November 2008

Via John Derbyshire. It’s called The 10,000 Year Explosion. Based on the title and some of their recent papers, you can probably guess what it’s about.

I had intended to have my next post be on Edward Luttwak’s Coup Detat, with the appendix of coups from 1945 to 1978 in Excel form for number crunchers to mess around with, but I haven’t gotten around writing it out, or even deciding how to categorize some of the factions behind the coups.

Steven Pinker opens “The Blank Slate” by quoting evenhanded passages from three controversial books. The only one I had heard of before Pinker was The Bell Curve. In high school english class we had the Norton Reader, which contained several selections decrying the book, sometimes as emblematic of what’s wrong in our society. There were no actual selections from the book itself. I marked it as a book I’d have to read someday. Having enjoyed the Blank Slate I picked up one of the Terrible Trio, Judith Harris’ the Nurture Assumption. I still consider it the best science writing I’ve ever come across and thought my own mother might enjoy a bit of it, but she didn’t get far before being so offended by the premise that she refused to consider the evidence. I underlined the godhead of the notorious trinity and wondered what shock-value it contained. Thanks to Chip Smith I found out in short order: something far less polemical than either Pinker or Harris. Before diving in I’d like to look the gift-horse in the mouth by noting that my copy is missing endnotes 23-25 of chapter 22, and there is a citation of “Wilson 1972” in Appendix 7 which has no match in the bibliography. This only makes me more curious about what I’m missing, so I’d appreciate it if someone in the comments with a complete version filled in the gaps.

The Bell Curve is just what I’d want in a serious analysis of a controversial social issue. It’s a continuous barrage of graphs and tables so that the authors can’t be accused of weaseling about with anecdotes and opinions. It has a section titled “Statistics for People Who Are Sure They Can’t Learn Statistics” as the first appendix and shorter explanations in the text. There are sections boxed off from the main text to more fully explore some issues that a number of readers might ignore, but also an encouragement at the beginning of their most controversial section that they assume many will start at to read the preceding material if one has not done so. While most of the firestorm over the book focused on race, they point out that such a tiny portion of variation in our society is due to variation between races that setting them all at the same median would hardly remove any of the problem (other than perhaps how we think about it). But nobody wants to talk about the tyranny of the glib. They also point out how irrelevant the argument over genetic contribution is when our inability to reshape IQ is so glaring.

Chip left a group-blog to form his own precisely over a dispute about the book, with his first non-introductory post at the Hoover Hog starting the series You Me and The Bell Curve, saving me the trouble of writing a longer and different post. Check it out: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

I’ll end my own discussion of the book itself where it ends. The final chapters have predictions on how society will develop from here (with “here” being 1994). Without the evidence right at their fingertips they are on less solid ground than previously in the book. The “invisible migration” has become more visible with books like The Big Sort, but not all their guesses hold up as well. The lines between “liberal” and “conservative” have not come to blur (any more than they previously did), rather the political parties have become more partisanly divided than before. As it is only the elite that have any ideology at all, the political dominance of an elite far removed from the masses would make that more likely. They draw on the same data about the rise of private arbitration and security services that Bruce Benson did in The Enterprise of Law, but extrapolations based on that were derailed when falling crime rates improved the stature the criminal justice system, and so today such dreams of privatization are still unthinkable to most. The elite have not embraced a fear-driven Latin American style of conservatism of the sort I describe here, but have become more indifferent to the underclass and relatively concerned with inequality between the rich and super-rich. Strict policing and high incarceration rates remained even after the drop in crime, but it is hard to find evidence there is a more widespread law’n’order attitude among the general public than at the time of the book’s publication rather than inertia or a ratchet effect. There has not been any move toward eliminating mandatory sentencing for any drug offenses, and putting excess prisoners in camps rather than cells is merely an eccentricity of Sherriff Joe Arpaio. The underclass has not become more spatially concentrated, but rather gentrification and section 8 housing has removed much of it from potentially valuable real-estate. Racism has not become more virulent or more open. I suspect the optimistic last chapter owes more to Murray the bleeding-heart communitarian than Herrnstein the elitist. Jeffrey Friedman attacked Charles Murray’s book “What it Means to be a Libertarian” here for advocating both libertarianism and communitarianism under the guise of having justification through empirical evidence when they really rest on his personal preference. Trends of increasing centralism, credentialism and complicated rules have not reversed and “marriage” benefits have only expanded, with “child support” being taken from fathers who can prove with DNA evidence that they are of no relation to the child. There was some effort made toward changing immigration law to be more merit-based and with less family-unification, but it came to nought. On the plus side, the EITC has risen faster than inflation. Despite all their other recommendations being ignored, society has not degenerated terribly. Perhaps I speak too soon though.

You may be asking now, “What does this have to do with Glenn Loury”? I’ll tell you. (more…)

Is it Anne-Marie Slaughter’s mission in life to make realists look like colossal geniuses compared to her? I was groaning when I first watched her talk with Anatol Lieven. I had somehow got the impression that Stephen Walt was to the left of his famed realist colleague and co-author, John Mearsheimer, but I didn’t see any indication of a bleeding heart in their recent diavlog. I actually laughed when Walt is listing strategic priorities for America and she adds the security of Israel as if he had merely forgotten it, giving no indication that she was aware of that book. She talks about the imperative of the new Obama administration to act “boldly” and how in attempting to create peace between the Israelis and Palestinians or Indians and Pakistanis (same thing I guess) he could “win big but also lose big”. And in case I haven’t asked this before, why the hell would anyone want to be associated with Woodrow Wilson?

Going back to foreign affairs of the past, David Henderson has a veteran’s day tribute to economist and WW2 pilot Richard Timberlake “a veteran who did not give his life and knew that he wasn’t fighting for our freedom”. Only interested in staying alive, he sounds like a character from Catch-22, which I still haven’t read. I recall hearing that Heller himself was not so cynical when he was actually flying but became so later. In the Viggo Mortensen narrated cartoon authobiography of Howard Zinn he describes realizing that he was fighting for American imperialism when he was bombing Europe in that same war. I’m glad that at least some lefties have a dimmer view of the “good war” and I wonder if he put in a good word for Charles Lindbergh in any of his books.

What follows is a long-rambling with hardly anything to do with the above, so I have put it below the fold.


John T. Kennedy’s site No Treason goes down all the time and while it’s back now he has yet to bring back all the old archives. There’s one post I frequently linked to there and have gotten tired of people complaining about it being unavailable, so I’ll replicate it here.

Marriage, The Institutional Man,
and The Sovereign Individual

By John T. Kennedy & Lynette Warren

These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s “institutionalized.”
– Red, in The Shawshank Redemption

David Brooks has written a piece extolling the virtues of marriage


Marriage joins two people in a sacred bond. It demands that they make an exclusive commitment to each other and thereby takes two discrete individuals and turns them into kin.

Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other’s lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: “Love you? I am you.”

To say marriage makes us “better than we deserve to be” goes too far since we can only be what we deserve to be, but his heart is in the right place. Surely marriage helps some be better than they expected to be and “I am you” can be taken as an expression of the sense of identity that accompanies deeply shared understanding.

Some take issue with this:

Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.

Brooks is really describing flight from self and not selfishness. He is essentially agreeing with Ayn Rand that one’s love life ought properly be an expression of one’s highest values.

However, he makes his categorical error here:

Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity — except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a “partner,” a word that reeks of contingency.

This is how an “Institutional Man” thinks, as Red explains in The Shawshank Redemption when he speaks of his difficulty in coming to grips with freedom upon his release from prison:

Thirty years I’ve been asking permission to piss. I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so. There is a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside.

You can hear the same complaint from gays who, like Brooks, assume that one cannot marry without the permission of the state. If marriage is truly a sacred bond, as Brooks claims then what power can the state have over it? Why would you go to the state for the sacred? Why not simply marry your beloved and introduce him as your husband, the state be damned? Or else recognize that you are an Institutional Man.

Brooks complains:

When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote. Marriage is not voting. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination.

But what does the state have to offer aside from benefits? The state has nothing sacred or even moral to impart. The state has only carrots and sticks and any carrot it might offer you was taken from someone else by way of a stick. You can only defile that which is sacred or intimate in your marriage by inviting the state to take part in it.

It’s a core belief that dwells in the hearts of collectivists, liberal and conservative alike, that if they can, by force of law, dabble here and tweak there, then goodness and morality can be dispensed from the floors of state assemblies, legislatures, and city halls everywhere. Working from such a premise makes it nearly impossible to realize that there is nothing by way of grace or moral legitimacy that the state can bestow on anything.

Inviting the state into your marriage affords you no sanctity that you wouldn’t otherwise have in a private, non-state recognized marriage. Brooks bemoans the omission of a moral argument in favor of state sanctioned gay marriage, but no moral argument can be made because the state cannot produce or dispense morality. Government only dispenses incentives and penalties, so the left is quite strategically correct in limiting its arguments for government gay marriages to the realm of discussing it as a benefits plan. That’s all state marriage can ever be.

Advocates of state-marriage for gays argue correctly that it is not fair or moral for the state to grant heterosexual couples benefits that are denied homosexual couples. Yet, in doing so, these same advocates insist that homosexual couples be granted benefits that would be denied single individuals: They don’t object to social engineering, they just want to be the social engineers.

Some libertarians, like Wendy McElroy and Radley Balko, correctly argue that marriage is not properly a matter of public policy. The only problem is that they tend to argue this as a matter of public policy: The remedies they seek are remedies of public policy.

The Sovereign Individual argues instead, that one must simply evict the state from one’s own marriage. Your marriage is not properly a matter of public debate so don’t treat it as one. Take and keep private what ought to be private. And all of your life is your private affair.

Leave the institution of marriage to the Institutional Man.

Sovereign Individuals are the Makers of Manners:
You and I cannot be confined
within the weak list of a country’s fashion
we are the makers of manners,
and the liberty that follows our places
stops the mouth of all find-faults

And now for something completely different: Glenn Greenwald is a tool. I’d say I respectfully disagree with him about the desirability of respectful disagreement as opposed to vociferous hatred, but that would be committing a terrible sin in his eyes. In attempting to conform to his standards I will instead say I hope he dies of AIDS.

Fun, but ridiculous. Retracting vines? The hat that blows doors open to return to its owner? Steve Dutch says nuking the fridge was among the more plausible aspects. I’d add that I got a chuckle out of using Bolshies as an interchangeable substitute with the previous Nazi (and Thuggee) villains. I also liked the nod to the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which I watched years before I saw an Indiana Jones movie (Crusaders of the Lost Ark).

Oh, you wanted me to comment on the events of last night? I of course did not vote (I never even registered to vote for Ron Paul in the primaries, and he’s the only politician I can think of I approve of). Reflecting on their votes, Radley Balko says blacks fall behind other races in adhering to our cherished American political principles.

I just learned that in ancient Sparta elections were determined by how loud people shouted for candidates. There is a certain attraction to taking into account intensity of opinion rather than merely ordinal preference, and I would expect a standard utilitarian/neo-classical analysis of voting would endorse that “range” method over alternatives or claim that the market does properly take that into account (though wealth effects make it unequal). This was inspired by this video (which despite fairly professional production did not eliminate some minor flubs) discussing the problems with voting and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, in turn via Alex Tabarrok (who has a paper on whether the Borda count could have prevented the Civil War and one on what systems could have resulted in President Perot). Caledonian/melendwyr has a post on Arrow’s Theorem here.