Friday, October 31, 2014

My father smoked a pipe

To my great delight, Penguin is rereleasing all the Georges Simenon Maigret mysteries, some 75 in number. Simenon was extraordinarily prolific, having written some 400 books in his lifetime, of which the Maigret series were but a subset. Jake Kerridge discusses the series in In praise of Georges Simenon's French detective.

I came across Simenon in a used bookstore some time in the past five years and have read perhaps a dozen since my first discovery. My enjoyment has been, I think, primarily due to Simenon's beautifully effective descriptions of ephemera; the rain on a particular Parisian autumn day, something about someone's clothing, a smell in a restaurant. I also enjoy the little insights to how things used to be back in 1930's France.

I have so far purchased the two books, Pietr the Latvian and The Late Monsieur Gallet, the first and third in the series.

In the first, Pietr the Latvian, the writing is a little rougher than it will become and there is more focus on Maigret and his physical attributes than will be the case later. By the third book, The Late Monsieur Gallet, Simenon has hit the stride and style that will be familiar through the rest of the series.

Here are some passages that caught my attention from Pietr the Latvian. First an example of Simenon's eye for the ephemeral detail.
The gurgle from Maigret's pipe was getting so annoying that the inspector took a swatch of chicken feathers from another drawer, cleaned the shaft, then opened the stove door and flung the soiled feathers in the fire.
My father smoked a pipe. It was occasionally my job to clean the stems/shafts of his pipe collection. It was fascinating. The dark, sticky tar residue in the stem, the acrid odor. I used a pipe cleaner for the task. My father always had packs of pipe cleaners, perhaps eight inches long, a soft fuzzy clothlike substance covering a bendy wire. On rainy days we occasionally took out a pack and made wire animal forms, planes, cars or whatever else caught our imagination, bending them in to shape, twisting them together to make longer lengths.

It never occurred to me to wonder what pipe smokers used to clean pipes before there were pipe cleaners. Chicken feathers make perfect sense.

And then there's this complex description with details not normally noticed or recorded but also delivered in a fashion that wouldn't pass muster today.
Maigret was looking without thinking at Anna Gorskin's ankles and noticed that, as her mother feared, the young woman already had dropsy. He scalp was visible through her thinning hair, which was in a mess. Her black dress was dirty. And there was a distinct shadow on her upper lip.

All the same she was a good-looking woman, in a common, feral way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks

Simonides of Ceos, quoted by Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium 3.346f.
Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not so many critical theorists and moral relativists back then

From The River War by Winston Churchill. First published in 1899 (his second book), this is an account of the reconquest of Sudan during the Mahdi War. As usual, Churchill's language and rendering are muscular and kinetic. Agree or not, he forces you to engage with his argument. Despite being more than a century old, his argument echoes today though in more circumloquacious fashion, with greater delicacy, and greater obfuscation. The facts have not changed all that much but the interpretation remains contested. Perhaps there are fewer willing to take on faith that which Churchill clearly does - that on balance the gift of the mindset of the Enlightenment has been beneficial over time and worldwide. Not so many critical theorists and moral relativists back then.
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property - either as a child, a wife, or a concubine - must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ms. Boxill is now director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics

From Did Wainstein Report Whitewash High-Level Culprits In UNC Cheating Scandal? by James Marshall Crotty.

The article is about the horrible scandal at UNC Chapel Hill documented in a recent report covering the University's pervasive and sustained cheating in order to maintain academically failing athletes in sports teams generating revenue for the University. This is one of those scandals where everyone up the chain ought to be resigning, but because it is academia, and just as in government, a few local cronies will be thrown under the bus and all the rest remain in their sinecures.

It is hard to even begin to comprehend the ethical depravity of those leading our premier universities but this particular example provides some sense of how deep is the rot.
However, one group did know plenty about the scheme and actively tried to protect and preserve it. Paid counselors in the school’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) were tasked with doing whatever it took to keep Tar Heel athletes eligible, especially those in “revenue” sports like football and basketball. To that end, these counselors not only “steered” athletes to the AFAM department and did homework for them, but they regularly alerted Crowder and Nyang’oro about the grades that each student-athlete required in order to “remain academically or athletically eligible.”

In one galling email exchange from September 23, 2008 — reported in the New York Times – Jeanette Boxill, then academic counselor for the UNC women’s basketball team, wrote the following to Crowder:

“Hi Debby,

Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs. I didn’t look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure from where!

Thanks for whatever you can do.”

Ms. Boxill is now director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics.
Truly astounding.

Authors and publishers are much less diversified in their interests than are readers

An interesting comment on the war between Amazon and Hachette from Tyler Cowen in What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?

Cowen is approaching this from an economic theory perspective and trying to reconcile empirical evidence with economic theory. Does it matter to the consumer that a major, but dominant, retailer is boycotting a particular publisher, particularly when the switching costs are close to zero?

The answer is unclear but this conclusion was attention getting.
It is fine to argue that Amazon is being unfair to some authors and to object on ethical grounds. The economist also should add that readers don’t seem to mind very much. Most of the objections I am seeing are coming from authors and publishers, who of course in this sector are much less diversified in their interests than are readers.
Most of the forums to which I belong related to children's books are dominated by critics, authors, publishers and social justice advocates. It has long struck me how divergent are their interests to the interests of parents seeking good books for their children.

But Cowen's observation is an interesting additional insight. Publishers and authors have interests that are not only different from parents but also, in certain respects, interests which are much less diverse.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Atlantic City as a warning to all those who still refuse to learn

When I returned from overseas as a teenager, to get back into the American education system, I attended a prep school in New Jersey in the late 1970's. There was some ballot measure being put before the electorate at that time related to gambling in Atlantic City. I recall a conversation with a Professor Jackson in which he identified the benefits of such an action. These included an influx of investment, the rehabilitation of existing urban infrastructure, a catalyst for sustained economic growth and other blandishments.

But Professor Jackson was an honest man and he was more concerned about the downside than the possible, but not guaranteed, upsides: corruption, regulatory capture, escalating demands for additional subsidies, throwing good money after bad, failure once the subsidies went away, probability of not delivering on the commitments being made by developers, etc.

It looks like Professor Jackson was prescient those nearly forty years ago according to this sad post mortem, Detroit With a Boardwalk: Why Atlantic City is dying by George Anastasia.
Today, the city itself is in critical condition and the words of the former mayor could serve as its obituary. Greed has done Atlantic City in.

Four of its 12 casinos have closed in the last year, including the Revel, the newest and glitziest, despite a $260 million, taxpayer-funded gift courtesy of Gov. Chris Christie. A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal, is on the brink. The gaming industry—proponents never call it gambling—has lost nearly 8,000 jobs since the beginning of the year and its revenue, which hit a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, is down nearly 50 percent. Add to that the city’s $65 million budget shortfall, pending layoffs of as many as 300 city workers and a tax base in free fall.

Sure, the still-sluggish U.S. economy is a factor. The loss of the East Coast gambling monopoly that Atlantic City enjoyed for nearly 20 years is another. Poor planning, lack of foresight and the failure to expand the city’s attractions beyond casinos are part of the mix. Even acts of God played a role: Though the city wasn’t devastated in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy the way other Jersey Shore towns were, tourism plunged in the immediate aftermath at a time when the city could least afford it.

But there is something else at play, something in the city’s DNA that is painfully obvious to anyone who’s lived or worked there.

Even during its halcyon days, Atlantic City was an enterprise built around blue smoke and mirrors.
Read the whole thing. All the ills Professor Jackson forecast are on display: corruption, regulatory capture, escalating special pleading, etc.

But it is not just Atlantic City, though they are probably one of the type specimens. Everyone, including voters, wants something for nothing. Politicians are there to figure out how to appear to provide something for nothing and how to hide the real costs. It is always about stealing from the future (bonds that won't be easily repaid), stealing from the present (displacing some residents to benefit others), regulatory capture and rent seeking and just plain old fashioned fraud and corruption.

The history of such projects is almost uniformly dismal with just enough occasional successes to keep politicians coming back for more. Hope springs eternal for those seeking to relieve the productive citizenry of their earnings through coercive confiscation and taxation.

The city in which I live is rife with significant municipal projects characterized by shaky finances and dubious prospects: hundreds of millions being spent on a rails-to-trails conversion that is already coming apart at the financial seams, a wasteful downtown streetcar of some hundreds of millions for a 1.8 mile run in an area where few people visit, and a football stadium subsidized by citizen's taxes, being built at the same time that the baseball franchise has fled the metropolis owing to financial exploitation by the city's politicians.

We keep proving that these white elephant projects don't deliver on their promises, but putting all that taxpayer money in a municipal "development fund" bucket is just too tempting to stop.

Every successful system accumulates parasites.

From Thomas Ray
Every successful system accumulates parasites.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lucas's Critique as an appeal to authority

Interesting: The Lucas critique from Wikipedia.
Robert Lucas' work on macroeconomic policymaking, argues that it is naive to try to predict the effects of a change in economic policy entirely on the basis of relationships observed in historical data, especially highly aggregated historical data.

The basic idea pre-dates Lucas' contribution (related ideas are expressed as Campbell's Law and Goodhart's Law), but in a 1976 paper, Lucas drove to the point that this simple notion invalidated policy advice based on conclusions drawn from large-scale macroeconometric models. Because the parameters of those models were not structural, i.e. not policy-invariant, they would necessarily change whenever policy (the rules of the game) was changed. Policy conclusions based on those models would therefore potentially be misleading. This argument called into question the prevailing large-scale econometric models that lacked foundations in dynamic economic theory. Lucas summarized his critique:
"Given that the structure of an econometric model consists of optimal decision rules of economic agents, and that optimal decision rules vary systematically with changes in the structure of series relevant to the decision maker, it follows that any change in policy will systematically alter the structure of econometric models."
The Lucas critique is, in essence, a negative result. It tells economists, primarily, how not to do economic analysis. The Lucas critique suggests that if we want to predict the effect of a policy experiment, we should model the "deep parameters" (relating to preferences, technology, and resource constraints) that are assumed to govern individual behavior: so-called "microfoundations." If these models can account for observed empirical regularities, we can then predict what individuals will do, taking into account the change in policy, and then aggregate the individual decisions to calculate the macroeconomic effects of the policy change.
Somewhat similar to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - You want to know two things accurately but have to choose between them.

Lucas' Critique also highlights a related issue. Or rather, there is a logical argument that describes this model of forecasting - the appeal to authority (example - Einstein said XYZ therefore it must be true). How often are forecasts essentially an appeal to historical authority. It's as if we were saying: I don't know why this happened in the past but it happened under these circumstances and I think it will happen again. That forecast may end up being accidentally true but it has no modelling integrity. If you don't understand root causes and causal relationships, your forecast is predicated on a lucky repetition of history.

The downside of the free market? It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.

Danger, Danger! Wikiquote patch ahead. I needed to check a quote of Milton Friedman's which took me to the Wikiquote page. Friedman is particularly dangerous because he was such a wonderful wordsmith with such a knack for translating complex ideas into accessible statements of eminent common sense. The quote I was seeking was:
A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it ... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom", 2002 edition, page 15 in Capitalism and Freedom
But you can't stop there. Or at least I can't. Here are some other selections.
The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the "rule of the game" and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom", 2002 edition, page 15 in Capitalism and Freedom


Fundamentally, there are only two ways of coordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion—the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals—the technique of the market place.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom" in Capitalism and Freedom


The key insight of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is misleadingly simple: if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it. Most economic fallacies derive from the neglect of this simple insight, from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.
- Ch. 1 "The Power of the Market", page 13 of Free to Choose


The proper role of government is exactly what John Stuart Mill said in the middle of the 19th century in On Liberty. The proper role of government is to prevent other people from harming an individual. Government, he said, never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual's own good.
- America's Drug Forum Interview


The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.


The problem in this world is to avoid concentration of power - we must have a dispersion of power.


One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.


Society doesn't have values. People have values.


The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.


There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.


Keynes was a great economist. In every discipline, progress comes from people who make hypotheses, most of which turn out to be wrong, but all of which ultimately point to the right answer. Now Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, set forth a hypothesis which was a beautiful one, and it really altered the shape of economics. But it turned out that it was a wrong hypothesis. That doesn't mean that he wasn't a great man!


There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.


Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated — a system of checks and balances.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

From criticism to censorship is a dangerously short road

Clickbaiting has gone mainstream in the vanishing mainstream media. The Washington Post has a relatively dense but narcoleptic piece from Alyssa Rosenberg, The culture wars are back, and this time, everyone can win. It is so substance free it is hardly worth commenting on, though the commenters themselves actually add some substance and humor.

Rosenberg's thesis is something along the lines of:
People believe media (plays, poems, books, songs, newspapers, movies, etc.) have content that affect peoples values and behaviors. Some believe those effects to be positive and some believe them to be negative. With technology and the internet, there is much more media than there ever was before. Lower barriers to entry mean that no-one has to be left out. This is a good thing.
I don't believe this thesis to be wrong, just not particularly useful or meaningful. Rosenberg does have some interesting observations but you have to persevere. Some quotes from the last half of the article give a flavor of the piece.
Just as culture itself is wildly diverse and fragmentary, the drive to examine culture through a political lens comes from a huge number of different constituencies, each with its own set of interests, priorities and internal debates.


Critics who are broadly aligned under political labels may have hugely differing interpretations of the same piece of culture and offer very different solutions to the problems they have identified.


For all these debates can be wearying, the new culture wars have been a tremendously exciting time. And I think it is no mistake that they come at a time of incredible growth and technical and creative innovation in pop culture.


Culture warriors on both sides of the aisle who want to wipe out the things that they find offensive seem poised to be as badly disappointed as the decency crusaders before them.


But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter.


The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.
Rosenberg does a good job of retailing vast tracts of popular culture but not such a good job of hiding her disdain for anyone of the non-progressive tribe. In the few areas of popular culture of which I have a modicum of awareness, I can see where she has made some rather egregious summaries that mischaracterize what is going on. Aware that we are all subjects of Gell-Mann Amnesia, I read the rest of her article with some skepticism.

Rather than engage with the absence of substance in the piece, it is much more fun to see what the commenters do. A few highlights:
Finnegans Father
10/9/2014 10:54 AM EDT
Most of this strikes me as a very good thing.

The gate keepers swept away, and an extremely wide diversity in what is offered, reflecting an extremely wide diversity in views of life.

Room for intellectual and thought-leader types to suggest avenues of criticism... but heartfelt debates among everyday people about what is and is not a reasonable criticism of content.

If you don't like this, I question your ultimate commitment to democratic ideals.

Yet, we know that there will be dirty play around the margins, people who will travel from the reasonable "That's crap and here's why not to watch" to the unacceptable "Here's a plan to forcibly silence what I don't like." The trouble is that the road from the former to the latter is littered with marginal tactics, tying particular societal evils to particular culture. Reasonable cultural criticism, but with the goal of censorship. Both the left and the right have such histories.

10/9/2014 1:13 AM EDT
what a tome of an article. I'm still looking for the part where I learn "how all of us can win" in the culture wars.

10/8/2014 7:18 PM EDT
Not for the first time Ms Rosenberg has described a malignant wasteland and declared it art. At least the column illustrates how deeply the media has become enmeshed in the creation of a truly appalling popular culture throughout the postindustrial world.

10/8/2014 5:11 PM EDT
This lengthy Ph.D dissertation courtesy of The Washington Post.

Readers tip - When the headline and the very last sentence are the same, you can bet there's not much new in between.

10/8/2014 5:02 PM EDT
Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.
Holy smokes. I trust Ms Rosenberg took a history class or two to go along with journalism? Every generation has gone through similar "convulsions". the 50s, rock and roll, Lenny Bruce, the 60s (when I was coming of age) was filled with the same arguments and fuss. Not sure we are all that different today.
LikeReportReplyShareIgnore User
10/8/2014 5:29 PM EDT
But it's HER generation, so the others don't matter.
10/8/2014 2:31 PM EDT
This rather tiresome article misses the biggest shift in the culture wars; the rise of victimhood. In the 1970s the boundaries of propriety were pushed because it profited media to titilate; the idea was "We show what sells; if you don't like it, tune out." This worked because no one claimed that offense to their sensibilities was actual harm.

These days though, people claim victimhood--that is, actual injury--if they are not adequately represented, or are unflatteringly represented. You don't here Hollywood saying "we'd make more shows with sympathetic lesbian characters if lesbians bought more of whatever our advertisers are selling." The rush to victimhood, and its accompanying desire to punish or boycott all offenses, is the real injury to our society.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Epistemologically without value and yet irrisistibly alluring

Sometimes you come across something that is indisputably meaningless but also indisputably fun. For example, Your Name on a Liberal to Conservative Spectrum from Crowdpac.

From the article, Here Are The Most Conservative And Liberal Names In America by Katherine Miller.
Crowdpac, a nonpartisan group, focuses on how money and policy work in politics. The group scores all donors who have made two or more campaign contributions since 1980. Using that algorithm — and a cut-off of names with at least 1,000 donations made to avoid unusual names and outliers — Crowdpac built a tool to show how conservative or liberal first names are.


You’ll notice there is a very stark gender divide! The liberal names generally sound like a group of women in their late 20s; the conservative names sound like the members of a large bluegrass band from the 1930s. This makes sense: Women are more likely to be Democrats, for one thing, and the liberal names also generally represent younger Americans, while the conservative names generally skew older.
A somewhat murky methodology or algorithm generating a likely meaningless list that has no apparent use. But you, or at least I, can't help but run the names of your nearest and dearest through the site to see how "liberal" or "conservative" they are.

Political statistics

Very interesting. It has long been a staple belief in some conservative circles that Democrats manipulate vote counting at the margin. This attitude is reflected in the adage "You can't just win. You have to beat them by the margin of fraud." It has also been assumed that Democrats' objection to voter ID and other efforts to shore up the integrity of the voting system were motivated by Democrats' desire to maintain some flexibility for winning narrow contests. I have always assumed that while this is not an unreasonable argument, it was likely simply a function of observer bias. That Republicans see the close races they lose but don't focus on the close races the Democrats lose.

The accusation took on a little more substance in the past ten years. I think it was a governor's race out in Oregon or Washington where the Republican won by a narrow margin. After three recounts, he had lost. Something similar happened with Al Franken up in Minnesota. Still, it seemed reasonable that it might simply be sour grapes.

Or not, as it now emerges.

From Do Democrats Always Win Close Statewide Elections? by Dan McLaughlin.
To get a sense of the answer, I took a look at all the statewide Senate and governor’s races from 1998 through 2013 (thanks to Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics for a big assist with the data) as well as all the statewide results in the presidential elections during that period. Let’s begin with the very closest races, those decided by less than one percentage point. There have been 27 such races since 1998, and Democrats have won 20 out of 27
You would expect the outcomes to be 50:50 but they are 74:26 in favor of the Democrats. So maybe there is an issue.

There are all sorts of rationals you can come up with to explain such a disparate impact but they all seem fairly improbable or anemic. And maybe it is still just a numerical quirk. It is a small population of data points. What would happen if you added in contested House seats, would you get the same results?

UPDATE: Well, asked and answered. From the Washington Post a few days after I posted this: Could non-citizens decide the November election? by Jesse Richman and David Earnest. Their evidence is by no means conclusive but is strongly indicative that there is material voter fraud and that it is skews very strongly in favor of Democrats.

The upshot is that 1) there is strong evidence that tight races where a few votes one way or another can mean the difference between winning and losing, break disproportionately towards Democrats and 2) there is suggestive evidence that that skewing is facilitated by voter fraud, at least in part by non-citizens voting. That evidence is consistent with the supposition that Democrat's objection to voter ID laws may be motivated as much by self-interest as it is by purported principle.

Almost every large firm or corporation has a person inside the IRS

From Whistleblowers: IRS Officials Behind ‘Fraudulent’ Multi-Billion Dollar Corporate Tax Giveaways by Paul Caron. Who knows whether this is an issue with merit or might merely be a storm in a teacup. It is certainly consonant with the behavior of the IRS in other recent scandals.

Regardless of the merits of the accusation, it is interesting as an example of good intentions gone astray in complex systems, (as virtually all human systems are). I am currently reading Doing Bad by Doing Good by Christopher Coyne which is a pretty rich catalogue of examples and a reasonable explication of why good intentions so often lead to bad outcomes.

The IRS is accused of avoiding bringing big cases against large corporations while at the same time mercilessly pursuing small businesses and private individuals. The reason is ascribed to a well intentioned change in the late 1990's.
[T]he private sector lawyer and ex-IRS attorney explained that since 1998, IRS restructuring has focused on bringing in “outside people.” This led to the employment of an extra layer of executives who were previously “partners from big accounting firms.” Citing active IRS criminal agents, the ex-IRS attorney said: “Almost every large firm or corporation has a person inside the IRS. It’s a revolving door, with the top two or three management layers all from big accounting and law firms, and this is why they won’t work big billion-dollar cases criminally. Private bar attorneys are, in effect, controlling the IRS. It’s a type of corruption – that’s the word used by one IRS agent I’m in touch with whose case was shut down by higher ups without cause.”
I vaguely recollect this issue. I think the intended change was meant to bring more cutting edge talent to theIRS as well as a stronger awareness of real-world accounting and tax issues. The hoped for outcome was better cases against large corporations, more wins, higher yields, and more revenue to the Government. Not a bad argument or intention but in hindsight you can see why the good intention might have led to an unintended and bad outcome.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Only 20% of American jobs are even mildly strenuous

There has been a marked increase in national obesity in the past forty years, not only in the US but worldwide. You see documentaries from the 1940s-1960s and ordinary people on the street are slim. What is the cause for the rise in obesity? Changed governmental dietary advice, access to fresh food, preferences for carbs, loss of the tradition of family meals, over reliance on fast food? There are lot's of popular theories. Everyone agrees we are more sedentary than in the past but that observation is offered without qualification.

From Working hours: Get a life—or get fat from The Economist.
So why do long hours result in weight gain? Only 20% of American jobs are even mildly strenuous, compared to 50% in 1960. In 1960 a tenth of the American workforce was involved in agriculture, but today it's more like 1%. More time at the desk means less movement. Busy people may have less time to prepare good meals, instead choosing a take-away. (Management consultants, in my experience at least, tend to be rather knowledgeable about fancy restaurants near them that also deliver). They exercise less. And workaholics sleep less: inadequate shut-eye is associated with weight gain.
50% to 20% of people with jobs that are mildly strenuous - that's a pretty big drop.

Parenting matters much more than parental income.

A marvelously brief summary of the state of play as to child development and life outcomes from Skills and Scaffolding by Nobel laureate James Heckman.

His list of what we know (and my translations in brackets):
1. Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills.
2. Important skills are not innate "traits" solely acquired by genetic inheritance.
3. For skill development, timing matters. (There are periods in their development when children are especially amenable to trait acquisition)
4. The early years are the most effective period for investments in both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
5. Successful adolescent interventions largely operate through promoting character skills.
6. Skills beget skills. (The Goldilocks effect/the Matthew Effect. There is a cascading effect on early skill acquisition)
7. The development of skills takes place within a vital "scaffolding." (You have to modulate delivery to what a child is able to absorb)
8. Credit constraints are not very important.
The last item is probably worth quoting in full as it is a hoary standby for all SJWs. The belief that income determines outcomes (as opposed to parenting practices) is one of those seductively logical assumptions that is so appealing that people rarely look at the actual evidence. In addition, it plays to the near universal inability to distinguish between correlation and causation.
8. Credit constraints are not very important. There is a strong empirical relationship between educational attainment and parental income. However, parental income is a proxy for many attributes of the parental environment. The causal evidence of an importance role for credit constraints is weak. Parenting matters much more than parental income.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Suddenly, an earsplitting roar of thunder rends the air.

A learning vignette.

Back in the late 1960s, when I was about seven or eight, my father had business in Norway and took us along with him. I think it must have been early spring as there was still deep drifts of snow when we were up in the mountains. We visited Stavanger, Oslo and other places, saw the Viking ships and the Kon-Tiki, were exposed to a cuisine more dominated by fish and cheese than we were accustomed to.

I recall with some clarity, being shown around Oslo harbor. I don't know who the Norwegian friend of my father's was, but he was recounting Norway's experience during World War II as a proud, independent nation far outgunned by the invading Germans. He drew our attention to a stone fort on a small island in the harbor and related the following story as best I recollect.
The Germans invaded several places along Norway's long coast, not just here in Oslo, but this was the main invasion point. Their fleet was led by a battleship and dozens of other ships. We didn't have a chance. Our air force was out of commission and there were hardly any Norwegian troops. We did have that old fort in the harbor from the turn of century (circa 1900). The guns were ancient and the fort was more for show than a real military installation. The artillery had been plugged with cement long ago.

The night before the German fleet arrived, a small group of Norwegian patriots rowed out to the fort. They unplugged the cannon and searched around and found some old shells. They knew they would likely only be able to get off one shot, that their aim was likely to be poor, and the shells likely to be duds. But they were patriots and even if there was not much they could do, they wanted to do the little they could.

The morning of the invasion, as the German fleet sailed in, the Norwegian patriots sighted the cannon on the German battleship. Fully expecting to die for their efforts, they fired the cannon. Imagine their astonishment! Not only did the shell hit the battleship, not only was the shell not a dud, but the shell hit the German magazine. The explosion was massive, the battleship capsized and sank within a few minutes, taking more than a thousand German occupation troops and much of the leadership to the bottom of the harbor.
That's the story I remember from nearly fifty years ago, on a cool but sunny spring day in Oslo Fjord. I was struck by it then and it has remained with me since. The tragedy of Norway, the patriotism, the miracle. It was a variant of the King Bruce and the Spider story - keep trying and no matter how long the odds, you may still succeed.

I have read much World War II history over the years, lived in Sweden for a number of years and know much of their history. I have seen reference to the sinking of the German flagship at the beginning of the invasion of Norway. For all that, I never got around, till recently, to reading a detailed account of WWII in Scandinavia. I am currently reading Battles for Scandinavia by John R. Elting.

So how does that long ago story stack up with the facts? Here is Elting's account.
Admiral Kummetz, leading the Naval units bound for Oslo, was still eyeing the Oscarsborg Fortress in Oslo Fjord at 4:21 on the morning of April 9 when suddenly a lone searchlight blazed out from the mainland on the opposite shore, bathing the flagship in ghostly white. At point-blank range the huge guns of the fortress opened up; 700-pound shells crashed into the Blücher's port side and then into the Lützow just behind her. Simultaneously came another blast from the mainland battery at Drobak, damaging both ships on their starboard sides. The Blücher's steering gear and aircraft hangar were wrecked by the first shots, and she blundered forward erratically while flames fed by aviation fuel raged aft. They burned away the fog, revealing a torpedo battery built into Oscarsborg Fortress. It had been there for fifty years without showing up on the German charts.

In discounting Oscarsborg as a threat, Admiral Kummetz had not reckoned with the character of Colonel Birger Eriksen, its commander. Eriksen gave his gunners one simple order: Fire. Two of the ancient torpedoes ran straight to their mark and exploded on contact, reducing the brand-new Blücher to a floating inferno.

Captain Kurt Zoepffel, who was conning the Blücher at that moment, recorded: "Suddenly, an earsplitting roar of thunder rends the air. The glare of guns pierces the darkness. I can see three flashes simultaneously. We are under fire from two sides; the guns seem only 500 yards away. Soon bright flames are leaping from the ship." In a moment the Blücher's store of bombs and ammunition began to explode, the engines stopped and the ship heeled over. When at last the order was given to abandon, wounded and dead men were already rolling into the water, and many of the landing troops were trapped below deck. Admiral Kummetz and some 1,300 survivors were rescued by the Norwegians, taken ashore and imprisoned. But more than 1,000 Germans died in the explosions and the flaming oil. For days after the incident, their blackened bodies could be seen floating in the fjord.

Just behind the Blücher, Captain August Thiele of the cruiser Lützow, having no idea that the museum-like fortress and its torpedoes could have been the source of the Blücher's explosive demise, concluded that the flagship had hit a minefield. For the safety of his and the remaining ships, Thiele ordered all engines reversed. Under his command, the Lützow and the remaining consorts retired 12 miles south to an alternate landing site at Sonsbukten, on the eastern shore of the fjord. The bid to take Oslo from the sea was lost.
My unknown father's friend's story, or my recollection of it, holds up pretty well all these years later. The Norwegian defense involved more men than I was aware and the fort, while old, had more armament than just a few plugged cannon. The Norwegian attack was more than a single lucky shot. The Blücher was a heavy cruiser, not a battleship.

But other than those details, the substance of the story remains the same. Patriots against long odds. Armaments that are ancient but effective. A forlorn hope attack. Unexpected success. Heavy German losses.

I don't think the differences between my father's friend's account and the historian's account are all that material. And the differences may not be because of my father's friend's recounting. I may not have understood it completely at the time, I may have consolidated the account into a more manageable form for a seven-eight year old's memory, details may have slipped my mind over the decades.

There's no great insight here, just my surprise that a long ago story should hold up so well. It seems to me an endorsement of that Garrison Keillor quote "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." Particularly, when it comes to storytelling. So whoever you were, Norwegian friend of my father's, Thank you.

If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally

Richard P. Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character
The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

They don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion, as demonstrated by the opinions they do have.

From Instapundit, AS THE ACADEMY CONTINUES TO EAT ITSELF. Reynolds is commenting on this article, Students: Transgender Woman Can’t Be Diversity Officer Because She’s a White Man Now by Katherine Timpf.

Reynolds comments:
Tip: When students go on about social justice, the proper response is to tell them you don’t care what they think, because they don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion yet. If universities were run on this principle, the 3% of students responsible for 98% of the idiocy would no longer have their destructive impact. Also, it’s true: They don’t know enough to have an intelligent opinion, as demonstrated by the opinions they do have.
In this instance, I think the critical Wellesley student's position is actually quite logical. Distasteful perhaps, but not illogical.
“I thought he’d do a perfectly fine job, but it just felt inappropriate to have a white man there,” the student behind the so-called “Campaign to Abstain” said.

“It’s not just about that position either,” the student added. “Having men in elected leadership positions undermines the idea of this being a place where women are the leaders.”
It has long been my view that Social Justice Warriors were simply assertive barbarians. They do not actually want tolerance, they want to force everyone to share their particular brand of intolerance.

More critically, tolerance requires a recognition of the fact that different people have different goals, prioritize those goals differently, and pursue those goals by various means. Social Justice Warriors want everyone to have the same goals, with the same priorities and wish to pursue them in the same fashion. Most crucially, the SJW wants to be the person setting the goals, priorities and actions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

That's odd

With the latest report that there is actually an Ebola Czar (Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response) who is just not present, it struck me that there seem to be a lot of female sacrificial lambs of late. As best I can tell, women make up perhaps 30% of the senior cabinet members and other senior positions in the administration. But they seem to make up a striking percentage of resignations owing to incompetence, malfeasance or other circumstances.
Lois Lerner thrown under the bus and pleading the fifth regarding illegal IRS targeting of citizen based on their political beliefs is one who still remains in the spotlight.

Then there is Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of Health and Human Services who "resigned" after the Obamacare debacle, including but not limited to the failed website rollout.

Then there is Nancy-Ann De­Parle, White House deputy chief of staff for policy, who led the initial work on the Obamacare website disaster. She was later replaced by Jeanne Lambrew who in turn was replaced.

Then there is the recent resignation of Secret Service Director, Julia Pierson, taking the fall for the breach of White House security which allowed an unbalanced intruder to race around in the residence until eventually tackled by an off duty Secret Service agent.

Hilary Clinton has resigned as Secretary of State following multiple failures (Arab Spring, Green Revolution, Libyan war, Iraq, rise of ISIS, loss of Yemen, China territorial expansion efforts, Russian invasion of Ukraine, etc.) including the loss of four Americans to terrorist attack in Benghazi.
Those names were just top of mind. Just statistical chance? What about other bungles. I went googling.

I had forgotten about the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson for a strikingly wasteful Las Vegas extravaganza "training" session held for some of her employees.

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, resigned, not because of any particular scandal, but certainly under a shadow.

Shirley Sherrod was thrown under the bus for some ill-considered morality tales to an NAACP conference.

There are some top males who have been forced out owing to dubious practices including Eric Shinseki who resigned as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs owing to the waiting list scandal; Keith Alexander, Director of the NSA for domestic spying, David Petraeus, Director of the CIA for an affair, General Stanley A. McChrystal for overly frank comments about the Commander in Chief.

It would take more time and effort than I am willing to invest to come up with both an exhaustive list of resignations under scandal conditions and to properly define categories for comparisons. I know there has been some sort of simmering scandal around EPA Gina McCarthy and secret email accounts or something like that.

Still, for only a 30% representation in the Administration leadership, there seems to be an overrepresentation in scandals. Are they just easy political sacrifices to make? More principled in accepting responsibility? Promoted beyond the Peter Principle and therefore more subject to missteps?

Someone, somewhere, sometime might dig in to it a bit, but it seems striking to me.

The claim that the current German dislike of inflation dates back to unique memories of Weimar hyperinflation is dubious

From Germany fact of the day by Tyler Cowen. Cowen points out that Germany has for long periods of time experienced inflation rates above 2% and in some years 6 and 7%.
The claim that the current German dislike of inflation dates back to unique memories of Weimar hyperinflation is dubious. Rightly or wrongly, today’s Germans associate high rates of inflation with wealth transfers away from Germany and toward other nations. More broadly, Germany is a more flexible country than outsiders often think, not always to the better of course.
There is an interesting discussion in the comments section about the historical events and current behaviors and decisions.
Ray Lopez October 18, 2014 at 3:46 am
TC’s claim about history is interesting. How much institutional memory does a country have? Perhaps even if present people don’t remember stuff that happened in the past, can a society function the way it does, due to history that nobody can remember? Sounds metaphysical, but here’s a real-life example. Some sociologists from France or Belgium went to the Congo a while ago, interviewed people, and found nearly none of them remember King Leopold of Belgium and the colonization of the Congo for rubber, at the end of the 19th century, as outlined in the best-seller “King Leopold’s Ghost (1998)” by Adam Hochschild . So a major traumatizing experience in a nation’s history is almost completely forgotten by the people there (most of them ignorant to be sure). Thus how big an impact can this searing event have had on modern inhabitants? Very little some might say, but, like slavery in the USA, perhaps not.


Mark Thorson October 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm
I remember hearing one proposed explanation for Kondratieff waves was memory. People who lived through high inflation or a severe recession would be especially guarded about repeating the experience, as would their children. But their grandchildren will have forgotten all about it and repeat the mistakes of their grandparents, leading to a cycle about two generations long.

Wikipedia doesn’t mention this hypothesis in their description. They do say the existence of Kondratieff waves is not accepted by mainstream economists.
As someone points out, it is likely that it is not the memories per se but rather the way those experiences get incorporated into the institutions of the nation and culture.

I think that discussion is quite an interesting one. But I think Cowen's original point is even more interesting.

All my life and in all my studies in economics over the years, there has always been a latent and unquestioned assumption that Germans were 1) highly averse to inflation, 2) Germans prioritized inflation fighting above many other goals in comparison to other countries, and 3) that the source of aversion was the experience of inflation in the Weimar Republic.

Cowen's original point is excellent. This is all great theory and perfectly logical. The only problem is that it doesn't accord with the empirical evidence. If Germans are highly averse to inflation, then you would expect their inflation rates to be very low.

I think we more often than we want to acknowledge, accept logical explanations of history without actually checking the key data that would affirm or refute.

I can think of at least one other example. There is a popular effort in some circles to assert that slavery is the progenitor of negative measured outcomes of African Americans today. It is certainly a logical argument and is attractively simple. The only problem with it, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, is that it does not appear to accord with the evidence. Sowell has argued, and mustered the data to support his argument, that the trends on many critical socioeconomic variables, African-Americans were on an upward trend through the 1960s: family formation, education attainment, labor force participation rates, income, etc. On a few measures they had already achieved parity with the majority population or were exceeding. Sowell argues that these upward trends are inconsistent with a causal linkage between pre-1860s slavery and post-1960s socioeconomic declines.

Both the Sowell argument and the observation about German inflation rates are a call to always double check assumed facts. Just because the story is logical and reasonable doesn't mean that it is true.

Shocked at a brand of waywardness

Ann Althouse has an interesting post, Whatever happened to Primo Communist Flitworth. She is relaying information from a book she is reading and is drawing attention to a humorous name. These quotes refer to utopian communes enthusiastically pursued back at the beginning of the 19th century.

I focus on her two quotes from the book The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester. Speaking of the failure of an utopian socialist commune, New Harmony, founded by Robert Owen:
As is so often the way with utopias, factions developed — no fewer than ten had formed within just two years of Owen’s arrival, and all began bickering, squabbling, and arguing for various rewritings of the commune rules, each splinter group jostling for ideological supremacy. In the end, a demoralized and disillusioned Owen, shocked at a brand of waywardness he had never experienced back home among the Scots, returned to Britain. His confidence was sorely shaken: his ideas for the universal betterment of the working classes began slowly to evaporate, and he became steadily ever more marginalized and ridiculed a figure.
The founder, Robert Owen, returned to the UK and attempted another commune.
Robert Owen’s final grand gesture was the creation of an immense and ruinously expensive cooperative community in Hampshire called Queenswood, in which seven hundred people lived, their inner quadrangle illuminated by “koniophostic light,” with conveyor belts bringing food from central kitchens to their dining halls. Couples moved in. A first baby born at Queenswood was formally named Primo Communist Flitworth. But the community never really prospered and closed after only a short while.
Althouse's quotes are a reminder of just how often the desire to pursue the perfectibility of people in a commune setting fails, and of how often they fail for very similar reasons. The totalitarian hope for interchangeable and passively cooperative people is always subverted by messy individuality that obstreperously insists on its own agency.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Incivility and misplaced confidence

In the connected world there has been a long running but fitful discussion about civility. Yes, it's nice, but is it necessary? Is there value to incivility? I am eager to see a higher degree of civil discourse but have to acknowledge that there are a lot of nuances. Noah Smith has an essay which I think is insightful, Don't Be Rude, You Loser . He makes a number of good points but it is this one that caught my eye.
That’s well and good. But there’s an important question that I think Bruenig fails to consider: What if your own viewpoint is wrong?

Sometimes, one of the parties in a debate is simply dishonest and unethical, and doesn’t really care if he or she is right or wrong. But more often, both sides deeply believe in the positions they take. The person in the wrong might be your opponent -- or it might be you. Or, more realistically, it might be both. Putting red-haired people in concentration camps is obviously horrible, but most of our arguments are over things like Obamacare, or antipoverty programs, or financial regulation-- issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

If you’re uncivil in this sort of situation -- if you call your opponent an idiot, or a liar, or a nastier name simply because you think his or her argument is bad -- you’re basically being overconfident. You’re assuming that there’s essentially no chance that you’re in the wrong, so it’s in the public interest for you to rail against your opponent and score points with the crowd. If you do this, there’s no chance that you yourself will learn anything from the encounter. People usually argue to win, but many times it’s possible to argue to learn.
I think this a usefully true observation. It also raises the idea that uncivil discussion reflects low self-awareness of the contingency of all knowledge and facts and low self-awareness married to overconfidence are probably good indicators that there is likely low value in the possible debate. The more dogmatic, the less valuable.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

An incentive is not an objective fact but a subjective interpretation

From Jean Tirole and Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation by Alex Tabarrok
Although not central to his work, one of my favorite papers of today’s Nobel prize winner, Jean Tirole, is Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation (written with Roland Benabou). In this paper, Tirole and Benabou try to resolve the economist’s intuition that incentives motivate with the idea from psychology that incentive schemes can sometimes demotivate. The psychologists argue that extrinsic motivation can reduce intrinsic motivation (but they are not at all clear on why this should be the case). Tirole and Benabou try to produce a similar finding by arguing that in addition to providing motivation an incentive scheme gives the agent, the one being incentivized, some information and the information may undermine the motivation.

For example, if I tell my son. “If you get an A in math, I will give you $1000.” What does my son conclude?
My father must think math is very important for my future to offer me $1000. My father is smart. I will work hard.
This is the message that I hope to send. But my son knows that I know something about math and also that I know something about him and he may use this knowledge to make a very different inference.
If my father thinks I need $1000 to get an A, math must be very hard or I must lack talent. I will work for an A this year but next year I should probably not sign up for advanced math classes.
Or perhaps he infers
If my father is offering me $1000 to do the right thing , he must not trust my judgment.
Or perhaps
My father is trying to use his money to control me. I rebel!
Thus reward has two effects a pure incentive effect (holding information constant) and an inference effect. Notice that the inference effect depends on the context. Thus, without knowing the context–how the father gets along with the son and their history of interaction–we can’t know what the effect of the “incentive” will be. Thus I have argued that “an incentive is not an objective fact but a subjective interpretation.”
An interesting discussion and insight and one that spills over into other arenas. It is one thing to know that humans inevitably respond to incentives, it is quite another to understand what constitutes an incentive. As I have mentioned elsewhere, diversity has the benefit of increasing systemic variation which tactically decreases efficiency but strategically potentially improves adaptability and effectiveness. It is not that there is a tradeoff between pure homogeneity and complete diversity; it is that there is a constantly shifting midpoint that is both hard to quantify and determine and is subject to rapid change given the exogenous circumstances and environment.

I think Tirole's exploration of incentives is one of the sources of productivity for relatively homogenous human systems (cultures) - you have a higher probability of understanding the nature of the workforce and therefore the nature of the incentives to which they respond. Sometimes it is increased compensation or bonuses but sometimes it is time off or private recognition or public recognition or nicer environment or status or increased job security or what not. You have both a higher probability of the incentive structure being effective and a greater probability of it encompassing the majority of employees.

It is a habit of the totalitarian mind, and its greatest weakness, that it regards all people as indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable. That cast of mind is why so many centralized plans go awry. No one person or group of people enjoys omniscience and therefore all centralized plans, particularly with heterogeneous populations and volatile environments, are subject to failure arising from incomprehension of the population's actual goals and aspirations (the preconditions for adequate incentives).

Friday, October 17, 2014

The insuperable limits to his knowledge

From The Pretence of Knowledge by Friedrich August von Hayek, his Nobel prize speech.
If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants. There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, "dizzy with success", to use a characteristic phrase of early communism, to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society - a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

It is not a gender issue, it is a family structure issue

From Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter from a couple of years ago. An interesting complement to Claudia Goldin's A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter from earlier this year.

Both are essentially arguing that the gender wage gap is a myth conjured for political expediency. Slaughter acknowledges an extremely supportive husband, a great boss, no discrimination and yet she can't compete with others owing to the fact that she has a family who she values and wishes to spend time with.
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
Read through Slaughter's essay. It is well worth the read in the sense that it allows you to understand how and why bright people can strongly hold ideas that seem patently absurd on the face of it. We all carry assumptions that blind us to the full picture and all of us are inclined to wish the world to bend in our direction. That force is strong in this article.

She nods her head to the fact that she is one of the 1% and that her problems are not shared by everyone else.
I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.
Right there at the beginning you can detect a dense weave of embedded assumptions that help Slaughter shield herself from the reality she is fighting. "We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable." Off course you have choices. They may not be ones you like but they are choices none the less. Tens of millions live the reality of a single income family. Dual incomes are not indispensable, they are a choice.

By blithely passing it off as a necessity, Slaughter draws a veil over her own decisions. She chooses to be in a dual income family because it has very material benefits, such as, rather obviously, twice the income. But a dual income family has some downsides as well. Like any special pleader, she wants you to ignore the benefits she derives from a dual income family and focus instead on the downsides. Then she wants everyone else to mitigate the downsides arising from her decisions but is, presumably, unwilling to give up the benefits.

Then there is "We are the women . . . who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks." On what basis should she, and her 1% ilk, or anyone, be equally represented in the leadership ranks? What is the special entitlement? If, as I will argue, the pinnacle performers in all fields are predominantly characterized by voluminous effort in terms of hours worked, flexibility in terms of putting in peak efforts on short notice, and significant reliability then it rather precludes her predicate assumption that "we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do."

She then proceeds to suggest changes to society and the economy which don't address the needs of the 99% but which will give her and her 1% a yet better deal than they already have.

Her solution? A simple assertion of ideological faith with nary a whisper of supporting evidence. And certainly no discussion of the failure of this program to achieve her desired outcomes where it has been tried in Europe and elsewhere.
The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.
So what's the problem? Women can and do compete successfully for these positions. Both Slaughter and Goldin are frustrated by the fact that in most arena's, women are stuck at 15-30% of the top positions. Senators, Representatives, Law firm partners, accounting firm partners, Governors, tenured professors, CEOs, CFOs, millionaires, engineers, scientists, etc.

So if women can and do compete successfully and if the institutions are relatively accommodating (for example universities and government), and if spouses are accommodating and supporting, and if in many instances bosses are sympathetic and accommodating, why is it that women are underrepresented at the pinnacle?

I think both Goldin and Slaughter have hit on the right root cause though perhaps have not explored it as fully as they could have. Who makes it to the top? Goldin and Slaughter are completely immersed in an ideological worldview that sees everything in terms of gender and it limits them from looking at things in an alternative way.

Formerly, feminists ascribed the low representation rates at the pinnacle of each field to overt, covert, or unconscious misogynism, individual discrimination, unsupportive husbands, institutional discrimination, etc. Both Goldin and Slaughter, while acknowledging that there remain instances, appear to have accepted that even when these issues have been overcome, there is still an under-representation. So what is the cause?

What both Goldin and Slaughter skirt is looking at things from a non-academic, non-government perspective. Taking Slaughter as an example, her entire career has been in government and academia. Both government and academia share the attribute that the past fifty years or more have been exceptionally congenial - revenues have grown at rates significantly above that of the economy. Think of it in terms of the classic S-curve. Her entire professional experience has been in two sectors that have had enjoyed a prolonged period of expansion with little competition (the middle part of the S-Curve)

For any product or service, including education, you can plot their growth from inception to saturation and it almost invariably follows an S-curve. Higher education has enjoyed fifty years of growing demand and capacity to pay. The population has been growing and Americans have become ever wealthier. The consequence is that Higher Education has not had to compete in any meaningful way for the past two generations nor have they had to manage their business with any great rigor. That is the environment that has shaped Slaughter's career experience. The same is broadly true for government services as well.

Most people not in academia live at the bottom of the curve (startups and others trying to grow) or at the top where all products and services end up - as commodities subject to brutal competition in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness. The sweet spot is in the middle where growth is rapid and margins are thick. But for most industries, the segment between the bottom of the curve and the top is usually pretty brief. Academia and Government have been the exceptions.

If you are among the few who have only experienced strong growth and thick margins, then it is natural to be either unaware or to significantly discount the realities experienced by everyone else at the top and bottom.

The other thing that academia and government share between them (and that is absent for everyone else) is that there is little measurability of, or even inclination to measure, outcomes. It is easy to measure both cost and quality of a widget. What is the cost and quality of a well rounded student or a well protected nation? What are the objective and empirical outcomes associated with two years of meetings and writing policy memos as Slaughter did for the State Department?

So what is missing from Slaughter's world view? An awareness of competition, outcomes, limits, trade-offs, risk, and uncertainty.

So what is the cause of the under representation if it is not institutional bias, unsupporting spouses, etc.?

Both Slaughter and Goldin identify the problem as maternity. Spouses who interrupt their careers in order to spend time with their children, either by leaving the workforce completely for a period or by working part-time, take a big hit in terms of their productivity. It is true whether the child-caring spouse is man or woman. While recognizing the issue, neither Goldin or Slaughter explore why productivity drops so dramatically when interrupting or working part time. They never take the perspective of the employer. It is always about the employee.

From the employer's perspective, any given employee with a defined skill set and defined level of productivity, has three attributes that contribute to making running a business easier and more profitable. The amount of time they work (Volume), their capacity to vary their hours based on need (Flexibility) and their Reliability. Your ideal employee works a lot of hours (it is cheaper and easier to manage 10 full time workers than 20 part time workers), adjusts their schedule to your business needs (working late or weekends when a project demands it) and is relentlessly reliable (always follows through).

Goldin and Slaughter don't put it in those terms but that is the problem in terms of achieving equal participation. If it is the mother (still the norm) who provides the primary care for children, then it is the mother's career which takes the hit. If it is the father who is the primary caregiver, the exact same thing happens. It is not a gender issue, it is a familial structure issue.

Single men and women earn the same income in all fields and industries. Men and women earn the same income when you take in to account the normal elements that you would expect to affect productivity: number of hours, continuity of work, flexibility (Goldin is good on this one), education attainment, etc. And what affects the number of hours you can spend on a job, the flexibility of those hours and your reliability? Family status and structure.

So what Slaughter is actually bumping into is the reality that you can't have it all - you have to make trade-off decisions which have consequences and this is equally true for men and women.

Which family structure (where there are children present) affords the greatest capacity for high volume of hours, great flexibility, and great reliability? One spouse working full-time and one working either part-time or not at all. That is the Golden Model. I can't call it the traditional model because it has usually been the aspiration, not the reality. People tend to fail to recognize that historically the majority of women have always worked. The 1950s-1960s were an aberration.

The Golden Model is distinct from the Modern Model where both spouses work and earn close to the same amount as one another. I'll ignore the Singles Model and Childless Model as I think they are straightforward.

The competition that irritates Slaughter is that between the Golden Model and the Modern Model (to which she subscribes). They both have advantages and disadvantages, some obvious and some not so apparent.

Two spouses working full time implies a household income greater than the working individual in the Golden Model. The data broadly supports that conclusion, especially in the early years of a career. The Modern Model also would seem to imply a steadier, less risky model than the Golden Model. If one working spouse loses a job, there is the other income to cover the costs.

So the Modern Model on the surface looks wealthier and less risky. What's not to like? It gets interesting when you look at the details over time.

The Golden Model pays few dividends at the beginning of a career but it appears from the data to lead to greater outcomes over the long term. Yes there is more job insecurity but there is also greater capacity to distinguish oneself. The Golden Model working spouse can put in the extra hours, can be there in a pinch, and rarely has to break commitments because they have to take a sick child to a doctor or such other domestic issues that arise. They work more voluminously, more flexibly and more reliably. After five years, they begin to pull ahead.

Interestingly, the data seems to indicate that Golden Model households, probably because of their greater sensitivity to perceived risk, seem to save more, presumably as a bridge over job interruptions. Those that seem to do best of all are those that establish the variant where the spouse who cares for the children also works part time before and after the youngest years. That seems to provide a greater financial safety net that shelters the household from great swings in asset accumulation and income.

The interesting issue is that the Modern Model actually appears to be somewhat riskier. What appears to be happening, particularly among the top 40%, is that there is a false sense of security from two incomes and that those households tend to consume close to all that they earn. Consequently, when there is a job loss, the financial consequences are more immediate and more dire. With the Golden Model, the part time spouse can up their hours in the interim to help bridge the gap and they can draw upon greater average savings. In the Modern Model there are fewer savings, greater financial obligations undertaken in a two income scenario and there is relatively little capacity for the remaining working spouse to increase their income in the short term.

Slaughter and Goldin are using the Modern Model as their established norm. Slaughter in particular is making the argument that it is inherently unfair that those who have subscribed to the Golden Model should have such greater capacity for hours, flexibility and reliability. She is basically making the case that the Golden Model has an unfair advantage over the Modern Model.

Slaughter is so intensely self-focused that she leaves out many of the compensating elements to the Modern Model. She is not just an individual, she is a member of a small business which is the Slaughter family household. She suffers from reduced opportunities compared to the spouse in the Golden Model but she benefits from two incomes versus one or a partial income.

What both Goldin and Slaughter are recommending is that the economy should be reorganized in a fashion that jobs should not require high volume or great flexibility or reliability. Goldin offers the example where this has occurred in the recent past by offering up the Pharmacy industry. Pharmacists used to usually be male and full-time. Today the industry is primarily female and either part-time or flexible time. Goldin holds this up as a model for the rest of the economy. What she ignores is that the structure of the pharmacy industry has changed, whether for good or bad depends on one's perspective.

Pharmacies used to be primarily small businesses locally owned. They were run by men who were the primary breadwinner in their family and they required huge amounts of time and flexibility as any small business does. In the past forty years, the independent pharmacy has all but disappeared, replaced by a handful of highly efficient, carefully managed national chains. Pharmacists are no longer small business people with all the prestige and challenges that come with that. They are now employees. And yes, they are employees who can work less than full time and variable hours and don't have to be as highly flexible as used to be the case. It is, from a macroeconomic perspective, a far more efficient model. But the flexibility has been purchased at the cost of ownership. A good deal for some, perhaps less so for others.

Slaughter holds out the hope that if we elect more women and more women make it to the C-suite, then they can change the structure of the economy. I view that as a nice utopian dream.

My assessment is that in a global interconnected economy where there is a seamless global supply chain, everyone is always connected, always on, and there is global competition, the premium set on volume, flexibility and reliability will become greater, not lesser. I suspect that this phenomena is partly what is behind increasing income inequality. It costs a lot to manage people who can only work short hours with limited flexibility and who aren't reliable. That cost is reflected in their reduced salaries.

I think what Goldin and Slaughter both miss is that the competition is not between genders but between familial models. As with any company that is less productive than the competition, they are seeking protection from the competition through regulation. That rarely ends well.

I think the real challenge is to provide greater clarity to all people about the costs and consequences of their decisions and equip them with the critical thinking skills to make better life decisions. In particular, we need to be clearer that income is a reflection of productivity. The core issue is, what are the values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and experiences that make an individual more or less productive in a given set of circumstances? Not to keep anyone guessing, but working fewer hours, working hours that are convenient to the employee rather than the employer, and not being reliable are not attributes that lead to higher productivity and greater leadership roles. When put in those terms, the magnitude of the issue Goldin and Slaughter are seeking to address becomes clearer.

Seeking to use the coercive power of government to favor one familial mode over another is futile, classist, and a repugnant exercise of self-interest over the common interest.

It's not that women can't have it all. It's that no one can have it all. People have to choose as individuals and as family units which model is likely to optimize all their goals and objectives: income, wealth accumulation, health, education attainment, time with family, time in the community, etc. Each model, Golden, Modern, Single, Childless has their unique set of risks and benefits. The fact that a spouse in a Modern family model cannot be as productive as a comparable person in the Golden model does not reflect on society. It reflects their own values and trade-offs and revealed preferences.

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive.

From The Will to Believe by William James.
I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically, even though in point of fact they were personally all the time chock-full of some faith or other themselves.


The talk of believing by our volition seems, then, from one point of view, simply silly. From another point of view it is worse tban silly, it is vile. When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness,--then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream! Can we wonder if those bred in the rugged and manly school of science should feel like spewing such subjectivism out of their mouths? The whole system of loyalties which grow up in the schools of science go dead against its toleration; so that it is only natural that those who have caught the scientific fever should pass over to the opposite extreme, and write sometimes as if the incorruptibly truthful intellect ought positively to prefer bitterness and unacceptableness to the heart in its cup.


Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other,--what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up? We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it; and on this line we agree to fight out our thinking lives. But if a pyrrhonistic sceptic asks us how we know all this, can our logic find a reply? No! certainly it cannot. It is just one volition against another,--we willing to go in for life upon a trust or assumption which he, for his part, does not care to make.


It will be observed that for the purposes of this discussion we are on 'dogmatic' ground,--ground, I mean, which leaves systematic philosophical scepticism altogether out of account. The postulate that there is truth, and that it is the destiny of our minds to attain it, we are deliberately resolving to make, thongh the sceptic will not make it. We part company with him, therefore, absolutely, at this point. But the faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another. One may hold to the first being possible without the second; hence the empiricists and the absolutists, although neither of them is a sceptic in the usual philosophic sense of the term, show very different degrees of dogmatism in their lives.


I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. " What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark.... If wc decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ' Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better." [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]
The whole speech is inviting. I was particularly intrigued by the passage: "Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other,--what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?"

What happens when our faith can no longer be a faith in other's faith. Is that not a crucial loss? Is there a tipping point in heterogeneity of faith when not only do we lose efficiency (arising from shared beliefs) but lose the capability to sustain our own faith. Is that what we are seeing in Europe, where secularism might be evidence that there is no longer a faith in someone else's faith? And is the demographic suicide of that culture a consequence of that loss of the warp and weave of communal faith?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Western exceptionalism exists in individual behavior differences that are present since at least the first millenium AD

Very interesting: Longevity and the Rise of the West: Lifespans of the European Elite, 800-1800 by Neil Cummins.

The rise of the West has been a longstanding conundrum given that historically the wealthiest, most productive regions were always closer to the equator - Egypt, India, China, Mesoamerica. Obviously much was driven by the productivity arising from the industrial revolution but that simply begs the question. Why did the industrial revolution occur in Europe and not in any of the more productive realms? Geography, path dependency, culture, fractured national competition, genetics, etc. - there are many proffered explanations but there is no really satisfactory answer.

Cummins now adds new information which is interesting in that it is marginally unexpected and likely relevant to the larger question but it is not obvious how it is relevant.
I analyze the age at death of 121,524 European nobles from 800 to 1800. Longevity began increasing long before 1800 and the Industrial Revolution, with marked increases around 1400 and again around 1650. Declines in violence contributed to some of this increase, but the majority must reflect other changes in individual behavior. The areas of North-West Europe which later witnessed the Industrial Revolution achieved greater longevity than the rest of Europe even by 1000 AD. The data suggest that the ‘Rise of the West’ originates before the Black Death.
Their overall conclusions from the data are:
This paper makes four principle contributions. Violence declines for nobles in the 16th century, plague kills noble women at a higher rate than men. There is a structural break in noble lifespan about 1400 and there is a European mortality pattern that has existed since the year 1000. The ‘Rise of the West’ can be traced to the centuries before the Black Death. These new stylized facts may or may not only apply to this elite subgroup. Future research can test whether the patterns are more general.
The European mortality pattern to which Cummins refers is explained thus:

Finally, this paper documents a previously unknown European mortality pattern. Similar to that for marriage first documented by Hajnal (1965), the mortality gradient runs South-North and East-West, and has existed since before the Black Death. The long existence of such a geographic effect has implications for recent work which stresses the 'little divergence' between the North-West of Europe and the South-East (Voigtlander and voth (2013), Broadberry (2013) and de Pleijt and van Zanden (2013)). The Black Death is not the first turning point. There was something abouth the North-West of Europe long before 1346 that led to nobles living longer lives.

These results suggests that the 'Rise of the West' does not solely originate in institutional innovations of the 17th century (Acemoglu and robinson (2012)) nor in social reactions to the Black Death (Voigtlander and Voth (2013)). Western exceptionalism exists in individual behavior differences that are present since at least the first millenium AD.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bogie and Sahara

I watched Sahara with Humphrey Bogart Friday evening while waiting for one the boys to get home from a date. Wikipedia has a good summary. A bit of a fusion of Beau Geste, Flight of the Phoenix, Rorke's Drift, and Saving Private Ryan.

A World War II movie set in the Sahara in North Africa between the fall of Tobruk and the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. Several things were striking to me.

El Alamein ended in July 1942 and the movie was released in November 1943. In the midst of a worldwide war, they had the capacity to write a screenplay based on a just completed battle, recruit the actors, produce, rehearse, film, edit and release in sixteen months. Things moved faster then. Similarly, the entire Pentagon building was constructed from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting in fifteen months.

The plot is relatively straightforward and the dialogue sparse. The entire set construction consisted of a desert, a half-track, an M2 tank, a couple of hundred uniforms, and a mud-brick building.

One of the supporting roles was played, briefly (an early casualty), by a very young Lloyd Bridges who I more associate with Airplane, Men in Tights and other such humor classics.

We tend to think of diversity and multiculturalism as products of the 1960s and 1970s. I think the watershed civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s tend to blind us to the fact that that was a culmination of a long simmering national conversation, not something that sprang Athena-like from Zeus's head. In this movie from 1943 there are substantive roles played by a Free French soldier, an English officer, a lower class English Tommy, a fence-sitting Italian, a British Sudanese sergeant, a German fighter pilot Prisoner of War, etc. Diversity by language, ethnicity, culture, rank, class, race; personality, all in a lean film. There is a particular scene where the Sudanese sergeant and an American soldier from Waco, Texas find common ground around thoughts about religion and marriage.

The plot is basically a lean morality tale about war, humanity, and humanism. Nothing unexpected but still engaging in its familiarity.

The battle scenes are nothing to a Saving Private Ryan in terms of effects or realism, but they are more than adequate.

Its simplicity lends itself to a wider audience. Young children can watch it without worrying about traumatization or jaundice and because there are straightforward morality lines in the plot, much easier to discuss with them as well. In fact, simple as the movie was, it had me reflecting on details longer than most modern movies do.

A refreshing feeling of less is more. Less dialogue, fewer props and effects, fewer sub-plots, fewer actors, and yet clearer morality and greater substance.