June 2010

I found this interview on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and rise of the Taliban via Greenwald (who incorrectly refers to ethnic Germans in Austria as a minority). What’s funny is how often the interviewer spouts a bunch of nonsense only to be corrected by the subject, eventually taking on a pleading tone for her preconceptions to be taken seriously. An entirely different Rubin gave a similar narrative in Who is Responsible for the Taliban?

I said I would read Paul Collier as a corrective to William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden” (and AidWatch), so I picked up “The Bottom Billion”. The contrast wasn’t actually as great as I anticipated, which just goes to show how my thinking is warped by dichotomies. I haven’t read enough to say much in detail, but there is a nice anecdote to share. He mentions near the beginning that the World Bank has large offices in every middle-income country but not a single person in the Central African Republic. He knows this from experience as there was a large crowd to meet him at the airport when he visited the country in 2002. Nobody visits the C.A.R (though they may get their officials from neighboring African countries). He asked the government what country they would like the C.A.R to be in 20 years and they decided on Burkina Faso.

There’s interesting bits from his research on things like what conditions make a country prone to violent conflict (not the usual “root causes”, as even sociologists have found). I didn’t notice anything to diminish Easterly’s critique of examining countries that failed to grow and wound up on the bottom and concluding they are “trapped”, unlike other countries which had been poor & low-growth but subsequently grew and became richer. I think that’s called sampling on the dependent variable. I also came away with the suspicion that he had a bad experience in the “Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students” that led him to look down on other radicals & fellow-travelers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It adds a bit of character when he says in a parenthetical of the tremendous turnaround in China after its feted Chairman, “Mao made his own invaluable contribution by dropping dead”. We can all do our part.

Or so according to this new study of said demographic by Buster Smith and Byron Johnson of Baylor University, which shows no statistically significant difference of opinion among younger evangelicals vis-a-vis their elders. It’s been said by some – Gary Wills, for example, but the study cites others – that the evangelical youth cohort (aged 18-29) are moving to the left on social issues. Not so, unless you consider global warming/environment, the only issue for which the evidence exists of leftward drift, a “social issue.”

We find no strong evidence to support the notion that young evangelicals are retreating from traditional positions or increasingly adopting more liberal positions on hot-button or controversial social issues.

Read it here.

Hopefully Anonymous used the term and I asked him to elaborate on it. His comment is reproduced below:
That’s a good prompt. Maybe it will help if I list some things that tend to be anti-knowledge playspaces.

-Racial differences in behavior
-Global Warming
-What makes a good leader

And areas of science that seem to me to be more productive epistemological spaces even though they could have turned into anti-knowledge playspaces:

-population genetics
-(I would name more but out of time/energy/inclination)

In general I think anti-knowledge playspaces tend to be topics where two factions emerge whose constituencies add up to be a hegemonic force in the discussion, both of whom have their positions made up more by politically correct policing than by solid empiricism, and both sides probably suborn subpopulation identities who feel they can win in status games if their side either wins out by luck of being right or by show of force in dominating their opponents in the discussion space. I think it’s a bit of a 2 side competition that’s also a coordination against third parties that aren’t explicitly identified (the pageant element is a soft nontransparency, that the pageant element is to take social attention away from third parties is a hard nontransparency).

First see this.

From James Q. Wilson & Richard Herrnstein’s “Crime and Human Nature”: Sheldon himself notes that the mesomorphic, nonectomorphic physique often predominates, not just among criminals, but among other occupational groups, such as salesmen and politicians.

In the conclusion to “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, Sean “not the astrophysicist” Carroll writes “The evolution of form is the main drama of life’s story”, suggesting we move away from teaching evolution defined as change in gene frequencies. In the previous chapter he notes “most proteins in the body do not affect form – they carry out other roles in physiology. There may be some interesting differences in proteins involved in physiology, such as the sense of smell, immunity, or reproduction, but these do not affect the way mice or humans appear”. Why is the “main drama” about appearance? I understand that there’s little else available in the case of fossils, but it seems to me those other aspects of physiology are quite important. They could well take up most of the evolution (which I’ll define here as non-neutral changes in DNA, whether coding or regulatory) throughout history. Let’s focus on just immunity. The “Red Queen Theory” suggests that we have to keep “running as fast as we can” just so as to not lose ground against simultaneously evolving parasites. For humanity, the neolothic revolution of agriculture, high population densities and travel has meant very intense selection for disease resistance. We can see the dramatic result of different immunological profile in the fate of north american indians (the different fate of Africa & South America is due to the local advantage against tropical diseases). Yes, there has also been strong selection for lighter skin among Europeans & Orientals, but does that make for a more central drama than the aforementioned immune system adaptations or lactose digestion? Carroll puts a lot of attention on the mimicry of butterflies, but the only reason it is advantageous for one butterfly to resemble another is the poison that makes them unpalatable to birds. On second thought, that might also involve a change in “form”, I’m not sure. In case Carroll or someone else knowledgeable reads this, please clarify.

On a sidenote, it’s funny that he writes “Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity”, because theoretical physicists have had such a hard time integrating gravity into a unified theory that already explains the the other forces on the quantum level.

In a comment at the Antinatalist Blog, Ann Sterzinger expressed dissatisfaction at its non-existence. That lacunae has now been rectified.
I welcome alternate depictions in the comments.

Frances Wooley blames a decline in teacher quality on improved career opportunities for women. One problem I have with is evidence is that it is all in terms of inputs rather than outputs. Ezra Klein similarly blames the high career prospects of those natives fluent in English for the dearth of English teachers in China. We should expect this shortage to result in high wages & employment, but apparently education majors have among the dimmest career prospects. Conditions are still pretty good for law professors despite the low returns to most of their graduates (my sister is among those underemployed lawyers). Fat chance of landing one of those cushy tenured gigs though.

Without any coordination (or perhaps it’s just secret?) agnostic suggests that teachers rather than businessmen will carry out the “Atlas Shrugged” scenario. Rather than the normal economic issue, he centers the discussion around NAMs and our wrong-headed education policies regarding them. This anonymous teacher agrees that’s the big issue in eduwonk circles and that dissenters from orthodoxy are cast out. The classic nightmare scenario that would drive the most saintly teacher away is How I Joined Teach for America—and Got Sued for $20 Million. I think we overrate the extent to which education is about education rather than babysitting, so I don’t know how much effect a different grade of teacher will change things. Another perspective is that the only important matter when it comes to educational outcomes is the student input. John Derbyshire agrees with Robert Weissberg that there is really no demand among students (or their parents) for better education. Like Ilkka, I invite you to contrast that take with “The Lottery“. I agree with the latter that there is substantial revealed preference to the contrary of the Derb’s take, though again I don’t know to what extent that results in better education or just a more tolerable place to be stuck 7 hours a day.

If that’s not enough edutalk, Diane Ravitch has an EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts about here new book. Stuart Buck in turn has extensive criticism of her.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED UPDATE: Do colleges discriminate against Arab applicants? I hadn’t heard that before.

Symbolic Politics

Economic analysts tend not to put much stock in symbols. Symbolic victories, almost by definition, cannot have an appreciable impact on the victor’s tangible wealth or chances of survival. Relatively humanistic social scientists, however, have long argued that the pursuit of symbolic gratification is an important feature of human life. Anyone inclined to dismiss this notion should ponder why Jews and others were so upset in 1985 when President Reagan announced plans to visit a cemetery where Nazi SS troopers were buried, why Vietnam War veterans cared a great deal about building a memorial in Washington, D.C., and why blacks expended scarce political capital to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday. The outcomes of these controversies seemed unlikely to affect the distribution or allocation of marketable resources, yet they nevertheless aroused great passion. (more…)

John Cook emailed me in response to a comment* I made at his blog. Here is my reply:
How about breaking it down. Have people suggest sanctimonious occupations and make a sanctimony list for them. We could poll people as to which occupation is the most sanctimonious, but those answers might be more revealing of envy. We could perhaps trick poll-takers into describing how important/unique/etc they think their occupation is. How do you think police/military would fare? Farmers?

*For those who don’t feel like clicking, it was short enough to copy: Which professions do see themselves as being like every other profession? I propose we dub these “the unique professions”.

“Texan” — a term that in Shasta County connotes someone who is both an outsider and lacks neighborly instincts.

Stewart Baker gives the history. I don’t share his view of the “threats” we face, or care for his portrayal of his opponents as being part of a “privacy-industrial complex”, but I did always find the idea of a “right to privacy” stupid. A critical history of Brandeis remark about the states as “laboratories” for laws is here. David Bernstein calls Brandeis the most overrated in USSC history, partly due to his famous (reactionary? Progressive) “Brandeis brief” which pioneered the tactic of pounding on policy arguments when the law is not on your side. That later inspired the “doll study” of Brown v. Board which actually undermined the plaintiff’s case. I suppose it was inevitable that righties retaliated with “law and economics” (which I’m not a fan of).

The new book The Beauty Bias is positively reviewed at In These Times.  The review’s author, Lindsay Beyerstein, offers lots of stats to back up the idea that unattractive people suffer both pre and post-employment bias. (And no, looks are not relative nearly to the extent assumed by idioms such as those that use the words “eye of the beholder.”) The most obvious and common form of ugliness is obesity, which makes it the easiest to operationalize for the purposes of discrimination studies. The methodology could be faulted here. She writes that:

In one study, 43% of overweight women reported feeling stigmatized by their employers. Obese women earn 12% less than their thinner counterparts with comparable qualifications. Obese women are more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for other factors.

Feeling stigmatized is not the same being stigmatized. But what of the earning stats, noting the difference in pay? The explanation could be that thinner women are especially confident, not that obese women are especially downbeat. And having the right attitude is not orthogonal to one’s qualifications, but integral to it. But even if thinner women are confident regardless of any malice directed at their overweight counterparts, undermining the charge of stigmatization, it’s probably of no consequence to Beyerstein’s goal of correcting the perceived injustice of looks inequality. (Beyerstein also discusses the bias engendered by looking too good, but just as an aside.)

But the problem with her approach is embedded in the review itself. She writes that, “Almost from birth, infants stare longer at faces that adults rate as attractive” (assuming that staring connotes attraction to beauty). If this is the case, then it suggests that trying to rectify beauty bias would be more than simply beneficial to the ugly (and even here, ala the minimum wage, only those that are hired or remain employed?) – it would be detrimental to everybody else. One could argue that the utility gain to the newly hired, and newly continually employed, ugly people is larger than the utility loss on the part of co-workers (the ugly ones whose marginal productivity would keep them employed nonetheless included!) and consumers. But even assuming this is true, if the dampening effects on business overall is strong enough, resulting in a lack of capital and thus labor for industries for which physical attractiveness is of some value, then nobody wins.  Beyerstein notes that there has been no flood of litigation in cities and states that have adopted bans on looks discrimination – Michigan averages one per year – but this could simply mean that the self-selection of good and bad looking people into their “respective” occupations continues apace, and that the law was superfluous.

In any case, Beyerstein’s fundamental assumption, that job aptitude and physical attractiveness are not inherently linked, is flawed. She laments that “psychological research has shown that unattractive people are assumed to be less intelligent, less capable and less trustworthy.” Unfortunately for her this is a correct assumption.

It would appear Robin Hanson’s query about silence on the issue of beauty inequality has been addressed.

UPDATE: “American Apparel’s Reported Employee Photo Policy Raises Eyebrows, Hackles.

I started reading Capital Gains & Games because of Bruce Bartlett, whom I had more admiration for during the Bush years. The other contributions there tended to strike me as less interesting and because I wasn’t clicking “read more” I didn’t notice something earlier. Because I had been reading a bit of controversy over Raghuram Rajan I investigated further and found this comment from Patrick R. Sullivan pointing out that it’s the same Edmund Andrews best known for his personal financial incompetence despite being an economics reporter for the NYT. And yet he sees fit to denounce David Tarr, apparently mischaracterizing his paper in the process, as being part of “the Sarah Palinization of the financial crisis“. And of course he accuses him of racism as well. If that’s the ground you’re going to fight on, how about providing some data on the relative default rates of “low-income”/”non-white and immigrant” borrowers?

On an unrelated note, OrgTheory laments the plight of the middle-manager. Oh, Dilbert & Office Space, what have you wrought? I suppose radicals would respond that middle managers are guard labor, and they should feel bad (WARNING: as YWCIBAYSFB is gone, I had to link there to Encyclopedia Dramatica, which is one of the depraved pits of the internet).
UPDATE: Similar to the above, Kenneth Anderson (in a paper I haven’t read) argues that lawyers are right to be unhappy.

Another bit from Paul Ewald’s “Plague Time”:
The diphtheria bacterium causes most of its damage as a result of a toxin it produces when it is short on resources, particularly iron. The toxin costs the bacteria about 5 percent of its protein budget, but the investment pays back dividends because the toxin kills the cells of the respiratory tract near the bacterium, thereby liberating the nutrients the bacterium needs. The diphtheria vaccine was made by modifying this toxin a little so that it no longer damaged respiratory tract cells but still caused the immune system to generate antibodies that would recognize and sequester the unmodified toxin. If a toxin-producing C. diphtheriae invades a person who has been vaccinated, the toxin is sequestered by antibodies before it can destroy a person’s cells and provide nutrients for the bacterium. The 5 percent cost of toxin is simply a drain on the bacterium’s ability to compete with toxinless bacteria. The overall effect is that the strains that do not produce the toxin win out over the harmful strains. Wherever the strains left in the wake of a diphtheria vaccination program were assessed, the same trend occurred: the toxin-producing strains vanished, replaced by the milder, toxinless strains. That is a good outcome for us because strains that do not produce toxin not only fail to cause diphtheria but also protect us against the harmful strains that do. They therefore act like free live vaccines.
These arguments lead to a simple rule for vaccine development. Whenever possible, use virulence antigens: those components of a pathogen that make viable, benign organisms harmful. Doing so will generate an immune response that selectively protects against the harmful organisms. Including antigens against components of the pathogen that do not make it virulent must be avoided. Otherwise the vaccine will remove mild strains that could further suppress the harmful strains.

Elsewhere in the book Paul more explicitly makes the analogy to how by domesticating plants/animals we caused them to evolve in ways that serve our interests. It shouldn’t be that far-fetched, since many vaccines are produced in a basically agricultural manner. He also points out that some pathogens reach a “dead end” in certain hosts (lyme disease in humans) or stages in their life-cycle (Ewald thinks that is the case for chronic pneumonia causing heart disease in adults). We can feel free to go hog-wild with antibiotics in those cases, since it won’t effect what strains survive to reproduce, while remaining more cautious (and using sufficiently different kinds of vaccines/antibiotics) for the infectious versions. (more…)

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