July 2010


A comment at Gene Expression has introduced me to a new term: “Globish“.
UPDATE: A relevant Language Log post.

Harold Berman’s “Law and Revolution” refers to the “Norman Anonymous” of 1100 as the “last important pre-Western (that is, premodern) treatise on government”. After describing some of its arguments (contrasted with John of Salibury’s later “Policraticus”) he says “In all these matters the Norman Anonymous represented the ancien régime, the pre-revolutionary order which dated from Carolingian times and before”. This is ironic because Wikipedia says the term primarily refers to a period between the 14th and 17th centuries. In popular imagination it is linked to precisely the alliance of throne & altar which post-dates the “Papal revolution” that concerns this book. Relative to that order of course, the more tribal/Germanic order with a less distinct church could be considered “ancient” I suppose, but usage trumps etymology.

David Edelstein at Foreign Policy grapples with the concept of “international legitimacy” from a realist perspective. Edelstein says that a state views an action as legitimate if it expects to materially benefit, with the occupations of Japan & Iraq provided as contrasting bits of evidence. He gives some slight criticism to Steve Walt, who I think avoids the claimed realist mistake in his post on “cheap talk” (not the gametheorist blog). I think actors whose dominance seems unshakable are accorded more legitimacy and framing something in terms of a completely defeated historical enemy of that actor imparts illegitimacy. The obvious case is World War 2 (“it’s always Munich again!”), which resulted in the U.S becoming the most powerful international actor and eventual “lone superpower” and “world’s policeman” with the end of the Cold War. But the point of all this was just to invite readers to give their thoughts on how perceptions of legitimacy arise. And to what extent does legitimacy affect behavior rather than lip-service/posturing? Does merely possessing the latter not constitute legitimacy at all?

Melendwyr/Caledonian has somewhat related thoughts on power resting on voluntary obedience here.

Greg Cochran contradicted Steve Sailer in a comment at Steve’s blog. I asked him to elaborate, and here is his response:
Total genetic diversity is higher in Africa: most of that is neutral diversity that doesn’t do anything, just as it is in any other group. Is a given Swede closer to another Swede than to any sub-Saharan African, by a measure of genetic distance (one that does not consider the actual effects of those genetic differences)? Yes, always. If this true if we restrict the measure to noncoding parts of the genome? Yes. Is it true if we restrict the measure to coding part of the genome, the fraction that makes proteins? Still true. Is it true if looked at a measure of phenotypic difference, which would correspond to a genetic distance in which genetic differences were weighted by their effects? Even more true.

What’s the right way to define race? Not as a partially inbred extended family. It depends on the level of differences you are considering. At the finest level, any population (a group that mates within itself fairly freely and has for quite a while) that is different enough in some interesting observable quality from some other population could be considered a race. At a coarse level, large subdivisions of human that have been geographically isolated and had low levels of mixing until fairly recently: this corresponds moderately well to traditional groupings such as Caucasoids, Australoids, Amerindians, etc. Things have become a good deal more mixed (in some areas) since the development of decent sailing ships, especially after Columbus.

We now know there are interesting differences in ancestry/origins, and those may have some surprising implications. It looks as if Eurasians all have some Neanderthal ancestry while sub-Saharan Africans do not, or at least have a lot less. ( I’m sure we’ll find some in groups influenced by Arab gene flow, such as the Somalis and some peoples in coastal east Africa). That Neanderthal genetic contribution should have furnished some adaptively important alleles, in my opinion: but we don’t know that for sure yet. We might know fairly soon. There may have been other regional mixtures with other old-fashioned hominids: there are hints of this for Pygmies, Bushmen, and Australoids. To some extent, some of the existing racial groupings may be the shadows of past subspecies – although all populations seem to be mostly descended from a fairly recent African population.

A remark I found odd from Harold Berman’s “Law and Revolution”:
“[…] in the fifth [through] eight centuries […] tens of thousands of monks […] settled in the wilderness, first as hermits and then in monastic communities, and who attracted manyothers to join them in tilling the soil. Thus Christian monasticism was one of the factors contributing to the emergence of the European peasantry. Spreading across Europe from Ireland and Wales, the monastic movement fought the superstitions of nature that dominated Germanic religions, and it opposed to the pagan calendar, based on nature and the four seasons, a Christian calendar based on biblical events and the lives of the saints”
There are some claims about the importance of monastic communities in “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, but that was about preserving ancient texts & learning in an era when hardly anyone was literate (although Greg Clark claims that was also the case for patricians in the Roman empire). But I was under the impression that there have been peasants for about as long as there have been states. There were peasants in ancient Rome and I’m pretty sure most Europeans before the fifth century were peasants as well. I don’t think they all got along through hunting and gathering. I know that he merely says “a factor” but isn’t it one of the rules of causality that a cause cannot come after its effect? I also find it ironic that he favorably contrasts the Christian calender with the pagan when the latter seems much more appropriate for agriculture.

A few pages later he supports the argument that Christianity is to blame for liberalism. “[…] Germanic law, with its overwhelming biases of sex, class, race, and age, was affected by the Christian doctrine of the fundamental equality of all persons before God: woman and man, slave and free, poor and rich, child and adult. These beliefs had an ameliorating effect on the position of women and slaves and on the protection of the poor and helpless.” I’m sure some enterprising white nationalist can discover a converso responsible for it.

It’s an interesting book so far, but a bit intimidating in its size and detail. I can’t just skip the endnotes either, since they aren’t mere citations to works listed in the bibliography (as was the case for Wilson & Herrnstein) but extensive discussions of issues mentioned in the text. For example, the first note for chapter two begins at the bottom of page 574 and ends a third of the way down page 578. Try cramming that into an asterisked margin! This means I have to keep flipping back and forth between the main text and notes. The book is something like a better version of David Gress’ “From Plato to NATO” (though I admit to not finishing the last chapter of that). Gress is annoyingly caught up in the “culture wars” of the early/mid 90s and repeatedly inserting that into his historical narrative detracts from it. That’s not the case for Berman, though he writes that he intuitively feels that he is living through a crisis in the “West” or the law that signifies an end of an era (just as the Papal revolution did). Looking back to 1983 (when “Law and Revolution” was published), I think he was wrong. Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to Decadence” more plausibly argues for something like that, but he was discussing culture rather than legal foundations. I suppose neoliberalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union color my perceptions more and make the Russian revolution seem less relevant today.

I’m only in the middle of the introduction, but it appears the primary thesis of Harold Berman’s “Law and Revolution” is that the development of papal law & ecclesiastical autonomy represented a radical break with the past that defined the “modern” era (which he defines as taking place from about 1050 AD until 1945). He acknowledges that there was also more gradual evolution interacting with his specified periods of revolution (in addition to the usual ones he refers to the reformation as the “German Revolution”) we can also detect more extreme discontinuities in the law (which has always served a role of transmitting tradition). For instance “One cannot say, for example, that trial by ordeal and trial by battle gave rise to trial by jury […]”. Perhaps not trial by jury itself, but allegedly there is a hallowed feature derived from trial by combat: the right to confront one’s accusers. At least that’s the basis of this feminist argument that the right should be “unincorporated” for cases of domestic violence. Since I never bought into incorporation, I agree, though I don’t know what the state constitutions say. Peter Leeson argues that trial by battle was an efficient means of solving the disputes faced by courts of that time.

Even if he was posting at his own blog more often I know he wouldn’t bother copying this because of its irrelevance toward achieving persistence. But I think most readers would find it more provocative than most of the material I provide. I guess we can throw out the hypothesis that Noah Millman uses H.A as a pseudonym. The following is Hopefully Anonymous, I’ve only seen the first three movies on the graph:
I call bullshit (I haven’t seen the last airbender) on CW. His movies since the 6th sense have all been, in different ways, interesting failures. And I’d argue Unbreakable is a clearly superior film to 6th sense. He’s taken risks with each film, and has had innovative stylistic success with each. Plausible coherence (his big weakness post-Unbreakable) isn’t everything, and he should be forgiven aliens that can’t beat water, kids that can’t figure out they’re only a couple miles from civilization, the obviousness and silliness of a conspiracy of trees killing people, and the other stuff he’s widely mocked about.

He’s done something interesting and non-formulaic with each film. If The Last Airbender is just a bad movie, he can still feel proud with a body of work superior to quite a few more lauded, less adventurous directors/screenwriters.

He made quite a few movies without making the Matrix 3 and I consider him a superior intelligence to universally more lauded directors like the Coen Brothers and Ron Howard. I’d rank Shyamalan on his body of work above Spielberg and Scorcese but below John Carpenter and Paul Verhoven.

It’s not a question I normally ask myself, but it occurred to Dan Ariely. In “Predictably Irrational” he writes:
“[…] salary alone will not motivate people to risk their lives. Police officers, firefighters, soldiers – they don’t die for their weekly pay. It’s the social norms – pride in their profession and a sense of duty – that will motivate them to give up their lives and health. A friend of mine in Miami once accompanied a U.S customs agent on a patrol of the offshore waters. The agent carried an assault rifle and could certainly have pounded several holes into a fleeing drug boat. But had he ever done so? No way, he replied. He wasn’t about to get himself killed for the government salary he received. In fact, he confided, his group had an unspoken agreement with the drug couriers: the feds wouldn’t fire if the drug dealers didn’t fire. Perhaps that’s why we rarely (if ever) hear about gun battles on the edges of America’s “war on drugs.””

If you were me (and I know this for a fact, because I am me) you would flash back to Randall Collins on violence, or Robert Axelrod on the emergence of non-violent cooperation between opposing trenches in WW1. Perhaps you think of Radley Balko’s work on no-knock paramilitary-style police raids at night which can result in the deaths of both residents and officers, though you recall also that policing isn’t that dangerous a profession (with most of the risk coming from operating a vehicle). If you were similar to but still not me, you might have even recalled Fred McChesney on the diminishing danger faced by firefighters. All in all, if you were me, you would be glad that there aren’t so many gun battles and that people get to live long lives. But Dan Ariely is not me.

His response is “How can we change this situation?” He first considers paying them enough that they consider it worth risking their lives, but then decides that it would be better if they knew society held them in great esteem for taking such risks. He then extrapolates that to suggesting that we improve our childrens’ education not through standardized-testing or performance-based salaries but by rethinking school curricula to “link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechnology, et.c) and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society”. He argues that when children see the point of education they will become more enthusiastic and motivated. I haven’t done any more research than him on the subject, but that kind of idea brought to my mind the bee-sting theory and Promises I Can Keep. More cynically, it occurs to me that these are already areas society holds up as very valuable, and by suggesting that we collectively signal the value we ascribe to them Ariely is doing the same thing as the psychologists described by Robyn Dawes.

Recently I cited a Gary Becker paper showing that many microeconomic theories remain valid even if individual actors exhibit irrational behavior. Tremble at the power of relative prices! Dan Ariely has a different perspective. He writes in “Predictably Irrational”:
“[…] imagine that two new taxes will be introduced tomorrow. One will cut the price of wine by 50 percent, and the other will increase the price of milk by 100 percent. [traditional economic consequences blah blah] What if the new taxes are accompanied by induced amnesia for the previous prices of wine and milk? […] I suspect that the price changes would make a huge impact on demand if people remembered the previous prices and noticed the price increases; but I also suspect that without a memory for past prices, these price changes would have a trivial effect, if any, on demand. If people had no memory of past prices, the consumption of milk and wine would remain essentially the same, as if the prices had not changed.”
In his paper, Becker gives two extremes of irrational actors. There is the extremely impulsive, who acts randomly, and the extremely inertial, who makes the same choices as before the same regardless of exogenous changes. It seems to me that the first type is much like Ariely’s amnesiac. I shouldn’t overstate Ariely’s position though, on the next page after discussing a gas tax he acknowledges “I am not suggesting that doubling the price of gasoline would have no effect on consumers’ demand. But I do believe that in the long term, it would have a much smaller influence on demand than would be assumed from just observing the short-term market reactions to price increases.” That sounds much more plausible, though also vague enough to be a pretty weak statement. I suppose quantifying such things is more appropriate for journal articles. This is interesting, because well-known behavioral economist George Loewenstein (and fellow-traveler Peter Ubel) have recently argued that policy-makers should focus more on the blunt-force of changing relative prices in order to make significant changes in consumer behavior. It should be acknowledged though that personal vehicles consume a rather small proportion of fossil fuels, so presumably more bottom-line oriented organizations (e.g. coal plants) be the targets.

The next part I found interesting is unrelated. (more…)

I’d like to explore what’s going on in Daniel Klein’s “Knowledge Flat Talk: A Conceit of Supposed Experts and a Seduction to All.” Klein has come in for criticism lately, which spurred my following investigation.

Klein’s thesis is that mainstream economists assume not only shared knowledge among economic actors in society (everyone at some point – or everyone period if you fancy “economic imperialism”) but shared interpretation of knowledge, which he calls somewhat achingly “flat talk.”  This splitting of hairs is reminiscent of the “unknown unknown” concept, but there’s sense to be made of it with a bit of intellectual elbow grease.

Klein cites the example of Wittgenstein’s use of the rabbit-or-duck image to make his point about differing interpretations. He relates this to economic inquiry by stating that game theory and models of economic equilibrium assume both shared knowledge and the interpretation thereof, the basis for claims of information asymmetry. The framework for knowledge – “playing soccer,” “fixing a car,” etc. – is commonly held, but specific information is lacking by certain participants. But if such synchronicity of interpreted knowledge is missing, these models break down. You end up with 11 people on a field with a kickable round object and knee high socks wondering what to do with themselves, or a 2 ton contraption with wheels and a mass of metal and wire to decipher, respectively. Klein laments the economic profession “flattening” everything down to mere information, the more of which the better for correcting perceived negative economic outcomes.

(As an aside, Klein is correct that popular economic methodology here has failed to take account of the above – as far as I know, anyway – but wrong to to suggest that this is insurmountable. Klein rejects on normative grounds the “people’s romance” that, if taken far enough, might successfully broaden the scope of shared interpretation of knowledge –  e.g., that the Census is benign in intent and helps successfully direct federal funding to deserving communities – to make information asymmetry the only remaining problem. But alas, even mere informational problems are the stock in trade of the Hayekian critique we know so well.)

At an Institute for Humane Studies seminar I attended in 2006, a Muslim student asked me on our way back from lunch one day mid-week if libertarianism was really just cultural relativism. Truth be told, I forgot how I responded, but if he were to ask me now I’d say “yes.” I know of no modern state that limits itself to the enforcement only of laws that the modal libertarian thinks it ought to, and the evidence for this being what citizens generally desire is at this point beyond dispute. So in effect,yes, the libertarian is a cultural relativist, because the culture of most folks includes the statist impulse to enforce all aspects of moral reasoning (in differing bundles), making the lack of such an impulse tantamount to a disregard for the preservation of culture and a tolerance for letting the civilizational chips fall where they may.

True, even the desire for a state that enforces only contracts is a kind of support for a certain social outcome, but it’s awfully threadbare given its open-ended nature; the equivalent paltry liberal philosophy on the non-libertarian (or rather more precisely, non-propertarian) side of the ledger would be the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, wherein people are asked as a mental exercise in political philosophy to disregard their “situated selves,” i.e. precisely the bundle of cultural artifacts, aesthetic preferences and normative commitments that make them who they are.  Also include here is the concept of deliberative democracy, where as long as everyone gets to make an informed opinion without threats of sanction, civil or political, the resulting debate over the fate of society is up for grabs. There’s a new book elaborating on all of this.

Klein’s cultural relativism is subtly on display in this quote from his essay:

An interpretation is “right” only in the sense that it is better than the relevant alternative. It isn’t “right” in the sense of final or definitive. Once the government starts acting on an interpretation, it tends to become ossified. Every interpretation spurs its own transcendence and superseding. Even if the government does seize on a pretty good interpretation of what’s going on “now,” it is likely to cling to it long after it should have [emphasis mine] been superseded. Moreover, governmentalization of interpretation tends to regiment social affairs and repress the evolution of interpretation.

Klein gives very few concrete examples of of what kind of interpretation he’s talking about. The interpretation of statutory rape as the exercise of man-boy love might be going too far for even Klein, but I don’t see how this is ruled out given the thesis of his paper, which is provided for at a pretty abstract level. There is evidence for the claim that he does not draw a distinction between merely economic matters and all other matters in this critique of governmental interpretation, and that his distrust of “the people’s romance” is smuggled into an otherwise solid essay on economic philosophy that elaborates on the general “knowledge problem.” No, his view of the faulty interpretative powers of government – to know what is going on “now” – goes far beyond the misuse of yesterday’s prices to inform mandatory price ceilings:

Economics ought to teach us to subdue our yearning for common knowledge, a yearning both primordial and too often culturally inculcated.

“Ought” is the operative word. Marxist philosophy (no doubt distorted as someone more familiar with Marxism might inform me) taught a generation of East Germans to yearn for common knowledge, and it worked.  The problem of interpretation, or rather, determination, of prices in day-to-day matters of economic transaction plagued their state socialist society, making them relatively poorer, but the broad contours of an interpretive view of society as class based and solidaristic made its impact, and once in place became the widely shared common knowledge Klein objects to even on positive grounds.

An illustration he provides of the problem of interpretation involves the determination that business practices are “anti-competitive” in the view of the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division. This is all very sound, but again only because a pluralistic, liberal (though not libertarian) society is always debating just where to draw the line that clearly identifies where one industry ends and another begins, i.e. the nature of monopoly. But from Klein’s point of view even the very interpretive framework of business-as-properly-competitive is up for grabs. Klein’s preference for an interpretation that takes into account the “transcendence” of governmental interpretive powers undermines the strength of his argument. The “problem construction” sociologists speak of – i.e. the ability to define the narrative – can be cause for the transcendence of the anarchy of interpretation Klein implicitly invokes on behalf of classical liberalism.

Klein’s preference for a world with less common knowledge should not be confused with the supposed impossibility of obtaining it.

Like many people I thought it was a well-established piece of psychology. Robyn Dawes doesn’t agree. In “House of Cards” he writes the following:
“[…] professional psychologists make claims to be experts not only in problems of mental illness but in knowing what constitutes the good life in general (“We are teachers …”). Again, they have established this authority in part by reaching “expert” conclusions that are compatible with what people generally believe anyway. For example, Abraham Maslow’s “needs hierarchy” and Erik Erikson’s hierarchy of childhood stages have become so accepted in our culture that people often refer to them as if they were established facts. Yet the evidence supporting their existence is scant. A true hierarchical structure implies fundamental asymmetries; it is impossible to reach a higher stage without reaching lower stages – often at an earlier point in time. The slender research evidence for the existence of these hierarchies could often by restated with the generalization that “good things in life occur in loose clumps, as do bad things.” That generalization should not be surprising given the existence of positive feedback between what people do, how they feel about themselves, and the future opportunities available to them.”

The next two paragraphs don’t really touch on Maslow, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll copy them. The following is all quotes from Dawes that I don’t feel like putting in quotation marks. (more…)

In fits & starts I’ve been reading Albert O. Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”. For a while I kept part of a bookmark on an early section to remind me to comment on it, and that’s what this is. One of the topics in the book is how economic actors do not always maximize and may often exhibit “slack”. He gets into a discussion of theories of irrational behavior in economics, which are still the hot new thing four decades later. What’s surprising is his citation of Gary Becker as one of the theorists who worked with irrationality, since Becker is famous for applying “economic imperialism” of rational choice theory to areas traditionally considered part of sociology (crime, families, etc). The citation is to the paper with the title of this post, which JSTOR tries to lock away from the unwashed masses but a kindly soul has placed here. A lot of it involves mathematical statements about overlapping areas of graphed curves, so you may prefer Micha Ghertner’s classic Alchian-inspired post What Does The Free Market Require?

flenser said the Democratic Party owes its existence to self-described “non-conformists” and “independents” who love the government. That seemed like something I could examine in the GSS. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any variables for describing yourself as such, but WRKINDP asked about the importance of independent work in a job (turn in your creative class badge if you don’t think it’s important). I compared it to PARTYID, excluding “OTHER”: (more…)

Within an excellent chapter from Robyn Dawes’ “House of Cards” I was struck by a parenthetical. “But no one wants a world that is perfectly predictable, which would be a dull one. Nor do we want a world that is overly just, in which everyone guilty of a bit of bad behavior or suffering from a touch of neurosis would be haunted with a fear of retribution”. The first sentence is a common position, but I have never heard the latter before. My impression of philosophers is that they tend to define “just” as that which we should desire. (This definition confused the hell out of me when I was younger and thought it merely meant accurate application of the laws, whatever they were). I could understand not wanting a system which is overly strict or punitive, but those are cases people tend not to consider “just”. Equitable punishment would mean that people guilty of just a bit of bad behavior would receive just a bit of punishment. I would think that was the common sense view that should have been obvious to Dawes. The bit about neurosis does seem to fit poorly with my interpretation though. I can acknowledge hypotheticals in which we want completely innocent people punished for someone else’s crime, but I don’t think that was what Dawes was getting at. In what situations would he think people should not receive the punishment that the actually deserve or should receive one they don’t? I would also add that if retribution was swift (or even just certain), people would likely be reconciled to the inevitable rather than haunted by a possibility.

The People’s Romance is a scale social good. Conspicuous non-conformism is a congestion good.

Inspired by this dichotomy from Robin Hanson.

UPDATE: In “Predictably Irrational” Dan Ariely describes an experiment in which he had a group of people at a restaurant/bar to order their drinks, with the randomized conditions being whether they did so by announcing their choice or silently marking it on a piece of paper. It turns out that rather than imitating the choices of the “first person in line” (read the book to understand the back-reference), people tend to avoid repeating choices that others have made. Furthermore, people who choose differently to avoid sharing the same selection as another at their table report less enjoyment of it (it makes no difference to the first chooser whether they made their choice verbally or on paper). Ariely found this aesthetically-sabotaging tendency to be correlated with a personality trait called “need for uniqueness” (related to “openness to experience”?). So individualists should dislike themselves for their foolish idiosyncracy. There is an exception for other cultures, in Hong Kong people tended to imitate other choosers, again to the detriment of their reported satisfaction. I wonder what satisfactions people would report if one person made a choice, and then everyone received the same thing so that others did not have the possibility of feeling the same sort of regret for being pushed into bad choices?

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