Saturday, October 31, 2015

Four factors that relate to the homicide rate - Legitimacy, Trust, Community, Respect

From Homicide rates linked to trust in government, sense of belonging, study suggests, Ohio University press release.
In his analysis, Roth found four factors that relate to the homicide rate in parts of the United States and western Europe throughout the past four centuries: the belief that one's government is stable and its justice and legal systems are unbiased and effective; a feeling of trust in government officials and a belief in their legitimacy; a sense of patriotism and solidarity with fellow citizens; and a belief that one's position is society is satisfactory and that one can command respect without resorting to violence.

Friday, October 30, 2015

His sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself

From Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator, statesman 42 B.C.
A nation can survive it’s fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.

For the traitor appears not as a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Only 26% of the population works full-time for an employer

Sometimes it is just a simple headline that makes a point. I am accustomed to looking at Labor Force Participation Rates, Unemployment Rates, Full Time versus Part Time Employment, etc. All quite interesting. The headline I read today was simple and surprising in an odd way. Odd in that though I knew this information already, I had never seen it put quite like this.

26% Worldwide Employed Full Time for Employer

This is from Gallup.

What they are measuring here is what we stereotypically accept as the norm for "working", an employee working full-time for an employer. This is made explicit by Gallup's definition.
The Good Jobs 2014 report presents the results from Gallup's latest global Payroll to Population (P2P) employment measurements, based on more than 182,000 interviews with adults in 144 countries in 2014. Gallup's P2P metric estimates the percentage of the adult population aged 15 and older -- not just those currently in the workforce -- who are employed full time for an employer for at least 30 hours per week. Gallup does not count adults who are self-employed, working part time, unemployed or out of the workforce as payroll-employed in the P2P metric. P2P is not seasonally adjusted.
What the headline makes explicit is that the norm or standard that we accept may possibly be the plurality of people in the labor force but it is certainly not the majority.

Not a lot of new information in the headline but certainly a refreshing reminder.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sustaining the flush times

From What's the Mortality Rate for Unicorns? by Megan McArdle.

I use a version of this S-curve to discuss with clients where they are in their company or industry life-cycle. If you are bringing a new product or concept to market, you are down at the bottom left of the S-curve. If you are in a highly competitive market with low barriers to entry where your offering has become commoditized then you are up in the top right hand corner.

Click to enlarge

It is important to know where you are for many reasons, but one of them is financial. The ideal position is to buy in sometime after the first inflection point upwards and to exit sometime before the last inflection point downwards. You can make decent money in a highly competitive commoditized market but it is very hard work.

The flush times are in between those two inflection points. For some period of time you have the market to yourself, you have a monopoly or, later, an oligopoly. This usually arises owing to barriers to entry, intellectual property protection, powerful early branding, etc. With a monopoly you can earn monopoly profits.

McArdle has a good run-down on the normal economic circumstance which create or sustain monopolistic conditions. As a business owner, having taken all the risks and made all the investments at the innovation and incubation stages, you want to sustain that period of near-monopoly for as long as feasible. Here are McArdle's descriptions of those sustaining strategies.
1. Barriers to entry. It costs a lot to enter the market (think auto manufacturers) or you have some sort of government-granted protection from competition (patents, copyrights, local telecoms or cable monopolies, professional licensing rules).

2. Switching costs. How expensive is it for me to switch to your competitor? For restaurants, the answer is “zero”; I can try another restaurant, for about what it would have cost me to eat at yours, and if I like that place better, I can keep going there. The only cost is the risk of a less-than-tasty meal. On the other hand, if I want to switch cell phone providers, I need to pay AT&T a lot of money to break my contract. And if I wanted to switch from Betamax to VHS, I had to buy all new videotapes to go with my whizzy new player. The higher the switching costs, the more likely customers are to stay put.

3. Network effects. It wouldn’t cost me much money to switch from Facebook to another social media site. But Facebook is where all my friends are. I don’t just want to sit around and “like” my own posts; I want to interact! That means that the network with more users will tend to keep them -- at least until young people decide that your site has too many users to be cool, and your network starts catastrophically shrinking.

4. Economies of scale. When industries are characterized by large economies of scale, it’s hard for upstarts to compete, because they can’t make the product as cheaply as the incumbents.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A world without faith in God wouldn’t be a more rational or more humane place

From When God Goes Away, Superstition Takes His Place by Walter Russell Mead.
People who think themselves too rational for religious belief end up believing in “astral forces”, ghosts and other phenomena. Sometimes these superstitions take the deadly form of political ideologies that fanatical believers take up with religious fervor—communist atheists murdered tens of millions of people in the 20th century in the irrational grip of an ugly ideology. They scoffed at the credulity of religious believers even as they worshipped the infallible insights of Stalin. Similarly, the Nazis presented their faith as an alternative to the “outgrown superstitions” of historic Christianity.

It’s something very much worth remembering: a world without faith in God wouldn’t be a more rational or more humane place.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Indeed, it generally gets it backward

From The Myth of Basic Science by Matt Ridley.

Ridley is exploring the ideas of Kevin Kelly laid out in his book "What Technology Wants." What attracted me to the article was that this question of whether there is a beneficial case for public funding of basic science research has such a long heritage. When I was in college in the late seventies and early eighties it was a hotly debated issue with much research for an answer and yet still no answer. Here we are several decades later and the issue remains open.

We have a lot of that about. Ideas that make logical sense and are acted on without ever testing whether what seems logical is actually real. Does public investment in basic science generate beneficial outcomes for a society. The frank truth is that we don't really know. It is a logical idea and it makes sense, so we do it. But are we simply throwing scarce money away that could have been spent more productively? We don't know.

I suspect that the answer, as is often the case for long-standing public policy issues, is that there is no binary answer of yes or no. There is an emergent order in which the flow of causation is bi-directional. Our binary minds want a straightforward yes-no answer and we want to know clear guidelines such investment of X dollars produces Y benefits in Z number of years. But a system of emergent order doesn't lend itself to such precision.

The substance of Ridley (and Kelly's) argument follows.
Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress, which we probably cannot stop—or speed up much either. And it’s not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses. Heretical as it may sound, “basic science” isn’t nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.

The same is true of other inventions. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already scores of search engines. As Kevin Kelly documents in his book “What Technology Wants,” we know of six different inventors of the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is “one endless chain of parallel instances.”

It is just as true in science as in technology. Boyle’s law in English-speaking countries is the same thing as Mariotte’s Law in French-speaking countries. Isaac Newton vented paroxysms of fury at Gottfried Leibniz for claiming, correctly, to have invented the calculus independently. Charles Darwin was prodded into publishing his theory at last by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had precisely the same idea after reading precisely the same book, Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”


Politicians believe that innovation can be turned on and off like a tap: You start with pure scientific insights, which then get translated into applied science, which in turn become useful technology. So what you must do, as a patriotic legislator, is to ensure that there is a ready supply of money to scientists on the top floor of their ivory towers, and lo and behold, technology will come clanking out of the pipe at the bottom of the tower.

This linear model of how science drives innovation and prosperity goes right back to Francis Bacon, the early 17th-century philosopher and statesman who urged England to catch up with the Portuguese in their use of science to drive discovery and commercial gain. Supposedly Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century had invested heavily in mapmaking, nautical skills and navigation, which resulted in the exploration of Africa and great gains from trade. That is what Bacon wanted to copy.

Yet recent scholarship has exposed this tale as a myth, or rather a piece of Prince Henry’s propaganda. Like most innovation, Portugal’s navigational advances came about by trial and error among sailors, not by speculation among astronomers and cartographers. If anything, the scientists were driven by the needs of the explorers rather than the other way around.

Terence Kealey, a biochemist turned economist, tells this story to illustrate how the linear dogma so prevalent in the world of science and politics—that science drives innovation, which drives commerce—is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward.

When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.

Went in to the bookstore yesterday to get Harry G. Frankfurt's new book, On Inequality. I am hearing good things about it. While looking for that, I came across an earlier book of his, similarly brief, On Bullshit. So of course I came home with both books.

Frankfurt's earlier book echoes Neil Postman's 1969 speech Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection. Clearly the problem is not new. I prefer the term cognitive pollution to cover those statements issued without due diligence or regard for the truth. Ideologues have a tendency to have a high proportion of cognitive pollution in that they already believe their own statements and have little compulsion to check their own facts. Cognitive pollution covers untruths, half-truths, and all statements where the speaker has no concern whether the statement is true or not. The latter is a lot closer to the definition that Frankfurt settles on.

An enjoyable, if brief, read. Only 67 pages.
Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Haunted by Hamlet

For no clear reason I woke this morning with the first few lines of one of Hamlet's soliloquies running through my mind. Lines penned four hundred years ago still circulating in the minds of men today. Quite a feat.

Lying there, eyes yet closed in the early hours darkness of autumn, I searched for the correct word or next line, I was also wondering, just how pervasive are Shakespeare's soliloquies? How many of them are there that people might recognize? Once I got up, I checked Oxford's Dictionary of Quotations. 65 pages of quotations. Of course many are single lines or pairs. Scanning the pages there are dozens of extended passages though. Recognizable? A reasonable chance. Of the first dozen soliloquies, I recognized the opening lines of a good half of them. "His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm crested the world," "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," "Fear no more the heat o' the sun, nor the furious winter's rages," "What infinite heart's ease must Kings neglect, that private men enjoy!" And on and on. What riches. Here's the Hamlet soliloquy that started the thought.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Not willful deception but innumeracy

From The Only Global Warming Chart You Need From Now On by Steven Hayward.

Axis compression is one of the standard techniques of statistical deception. The scientific underpinnings of global warming remain very much debated, despite the unscientific claims of consensus. We are still at the very early stages of even beginning to understand what we don't understand in terms of climate forecasting. Could global warming be real and a real problem? Certainly. We just don't have much understanding of it at this point in time.

What we have had, going back to the first IPCC reports, is a solid track record of deceit and deception ranging from the East Anglia model fiasco in the early days, through Mann's Hockey Stick manipulation, including the covert efforts to suppress contra evidence from reaching publication all the way to the present with continuing efforts to manipulate raw data before it even hits the models.

There is more than enough grounds to be sensibly skeptical of the self-serving claims of those who will be the primary beneficiaries of anything that is chosen to be done by government about climate.

Hayward points out an additional practice of deception which I had always taken into account but hadn't ever quite visualized. Read his article for the background.

Whatever your cause might be, one of the oldest communication tricks in the book is to manipulate the vertical scale and horizontal scales in order to magnify the visual magnitude of the effect. Crime, climate, poverty, left-handedness, traffic accidents. Whatever you want to generate concern about, you can do so by compressing the vertical scale and strategically selecting the time horizon, particularly regarding the starting point. All complex, dynamic, nonlinear systems have a lot of noise with material swings above and below whatever the trend line might be. If you want to show a fall, you measure from whichever year was the high point. If you want to show a rise, pick the most recent year that had the lowest number.

This is what bandwagon climatologists have been doing since the beginning but I hadn't particularly considered just how dramatic the visual difference is. While demonstrating the scare-climatologists manipulation of scales, Hayward actually commits the same sin in his last graph, choosing a scale that overemphasizes the minuteness of temperature change. But his underlying point is a good one. When you see people consistently choosing to display data in deceptive ways, it warrants asking what their real end-goal might be.

From Hayward's article, here is how recent global temperature change is usually presented. Note the compressed vertical scale ranging from 56-59 degrees in order to exaggerate the degree of temperature change.

Click to enlarge.

Usually, you would display data on a vertical access either from 0-100 or, as Hayward does, the observed range of maximum and minimum temperatures. Here's what global warming looks like with a normal scale.

Click to enlarge.

If you were conspiracy minded, you would assume that this standard good data visualization practice is not observed by the media because they are in cahoots with some cabal of big government climate change alarmists. While that might be a logical position to take, I am pretty certain that is not the case. Journalistic innumeracy and incapacity to handle numbers and data display are so comprehensive and widespread that this instance does not stand out as an exception. I think Ockham's Razor suggests simple innumeracy rather than willful deception or cupidity.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

10-30% negative performance comparing government utilities to private utilities.

Last month, I commented in Governments exempt themselves from their own laws, based on research from David M. Konisky andManuel P. Teodoro in their article, When Governments Regulate Governments. It is behind a paywall.

Indiana University has a press release citing some of the data turned up by Konisky and Teodoro.
For the study, Konisky and Teodoro examined records from 2000 to 2011 for power plants and hospitals regulated under the Clean Air Act and from 2010 to 2013 for water utilities regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The study included over 3,000 power plants, over 1,000 hospitals and over 4,200 water utilities -- some privately owned and others owned by public agencies.
* For power plants and hospitals, public facilities were on average 9 percent more likely to be out of compliance with Clean Air Act regulations and 20 percent more likely to have committed high-priority violations.

* For water utilities, public facilities had on average 14 percent more Safe Drinking Water Act health violations and were 29 percent more likely to commit monitoring violations.

* Public power plants and hospitals that violated the Clean Air Act were 1 percent less likely than private-sector violators to receive a punitive sanction and 20 percent less likely to be fined.

* Public water utilities that violated Safe Drinking Water Act standards were 3 percent less likely than investor-owned utilities to receive formal enforcement actions.
Konisky said the findings are significant but not surprising. Government entities have higher costs of complying with regulations because they often must go through political processes to raise the money needed to improve their facilities. And they may face pushback from customers or taxpayers who object to higher rates and have the political power to block them.

Public entities also face lower costs for violating the regulations, the authors argue. There is evidence from other studies that they are able to delay or avoid paying fines when penalties are assessed. And officials with regulatory agencies may be sympathetic to violations by public entities, because they understand the difficulty of securing resources in the public sector.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In earlier times, China had much bigger and stronger walls. That may have lowered the rate of return on investing in guns.

From *The Gunpowder Age* by Tyler Cowen. History is a densely multi-causal outcome of complex non-linear systems. It is interesting in its own right and interesting as a multidimensional exercise in mystery and investigation. There is no absolutist answer to any historical question, only balances of evidence and probabilities that are always subject to new evidence, new interpretation, or both.

Cowen is listing items he learned from China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade. One of the enduring mysteries about China is the frequency with which it is the first instance of a scientific discovery or technological development but which is then abandoned in China only to be exploited by others later. One common example is that of guns and gunpowder. Some of the items Cowen cites from Andrade's book are:
1. The “competing states” argument for the rise of Europe is in some ways overvalued, as it neglects some critical time periods of competition across states in Chinese history.

2. Walls and guns co-evolved, in both China and Europe. And in earlier times, China had much bigger and stronger walls. That may have lowered the rate of return on investing in guns.

3. By 1510 or 1520, European guns already were better than Chinese guns. But through the following centuries, the Chinese were more aware of the need to catch up than is often realized.

4. Guns and gunpowder co-evolved, and when it comes to gunpowder some historians argue Europe had a second-mover advantage. Yet the exact source of European superiority in this regard is murky.

5. Korea developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth century.

6. The British development of “cylinder powder” in the late eighteenth century was a major advance over Chinese techniques at the time, and represented a final and decisive relative advance for the West.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In the Town Hall's Graveyard

In the Town Hall's Graveyard
by Gerard Vanderleun

In the hayed field thick with dusted mist,
As the noon whistle of the village hissed,
We noted how the dead were neatly placed,
How all lay labeled, how all were given space.

We remarked the craft of marble wreath,
And proposed that those who lay beneath
Were clad in the fashion of their day,
Some fitting shroud in which to greet eternities of clay.

Nearby we saw the fruits of Arbor Day and said
How lovely were the trees; how well pruned and fed.
The trees ignored our gaze, as was their right,
And spawned a host of shadows, imitating night.

The hill before us, like some weathered tomb
Passed by in spring, above us loomed
With high and wind smoothed walls of slate
On which the trees' sharp branches scraped

An etching of themselves slashed into sky.
But we were late into our day and a bird's cry
Made us spy the gray and shaken sheets of storm,
That sheathed us soon and drove us down

Into the brambles where the ancient Indians lay,
Sheltered by the weeds from the weather of the day,
And resolved beneath to, sightless, calmly wait
Upon the last night's opening of the gateless gate.

"The weave of roots took our eyes away.
The seeping rain removed our clay.
Our husked dried skin is steeped in sleep.
If you would awaken us, you must dig deep

"Beneath the earth of whittled leaves
Beneath the grief that no longer grieves;
To awaken us you need a careful touch,
For dig you must, but never dig too much."

We turned from the field and its rustle of birds,
Where sunlight had played on summer words,
Playing now to winter's chiseled stones,
To the hissing silence of abandoned bones.

Their stillness slashed dry grass with scythes of wind,
And made us wish we could a thousand acts rescind,
But we knew our wishes were for naught,
For what is easily sold is dearly bought.

Instead, we startled life in a whirr of wings,
And in that moment came to present things.
We went home, made tea, and sat together,
Held hands at evening and talked about the weather.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Playing tennis without the net.

I enjoy Matt Ridley as an author. Here is an interview of him, Matt Ridley: By the Book.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I enjoy science, economics, history, biography, travel. I don’t really avoid anything, but I rarely read self-help, spiritualism, business or fantasy. Like many men I know, I read less fiction than I probably should: I get a special thrill out of reading about things that actually happened, or that are really true. Fiction, unless it is truly great, feels too much like playing tennis without the net.

The fact is you cannot be intelligent merely by choosing your opinions

From Mortals and Others by Bertrand Russell.
The fact is you cannot be intelligent merely by choosing your opinions. The intelligent man is not the man who holds such-and-such views but the man who has sound reasons for what he believes and yet does not believe it dogmatically. And opinions held for sounds reason have less emotional unity than the opinions of dogmatists because reason is non-party, favouring now one side and now another. That is what people find so unpleasant about it. In education, pupils ought to be made to admit one unpleasant opinion everyday, and no person whose views form a self-consistent whole should be allowed to teach. Then, perhaps, the virulence of orthodoxies might diminish.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Well something's lost, but something's gained

Double click to enlarge.
Both Sides, Now
by Joni Mitchell

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I've looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun,
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real,
I've looked at love that way.

But now it's just another show,
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know,
Don't give yourself away.

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds,
I've looked at life that way.

Oh but now old friends they're acting strange,
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day.

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life
I really don't know life at all

A just/discriminating censorship is impossible

From Susan Sontag on Censorship and the Three Steps to Refuting Any Argument by Maria Popva. Quoting Susan Sontag:
The main techniques for refuting an argument:

Find the inconsistency
Find the counter-example
Find a wider context

Instance of (3):

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces— high art— to be scandalous.

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context:
notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?
But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.
Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Past is not prologue but the past contextually influences the present

An interesting conjunction of articles. Much of conversation today around various issues is clouded by confusion between determinism and probability, between determinists and probablists. In simple systems, the differing perspective has little implication.

For a determinist, the sun will rise tomorrow. For the probablist, there is a 99.999999999999999999999% chance that the sun will rise tomorrow. For practical purposes, they share the same outlook.

The differences arise when you are dealing with complex, multicausal systems which covers virtually every biological system, and more particularly, every human system. Poverty, education attainment, obesity, morbidity and mortality, commerce, income, etc. They are all complex multicausal systems.

Determinists will look at something and draw a direct and invariable connection between an originating condition and an outcome: "Born in poverty, stay in poverty." Probablists look at it differently and observe "Born in the bottom income quintile, only a 7% chance of achieving the top income quintile." With complex multicausal systems, the difference between the two perspectives becomes much more noticeable because their interpretations lead to dramatically different possible solutions. In the above instance, a determinist might easily conclude that the only solution is to redistribute income. The probablist might more likely focus on those other causal elements that shape attainment of top quintile status (how do we improve productivity, how do we impart more skills, how do we instill better behaviors, etc.).

Determinists carry the heavier burden of proof because their claims tend to be more extreme. Determinists come in all sorts. There are biological determinists, genetic determinists, class determinists, technology determinists, economic determinists, behavioral determinists, geographical determinists, etc.

For example, someone wrote an interesting book recently which hypothesized a connection between technology adoption and current day wealth and income of nations. If you moved from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age 500 years before most others, you would expect to see higher income today. Likewise with a range of other technology transitions. An interesting conjecture and the author had good supporting empirical evidence. It's a dramatic claim which requires dramatic support. My recollection is that the author had good affirmative supporting data but did not address alternative explanations and therefore the overall argument remained somewhat weak.

At the heart of the argument though was the idea of event persistence - To what degree do events in the past influence outcomes today? There is interesting evidence and arguments on both sides, those arguing that past events are determinative of present outcomes and those arguing that the distant past and even to some extent recent past are minor contributors to current outcomes.

An intriguing piece of information supporting the idea that there is a long persistence in the effect of human capital comes from The Persistence of Human Capital by Robin Grier. The italics are the post author's quotation of the original paper on which they are commenting.
“After the international ban on slave trade in 1850, and in the midst of a massive inflow of European immigrants to Brazil, immigrants with relatively more education were channeled into specific localities through deliberate government policies. In the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, public authorities established a number of official settlement colonies throughout the state of São Paulo. This policy had goals involving occupation of territory, food production, “whitening” of the population, and was driven by a centralized decision at the state level. The settlements were established typically near previously existing rural villages and were occupied by relatively high- skill European immigrants of various nationalities.”

Amongst other things, one of the reasons this is so interesting is that the state-sponsored settlements were not appreciably different from other regions except for the fact that they had higher levels of schooling on average.

So what did they find?

First, “in 1920, a few years after the establishment of the last settlements, the literacy rate in settlement municipalities was 8 percentage points (or 27 percent) higher than elsewhere in the state, despite an only marginally higher share of immigrants.”

Second, one century later, people living in those regions had an average of more than half a year of schooling, and more than 15% higher average per-capita incomes, than people living in other municipalities. That’s pretty amazing after 100 years.
That lends credence to the determinist suggestion that there is event-persistence.

A second article cites evidence from a the northern hemisphere of the Americas. From Canada’s History of Violence by Pascual Restrepo. Emphasis added.
Steven Pinker, in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” hypothesized that the differences [between violence in the USA and Canada] are deeply rooted in culture and history. In the 19th century, he wrote, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — the Mounties — got to the Canadian Western frontier “before the settlers and spared them from having to cultivate a violent code of honor.”

During the settlement of the American “Wild West,” in contrast, there was no centralized authority. Plunder and feuding were the rule, and settlers often resorted to violence to protect their lives and property. Violent codes of honor, revenge and self-justice were second nature for early settlers and were transmitted from parents and society to children.

Before the settlement of the Canadian West, which I date from 1896 to 1921, the Mounties established a series of forts. That’s where they exercised authority, enforced contracts and protected the property of settlers. Where Mounties were present, self-justice was rare. Canadians on the whole developed a less violent culture.

In recent research, I tested Mr. Pinker’s explanation by focusing on the settlement of the Canadian frontier — modern-day Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Because it is Canada, I also looked at recent N.H.L. players from those areas to see if they carried a cultural baggage of violence to the rink.

To demonstrate the role of the Mounties, I compared settlements that in the late 1890s were near Mountie forts with those that were not. There are no homicide statistics for that period, but the 1911 census reveals male mortality patterns. Settlements far from the Mounties’ reach had more widows than widowers, suggesting unusually high adult male death rates. In fact, remote Canadian settlements during this period looked a lot like those of the Wild West. We do not know for certain why male death rates in these communities were high, but homicide is the prime suspect. After all, men kill other men more often than they kill women.

Even a century later, the violence in these areas continues. In 2014, communities at least 62 miles from former Mountie forts during their settlement had 45 percent more homicides and 55 percent more violent crimes per capita than communities closer to former forts. The distinction holds even when we take into account differences in population size and the level of urbanization. Given that the authority represented by the Mounties long ago expanded into every corner of the Canadian prairies, the persistence of this difference is surprising. Apparently in some remote and lawless areas, the Mounties arrived too late to prevent the development of a culture of violence.
That is interesting data and there is more later in the article, including
The players share a common environment in the ice rink, but those who were born in areas historically outside the reach of the Mounties were penalized more often — an average of about 1.4 minutes per game — than those who were not — an average of about 1 minute per game. That 0.4 minute difference actually amounts to about 100 additional penalty minutes over a player’s career.
So yet more data indicating that there is event persistence that needs to be taken into account.

I suspect that event persistence is a real phenomenon within particular contexts but that determinists overstate their case. Yes there is a founder effect, but you have to take into account subsequent events as well which might swamp the founder effect.

For example, there is a common claim among Social Justice Warriors out of the postmodernist schools (deconstructionism, critical theory, critical race theory, critical legal theory, postcolonial theory, third wave feminism, etc.) that the socioeconomic status of African Americans today can be determinatively explained by their ancestral experience of slavery. Almost certainly there are some elements of event persistence. But which ones and with what effect size?

Thomas Sowell argues convincingly that there is little determinism between the institution of slavery 150 years ago and current socioeconomic outcomes. His evidence is that for the period 1880-1960, African American socioeconomic trends were converging on those of whites or exceeding them. Such trends as family formation, falling single parenthood, education attainment, income increase, improving morbidity and mortality, etc. His argument is that with this long period of socioeconomic convergence obviates a strong event persistence between slavery pre-1865 and current socioeconomic gaps today. Sowell's other evidence is the dramatically higher performance of immigrant groups who have achieved more in the modern era even though they share a ancestral slavery experience (such as Jamaicans and Haitians).

As is often the case, there is not a binary resolution. It is not a choice between determinists and probablists. It is a matter of testing the validity of the respective explanations and integrating the best of both. In some instances, it seems likely that there can indeed be exceptionally strong event persistence but that event persistence is not in itself deterministic but subject to other contextual pressures and events.

Friday, October 16, 2015


In English we have the phrase, The Elephant in the Room, meaning something we all recognize and that each other recognize, but still refuse to discuss.

From Wikipedia, I discover that there is word in Kilivila, a language from the Trobriand Islands. Mokita.
"truth we all know but agree not to talk about."

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Interpersonal expectations related to social reality primarily because they reflect rather than cause social reality.

This looks like it could be interesting but I can't get behind the paywall. Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy by Lee Jussim. The abstract:
Social Perception and Social Reality reviews the evidence in social psychology and related fields and reaches three conclusions: 1. Although errors, biases, and self-fulfilling prophecies in person perception, are real, reliable, and occasionally quite powerful, on average, they tend to be weak, fragile and fleeting; 2. Perceptions of individuals and groups tend to be at least moderately, and often highly accurate; and 3. Conclusions based on the research on error, bias, and self-fulfilling prophecies routinely greatly overstates their power and pervasiveness, and consistently ignores evidence of accuracy, agreement, and rationality in social perception. The weight of the evidence – including some of the most classic research widely interpreted as testifying to the power of biased and self-fulfilling processes – is that interpersonal expectations related to social reality primarily because they reflect rather than cause social reality. This is the case not only of teacher expectations, but also social stereotypes, both as perceptions of groups, and as the bases of expectations regarding individuals. The time is long overdue to replace cherry-picked and unjustified stories emphasizing error, bias, the power of self-fulfilling prophecies and the inaccuracy of stereotypes with conclusions that more closely correspond to the full range of empirical findings, which includes multiple failed replications of classic expectancy studies, meta-analyses consistently demonstrating small or at best moderate expectancy effects, and high accuracy in social perception.
I'm reading this to say that stereotypes exist, that they have a useful correlation to reality, and that people make decisions that incorporate information from stereotypes but that empirically the effect size is small.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Heh. "Does Modern Feminism Have a Problem with Free Speech?" Yes! Next.

From Journalists Banned From Event On Whether Feminism Suppresses Free Speech For Offending Feminists by Blake Neff.

You can't make this up. University of Manchester in the UK is hosting a public debate. The topic is “From Liberation to Censorship: Does Modern Feminism Have a Problem with Free Speech?”

From the article:
Initially, two journalists, Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart and Julie Bindel of the Guardian, were invited to speak at the debate. Both have since been barred from attending because their opinions are considered too offensive.
I don't know Bindel. I have read some of Yiannopoulos's articles and seen him on TV. He is wickedly quick witted and often uncomfortably explicit in his language. That said, the only threat he represents is that nobody likely to be put up against him in the debate will beat him in an argument. He is a very good debater with a command of the facts, a feisty debating style and an ability to take the mickey out of his ponderous interlocutors.

But really. Couldn't they have maintained a little mystery as to the answer before the debate? "Does Modern Feminism Have a Problem with Free Speech?" Well, clearly, Yes!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Angus Deaton on foreign aid

Sometimes, to do good, you have to do unpleasant things that are either repugnant, counterintuitive or both. While some foreign aid is both well-intended and effective, most is not.

Angus Deacon has just received the Nobel Prize in Economics and explains why.
The absence of state capacity – that is, of the services and protections that people in rich countries take for granted – is one of the major causes of poverty and deprivation around the world. Without effective states working with active and involved citizens, there is little chance for the growth that is needed to abolish global poverty.

Unfortunately, the world’s rich countries currently are making things worse. Foreign aid – transfers from rich countries to poor countries – has much to its credit, particularly in terms of health care, with many people alive today who would otherwise be dead. But foreign aid also undermines the development of local state capacity.

This is most obvious in countries – mostly in Africa – where the government receives aid directly and aid flows are large relative to fiscal expenditure (often more than half the total). Such governments need no contract with their citizens, no parliament, and no tax-collection system. If they are accountable to anyone, it is to the donors; but even this fails in practice, because the donors, under pressure from their own citizens (who rightly want to help the poor), need to disburse money just as much as poor-country governments need to receive it, if not more so.

What about bypassing governments and giving aid directly to the poor? Certainly, the immediate effects are likely to be better, especially in countries where little government-to-government aid actually reaches the poor. And it would take an astonishingly small sum of money – about 15 US cents a day from each adult in the rich world – to bring everyone up to at least the destitution line of a dollar a day.

Yet this is no solution. Poor people need government to lead better lives; taking government out of the loop might improve things in the short run, but it would leave unsolved the underlying problem. Poor countries cannot forever have their health services run from abroad. Aid undermines what poor people need most: an effective government that works with them for today and tomorrow.

One thing that we can do is to agitate for our own governments to stop doing those things that make it harder for poor countries to stop being poor. Reducing aid is one, but so is limiting the arms trade, improving rich-country trade and subsidy policies, providing technical advice that is not tied to aid, and developing better drugs for diseases that do not affect rich people. We cannot help the poor by making their already-weak governments even weaker.

Who's next? The New Republic? Mother Jones?

Wow - what's happening over at the Atlantic? I read When Neighborhoods Gentrify, Why Aren't Their Public Schools Improving? by Ester Bloom which is a fairly bog-standard article that misses some critical elements in its argument. It lacks self-awareness in terms of its argument which boils down to "you need white kids to improve school performance" which doesn't sit well at all.

But it's not the article that is so surprising but the comments. A) It is reasonably civil, B) it is data rich with lots of links to external sources, and C) it is in essence a very conservative conversation, calling out the journalist for her implied racism. This is not dissimilar to a phenomenon I pointed out in the last year where especially the Washington Post but even the New York Times comment sections appear to be becoming increasingly conservative (in the sense of classical liberal instead of the postmodernism that passes for Liberal these days). It appears to me that there is a rising pushback to the postmodernist streak (and its attendant brethren, deconstructionism, critical theory, critical race theory, critical legal theory, postcolonial theory, and third wave feminism) so embeued in much of journalism today.

Don't know that that is true but it is interesting to see this trend extending even to The Atlantic. Who's next? The New Republic? Mother Jones?

If you can't honestly describe the problem then you can't develop effective solutions

Fascinating. The Color of Debt: How Collection Suits Squeeze Black Neighborhoods by Paul Kiel and Annie Waldman. An example of advocacy journalism trumping straight reporting and even common sense. They want to frame a behavioral issue (behaviors that lead to unpaid debt) as a racial discrimination issue. They write a very long article that tries to hide the evidence that this is a behavioral issue and not a discrimination issue, but the evidence pops out every now and then.

There was a recent article in Nature magazine, How Scientists Fool Themselves - and How They Can Stop by Regina Nuzzo. In it there was a useful graphic outlining common cognitive fallacies that lead scientists to report wrong information.

Kiel and Waldman commit every one of these fallacies throughout their article. They could stop if they wanted to but then there would be nothing to support their ideological recommendations.

What Kiel and Waldman desperately want to report, apparently, is that African Americans are disproportionately sued for debt than white Americans. How would you know that? If white Americans who had failed to pay their debts, and controlling for all other variables such as capacity to pay, were sued at a lower rate than African Americans in a similar plight. But apparently that is not what the data shows. The peg they hang the article on is that lawsuits for debt payment are disproportionately concentrated in neighborhoods which are also disproportionately African American. But the predictive variables are debt and incapacity to pay, not race. If it happens that African Americans are more prone to incur debt and less able to pay, then you would expect to see such a concentration of lawsuits in African American neighborhoods. The authors reluctantly acknowledge this in an obfuscatory way before returning to bang on the implied racial discrimination drum.
These findings could suggest racial bias by lenders or collectors. But we found that there is another explanation: That generations of discrimination have left black families with grossly fewer resources to draw on when they come under financial pressure.


Today, the typical black household has a net worth of $11,000, while that of a typical white household is $141,900. As a result, while the budget is often tight for any low- or middle-income household, black households are less likely to have resources to draw on when they need it.


This suggests white consumers are, in general, better able to resolve smaller debts.


Lance LeComb, MSD’s spokesman, said the company had no demographic data on its customers and treated them all the same. The racial disparity in its suits, he said, is the result of “broader ills in our community that are outside of our scope and exceed our abilities and authority to do anything about.”


Jan Stieger, executive director of the debt buyers’ trade group DBA International, said debt buyers don’t know the race of debtors when they buy accounts. Any racial gap in the pattern of suits, she said, is not the result of debt buyer behavior. And debt buyers typically try other methods, such as collection calls, before suing.

“Truly, nobody is treated differently in this process,” she said.


The clients at Beyond Housing, a St. Louis nonprofit that provides assistance to low-income families, are roughly half white and half black. But the staff has noticed a dispiriting difference: white clients are far more likely to have some kind of support to draw on, whether it’s their own assets or help from a family member.

For black clients, “so much of that kind of help has been already tapped out,” said Linda Ingram, the manager of the foreclosure intervention department. The lack of resources makes it harder for black clients to extricate themselves from debt. It also means the most stable members of a family can easily get overstretched.
The authors never address the core question, are whites with similar debt loads and similar incapacities to pay sued at the same rate as African Americans. Since the authors have done a lot of research and don't explicitly answer this, the most critical question, then the suspicion has to be that the data contradicts the story they want to tell. It appears that it is likely that there is no differential between the races when you control for the relevant variables.

The article is full of sad stories about people getting into debt. But the authors acknowledge several times that this is not a race issue, it is a behavior issue. People aren't being sued for debt payment because they are black but because they are not paying their debt. The solution to that problem is teaching people how to manage within a budget. The solution to discriminatory debt suits is a class action suit against the discriminator. But if there is no discrimination occurring, then you have to default back to addressing the behavioral issue rather than the legal issue.

And that is the tragedy of this well-intended but ultimately destructive advocacy journalism. By trying to make the root cause of the problem race rather than the real root cause, individual choices and behaviors, the opportunity is missed to actually make real improvements.

The journalists in this instance appear not to have much grounding in economics (or alternatively, reality). All the debts that they highlight are lawfully incurred debt obligations. All the collectors are lawfully seeking payment of those debts. Making it harder for them to collect the money that is owed them does not make the underlying problem go away. In fact, it exacerbates the problem. If debt default rates go up, then those companies will institute more stringent policies to prevent the debt being incurred in the first place. Lack of access to financing simply makes the life of the poor even harder, not the outcome that Kiel and Waldman actually want.

If they were honest about the data they have uncovered, they would acknowledge that the solution lies with helping people to become better financial planners and financial managers. This is not a race issue. Trying to make it about race is deceitful and counter-productive.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Assortative mating by IQ and Credit Score

Interesting with disturbing implications. From Credit Scores and Committed Relationships by Jane Dokko, Geng Li, and Jessica Hayes. From the abstract:
This paper presents novel evidence on the role of credit scores in the dynamics of committed relationships. We document substantial positive assortative matching with respect to credit scores, even when controlling for other socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. As a result, individual-level differences in access to credit are largely preserved at the household level. Moreover, we find that the couples’ average level of and the match quality in credit scores, measured at the time of relationship formation, are highly predictive of subsequent separations. This result arises, in part, because initial credit scores and match quality predict subsequent credit usage and financial distress, which in turn are correlated with relationship dissolution. Credit scores and match quality appear predictive of subsequent separations even beyond these credit channels, suggesting that credit scores reveal an individual’s relationship skill and level of commitment. We present ancillary evidence supporting the interpretation of this skill as trustworthiness.
It has been well observed that there is an assortative mating process going on at the university level. People with college degrees tend to marry others with college degrees and people with higher end quality educations tend to marry people with comparable quality educations. Well known and much discussed. One of the underlying issues here is that college admissions, particularly at the most competitive universities are highly with IQ. Basically, university has become the means by which smart people meet other smart people.

Many have expressed concern that we are inadvertently potentially creating a two tier society. The smart educated people marrying among themselves and everyone else. I think the concern is overblown but not ill-founded. Particularly when you read something like Charles Murray's Coming Apart.

Both in that book and the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman, there is another element beyond IQ, what Heckman refers to as non-cognitive skills and which others describe as social-behavioral skills. Being prompt, diligent, persistent, future-oriented, self-controlled, self-disciplined, trustworthy, hard-working, etc.

Credit scores are a loose proxy for a range of these non-cognitive skills invoking as they do future-orientation, self-control, etc. So the implication, and it is not unreasonable, is that we have assortative mating going on based on IQ (from universities) as well behavioral assortative mating, indirectly predictable through credit scores.

Presumably few people enter into a relationship based on a credit score. However, there is much talk and some research that student loans are beginning to become an obstacle to relationship formation and sustenance. But you don't have to know someone's credit rating to discern their behavioral attributes. Its just interesting to see the connection being documented.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Evidence-based decision making has never been especially popular

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an op-ed, Michelle Obama’s misguided girl power agenda which raises a question I hadn't really considered before. Or at least hadn't focused on. Riley's argument in the article is the Michelle Obama is conflating problems of the developing world with those of the US and that that is a category error.
As is the tendency with people who speak on behalf of Girl Power, Mrs. Obama seems to be confusing the problems of girls like, say Malala, with those in America’s inner cities.

In the developing world it is true that girls are prevented from getting an education. They are too poor, their families need them to carry water to and from their homes, they have no sanitary facilities at school or there are Islamist lunatics trying to kill them or kidnap them when they go to school.

But the girls in America are in an entirely different situation.
The problems in the developing world do include that too few girls and women are educated to their full potential. But that is not the problem in the US. In fact we have the reverse problem. Too few boys and men are being educated to their full potential.

From National high school graduation rates at historic high, but disparities still exist by Lindsey Layton.
Nationally, girls had a higher graduation rate, at 84 percent, while boys had a rate of 77 percent.
So girls graduate high school at a rate that is ten percent higher than boys. That means that girls are 52% of all high school graduates. That is pretty consequential given the yawning gap between incomes of high school graduates versus non-graduates.

But it gets worse. Back to Riley.
In 2013, according to the Current Population Survey, 25- to 34-year-old women were 21 percent more likely to have a college degree than men and 48 percent more likely to have finished graduate school.
Put differently, in 2015, women earned 63% of all associate graduates degrees, 60% of all four-year degrees and 61% of all graduate degrees (all from Projections of Education Statistics to 2015 from the National Center for Educations Statistics).

If we go strictly by the numbers, there is no crisis in American education for girls. They graduate at a higher rate than boys at every stage of the educational chain, and at increasingly disproportionate rates, the higher up the chain you go. If we should be focusing on anybody, the data tells us we should be focusing on boys. But evidence-based decision making has never been especially popular.

Argument structuring

From How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently by Maria Popova.

Quoting Dennett.
How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
I agree in principle and this can be done to some extent in writing but it is subject to subversion from time constraints and ill-mannered participants.

Specifically, if you have ten minutes to make your argument before people lose interest, and especially when it is a complex topic where validation of predicates is required, then it becomes extremely difficult to do justice to both your opponents argument as well as your own. It can be done but it requires a lot of skill and practice.

Similarly, if your opponent in the argument is not dealing straight, then it becomes counterproductive to acknowledge any validity to their argument. Dennett's list presumes a degree of trust and respect that is often absent.

All that said, it is a very worthwhile approach even in the confines of one's own mind. Opponents rarely make the best argument for their position. How can you improve their argument for them? Once you have clarity on that it either sheds light on weaknesses in your own position or it allows you to target the material weakness in theirs.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Contingently accepted

I saw a painful video clip of Senate testimony that was really almost too embarrassing to finish. The president of The Sierra Club, to which I have contributed money over the years, was testifying to his understanding that global warming was a real issue. Unfortunately he was then cross-examined by Senator Ted Cruz, a former Solicitor General of Texas (having argued nine cases before the US Supreme Court) with a quick and capacious mind. Cruz, quite properly, is pointing out the dramatic gap between climate model forecasts and actual observed temperatures and arguing that we ought to base policy on real data and not on some mythical scientific consensus, the embarrassing position of the Sierra Club president. The video is here.

Clearly it was an unfair match and Cruz made his point. It's just unpleasant to see someone so politely discredited as was the Sierra Club president. But I suppose that is the inherent risk undertaken when you vocally advocate positions you don't actually understand and can't defend. Frequently appealing to a false "consensus of scientists" and stipulating that points of discussion are "not up for debate" is a strident and usually indefensible position.

Which leads to the second, rather interesting article I stumbled across, Disproved Discoveries That Won Nobel Prizes by Ross Pomeroy.

Pomeroy identifies three instances where an award recipient was recognized for work that turned out to be wrong.
Johannes Fibiger in 1926 recognized for his discovery of a parasitic worm which causes cancer. The worm exists but it does not cause cancer.

Enrico Fermi in 1938 for demonstrating the existence of new radioactive elements. This belief arose as a result of Fermi's work with Uranium. It turned out that what he had done was not to create new radioactive elements but to create nuclear fission. So the work was remarkable and game-changing but the details for which he was recognized were not quite right.

Camillo Golgi in 1906 for work on the structure of the human nervous system which ended up being disproven.
The science is never settled, just contingently accepted until a different or more refined understanding is reached.

Friday, October 9, 2015

That is a Pavlovian reaction and it is not helpful

A conjunction of articles about the danger of trying to arrive at quick simple answers to complex issues whether it be climate change, diet, or public safety.

First up is this article, For decades, the government steered millions away from whole milk. Was that wrong? by Peter Whoriskey which highlights what has been know for a good while now - the government makes strong recommendations, constrains public choices, and creates policy incentives and disincentives when in fact they don't know what they are talking about.

Since the government first began making strong policy decisions around the public diet, our obesity rate has ballooned. Correlation is not causation but there is emerging evidence to suggest that government guidelines have been a material contributor to this epidemic. So now, still ignorant about the nature of the complex system of food, nutrition, diet and eating habits, we also have massive government programs to stem the obesity epidemic which government programs helped instigate.

Whoriskey is focusing on the situation with the government's recommendations regarding milk. There is now evidence indicating that the advice has not only been wrong but perhaps also harmful, increasing mortality rates of those who moved away from drinking whole milk to drinking skim milk.

To me, the interesting point is not so much that the government gives bad advice, as the basis on which that advice was mustered in the first place. We know that the human dietary and nutritional system is complex, varying over the course of a lifetime and subject to all sorts of externalities and confounding independent variables. We also know that human health systems are likewise complex. You can have people move on to a regimen of cholesterol drugs in order to reduce bad cholesterol and successfully achieve a decrease in deaths by heart attack while experiencing an increase in deaths from other causes. So you haven't changed your mortality rate, just the cause of death. That is not a success.

What we most want is for decisions to be evidence-based and with a clear articulation of the desired outcome in its whole context. The milk issue was originally surfaced out of a fear that drinking milk was correlated with heart disease. The goal was to reduce heart disease by drinking less whole milk. While parts of the causative relationship between milk consumption and heart disease were known, there were all sorts of missing links and there was little overall empirical evidence. No one ran a double blind test of milk consumption presumably because those take a lot of money and decades of time. Instead, based on correlation and theory and an overarching concern to do something about heart disease, the government issued its edicts. Edicts which turned out to be wrong and probably harmful.

Not only was the answer to the question "Does milk cause heart disease?" wrong but it was the wrong question in the first place. The real question they ought to have been asking, since diet and health are such complex multicausal systems, was "What role does milk play in health and mortality?" That broader question would have forced more research that might have saved a lot of time, money and perhaps lives.

Another example is this clip of Charles C.W. Cooke about gun-control. It's a great contrast in two visions of government. The journalist Mark Halperin is making the argument that passion compels us to do something in the face of gun tragedies and Charles Cooke is making the argument that passion has nothing to do with it, instead we should be asking "What are the actions that we can undertake which will have a positive reduction in gun crimes within the context of all other parameters such as civil rights, etc.?" He is making the additional point that this is a complex multicausal issue and that the one thing we do know is that most of the proffered policy changes will not reduce the problem. If the proposed policies won't solve the problem, then why do we keep making the same recommendations? Cooke by far has the best position in this argument, leaving poor old Halperin without a leg to stand on.

Simple, knee-jerk solutions to complex multicausal problems are rarely productive. Or, as Cooke so eloquently puts it, "That is a Pavlovian reaction and it is not helpful."

Climate change, income inequality, poverty, obesity, etc. They all fall into this category where the system is complex and multicausal. It is not that we should do nothing because they are complex and multicausal. The argument is that we should know enough about what we are doing to be confident that we will achieve the desired outcomes. The bar for confidence with regard to complex multicausal systems is very high. Too often we let our base emotional nature steer us towards glib answers that have nothing to do with the real root causes and end up making the problem worse rather than better.

Have some self-discipline and make considered decisions and avoid emotionally flailing about making a gesture towards a solution without solving the problem.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book

Interesting that it is Slate that has this article, Banned Books Week Is a Crock by Ruth Graham.

I have been mulling on this for a long time. I posted something a couple of years ago with the numbers. In a country of some 310 million. We only have a few hundred book "challenges" in a year.
The statistics certainly sound alarming. Since Banned Books Week was instituted in 1982, the event’s website informs us, 11,300 books have been challenged. In 2014 alone, 311 books were banned or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States, with many more cases unreported. It would be easy to assume that the literal banning of books is still a routine occurrence in the United States.

But take a closer look, and there’s much less for freedom-loving readers to be concerned with. The modifier “banned or challenged” contains a lot of wiggle room, for one. A “challenge,” in the ALA’s definition, is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” By that definition, Sims’ one-woman freak-out in Tennessee qualifies as a “challenge,” despite the fact that it posed no real threat to Skloot’s book, let alone the “freedom to read.”

Once upon a time, book bans were a serious issue in the United States. The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, made it illegal to circulate “obscene literature.” Even classics like The Canterbury Tales fell under that description in the eyes of Victorian moralists, and in the middle of the last century, publishers and booksellers of forbidden novels including Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill were actually prosecuted in court. But in the years since, social and legal tolerance for censorship plummeted. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Island Trees School District v. Pico, ruled that local school boards can’t remove books from their libraries simply because they’re offended by them.
So roughly, there was one book challenged for every million citizens. I'd say 1 in a million is pretty good except that there are always people who are eager advocates for suppressing free speech. You have to watch them like a hawk.

I think Graham is a little hard on the American Library Association, who run banned book week. Yes, to a certain extent they are making much ado about nothing, on the other hand, it is worthwhile reminding people in very visible ways that we cannot take any of our civil liberties for granted, you have to be constantly vigilant.

However, there is a tool in the advocacy toolkit that I particularly despise and I am afraid that it is used with some abandon in Banned Book Week, and that is the conscious debasement of language in order to arrive at a faith-based conviction rather than to elucidate an empirical reality.

In this case, as Graham points out, it is the idea that books are being banned. They are not being banned. Federal, State, County, City - no one is allowed to ban books. It simply doesn't happen. There are no banned books in the US.

What is being proffered as banned are two different categories. One category are those books which are being challenged for appropriateness. Usually these are being challenged on two grounds, one is that the content is inappropriate for the community norms. These challenges never, as far as I am aware, succeed. The other grounds are that the book is inappropriate by age. That is a lot more nuanced and reasonable minds can disagree. These challenges are usually in the context of school. Is it appropriate for 5th graders to be reading Go Ask Alice? Perhaps, perhaps not. Often the issue is not about banning the book per se, but moving it into a more age appropriate slot.

The other category are books which schools and libraries are being pressured by parents or residents to either 1) not buy, or 2) remove from the shelves/reading list. Again, neither of these constitute banning. No government entity has an implied obligation to make all books available. There are limits to budgets and bookshelves. So what is being counted as "banned" are really often citizen engagement with the governmental process, which is actually a good thing. We may be disappointed that XYZ school district does not want to teach Huckleberry Finn because of language, but that is not a ban. It is a bad educational choice on the part of that school district.

So ALA broadens the definition of "banned" absurdly and even with that overbroad definition, they are only able to rustle up 311 instances of "banning."

From that perspective, freedom of speech in America is in unassailably good shape. But that's not the case and here's where I think ALA is missing a trick. I understand why they shy away from it but it is actually their most important risk.

Freedom of speech is under undeniable assault in our schools and universities. 55% of our universities apply speech codes which seriously infringe on freedom of speech. Though not as well quantified, there is reason to believe the situation is even worse in high schools. Some universities, demonstrating a phenomenal tone deafness, even go to the lengths of designating free speech zones. Separate from speech codes, there is the emerging problem of heckler's vetoes which more and more universities seem to allow advocacy groups to exercise as evidenced by the number of graduation speaker invitations withdrawn and the number of campus presentations which have to be shut down, moved, or contained owing to people protesting simply because someone is saying something with which they disagree.

It used to be that the threat to freedom of speech and freedom to read what you want was most manifest from the low-browed masses. Now it is the pointy-headed elite who want to ban speech, or, at least, going along with the idea for someone else to ban it (heckler's veto.) Universities and schools still want to benefit from the positive brand image of education and higher education so it is natural that no one wants to talk about this thuggish repression that is being tolerated and cultivated. But ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

See IUPUI says sorry to janitor scolded over KKK book from FIRE for an account of an instance where a university's inclination to suppress freedom of speech leads to express actions to suppress reading.
Sampson’s troubles began last year when a co-worker complained after seeing him reading a book titled ”Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.”

The book’s cover features white-robed Klansmen and burning crosses against a backdrop of Notre Dame’s campus. It recounts a 1924 riot between Notre Dame students and the Klan in which the students from the Catholic university prevailed.

Sampson, a 58-year-old white janitor and student majoring in communication studies, said he tried to explain that the book was a historical account.

”I have an interest in American history,” Sampson said. ”I was trying to educate myself.”

But Sampson says his union official likened the book to bringing pornography to work, and the school’s affirmative action officer in November told Sampson his conduct constituted racial harassment.

”You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your black co-workers,” Lillian Charleston wrote in a letter to Sampson.
That last paragraph sends shivers up the spine, calling forth the totalitarian spirit of the minor bureaucrat finding a way to lord it over someone with even less power, a spirit so ably conjured by J.K. Rowling with her despicable character Dolores Umbridge. See this video of the IUPI incident here.

What ALA, or someone else, ought to be doing is focusing on banned speech. That's where the greatest threat lies. Banned Book Week is, fortunately, a shadow of an issue, more a remembrance of past intolerance than a fight against current banning. The enemies of freedom have moved on and are now focusing on speech itself. But once they suppress speech, books can't be far behind.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Weeping econ professors

I like Paul Theroux well enough, particularly his very earliest writings. But it is regrettable how authors pen op-eds on things they are ill-informed about to stoke outrage that will help sell books (Theroux has a new one out.)

From The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor by Paul Theroux. In this instance, Theroux is trying to stir populist outrage against businessmen and globalization without understanding the nature of economics. The opening paragraphs are enough to make an Intro to Econ professor weep.
Every so often, you hear grotesquely wealthy American chief executives announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions, or billions, “to lift people out of poverty.” Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases, they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.

Buried in a long story about corruption in China in The New York Times a couple of months ago was the astonishing fact that the era of “supercharged growth” over the past several decades had the effect of “lifting more than 600 million people out of poverty.” From handouts? From Habitat for Humanity? From the Clinton Global Initiative?

No, oddly enough, China has been enriched by American-supplied jobs, making most of the destined-for-the-dump merchandise you find on store shelves all over America, every piece of plastic you can name, as well as Apple products, Barbie dolls or Nike LeBron basketball shoes retailed in the United States for up to $320 a pair. “The uplifting of impoverished people” was one of the reasons Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, gave in 1998 for moving his factories out of the United States.

The Chinese success, helped by American investment, is perhaps not astonishing after all; it has coincided with a large number of Americans’ being put out of work and plunged into poverty.
This is your traditional zero-sum understanding of the economy going all the way back to Marx and earlier where one person cannot get richer without another person becoming poorer. This is, of course, they very opposite of an open capitalist market where all people become better off through free trade.

It has been known and understood all along in classical liberal economics circles that 1) global markets improve productivity, efficiency and income, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty and 2) all free markets entail creative destruction. Old plants close, new plants open. Jobs requiring heavy repetitive labor move offshore while white collar, creative, services jobs open up here. It is never in stasis, there are always, at any given point in time people that have benefited and others who have lost. But what we do know empirically and beyond doubt is that the free market is the best and fastest way to improve the lives of all people and that there are no other known systems which produce superior outcomes. Actually, we know more than that. All existing alternative systems produce worse outcomes and usually much, much worse. There is no empirical dispute about the data demonstrating this.

Business executives in lawful and free markets do not make fortunes by impoverishing anyone. That is absurd, economically ignorant rhetoric even if it might be ideologically comforting and might sell a few extra copies of his books. It is the rhetoric of envy and populist anger.

Fostering open, lawful, free markets has been a north star for American foreign policy for decades. It has been always understood that such globalization would make everyone, American and foreign, richer but that there would come disruptions with that global competition. Some people suffer those disruptions in the short term and it makes it no easier in the short term to know that in the long run, both you and your children will be better off. What Theroux and his ilk fail to recognize is that even without globalization, change would have come, the factories would still have been shuttered. It would have taken longer but usually, postponed change is even more disruptive. The changes come, quicker or longer. The impact is always greater the longer it is postponed.

Globalization is simply a straw-man.

It is a pity our public intellectuals flood the pages with cognitive pollution and it is repugnant that they do so simply to sell more books.

There is good reason to believe that the institutions of government are now hostage to special interests.

A generally interesting column by Thomas B. Edsall, as his columns usually are, How Did the Democrats Become Favorites of the Rich?

The general gist of the column is the convergence of both the Republican and the Democrat parties on to a model where they are much more dependent on the wealthy patron and donor, than in the past. True enough.

Edsall included a couple of graphs supporting this contention.

Click to enlarge.

My take-away from this is slightly different from Edsall's. Yes, there is a rising dependency on big donors. What I see is that in the 1980s, both parties depended on small donors for 60 or 70% of their financial support. In 2012, they both relied on small donors for only ~25% of their financial support. In other words, in the past thirty-two years, both parties have switched from being broad based parties dependent on the voter to parties which now answer to special interests for 75% of their financial support.

No wonder surveys show that only 15% of the electorate trust Government most the time (and only about 10% trust Congress). Only 6% regard the mainstream media as trustworthy.

There are two trends that get discussed with some regularity, the polarization of politics and secondarily, the disaffection with politics.

I view the polarization issue as unproven. Pundits treat it as a given that politics are more polarized today than in yesteryear but I am not convinced that that is true. In fact, I am pretty confident it is not true based on any reasonable empirical proxy for polarization. I think the second issue, disaffection with politics and lower trust in government, are actually the more important issues that need tackling. It is important to distinguish the two conditions because the solutions are dramatically different.

Polarization is resolvable through the art of politics, negotiation and compromise. It may not be easy but it is old hat. We know how to do this if we wish. Loss of faith in politics as a whole and loss of trust in the institutions of government are far more serious issues requiring much more dramatic changes.

The fact that the main political parties are now beholden to special interests to a far greater degree than in the past indicates to me that there is a very real basis for concern among the average voters and that addressing that will require much more principled decision-marking among the leaders of the major parties than either of them have shown in the recent past.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reversal of misfortunes

From Crime in Europe and the United States: dissecting the ‘reversal of misfortunes’ by Paolo Buonanno, Francesco Drago, Roberto Galbiati,and Giulio Zanella. Abstract:
Contrary to common perceptions, today both property and violent crimes (with the exception of homicides) are more widespread in Europe than in the United States, while the opposite was true thirty years ago. We label this fact as the ‘reversal of misfortunes’. We investigate what accounts for the reversal by studying the causal impact of demographic changes, incarceration, abortion, unemployment and immigration on crime. For this we use time series data (1970–2008) from seven European countries and the United States. We find that the demographic structure of the population and the incarceration rate are important determinants of crime. Our results suggest that a tougher incarceration policy may be an effective way to contrast crime in Europe.
It has been my experiential perception that this, higher crime in Europe than in the US, has been true for a number of years now, though I have not seen the empirical evidence to support that. Interesting to see it here.

But there are always nuances.

My guess is that for the upper two and maybe three quintiles, crime rates between Europe and the US might actually be fairly similar, that most of the variance between the two occurs in the bottom two quintiles.

I suspect that is especially the case for homicide, which they note as the exception. But the US has a very specific homicide problem that it has not yet figured out how to tackle and which is, in fact, politically explosive - no one wants to touch it even though we should be focusing on it and addressing it. That is that half the homicides are committed in an urban environment by African-American males between the ages of 15 and 45. Without those 5,000 murders, the US is, I would wager, significantly safer than Europe even on the homicide measure.

War on Drugs was meant to address this problem, but did not. Because it is so fraught a topic, no one wants to talk about it and so the killings go on.

The abstract sheds light on trade-off choices. There are libraries of conflicting books and research about the relationship between crime and punishment. The US, for past thirty years, has had a much more punitive judicial system than Europe, and we have had, perhaps consequently, a faster and steeper fall in crime than Europe. At this point, Europe is kinder to its perpetrators than the US but it has higher crime as a consequence.

There is much to criticize in the US judicial system (particular the elements where we use the judicial system as a means of revenue generation) and there is an emerging bi-partisan effort to indeed reduce the most egregious features. But it is an interesting trade=-off that is hard to discuss and hard to achieve between mercy and safety. We have one set of outcomes. What are we willing to give (increasing mercy) when it seems clear that all we will get is increased suffering (increased crime).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Guess you can tell who is not a cultural anthropologist

From The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris.

Speaking of the poor repute in which economics is held in some quarters.
Part of this is guilt by association. As a social science, economics tends to get lumped in with "soft" disciplines like cultural anthropology, much of which reads like fairy tales translated into Esperanto, and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, who discovered nothing and cured nobody.