Science has tremendous cultural power. Invoking it in this context feels like a declaration of inferiority, even if, on closer inspection, it isn’t.

And that, in part, is why the backlash has been so furious. Damore’s critics, from scholars to executives to feminists, have attacked his arguments as “pseudoscience”—an epithet that has become as reflexive, tactical, and meaningless as “fake news.” They’re quite wrong. There’s no clearer gap between any two demographic groups, in terms of biology and behavior, than between the sexes. The gap is often blurry and full of exceptions, but it’s obvious to anyone with open eyes. People who deny this are getting in the way of a far more interesting project: understanding how we’re equal even when we’re different.
I think this is the crux of the matter and why Saletan is chasing a chimera. The concept of equality with difference highlights two world views in collision. A classical liberal accords all humans equality of human dignity. It is inherent. We are all gifted with natural rights that allow us to manifest our unique selves in a complex and dynamic world. There is no empirical means of measuring this. It is an article of constructive faith. We choose to believe it. By so choosing, and along with the other pillars of classical liberalism (markets, freedom, rule of law, equality before the law, scientific method, progress, etc.), classical liberalism creates the circumstances by which all people are able to progress and develop. Fairness is important but it is fairness in the sense that all are subject to the same law and processes.

What classical liberalism has going for it is that it is so consistently successful wherever that world view is dominant. The more divergent from classical liberalism countries, regions, groups and individuals are, the poorer and more violent they are. Classical liberalism works. While a bee's flight may seem improbable to an engineer, yet it flies.

In contrast is the worldview of Damore's critics, the Platonists, Marxists, Postmodern critical theorists. Utopian totalitarians all. There are no human rights, natural or otherwise. There is simply the perfectibility of man by purges or reeducation at the hands of a guiding centralized authority. There is no science or morality, there is only utility.

Which is why Saletan is on a fool's mission. There are no circumstances under which Damore's classical liberalism can be reconciled with the authoritarian demand of obeisance made by the postmodernists. They have a truth which you comply with or not. Damore sought truth over compliance and therefore had to be silenced and punished.

Saletan is regretful that Google closed down the conversation which Damore began but he puts the onus on Damore for the indefensible actions of others.
I wish Damore had articulated his ideas that way. Perhaps, after further conversation and reflection, he will. But you don’t get there by being silenced. You get there by listening and by being heard.
That formulation misses the point. No matter what in fashion Damore expressed a differing truth, he would have been closed down. The classical liberal humanism Damore displayed is simply unacceptable to those with a deterministic authoritarian world view. Saletan's final sentence is a betrayal.

He claims that Damore's ideas would have been given an audience had they been better framed. It seems to me to be clear that there are no circumstances under which they would have been dealt with fairly and objectively. Damore wanted a discussion by sharing ideas and evidence. But that only works if there is mutual respect; with communicating and listening occurring on both sides. Damore communicated and listened. Google did not. They purified themselves by expelling the apostate.

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood

From Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography by Karl Popper. Page 29
Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you.
And there will be even more who deliberately choose to misunderstand you. The man in search of truth will always be at risk from the man of conviction.

We cannot reasonably aim at certainty

Three quotes from In Search of a Better World by Karl Popper.
Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.
The science is never settled, just increasingly probably true.
There are uncertain truths — even true statements that we may take to be false — but there are no uncertain certainties.
Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes, so that we have to correct them.
Passionate conviction does not lend itself to humble correction.
Why do I think that we, the intellectuals, are able to help? Simply because we, the intellectuals, have done the most terrible harm for thousands of years. Mass murder in the name of an idea, a doctrine, a theory, a religion — that is all our doing, our invention: the invention of the intellectuals. If only we would stop setting man against man — often with the best intentions — much would be gained. Nobody can say that it is impossible for us to stop doing this.
The pursuit of utopia depends on setting man against man. Ideologues are incapable of letting man be man, they have to fix people against their will. This contrasts with the promise of age of enlightenment classical liberalism which understood emergent order as a process by which people could, through their own self-interest, evolve towards a better world.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A common appetite for language

De Viris Illustribus
by Jim McCabe

Knowing you will not calm down
Till I am half mad myself,
I concede to you that our life
Is half worthless and full of
Terror. Nothing left for show,
We drink, two old waterbuffalo
Scarred at the drinking hour.

And what is it keeps us here:
Absolute loyalty, of a sort,
Humour, Intimacy - the comfort
And jealousy that springs on
Us. We are locked in a common
Appetite for language, for
The silences that were women passing.
From The Spectator, 18 February, 1989

The root of all process improvement is the mental tic "lack of . . . "

I spent a number of years as a management consultant helping corporations and teams to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their processes. One of the first steps was to define the nature of the problem which they were facing.

One of the standard facilitation rules in problem definition was to never let the team define their problems with the phrase "lack of." Teams always instinctively want to define the problem in terms of the solution. If the problem was that the labor cost of the product was too high, teams would instinctively infer that the root cause was that there were too few skilled personnel (lack of skilled personnel.) They would then automatically start figuring out how to increase the supply of skilled personnel in order to bring the cost down. They had defined the solution into their problem definition.

The trick was to keep them focused on a higher level definition of the problem. If the problem is defined as "labor costs are too high" then all sorts of alternative solutions are conceivable. Why are they too high? Wage cost? Benefits? Turnover? Are there other alternatives such as reducing the labor component? Maybe reworking the work flow so that it requires fewer specialized skills. The more open the definition of the problem, the easier it was to consider alternative solutions.

Where India Goes by Alex Tabarrok provides an example of the "lack of" problem.
Where India Goes, a book about the problem of open defecation in India, is the best social science book I have read in years. Written by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, Where India Goes, examines an important issue and it does so with a superb combination of human interest storytelling and top-notch empirical research made accessible.

Drawing on the academic literature, Coffey and Spears show that open defecation sickens and kills children, stunts their growth, and lowers their IQ all of which shows up in reduced productivity and wages in adulthood.

The dangers of open defecation are clear. Moreover, Gandhi said that “Sanitation is more important than independence” and Modi said “toilets before temples,” yet in India some half a billion people still do not use latrines. Why not? Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (2013), offer a typical explanation:
In 2011 half of all Indian households did not have access to toilets, forcing them to resort to open defecation on a daily basis…
The phrasing presents the problem as a lack of access that forces people to resort to open defecation. From this perspective the solution seems obvious, provide access. After all, if you or I had access to latrines we would use them so if someone else isn’t using latrines it must be because they don’t have access. A bit of thought, however, dispels this notion.
Tabarrok points out that even where latrine building has increased access, open defecation remains a problem. It is not a lack of latrines which is the problem.
For many people in India, open defecation is preferred to latrine use. The reasons relate to issues of ritual purity and caste. Latrines in or near homes are considered polluting, not in a physical so much as a spiritual or ritual sense. Latrine cleaning is also associated with the Dalit (out)-caste, in itself a polluting category (hence untouchable). That is, the impurity of defecation and caste are mutually reinforcing. As a result, using or, even worse, cleaning latrines is considered a ritual impurity. The problem of open defecation is thus intimately tied up with Hindu notions of purity and caste which many do not want to discuss, let alone condemn.

In the villages the idea of open defecation is also associated with clean air, exercise, and health. Thus, in surveys “both men and women speak openly about the benefits of open defecation and even associate it with health and longevity.” Even many women prefer open defecation if only because it gives them a chance to get out of the house and have some freedom of movement.
Problem definition which includes the direct phrase or functional equivalent of "lack of . . . " is inherently a problem definition with a predetermined solution arrived at heuristically and without reflection. Robust problem definition, diligent root cause analysis, and disciplined consideration of alternative solutions is actually much harder work than one would think. Only by doing so can you improve your odds of solving a problem rather than simply responding to a problem unsuccessfully.

All cultures are not equal

Hmm. From Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture by Amy Wax & Larry Alexander. Their argument is pretty straight-forward:
Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
Problem definition, root cause analysis, and problem solving.

This argument is the antithesis of the prevailing postmodernist critical theory prevalent on campuses (and in the media) so Wax and Alexander are to be commended for their courage.

They have the advantage in that the great preponderance of sociological research supports their hypothesis. Reeves at the Brookings Institution has been putting out a large volume of research along these lines. The Wax-Alexander hypothesis is true not only for individuals but for groups as well.

As Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have documented in The Triple Package, the cultural script is true at the group level as well. Those immigrant groups with the strongest manifestation of the bourgeois norms do as well and better as native born Americans. It is really a quite magical and reliable script. You just have to choose.

But choosing means personal responsibility and taking ownership of one's own life outcomes is incompatible with the cult of victimhood. Victimhood is the necessary life-blood of postmodernist critical theory. No victimhood, no postmodernist critical theory.
The acceptance of the bourgeois script has some necessary consequences for the adherents of postmodernist critical theory.
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.
I'd put it slightly differently. Every person and group has a marginally (or significantly) different set of important goals. The goals may differ to a greater or lesser degree, the rank order priorities are likely to differ, the relative trade-offs to be made will differ. All cultures differ in the degree to which they are compatible with variable goals, ordering of goals and trade-offs between goals.

Postmodernist critical theorists love to insist that all cultures are equal. It makes a great bumper sticker but it is not empirically true. If maximal individual liberty, prosperity (group and individual), diversity, and progressive stability (slow evolution without sharp discontinuities) are your important goals, then bourgeoise culture is demonstrably superior. If repression, conformity, poverty and stasis/devolution are your important goals, then postmodernist critical theory marxism/socialism is the game for you. You choose.

The great deceit of recent decades has been the claim that you can have the benefits of bourgeoise culture without bourgeoise culture.

Predictably enough, the general public (judging by the comments to the original piece by readers) is quite positive about bourgeoise culture. Equally predictable is that journalists and academics are hostile to it.

The global Great Divergence began in Europe between 1700 and 1800 before spreading around the world. Everywhere that it has occurred, it has been accompanied by recognizable bourgeoise cultural values. Those areas of the world where bourgeois cultural values have not yet emerged as the norm remain mired in poverty. Those areas where bourgeois cultural values were the norm but were abandoned have regressed towards poverty.

UPDATE: Scandal Erupts over the Promotion of ‘Bourgeois’ Behavior by Heather Mac Donald. Well worth a read. Mac Donald documents counter-arguments from a University of Pennsylvania graduate student group, a social justice victim group at the university and a group column by half a dozen university professors.

In each instance, they demonstrate their own lack of intellectual calibre by arguing against a set of straw-man arguments not made by Wax and Alexander and never once actually address the argument and evidence Wax and Alexander actually made. either the grad students, victim students and professors are incapable of reading comprehension or they are willfully deceptive. Neither position is admirable nor reflects well on the university.

University of Pennsylvania is my alma mater and many of their departments are top notch but this deceptive ignorance on the part of a vocal few does not bode well for the academic environment. I hope the university president responds appropriately with a ringing endorsement of evidence-based argument, freedom of speech, and high standards of civil argument. It would be nice if she also mocked the straw-man arguers but that is probably asking too much.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The biggest favour they could do the Union was to desert

From Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield by Max Hastings. Page 46.

Professor Chamberlain becomes Lieutenant-Colonel Chamberlain, second-in-command of the 20th Maine.
The men of the 20th Maine were volunteers aged between eighteen and forty-five, enlisted for three years, and now commanded by Colonel Adelbert Ames, an ambitious twenty-six-year-old not long out of West Point, who had earned promotion by his courage during the Union defeat at First Bull Run, the earliest major battle of the war, where he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Arrived at the encampment of his new command, instead of a sentry's salute Ames received an outstretched hand and the greeting, "How d'ye do, Colonel." He took one horrified look at the shambling crowd of recruits for whom he had become responsible, and said: "This is a hell of a regiment." In one of his gloomier moments, he urged the Maine men that the biggest favour they could do the Union was to desert. They had no more notion of soldiering than Professor Chamberlain, and precious little time in which to acquire one.

You will be surprised when you come to learn with what little intelligence the world is governed

An evergreen letter to The Spectator editor, 26 September, 1992
Sir: The economic mess into which our politicians have allowed us to fall, as well as those same politicians' nightly tergiversations in front of the television cameras, their steadfast refusal to admit to any errors of judgment, their transparent attempts to lay the blame anywhere but on themselves, have all served to remind me of the words of Lord Chesterfield in his Letters to his Son: 'You will be surprised when you come to learn with what little intelligence the world is governed.'

E.J. Lacey
21 Walpole Road,
Surbiton,
Surrey
A letter for all places, all times.

Consequences of small mean differences and small standard deviations

Professor Campbell's comment sparks a thought.



Gender just happens to be the nexus for his comment, but the underlying statistical issue applies to any normal distribution where there might be small differences in either the mean or the standard deviation (SD). The consequence of small mean differences and small standard deviations are big differences in the tails of the distribution.

The thought is - imbalances in the tails of statistical distribution are where stereotypes are generated and the tails are extremely sensitive to small differences in either mean or standard deviation.

Professor Campbell's comment "Small mean level differences in neuroticism result in very large gender diffs at tails" addresses differences in the mean but the same effect occurs when there are small differences in standard deviation as well.

For example, men and women have the same mean IQ, 100, but the standard deviation is somewhat greater for men than women. In effect, most women are pretty close to the mean of 100 whereas there is a greater spread around the mean for men. Of course that spread is on both side of the mean, more low IQ men than women as well as more high IQ men than women.

Very roughly, as you get out on the far side of the distribution, the differential impact becomes much more noticeable. At IQs above 140, there are very roughly 2 men for every woman with that score and the further out you go, the greater the imbalance.

Why might we have evolved to be highly attuned towards small differences in means and standard deviation? So sensitive that we create material stereotype differences that are only true for the exceptions in the population and not for the norms?

I am guessing that it has to do with risk and opportunity. Take, as an extreme example, psychopathy. It is rare in both male and female populations but among those with an extreme manifestation of psychopathic traits, men outnumber women by as much as 20:1, presumably through some combination of both mean and standard deviation (I would suspect the latter more than the former).

In a whole lifetime, the odds of you meeting a person with strong psychopathic traits is small. And among the flow of people with whom you interact, you likely won't be able to detect any significant difference in the mean. But from an existential and evolutionary perspective, over long time frames, the risk, while small is going to be concentrated in the tail of the distribution.

There are positive aspects of this tail-determined stereotyping as well. While the causative details are contested, there is general agreement that women have higher mean scores on empathy than do men (I don't know about the SD but I suspect there are differences there as well.) So again, while at the mid-point, men and women are substantially the same, at the extreme of the distribution tail, you are going to see many more highly empathetic women than men.

In most circumstances, the means and SD differences are so small that it doesn't make any difference in lived lives. But in extreme circumstances, either from risk or need, those small differences in mean and SD represent a material difference in existential risk. If you are marooned on an island, you don't want it to be with that rare exception who is an extreme psychopath. Likewise, if you are running a sales force in a commodity industry, you don't want a lot of team members with extreme empathy (they will give away all your margin.) On the other hand, if you are in extreme need, hunger, injury, poverty, you really want to meet someone with extreme empathy.

So over a lifetime of experiences and over generations of genetic selection, I suspect that we have become very good at recognizing small differences in mean and SD because it has large implications in the tail of the distribution.

Following this train of thought, stereotypes then become a non-biological means of transmitting useful information in an environment of uncertainty. When you meet a stranger, the odds are very high that they are pretty much like anyone else but knowing the tail-risks is important for survival.

Many of our social problems arise from four different factors.
We conflate the actual mean with the possible extreme - The average man is only as violent as the average woman but among those who are extremely violent, men outnumber women by many factors. When we meet a stranger, male or female, we should treat them the same but our risk assessment says that one represents a greater risk, no matter how remote, than the other. Given our inclination towards risk aversion, conflating the actual with the possible leads us to treating unknown strangers quite differently depending on whether they are male or female.

We are terrible at rationally assessing low probability/high consequence scenarios - This is the life-work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile). We have a strong inclination to make suboptimal decisions because we overestimate the probability of low probability/high consequence events. That inclination makes us much more attuned to tail effects than mean effects.

We fail to update our stereotypes with real information - Our stereotypes, particularly when they entail negative risk, tend to be sticky. We meet a stranger and get to talking. As we learn more about them, and then as we begin to interact with them, then collaborate, we generally are acquiring more and more data that allows us to discount the tail-risk. But because all new information has its own risk factor (you don't accept everything as true just because it seems to be true), we are slower to update and move from the stereotype to the actual. In extreme circumstances, some people will never update their stereotype. For example, someone, who as a child had a traumatic experience swimming in the ocean, may never update their personal stereotype that the ocean is dangerous.

Stereotype accuracy - Lee Jussim and others have studied the phenomenon of stereotype accuracy: are stereotypes accurate? To what degree? Under what circumstances? Are there differences in stereotype accuracy between type of stereotype? Their findings are that stereotypes, as a class but with a few exceptions, provide useful information in the absence of actual knowledge. This finding is in contrast with the older view in the psychology field that broadly stereotypes were malicious in origin and lacking in correlation with empirical data. When something, such as stereotypes, prove in experience to be usefully true, they tend to persist.
My supposition from this trail of thought is that stereotypes originate from small differences in mean and small differences in standard deviation manifesting themselves strongly at the extreme tails of normal distributions. While existentially useful, those stereotypes pose a challenge to ourselves as rational beings because we tend to conflate the actual mean with the possible extreme, we are really bad at treating low probability/high consequence events, we are slow to update stereotypes and stereotypes end up, none-the-less, being usefully true (not all stereotypes but enough).

Confusion about how small mean differences and small standard deviations can lead to large differences in the distribution tail are, I suspect, behind the uproar surrounding the firing of Google scientist James Damore for publishing a reasonably accurate summary of current scientific knowledge about male/female differences. For background see The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences? by Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt and The Most Authoritative Review Paper on Gender Differences by Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt. Damore's document was substantially consistent with mainstream scientific consensus. So why the uproar? I suspect it is that the media and ideologues are not attuned to the statistical implications of small mean differences and small standard deviations.

UPDATE: Not directly relevant to my point about far tail disparities driving stereotypes but a good technical explanation of how small differences in either or both mean and variation can lead to dramatic dissimilar outcomes. A politically incorrect guide to affirmative action by Philippe Lemoine.

The narcissism of small differences between hate groups desperate for attention, any attention

An interesting pair of posts by Brendan O'Neill. First:
It's becoming so clear now why the war of words between SJWs and the new white nationalists is so intense. It isn't because they have huge ideological differences -- it's because they have so much in common. Both are obsessed with race, SJWs demanding white shame, the alt-right responding with white pride. Both view everyday life and culture through a highly racialised filter. SJWs can't even watch a movie without counting how many lines the black actor has in comparison with the white actor so that they can rush home and tumblr about the injustice of it all. Both have a seemingly boundless capacity for self-pity. Both are convinced they're under siege, whether by patriarchy, transphobia and the Daily Mail (SJWs) or by pinkos and blacks (white nationalists). Both have a deep censorious strain. And both crave recognition of their victimhood and flattery of their feelings. This is really what they're fighting over -- not principles or visions but who should get the coveted title of the most hard-done-by identity. They're auditioning for social pity. "My life matters! My pain matters! I matter!" The increasing bitterness and even violence of their feud is not evidence of its substance, but the opposite: it's the narcissism of small differences.
Then later in a different post, he illustrates the parallelism of these two racist totalitarian groups:
"You are a white man. Check your privilege. Stay in your lane. You will never understand black people's lives or experiences. You're all about whiteness, that's how you're conditioned." -- SJWs

"I am a white man. What a privilege. I'm going to stay in my lane. I will never understand black people. I'm all about whiteness, it's how I'm conditioned." -- White Nationalists
The proper response from a classical liberal is to ignore their temper tantrums and prosecute them for their violence.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Life is messy

An interesting investigation. From ‘Then they came for me’: A Hitler supporter’s haunting warning has a complicated history by Michael S. Rosenwald.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
The words above are displayed at the United States Holocaust Museum. This week, amid outrage over President Trump’s rhetoric about the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, they have been recited around the world as a simple, haunting warning.

But the lineage of those words is more complicated, beginning with Martin Niemöller, the German Protestant pastor who originally spoke them.

Niemöller supported Adolf Hitler and Jewish hatred — until he was sent to a concentration camp.
The case is even more complicated than that. Beware easy origin stories. Of course the full sentiment is:
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist

Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The contest between the forces of fragmentation and integration

From At the Cold War's end: Power is needed as much as ever, a book review from the August 22nd, 1992 edition of The Economist. The book being reviewed is The United States and the End of the Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis.
What now? "We would do well", thinks Mr. Gaddis, "to welcome the obselecence of great-power war but not necessarily the erosion of great-power authority." The chief danger in the decline of great-power hegemony, he says in some of the book's most interesting pages, is the contest between the forces of fragmentation and integration. "The search for freedom . . . tends toward fragmentation in the political realm, while the search for prosperity tends towards integration in the economic realm. The cold war itself, it now appears, was a departure from that pattern, in that it fostered integration in politics as well as economics.
A very interesting insight. I have discussed with friends when the totalitarian aversion to freedoms began manifesting itself at our best universities. Those of us there in the seventies and eighties saw perhaps some foreshadowing in individual professors but no real disconnect between the culture of universities and the culture of America. As best I can tell, postmodernist critical theory become dominant over the American creed sometime in the nineties.

And that would fit with the timeline inherent in Gaddis's observation. The fall of the Berlin Wall was in 1989 and Deng Xiaoping's reforms in China began in 1980.

The communist states fell in the 1980s and postmodernist critical theory - with its divisive (fragmentation) focus on groups rather than the American Creed focus on individuals, comes into ascendancy in the 1990s. Gaddis' model matches the trends.

Postmodernist critical theory has indeed fostered division, polarization and fragmentation as Gaddis predicted and at the same time, we have gone a whole generation with little anti-monopoly enforcement. In 1992 Gaddis foretold political fragmentation and economic consolidation and that is indeed where we are right now.

No wonder things are so tense - we need to knit back the classical liberal precepts of the American Creed, individuals, rights, rule of law, market, etc. and we need to reintroduce competition into the markets which have become dominated by too-big-to-fail oligopolies. At least, that is my read of what middle America wants. The establishment parties and economic vested interests blanche in fear at such a reform and hence the roaring opposition of the elites against the will of the people.

Family Tree by Norman Rockwell

Family Tree, 1959 by Norman Rockwell

Click to enlarge.

It's a Wonderful Loaf

Poetry in everything, including economics.
It’s a Wonderful Loaf
by Russ Roberts

If you look down upon a city with the widest bird’s eye view
You might wonder how it functions, who takes care of me and you?
Who makes sure there’s food for vegans, and for carnivores as well?
It seems like there’s a wizard who has cast a magic spell

Just think of one small part—who makes sure there’s so much bread?
You want rye, she wants ciabatta, or make it sourdough instead
A baguette or a croissant, it doesn’t matter, don’t you see
You get yours and she gets hers, and I get mine, how can that be?

One’s buying a dozen bagels to grace an impromptu brunch
One’s using food stamps for a simple loaf to make her children lunch
No matter the amount we require, no matter the choices we make
An army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake

The farmer who grows the wheat, the miller that grinds the flour
The baker and all the others who work hour after hour
They’re all on their own, each one making independent decisions
But somehow their plans fit together with the greatest degree of precision

So there must be a czar of wheat and flour, of trucks and of bread and yeast
To allocate and oversee and plan at the very least
For the unexpected change. What if today’s not like yesterday?
It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?

Because there’s order all around us—things look as if they’re planned
Like the supply of bread in a city—enough to match up with demand
And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight
Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night

Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance
Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris, France
No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted
But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted

Of course the result’s never perfect, but the system’s organic, alive
Over time fewer people go hungry and more and more bread-lovers thrive
And if you’re allergic to gluten, there are sellers who work for you, too
Your choices expand and what you demand is created and waiting for you

I have my tastes and you have yours, we each have our own urges
Yet somehow there’s no conflict, a harmony emerges
Our dreams can fit together like a quilt that someone weaves us
But there isn’t a weaver of dreams, reality deceives us

And here’s the crazy thing, if someone really were in charge
To make sure that bread was plentiful, with the power to enlarge
The supply of flour, yeast and of bakers and ovens, too
Would that person with that power have any idea of what to do?

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?
Would there be enough of every kind of bread upon the shelves?
How could he know how much to make of each kind every day?
There’d be shortages and surpluses and waste and much dismay

You might think the job is easy--if the top seller’s rye
Then for every variety push production up that high
Then no one’s disappointed, bread eaters will rejoice
When they see that every bakery is filled with so much choice

Bread eaters, yes, but “Help!" the forgotten pizza lover cries
All the flour’s gone to baking bread there’s none left for the pies
Of pepperoni, deep dish, thin-crust and Sicilian
You’ve solved the bread challenge, yes, but created another million

Problems. No problem! We’ll just grow lots more wheat
But that means less of something else that people like to eat

Which only makes the puzzle of the harmony around us
Much more puzzling—this order, this peace has to astound us
So many things we count on, yet no one’s behind the curtain
No wizard, no controls, yet the supply of stuff--near certain

Every morning the bakers rise early to make sure your bread is fresh
And the world gets more complicated but the plans just continue to mesh
Every morning the bakers rise early, though not under anyone’s command
Where in the anatomy textbooks can I view an invisible hand?

The key to the process is prices and the freedom to shop where you want
Competition among all the bakers, makes sure that they rise before dawn
To make sure the bread’s near perfection, to make sure that the buyer’s content
You don’t have to know economics to know when your money’s well-spent

We know there’s order built into the fabric of the world
Of nature. Flocks of geese! Schools of fish! And every boy and girl
Delights in how the stars shine down in all their constellations
And the planets stay on track and keep the most sublime relations

With each other. Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it
It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it.
It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it
There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The end of hierarchies

From Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity by Francis Fukuyama. Page 23.
The early 1990s saw a flood of writing about the information revolution and the transformation that will be brought to everyone's doorstep as a result of the information superhighway. One of the most consistent and widely heralded themes of information age futurologists is that this technological revolution will spell the end of hierarchy of all sorts – political, economic, and social. As the story goes, information is power, and those at the top of the traditional hierarchies maintain their dominance by controlling access to information. Modern communications technologies – telephones, fax machines, copiers, cassettes, VCRs, and the centrally important networked personal computer – have broken this stranglehold on information.
I believe that the pace of change is an often underweighted aspect of our modern lives. Change breeds uncertainty, uncertainty often translates into caution, caution often leads to reduced productivity.

It is interesting to note that of the six technologies Fukuyama calls out as examples in 1995, three have effectively disappeared (fax machines, cassettes, and VCRs), one has been transformed (desktop telephone sets into smart phones), and one whose disappearance (copiers) was being heralded in 1995 with claims of the "paperless office," is going as strong as ever, whirring out ever more reams of printed paper.

The language fades, the noise is more

The Trade
by C.H. Sisson

The language fades, the noise is more
Than ever it has been before,
But all the words grow pale and thin
For lack of sense has done them in.

What wonder, when it is for pay
Millions are spoken every day?
It is the number, not the sense
That brings the speakers pounds and pence.

The words are stretched across the air
Vast distances from here to there,
Or there to here - it does not matter
So long as there is media chatter.

Turn up the sound and let there be
No talking between you and me:
What passes now for human speech
Must come from somewhere out of reach.
from The Spectator 15 August 1992

Statistical subsidiarity

From Polls Show Trump Cratering? Not So Fast by Steve Kornacki. Kornacki is asking an interesting question which I don't think is being discussed enough. We use polling to get a lay of the political land, to recognize emerging patterns of concern and decision-making within the electorate.

But in election after election, ballot after ballot, and referendum after referendum, here and in Europe and elsewhere, voters are providing decisions that were not foreshadowed in the polls. It is not just Trump or Brexit - two major upsets within this past year. The polls dramatically underestimated the Republican wave of 2014. In Britain despite close polls, in 2014 the electorate decisively rejected Scottish independence. They also missed decisive victories for Tories in Britain and Likud in Israel in 2015.

With regard to the 2016 US election, Kornacki points out:
What complicates them, though, is how Trump became president in the first place.

Recall some of the dire polling he faced as a candidate. More than 60 percent of voters didn’t think he was qualified to be president; not even 20 percent thought he had the temperament and personality to serve; more than half of Republicans said they weren’t satisfied with him as their nominee. On Election Day, 60 percent of the electorate said it didn’t like him.

By any historical standard, these were also politically catastrophic numbers, and yet, well, Trump is in the White House. In 2016, the numbers didn’t mean quite what we thought they did.
It is not all gloom and doom. Nate Silver and his Fivethirtyeight team have an excellent track record for forecasts, even though they missed Trump's election.

Looking at the wins and losses, it would be easy to assume that there is some sort of media (sponsors of many of the polls) bias occurring. The wins are almost right of center politicians and issues against the left of center assumptions of most of the media. But I doubt that media bias is a first order explanation.

And partly, I am not sure that polling error is all that dramatically greater than in the past. Up, yes, but by factors worse, not orders of magnitude worse.

Dewey vs. Truman in 1948 remains a archetypal example of polling error.


There was the surprise loss of the Labour Party in Britain in 1970 and then the surprise loss of the Tories in 1974. There is a long history of polling missing the electoral patterns.

Technology and regulation has something to do with this. Pollsters try and get a representative sample of the population by income, party affiliation, region, race, sex, likelihood of voting, etc. That makes perfect sense. They try and reach some pre-specified number of people, usually in the neighborhood of 1-3,000 in order to get their opinions.

The challenge is that communication technology is changing. In the past, the most standard means of contacting people was personal or robocalling home landlines. Now, as people become more and more exclusively accustomed to only using cell phones, the challenge has increased. By regulation, companies are not allowed to robocall cell phone numbers and it is very expensive to do personal dialing.

The upshot is that it is harder to reach people and given that, it is also harder to establish representative sample sizes, i.e. pollers have to mathematically extrapolate. The Week had a pretty good description of these issues a year or two ago.

I suspect that there is yet more going on but haven't seen much good research on it so my speculation is absent any data.

Deliberate misrepresentation by those being polled. This is discussed by Scott Alexander in Noisy Poll Results and Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars.
I have only done a little bit of social science research, but it was enough to make me hate people. One study I helped with analyzed whether people from different countries had different answers on a certain psychological test. So we put up a website where people answered some questions about themselves (like “what country are you from?”) and then took the psychological test.

And so of course people screwed it up in every conceivable way. There were the merely dumb, like the guy who put “male” as his nationality and “American” as his gender. But there were also the actively malicious or at least annoying, like the people (yes, more than one) who wrote in “Martian”.

I think we all probably know someone like this, maybe a couple people like this.

I also think most of us don’t know someone who believes reptilian aliens in human form control all the major nations of Earth.

Public Policy Polling’s recent poll on conspiracy theories mostly showed up on my Facebook feed as “Four percent of Americans believe lizardmen are running the Earth”.

(of note, an additional 7% of Americans are “not sure” whether lizardmen are running the Earth or not.)

Imagine the situation. You’re at home, eating dinner. You get a call from someone who says “Hello, this is Public Policy Polling. Would you mind answering some questions for us?” You say “Sure”. An extremely dignified sounding voice says – and this is the exact wording of the question – “Do you believe that shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our society, or not?” Then it urges you to press 1 if yes, press 2 if no, press 3 if not sure.

So first we get the people who think “Wait, was 1 the one for if I did believe in lizardmen, or if I didn’t? I’ll just press 1 and move on to the next question.”

Then we get the people who are like “I never heard it before, but if this nice pollster thinks it’s true, I might as well go along with them.”

Then we get the people who are all “F#&k you, polling company, I don’t want people calling me when I’m at dinner. You screw with me, I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell you I believe lizard people are running the planet.”

And then we get the people who put “Martian” as their nationality in psychology experiments. Because some men just want to watch the world burn.

Do these three groups total 4% of the US population? Seems plausible.
Non-representativeness of self-selected poll takers. This has always been an issue but I wonder if it is not becoming an even larger issue. Are people who choose to take polls representative of all Americans, and more specifically, are they equally representative of those who do not take polls. There are all sorts of reasons to speculate that poll-takers are unrepresentative of non-poll takers. They might systemically be less likely to work, might overrepresent the personality trait of extroversion, might be older, might be more home bound, etc., etc. Pollsters are aware of this and try and compensate by making adjustments to samples but I suspect that this unrepresentativeness is more of an issue than is being acknowledged.

Statistical subsidiarity. I have not ever seen this addressed so it may be a non-issue but I have a strong suspicion that it might be material. Politicians and Media in particular are not especially interested in the electorate at large. They are interested in slicing and dicing the voters and the polls. We saw a lot of this in the aftermath of the 2016 election when the losing side was very eager to identify which segment of their coalition let them down. Was it males or females, professionals or blue collar, unionized or service, high-school educated or college educated? Pretty much yes, all of them.

But the real issue is to what level of statistical representativeness do you want to go? If you are interested in Sex (1), Education attainment (2), Geographical region (3), Race (4), Income (5), Union status (6), Ethnicity (7), and Marital Status (8), then you have a cumulative error potential. And those categories do not exhaust all categories people are interest in.

Let's use an example. As an extremely crude approximation, if you have a very large population and your sampling is truly random, you need a sample six of roughly 300 people to get an accurate estimation for the entire population. But that is only 1 level (Did voters vote for Clinton?).

If you are interested in geography and want to be able to answer "Did voters in the Midwest vote for Clinton? Then you need a sample size of 1,200 (for 4 geographical regions). What if you want to know "Did male voters in the Midwest vote for Clinton? Now you need 2,400 (for two sexes) in order to get 300 midwestern males for an accurate sampling. If you want to know how male Hispanic voters in the Midwest voted and you have 6 racial categories (White, Black, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, Mixed), then you need a sample size of 14,400. We are only 4 levels in and we are already at nearly 15,000 people we need to poll for statistical subsidiarity accuracy. From The Week article we know that pollsters have to contact 100 people in order to get 8 responses. So, at four levels of subsidiarity, they will have to contact 180,000 people to take their poll.

Of course all that is impossible. They contact 300 people. They only have 21 African-American respondents and they need 42 so that the sample matches the actual representation in the population (14%). They double the weight of those African-American respondents in order to achieve representation. But you can see the problem. You need 300 if you want to know African-American opinion in particular, not 21. Your sample size is way too small to be representative. When you are dealing with very small numbers, the problem is compounded. Simple random variation might mean 15 of your 21 African-Americans are in New York, further exacerbating the unrepresentativeness.

I suspect that statistical subsidiarity might be a much larger source of polling error than is being discussed.

Malicious poll takers. These are the Lizardmen Martians Alexander discusses above.

Absence of poll trade-off sensitivity. Another area where pollsters are quite sophisticated because they know it is so determinative of outcomes is the wording and framing of questions. But there's more to it than just framing; there is conceptualizing trade-offs as well. And I don't think pollsters focus on that very much or very well.

Trade-off sensitivity is, I believe, at the hear of the Trump and Brexit issues. A crude summary might be an example of what I think might possibly have happened in the Clinton-Trump election. I suspect that Clinton had articulated policies of benefit to most people but that most people also did not trust her. In contrast, Trump had no real policies, more a portfolio of sentiments. You knew what goals Clinton would go after and how she said she would accomplish them but you did not trust that she would or could actually achieve the outcome. You might have guessed that she would be effective at serving her own interests but not committed to the public interest. With Trump, on the other hand, you only had a general sense of what he was after (Make America Great Again) and no real sense of how he would bring that about. However, you might have trusted that he would actually try and achieve something for the public good, regardless of the probabilities of success.

Under this scenario, you have a trade-off between specificity but untrustworthiness and generalities but confidence. You rarely ever get polling questions that get to the trade-off particularities. With the stated scenario, Trump's popularity (which has always been low and interpreted by politicians and the press as political death) is irrelevant as to whether someone votes for him. I suspect that voters are very often in the position of 1) choosing the lesser of two evils, and 2) not being asked what is actually important to them.

Establishment Democrats and Republicans tend to run candidates who are pursuing many of the same goals and only differ mildly in terms of the rank order of the goals and sometimes in terms of the means of achieving those goals. Everyone wants a stronger economy, better policing, better education, stronger defense, cleaner air, better justice, fewer prisoners, etc. But they prioritize those goals differently and they pursue them in different ways, and usually in ways that don't work. Establishment politicians just try and shout louder about there priorities.

That's not always the choice of the voters. Yes, they want those goals but they don't want continuing failure to achieve those goals. Their primary objective becomes to shake things up and clear the deck of the establishment. Voters are making a trade-off between the strategic objective of change and the tactical objective of continuity. Pollsters focus on the common tactical goals and not the changed goals.

This model of trade-off sensitivity is what lies behind Trump's victory, the surprise showing of Sanders, and earlier, the rise of the Tea Party. The electorate was signaling a desire for strategic change and the establishment parties and their pollsters were focusing on the assumed traditional tactical goals.

You put all these together; Non-representativeness of self-selected poll takers, Statistical subsidiarity, Malicious poll takers, and Absence of poll trade-off sensitivity, and it seems very plausible that pollsters would get a lot of forecasts wrong.

If any or all that is true, then there is a different question on the table. Why do politicians and media rely so heavily on polls if they are so unreliable?

For politicians, it is probably useful because polls likely are sufficiently informative to adequately inform Go:No Go decisions. Beyond that high level, polls are likely useless. For media, it is almost certainly simply a commercial necessity. Whether or not the poll is accurate, it will be reflexively read. It helps generate readership and reader engagement.

That's my guess.

Truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail

Well, that's heartening. From UC Berkeley chancellor’s message on free speech by Eugene Volokh. Hooray for Chancellor Carol Christ. A portion of her message. Let's hope her actions follow the sterling words.
This fall, the issue of free speech will once more engage our community in powerful and complex ways. Events in Charlottesville, with their racism, bigotry, violence and mayhem, make the issue of free speech even more tense. The law is very clear; public institutions like UC Berkeley must permit speakers invited in accordance with campus policies to speak, without discrimination in regard to point of view. The United States has the strongest free speech protections of any liberal democracy; the First Amendment protects even speech that most of us would find hateful, abhorrent and odious, and the courts have consistently upheld these protections.

But the most powerful argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint — that we’re required to allow it — but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university. The philosophical justification underlying free speech, most powerfully articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, rests on two basic assumptions. The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent. Once you embark on the path to censorship, you make your own speech vulnerable to it.