Tuesday, February 28, 2017

For to be social is to be forgiving

From The Star Splitter by Robert Frost.
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn't take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.

They themselves don’t (can’t?) make clear distinctions between “religion” and “politics.”

From 10 Questions for Shadi Hamid interview by Razib Khan.

The two gentlemen are both very intelligent and both grappling at a fundamental level with what it means to be of this world. I found this especially valuable because they both are, I think, American born and therefore, to some degree, children of the world of the enlightenment era, but they both have strong ties to Old World cultures. One is of Muslim Egyptian heritage, the other of Muslim Bangladeshi heritage.

While both are bright, exceptionally educated, asking all sorts of fundamental questions, it is also startling some of the swaths of ignorance on display as well. Ignorance, not as in stupid, but as in things of which they are unaware.

Part of why I found the interview so interesting is that it skirts an issue about which I have been mulling for some years. I accept that Islam is the number one religion of discord in the world. At this point in time, most of the major civil wars (Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq) are linked to Islam; most of the major terrorist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) are linked to Islam; most of the countries suppressing or committing genocide against Christians (Iraq and Sudan) are linked to Islam; most the countries with significant civil violence associated with Muslim minorities (Nigeria, Philippines and Myanmar); and most of the countries with the most egregious human rights records are linked to Islam.

But why should be? It hasn't seemed that it was always so.

My suspicion, though not satisfactorily settled, is that one of the root issues might be that Islam does not fit the mould of what we consider a religion in traditional Western terms. In many ways, it is much closer to an ideology; a totalitarian ideology. I think it is in some respects like Confucianism. We call Confucianism a religion but it lacks some of the obvious traits of what we consider a religion in the West. It is more like an explicated culture than a religion per se. This challenge is a definitional one.

We treat Islam as a religion, as it clearly is in many respects, but wrestle with the totalitarian ideology that is also embedded in the religion - the pursuit of the ummah, as it were.

In the discussion between Hamid and Khan, there are many elements that seem to align to this supposition that the challenge is not with religious Islam but rather with the ideological totalitarian aspect of Islam (where that totalitarian element exists).

An example of the productively provocative conversation:
I think my skepticism on secularism taking hold in the Muslim world was always there somewhere, but they were initially just impressions that weren’t really well thought out. It’s sort of just something I began to feel more and more during my fieldwork in the late 2000s. If you spend a lot of time with Islamists, you can’t help but realize that, when you ask them to explain why they do what they do, they themselves don’t (can’t?) make clear distinctions between “religion” and “politics.” So, I kind of started absorbing this through those conversations, many of which were just pretty much me hanging out with them, with some structured questions to start, but most of it would devolve into free-form conversations, especially with the younger guys. I guess I was just more interested in understanding what really drove them more than in answering the questions I had scribbled down in my notebook.

It really hit me, though, after the Arab Spring, seeing democratic transitions collapse and trying to understand why. Politics – in Egypt certainly but also in supposedly bright, hopeful Tunisia – felt increasingly existential, and the role and power of religion was a big part of that. People weren’t debating the finer points of tax policy or healthcare; they were debating the most fundamental questions you could possibly ask, about the relationship between Islam and the state and what it meant to be an Egyptian or a Tunisian or a Turk. So that led me to a more basic set of observations about what drives not just Islamists or Muslims, but voters (and people) more generally, and that became a theme in my previous book Temptations of Power, in which I began exploring the tensions between democracy and small-l, classical liberalism.

When you see people who you care about and maybe even love – in this case my secular elite relatives in Egypt – supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen (during the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), it really has a lasting effect on you.

Totalitarianism is an entropic force in constant tension with Liberty, an anti-entropic force.

From The World Series, the election, the Oscars. What is going on? by Jonah Goldberg. Referring to this year's Oscars:
The first thing to say is that Sunday night’s bizarreness fits into a more general trend of universal weirdness. It’s as if at some point we took the wrong exit into a parallel universe, and the bungled Oscars are just the latest example that we’re strangers in a strange land (as John Podhoretz joked on Twitter, “The Man in the High Envelope”).

Maybe there’s some weird version of the Beetlejuice curse, where if you say “that’ll never happen” three times, it happens.

This certainly seems true in sports, where decades-long rules of the universe have been rescinded. The Chicago Cubs exorcised the spirit of the billy goat, the New England Patriots came back from a Super Bowl deficit everyone “knew” was insurmountable. And Cleveland, violating all biblical prophecy, is now a sports powerhouse.

In politics, the first obvious sign that the world was off its axis was the Florida recount in 2000. But the unraveling has been accelerating. A black guy named Barack Hussein Obama will defeat Hillary Clinton and be elected president? “Never happen.” Donald Trump, president of the United States? “Never happen.” How many times have the polls been wrong now? The pundits? The economists? Google “Brexit,” or “financial crisis” and you’ll see.

Maybe the experts aren’t clueless, they just don’t realize that for some reason we live on Earth 2, where these things are normal.
Goldberg then goes on to speculate on alternative answers, drawing on Steven Pinker's What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be More Widely Known? by Steven Pinker. Goldberg:
Steven Pinker recently wrote a wonderful little essay (for edge.org) on how people need to better appreciate the second law. Specifically, they need to understand that if we don’t actively work to keep chaos at bay, entropy wins. “Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.”

“The Second Law of Thermodynamics” Pinker adds, “is acknowledged in everyday life” whenever we say things like “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart” and “Rust never sleeps.”

Complicated things are… complicated. If you don’t work very hard at keeping them running, the natural order of the universe is for them to break down. Planes don’t “want” to fly, bikes don’t “want” to stay upright and people, markets and institutions don’t always want to behave the way experts in Washington want or expect them to.
The West was built on Freedom with critical components of Competition (free markets), Transparency (availability and access to timely, accurate information), Accountability (it is known who has authority to act), and Consequentiality (those who act bear the burden, and benefit, of the consequences of their acts), also known as the Rule of Law.

Rule of Law, Personal Liberty, Free Markets, Competition, Accountability drive towards local order in a system that is otherwise subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. These features are anti-entropic.

Sustained prosperity accompanied by totalitarianism as manifested by regulatory capture, rent seeking by established players, vested interests who are systemically protected, crony capitalism, regulated markets, market concentration via oligopolies, over-legislating, active suppression of free speech (media concentration, anti-free speech codes, etc.) are all aspects of entropy.

Freedom and Liberty and their associated attributes as articulated in the Age of Enlightenment are the anti-entropic forces working against the entropic force of totalitarianism. Freedom and Liberty drive local organization whereas totalitarianism drives disorder at the system level.

Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps Goldberg is correct. After a long run of rising systemic totalitarianism occurring because we seek to minimize risk and only systemic control can reduce tactical risk (at the expense of system-wide entropy) perhaps we are indeed at the height of the pendulum arc and getting ready now to reenergize freedom and liberty (at the expense of totalitarianism and stability).

Hence the crazy times. This line of thinking adds heft to the adage that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Indeed, entropy is always seeking to creep in from the totalitarian cold.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Westerners often forget this fact

From The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington.
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

Interpersonal expectations originate because they reflect rather than cause social reality

From the abstract of Précis of Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy by Lee Jussim.
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.
If robustly true, this could have saved me a lot of arguments over the years.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act I, scene iii.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The limitation of authority and the division of power

From Political Order and Political Decay by Samuel P. Huntington
When an American thinks about the problem of government-building, he directs himself not to the creation of authority and the accumulation of power but rather to the limitation of authority and the division of power. Asked to design a government, he comes up with a written constitution, bill of rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, regular elections, competitive parties--all excellent devices for limiting government. The Lockean American is so fundamentally anti-government that he identifies government with restrictions on government.

Noisy concern

From Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation by Edmund Burke
It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the publick to be the most anxious for its welfare.

The presumptuous judgement of the ignorant upon their designs

From An account of the European Settlements in America by Edmund Burke.
There is a sort of enthusiasm in all projectors, absolutely necessary for their affairs, which makes them proof against the most fatiguing delays, the most mortifying disappointments, the most shocking insults; and, what is severer than all, the presumptuous judgement of the ignorant upon their designs.
Sounds like a much kinder description of those who, by Thomas Sowell's description, have The Vision of the Anointed, cruelly, though accurately, sub-titled, Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.

Mars's RED is Venus's CRIMSON

This is wonderful. From Data Pointed. A pictorial rendition of the relative frequency of men and women's names for colors (often, the same color). From their description:
That’s a dot for each of the 2,000 most commonly-used color names as harvested from the 5,000,000-plus-sample results of XKCD’s color survey, sized by relative usage and positioned side-to-side by average hue and vertically by gender preference. Women tend to use color names nearer the top, men towards the bottom, and the dashed line represents the 50-50 split (equal usage by both sexes). Click through to the interactive version, mouse over a few dots, and it should all become clearer.

NEAR THE MIDDLE, the huge ovals of the most common colors – green, blue, purple, etc. – cluster slightly below the centerline: 57% male and 43% female, on average. Both sexes tend to generalize, and men slightly more often than women. Of the top 100 most-oft-used names, lone outlier cyan juts farthest into male territory, preferred by guys over gals more than two to one. Why? Are dudes under the old-school influence of CGA palette #1? Suffering the side effects of one too many encounters with the blue-green printer cartridge? Hypnotized by the macho machinations of that dastardly Cyanide? Your guess is as good as mine.

Across the top, witness the nuanced verbal repertoire of feminine color differentiation. While us men are busy grunting, guzzling beer, and shoving our hands down our pants, women get specific by mixing fruits, animals, spices, flowers, and other such familiarities with finely-honed modifiers like neon and dusty. The result? A vast panoply of warm-fuzzy color names that seemingly trounces anything our Y-chromosomes have to offer.

But don’t fret, dudes. Although the Pottery Barn’s color department wouldn’t appreciate them, we do have some “special” talents. Consider these lovely names from our side:

Some Male Color Names

Aye, in the male visual cortex, bodily fluid and excrement terminology is strong.

Now, let’s freshen up with a few favorites of the ladies:

Some Female Color Names

That’s no typo: women prefer camel!
Here is the static screen grab, but go here for the interactive graphic and see how men view a much less nuanced world of colors.

Smart people in charge of things is fine, but what you really want is wise people

In some quarters, well perhaps many quarters, I see that Tucker Carlson's new TV show is drawing a lot of accolades for tough questioning. I watched a couple of episodes and came away feeling that it wasn't my cup of tea. Too like John Stewart's old Daily Show with admittedly quick-witted, though often glib banter that deliberately or accidentally preened the 5% while coasting on simple gotcha journalism. Their crowning accomplishments were always around the editing of content to mock guests who engaged with some degree of integrity (though often with credulity). Stewart is talented but his accomplishments were masked by taking advantage of people.

Carlson seems more humane but my exposure to the two episodes did not temper my perception of yet more gotcha journalism, just from the other side.

This interview makes me have a more positive view. From The Bow-Tied Bard of Populism by McKay Coppins. In particular, I liked this insight:
To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”

“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”

“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid—I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”


“Putting smart people in charge of things is fine, but what you really want is wise people,” he tells me, and then quotes something his father used to say: “The beginning of wisdom is to know what an asshole you are.”

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice

From The Federalist Papers No. 70 by Alexander Hamilton.
Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. Every man the least conversant in Roman story, knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of Dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.

There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head. A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.
Reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's "The poor object to being governed badly, while the rich object to being governed at all."

Friday, February 24, 2017

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind

From Galileo on Why We Read and How Books Give Us Superhuman Powers by Maria Popova. Quoting Galileo.
With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

But to manipulate men is to deny their human essence

Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) by Isaiah Berlin. Select quotes.
Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.


But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you — the social reformer — see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.


All forms of tampering with human beings, getting at them, shaping them against their will to your own pattern, all thought control and conditioning is, therefore, a denial of that in men which makes them men and their values ultimate.


I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act.

If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.

My Side of the Mountain still haunts me

Sometimes it is hard to discern through the noise but I do enjoy the wit of twitter.

Seen first:


and then later:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Always dig deeper

From Some recent economic developments in Japan by David Andolfatto. It is easy to fall into habits of mind which are, while accurate, also incomplete. In this instance, Andolfatto observes:
Most economic commentators seem to agree that the Japanese economy has been languishing for a very long time. What is it about Japan that gives this impression? In this post, I suggest that while Japan certainly has its share of difficulties, the common impression of stagnant economic performance seems overstated.

For some people, almost everything you need to know about Japanese macroeconomic performance is encapsulated in this diagram:

This chart tells us that the Japanese economy produced about the same total yen value of goods and services in 2016 as it did in 2000. By way of contrast, the U.S. economy increased the total dollar value of its production by 80% over the same period of time.
Yep. That's pretty much the heuristic I have carried in my mind. While clear and easy to understand, it is also incomplete.

Andolfatto perfectly correctly observes that this easy and accurate picture is not the whole story. You have to incorporate inflation and you have to incorporate population growth. When you do, the story is quite different than that presented above.
But there's something else to consider as well. The total income of a country also depends on population size. How much of the difference above is accounted for by different population growth rates? The following diagram provides the answer:

Real per capita income in both the U.S. and Japan is up about 13% and 10%, respectively, since 2000. That's not a highly significant difference in my books, especially if we take the following into consideration. First, the recession in 2009 seems to have hit Japan much harder than the U.S. Second, in the middle of a sharp recovery dynamic from the 2009 recession, Japan suffered a severe earthquake/tsunami shock in April 2011. And third, just as the economy appeared to be recovering from this latter disaster, the Japanese government increased the consumption tax in April 2014.
Serves as a great reminder that useful and accurate tropes can also be misleading. Always dig deeper.

Light half-believers of our casual creeds

From Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh. Page 13.
Actually, the ensuing fragmentation was evident well before the war. In a series of lectures on 'Civilization at the Cross-roads', delivered at Harvard in 1911, the Anglican monk John Neville Figgis said:
amid the Babel of the world's religions and moralities, it is not possible to state what are the governing ideals of the triumphant classes at the moment, and it is ten to one that if you met two dozen at dinner, you would hear a dozen different faiths asserted, with all that voluble enthusiasm that befits 'the light half-believers of our casual creeds . . . if we judge by their conduct, we may ask with Archbishop Benson, when he arrived in London, 'What do the people believe?"
Figgis is quoting Matthew Arnold's The Scholar-Gypsy which contains this stanza:
Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! and we,
Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd,
Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill'd;
For whom each year we see
Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;
Who hesitate and falter life away,
And lose to-morrow the ground won to-day—
Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too?
Scholar-Gypsy was written decade or so before Dover Beach, my favorite Arnold poem. There is a linking idea of causal faith and loss of faith. Dover Beach includes this stanza regarding the loss of religious faith in European civilization.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Half-believers, casual creeds, and the long withdrawing roar.

Social network predictors of latrine ownership

I am accustomed to peculiar or obscure research titles but this one is exceptional.
Social network predictors of latrine ownership by Holly B. Shakyaa, Nicholas A. Christakis, and James H. Fowler.
Christakis is a solid researcher so I am confident there is a good basis for this research but really - Social network predictors of latrine ownership?

Transmissibility of happiness

The research has some weaknesses but it has some material implications if true. From Emotions as infectious diseases in a large social network: the SISa model by Alison L. Hill1, David G. Rand, Martin A. Nowak1, and Nicholas A. Christakis. From the abstract.
Human populations are arranged in social networks that determine interactions and influence the spread of diseases, behaviours and ideas. We evaluate the spread of long-term emotional states across a social network. We introduce a novel form of the classical susceptible–infected–susceptible disease model which includes the possibility for ‘spontaneous’ (or ‘automatic’) infection, in addition to disease trans- mission (the SISa model). Using this framework and data from the Framingham Heart Study, we provide formal evidence that positive and negative emotional states behave like infectious diseases spread- ing across social networks over long periods of time. The probability of becoming content is increased by 0.02 per year for each content contact, and the probability of becoming discontent is increased by 0.04 per year per discontent contact. Our mathematical formalism allows us to derive various quantities from the data, such as the average lifetime of a contentment ‘infection’ (10 years) or discontentment ‘infection’ (5 years). Our results give insight into the transmissive nature of positive and negative emotional states. Determining to what extent particular emotions or behaviours are infectious is a promising direction for further research with important implications for social science, epidemiology and health policy. Our model provides a theoretical framework for studying the interpersonal spread of any state that may also arise spontaneously, such as emotions, behaviours, health states, ideas or diseases with reservoirs.
Cutting to the chase - emotional states are transmissible across social networks with positive emotions transmitting at half the rate of negative emotions.

Be careful with whom you choose to associate - you have the prospect of "catching" their emotional state of being.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The people in America are necessitated to be more sensible and discerning

From Sketches of American Policy by Noah Webster.
One further remark however, which I cannot omit, is that the people in America are necessitated, by their local situation, to be more sensible and discerning, than nations which are limited in territory and confined to the arts of manufacture. In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are, obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life. A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian. This will always be the case in America, so long as their is a vast tract of fertile land to be cultivated, which will occasion emigration from the states already settled. Knowledge is diffused and genius routed by the very situation of America.

Taxonomy of Uncertainty

From WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth! by Andrew W. Lo and and Mark T. Mueller, in which they create a taxonomy of uncertainty.

Click to enlarge.

H/T Scott Alexander

Bulgarian National Radio, the public broadcaster for the country, has been limited to airing music recorded before 1946

I love this story. Limited to Prewar Music, Bulgarian Station Thrives by Boryana Dzhambazov. Reads like something from Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus Complete.
Because of a recent copyright dispute, Bulgarian National Radio, the public broadcaster for the country, has been limited to airing music recorded before 1946. And so far, their listeners seem to have no problem with it.

The station had a 20 percent increase in listenership in January, the first month in which the change was in effect, over December’s numbers, said Bulgarian National Radio’s chief, Alexander Velev. He cited an audience report conducted by the consumer research company Ipsos.

They came back a few minutes later

Oh, my. In searching for one book, to get the data I needed to answer a business issue, I brush across A Collection of Essays by George Orwell which I purchased some months ago. I do like Orwell's work. With a total absence of any sort of biblio self-control, I of course had to free it from the shelf, if only to glance through it. What an excellent collection. From Marrakech, the opening sentence.
As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

Monday, February 20, 2017

We talk to those who are useful to speak with

The research is appropriately hedged around with various caveats. From How stable is the core discussion network? by Mario Luis Small, Vontrese Deeds Pamphile, and Peter McMahan. From the abstract:
Researchers have paid increasing attention to the core discussion network, the set of people we turn to when discussing important matters. Because the core discussion network is theorized to be composed of people’s closest ties, not fleeting acquaintances, it is expected to be largely stable, evolving slowly over the span of people’s lives. However, recent studies have shown that networks are strongly affected by the contexts in which people interact with others, and as people experience life course transitions, they also often enter new contexts – school, college, work, marriage, and retirement. We ask whether, as actors enter new social contexts, the core discussion network remains stable or changes rapidly. Based on original, longitudinal, qualitative and quantitative data on the experience of first-year graduate students in three academic departments in a large university, we examine the stability of the core discussion network over the first 6 and 12 months in this new context. We test four competing hypotheses that focus on strength of ties, new opportunities, obligations, and routine activity and predict, respectively, stasis, expansion, shedding, and substitution. We find that the core discussion network changes remarkably quickly, with little or no lag, and that it appears to do so because both the obligations that people face and the routine activities they engage in are transformed by new institutional environments. Findings suggest that core discussion network may be less a “core” network than a highly contextual support network in which people are added and dropped as actors shift from environment to environment.
Intriguing research. Reading the details, there is a suggestion that our "core" networks are highly utilitarian - we confide and discuss with those who are best positioned to advance our agendas. Makes sense but it is not how we think of our "core" networks. This field is relatively young and I suspect part of the issue is a weak taxonomical lexicon for different types of networks.

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Into My Own
by Robert Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Just a piece of rhythmical grumbling

From Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh. Page 14.

Discussing T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland.
The desire to make a cult of a poem in which cryptic and eclectic allusions to a variety of religions abound was in itself symptomatic of the spiritual appetency of the post-war wasteland it evoked, and which Eliot would mock in his later Four Quartets after he had turned to Anglo-Catholicism. According to Eliot the poem was variously 'just a piece of rhythmical grumbling', or as he later admitted, 'I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying.'
Wish I had known that as a frustrated undergrad when all my English professors were trying to convince me of the significance of The Wasteland. With no intellectual ammunition, I had to hunker down and reserve my opinions.

UPDATE: Apparently authors often did not know what they were doing. From Texas graduate student discovers a Walt Whitman novel lost for more than 150 years by Travis M. Andrews.
Though language in passages of the book mirror that of Whitman’s magnum opus, the form and content are extremely different. Turpin told The Post this serves as “a good reminder that when he was writing ‘Leaves of Grass,’ he didn’t really know what he was writing.”

Definition of insanity

I really like Thomas Edsall as a writer. He does good research and I almost always learn something new reading him. But even the best can be hostage to their world views. In this instance, Edsall's column seems to be a lengthy description of how he would wish the world to be rather than how it is.

The issue is education and the point is to establish some grounds to continue what we are doing or to bring back the nostrums of the past which have already failed. Integration, busing, spend more money, etc. There is no doubt that we are not getting enough value for the investment we are making in K-12 education. No argument there. There is no doubt that we would like education to be more of an equalizer than it already is. But which policies and to what end is the meat of the issue and is not really addressed in the column. Almost certainly, continuing the nostrums and bromides of the past will not get us to the future we might desire.

The argument is a faith-based argument and not really persuasive. He includes much information that is supportive of his position but omits much which is contradictory to it.

What grabbed my attention was the inherent and obvious contradiction between the headline to the column and substance of the article. The headline declares: Integration Works. Can It Survive the Trump Era? by Thomas B. Edsall. But six paragraphs into the column is the plain-as-day data that shows that integration does not work, at least in terms of ensuring that all races achieve equal outcomes.
At the same time, Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at Brookings, and Dimitrios Halikias, a research assistant, tackled one of the most vexing issues in education in their February 2017 Brookings paper, “Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility.”

“Race gaps on the SATs are especially pronounced at the tails of the distribution,” the two authors note. In math, for example,
among top scorers — those scoring between a 750 and 800 — 60 percent are Asian and 33 percent are white, compared to 5 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Meanwhile, among those scoring between 300 and 350, 37 percent are Latino, 35 percent are black, 21 percent are white, and 6 percent are Asian.
Translating those percentages into concrete numbers, Reeves and Halikias estimate that
in the entire country last year at most 2,200 black and 4,900 Latino test-takers scored above a 700. In comparison, roughly 48,000 whites and 52,800 Asians scored that high. The same absolute disparity persists among the highest scorers: 16,000 whites and 29,570 Asians scored above a 750, compared to only at most 1,000 blacks and 2,400 Latinos.
The implication of the headline is that integration will equalize scores but the evidence is that after fifty years of integration, the gaps remain as large as they ever were.

From there, the rest of the column essentially boils down to - we want to keep spending the same and more money on the same policies we have always supported and hope that the outcomes will be different this time.

This is not an example of evidence-based decision making or of an ideology that proclaims itself to be grounded in the scientific method. This is evidence of a faith-based ideology preaching the liturgy.

Edsall asks, Integration Works. Can It Survive the Trump Era? In fact, it is not clear that integration works, and more particularly, it is not clear that integration narrows the race gap. The headline casts this in Trumpian terms, as part of the NYT continuing campaign to fight the winner of the election. But the issue is not Trump. Possibly his might be the precipitating event but the core problem is that we have spent fifty years trying to solve a problem that won't go away. With or without Trump, that particular vehicle was already grinding to a halt. What we do next is critical and won't be solved by pleadings on behalf of the vested interests to continue what we have always done and which has never worked.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dutch Brazil

By circuitous means, the First Battle of Guararapes popped on my radar screen. I had forgotten that the Netherlands had at one time aspirations of a Brazilian colony. Short lived (1630-1654) granted, but a fascinating chapter given all that was going on in the Netherlands at the time (fighting the Spanish).

From Wikipedia about the first battle:
On April 18, 1648, around forty five hundred Dutch soldiers and five artillery pieces marched south, coming from Recife. On their way south, they eliminated a small defensive outpost on the village of Barreta. The few survivors regrouped at the village of Arraial Novo do Bom Jesus, headquarters of the Pernambucana resistance, where they reported the incident.
4,500 men? The Netherlands didn't have but two million people at that time. That is a huge commitment of their available adult male population.

I just recently finished The Shipwrecked Men by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, an account of the 1527 Narváez expedition which started in Florida with some 500-600 men. Eight years later, Cabeza de Vaca with three other surviving Spaniards made it to Mexico City, having travelled across the Southeastern US and likely much of the southwest (their route being uncertain).

A fascinating era of discovery and exploration.

Not bugle's call in the sunlight!

Just started reading Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh. From one of the reviews:
For at least a century, observers of European culture have been noting the decline, or even the death, of organized religion; today, one constantly hears references to a "post-Christian" Europe. Perhaps so, but as Burleigh makes clear in this engrossing and rather disturbing work, the religious impulse remains strong, although it has often reasserted itself under the guise of secular political movements. Through an examination of that meeting ground between religion and politics, Burleigh has attempted to explain European history over the past 90 years.
The is my second Burleigh book, following Small Wars, Far Away Places which I greatly enjoyed for his erudition and insights. Twenty pages in to Sacred Causes and the same attributes of insight and erudition are on display.

He mentions Henri Barbusse who fought in World War I and came to fame with the publication of Le Feu (Under Fire) in 1916. There is a passage in which Barbusse's characters challenge the glorification of war by describing trench warfare as they experienced it:
that is about appalling, superhuman exhaustion, about water up to your belly and about mud, dung and repulsive filth. It is about moulding faces and shredded flesh and corpses that do not even look like corpses anymore, floating on the greedy earth. It is this infinite monotony of miseries, interrupted by sharp, sudden dramas. That is what it is - not the bayonet glittering, like silver or the bugle's call in the sunlight!
A reminder of the still relatively recent past which we ought to use as a counterweight to the hysteria so much in the news.

Nothing says AMERICA like an eagle on your shoulder.

Donald Trump has a cologne called Success? Who knew.

I love the customer Q&A.

Click to enlarge.

Kids just don't have the gumption they used to . . .

Click to enlarge

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Inhabited by a rude description of people

Various accounts by and about Hanno the Navigator. Hanno lived around the fifth century BC.

From the periplus of Hanno describing the terminus of their voyage along the coast of West Africa.
In its inmost recess was an island similar to that formerly described, which contained in like manner a lake with another island, inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.
An unknown world way back in the days before National Geographic.

Wikipedia notes:
When the American physician and missionary Thomas Staughton Savage and naturalist Jeffries Wyman first described the gorillas in the 19th century, the apes were named Troglodytes gorilla after the description in Hanno.
Herodotus, that collector of tales, relates that:
The Carthaginians tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Herakles. On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it presents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.

Liberty and responsibility are inseparable

From The Constitution of Liberty by Friedrich A. Hayek.
Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable. A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept that it is due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered. Since the individual is to be given the opportunity to make use of circumstances that may be known only to him and since, as a rule, nobody else can know whether he has made the best use of them or not, the presumption is that the outcome of his actions is determined by them, unless the contrary is quite obvious.

This belief in individual responsibility, which has always been strong when people firmly believed in individual freedom, has markedly declined, together with the esteem for freedom. Responsibility has become an unpopular concept, a word that experienced speakers or writers avoid because of the obvious boredom or animosity with which it is received by a generation that dislikes all moralizing. It often evokes the outright hostility of men who have been taught that it is nothing but circumstances over which they have no control that has determined their position in life or even their actions. This denial of responsibility is, however, commonly due to a fear of responsibility, a fear that necessarily becomes also a fear of freedom. It is doubtless because the opportunity to build one's own life also means an unceasing task, a discipline that man must impose upon himself if he is to achieve his aims, that many people are afraid of liberty.
Seems like this passage has some passing consistency with Jonathan Haidt's discussions about the developing culture of victimhood.

Jefferson on the Media - "it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood"

Two views of the press from that great Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson.

From a Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (16 January 1787):
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
Also gave us this Document 29, letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 14 June 1807.
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, "by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only." Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
Some things are the same as they ever were.

Chevron and detrimental emergent order

From Gorsuch’s Opposition to Chevron Speaks Well of Trump and Is a Dilemma for Democrats by John O. McGinnis.

I had not realized this about Supreme Court nominee, Gorsuch.
Judge Neil Gorsuch is worthy successor to Justice Antonin Scalia. He is an advocate of originalism who writes well enough to persuade the public and has the intellectual heft to engage the academy. But there is one way in which he differs sharply from Scalia. He is no fan of the Chevron doctrine, which directs judges to defer to agency interpretations of statutes so long as they are reasonable even if the interpretations are not the best. Given that much of modern law is administrative law and so much of our current democratic deficit is due to the administrative state, this is an important difference.
Well, good.

It has seemed to me that one of the more unremarked evolutions in recent decades has been the full chain of consequence related to delegated governance. Specifically, Congress has become increasingly deferential to the Executive. The Executive has delegated more authority to agencies and bureaucrats. And with the Chevron doctrine, the Courts have deferred to the Administrative state.

There are logical reasons for each link in this chain but the net effect is the evisceration of accountability and transparency.

Bureaucratic administrators, the so-called Deep State, are beyond accountability. A democracy works primarily on a combination of trust and accountability to earn the consent of the governed. If the citizenry are unable to exert pressure on bad laws by voting out the Legislature originating the law or the Executive enforcing the law or the Justice system interpreting the law, then the Law itself is suspect and you end up losing the consent of the governed.

This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, this is the governance elite versus the citizenry. Republican and Democrat establishments have both deferred to the Executive. This frees them up from focusing on crafting good and effective laws and allows them to indulge in the Kabuki Theater of legislation - all show and no reality. The Executive (Republican or Democrat) similarly benefits from the concentration of power but given the breadth and depth of government, it is too much for a unitary command. Power is delegated to the Administrative State giving the Executive plausible deniability when there are bad consequences. And Justice? They can avoid making hard decisions by deferring to the bureaucrats.

Everyone gains except the citizenry.

The best solution is for Congress to take back its delegated authority and actually serve their function of representing the interests of the citizenry through crafted law and policy. The second best solution is for the Executive to take responsibility back from the Administrative State, either directly or via cabinet members.

Overturning the deference embedded in the Chevron decision is the least direct way of resolving the problem, but it is at least a step in the right direction of bringing the system back into balance and restoring some modicum of transparency and accountability.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Like a parson’s damn

From The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy
Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Comparing the incidence of terrorism with that of common accidents is an incompetent and irresponsible use of statistics

From Stop Telling Me How Dangerous My Bathtub Is by Justin Fox.

Fox is dealing with a common non sequitur used by the press to impugn those who fear terrorism, i.e. the trope that more people die from slips and falls in the bathroom than from terrorist attacks. Fox explores why it is a non sequitur.
First is that terrorism is designed to, you know, sow terror. As Ganesh writes,
most people can intuit the difference between domestic misfortune and political violence. The latter is an assault on the system: the rules and institutions that distinguish society from the state of nature. Bathroom deaths could multiply by 50 without a threat to civil order. The incidence of terror could not.
Second is that ladders, stairs and bathtubs are undeniably useful. Terrorists, not so much. (I’ll get back to usefulness in a moment.)
Finally, comparing the incidence of terrorism with that of common accidents is an incompetent and irresponsible use of statistics. Household accidents are lots and lots of small, unrelated events. As a result, while individual accidents can’t be predicted, the overall risk is easy to quantify and is pretty stable from year to year.

Terrorism is different. There are small incidents, but there are also huge ones in which hundreds or thousands of people die. It’s a fat-tailed distribution, in which outliers are really important. It also isn’t stable: Five or 10 or even 50 years of data isn’t necessarily enough to allow one to predict with confidence what’s going to happen next year. It’s a little like housing prices -- the fact that they hadn’t declined on the national level for more than 50 years before 2006 didn’t mean they couldn’t decline. Meanwhile, the widespread belief that they wouldn’t decline made the housing collapse more likely and more costly.

65% of lawful immigrants live in top 20 cities

Interesting. From Pew Research, 20 metro areas are home to six-in-ten unauthorized immigrants in U.S. by Jeffrey S. Passel and D'Vera Cohn.

What actually got my attention was this:
By contrast, only 36% of the total U.S. population lived in those metro areas.

But the analysis also shows that unauthorized immigrants tend to live where other immigrants live. Among lawful immigrants – including naturalized citizens and noncitizens – 65% lived in those top metros.
Much has been made about the City:Rest of Country distinction in voting patterns. As I have noted in other posts, there is both more and less than meets the eye in this distinction.

What much of the data supports is that cities (city proper, not the larger geographical metropolitan) tend to have more inequality, more college educated, more productivity (maybe), higher violent crime, etc. You can now add, more foreign-born to the list of ways in which cities are unrepresentative of the larger electorate.

Neither good nor bad - simply different.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

James Madison and Nate Silver

In Federalist Paper 55, James Madison wasn't talking about the 2016 election, but, taken out of context, it does seem sort of a warning against polling and statistical models.
Nothing can be more fallacious than to found our political calculations on arithmetical principles.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Fear is recurrent

From Theodore Roosevelt's First State of the Union address to Congress in 1901
The tremendous and highly complex industrial development which went on with ever accelerated rapidity during the latter half of the nineteenth century brings us face to face, at the beginning of the twentieth, with very serious social problems. The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient.

The growth of cities has gone on beyond comparison faster than the growth of the country, and the upbuilding of the great industrial centers has meant a startling increase, not merely in the aggregate of wealth, but in the number of very large individual, and especially of very large corporate, fortunes. The creation of these great corporate fortunes has not been due to the tariff nor to any other governmental action, but to natural causes in the business world, operating in other countries as they operate in our own.

Little barbarians who must be civilized

Thomas Sowell "Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late."

From Young Millennials Take the Award for 'Worst-Behaved U.S. Drivers' by John Metcalfe.
After reading the AAA report, a dumb-but-gut reaction to that challenge might be to confiscate the licenses of young motorists. “Alarmingly, some of the drivers ages 19-24 believe that their dangerous driving behavior is acceptable,” foundation head David Yang says in a press release. Here are details from the report, which is based on a survey of 2,511 drivers:
Drivers ages 19 to 24 were nearly twice as likely as all drivers to report having typed or sent a text message or e-mail while driving (59.3 percent vs. 31.4 percent).

Drivers ages 19 to 24 were 1.4 times as likely as all drivers to report having driven 10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street.

Nearly 12 percent of drivers ages 19 to 24 reported feeling that it is acceptable to drive 10 mph over the speed limit in a school zone, compared to less than 5 percent of all drivers.

Nearly 50 percent of drivers ages 19 to 24 reported driving through a light that had just turned red when they could have stopped safely, compared to 36 percent of all drivers.

Cognitive pollution deluge

How much fake news can I process in the first couple of hours in the day? Whether you care about any one of these issues (Second Amendment, IRS enforcement, Intelligence community leaks for political purposes), it should be of concern that the mainstream media is so unbalanced in their reporting. If they are this blatant on things that are easily checked, how can they be trusted on issues not easily checked?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The moral of the story is that I am an idiot.

Scott Alexander has a good piece discussing Baumol's Cost Disease. In discussing people's decision-making habits (and how weaknesses in decision-making might undermine markets):
Likewise, my workplace offered me three different health insurance plans, and I chose the middle-expensiveness one, on the grounds that I had no idea how health insurance worked but maybe if I bought the cheap one I’d get sick and regret my choice, and maybe if I bought the expensive one I wouldn’t be sick and regret my choice. I am a doctor, my employer is a hospital, and the health insurance was for treatment in my own health system. The moral of the story is that I am an idiot. The second moral of the story is that people probably are not super-informed health care consumers.

The dream's a joke, Till yoked with the will to act!

From Seaman's Journal, 1927-1929
Dreamer and Doer
by Ted Olson

It's easy enough, my friend to dream
Of Utopian worlds afar;
Where wealth and power and prowess gleam
Remote as the utmost star.

It's pleasant enough in dreams to cloak
The ugly, immediate fact —
But the wise man knows that the dream's a joke
Till yoked with the will to act!

For a dream's a drug or a dream's a goad,
Whichever you choose to make it.
One man it speeds on the upward road;
Another it lures to forsake it.

For years unnumbered the seers have told
In saga and story and song
Their marvelous dreams of an Age of Gold
Washed clean of all grief and wrong.

And ninety-nine are with dreams content.
But the hope of the world made new
Is the hundredth man who is grimly bent
On making the dream come true!

Monday, February 13, 2017

There is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed

From Prejudices, Third Series by H.L. Mencken. Chapter 3, Footnote on Criticism.
Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men—men who always receive it at second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubber-stamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth—that error and truth are simple opposites. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of to-day does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the fourth century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic. Perhaps this statement is a bit too sweeping. There is, year by year, a gradual accumulation of what may be called, provisionally, truths—there is a slow accretion of ideas that somehow manage to meet all practicable human tests, and so survive. But even so, it is risky to call them absolute truths. All that one may safely say of them is that no one, as yet, has demonstrated that they are errors. Soon or late, if experience teaches us anything, they are likely to succumb too. The profoundest truths of the Middle Ages are now laughed at by schoolboys. The profoundest truths of democracy will be laughed at, a few centuries hence, even by school-teachers.
Foreshadowing Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. All knowledge is provisional.

And there's that Mencken sotto voce twist of the dagger, describing an idea so foolish it will be laughed at "even by school-teachers."

Gerrymandering - no significant effect size

This goes against the received wisdom. Evaluating partisan gains from Congressional gerrymandering: Using computer simulations to estimate the effect of gerrymandering in the U.S. House by Jowei Chen and David Cottrell. From the Abstract:
What is the effect of gerrymandering on the partisan outcomes of United States Congressional elections? A major challenge to answering this question is in determining the outcomes that would have resulted in the absence of gerrymandering. Since we only observe Congressional elections where the districts have potentially been gerrymandered, we lack a non-gerrymandered counterfactual that would allow us to isolate its true effect. To overcome this challenge, we conduct computer simulations of the districting process to redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts without partisan intent. By estimating the outcomes of these non-gerrymandered districts, we are able to establish the non-gerrymandered counterfactual against which the actual outcomes can be compared. The analysis reveals that while Republican and Democratic gerrymandering affects the partisan outcomes of Congressional elections in some states, the net effect across the states is modest, creating no more than one new Republican seat in Congress. Therefore, the partisan composition of Congress can mostly be explained by non-partisan districting, suggesting that much of the electoral bias in Congressional elections is caused by factors other than partisan intent in the districting process.
Some interesting commentary at Marginal Revolution on this.

I like the methodology but have an instinctive doubt about the outcome. However, I cannot source the basis for that doubt. So I am skeptical of the finding but have no present reason to doubt it.

UPDATE: Two sources of doubt. One is that while there might only a marginal net effect at the system level, that doesn't reduce the flux at the local level. An economic analogy - If everyone lost their job in a year but were all able to find another job, we wouldn't believe that the economy was fine. The average net effect can mask localized churn which has second order consequences.

The second source of doubt is in regard to the likely increase in incumbency attendant to lower competition districts. Chen and Cottrell identify two types of gerrymandering. The first is the traditional partisan gerrymandering where a dominant party seeks to disfavor the smaller party by spreading their supporters among majority districts or, when that is untenable, concentrating all the smaller party voters into as few districts as possible.

The second form of gerrymandering is required via the Voting Rights Act which requires district boundaries to be gerrymandered along racial lines to ensure that African Americans are effectively, through gerrymandering, guaranteed a minimum of Congressional seats to African-American office holders.

The upshot of both these forms of gerrymandering is to reduce the inter-party competitiveness that would occur if district boundaries were randomly assigned. So the net impact of gerrymandering seats might be marginal but the number of seats that are competitive might be reduced.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

A season of surprises

From This week: Huge SAT race gaps, Trump's brilliant start, etc. by Richard V Reeves. Something is happening here but I don't know what it is.

I assumed it was an example of Poe's Law but perhaps not.

Reeves is a very credible researcher at the Brooking's Institution. He and his fellow researchers tend to lean left in terms of wanting government solutions to problems but he does a pretty good job of defining problems and getting to root causes.

He is the last person I would have expected to pen the following assessment.
Trump's Presidency has been, so far, a brilliant political success. Here's why:
1) He promised change, and he promised to do things differently. Nobody can deny that he is delivering; or at least, giving the impression of doing so. It is impossible to keep up with what's going on; which is the point. He is hiring, and firing. His executive order on immigration caused chaos at aiports, heartbreak in thousands of families, and protests on the streets. Again, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is doing stuff.

2) He is keeping his base happy. The big risk for a change candidate is that they can't deliver against expectations. Trump is working very hard to govern as he campaigned, and remain authentic. (See last week's letter for more on authenticity). His approval ratings among Democrats and Independents are atrocious. But it is rock-sold among Republicans. One of his most important statements as President: "I am a man of my word. I will do as I say. Something that the American people have been asking for from Washington for a very, very long time".

3) He has four years to tack to the center. Once he has reassured his base, Trump has plenty of time to find ways to reach back out to independents, for example with a huge infrastructure package. But if loses the trust of his base, he'll find it hard to get back. So I think it's smart to double down on the base-friendly elements early, then ease off as the next election approaches.

4) He has chosen good enemies. People who don't follow the policy detail below political life will often judge an action by who it pleases and who it upsets. So far Trump has upset the Mexican President, upscale Professors, white college graduates, the ACLU, the Germans, the UN, immigrants... Anyway, you get the idea. With enemies like these, who needs friends?
All this leaves aside the wisdom, legality and even morality of his actions, of course. That's a different matter. I'm simply saying that, if you take a step back, Trump is so far showing that his instinct for politics has followed him into the White House. I assume, right now, that he will be a two-term President.
I don't materially disagree with Reeves' analysis, it is just coming from an unexpected quarter.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Financial planning as the basis for stable marriages

If true, this is an interesting insight. From Household Income and Trajectories of Marital Satisfaction in Early Marriage by Grace L. Jackson, Jennifer L. Krull, Thomas N. Bradbury, and Benjamin R. Karney.

From the abstract:
Are the marriages of lower income couples less satisfying than the marriages of more affluent couples? To address this question, we compared trajectories of marital satisfaction among couples with a wide range of household incomes. The marital satisfaction of 862 Black, White, and Latino newlywed spouses (N = 431 couples) was assessed five times, each 9 months apart, during the first 4 years of marriage. Lower income couples did not have less satisfying marriages on average, nor did their satisfaction decline more steeply on average. They did, however, experience (a) significantly greater fluctuations in marital satisfaction across assessments and (b) significantly more variability between husbands and wives. If efforts to support the marriages of low-income couples are to address the unique characteristics of their marital development, these findings suggest that efforts to stabilize their marriages may be more effective than efforts to improve their satisfaction alone.
One of the key findings from Charles Murray's Coming Apart was that stable marriages are a feature of the top quintile whereas divorce is a greater feature in the bottom quintile.

The research implication (if it is true) is that the issue is not so much with the quality of the marriage but with the stability. An important insight. As money is one of the most common sources of stress within a marriage, I wonder if that is not the driver here. If it is, then, perhaps, one of the best mechanisms of increasing marital stability among the poorest, is not training in marital communication, but rather in training around financial planning and management. If you reduce the financial variability, you reduce the marital variability and therefore increase marital sustainability. Maybe.

The things that I heard there

From Chaucer's Post-Truth World by Eleanor Parker.
'Post-truth’ is a word of our times, at least according to Oxford Dictionaries, who declared it their word of 2016. Their definition said that ‘post-truth’ refers to ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The appearance of a new word tends to encourage the idea that the phenomenon itself is new: that it did not exist before there was a neologism to describe it. That is not the case here, even if ‘post-truth’ is the current buzz-word; as historians know well, there has never been a time when public opinion was not shaped more powerfully by emotion and personal belief than by facts. What is different now, perhaps, is how rapidly false stories and fake news can circulate: social media allows the public as well as giant news organisations to be involved in spreading untrue or distorted tales. That is a formidable challenge for those who care about truth.

But even concern about the ease with which false stories can spread is far from new. At the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote incisively on this subject in his poem The House of Fame. This poem describes a dream-vision in which Chaucer (carried by a comically talkative eagle) is borne up into the sky, taken to a castle standing midway between Heaven and Earth. This is the House of Fame, to which all words uttered in the world, spoken or written, find their way.


Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter. What Chaucer understands and brings sharply to life in this poem is that truth is rarely the most important factor in determining whether a story will spread. We are all capricious readers, who respond to and share stories that in some way accord with our own understanding of the world. This idea was a long-standing interest for Chaucer and lies behind The Canterbury Tales, too: as the pilgrims in that poem tell stories to each other, they demonstrate how complex the process of hearing and sharing tales can be. Whether they react to each other’s stories with praise or violent disapproval, the pilgrims are motivated more by their own interests and preoccupations than by the intrinsic value of the story. Once a tale is told, the teller cannot control how its hearers will receive it.
I don't think I have ever heard of Chaucer's The House of Fame. I found it online. A magnificent description of a core epistemological question or, more parochially, a description of the children's game of Chinese Whispers/Telephone. Here is one part of the poem.
But such a congregation I found
Of folk that seemed to roam about,
Some within, and some without,
As never was seen, nor shall be yet;
That surely in this world is not

So great a number formed by Nature,
Nor have died so many a creature;
So that scarcely in that place
Had I a foot’s breadth of space;
And everyone that I saw there
Whispered in each other’s ear

A new tiding privately
Or else spoke out openly
Right thus and said: ‘Do you know
What happened just lately, lo?’
‘No’ quoth the other, ‘tell me what;
And then he told him this and that,

And swore thereto that it was true:
‘Thus did he say’ and ‘Thus did do,’
‘Thus shall it be,’ ‘Thus I heard said,’
‘This you’ll find,’ ‘That I dare allege’ –
So that all the folk now alive
Have not the skill to describe

The things that I heard there,
Aloud and whispered in my ear.
But the great wonder was this:
When one had heard a thing, his
First act was to go find another
And swiftly tell to his brother

The same that to him was told
Before it was two minutes old,
And added something to each,
To each tiding, in his speech,
Making more of it than before.
And no sooner had the other

Parted from him than he met
With a third; and ere he yet
Had paused a moment, told him all;
Whether the news was true or false,
Yet he would tell it nonetheless,
And evermore with more excess

Than at the first. Thus north and south
Went every speck from mouth to mouth,
And that increasing ever so
As fire is wont to catch and flow
From a spark blown amiss
Till all the city ruined is.

And when it had fully sprung,
And waxed more on every tongue
Than ever it was, it went anon
Up to a window and was gone;
Or, if it might not out there slip,
It would creep out at some crevice,

And fly forth fast and at once.
And sometimes I saw anon
A falsehood, and a truth all sober
That by chance arrived together
Out at a window for to race,
When they met there at that place,

They were checked both the two,
And neither of them could get through
For the other, so in a crowd
Each of them began to cry aloud,
‘Let me go first!’ – ‘Nay, let me!
And here I will promise thee,

On condition you’ll do so,
That I will never from you go,
But be your own sworn brother!
We will meld us each with other,
That no man be he ever so wrath,
Shall handle one of us, but both

At once, whatever he believe,
Come we at morrow, or at eve,
Be we cried, or whispered around.’
Thus saw I false and true compound
Together, and fly abroad as one.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Walking the social media tightrope

Hmm. Interesting. From Why Does China Allow Freer Social Media? Protests versus Surveillance and Propaganda by Bei Qin, David Strömberg, and Yanhui Wu. From the abstract:
This paper documents basic facts regarding public debates about controversial political issues on Chinese social media. Our documentation is based on a dataset of 13.2 billion blog posts published on Sina Weibo - the most prominent Chinese microblogging platform - during the 2009-2013 period. Our primary finding is that a shockingly large number of posts on highly sensitive topics were published and circulated on social media. For instance, we find millions of posts discussing protests and an even larger number of posts with explicit corruption allegations. This content may spur and organize protests. However, it also makes social media effective tools for surveillance. We find that most protests can be predicted one day before their occurrence and that corruption charges of specific individuals can be predicted one year in advance. Finally, we estimate that our data contain 600,000 government-affiliated accounts which contribute 4% of all posts about political and economic issues on Sina Weibo. The share of government accounts is larger in areas with a higher level of internet censorship and where newspapers have a stronger pro-government bias. Overall, our findings suggest that the Chinese government regulates social media to balance threats to regime stability against the benefits of utilizing bottom-up information.
An interesting finding. The Chinese have adopted an economic system which thrives on openness and competition but still operate a political system which is closed and constrained. There is an inherent contradiction in the two systems. So far, the economic system has grown fast enough to benefit everyone enough that they accept the closed political system. But how long will that last? The more successful their economy, the greater is the paradox. For several decades they were able to achieve annual growth rates of near 10%. They are now down to around 7% which is still stunning, but lower than past expectations.

The research seems to indicate that the government is walking a tightrope that seeks to reconcile the paradox. They are allowing greater communication freedom in order to garner and incorporate the feedback which it generates as well as to tamp down opposition by government participation in the dialogue.

News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it

From The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Omitted are the detailed examples from the story. This is Steinbeck's insight as to how news travels.
A town has a nervous system and a head and shoulders and feet. A town is a thing separate from all other towns, so that there are no two towns alike. A town has a whole emotion. How news travels through a town is a mystery not easily to be solved. News seems to move faster than small boys can scramble and dart to tell it, faster than women can call over fences . . . The news swept on past the brush houses . . .

The news came to the shopkeepers . . . The news came to the doctor . . . The news came early to the beggars in the church . . . The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld . . . and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it.
In the story, Steinbeck is describing a small town in Mexico but the dynamics of such communication are contemporary. We don't call the news over the fence but we blog, we text, we comment on social media. The result should be light and transparency but too often is some miasma of black distillate.

The technology of communication is always subverted by the human nature - where human nature is constructive and affirmative, the amplifying effect of communication is marvelous. Where the human nature is sour, bitter and malevolent, then the magnifying effect of communication technology is detrimental.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Empirical and ethical considerations about high human capital immigration

Give Me Your Caffeinated, Your Well-Off, Your Above Average Yearning to Get Ahead from Spotted Toad. Toad is alluding to an empirical and moral issue with which I have been wrestling ever since earning my degree in International Economic Development nearly forty years ago. The issue had more currency back then and was referred to as Brain-Drain. We don't talk about it so much anymore but it remains real.

Brain-drain, also known as Human Capital Flight, is the departure from one country to another of highly educated, skilled, innovative or otherwise net contributive individuals (and their families).

As long as there is basic cultural compatibility between the originating and the destination country, on average there is a material net benefit that accrues to the destination country. Since WWII, brain-drain has been primarily one-way from developing countries and from post-communist countries to OECD countries in general and to North America/Europe in particular. For Anglophone countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand) with their Classical Liberal cultures of openness and trust, such movements of talent have been very positive for the societies as a whole (though not necessarily for all individual affected by such migration.)

The US receives some 500,000 new citizens via authorized emigration each year. To the extent that these migrants pass through the regular process that examines their potential contribution to the country, the US almost certainly benefits (though, from a sociological integration point of view, there is a whole raft of issues in terms of absolute levels of migration, immigrant clustering, etc.)

There has always been, for me, two unanswered questions. The first is empirical. What is the degree of contribution and does the net benefit to the whole outweigh the cost to the immediately impacted? If you let in 100,000 AI engineers, the US in general and the tech industry in particular are likely to be first order beneficiaries, and consumers a second order, longer term, set of beneficiaries.

But if you are an American AI engineer, flooding the market with 100,000 additional AI engineers dramatically suppresses your income potential. It is basic Supply and Demand. Immigration policy becomes Labor Market policy becomes a means of directing societal benefits to preferred recipients. That is potentially dangerous (centralizes power within government policy over citizen needs/desires) and it is potentially corrosive (undermines trust in the system of governance.)

There have been a number of correlational studies over the years but I have not seen any really strong, robust empirical studies that do a good job of empirically measuring all the pros and cons. Almost all of the studies I have seen are small sample sizes, involve self-reporting, usually have non-representative sample groups, and almost always omit important benefits or costs. I believe the benefit to be net contribution positive but I do not have solid empirical evidence to support that belief.

The second question is more philosophical and is the one that always made me the most uncomfortable. Are we, the developed countries, inappropriately harvesting the best and brightest from developing countries? Each one of those above average immigrants to the US represents an incredible human capital investment on the part of the originating country. This was most dramatically on display two or three years ago with the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. It was revealed at that time that Liberia, one of the harder hit countries, only had less than 300 medical doctors for a population of some 4.5 million.

Every one of those doctors would make more money and probably each achieve more security and more status in any developed country. But if they leave, not only does Liberia lose that human capital capacity, but they also lose a societal investment. How much does it cost to train a doctor in Liberia? No idea, but let's say its $100,000. If that doctor then decides to emigrate to Canada, Canada gains an educated and experience doctor at no cost and immediately begins benefiting from income tax revenues. Liberia, on the other hand, loses that $100,000 investment and has to double down with further investments to make up the headcount shortfall.

There are four different balance sheets. For the Liberian doctor, the benefit from immigration, as measured in dollars, is almost entirely upside. Same for the receiving government (added tax revenues and low or no costs.) For Liberia, this is a double whammy - lost investment and lost capability. For Canadian doctors, this is a minor (as long as the immigration numbers stay low) income loss due to labor supply increase.

I don't know the answer to this and over the decades have run through the arguments pro and con multiple times. The libertarian in me says this is good, people should be free to choose. The communitarian in me says this should on balance be good though acknowledging that there are some real minor costs and long term costs as well. The citizen-of-the-world in me leads me to think that this is a pernicious trend benefitting the best off countries while harming the least developed. The Good Governance advocate in me frets about the power centralized in policy. The rationalist in me wishes I could get to a single defendable position. I can defend many positions but I can't see the best outcome.