Thursday, January 31, 2013

This breakdown of cultural consensus is going to haunt American jurisprudence and political discourse for the foreseeable future

Walter Russell Mead has a post, Christianity After Constantine which reinforces my question in Cultural Herd Immunity Thresholds. Mead notes,
Where we disagree with Berger, then, is that the conflict over public morality isn’t a cage match between a unified Christian body and a unified secular movement. Society is becoming so diverse that any civil law on marriage will coincide with fewer people’s beliefs about what the law should be. This breakdown of cultural consensus is going to haunt American jurisprudence and political discourse for the foreseeable future.

Colleges Are Going To Start Going Out Of Business by Mark Cuban

From Colleges Are Going To Start Going Out Of Business by Mark Cuban. I think there are some points that are debatable in his argument and I think there are some important issues left undeveloped. That said, rhetorically this is a pretty nice summary of several key issues.
The smart high school grad no longer just picks a school, borrows money and wings it. Your future depends on your ability to assemble an educational plan that gets you on your path of knowledge and discovery without putting you at risk of attending a school that is doomed to fail, and/or saddling you with a debt heavy balance sheet that prevents you from taking the chances, searching for the opportunities or just being a fuck up for a while. We each take our own path, but nothing shortcuts the dreams of a 22 year old more than owing a shitload of money.
There is much to lament regarding the present generation of academic leadership and their irresponsibility. That said though, if you are interested in creating equal opportunity and greater efficiency in the generation and transmission of knowledge, then we are likely looking at a new golden age, albeit with many teething problems along the way.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The general problem of action in uncertainty

Michael Crichton in The Andromeda Strain, Chapter 20, page 196.
But Leavitt's concerns extended beyond this, to the general problem of action in uncertainty. He recalled reading Talbert Gregson's "Planning the Unplanned" with close attention, poring over the complex mathematical models the author had devised to analyze the problem. It was Gregson's conviction that:
All decisions involving uncertainty fall within two distinct categories- those with contingencies, and those without. The latter are distinctly more difficult to deal with.

Most decisions, and nearly all human interaction, can be incorporated into a contingencies model. For example, a President may start a war, a man may sell his business, or divorce his wife. Such an action will produce a reaction; the number of reactions is infinite but the number of probable reactions is manageably small. Before making a decision, an individual can predict various reactions, and he can assess his original, or primary-mode, decision more effectively.

But there is also a category which cannot be analyzed by contingencies. This category involves events and situations which are absolutely unpredictable, not merely disasters of all sorts, but those also including rare moments of discovery and insight, such as those which produced the laser, or penicillin. Because these moments are unpredictable, they cannot be planned for in any logical manner. The mathematics are wholly unsatisfactory.

We may only take comfort in the fact that such situations, for ill or for good, are exceedingly rare.

The score is Wisdom of Popular Culture - 1, Expert - 0

It is always interesting to see how people get tangled up in their own arguments. I saw an example of this in The Imperfect Myth of the Female Poisoner by Deborah Blum.

As is often the case, the issue comes down to definitions and exactly what is the argument being made. Blum starts out by knocking down an easy strawman - lots of poisonings are committed by men. Sure. Men commit 90% of murders and even if they might rarely use poison, the simple fact that men commit most of murders means that most or at least a plurality of poisonings are likely to be committed by men.

But that isn't really Blum's argument. It appears that she wants to refute a different argument.
There’s a popular idea in our culture — certainly an idea promoted by popular culture — that poison belongs to the female killer. In the 1945 Sherlock Holmes movie, Pursuit to Algiers, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) considers it obvious: “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” And you hear that same thought echoing down the decades, surfacing, for instance, in George Martin’s Game of Thrones in which poison is described, as the preferred weapon of women, craven and eunuchs.
So the real issue with which Blum is taking exception is the assertion that when committing murder, women prefer to do so by using poison. We can modify Holme's statement somewhat to make it slightly clearer - Poison is a woman's choice of weapon.

So we need evidence or data regarding which weapons do women use to commit murder. Instead, we have this statement from Blum in the next paragraph. She offers this statement as if it is conclusive evidence rebutting the assertion that women prefer poison as their weapon of choice. But really, this is a red herring and a non sequitur. This paragraph does not address the argument and is irrelevant in determining whether women prefer poison.
We could decry the latter as just a description with a somewhat misogynistic tang. But let’s not. Let’s decry it as simply wrong. Because if you actually bother to scroll back through famous poisoners of history or to check the crime statistics you will realize first that 1) poison is a gender-neutral weapon and, perhaps more central to my point, 2) a greater proportion of poisoners are men. Let’s put this in the context of some relatively recent context. The U. S. Department of Justice’s report on Homicide Trends in the United States (1980 to 2008) offers up this statistical insight: of all poison killers in that time period 60.5 percent male and 39.5 percent female.
The fact that of the few murders committed by poison, the majority are committed by men is irrelevant to the question of whether women prefer to use poison to commit murder. Blum doesn't seem to see the logical disconnect.

But at least she has sources, as so often such argumentative essays do not. She references Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008; Annual Rates for 2009 and 2010 by Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith. It makes for quite fascinating reading and makes a mockery of most political and policy debates about crime. It is a serial refutation of multiple bromides, shibboleths, and misperceptions.

Digging through this report, there is no data that explicitly answers the question of which weapons do women prefer when committing murder. However there is one table that hints at the answer, Table 5, Homicide type, by sex, 1980-2008.

From this table we learn that while women commit only 10% of all murders (numbers rounded), they commit even fewer of the murders using a gun. They commit 10% of all murders but only 8% of those murders committed using a handgun. However, they do commit 20% of all murders by arson and 40% of all murders by poison. So what is the means preferred by women for committing murder? Seems like Sherlock Holmes was right and Ms. Blum is wrong - Women prefer to commit murder by poisoning.

So in trying to debunk a popular stereotype, the journalist appears to A) get it wrong, B) provide the data that proves she is wrong, and C) never realizes that she got it wrong. Oh, and by the way, where were the editorial fact-checkers? This appears to be case study #12,387 where someone who is likely a big fan of critical thinking, seems to either not have that capacity or is blinded by some other agenda in a fashion that precludes such thinking. Or rather, one more data point in John Ioannidis' finding that Most Published Research Findings Are False.

Now I may be reading the report wrong, and I cannot claim any expertise in the details and history of poisoning. An expertise we perplexingly are meant to believe that Blum has:
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
So what is going on here? Am I wrong? Or does Ms. Blum have some other agenda that is being served? Or is Ms. Blum simply wrong despite having written many books on poisoning. I don't know, but it doesn't inspire confidence in me regarding the factual quality of what is published in certain magazines and newspapers.

It appears to me that the score is Wisdom of Popular Culture - 1, Expert - 0.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle.

Via Ann Althouse

An interesting citation of James Madison in his letter To the Honorable the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia A Memorial and Remonstrance, 20 June 1785, Papers 8:298--304.

The sophistication and clarity of thought of these Founding Fathers is almost incomprehensible. The wisdom of these giants in comparison to the moral and intellectual political pygmies of today is a continuing rebuke to our political class.
Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.
Madison was speaking in the context of religion but the threat of gradual, well intentioned encroachment is real and ever present.

Pragmatists usually attempt to warrant an encroachment based on how miniscule is the nature of the assessment. Madison calls us back to answer the question of principle instead of focusing on practicality. It doesn't matter if the tactical cost is small if the strategic cost (of loss of freedom) is huge.
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

Monday, January 28, 2013

All Scientists Are Blind

From The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Chapter 12, page 125.
It was Leavitt who, some years before, had formulated the Rule of 48. The Rule of 48 was intended as a humorous reminder to scientists, and referred to the massive literature collected in the late 1940's and the 1950's concerning the human chromosome number.

For years it was stated that men had forty-eight chromosomes in their cells; there were pictures to prove it, and any number of careful studies. In 1953, a group of American researchers announced to the world that the human chromosome number was forty-six. Once more, there were pictures to prove it, and studies to confirm it. But these researchers also went back to reexamine the old pictures, and the old studies — and found only forty-six chromosomes, not forty-eight.

Leavitt's Rule of 48 said simply, "All Scientists Are Blind."
Reminds me of Aristotle.

Bertrand Russell in The Impact of Science on Society, page 17
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.

Daily, I pose questions that I can't definitively answer. Usually it happens when I am driving about, between meetings, some quiet moment when I am not connected. I usually have a working hypothesis for the question but I can't answer the question without research. But other activities intervene and the research doesn't get done and the question remains unanswered. Then, sometimes, I get lucky and someone turns up with the answer.

So the other day I was pondering the apparent conundrum of the government budget ballooning while the number of government employees declines. Yes, improbable as it seems, it has; some 600,000 (A Record Decline in Government Jobs: Implications for the Economy and America's Workforce). My conclusion was that in order for this to be true, income transfers/entitlement programs must be rising as a percentage of all government expenditures. And then, as if to answer that speculation - What Is Driving Growth in Government Spending? by Nate Silver. And the answer is:
It’s one of the most fundamental political questions of our time: What’s driving the growth in government spending? And it has a relatively straightforward answer: first and foremost, spending on health care through Medicare and Medicaid, and other major social insurance and entitlement programs.


In the long run, the overall economic health of the country is the most important constraint on fiscal policy. A growing economy gives us a lot of good choices: maintaining or expanding government programs, cutting taxes or holding them at a moderate level, reducing or managing the national debt. A stagnant economy means that everything gets squeezed


That means most of the growth in federal government spending relative to inflation — and essentially all the growth as a share of the gross domestic product — has been because of the increased expense of entitlement programs.
He illustrates with this striking graph.

Silver concludes:
Slowing the growth of entitlement spending will not be easy. Particularly in the case of health care, it has become substantially more expensive for individuals with both public and private insurance to purchase the same level of care.

And on a political level, cuts to entitlement programs are liable to be more noticeable to individual voters than cuts to things like infrastructure spending. A 10 percent cut to Social Security or Medicare benefits will surely draw the ire of voters. A 10 percent reduction in the amount allocated to bridge repair, or in the amount of government-sponsored energy research, will affect individual citizens less directly (even if they are perhaps ultimately more economically damaging: most of the academic literature is supportive of high long-run returns to infrastructure and research and development spending on private-sector productivity and economic growth).

Nevertheless, the declining level of trust in government since the 1970s is a fairly close mirror for the growth in spending on social insurance as a share of the gross domestic product and of overall government expenditures. We may have gone from conceiving of government as an entity that builds roads, dams and airports, provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the world’s largest insurance broker.

Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A characteristic of all crises is their predictability, in retrospect

From The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, page 13. Faux history as part of the novel but real insight none-the-less. Emphasis added.
According to Lewis Bornheim, a crisis is a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable. Whether the additional factor is political, economic, or scientific hardly matters: the death of a national hero, the instability of prices, or a technological discovery can all set events in motion.

The noted scholar Alfred Pockrun, in his study of crises (Culture, Crisis and Change), has made several interesting points. First, he observes that every crisis has its beginnings long before the actual onset. Thus Einstein published his theories of relativity in 1905-15, forty years before his work culminated in the end of a war, the start of an age, and the beginnings of a crisis.

Similarly, in the early twentieth century, American, German, and Russian scientists were all interested in space travel, but only the Germans recognized the military potential of rockets. And after the war, when the German rocket installation at Peenernfinde was cannibalized by the Soviets and Americans, it was only the Russians who made immediate, vigorous moves toward developing space capabilities. The Americans were content to tinker playfully with rockets and ten years later, this resulted in an American scientific crisis involving Sputnik, American education, the ICBM, and the missile gap.

Pockran also observes that a crisis is compounded of individuals and personalities, which are unique:
“It is as difficult to imagine Alexander at the Rubicon, and Eisenhower at Waterloo, as it is difficult to imagine Darwin writing to Roosevelt about the potential for an atomic bomb. A crisis is made by men, who enter into the crisis with their own prejudices,propensities, and predispositions. A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.

Yet underlying the uniqueness of each crisis is a disturbing sameness. A characteristic of all crises is their predictability, in retrospect. They seem to have a certain inevitability,they seem predestined. This is not true of all crises, but it is true of sufficiently many to make the most hardened historian cynical and misanthropic.”

A depressing fixity of outlook but great mobility of exposition

Wonderful sentences.

From G.K. Chesterton's The Father Brown Omnibus, the story The Duel of Dr. Hirsch. In my edition, page 264.

This calls to mind a very specific character; one that I encounter far too often. The person who is deeply and well versed in a particular belief, though one that is not actually provable.
They were both young. They were both atheists, with a depressing fixity of outlook but great mobility of exposition.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Facts are stubborn things

John Adams, Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials.
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Style trumps content, again

From Goodbye, Anecdotes! The Age Of Big Data Demands Real Criticism by Trevor Butterworth.

Yet another article that is both interesting but has a chunk of conclusions to contest.

Here is one of the interesting pieces of information. A graph showing the trade-off between readability and subjectivity of language.

It implies that there is a real trade-off between objective reporting and readability. Obviously there are some writers who are accomplished at being both highly readable and highly objective, but this graph seems to indicate the rarity of combining those two attributes.
When I asked Lim what he thought of the study via email, this, he said, was the pattern that stood out. "This means that at least in terms of the items included in the dataset, the media is opinionated and subjective at the same time that it is rendering these judgments in simplistic, unsubtle terms. This is not an encouraging pattern in journalistic conventions, especially given that the public appears to endorse it (given the correlation between the popularity of a story, its readability, and subjectivity)."
So basically, simplistic opinions trump complex facts. When recast that way it makes sense and matches quotidian experience. But it is kind of depressing if one wishes to brag on wise man Homo sapien.

Also intriguing is this observation.
Even more provocative, when Cristianini et al. looked at the market demographics for the UK publications, they found "no significant correlation between writing style and topics, or between topics and demographics in respect to outlets. Thus, it appears, audiences relate more to writing style than to choice of topic – an interesting finding since prevailing assumptions tend to assume readers respond to both."
This suggests that people, regardless of interests and demographics (presumably including wealth, education, age, etc.), have an innate "style" preference. It would be interesting to know if that preference evolves over time and if so under what circumstances.

Trying to get or keep children reading, that implies that one should focus to a greater extent on finding books that are of a compatible style to that of the reader rather than focusing too much on the content. Right now there is a tendency to assume that a child interested in horse stories will want to read other horse stories and what the research is indicating is that really, you need to look closer at the style of the writing rather than the content.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's wise to be somewhat skeptical, both about fairy tales and about risk narratives

From It Ain't Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter. Their book provides a wealth of case studies documenting the low quality of initially reported information, the longevity of inaccurate information and the myriad bad practices, laziness and ideology which so easily pollute our public discourse. A useful complement to Samuel Arbesman's The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.

Page 131, discussing the non-existence of stranger abductions, the fear of which so colored the mid-1980s.
In any event, it's useful to be aware of the tendency - common to much of humanity and by no means unique to journalists - to construct a story that fits a predetermined narrative theme about victims and villains. In some cases this narrative may more or less accurately represent reality, just as some individuals' lives are more or less accurately summed up by the fairy-tale formula, "and they lived happily ever after." Still, it's wise to be somewhat skeptical, both about fairy tales and about risk narratives. It's always important to know what we do (and don't) know about the extent of the risk, the cause of the risk, and the ways in which the risk can most prudently and expeditiously be reduced if not eliminated. Good reporting about risk addresses those issues; too often, bad reporting only encourages us to live fearfully ever after.
Amen. Fairy tales provide us both heuristics as well as narrative archetypes which are useful to us as decision-makers when encountering circumstances we have not experienced before. That said, reality should not be shoe-horned into the pre-existing mold. If it fits, great. But if it doesn't, figure out what is really going on, don't just rely on off-the-shelf mental models.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cultural herd immunity thresholds

From Study Measures Impact of China’s One-Child Policy by Sindya N. Bhanoo. I am always skeptical of social sciences research because way too often it is poorly conducted, or is designed to yield a predetermined answer. So I take this article with a large pinch of salt.

I am confident that a culture's level of productivity is a product of some mix of the values and behaviors that it cultivates. While some cultures succumb to exogenous shocks, I suspect more fall to a failure to comprehend the critical mix of those values and behaviors which foster productivity (and therefore survival and continuity).

So for example, while some far-sighted seers such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan were early to sound the warning of the deleterious consequences of single parent families, those Cassandra's were usually mocked and ignored. And yet the problem grows and ravages more and more. Perhaps duty, monogamy, commitment to the future, and all those other bourgeoisie values are more critical than bien pensants ever considered.

To the extent that we are willing to trust the data (the report focuses on China's one-child policy)
The researchers concluded that the “one-child-policy” players were less trusting, less trustworthy, less competitive and more risk-averse than the older ones.

And on the basis of a personality test, they were also “less conscientious, more neurotic and more pessimistic,” said an author of the study, Lisa Cameron, an economist at Monash University in Australia.
There is a whole range of speculations around values, family structure, demographics, etc. that one could indulge in from these findings.

My train of thought was more along the lines of the implications it might have with respect to cultural herd immunity.

China has been a spectacularly successful culture, among the richest cultures over long periods of time and always bouncing back from pretty daunting failures. Culturally both productive and long lived. That success is likely predicated on some critical, but unidentified, mix of Confucian values and the behaviors, diligently cultivated and transmitted over time.

The noted effects of the one-child-policy seem to be particularly undermining of the traditional Confucian value system. What happens if the one-child-policy not only disrupts but begins to undermine the cultivation and transmission of those values and behaviors? Is there a cultural herd immunity level as there is biologically with regard to diseases?

Just how many people can fall away from some set of cultural norms and behaviors and there still be cultural cohesion? And how much variance from the norm can you tolerate before it begins to affect both productivity and continuity?

Monday, January 21, 2013

With this in mind, is it possible that basic biology is one of the driving forces behind economic growth?

From Disease, Biodiversity & the Wealth of Nations by Alex Berezow. Interesting topic. I am not sure I am ready to go with the article's conclusion (I suspect that they have the flow of causation backwards), but it is useful to discuss and mull.
With this in mind, is it possible that basic biology is one of the driving forces behind economic growth?
What really is worth highlighting though is the graphic that attaches to the article which shows the relationship between lattitude and national per capita income.

The questions about any phenomenon or explanation are 1) Is it real?, 2) Do we understand the root causes?, and 3) Can we change it? In this case the observation is that on average countries closer to the equator are poorer than those further away. This is a long ago observation which is not yet fully explained. The article touches on some of the speculated causes.

So is it real? Sure looks like it. Do we understand root causes? Probably not so much. Can we change it? Not knowing the root causes makes that kind of difficult. Starkly framing the questions that way forces us to consider more deeply an already complex issue.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Difference Engine: Up, up and away from The Economist

Difference Engine: Up, up and away from The Economist.

A thouroughly excellent discussion about aviation safety in general but more particulalry about the trade-offs and challenges about what should be measured, how it should be measured, and what exactly might the measures be telling us. Worth the read for that elucidation alone.

One interesting snippet.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent database in the Netherlands, there were 23 fatal airliner accidents during 2012, with some 475 people killed as a result. That compares with a ten-year average of 34 accidents and 773 fatalities—making 2012 the safest year for air travel since 1945.

For that, passengers can thank the expertise that goes into the assembly, equipment and inspection of aircraft produced by the likes of Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer. Western-built jets and turbo-prop planes account for around 95% and 80% of global passenger fleets respectively. Of last year’s 23 fatal accidents, only three involved Western-built jets.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting

From Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Chapter Six.
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The best arguments for having children, unfortunately, run opposed to modern, secular American culture

From When Babies Disappear by Heather Wilhelm.

Wilhelm is at the same conclusion that I have reached, though probably via a different route. The measure of the success of a civilization is its survival and continuity. Civilizational trends are a function of productivity and productivity in turn is a function of culture (values, behaviors, knowledge, skills, decision-making, etc.). Those countries whose cultural attributes fail to support reproduction are inherently of no further interest in historical terms. While they may have succeeded in aspects of productivity, they have failed in terms of continuity. I share the suspicion that civilizational fertility is a function of religious belief systems rather than some sort of calculus of costs and benefits.

Wilhelm's concluding observations.

The best arguments for having children, unfortunately, run opposed to modern, secular American culture. Good reasons to have kids tend to be about delayed gratification, prioritizing family, putting others first, transmitting serious values and beliefs, focusing on something larger than yourself, and understanding the difference between joy and fun. Perhaps this is why, as Last notes, "American pets now outnumber American children by more than four to one." It's also why, if American fertility continues to slide -- and, as the author notes, that's still an "if" at this point -- there's little the government can do.

What to Expect When No One's Expecting discusses potential policy solutions to the global fertility drought. Many are vague, and few are convincing. When it comes to pro-natalist government policy, welfare-state support for parents seems to work a bit; outright bribery, as recently attempted in Singapore, does not. But the main driver of faltering global fertility -- and the reason Last's book is so interesting -- is based on culture, not policy.

The good news is that culture can be engaged and changed. The bad news is that change can be plodding. America still has time to adjust its priorities in terms of marriage, community, and family. Other countries, having already jumped off the fertility cliff, may not have that luxury.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Everyone has always assumed — and early research had shown —

From Darwin Was Wrong About Dating by Dan Slater. Tackles a problem I see as common and unsupportable: the confident discussion of highly contingent speculation in sociology and evolutionary psychology in particular.

An example of the challenges of research in sociology:
Take the question of promiscuity. Everyone has always assumed — and early research had shown — that women desired fewer sexual partners over a lifetime than men. But in 2003, two behavioral psychologists, Michele G. Alexander and Terri D. Fisher, published the results of a study that used a “bogus pipeline” — a fake lie detector. When asked about actual sexual partners, rather than just theoretical desires, the participants who were not attached to the fake lie detector displayed typical gender differences. Men reported having had more sexual partners than women. But when participants believed that lies about their sexual history would be revealed by the fake lie detector, gender differences in reported sexual partners vanished. In fact, women reported slightly more sexual partners (a mean of 4.4) than did men (a mean of 4.0).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The multipolar world looks anything but post-American

From U.S. Playing Second Fiddle in Panama Canal Rebuild? by Walter Russell Mead. For too long, too many people have viewed global issues as zero sum equations - if you win then somehow in someway I must be losing. While this is certainly conceivably true, in most instances it is not and it is becoming less zero-sum all the time. When we insist on measuring ourselves against old measures of success without actually reflecting on what it is we truly wish to achieve, we almost inevitably begin to consider bad actions.
Real power in this world comes less from imposing your will on other people (always a tedious and expensive process and full of risk) than from figuring out how to align your interests and theirs. Over time, the United States has gotten much better at this, with the result that there is less difference between a ‘unipolar’ world and a multipolar one than many people understand.

As France fights jihadis in Mali, Panama improves the Canal, the Gulf Arabs lead the charge against Iran, and India and Japan think about Asian security together, the multipolar world looks anything but post-American.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor

From After Years in Solitary, an Austere Life as Uruguay’s President by Simon Romero.

I am fascinated by what are the attributes and mechanisms of cultural and knowledge survival and propagation. Why is that some phrases, authors, books etc. survive and others do not? This article describes Uruguay's president Jose Mujica.
Some world leaders live in palaces. Some enjoy perks like having a discreet butler, a fleet of yachts or a wine cellar with vintage Champagnes. Then there is José Mujica, the former guerrilla who is Uruguay’s president. He lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all. His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.

In a deliberate statement to this cattle-exporting nation of 3.3 million people, Mr. Mujica, 77, shunned the opulent Suárez y Reyes presidential mansion, with its staff of 42, remaining instead in the home where he and his wife have lived for years, on a plot of land where they grow chrysanthemums for sale in local markets.

Visitors reach Mr. Mujica’s austere dwelling after driving down O’Higgins Road, past groves of lemon trees. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800 — the value of the 1987 Volkswagen Beetle parked in his garage. He never wears a tie and donates about 90 percent of his salary, largely to a program for expanding housing for the poor.
As the article progresses it transpires that in his career he has been a violent guerrilla, a bank robber, a prisoner, etc. So he is unusual, and sounds admirable in some respects but with a questionable background. But what really caught my attention was his erudition.
“We have done everything possible to make the presidency less venerated,” Mr. Mujica said in an interview one recent morning, after preparing a serving in his kitchen of mate, the herbal drink offered in a hollowed calabash gourd and commonly shared in dozens of sips through the same metal straw.

Passing around the gourd, he acknowledged that his laid-back presidential lifestyle might seem unusual. Still, he said it amounted to a conscious choice to forgo the trappings of power and wealth. Quoting the Roman court-philosopher Seneca, Mr. Mujica said, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
Seneca, 2,000 years later, being quoted by a former guerrilla/leftist president of a small country in South America. Fascinating.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Men do, nevertheless, have the deck stacked against them by biology.

From Catching Up from The Economist.

Interesting throughout. I must admit that without any real thought, I had just sort of assumed that the differential in age was simply a matter of nature. As it is, to a point, but their explanation provides a more robust explanation.
All of which is good news if you are male. Men do, nevertheless, have the deck stacked against them by biology. One way the cards are marked is that female mammals (women included) have two X chromosomes, whereas males have an X and a Y—the latter being a runty little thing with only a small complement of genes. Females’ “spare” X chromosome protects them from genetic mutations on the other one. Males have no such protection. Women are thus carriers of, but rarely suffer from, diseases like haemophilia which are caused by the mutation of X-chromosome genes. In birds, by contrast, it is the males who have matched chromosomes while females sport the runt. As a result, male birds tend to outlive their mates.

A further biological difference between the sexes is in the lengths of their telomeres. These are sections of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes from decay. Men’s telomeres are shorter than those of women, and also degrade more quickly. Both of these attributes have been linked to reduced lifespans.

But some are more equal than others

The biggest biological difference between health of the sexes, however, can be summed up in a single word: testosterone. Testosterone is the hormone that more or less defines maleness (though women have it too, in lesser quantities). It promotes both aggression and risky behaviour. It also suppresses the immune system, which is why castrated tomcats and rams live longer than those that have not been neutered. The same applies to people. A study on eunuchs found they live 13.5 years longer than men who are intact.

Testosterone-driven behaviour means that men are more likely than women to die in accidents, and more likely to die from the violence of others. They are also more likely to kill themselves. These things are particularly true of young adults. Men are two-and-a-half times more likely to die in their 20s than women are. Testosterone may also explain the differences between the sexes in risky behaviours like smoking and drinking.

But blaming testosterone for male risk-taking explains only the “how”, not the “why”. For that, you must turn to evolutionary biology. It is no coincidence that the gap between the sexes’ mortality is widest in people’s 20s. This is the peak period for reproduction. Men are fighting each other, and showing off to the girls, in a competition whose prize is, in an evolutionary sense, immortality itself—the passage of their genes to the next generation.

To stake a claim in the afterlife, as any religion will tell you, you must make sacrifices in the present one. In actuarial terms, therefore, the Longevity Science Advisory Panel reckons that even if men adopt healthy lifestyles, women will continue to outlive them. A gap of between one and two years of life expectancy (at age 65) will persist indefinitely. That, if you are a man, might seem unfair. But if it does, then think of it as the price of eternity.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Logic, knowledge and NYT reporters

One of my recurrent themes is about the quality and nature of decision-making and of the poor quality of argument seen in many articles or posts. In the New York Times, For Americans Under 50, Stark Findings on Health by Sabrina Tavernise, there is a classic example. The article reports on a recent study comparing international health outcomes, focusing on those under age 50 in which Americans came out at the bottom of most measures.

If you have read my post, The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox you will be aware of the extent to which the US comes off poorly in these sorts of comparisons because of the heterogeneous nature of US culture. To understand the nature of the comparisons, you really have to be comparing apples-to-apples which rarely happens.

Without having read the original study referenced in this report, it does seem likely that this is an advocacy study whose results are intended to support a predetermined outcome. Regardless of that though, what caught my eye was the final paragraph.
The United States is a bigger, more heterogeneous society with greater levels of economic inequality, and comparing its health outcomes to those in countries like Sweden or France may seem lopsided. But the panelists point out that this country spends more on health care than any other in the survey. And as recently as the 1950s, Americans scored better in life expectancy and disease than many of the other countries in the current study.
Three simple sentences packing a powerful one-two punch of reportorial foolishness.  Its almost as if the reporter knows that technically she should be skeptical of press release advocacy studies but can't quite bring herself to the brink of critical thinking. Just from the perspective of logic, this is a failed paragraph, providing a classic illustration of a non sequitur. In what way does the fact that the US spends a great deal on health care have to do with the argument that international comparisons are false because they are not comparing apples-to-apples. It doesn't. How did those two sentences come together at all?

Having opened herself up to criticism from the perspective of logic, the reporter then doubles down by betraying a lack of knowledge about the topic on which she is writing - "And as recently as the 1950s, Americans scored better in life expectancy and disease than many of the other countries in the current study." Its as if she is unaware of two critical facts. First, in the 1950's the US was at the apex of global inequality, i.e. post-World War II, the US was disproportionately richer than the rest of the world and every decade since then has seen a slight improvement in the productivity of the rest of the world's economies (and the beneficial health outcomes that come from increasing wealth).

More critically, she seems unaware of the fact that the 1950's were the tipping point for the familial cohesion of the African-American community and the legion of bad sociological outcomes (health, wealth, violence, etc.) arising from that collapse as initially pointed out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and documented and measured by the economist Thomas Sowell. The US has five major cultural groups with dramatically different sociological measures from one another. The bleakest measures are those associated with the third largest group, African-Americans and their measures have worsened dramatically in the decades since 1960. These facts support the argument that the problem with international comparisons is that they are comparing apples-to-oranges and yet, by apparently being unaware of this information, the reporter offers this sentence as if it contradicted the argument. Compounding the fault is the fact that apparently fact checkers and layers of editorial quality control all missed correcting the final paragraph and forestalling the embarrassment that ought to go with having written such nonsense.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A pictorial overview of the history of tractors in Iceland

From Literary Iceland Revels In Its Annual 'Christmas Book Flood' by Jordan G. Teicher, a sentence too delicious to pass over.
"Two years ago one of the surprise best-sellers was a pictorial overview of the history of tractors in Iceland."

S-Curves Everywhere

From Salaries top out at age 40 by Penelope Trunk. Trunk reports on a conversation with Al Lee, the director of quantitative analysis at PayScale.

I am constantly intrigued by the pragmatic knowledge which we collectively know and selectively share. I have the idea that were some simple pragmatic truths more broadly disseminated, everyone would likely be better off and more productive. Our estimable desire that everyone should always have choices and can be whatever they wish to be tends to stand in the way of such pragmatic sharing. There are always exceptions to the norm but it is useful to know what the norm is.

As an example, it is well established, though not necessarily broadly known, that only 2% of people who graduate high school on time, are employed and stay employed (regardless of type of job), and who get married, stay married and do not have children before marriage will ever be in poverty. That is an astoundingly simple life strategy. Could there be a more straight forward policy to cut the poverty rate seven-fold?

The fact that it has about the same success rate as the strategy that in order to lose weight one needs to eat less and exercise more is a separate matter.

Trunk's conversation with Lee illustrates the prevalence of S-curves as I discussed in Predictability and Adaptability.
Al’s data, which is based on the careers of college graduates, is basically that the salary curve for most people in their 20s is very steep. Then it starts to flatten in the 30s, and then you get into the land of the 3% raise. In real dollars, those 3% raises are not actually raises, they are just keeping up with inflation.


To be precise, pay tops out at age 38 for women ($61K) and age 45 for men ($95K). But the difference, according to PayScale data, is not due to unequal pay for equal work. Rather, the difference is that women choose lower paying careers, and women are more likely to take time out of the workforce for kids. So the first thing you can do to prevent your salary from flat-lining is choose a career that men dominate. But it's not just about industry—it is also about influence. Stick to line-management positions rather than support roles. For example, skip human resources and go to supply chain management.
This observation regarding salary S-Curves has some real world implications.
Buy a house assuming you won't get a raise. Ever. When it comes to houses in the U.S., the average age of a first-time buyer is 33. So people go through their 20s gaining super-high raises, and then people buy a house in their mid-30s with the assumption that the raises will continue. In fact, though, you should buy a house preparing for your real income to remain unchanged until age 55, when it is likely to go down.
I find all this interesting in and of itself. However, it highlights a paradox that most parents experience.

Increasingly, in our high-velocity, heterogeneous, uncertain world, the highest returns are to those who work hardest and practice longest in some specialized and competitive field. That means that it pays the most for children to get focused early.

At the same time, we want children to have a childhood. I think that is one of the most precious things we have to offer these days - shelter from a world environment that puts a premium on children growing up too soon, becoming worldly before their time.

Two competing goals: Get focused early to be successful but also experience childhood for a reasonable period. No wonder the field of parenting is so perilous. There is no right answer. But it is useful to know the S-curves that are out there and which influence everything.

Friday, January 11, 2013

He also had the nerve to claim that Western Culture was worth fighting for

From Shock Therapy by Sarah A. Hoyt.

Her framework argument is that western intellectuals and academia have been advocating the destruction of Western Civilization without comprehending the net value for good created by Western Civilization. She uses bon pensant criticism of popular authors such as Agatha Cristie and Robert Heinlein as a test. She argues that both had a fundamental common sense and therefore respect for Western Civilization that shocks and outrages the vapid, preening intellectual of today.

This allows Christie to look at the fashionable nightclub crawling women and divine beneath the fashionable dissipation a longing for domesticity. It allows her to treat the upper class communists as poseurs. And it reaches beneath to show that the bright young things were much like everyone else since the beginning of time: they wanted to partner, succeed and reproduce.

This is Christie’s unforgivable crime as far as todays cognoscenti are concerned. Had she spent her time bemoaning the horribleness of proletarian living, the oppression of women, the unique racism and evilness of western culture, she’d be required reading in schools today. (And not nearly as popular, but that’s something else.)

Heinlein’s crime is to an extent similar. No one could accuse Heinlein of being conventional—but a lot of what he did then has become conventional wisdom now, from self-consciously having varied ethnicities in his books, to tweaking conventional morality and religion. His goal was – I think – to make people uncomfortable and to make them think.

But like Agatha Christie he had a certain practical horse sense, come, I think, from growing up in a family that lived, financially, close to the bone.

He might enjoy goring sacred cows, but like Christie he had no doubt that sacred cows or not, Western culture (and in his case American culture in particular) was the most prosperous and advanced in existence, the one that had the best chance of propelling man forward to a destiny among the stars. He also dared have women who liked men and wanted to have children (in his defense, at the time that didn’t even rise to the level of a sacred cow, it was simply an observation of human nature and biological fact.) He also had the nerve to claim that Western Culture was worth fighting for.
World War I was terrible, and for many reasons, including the prevalence of pictures and news, the fratricide/civil-war quality of it, the massive number of casualties. It shocked an entire generation into … writing an awful lot about it, and into trying to tear down the pillars of civilization, believing that Western Civilization (and not human nature, itself) was what had brought about the carnage and the waste.

Do I need to tell you they were wrong? That they were wrong in turning against Judeo Christianity and Western civ, and capitalism, and industrialization?
Other than Western civilization and countries influenced by it, the evils of racism, sexism and rigid class (and tribe) structure are, if anything even more hardened than they were before.

That I’m saying is that Western civilization AND capitalism (particularly the greater affluence created by it) are what brought about the erosion of those ancient evils to which ALL OF HUMANITY is prey.

Blaming Capitalism or affluence or industrialization for those evils is like blaming the cat for removing the scones from the oven and eating them – with jam and cream, mind you. (Yes, younger kid did that. He seemed absolutely convinced it was true, too. He was four.)

And invoking to resist these evils the untamed primitive (No? “Smash capitalism” and well… OWS in general) which IS the found of these evils is not only insane, it is counterproductive.

It is also where our culture has been for the last twenty years, caught in a recursive loop where everything – such as the collectivist massacres and poverty around the world – that doesn’t fit the narrative is swept under the rug, and “shocking” things that shock no one are continuously hurled Tourette’s-like at the one civilization that COULD have been shocked by WWI or seen anything wrong with death on that scale. (Hint, other cultures BRAG of how many they kill/how many of them are killed in war.)

Which is why people like Christie and Heinlein are reviled. Because if you read them you might get the idea that well… there were people wanting to smash capitalism back in the twenties, and that they were poseurs and a little ridiculous. Or that women CAN be competent, brilliant and still wish to create a new generation of humans.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox and intergenerational income mobility

There has been a spate of papers in the past couple of years calling into question whether the US is the highly mobile, equal opportunity nation we like to consider ourselves to be, compared to the developed countries of the Old World and OECD (See American Exceptionalism in a New Light by Markus Jantti, et al and Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective by Emily Beller Michael Hout). This argument has been contested by others (See Why economic mobility measures are overrated by Tyler Cowen). Having lived and worked in Europe, North America, and Asia, this new view of lower American mobility compared to others is inconsistent with my experience and perception of those countries. Anecdotal assessment does not trump empirical data but it is a catalyst to skepticism. Cowen and others raise important points. I want to explore an avenue of criticism which I have not seen discussed elsewhere; the impact of cultural heterogeneity on aggregate intergenerational income mobility statistics.

In a “perfect” world, someone in one quintile would have an equal chance of ending up in any one of the five income quintiles (i.e. the difference of the quintile of the parental home into which they are born and the quintile at which they arrive at some point in life, say retirement or death). In order to take this randomness as the standard of fairness and equality, one has to assume that the quintile in which one is positioned, both at birth and later at death, is simply a function of luck. This assumption is a common one among the glitterati and chattering classes. Anything less than random distribution is taken as evidence of structural impediments, discrimination, protectionism, etc. In some countries these structural and cultural impediments are real though I do not believe them to be in America.

However, if one accepts that people are purposeful, then the quintile to which they evolve is a function of exogenous circumstances interacting with cultural and individual attributes such as values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and patterns of decision-making. For any given set of exogenous circumstances, some individuals/cultures will be better positioned to make more productive decisions than others. Likewise, over a period of time and a range of exogenous circumstances, it is likely that some individuals/cultures will be more responsive and adaptive than others. It is demonstrable that certain cultures are more robust over time (they survive and evolve) and/or are more prone to greater productivity. In other words, values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and patterns of decision-making are the decisive determinants of productivity and continuity over time (and over a broad spectrum of random exogenous events) rather than luck.

The validity of the expectation that fairness is represented by equal intergenerational mobility is belied by looking at national economies. Were one to accept the premise that fairness is defined as random quintile movement between generations, one would expect to see dramatic changes in the order of national economies each 25 years. While virtually all economies have improved in the past 250 years (ten generations), the relative order of national economies has remained relatively stable, i.e. there is very little intergenerational movement of national economies. Intuitively we understand that this a function of national cultures and institutions rather than random luck. Countries with stable law, property rights, personal and commercial freedoms, etc. combined with cultural attributes such as future-orientation, tolerance, risk aversion, personal accountability, diligence, work-ethic, trust, etc. are and remain more productive than other countries lacking these attributes. Countries that have evolved up the hierarchy of productive countries (Chile, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) have all been countries that have a winning combination of such elements. There is no correlation between a country’s luck (natural endowment of resources) and its hierarchical position of productivity.

Countries that are already productive and have robust cultures that predispose them towards further productivity retain their positions in the rankings. This makes sense to most people and we do not expect dramatic changes in rankings from generation to generation because we do not believe that national productivity is simply statistical luck. Nor do we believe it should be.

Why is it that we expect that dynamic to be different at the individual level? We don’t. We want the rules to stay the same for all individuals so that there is some form of manageable predictability on which to base life-decisions but we don’t expect all individuals to make equally good decisions. The reality that there are some configurations of culture (values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and decision-making) which are more adaptive to a broader range of exogenous circumstances is simply an evolutionary reality which can be transmitted via cultural structures. While we can identify a portfolio of specific cultural attributes which correlate with productivity, we are not at a point of knowledge where we can identify the exact mix and relative importance of the particular attributes. For example are personal freedoms more important to productivity than stable laws? We know they are both important but we don’t know how important each is overall or relative to each other.

At the level of individuals, there is a broad range of evidence, which individually is not particularly robust but which cumulatively is more compelling, supporting the idea that quintile placement is not a matter of random luck but is a purposeful achievement based on certain combinations of values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and patterns of decision-making (see Creating an Opportunity Society by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill for empirical evidence of the significant impact of behavioral norms on life achievement as well as A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark for evidence regarding the impact of “middle class” cultural values). See Surnames and the laws of social mobility for evidence regarding the durability of constant re-achievement of success across multiple generations.

Once we accept that quintile placement is not a matter of luck but of purposeful achievement, then we are freed to investigate what variables in which combination are most likely to yield the highest level of robust, continuing productivity over time. In a dynamic, heterogeneous, and uncertain environment, it is difficult to pin down cause-and-effect. At the same time there are some trade-offs that emerge under many circumstances: With more freedom comes greater inequality; With greater equality comes lower productivity; With greater heterogeneity comes greater inequality, etc.

This all serves as background to what I suspect may be happening with regard to measured intergenerational income mobility between the US and other developed countries in the OECD. The first point to make is that the US is the most culturally heterogeneous large OECD country (Singapore comes close in terms of heterogeneity but is only 3 million people.) Broadly the US is made up of 65% descendant of northwestern Europeans, 15% descendants of Africans, 15% descendants of Hispanics (Mesoamericans and Spanish heritage), and 5% other. In all other large OECD countries, there is far greater cultural, ethnic, and temporal homogeneity (temporal homogeneity reflecting the degree of recent emigrants). Most other OECD countries are at 85-95% homogeneity compared to the US’s 65%. This opens up the issue of apples to oranges comparisons, the nature of which can be illustrated by the Texas–Wisconsin educational paradox where Texas does a better job of educating (as reflected in test scores) each of its ethnic/cultural subgroups compared to Wisconsin but Wisconsin has higher average test scores.

How can each of the constituent components in Texas be higher but the overall average be lower? Differential scores between the constituent groups, i.e. Asians score highest on average and then in descending order, whites, Hispanics and then African-Americans. While all groups score higher in Texas than in Wisconsin, Texas has a dramatically higher proportion of its population from lower scoring groups than does Wisconsin. Basically Texas is a White, Hispanic and African-American state whereas Wisconsin is a White state. So which state has the better education system? The one that has higher overall average scores from a high scoring homogeneous group or the state in which each ethnic/cultural group scores higher than their corresponding group in the other state?

In the field of international education comparisons, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an attempt to compare educational K-12 outcomes across the OECD. The US usually lands pretty much in the middle of the test results seeming to indicate a relatively poor performance considering the per capita expenditures on education (far higher in the US than elsewhere). However – apples and oranges. The US is basically educating three heterogeneous groups – descendants of northwestern European and heirs to Western Civilization, descendants of Africans and heirs to 250 years of subjugation, and recently arrived descendants of Mesoamerican and Spanish civilizations. I have not seen a thorough disaggregation but the elements I have seen seem to indicate that the US whites score close to the top of the PISA tests compared to European countries, US African-Americans score at the top compared to the few predominantly black countries that participate in PISA and US Hispanics score at the top compared to Latin American countries. So an overall middle performance but with every sub-group performing higher than their apples-to-apples peers. The Texas-Wisconsin paradox at work again.

There is a similar paradox, little discussed, in terms of violence. Overall, the US is a much more violent country than most European countries but this ignores the fact that there are dramatically different levels of violence within different sub-groups. Nearly fifty percent of murders in the US occur within the African-American community (which represents approximately 13% of the overall population). If, once again, you break out violence by group, you find that white America has levels of violence close to or below most of the large European countries, African-Americans better than most black majority countries and Hispanics better than most Latin American countries. The Texas-Wisconsin paradox at work again.

My suspicion is that measures of intergenerational income mobility are similarly plagued by the Texas-Wisconsin paradox. I do not have the measures to prove it, in part because this is a relatively new field where there is not a lot of reliable historical data. If and when we are able to get that data, I suspect what we will find is that there is relatively high levels of intergenerational income mobility among whites, principally driven by educational attainment and family structure. I suspect we will find relatively low intergenerational income mobility among African-Americans but with a 10-20 year kink in the trend line around 1950-1970 when labor market, legal structures and cultural practices opened up opportunities for all African-Americans but which had the net effect of burgeoning opportunities for the elite in the community and depressing opportunities for the less advantaged. Specifically, the cycle of single parenthood which emerged in the 1950s onwards will have had a powerful depressing effect on income mobility overall. Finally, the record for Hispanics will be very mixed. I suspect that culturally integrated Americans of Hispanic descent (i.e. Hispanic Americans whose families have been in the US for several generations) will show the same level of intergenerational income mobility as whites but the larger number of new and first generation immigrants will show very low intergenerational income mobility and their large numbers will swamp those of the entire group. It usually takes large immigrant groups 2-4 generations to integrate and take on the macro-culture and until that culture change has occurred, the intergenerational mobility will continue to look like that of their original cultures of origin.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Human system variation and selection

There are five sources of variation in the human system: 1) genetic, 2) epigenetic, 3) phenotypic, 4) cultural, and 5) path dependent individual variation. These five sources of variation are manifested in an individual as they interact with a dynamic, heterogenous and varyingly uncertain/unpredictable exogenous environment. The outcome, then, is determined by a less-than-clear combination of some minimum of 15 combinations of variables (more when allowing for unique combinations arising from internal variation, interaction and feedback loops). Hence the difficulty of nailing down simplistic, universally explanatory root causes when it comes to the human system.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Informal cultural mechanisms protect against private predation

From Constraining Predation: Formal and Informal Institutions by Ed Lopez. He quotes from the abstract -
Previous findings suggest that informal, cultural rules underlie constraints on government predation. Following this logic, this study asks how contract enforcement is achieved – through formal or informal mechanisms? After controlling for reverse causality, the empirical results suggest that informal cultural mechanisms protect against private predation and support contracting institutions while the formal institutions are insignificant.
This is interesting because it implies an even greater weight on cultural values and behaviors as the variables responsible for success (productivity). I read this report to be saying that there are better or worse government structures but unless the appropriate cultural values underpin those structures, you won't necessarily see the expected benefits from those structures. I don't disagree but it is interesting to see empirical evidence beginning to arise that would support that supposition.

Monday, January 7, 2013

At every turn there are bargains seeking each other but, because they cannot find each other, men are left in extreme want

From Essays of Michel de Montaigne essay number 35, On Administration. Hat tip David Post
My late father, a man of a decidedly clear judgement, based though it was only on his natural gifts and his own experience, said to me once that he had wished to set a plan in motion leading to the designation of a place in our cities where those who were in need of anything could go and have their requirements registered by a duly appointed official; for example: “I want to sell some pearls”; or “I want to buy some pearls.” “So-and-so wants to make up a group to travel to Paris”; ‘”So-and-so wants a servant with the following qualifications”; “So-and-so seeks an employer”; “So-and-so wants a workman”; each stating his wishes according to his needs.

It does seem that this means of mutual advertising would bring no slight advantage to our public dealings; for at every turn there are bargains seeking each other but, because they cannot find each other, men are left in extreme want.
In my opinion, one of the least remarked upon dynamics of history is the reconnection of humanity. We made our way out of Africa some 50-100,000 years ago and had occupied the old world by 40,000 years ago and the new world by 10,000 years ago. The last major land masses to be occupied by modern man were Madagascar and New Zealand, 2,500 and 800 years ago respectively.

During the expansionary phase, disparate group interaction was constrained by always being able to move beyond the neighbors. Once the landmasses were settled, and particularly once we moved from hunter gathering to settled agriculture and from nomadic to settled villages and towns, there emerged the need for new and better skills (i.e capacity to manage disparate interactions between mixed groups). The past five thousand years have essentially been one mass learning exercise of how to deal with increased densification of populations and increased interconnectivity.

The last major transition was about five hundred years ago when, for a variety of cultural, economic, and technological reasons, the routes were opened (first by sailing ships then ultimately by roads, rails, etc.) for mass, routine and frequent connection between remote and heretofore isolated communities. De Gama or Magellan or Columbus can claim the title for the advent of the new age of interconnectivity.

Montaigne lived 1533-1592, the century after the great reconnection began. It is interesting to see in his note that even at the dawn of reconnection and long before the internet, Twitter or Facebook, people were beginning to address the conceptual implications of greater interconnectivity.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

That part which laws or kings can cause or cure

H/T Megan McArdle. From Samuel Johnson, artfully describing the limits imposed by the frontier of knowledge and the capacity of good intentions to bring about good outcomes. The lines are by Samuel Johnson though they appear as a contribution by him in Oliver Goldmsith's The Traveller.
How small, of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Malthusianism is a psychological disposition more than an intellectual conclusion

From Farming the Sahara and the End of Malthusianism by Walter Russell Mead.
Slowing population growth. The restoration of massive swaths of farmland to nature. Increasing world food supplies. Lower food prices for billions of people. Massive water supplies beneath the driest deserts. Abundant oil and gas. The 21st century is looking like it will be a very different kind of place than the greens and Malthusians have warned us about.

Malthusianism is a psychological disposition more than an intellectual conclusion, and we have no doubt that the alarmists among us will find new looming catastrophic shortages to warn us about. But it’s striking nevertheless that centuries of failed predictions haven’t dented the confidence so many people have in what is so clearly a wrong-headed approach to world affairs.

Friday, January 4, 2013

We must get better results

Scott K. Johnson in Re-thinking the way colleges teach critical thinking echoes my post, Critical Thinking - much talk and little action.
Though critical thinking is universally regarded as a pillar of higher education (including by employers seeking college graduates), results show that students are not developing their critical thinking skills to the extent we expect. For their 2009 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipsa Rocksa followed a little over 2,300 college students through their first two years of school. They found “a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing” and “no statistically significant gains [in these skills] for at least 45 percent of the students.”

These students may be learning things, but they’re not becoming better thinkers or writers. That’s a remarkable failure to realize the promise of a college education—and that disappointing reality actually appears to have gotten considerably worse over the last few decades. It’s irrelevant how much blame should be placed on the school and how much on the students. We must get better results.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism

From Kludgeocracy: The American Way of Policy by Steven M. Teles.
While liberals are harmed by the opacity of kludgeocracy’s successes, conservatives are hurt by the lack of traceability of its failures. The fact that so much of our welfare state is jointly administered — either inter-governmentally or through contracting with private agents — makes it hard for Americans to attribute responsibility when things go wrong, thus leading blame to be spread over government in general, rather than affixed precisely, where such blame could do some good. The consequence of complexity, then, is diffuse cynicism, which is the opposite of the habit needed for good democratic citizenship.