Saturday, May 31, 2014

Advocates for toleration, in short, simply wish to impose their own tastes and values on everyone else under the guise of tolerance.

From Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance by Hans Oberdiek.
Susan Mendus, whose many thoughtful writings on tolerance have informed this study, provides one statement of toleration's paradox:
[N]ormally we count toleration as a virtue in individuals and a duty in societies. However, where toleration is based on moral disapproval [as opposed to mere dislike], it implies that the thing being tolerated is wrong and ought not to exist. The question which then arises is why . . . it should be thought good to tolerate.
The paradox arises because we appear to believe both that we have conclusively good reasons against tolerating a given attitude, belief, action, practice, person or way of life—and equally compelling reasons for doing so. This is not because the reasons are equally balanced, at least not at the same level of reasoning. Instead, we are confident that we are right and they are wrong, but that for reasons of a different kind we should let them alone. This seems highly paradoxical, even irrational, and, a critic might add, clearly wicked, for if we are confident in our reasons, why should we tolerate anything that opposes our beliefs, attitudes, or practices? Why allow people to do that or believe that which we know is hideously wrong or deeply misguided? Is not this the paradoxical position of tolerating the intolerable, the "basic problem" of tolerance identified by Williams?

In response to this paradox, some have deliberately rejected toleration as either attitude or practice. We have already cited Bishop Bossuet's vivid remark that "I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong." This unequivocally avoids the paradox, but in a way that almost everyone would find objectionable. The trick will be to unravel the paradox so that those like Bossuet can confidently affirm their faith and moral commitments without feeling the need to act intolerantly toward those with whom they are profoundly at odds.

There is a further paradox. What is the difference, in practice, between tolerating the intolerable — which we seem to be asking Bossuet to do — and accepting it? Is not demanding that Bossuet tolerate Protestants tantamount to demanding that, as a matter of public acknowledgment, he must also accept their beliefs, ways of worship, and so on? Not "accept" in the sense of converting to Protestantism but "accept" in the sense of admitting that Protestantism is either as good as or nearly as good as Catholicism. We often do accept differences in this sense. One person, say, firmly believes that the best of classical music is superior to the best of jazz yet fully accepts that jazz is good.

May we force Bossuet to take this stance to Protestantism? But then, as far as outward behavior goes, it will look to all the world as if he accepts that Catholicism and Protestantism are equally good. Surely this places him in an untenable position. But why stop here? If we wish to ensure that French Protestants are truly tolerated, why even allow Bossuet to voice his objections? After all, if thought is father to the deed, then surely expressing one's thoughts might father many intolerant deeds, at least to the extent that he persuades others. Were it possible — and maybe with modern techniques of "reeducation" it now is — would it not be best to stop Bossuet from harboring his bigoted thoughts in the first place? But now tolerance, which presents itself as the mildest of demands, seems to take a sinister turn — a turn to oppression of those who think in nonprescribed ways. And what is this, paradoxically, but intolerance?

Yet another puzzling paradox about tolerance is this. No one can (or should) tolerate everything. Advocates of toleration always have in mind toleration of this, not toleration of that. Today many people, for example, call for tolerance to homosexuals and homosexual conduct. But this is disingenuous, say critics, for in their heart of hearts, these same people do not believe that there is anything whatever wrong with homosexuality. Were they honest, therefore, they would call for acceptance, not tolerance. Advocates for toleration, in short, simply wish to impose their own tastes and values on everyone else under the guise of tolerance. They do so because they know they cannot convince most people that homosexuality, say, is a good way to live. realizing this, they fall back on toleration. in their own eyes, however, it is only a second-best, stopgap position. They will advocate toleration until "bigots" change their minds, give up, become indifferent, or die out.

This disingenuousness, not to say hypocrisy, is easily shown, for those who proudly call themselves tolerant do not take kindly to admonitions that they show the same tolerance to what others accept but that they strongly believe to be unjustifiable.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Confusion about privilege, income, culture, and other confounding issues

This is, in many ways, a very heartening article, Who Gets to Graduate? by Paul Tough. Regrettably it starts out as if it were any of your usual sad sack laments about the unfairness of the universe as illustrated by the trials and challenges of a young African-American woman at the University of Texas, Austin. If you stick with it though, it shifts gears and reports in some detail on the early results of some apparently quite constructive and successful intervention programs undertaken by UT Austin.

It is striking how progressive and innovative Texas is despite how often it is characterized as a neanderthalic small government state. In addition to the innovative work reported here, they are also the university system working on the $10,000 university diploma.

With regard to the programs reported on in this article, the cynic has to counsel that most educational claims of material achievement on minimal program investment end up being non-replicable. But this report has the ring of some legitimacy and we can only hope that they have indeed begun to crack the code of achievement. Interestingly, what they are doing is much more focused on behaviors and personal expectations than it is to do with study skills and knowledge, an experience consistent with the very interesting research in Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review by Camille A. Farrington, et al.

Beyond the fact that Tough's is the first materially hopeful report I have read in a long time on efforts to close performance gaps, there are several other interesting aspects of the article.

For a long time, we have been struggling to deliver on the simple goal of ensuring that all who can successfully gain admittance to university do indeed attend and do indeed graduate. UT Austin seems to be making progress towards that goal. But in doing so, it raises numerous other interesting issues.

I like that they are customizing their interventions to very specific details of individual need. I regret how long we have suffered under the tyranny of imposed groupings such as race, gender, class, etc.

One question that the report raises is the longer term one of brand. Specifically, universities to a great extent serve as a screening program for government, business and society. It is assumed that with degree in hand you are in some general ways certified. It is great that UT Austin is spending the money to boost the graduation rate of 1,200 incoming freshmen (out of a total of 7,200) who are most at risk of not graduating despite being able to do the work. Currently, enterprises looking to hire new employees use graduation from university as some elemental screening mechanism on the reasonable expectation that graduation means that you have at least some minimal cognitive capacity and non-cognitive capacity to succeed. You must be smart and have worked hard. The more rigorous or august the institution's reputation, the stronger the assumption.

But that assumption can only work if the brands are reliable, and they can be reliable in two ways. The most competitive, largely private, universities basically screen admittances so thoroughly that anyone gaining admittance is almost certain to graduate under their own capacity.

State institutions are challenged by being more directly supported by the taxpayer and therefore more subject to accepting a wider range of students. They can still maintain a brand for quality students by allowing a winnowing process to occur, i.e. maintain standards and equal process for everyone and shed anyone unable to compete. Harsh but effective and still useful to the future employers.

But what happens now if 17% of your graduating student body were only able to graduate with targeted interventions and on-going support services. What happens when employers start experiencing higher turnover rates because the degree holding students are not able to achieve without the infrastructure of support? Ideally, and I think this is what UT Austin is seeking to accomplish, the interventions are rare, early and once-off. If those selective interventions lead to a student who not only graduates but is equally robust and capable as their colleagues, then there is no issue. But if the interventions are successful only in achieving the surface goal of graduation but do not address the underlying issue of personal productivity, capability, non-fragility, then future employers are going to be blindsided by employees that buckle without a support infrastructure.

I think there is a real risk of institutional brand degradation and decline if the interventions are only palliative and not transformative.

A second question is about ethics. At the university level we are speaking of adult citizens. Is it right that the extra costs of rehabilitation for individuals should be borne by the taxpayers and that the other students should have to compete against favored classes that are receiving all sorts of assistance? This is the mirror to the equally legitimate question about the unfairness of the underprivileged having to compete with the privileged.

I think that within some established band of variance, everyone admitted ought to be able to anticipate graduation. What UT Austin is doing is admitting many who cannot anticipate graduating for a variety of reasons. UT Austin is then investing taxpayer money to provide a range of services that help increase the likelihood of graduation. As above, this then also means a dual track of graduates, those that are self-reliant (perhaps owing to more privileged backgrounds) and those that need assistance. University education is societally expensive. You don't want to send people there that can't do the work or who can pass only with expensive interventions.

What this really prompts is the question, how do we prepare high school graduates so that, if admitted, they can succeed on their own without differential militating investments? Can these university level interventions be moved down to middle and high school? That would have two benefits, 1) increasing the candidate pool of potentially capable high school students able to seriously consider higher education and 2) reduce the cost of the university system by ensuring that all admitted are capable of graduation.

One of the interesting things in the article is that there is pervasive confusion about privilege, income, culture, and other confounding issues. Everyone seems to be predicating the justification of their actions on the grounds of the differential impact between the haves and have-nots, that those most at risk of not graduating are at risk because they are poor.

My suspicion, given the type of interventions they are finding effective, is that the correlation is probably less to do with income than it is to do with familial structure. We know that intact families also tend to have higher incomes. They also tend to have children who have higher graduation rates, education attainment, etc. So is the root cause of low graduation low income or is it that the students from low income families are also from fragile or fractured families and therefore have not received the type of support, encouragement, role models, prodding, expectations, etc. of those from intact (and therefore higher income) families. I think there is a fair probability that familial structure is the driver rather than poverty.

A doubling of the percentage of students performing at grade level in only five years

Hmm. In New Orleans, major school district closes traditional public schools for good by Lindsey Layton.

A status report of the New Orleans experiment in charter schools. The catalyst is the transition to a completely charter school district. The reporting is somewhat chaotic. For example, the impetus for change, as stated in the article, was the terrible performance of the public schools in New Orleans and the opportunity for a fresh beginning created by the destruction arising from Hurricane Katrina. But in a 35 paragraph article, it is not till paragraph 14 that we get to a before and after comparison based on empirical measures.
Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.
There's a lot of sturm and drang reported in the article, presumably most of it simply related to the magnitude of the change but some of it clearly generated by concerns of of putative class and race privilege. But if these numbers reported are accurate, they are phenomenal. Most districts struggle to eke out 1-5% improvements in test and graduation rates over five year stretches (unless you resort, as many big city systems have done, to doctoring the numbers). 50% improvement in graduation rates and 100% improvement in test scores are remarkable.

If they are real. In the comments section, there is an immense babble from all sides of ideology, speculation, prejudice, assumptions, etc. There are a number of people who question the validity of the performance measures but they are clearly opponents to the charter initiative so is their criticism empirically based or ideologically based? Hard to tell.

I am sure the charter successes are not as great as proponents are making out. I am also sure that opponents have many motivations that do not include what is best for the children. But where is the truth? Hard to tell without spending a lot of time researching. Layton's article is interesting as a teaser but frustrating for its incompleteness and absence of robustness. If the reported numbers are indeed real and reflective of reality (i.e. aren't gamed), then the charter initiative is already an outstanding success and ought to be investigated much further to yield the lessons that can be transferred to other school districts. And if the numbers aren't real, that should be exposed as well.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The more stable the environment the more differentiated the individual

Interesting not so much as confirmed truth but as a model of thinking. The Lives of Sociable Spiders by Natalie Angier.
Of the world’s 43,000 known varieties of spiders, an overwhelming majority are peevish loners: spinning webs, slinging lassos, liquefying prey and attacking trespassers, each spider unto its own.

But about 25 arachnid species have swapped the hermit’s hair shirt for a more sociable and cooperative strategy, in which dozens or hundreds of spiders pool their powers to exploit resources that would elude a solo player.


“It’s very satisfying to me that the most maligned of organisms may have something to tell us about who we are,” said Jonathan N. Pruitt, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies social spiders.

The new work on social spiders is part of the expanding field of animal personality research, which seeks to delineate, quantify and understand the many stylistic differences that have been identified in a vast array of species, including monkeys, minks, bighorn sheep, dumpling squid, zebra finches and spotted hyenas.

Animals have been shown to differ, sometimes hugely, on traits like shyness, boldness, aggressiveness and neophobia, or fear of the new. Among the big questions in the field are where those differences come from, and why they exist.

Reporting recently in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Pruitt and Kate L. Laskowski, of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, have determined that character-building in social spiders is a communal affair. While they quickly display the first glimmerings of a basic predisposition — a relative tendency toward shyness or boldness, tetchiness or docility — that personality is then powerfully influenced by the other spiders in the group.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers showed that spiders exposed to the same group day after day developed stronger and more distinctive personalities than those that were shifted from one set of spiders to the next. Moreover, the spiders in a stable social setting grew ever less like one another over time.

In other words, far from fostering behavioral conformity, a predictable social life accentuated each spider’s quirks and personal style, rather as the characters in a sitcom — the Goth girl, the huckster, the lovable buffoon — rise ever more to type with every passing laugh-tracked week.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

PAC formation and wheelchair deaths

From Spurious Correlations by Tyler Vigen.

Just a couple of examples.

US spending on science, space, and technology correlates with Suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation.

Per capita consumption of cheese (US) correlates with Number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets.

OK. One more.

Total number of Political Action Committees (US) correlates with People who died by falling out of their wheelchair,

Income inequality in academia OR I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the people who tell me it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis.

Very interesting. “Undemocracy”: inequalities in science by Yu Xie. Politicians and academicians are intensely pushing an income and wealth equality agenda which is ill considered and poorly informed (from an economics and historical perspective). The standard, but not only, measure of inequality is the Gini Index which is marginally adequate but misses much of the key elements about the economic dynamics underpinning unequal outcomes.

Much of the discussion of inequality is hindered by a failure to acknowledge that most dynamic markets (whether in sports, ideas, or commerce) are winner-take-all in structure, that the Pareto distribution is the most common outcome of competition, that constraints are universal as is disparity in capabilities and, from a public policy perspective, the tyranny of Reynold's Law: "Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them."

Xie defines some terms that are usually left very general and those definitions are beneficial to have. For example,
By “inequalities,” I mean differences in three major domains: resources, research outcomes, and monetary or nonmonetary rewards.
Which I would summarize more generally as the study of differences in resources, outcomes, and rewards.

Here is his description of winner-takes-all;
science has attributes that resemble a “winner-takes-all” market: high visibility of top winners, a large contestant base, accumulation of advantages, absence of physical or cultural boundaries, and intense competition. Thus, many scientists feel that merely being good at their jobs is not enough. Competition is all about priority, a scientist's claim to be the first to make a big discovery.
That is a fairly robust definition and pertinent in many fields far beyond the ivied walls.

Xie has a lot of good observations.
Although these features have made scientific production faster and more voluminous, they have also rendered the evaluation of scientists less substance-specific and more “numbers-based.” Scientists are increasingly likely to be judged by whatever numbers they can generate in terms of publications, citations, research grants, prestigious awards, research team size, and memberships in elite academies than by their actual scientific contributions. This tendency may have been amplified by increasing specialization, such that scientists in one specialty area find it difficult to understand content in another. University administrators, faced with uncertainties and competing demands for scarce resources, have strong incentives to use externally generated and validated indicators.
Xie also raises an interesting thought experiment. If academics are so interested income and wealth inequality, how does the world of the academy stack up? Not very well. Here are the Gini numbers for research dollars.
These Gini Academia numbers are in the range of 0.77 - 0.81 compared to Gini Income Index for the US of 0.38 (world average 0.68) and a Gini Wealth Index of 0.80 (world average 0.89)

Xie doesn't provide the numbers (they don't appear to exist) but indicates that owing to both high standard deviations in academic salaries as well as they strategic shift among universities towards a much higher percentage of low paid adjunct professors (versus full-time tenured professors) the Gini Index for professors is likely higher than that for the nation as a whole.

One is left with the impression that academics care about income inequality and wealth inequality only to the extent that it doesn't affect them. Research and income inequality in their own backyard may be much higher but as the beneficiaries of those inequalities, they are not interested in addressing that inequality.

It calls to mind that other dictum of Professor Reynolds: "I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the people who tell me it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis."

The commenters over at Gini coefficient for U.S. universities by Tyler Cowen are having fun with the hypocrisy/insularity blindness of academics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

There is a fine balance between loving books and living life

Heh. Really Good Books, Part II by David Brooks. A perfectly fine but reasonably innocuous pair of columns. Always interesting to see what an intelligent and accomplished person thinks about the books they have read. His stated intent in the first column:
People are always asking me what my favorite books are. I’ve held off listing them because it seems self-indulgent. But, with summer almost here, I thought I might spend a couple columns recommending eight books that have been pivotal in my life.
The column's are fine but I found the comments as interesting if not more so. Partly because, with a few exceptions, it was a sharing discussion. Yes, there are a handful of haranguers berating him for not having encountered more multicultural or gender writers who were pivotal in his life. Also a handful who managed to slip in some sharp elbowed comments to the effect that they were impressed that a right winger like Brooks could read. I can't help but laugh at NYT readers of such exquisite sensibilities that they imagine Brooks to be anything other than a solid centrist.

I like Brooks' closing paragraph.
I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.
There is a fine balance between loving books and living life.

Look if you like, but you will have to leap

Leap Before You Look
by W.H. Auden

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

Politician's rhetoric and words are driven by electoral concerns rather than by the real world circumstances and concerns of their constitutants.

From Fairness vs. Freedom: Is Politics Going Back to the 1970s? by Nate Silver. Independent of the points he is trying to make in the article, I found this graphic very interesting.

Compare this to Ngram Viewer for the relative discussions of Freedom, Liberty, Fairness, Equality and Income Inequality.

Freedom is a dominant theme by several factors, followed by an equal interest in Liberty and Equality. Fairness is a distant, distant fourth and Income Inequality is a virtual no-show.

The thing that stands out to me among these terms is their relative stability. Other than that the term Freedom appears to be displacing the term Liberty (there is a two century displacement of one for the other), the level of discussion around the concepts seems very stable over the decades.

Casting these phrases in economic terms, look at the results for Opportunity, Taxes, Inflation, Economic Growth, Income Inequality.

The clear and stable winner is a focus on Opportunity by several factors. Concern (or at least discussion) about Taxes peaked in the late 1930s (after income taxes were implemented) and has been gently falling since then. Also pretty stable. Inflation is in third place but off an early 1980s peak (when inflation was high). In fourth place, concern about Economic Growth is pretty stable since 1970. Again, in fifth place, interest in Income Inequality is close to non-existent. Likewise if you search on Equal Opportunity.

The point in comparing these Ngram Viewer results with those of the party political rhetoric that Silver captures is to see if they are correlated in any systemic fashion. More to the point, does political rhetoric change based on exogenous factors (such as increasing income inequality, or outsourcing, or globalization or economic growth, etc.?

At the macro level, there appears to be little correlation. The things politicians say and express concern about appear to be driven by branding, competitive dynamics and other considerations rather than to be the result of real world circumstances. Not particularly surprising, but it is useful to have it documented.

Politician's rhetoric and words are driven by electoral concerns rather than by the real world circumstances and concerns of their constituents.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reading of our fighting men

Military history is a staple of my reading diet but as it happens, in the past month I have read five books all having to do with American military history and therefore seem appropriate to mention on this Memorial Day.

Blue Skies and Blood: The Battle of the Coral Sea is Edwin P. Hoyt's account of the sea battle which blocked Japan's path towards Australia in World War II. Now out of print, it is a straightforward account of the events of this critical battle that preceded the turning point at Midway just a month later. History always seems inevitable after the outcome is known and this account rekindles the tension and tribulation of the time when the Japanese had the clear edge in numbers and quality and when Admirals had to balance force preservation as a strategic necessity with the equally pressing need to engage and defeat.

Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir by Larry Gwin is Gwin's account of his year in combat in Vietnam in 1965. His time there and battles included the Ia Drang Valley engagement chronicled in We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Col. Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway, an excellent account later made in to a movie.

One of the things Gwin tale brings home is the simple grinding down of soldiers via constant gruelling field engagements and the difficulty of maintaining unit cohesion when your comrades were constantly rotating in and out owing to wounds or completion of tours of duty. A good read.

The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin recounts the almost inconceivably challenging role of Fox Company in the Chosin Reservoir campaign during the Korean War. I have read at least a couple of other accounts which focused primarily on the bulk of the military engagement on the eastern side of the reservoir. The Marines and Fox Company were on the west when some 200,000 Chinese entered the war and came to bear on the 246 men of Fox Company, holding a hill across the road that provided the escape route for the eight thousand Marines of First Division cut off just to the north of Fox Company. Over four days, in late November in temperatures that rarely rose above -20 degrees fahrenheit, Fox Company, despite appalling casualties held their hill. A great and inspiring story of a too often neglected war. What people are these American soldiers. Hard not to tear up thinking of them.

Tail-End Charlies: The Last Battles of the Bomber War, 1944-45 by John Nichol and Tony Rennell is the dual story of RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force in World War II based in the UK and tasked with the bombing campaign intended to bring Germany to her knees, ideally precluding the need for an invasion of the continent. Obviously that dream was not fulfilled.

Nichol and Rennell focus on those crews who came on during the last year of the war. Again, it is hard in retrospect to recapture the spirit of the time but Nichol and Rennell do a good job. These were young service men 17-22 or so each flying thirty-five missions over a well defended Germany where loss rates on bombing missions were routinely 5-10% and sometimes reached above 20%. At the beginning, crews could sustain a certain false hope, thin as it might be, because the campaign was new and unknown. By the summer of 1944, you knew the numbers intimately. These were men taking up a perilous task with their eyes wide open, a steely courage that is hard to comprehend. RAF Bomber Command lost 55,000 pilots and crew during the war and the US Eighth Air Force lost 25,000. Almost incomprehensible numbers. For the Americans alone, the equivalent of losing two full land divisions. 4,145 planes lost.

The final book, which I am still in the process of reading, is Crosshairs on the Kill Zone by Craig Roberts and Charles W. Sasser, a history of the sniper in the US military, told primarily through personal accounts by some of the top rated snipers from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan. A gripping read.

All good and accessible accounts of the hard duties, sufferings and resilience of our military personnel.

And so they’re talking to Jews, not about capitalism but about Judaism.

I don't know how accurate but quite interesting. From The Chinese and the Jews by Michael Ledeen.
In their amazing way of organizing most anything, the Chinese launched churches, and of course millions upon millions of them attended Christian (mostly Catholic) services. To be sure, the Party kept a suspicious eye wide open, and some of the churches were deemed too dangerous, even in the cause of Communism. But on they went, convinced they were on the right path. If anyone doubted it, they had mountains of research and even Tocqueville to justify the turn to religion.

After a couple of decades of this, there were still problems, and their social scientists took another look. This time around, they found–surprise!–lots of Jews involved in capitalist enterprises, from banks to stock exchanges to corporations. Indeed, the Jews had a history of doing it. Maybe the Jews knew something the others didn’t? Well, look at Israel…or New York…

And so they’re talking to Jews, not about capitalism but about Judaism. State radio now broadcasts in Hebrew. The Jewish experts who are brought to China find themselves speaking Hebrew with their Chinese interlocutors. Chinese students can now learn Hebrew, and immerse themselves in Jewish studies (maybe they’ll give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree sometime soon?).
An illustration of the importance of real diversity. In the West, our clerisy have largely abandoned and disavowed religion as a central component in human well-being. Interesting to see the secularist, command-and-control Chinese attempting to harvest the benefits of religion without letting it become an independent societal element which might challenge the control of the party.

The clerisy's constricted thinking and enforcement of that restricted thinking on others, via the mechanism of political correctness, means that it is up to the Chinese to ask and seek answers to questions we have put beyond the pale. A paradoxical outcome when you have heirs of the enlightenment avoiding questions that repressive totalitarians are now willing to ask.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reading in Restraint: The Last Chained Libraries by Allison Meier

From Reading in Restraint: The Last Chained Libraries by Allison Meier.
In the Middle Ages, books were incredibly scarce, and although many wanted to share knowledge with the masses, they didn't quite trust the public. So the chained library was born, and while most of these restrained reading collections have vanished, a rare few still exist, looking much as they did centuries ago.
I saw a chained library in a cathedral in southwestern England a few years ago. Striking.

Love the images in the article.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

An interesting little mystery to park by the wayside

Hmmm. Don't quite know what to make of that. From Reaching a verdict on the era of mass incarceration by Charles Lane.
The discussion is about the trade-offs between crime and incarceration and the uniqueness of the US.
If we released all drug offenders, the incarceration rate would still be much higher than that of Europe. Ditto if we released all minorities. Nor are U.S. racial disparities unique. Canadian statistics show that, for unknown reasons, the black share of Canada’s prison population is three times that of the general population — the same as in the United States.
I didn't know that and I struggle to understand it. The US has a fairly distinct racial history quite different from that of Canada. Blacks are only 3% of the population in Canada compared to 13% in the US. I can't quite bring myself to believe that Canada is some hotbed of systemic judicial discrimination and racial hostility a la Alabama circa 1960.

A quick look at some Canadian statistics doesn't yield much of an explanation. Blacks in Canada appear to have about the same education attainment as whites. Its not clear whether they have the same workforce participation rate but it does appear that they are more often in lower skilled jobs than their education attainment would warrant. They also appear to earn only about 80% of whites at a household level (and not taking into account differences in professions, hours worked, etc.).

This dated but interesting account, The Complex Face of Black Canada by George Elliot Clarke, indicates that there is a disproportionate number of black, single, female-headed families in Canada but does not indicate a number. Clarke also indicates that black unemployment is half again as high as overall, 15% versus 10% (back in 1997).

So what's going on? No idea, but it is intriguing. An interesting little mystery to park by the wayside till other information drifts across the radar screen that might provide a credible answer.

Friday, May 23, 2014

We live in The Onion

It seems unnecessarily hard to disentangle satire from reality. I am doing my weekly catch-up on The Volokh Conspiracy, a law blog and come across Conservative professor-blogger wins political retaliation case at trial by Eugene Volokh.

OK, interesting. Reading through the comments, there are a couple who seem to be taking the position that Adams is a racist. Well, usually this is simply an abbreviated form of "I don't agree with your priors and don't want to argue them". So is Adams really such a retrograde? I go googling. Turns out, conveniently, that he writes a column for Townhall, apparently a web and print magazine with a conservative orientation.

Looking at his bio at the site, I figure I have gotten confused in the search and I am reading a critic's mock bio.
Mike S. Adams was born in Columbus, Mississippi on October 30, 1964. While a student at Clear Lake High School in Houston, TX, his team won the state 5A soccer championship. Adams graduated from C.L.H.S. in 1983 with a 1.8 GPA. He was ranked 734 among a class of 740, largely as a result of flunking English all four years of high school.

After obtaining an Associate's degree in psychology from San Jacinto College, Mike Adams moved on to Mississippi State University where he joined the Sigma Chi Fraternity. While living in the fraternity house, his GPA rose to 3.4, allowing him to finish his B.A., and then to pursue a Master's in Psychology. In 1990, Adams turned down a chance to pursue a PhD in psychology from the University of Georgia, opting instead to remain at Mississippi State to study Sociology/Criminology. This decision was made entirely on the basis of his reluctance to quit his night job as member of a musical duo. Playing music in bars and at fraternity parties and weddings financed his education. He also played for free beer.
But no, it turns out that is actually true and his own self-mockery. He does get around to describing his path towards a PhD, religion and conservatism.

Reading through his columns I can see how some who might want to take offense, can find material to do so. But he comes across both in the columns and in his student reviews as witty, engaged, and sharp. The very best type of professor.

From a single brief column, Who Is Richard Greenleaf? there are, entirely aside from the trenchant criticisms of RG, the following sharp lines.
I had never heard of Elmhurst College when I received your letter but I kept on reading anyway. I’m not an elitist. Just so you’ll know, Richard, I finished in the bottom 1 percent of my class in high school and subsequently got all of my degrees from Mississippi State. So who am I to judge? In fact, I’m so humble my next book is tentatively titled “Ten Steps to Humility: And How I Made It in Seven.”


I have been around academia long enough to realize that when a professor starts listing his credentials it means he’s about to scold you and you’d better listen. I was scared when I read this paragraph. But I kept on reading anyway. I’m open to criticism, even from Richards I don’t know.


Professor, if you think that merely mentioning the Creator is unconstitutional then you are in the unique position of actually considering the Declaration of Independence to be unconstitutional. If that is your position, let me suggest that you are suffering from severe intellectual hernia. That is not ordinary stupidity. That is practiced stupidity. It takes work to become that confused.
Three guffawable lines in one column. OK, someone else to keep an eye out for for entertainment and edification.

Less bias bigger gap?

From Online tests are the latest gateway to landing a new job by By Sarah Halzack. This holds great promise in terms of productivity, fairness, and human capital development. The promise is a cheaper recruiting process, more accurate selection, better employee performance and reduced employee churn. But the transition will be hard as many politically popular bromides are either circumvented or forced to confront reality.
If you’re applying for a job as a customer service representative at T-Mobile, you’re bound to encounter Jason Easton, a cranky mock customer who has been on hold for nearly an hour.

“Ah! It’s about time,” he says, demanding to know why his bill has gone up.

As Easton rattles off his name and phone number, you’ll have to quickly pull up his account, help him with his bill and determine whether he’s eligible for a $30 credit that he wants.

T-Mobile asks job applicants to take this test before inviting them for an interview because the company has found powerful correlations between the online assessments and success on the job. High scorers tend to resolve customer calls about 25 seconds faster than those who receive low scores. That means they can handle one more call a day and about 250 more a year.

At T-Mobile and legions of other companies, Web-based tests have become a key gateway to landing a job, a potent screening tool that can effectively bump a résumé to the top or bottom of a manager’s pile.
Some of the benefits of online testing also represent risk.
Test makers say their offerings bring a consistency and objectivity to a process that can sharply improve the odds of hiring the right person. But in a highly competitive job market in a tepid economic recovery, the increased use of online testing could mean that workers who aren’t digitally savvy or lack Web access might face one more hurdle in getting a job.

“Assessments are right more often than they’re wrong,” said Elliot Clark, chief executive of SharedXpertise Media, a firm that puts on conferences for the human resources industry. “But like anything else, when you do a prediction, the forecast has a percentage of accuracy. The issue is: What percentage of people get screened out that should have gotten a shot?”
The authors hold out what I suspect might be a misguided hope.
Providers say the tests hold the promise of leveling the playing field for job applicants by removing the chance of bias that comes with a traditional résumé screening. The tests can’t distinguish, for example, if a candidate didn’t attend a top-tier college, is currently unemployed or is a woman or minority.
Bias is a hard to quantify component in human interactions and by disintermediating it, on-line testing is an advance. But by relying strictly on objective empirical quantifications, there is likely to be disparate impact of some sort, in some instances possibly extreme. If human bias is a smaller factor than the real world empirical objective skill gap, then it is possible that on-line tests might lead to greater disparity rather than less.

Unexpected lives Or Sex & Violence Sells Economics

From The early days of American Austrian economics by Tyler Cowen. Heh.
When Hayek asked Bartley to do the biography he said: “There are only three things that sell books namely sex, money and violence. As to sex, well, I left my first wife for my first girlfriend. As to money, well, I never had any. And as to violence, let me tell you how I came to bayonet a man to death in World War One!”

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope

From The Shadow-Line by Joseph Conrad
It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.

One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness—and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn't because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation—a bit of one's own.

One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together—the kicks and the half-pence, as the saying is—the picturesque common lot that holds so many possibilities for the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes. One goes on. And the time, too, goes on—till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.

This is the period of life in which such moments of which I have spoken are likely to come. What moments? Why, the moments of boredom, of weariness, of dissatisfaction. Rash moments. I mean moments when the still young are inclined to commit rash actions, such as getting married suddenly or else throwing up a job for no reason.

Leveraging the lessons of failure into one more attempt at success

Part of the challenge with human-system problems is that they are dynamic. Not only are the systems non-linear, chaotic, variable and have hidden feedback mechanisms, they are also dynamic. Whatever the problem is that you set out to solve, it will evolve as you are solving it. In other words the target is not only moving but changing as you proceed. That makes success both hard to measure and often hard to see.

There is an interesting commentary on economic development and the necessity for diversity in approaches to economic development in Why Jeffrey Sachs Matters by Bill Gates.

In the comments, there is also a response from Jeffrey Sachs which illustrates that one of the other challenges of human-system problems is that they involve, well, humans. The motives and values and behaviors and decision-making processes of principals, agents and subjects are a kaleidoscope of changing interactions. Gates points out that Sachs' personality is part of the whole equation and Sachs then proves that true in the comments.

Sachs has sponsored an intense development model,
Millennium Villages Project (MVP) – a $120 million demonstration project intended to show the world that it’s possible to lift African villages out of poverty through a massive infusion of targeted assistance.
As with virtually all such efforts to radically change human systems, there have been some successes, some failures, much learned, and many unanticipated outcomes. It is hard to see whether on balance the experiment has been successful by its own lights and in terms of the consumption of resources versus anticipated future productivity.

Sachs did come to the foundation, asking us to support the Millennium Villages. His pitch was intriguing. He was picking a small handful of villages to be the focus of intense interventions in health, education, and agriculture – all at once. His hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

My colleagues and I had a number of concerns about Sachs’s approach. We questioned his assumptions about how quickly the gains would materialize, what would happen when the MVP funding was phased out, how much governments would contribute to offset the high per-person costs, and how feasible it was to measure progress (given the likelihood that people from the surrounding area would stream into their villages once the MVP aid started flowing). So we decided not to invest in the MVP directly. Instead we funded his interdisciplinary work at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, because we felt it was invaluable to have him focused on the needs of poor countries.
Human-systems are hard. I read this article in the context of a focus on helping children becoming enthusiastic and effective readers. The trials and tribulations are not dissimilar to economic development. It is a human-system problem not amenable to quick or easy solutions. Most efforts will fail. The important thing is to learn from that failure. Just as in economic development, there is a peculiar paradox that frequently militates against learning lessons.

The paradox is that these issues are difficult and that action in pursuit of change requires a Lady Macbeth steeliness.
Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.
Warrior Thane that he is, Macbeth is, in his ladies' words,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would, ”
Like the poor cat i' th' adage?
Like Lady Macbeth, when trying to affect positive change in human-systems, you have to screw your courage to the sticking place, knowing that there will be failure and unintended consequences, ridicule and criticism. But once at the sticking place, the courage that makes it possible to effect change, too often also blinds you to alternative lessons, different approaches or contrasting interpretations.

There are few who can both cast their all into a contest and yet simultaneously maintain a Marcus Aurelius like dispassion and openness to new or different information.

I like the message of Gates' article, consonant with Megan McArdle's in her The Up Side of Down. Failure is inherent to the human-system to a much greater extent than we acknowledge. We paint a picture of success leading inexorably to success when in fact success often eventually leads to success but we choose to ignore all the detours, set-backs, blind alley's and other diversions we take along the way. Pick virtually any endeavor and you will find 80-90% of the outcomes fail to meet the predetermined measure of success. The fact that we can claim success because we change the goal posts or because we were rescued serendipitously though exogenous events or because we were close enough is our happy way of ignoring just how poor are our powers of forecasting and how weak is our control over events.

The challenge is not a high failure rate. That is the nature of the beast. The problem is to fail intelligently - 1) Recognizing and acknowledging failure, 2) Anticipating and mitigating failure, 3) Learning from failure, and 4) Leveraging the lessons of failure into one more attempt at success.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Income churn and financial basics

Pretty interesting. From Most People in the World Have No Idea How to Manage Their Money by Moises Naim.

Reports on the researcher's investigation of the financial literacy of the public around the world. The researchers administer three questions dealing with interest, inflation, and risk. Pretty straightforward. They provide the test in the article and ask the reader to score themselves.
How did you do? Did you respond correctly to all three questions? If you did, then you belong to a surprisingly small global minority.

In Russia, 96 percent of those surveyed could not answer the three questions correctly. While that might be expected of a post-communist nation, the mecca of capitalism didn’t exactly yield glowing results—only 30 percent of Americans aced the quiz. The best-performing respondents were the Germans (53 percent got a perfect score) and the Swiss (50 percent), but this still leaves almost half of each country’s population without a basic understanding of financial matters. In countries with relatively strong economies, the numbers are sobering: 79 percent of Swedes, 75 percent of Italians, 73 percent of Japanese, and 69 percent of French could not respond correctly to all three questions.
All the usual caveats regarding unreplicated research.

However, were this to be borne out, it would appear to tie in with the information I posted about a couple of weeks ago: 12% of Americans will experience at least one year in their life when their annual income puts them in the top 1% of income earners and an incredible 73% will have at least one year when they are in the top quintile of income earners.

If 70% don't have a basic comprehension of interest, inflation and risk, then it contributes to an understanding of why there is so much income churn.

They need to need to get over themselves and start worrying about writing good books

The things you learn. This arises from some evolving contretemps in the science fiction arena, not an area in which I spend much time. Not bothering with the context or background, principally because I don't know it, I did come across a couple of acronyms which I had not encountered before, one at least of which is quite pertinent and useful. The source is here.
Frankly, it’s time for those running cons to understand that indie publishing isn’t the vanity press of years gone by. More importantly, the SJWs and GHHers need to get over themselves and start worrying about writing good books, books that people want to read, instead of enforcing their own political and social agendas. And now I’m going to get back to writing books where all I care about is writing a story readers want to read.
What is an SJW? The Urban Dictionary offers an unflattering but instantly recognizable definition.
Social Justice Warrior. A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation. A social justice warrior, or SJW, does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of. They typically repeat points from whoever is the most popular blogger or commenter of the moment, hoping that they will "get SJ points" and become popular in return. They are very sure to adopt stances that are "correct" in their social circle.

The SJW's favorite activity of all is to dogpile. Their favorite websites to frequent are Livejournal and Tumblr. They do not have relevant favorite real-world places, because SJWs are primarily civil rights activists only online.
And what about GHH? I have no idea. Even with Google I am not able to track down a likely candidate (I am pretty certain it is not the Google Hack Honeypot nor is it General Hospital Happening, the Google offerings).

UPDATE: Found it. Of all things. GHH - Glittery Hooha.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

No need to bother with facts when there is an already established opinion

From Parental Guidance Requested by James Taranto, the last section, Driving While Affluent. Another example of sociologists finding in their research the result that they had already come to believe.
"Pity the rich," ABC News "reports":
They drive their expensive cars with little respect for the law, they break the rules thinking they won't have to face the consequences, and they even take candy from children.

Their unethical behavior, according to new research, is driven by the fact that they see nothing wrong with greed.

Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, have conducted seven studies involving nearly a thousand participants from college students to senior citizens indicating that the rich are, indeed, different from the rest of us. . . .

In one creative study, [the researchers] and several of their students positioned themselves at four-way-stop intersections in the San Francisco Bay area to see which cars ignored state law to yield to the first vehicle to reach the stop sign. The drivers could not see them as the participants ranked the vehicles on the basis of their value.

Drivers of expensive cars were four times more likely to cut off another vehicle and ignore the right-of-way than drivers of cheaper cars, the researchers found. The most flagrant offenders: Mercedes drivers.

In another experiment, 26 drivers of deluxe cars blasted through an intersection while ignoring a pedestrian who had entered the crosswalk, another violation of state law. No one driving a cheap car failed to yield. Some 426 cars were involuntary participants in these two experiments, and it's worth noting that although prosperous drivers were more willing to break the law than working class drivers, about half the fancy cars yielded. So not all rich folks are jerks.
Based on these descriptions, the researchers knew nothing about the drivers other than the make of car they were driving, including even whether the driver was the owner of the car, much less anything about their motives. When cops engage in this sort of guesswork, it's called "profiling."

In fact, the ABC report notes that one of the researchers, Dacher Keltner, is a counterexample of his own stereotype: "He is a super-achiever in two areas reflecting status: He is highly educated and holds a prestigious job. And he's hardly poor, but when it comes to vehicular status, he flunks. He drives a 13-year-old Subaru, and his wife drives a 17-year-old Honda Civic."
Taranto's observation is correct but the error on the part of the researcher, Dacher Keltner, is pretty egregious. It is clear, from a simple logic position that all that can be said from the study is that people who drive expensive cars were more likely to fail to comply with rules of the road.

There are two straight forward and seemingly naive errors that the researcher apparently glossed over. 1) The assumption that those who drive expensive looking cars are necessarily rich, and 2) The assumption that those who are rich are therefore motivated by greed. You could only make these sorts of naive mistakes if you are sheltered by powerful biases and neglect of general knowledge.

Do the rich drive expensive cars? Well, it is complicated. Do we mean rich as in income or rich as in wealthy? What we do know from Thomas J. Stanley's research is that the wealthy, who may or may not have high incomes, on average strongly favor lower cost cars and keep them longer than the average citizen. They also tend to live low consumption lives. Who buys expensive model cars? It tends to be some portion of the wealthy, but in general it is the aspiring but not yet wealthy who have high incomes.

And are the wealthy greedy? Again, based on philanthropy (time and money), the evidence is ambiguous to negative.

What Keltner is more likely revealing is that those who are status motivated, high consumption individuals are less attuned to the law and their fellow citizen than those of a more humble frame of mind (which includes many millionaires next door). But finding that status seeking aspirationals are contemptuous of others is not quite as sexy a finding as that rich people are greedy. Don't let facts get in the way of pre-established opinions.

Ameliorate or exacerbate?

In A whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution, I point out how our discussions about income inequality so reprehensively omit any discussion of churn. There are two issues that I think are crucial in any perspective on any nation's income inequality. First is the churn rate. If everyone is moving in and out of different income levels, it argues that there is no cabal garnering and protecting elite powers restricted from everyone else. Second is the intergenerational chronic poverty level, i.e. poverty arising from endemic behaviors or practices that preclude escape from economic poverty.

In the blog post above, research by Mark Rank indicates that over a working lifetime, 12% of the US population will find themselves among the 1% in income for at least a year, and fully 73% will be in the top quintile for at least a year. That's a pretty impressive churn rate. Since there are no international measures of income churn rates though, it is hard to know how that compares to anyone else.

Measuring Poverty by Kiva Loaner passing along information from the US Census Bureau that begins to shed light on the second issue, chronic poverty. All the material is from the Census Bureau report, Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Poverty, 2009–2011 by Ashley N. Edwards. Very interesting. Part of the challenge in conceptualizing poverty in the US is that absolute poverty exists but is rare and often related in tangled fashions to individual choices. Our relative rate hovers around 15% principally because the definition is tautologically relative. There is always a bottom 15%, no matter how much or little income they generate and regardless how much they receive in transfers from various support policies.

One way to get a look into poverty is to look at how long people spend in poverty, regardless of the absolute or relative level by which we define it. If we have 15% of the population who are always poor, we have a significant problem. If only 1% are chronically poor, then it is more manageable (though still possibly intractable).

The following chart indicates that while about 30% experienced poverty for two months during the peak of the Great Recession, only 3.5% were chronically in poverty over that period of 36 months.
Double click to enlarge.

Here is a view of chronic and episodic poverty by demographic group.

Really an interesting report throughout. My overall sense from the numbers is that we have about 1-3% of the population who are chronically poor, either disengaged from the economy or individually dysfunctional for a whole variety of potential reasons. On top of that we have another probably 10-15% who are economically fragile. They may not be in poverty for more than a few months at a time but they frequently oscillate in and out. I think those are probably two entirely different groups in terms of what might be the appropriate policies to help either elevate them out of chronic poverty or reduce the amount of episodic poverty they suffer. I think we have too long treated THE POOR as a statistical category with blunderbuss policies that probably as often exacerbate as ameliorate the problem.

Why has MIT economics risen to prominence so quickly

The field of homophilic affiliation keeps advancing. MIT’s rise to prominence in economics by Tyler Cowen.
The core question of MIT Economics Department’s history – why has MIT economics risen to prominence so quickly – requires an approach to history of economics that focuses on the role of the networks within which economists operate, their ideas diffuse, and gain scientific credit. By reconstructing the network of MIT economics Ph.Ds. and their advisors, this paper furnishes not just evidence of how MIT rose to prominence as documented by the numerous ties of Nobel Laureates, Clark Medalists, elected officials of the AEA or the Council of Economic Advisors to the MIT network. The MIT Economics Department is also revealed as a community of self-replicating economists who are to a large extent trained by a few key advisers who were mostly trained at MIT as well. MIT exhibits a large share of graduates who remain in American academia that is disproportionate to the number of graduates it has produced. It is hypothesized that this has been an important factor in MIT’s rise to prominence. On a methodological level this paper introduces prosopography or collective biography, a well-established historiographic method, to the field of history of economics.
Everyone wants the world to be Newtonian with action predictably preceding effect. But with all the non-linearities, chaos, and hidden feedback mechanisms, it doesn't work that way. Actions sometimes produce effect, sometimes not, sometimes not to the degree expected, sometimes they produce unexpected effects. Actions only create the possibilities and affect the probabilities of a human-system outcome, they rarely determine it.

Research on social networks (homophilic affiliation) sheds some light. See the comments section of the above article for alternate explanations.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Social status inequality

A very interesting insight in The other new French book on inequality by Tyler Cowen.
It is The Society of Equals, by Pierre Rosanvallon, and it is a transatlantic look at how the notion of inequality has changed over the last three centuries. It strikes me as the sort of book Crooked Timber would have a symposium on. Here is one good bit:
Thus there is a global rejection of society as it presently exists together with acceptance of the mechanisms that produce that society. De facto inequalities are rejected, but the mechanisms that generate inequality in general are implicitly recognized. I propose to call this situation, in which people deplore in general what they consent to in particular, the Bossuet paradox. This paradox is the source of our contemporary schizophrenia. It is not simply the result of a guilty error but has an epistemological dimension. When we condemn global situations, we look at objective social facts, but we tend to relate particular situations to individual behaviors and choices. The paradox is also related to the fact that moral and social judgments are based on the most visible and extreme situation (such as the gap between rich and poor), into which individuals project themselves abstract, whereas their personal behavior is concretely determined by narrower forms of justification.
Sounds like some interesting speculation that might be fruitful. Much of the current discussion of inequality is simply opportunistic political positioning rather than any serious exploration. Terms are ill defined, policies are undeveloped or irresponsible (either because they are advanced even knowing they don't work or because they are likely to have many unintended consequences which are not included in the calculations). Given that no one is able to quantify any real world negative consequence to current levels of inequality, this is currently much ado about nothing (though the trend towards increasing inequality serves as a call to better understanding the issue).

Key points raised in some of the linked materials.

There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust.


Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new “age of singularity” when “everyone wants to ‘be someone.’”” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:
The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.

As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”
The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.


The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the superrich from the merely rich and the middle class.
What I find interesting is that this creates the opportunity of solving the problem of status inequality locally. Find your community in which you can be valued by that which you can contribute.

Increase fertility among the rich

Every now and then, someone comes up with a deeply revealing perspective. All the chattering clerisy are enamored by Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a well researched economic history with deeply flawed policy recommendations. As I have mentioned, most of the fawning MSM reviews appear simply a sycophantic delight that some academic has mustered data that can be associated with an otherwise soundly discredited set of policy recommendations.

Piketty is concerned that the return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth, concludes that this will necessarily involve an increasing concentration of economic power among a select few, and recommends that the coercive power of the state to tax wealth (not income but wealth, i.e. an expropriation) is the solution. The first argument that r>g is debatable but with good evidence on both sides. The second argument is also debatable but for different reasons (all systems tend to concentrate power but whether there is a particular risk arising from r>g is unclear). The third argument, the recommendation for wealth taxes is widely discredited on an empirical basis even though it is a policy fondly sought in some ideological corners.

Alex Tabarrok brings an insightful alternative to the table in Two Surefire Solutions to Inequality by Alex Tabarrok. He starts from the premise that Piketty's argument is well founded. If you accept that inequality is an evil that needs to be eradicated and that it needs to be eradicated via government policy, he points out that there are alternative policies to that of simply taxing away the wealth.

The War on Poverty has proceeded for fifty years, touching at least three generations. It remains unclear to what extent that war has been successful.

Taxing wealth has very real and well documented risks. How long would it take for such a tax to reduce income inequality? No one is saying, but likely on the same order of time as the War on Poverty, particularly given the concerns about the negative consequences of wealth taxes. In the same time frame, with much greater certainty of results and much less risk, there is an alternative policy.
Here is a surefire solution to inequality–Increase fertility among the rich. If the rich had more children, capital would grow more slowly across the generations and perhaps not at all. If r=4 and g=2 then capital doubles as a share of the economy in 35 years (using the rule of 70). That figure is actually too low as it assumes that the wealthy save all of their capital income but let’s stick with 35 years and call that a generation. Wealth per rich person, however, only doubles if every wealthy family has just 2 children. If every wealthy family has 4 children, wealth per person doesn’t increase and so inequality does not increase even when r>g. If the wealthy consume about 20% of their capital income (still a very high savings rate) and have just 3 children then again we have approximate balance and no increase in inequality over the generations. With a more reasonable figure on r-g or with more children, wealth per person actually declines.
This is a policy grounded on simple maths. There is a second policy, which is likely just as beneficial (and which Tabarrok does not mention) - cut the fertility rate among the poorest.

Now anything that smacks of demographic management has the whiff of eugenics and is anathema to anyone with an ounce of fondness for life and liberty. But Tabarrok's recommendation has a lot to support it. It is necessarily true. It averts the negative consequences of expropriation. It sustains economic growth. It improves life quality for everyone. Why wouldn't you do this (other than the philosophical objection to intrusive government, a concern little apparent among Piketty supporters)?

Obviously, this is not about outcomes. An alternative policy that is more likely to work beneficially for everyone is not the objective. The objective appears to be to punish those that the supportive clerisy envy and to increase the scope of centralized power with which they might be involved. That's a harsh reading, but I am afraid not far from the likely truth. Tabarrok's alternative recommendation, which I assume is offered in jest, highlights the logical paradox of the Piketty supporters and helps shed light on real objectives versus the feel good bromides that have been advanced.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Incredible derelicition

Fascinating. Lack of Order: The Erosion of a Once-Great Force for Integration by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The subheading of the article says it all.
The federal government’s vigilance in enforcing the court-backed desegregation of the country’s schools is a shadow of what it once was.
There are two separate issues. One is related to segregation. To what extent does it still exist? What are the consequences? How can it be eradicated? Can it be eradicated without harming achievement? Can it be eradicated without busing? Can it be eradicated given the evidence of self-resegregation on the part of the public? Etc.

But there is a process issue as well which is what the article focuses on. If we accept that segregation exists and that it is harmful and that it is feasible to "solve", then how well is the federal government and the DOJ doing in executing the powers and authority that were vested in them to do exactly that? This article suggests that the answer is that the government has done an abysmal job. Were this a process in a corporation, all the associated executives would be fired for dereliction.

The article is damning. That said, I wonder if the atrocious outcome is not rooted in a societal throwing up of the hands. There was an article a number of years ago, Money And School Performance: Lessons from the Kansas City Desegregation Experiment by Paul Ciotti, which looked at the effectiveness of a massive effort to upgrade educational results through spending and another article looking at the unintended consequences of busing, How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration by Tanner Colby.

If spending doesn't fix the problem and forced busing doesn't address it and if the population resegregates faster than you can regulate, then what are the other realistic options?

My take away from this sterling article by Hannah-Jones is two-fold. 1) Government efficacy is atrocious regardless of intent. Housekeeping is required which would likely both reduce costs and increase effectiveness. 2) If top down mandated efforts are not working, then reorient to focus on the local level. Focus on goals that benefit everyone and help the local authorities achieve those goals.

I think the article is also a useful reminder that once we have settled on a course of action, it is never safe to assume that the desired outcome has actually been achieved. Of course there is no segregation in America, we made it illegal fifty years ago. Well . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2014

People using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas

From Your Morals Depend on Language by Albert Costa, Alice Foucart, et al.

The abstract:
Should you sacrifice one man to save five? Whatever your answer, it should not depend on whether you were asked the question in your native language or a foreign tongue so long as you understood the problem. And yet here we report evidence that people using a foreign language make substantially more utilitarian decisions when faced with such moral dilemmas. We argue that this stems from the reduced emotional response elicited by the foreign language, consequently reducing the impact of intuitive emotional concerns. In general, we suggest that the increased psychological distance of using a foreign language induces utilitarianism. This shows that moral judgments can be heavily affected by an orthogonal property to moral principles, and importantly, one that is relevant to hundreds of millions of individuals on a daily basis.

How would they have connected the dots?

I just posted about Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the Nation, January 17, 1961 by Dwight D. Eisenhower. I mentioned this line.
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations.
What were the four major wars among great nations Eisenhower references between 1900-1960? World War I and II obviously. Almost certainly the Korean War is the third. But what about the fourth? Eisenhower adds the rider that "Three of these involved our own country." The challenge is that the fourth does not involve the US. That probably rules out the Russian Civil War (1918-21) which involved a number of the European powers but also 13,00 American troops in Archangelsk and Vladivostok.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) might be a candidate as that famously served as a precursor proxy for the major European powers pre-WWII. While America was officially committed to non-intervention, some 2,800 private citizens volunteered and served in the Lincoln Brigade. So possibly a candidate.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)? Certainly that involved great powers, but only the two of them. As the Russo-Japanese War has never had much currency in the US outside military historians, I rather doubt that was what Eisenhower was alluding to in his speech.

Maybe its the Suez Crisis (1956-57) which involved Egypt on one side and France, Britain, and Israel on the other, with the US, the USSR and the UN, working in the background to defuse the situation.

Possibly he is alluding to the Cold War. It certainly meets the criteria of involving multiple great nations. But it is a metaphorical war and fits poorly in the class of other wars among great powers (WWI, WWII, Korea) which Eisnehower references. A possibility but seemingly an unlikely one.

There are multiple other candidates. The Chinese Civil War (1945-50), the Vietnam Civil War (1955-64), maybe the Indian Partition (1947-48). However, all these, while often involving various great nations, were all fundamentally internal, civil wars, i.e. not directly conflicts between great nations.

So what was the major war between great nations between 1900 and 1960 which did not involve the US but which an informed audience in 1961 would instantly recognize? I guess I will have to go with the Russo-Japanese war as best meeting the criteria but I am pretty confident that is not what Eisenhower had in mind. An interesting mystery and a great example of how hard it is to recapture the zeitgeist or mindset of a time past.

But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration

I have long been aware of the concept of the military-industrial complex, introduced by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address at the close of his Presidency in 1961 (Eisenhower's Farewell Address to the Nation, January 17, 1961 by Dwight D. Eisenhower). I have never had particular call in the past to read the original speech. Having just done so, there is a lot more meat in there than just the military-industrial complex. A lot of delightful values on display that are too infrequent in public discourse today.

This seems delightful but dated:
My own relations with Congress, which began on a remote and tenuous basis when, long ago, a member of the Senate appointed me to West Point, have since ranged to the intimate during the war and immediate post-war period, and finally to the mutually interdependent during these past eight years.

In this final relationship, the Congress and the Administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the nation well rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward. So my official relationship with Congress ends in a feeling on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together.
Sometimes there are little items that catch your attention.
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations.
That was in January 1961. In less than a generation, the central ideological struggle against the "hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method" would be over, the wall torn down, totalitarian subjugation at least temporarily discredited. What a sea change.
Progress toward these noble goals [alluded to earlier in the speech: to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations] is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle – with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.
We are so accustomed to bait and switch, platitudes and cliches that it is refreshing to read the words of a leader with a clear understanding that liberty is the foundation on which all other goals are achieved.

Eisenhower cautions:
Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in the newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.
He then follows this with two specific examples. The one we remember well, be alert to an emerging military-industrial complex. We took note and at least in the context of the Cold War, were somewhat effective in putting some reigns on the beast.

But now, post-Soviet, I wonder, in fact I am pretty confident, that we have lost a sense of Eisenhower's larger warning. The military-industrial complex was simply a specific instance.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
"The total influence" is what we have lost perspective on. It's not the military-industrial complex which represents the internal threat so much as it is the corporate-government complex. Large corporations, with their capacity to marshall great resources and government regulation in tandem together, can frequently work in opposition to the stated will and benefit of the citizenry. We now call it crony capitalism and it is a festering issue we haven't really grappled with because it entails a lot of undesirable trade-offs.

Eisenhower drew attention to two threats. One was the military-industrial complex. What was the other? Not the corporate-government complex, but the academia-government complex. That never got much attention but is now kind of front of mind given student debt and advocacy driven policy that is reliant on the academy.
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system – ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
Ethanol fraud, climategate, alternate energy, education reform, etc. All issues of grave moment and critical to our future. And all now muddied by advocacy research mixed with crony capitalism. We do see public policy becoming "the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

Finally, Eisenhower warns of something else that has come to pass. The indulgence of our current policy fads, whims, and consumptive desires at the expense of our nation and our progeny.
Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
A wise man was that fellow from Denison, Texas.

Connectivity, transparency, agency, choices, accountability, responsibility.

From a review of Niall Ferguson's The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, a book which I happen to have by my bedside, waiting to be read.

Niall Ferguson belongs to a whole class of author's who puzzle me. Or rather, my approach to them puzzles me. Niall Ferguson, Steven Pinker, Jan Morris, John McPhee, Garrison Keillor, John Keegan are all authors whose topics and writing fascinate me. I buy their books. And then I don't read them. Well. I have read at least one or more by each of them. But all the others, I usually read a few pages, park it for a while to come back to. And then never do. Or at least not yet. Between those six authors, I have 35 books of theirs, just over half a dozen have I read, and all the rest are waiting. But thats by the by.

In the review:
What the financial crisis shows is that, though the market can go through decades of growth, the world financial system is, indeed, fragile in ways not observed by market players. As a champion of markets and their ability to self-correct, I don’t make such a concession lightly. What became clear during the crisis is that large, interconnected financial institutions were holding securities based on underlying assets whose value was not transparent. When prices and quantities are not transparent, markets do not work. And in finance, where so many of the assets consist of promises for future payment, this can create havoc in very short order.

No regulation or set of regulations or lack of regulations can bear the primary blame for that inherent fragility. Ferguson is right that the complex modern economy is best governed by simple rules—rather than by the hubris of government officials who think they can match that complexity with a correspondingly complex set of rules. But two questions remain: what rules, and who is to oversee it all? This book shows why the simple blame-deregulation story is not convincing, but there are so many rules and actors involved in this saga that the case Ferguson wants to make that over-regulation was the primary cause of the crisis falls short. There were just too many moving pieces to account for in such a small amount of space.
Connectivity, transparency, agency, choices, accountability, responsibility. They keep coming back to bite us. We know they are important but we keep not understanding how important and in what ways.