February 2009

No joke. Video is here, GNXP post is here and here. Back when I used to comment at bhtv I remember asking for them to have on John Derbyshire or even (when hell freezes over) Steve Sailer. I certainly didn’t expect this, which is even better. That was of course before I knew Cochran & Harpending were working on a book. Razib has elsewhere stated that he’s impressed by Reihan Salaam’s ability to toss off facts from the top of his head, but both he and Greg outdid him here.

BONUS UPDATE: The statistician Jan de Leeuw, dwindling in old age into philosopher of science.

Follow up to: this comment and to a lesser extent this post.

You’ve probably read Steven Pinker or someone else write about how everyone should learn statistics in school rather than trigonometry (grr, I’m still mad at those transcendental functions). I nodded along, but the fact is I’ve never taken any myself. I took probability in college, but that’s not quite the same thing. Fortunately, there is an online introductory statistics textbook which can be found, appropriate enough at OnlineStatBook.com. From what I checked out, it seems like it would be fine for middle-schoolers without any knowledge of statistics. It has nice simulations and exercises/quizzes that have an explanation available whenever you give a wrong answer. The one failing on their part is that those explanations pop up in windows that cut off the upper portion of the explanation, so you have to copy-paste the off-screen text if you want to read it. This happens in both Firefox and Internet Explorer and resizing does not help. If you want another option, there’s SticiGui, the online text for the first and last statistics class most students at Berkely take. Internet Explorer does not apparently work reliably for it.

In completely unrelated matters, it recently occurred to me to combine something like the Atkins diet with alcohol. This was partially inspired by Agnostics post extolling the virtues of high-fat low-carb diets. Apparently that was just the beginning for him, you can find his later carb posts here. It got me to thinking that my diet has long been carb heavy and perhaps I should make some changes (along with eating vegetables, exercising and getting enough sleep blahblahblah). I’m not interested in losing weight, in fact I could use some more insulation, so I thought some more fat, grease or oil couldn’t hurt. Lactose and peanuts aren’t my friends, so that limits things a bit. Agnostic is lactose-intolerant as well (in addition to being gluten intolerant, perhaps reflecting or causing his non-docile nature), so I appreciate his tips. At any rate, despite what you may have heard in Seinfeld, chicken (unfortunately) does not ferment. Fermentation comes from carb-rich sources (wheat, rice, potatoes, grapes, apples, molasses) and it is precisely the sugar content that motivates the addition of hops to beer. So I would expect alcoholic beverages to have lots of carbs. Judging from chemistry, an alcohol is distinct from a ketone or aldehyde (two types of carbs) so there shouldn’t be anything inherently incompatible with high alcohol and low carb content. The highest alcohol concentrations are found among the distilled beverages, but if you’re an out of practice drinker those aren’t especially pleasant straight. Solution: combine a non-alcoholic high-fat low-carb drink with a more concentrated alcoholic drink to have the same alcohol content per volume as beer but with less carbs and hopefully without a telltale “healthy” taste. I recall the necessity of downing irish carbombs quickly before the Baileys curdles, so perhaps dairy-products aren’t the best bet there. There’s already baconified bourbon, so I don’t think it’s a completely crazy idea. I still need to think of some names for it better than Protein Poteen or Lipid Lunch.

The following is pretty long and is something like an attempt to sum up my world-view and contains many tangential connections. You may be more interested in my case against WW2 being black-and-white (without even mentioning nukes or firebombs), which appears to have succeeded in convincing my target, although it could be that I’m failing to recognize sarcasm on the internet.

I, and I suspect many of my readers, are wary of something we call (among other things) “universalism”. The universe is a large and scary thing, the local and particular less so. Universalism seems to have the upper hand in the battle of ideas, which perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising given it (duh) universal appeal. Even in critiquing universalism I must approach it with a universalist mindset. The particulars I cherish are universalist and my defense of particularism is universal. (more…)

In the wake of the recent financial kablooie and under the influence of Nassim Taleb, Amar Bhide has decided to blame the Reverend Thomas Bayes. Taleb himself has not gone quite so far but instead stated that Bayes is “necessary but not sufficient“. Andrew Gelman points us to two reviews of “The Black Swan”, one of which is not content to vindicate one dead white male without trashing another. The odd thing about Lindley’s claim about Popper’s status being due to right-wing ideologues is that Popper himself was a social democrat.

Rather than Bayesian probability in general, Taleb’s ire seems more directed at the assumption of normal/Gaussian distributions. Though neither of us are statisticians, I thought Steve Sailer’s review of The Black Swan, sticking up for another dead guy (Francis Galton, implicitly) and the usefulness of bell curves, was worthwhile.

Paleo-libertarians and their allies in the paleo-conservative camp like to romanticize a bygone era of decentralization, individual responsibility and hearth and home. Bill Kauffman is an example of this overlap, of the sentimental juncture at which self-ownership and a Schumacherian ethos of “small is beautiful” meet. (An audience member at the CATO book forum for Kauffman’s newest described his talk as a “Whitmanesque rant.”) These folks tend to criticize the “beltway libertarians” for being without the gusto, zeal and passion of the paleo-libs, who truck with no apologists for the grim, faceless, bureaucratic state. 

Reading this piece at LRC (HT: Roderick Long) on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement illustrated the tension between “economistic” libertarians and, shall I say, “visceral” libertarians:

It is difficult to define, in terms of a political system, what the Catholic Worker movement stood for, because their philosophy of personalism, which lies at the heart of their ideas, is inherently antithetical to the objectivism, centralization and institutionalism that characterize the activities of the State.

Approvingly quoting a close friend of Day’s, Peter Maurin:

“We must have a sense of responsibility to take care of our own, and our neighbor, at a personal sacrifice. That is the first principle. It is not the function of the state to enter into these realms… Charity is personal. Charity is love.”

It ends with this:

The fundamental Christian value is love, and the political world always has, always will revolve around money and power.

The visceral libertarian agrees, referencing their inner (non-statist) communitarian to damn the Hayekian extended order of corruption, vice and distant, unaccountable “greed.” As an aside, would not a leftist prefer to describe “personalism” (or whatever is antithetical to alienation) as contradictory to the objectivism and organization-man mentality of the rationalizing market? It cuts both ways, and passionate Ron Paul fans are matched by equally passionate folks who find his defense of the free market abysmal.

The economistic libertarian is less moved by intuitively appealing (read: evolutionarily psychological) notions of face-to-face contact, non-instrumental relationships, and chains of association not mediated by the cash nexus. For them, the decision to personally take care of ones neighbor is an amoral one. It isn’t obvious that outsourcing that task to an immigrant entrepreneur is detrimental to humanity. As for charity, the presence of the state is irrelevant to its “personal” quality. That has far more to do with size and organizational structure.

The very economic calculation that the Austrian school (for whom natural rights anarchists – paleo-libertians – comprise the “political wing”) submits is vital to civilization and prosperity (synonymous with urbanity, or impersonalism) is at odds with the reflexively sentimental sense of voluntary association and localism that their Anglo-American, Tocquevillian cultural disposition inspires them to value. Jeffrey Friedman has referred to this as the “libertarian straddle,” or the desire to show that free markets lead to ever better consequences – but if they don’t, well, one can still fall back on the “voluntary” clause, and thus the warm and fuzzy feeling that Tocqueville evokes.

I no longer get so emotionally worked up about the state’s activities –  the normative edge for me is quickly waning. Partly this is due to my being in a relationship with someone who is not a libertarian and thus has no tolerance for angry rants that leave no room for nuance and debate. But it also has to do with the stridency of natural rights dogma in its rejection of utilitarianism (which for the purpose of this post will be synonymous with consequentialism). I’m reminded of the telling quote by Rothbard, frustratingly not on hand, in which he states that positive social outcomes (health, wealth, etc.) and the inviolable (modified) Lockean appropriation of property are merely a “happy coincidence.” 

And if it wasn’t a happy coincidence? He’d be for natural rights anyway. 

Blah. What could possibly be of value in such a political philosophy?

The truth is you can measure utility, and the Austrians who remain committed to the “impossibility” of cardinal rankings of want-satisfaction are being left in the dust (though Mario Rizzo has an excellent grasp of this type of literature). Swiss economist Bruno Frey has been doing work in precisely this area for some time. He writes:

Happiness research has designed several indicators of subjective well-being, relying on different measurement techniques: global evaluations of individual life satisfaction, based on representative surveys; the Experience Sampling Method, collecting information individuals’ actual experience in real time in their natural environments; the Day Reconstruction Method, asking people to reflect on how satisfied they felt at various times during the day; the U (“unpleasant”)- Index, defined as the fraction of time per day that an individual spends in an unpleasant state; and [most importantly for cardinal, interval measurement] Brain Imaging, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan individuals’ for correlates of positive and negative effect.

But this is far from a conclusion that one can construct a measure of national well-being in the fashion of a libertarian paternalist who’s decided to ditch the libertarian part. Most importantly, the individual variation in responsiveness to what are generally agreeable prerequisites for happiness/well being cannot be accounted for by any such necessarily distant and thus merely speculative planners and committee members tasked with maximizing “GNH”, or Gross National Happiness. As Judith Rich Harris would say, “no two are alike.”

In addition, and as Frey stresses, an apparently vital component to happiness (utility gain) is procedural in nature. In other words, the pursuit of happiness itself really is rather happiness inducing. Much of Frey’s critique of the possibility of achieving GNH lies in its anti-democratic implications, and the concomitant risk of undermining the process – or procedure – that is a large part of feeling happy to begin with. An individual sense of agency and self-determination is a significant component of subjective well-being. Frey finds that those in his native Switzerland gain much in utility from their rather extensive democratic (as well as negative) rights, a veritable heaven of participatory democracy relative to many other western nations. The principle-agent problems endemic to large-scale representative democracy, and what the critical theorists refer to as “administered society,” are anathema to even a utility-maximizing apolitical droid – or at least, all else being equal.

Frey writes:

The social welfare maximizing approach, based on empirically estimated happiness functions…disregards the institutions on which democracy is based. Citizens are reduced to “metric stations.” They are forced into a state of passivity, which tends to increase their alienation from the state. In this respect, a happiness maximizing approach is inimical to democracy. It disregards the interaction between citizens and politicians, the interest representation by organized groups and the concomitant information and learning processes.

So it would seem the paleo-libertarians (and their left-leaning, more “thickly” communitarian compatriots) find surprising confirmation in happiness research, or just the sort of statist scientism, aiming for the elevation of an abstract humanism, they so often detest.

It’s hardly a knock-down case, I know, but an interesting angle to push methinks.


UPDATE:  Here is the quote from Rothbard, from “For a New Liberty”:

It so happens that the free- market economy, and the specialization and division of labor it implies, is by far the most productive form of economy known to man, and has been responsible for industrialization and for the modern economy on which civilization has been built. This is a fortunate utilitarian result of the free market, but it is not, to the libertarian, the prime reason for his support of this system. That prime reason is moral and is rooted in the natural-rights defense of private property we have developed above. Even if a society of despotism and systematic invasion of rights could be shown to be more productive than what Adam Smith called “the system of natural liberty,” the libertarian would support this system. Fortunately, as in so many other areas, the utilitarian and the moral, natural rights and general prosperity, go hand in hand.




Via Steve Sailer I found The Roving Cavaliers of Credit from Steve Keen’s DebtWatch. I’ve been wanting to learn a bit about that line of thought since I started reading Matthew Mueller’s late lamented blog, but unlike that other unorthodox school of economics (the Austrians) they do not have a user-friendly educational resource such as Mises.org or hordes of internet fanboys happy to correct you in various comment sections. Do they have an analogue to Peter Schiff? Matthew did get Paul Davidson to show up, throw spell-checking to the wind and offer up some responses to critiques but that was just barely enough to whet an appetite. I’m thankful to Keen for his post, even if Post Keynesianism is as wrong as it claims mainstream economics is.

I lowered my estimation of Russ Roberts and did the reverse for Robin Hanson after listening to this episode of EconTalk. Roberts says he wants to discourage people from being persuaded by empirical arguments. I would like to discourage people from being persuaded by Roberts in that case. Here is my rank ordering of persuasive evidence:
1: Controlled, replicated double-blind experiments, or (even better) meta-studies of such
2: Non-manipulated (meant in a non pejorative sense) non-experimental empirical evidence
2.5: Case studies (may be considered a subset of 2)
3: Simple regressions/correlations with few controls from non-experimental empirical evidence
3.5: Same as above, but with more steps/complications
4: Mathematical models
5: Verbal arguments relying on logic
6: Verbal arguments relying on analogies
7: Catch-all for things I haven’t mentioned
Last: Proof by assertion

Roberts and I agree that simple empirical evidence is better than fancy complicated analysis of data. The reason is that the more additional input the analyst brings to bear, the closer their analysis gets to logical argument. The point about meta-studies should also be applied to numbers other than 1, but I didn’t feel like repeating myself. One should resort to a low number only when a higher number is not available.

UPDATE: A reader asks Andrew Gelman for his favorite example of an experimental study debunking a causal relation found in a regression.