May 2009


The Sotomayor nomination isn’t out of the news yet so people are still arguing over what makes a good judge, and more specifically whether one of those things is empathy. Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy introduces a distinction between “doctrinally relevant” and irrelevant empathy. He says the former is not only good but necessary. I have no legal training, but I’m not a fan of even that. What is Breyer’s “balancing” talk if not that sort of evaluation of impact? The way I see it, judges are experts when it comes to the law, not “the real world” nor should they be expected to be. The Volokh gang have pointed out how it is the job of legislatures to engage in the sort of “balancing” that Breyer wants judges to do. For a judge to do more than accurately apply the law is to overstep their bounds. This is why I am not a big fan of the “law and economics” field of study which a number of judges have controversially taken lessons in. I’m not saying that L&E is harmful, just that like most people judges don’t need to know that sort of thing and if it comes to the point where such expertise is demanded of a judge, that indicates something has gone wrong. It is true that sometimes the law has been left vague. Legislators can write bad legislation (and may deliberately want to wash their hands of any responsibility) and that is just what I would consider it. Perhaps as more proof of my legal ignorance I find merit in this comment suggesting that judges simply “punt” on issues where the law is not clear. As a reductio, imagine that legislators had simply scribbled illegibly on a piece of paper and called it a law: one would hope no judge would consider the “language” controlling. They may request that the legislature clarify the law, as happened recently in response to the Ledbetter case. If we are to live under the rule of law rather than men, where one can expect it to be applied the same no matter who happens to be judging, such granting of discretion needs to be minimized.

The Austrian Economists highlight an op-ed from John Hasnas on why Bastiat’s ideas on the “seen vs unseen” should make us averse to sympathy in judges. John Hasnas is also the author of the anarcho-capitalist tract The Myth of the Rule of Law, which is mad, bad and dangerous to know. In the comments to the TAE post Mario Rizzo references a paper of his on “justice” vs “benevolence”, in keeping with his desire to move economics closer to philosophy and away from mathematics. I deem him also mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In completely unrelated news, I’ve finished Jaques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” and don’t really have anything to say about it. Culture just isn’t my bag. Up next is “The Theory of Evolution” by John Maynard Smith: a classic that should be more up my alley. I should get some posts out of that. In the meantime AK’s Rambling Thoughts has some conjectures on the origin of eukaryotes, bilateral body plans and more. At Dusk in Autumn a commenter fights back against the pablum I was taught in H.S about the medieval/Renaissance rich foolishly eating less healthy diets (especially when it came to bread) than the peasantry. Finally, via StatSquatch I found the blog of FeministX, who expects readers to be familiar with an HBD-blogger I had never heard of to estimate his/her IQ along with those of more well-known ones. The blogger is Engram.

John Quiggin wanted to condition his bet with Bryan Caplan regarding European vs U.S unemployment on including the imprisoned as unemployed. There is a certain logic to that, as there is to saying the same of people engaged in make-work*. Quiggin’s logic reminds me of the radical economist Samuel Bowles on “guard labor” and Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed”. As Caplan notes, the question seems to hinge on whether these people would be unemployed if they were not in jail. This is a question people like me who favor repealing all laws prohibiting acts of capitalism between consenting adults should grapple with. Apologists for the war on drugs like Chris Roach and The Man Who Is Thursday(?) sometimes claim that in the absence of drug laws all those convicted of such crimes would still be committing other crimes for which it would be harder to convict them. I’ve mentioned earlier that I think it is a good deal harder to go after consensual crimes because there is no naturally cooperative source of information and assistance (which was enough to pay for the provision of law before professional state justice systems, as detailed by Bruce Benson), but here I should admit that to a certain extent we can view these laws as compliments rather than substitutes for police & prosecutors that we presume to be actually focused on the most dangerous criminals but opportunistically using drug laws when available. In my own opinion I don’t think that’s a realistic portrayal of law enforcement behavior, and that measuring success in terms of drug supply disruption (which usually just destabilizing the market and induces another violent round of king-of-the-hill) indicates that they are trading off against other priorities.

I am willing to admit that there is a very high unemployment rate among people released from prison. They are even deemed “unemployable”. This could indicate problems with releasing large numbers of people, if not avoiding locking people up in the first place. Mark Kleiman notes that participants in the H.O.P.E program easily attain employment despite being ex-cons on parole, but this is because of a coercive monitoring authority ensuring they always behave according to plan or face swift & certain punishment. In a hypothetical were large numbers had not been jailed for drug crimes in the first place (or in our most likely future where whichever pet program that has our focus is not implemented) that effect would not exist. While I think that relatively speaking the sorts of people that wind up in prison will not become Horatio Algers if their lives had not been ruined by a cruel justice system, the combination of low rates of imprisonment with low rates of unemployment in the past indicate to me that we don’t necessarily have to choose between one and the other. Admittedly, some things have changed since then like the continuing shift from rural to urban living and from an agricultural to service-based economy. Nevertheless, the huge drop in crime (which had been unusually high at the time) with the repeal of prohibition indicates that repealing bad laws can have a large effect. Former bootleggers deprived of their previous source of income even in the midst of depression did not have to resort to other kinds of crime. It should be noted that slinging crack does not pay better to most involved than working at McDonalds, and the poor may be thought of as irrational actors committing many crimes that don’t pay. That may well describe their greater tendency to drive drunk, but the massive gang warfare currently going on in Mexico (similar in many respects to the prior American “crack wars” but on a much larger scale) requires a degree of motivation, coordination and funding that only large profits (even if not for the foot-soldiers) can accommodate. Gangs existed in America prior to crack, but they were more prone to making threat displays on their corner “turf” (which was not much of a source of funds), with the leaders dropping out as they grew up to make room for their juniors. Furthermore, they were typically not armed with guns (excepting the occasional zip gun). The drug trade provided both motivation and means for gang warfare.

UPDATE: This from the Boston Review is full of mockable left-ese but gets at the issue of changes in the economics of labor and imprisonment. Charles “Radgeek” Johnson writes in The Freeman about the fate of our urban underclass in a freed market.
UPDATE: Megan McArdle’s response to Quiggin is highly relevant to the issues discussed here.

*I emailed (I can’t comment because I am banned) the following to Caplan regarding that post: I’m naturally sympathetic to to Murphy & Higgs take on the New Deal & WW2. I don’t know if I can go all the way in discounting the people with “make-work” jobs. In a country like the Soviet Union where there is no private sector, everyone may be said to do “make work” but it doesn’t seem correct to say they have 100% unemployment rates. To the extent that the public sector is doing a job they private sector would have done anyway and is thus crowding it out, it doesn’t seem we should treat it differently than in the counterfactual where those were private sector jobs. The trouble is evaluating whether public work is “worth doing” (Marx’s phrase I believe was “socially necessary labor”), which for radical subjectivists may be impossible.

I guess my original comment was too long or something because typepad wouldn’t accept it. I am going to host it here. It will not make much sense if you haven’t been reading the thread, so regular readers might want to skip this one. (more…)

Whiskey/testing99/evil neocon had a post saying that women favor immigration more than men. I agree with him on attitudes toward welfare by gender (I might provide data for that later), but I thought I should investigate the claim about immigration in the GSS. The search feature wasn’t working there, but through the exhaustive work of scrolling down and clicking to expand variables, I found some relevant questions whose results I give below.

(more…)

Curator/Sister Y read of the theory that lactose/gluten tolerance evolved so we would put up with civilization and asked if there was evidence “Northern Euros and Tuaregs more blissed-out, docile, and civilization-adapted than Asians”. I don’t know the answer, but it might be found in a World Value Survey (they have questions about feeling restless) or some Pew Global Research. I’ll try and look into it later.

On that sort of subject, kudos to n/a for pointing out some data that corrected the Audacious Epigone (no slouch himself).

Casey Mulligan notes that Canada has been reducing government spending as a percentage of GDP, nearly reaching parity with the U.S. The U.S last accomplished such a feat under Clinton. Come back, Bill! I see no evidence for Scott Sumner’s contention that the U.S is headed for less statism over the next decade, though it might be a bit more accurate to say the world as a whole is entering a “golden age of libertarianism”.

Sumner is clearly an optimistic or “comic libertarian” a la Julian Simon, and even describes himself as a “right-wing liberal”. He takes a particular delight in pointing out economic freedom and well-being in “liberal” polities elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere Paul Gottfried reviews a book on past right-wing anti-materialists (many of whom might fit the label “proto-fascist”) and asks whether modern American “conservatives” would recognize them as fellow-rightists. Can we recognize them as rightists if not fellows? I agree with Gottfried’s contention that the “fusion” of tragic anti-materialist traditionalist conservatives and more comic boosters of capitalism is entirely contingent on historical circumstances and could easily have been otherwise. I made note of a similar phenomena regarding paleo proponents of isolationism (which Steve Walt offers as the only policy fit for the wimps he sees around him, while explicitly rejecting it himself) and realists here. Some paleoconservatives would even be less sympatico with paleolibertarians than with realist Mearsheimer regarding trade with China (they for domestic reasons, he for geostrategic ones). I’d also like to note Gottfried’s favoring of the American small-town Protestant bourgeois ideal over the throne-and-altar conservatism of European nobles. I similarly identify with those dissenting Protestants and find the Cavaliers rather repulsive.

For all his mocking of “comic” or “cosmo” libertarians, Richard Spencer is not particularly receptive to the paleo argument against materialism/consumerism. Andrew Bacevich seems to have taken the lead on that question, with Daniel Larison and others at Front Porch Republic carrying the torch. Bacevich didn’t put up much of an argument when Scott Horton used his admittedly meager knowledge of Austrian economics to argue against the efficiency of invading Iraq for oil, and one of Bacevich’s defenders admits that particular event doesn’t fit the example even if others do. To me the best argument for preaching satisfaction with one’s lot over seeking acquisitions is the hedonic treadmill. However, it is still the case that happiness seems to increase monotonically with wealth and wealthier countries are happier. I stick with Lucas. Once you start thinking about accelerating growth, it is hard to think about anything else, and critics most likely fail to comprehend it.

Criticism of consumerism is more often associated with liberals. Robert Frank and Geoffrey Miller are two recent examples. Both of them believe that we consume in order to show we are wealthier and higher-status than others. The way Robin Hanson sees it, their arguments serve to make the signals they have comparative advantage in indicate higher status. Although old money really is more conservative, this seems reminiscent of the aristocratic complaint about the “vulgarity” and materialism of new money. The “aesthetic argument”, like much of aesthetics, strikes me as more about signaling things about yourself than actual enjoyment. Fred Siegel at Telos gives an interesting account of that perspective in Taking Communism away From the Communists: The Origins of Modern American Liberalism. The best quote there is from Vernon Parrington who said “Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected.” This is the view that holds suburban living and big box chain stores (especially Wal-Mart) in contempt. The Progressives of that era remind me of Mencius Moldbug (despite his championing of the dictatorship of the profit-maximizing joint-stock corporation) who is quite open about his charge that America has “gone to seed” resting on an aesthetic judgment about strip malls and the like, and even has a poem griping about standardization. Personally, I find the philistinism of Nick Gillespie’s Reason one of its better points.

We really did eat the Neandertals! Hat tip to DeLong, but no kudos because I dislike his comment section moderation.

Killjoy John Hawks rains on the cannibalism parade here. I hate these scientest men, I hate them with my heart. On an unrelated note, his post on arrested adaptation and “diseases of civilization” touches on a subject behind my digestion selected for docility post.

Hey, fans of The Money Illusion and Overcoming Bias. Bob Murphy has a defense of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory from rational expectations based on Bayesian agents receiving a noisy signal (the part arguing against the previously prominent Prisoner’s Dilemma defense has been excised for your enjoyment). And if his heresy on 100% reserve vs free banking isn’t already enough to expel him, that he favorably cites Milton Friedman on monetary matters should seal the deal. I suppose his defense of intelligent design should grant him immunity to the “cosmotarian” charge though.

Those of lesser intellect will have none of this abstract ivory-tower squid-ink regarding economic downturns. Instead they blame da Joos. The Boston Review found that being a Democrat and of low education both correlate with blaming them, while being a Republican or more educated makes you less likely to display anti-semitism but to blame the people that caused it by borrowing money they couldn’t afford to pay back. A common anti-semitic trope these days is that while Jews discourage ethnocentrism in others they greatly indulge in it themselves. That may seem somewhat understandable given the greater acceptability of Jewish arguments against intermarriage, but this survey also showed that while priming survey-takers with a paragraph on Bernie Madoff disclosing his ethnicity made the general public significantly more hostile to stimulative tax cuts for businesses, it had no effect on Jews. Maureen Dowd echoed latin american populists in blaming “blue-eyed” Wall Streeters, so in response Steve Sailer came up with a very rough estimate of the representation of different ethnic groups in stories about the gooey kaplooie here.

Saying impolite things about matters related to group conflict whether ethnic/racial, gendered & religious is common sport among weirdos who pride themselves in “stalking the wild taboo”. More in keeping with the original use of the term is Robert R. Arthur’s You Will Die: the Burden of Modern Taboos. Part 1 of Mangum’s* review is here. I remember once a friend of mine asking “How come snot, barf, blood, piss and crap is disgusting once it’s outside our bodies but perfectly normal inside?”, and while the answer should be obvious I thought it quite profound. Then I belched.

*He’s also the author of the great line about Glenn Beck, “[H]e calls himself “libratarian leaning”. Yeah, like a drunk taking a sobriety test is pavement-leaning”.

I’d done some puzzling over attitudes toward baldness, and so when the friendly neighborhood bigot had a post on ethnic differences in hair loss I unloaded. His response quoted large chunks from a book by R. Dale Guthrie, of which I’ll just mostly excerpt what n/a bolded:

Head shaving is a common phenomenon among many tribes and often is done only by males

At the present time Western cultures are caught in a pinch between the adulation of youth – which is responsible for our holding low hairlines in esteem – and our continuing respect for status and the high forehead which retains an element of nobility or at least an aristocratic man. The superhero males of the comics almost invariably have a high hairline.

In the distant past, the gloss of a bare scalp became the badge of leadership and dominance, whether it was the greased plucked head of the Yanamano or the oily, scraped scalp of an Ainu, Jew, Chinese, or Saxon. It is mimicked unconsciously by shiny metal helmets in many cultures.

Recreating the hairline of a 20-year-old is a retreat to the courtship age. We live in a society which bases most status evaluation on one’s potential courting currency; that is the secret behind our reverence for youth.

I wonder if Guthrie himself was a bit light up top.

Some commentary on baldness of a less thoughtful and somewhat more musical sort here and here.

One of the major points in Supercrunchers is that experts seem to consistently lose out to simple algorithms when it comes to prediction. The efficient markets hypothesis* says that the available information is already “priced in” and so you can’t beat the market average, and indeed actively managed mutual funds seem to do worse than index funds (some perform badly enough that they posed something of a problem for the EMH). Now a company claims to have a predictor that outperforms both humans and software algorithms: rats. Perhaps they were inspired by the finding that humans stupidly try to do better than maximum entropy on random variables while rats stick with the optimal guess.

*That isn’t quite the same as saying they allocate capital efficiently. That’s the topic of Charles Davi’s The Not So Efficient Market (Theorem) Hypothesis.

Argh. Thanks to Robert Lindsay for alerting me and lowering my faith in humanity. Does anybody else get chills at the phrase “achieve Year Zero on world scale”?

Ilya Somin of Volokh has a disagreement with Michael Dorf over whether Justice Souther is/was a “Burkean conservative”. A comment by Dorf at his blog held up Justices Harlan & Frankfurter for comparison as conservatives of the past vs the radical originalists/textualist/”strict constructionists” of the present. As the latter was not discussed in Somin’s post I decided to look him up on Wikipedia. Everything before his ascent to the Supreme Court indicated being closer to a communist fellow-traveler than a conservative, but once he was there he behaved in an odd way. What jumps out at me is his take on federalism. In Irvin v. Dowd he said “The federal judiciary has no power to sit in judgment upon a determination of a state court… Something that thus goes to the very structure of our federal system in its distribution of power between the United States and the state is not a mere bit of red tape to be cut, on the assumption that this Court has general discretion to see justice done”.

Somin has earlier discussed the “special case of Justice Breyer”, who is widely recognized as a liberal but has an ideology of judicial restraint. What’s notable is that Breyer advocates restraint specifically for federal agencies, whereas it is state law that is most frequently struck down by the Supreme Court (and the federal government more often given leeway). As a radical anti-federalist I don’t want the national government to exist in the first place and think state Supreme Courts and constitutions could handle all that’s necessary (leaving aside the issue of whether states should be broken up even further), but mine seems to be a minority opinion even on the right or among libertarians that I’m guessing would be laughed at in any law school today (one of the many reasons I disregard others advice that I become a lawyer). Kevin Gutzman seems to believe in something like that, which is why he shared my unease (or should I say that I shared his, as he was more full-throated in denunciation?) regarding D.C vs Heller. Stephan Kinsella (an actual lawyer) had been making similar points against “centralist libertarians” regarding Kelo v. New London. I earlier discussed judicial restraint here. Like Orin Kerr at Volokh, I’m more sympathetic to Burkeanism (or hostile to rationalism) and this leads me to be more receptive to restraint generally (so this could apply as well to a state Supreme Court ruling on state law) even if I simultaneously favor radical libertarian policies & an “original meaning” view of the law. It would optimally be the case if those ideas were internalized by legislators and even the general public, but I suppose Somin would say that’s a pipe dream.

There are parallels here to Bryan Caplan’s disagreement with Robin Hanson on whether economists should favor liberty vs efficiency, with Hanson’s argument resting in part on economists being viewed as honest brokers that parties will seek out for good deals (with Hanson even specifically mentioning judges respected for upholding the rule of law, and perhaps surprisingly not advocating a “law and economics” efficiency maximization criteria for them as well). I would want economists and judges with very different ideologies from my own to put such “neutral” interests over their own ideals, so it would be a bit hypocritical of me to make an exception for those I agree with.

A comment at EconLog reminded me of some good essays by the Paul Krugman of old. I’ve elsewhere extolled Ricardo’s Difficult Idea, but perhaps I’ve given too much of the spotlight to that one and neglected some others. This post’s title refers to The Accidental Theorist, which is both a defense of silly “unrealistic” theorizing in economics and an attack on William Greider. Greider’s thesis gets thoroughly destroyed by Krugman in a couple columns (I guess he was popular then, though I don’t hear about him anywhere else). Not content with mere theory, he brings out the statistics to crush Greider’s anecdotes in Is Capitalism Too Productive?, although the idea itself might have seemed too stupid on its surface for other economists even bother refuting. Not only does he support my prejudices regarding statistics vs anecdotes, he also fits with my hierarchy of evidence regarding formal vs informal economic theorizing in Two Cheers for Formalism. As with his essay on Ricardo, the takeaway point is that dissenters generally dislike results economists have arrived at, don’t understand how they did so, and from that infer the defectiveness of their method. Sounds a bit arrogant when I put it that way, but there are worse things than arrogance, like arrogance combined with ignorance.

On a completely unrelated note, agnostic has done the world a big favor by highlighting a graph of homicide rates for the past 800 years. The next time someone pines for the good-old days and says modern depravity would have been unimaginable back then, just show them that.

I’ve swapped out Buchanan’s C,H&tUW for Ian Ayres’ Supercrunchers* in my car’s CD player. Ayres’ inner-Dubner isn’t that great, but there’s plenty of interesting material and I’m a lay-partisan of the gospel he’s preaching to boot. The section I’ve been listening to recently is on medicine. The impression you’re supposed to get is shock at how many people needlessly died due to medical mistake and relief that supercrunching methods will soon rectify things. I had second thoughts though. Most of what I’ve heard about the downside of medicine has come by way of Robin Hanson. He doesn’t merely stop at showing that the marginal value of healthcare appears to be zero, but asks why that is. Why do we have a preference for ignorance? His conclusion is that healthcare spending is not about health, and so the neat innovations created over time (mostly medical procedures, admittedly, which are on a level below procedures to decide procedures) cannot be assumed to result in incremental improvements in health outcomes (in contrast to, say, computers). Better health is not being selected for, and a few idealistic iconoclasts in the profession are unlikely to change things. I also have to add that I liked how he introduced the idea of experts & algorithms living together in harmony, only to shoot down the experts’ tactical retreat by explaining how experts advised by algorithms do worse than algorithms on their own and instead flips it around by suggesting algorithms with final authority advised by experts.

*Not the original title. In a randomized trial its Google AdClicks beat “The End of Intuition”. I much prefer the neglected title. Stupid test audiences. I also preferred the alternate subtitle, but can’t remember what it was now.

On an unrelated note, did Robert K. Merton introduce the idea of “unintended consequences“?

Meet Dr. Fred Bell. His achievements are incredible.

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