February 2011

From my perusal of a few different pieces today all relating to lower standards of living:

First, it’s Kay Hymowitz’s “Where Have the Good Men Gone?“, arguing that women are leaving men in the dust in standard of living, income, and aspiration. Whereas guys are content to live in relative squalor (ala Animal House), play video games and watch porn, women are accumulating education, job experience, and housewares.  Her blame lies somewhat vaguely on the feminist revolution, alluded to throughout the piece. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Hymowitz places most of the blame on men for their supposedly embarrassing, boorish current state (with the article’s graphics doing little to contradict this). Blogger Whiskey, via InMaleFide, forces symmetry on the Hymowitz piece by suggesting female degradation is to blame as well, with modern women preferring sexy, entertaining men of often little net value (after all, women make their own money) to the more stable, income-generating bores that stay in on Friday night. On this reading, the Hymowitz lament could reflect the bias of upwardly mobile career women that are in fact fairly boring themselves.

(My own experience tells me that it’s men who are married or in long-term relationships, and with full-time work, that routinely play Xbox, watch crude big-budget comedies and neglect to do the dishes. Single guys have to go out and mix it up, which means avoiding video game talk and references to Adam Sandler – in order to impress relatively cultured women you see – and doing your own dishes.)

Hymowitz’s verdict on why men live in what she calls “pig heaven”: Immaturity.

Second, Tyler Cowen’s explanation for why men live with less? It’s due to the slowdown in economic growth, combined with higher housing prices, culminating in his “Great Stagnation” thesis. Hymowitz compares the chic bachelor pad ideal of the Playboy persona of the mid 20th century, with its art adorned walls and sleek Hi-Fi stereo,  to the beer can strewn domicile of many an actual bachelor, and suggests the latter aim low because they are low achievers. Cowen on the other hand submits that these kidults can’t afford the early Hefner because their wages have been stagnating, not (necessarily) because they are reverting to dullardry.

Cowen’s verdcit: It’s the economy, stupid.

Third is David Brooks, channeling Ronald Inglehart’s shifting Western values thesis. Contra Hymowitz and Cowen, Brooks believes the reason why young men prefer to live in humble dwellings with little else but Netflix, Xbox and food/drink to keep them occupied is that their values have changed. Whereas previous generations aimed to accumulate, this generation wants to socialize with minimal decorum and pretense (a nearly free activity), travel (couch surf), and when alone entertain themselves with the world that is available through their computer screen, something earlier generations probably would have taken advantage of too had it been available. Much of this generation’s competitive spirit, when it bothers to maintain it at all, has in essence gone virtual, and competition increasingly relegated to status in psychic or associative terms rather than the breadth of property. The sports car and personal gym has been replaced by a used scooter and a membership to a rock-climbing gym, the expensive art with an obscure art history book discovered at a thrift store.

Brooks’ verdict: We’ve become hippies.

I know my dependent variable here is forced, when it’s only Hymowitz explicitly referring to young men and their standard of living. But so be it. I haven’t blogged in a while and needed a quasi-thesis.

At Razib’s recommendation, I am reading Azar Gat’s “War in Human Civilization”. So far it’s pretty good, but one bit stopped me in my tracks to write this post. After deftly explaining that aggression is a useful option evolution has crafted into our genes but not a consuming drive like hunger or lust, we get this unscholarly echoing of the conventional wisdom: “[I]ndividuals, groups and societies […] are conditioned to become more or less violent by the sort of environment to which they have been exposed. We intuitively know this to be true from dialy life experience: young people growing in violent social circumstances becoming violent; beaten children becoming beating parents; and so on”
It’s preceded by some stuff about developing brain plasticity which doesn’t suffice to show anything about behavioral development (fortunately there are no brain images). Just for completeness sake I’ll summarize Harris’ point: we can’t conclude on the basis of parent behavior to child behavior correlations that environment is the cause rather than shared genes, twin-adoption studies generally show the latter to be more important than the household environment (though peers are also an important influence). Gat does later mention the Swiss and Swedes becoming peaceful after a prior history of belligerence, which does support the argument.

UPDATE: The fighting among highland New Guineans is perhaps less famous than only the Yanomamo. New Guineans from the lowland are rarely mentioned. But apparently “[T]he Gebusi of lowland New Guinea had the highest homicide rate recorded anywhere”. The closest thing to a cite for that is to Bruce Knauft’s “Violence and sociality in human evolution”, but the footnote is attached to a block-quote on the causes of their violence rather than how it compares to other societies. On an unrelated note, a few pages later Gat seems to contradict himself on whether elephants are weak prey. “[P]reying on other predators, or even on very strong herbivores such as elephants, rhinos, and hippopotami, which are also dangerously equipped, is highly irregular. Normal preying is regularly done on species that are overall weaker and less dangerous than one’s own. (Contrary to appearance, this applies even to humans hunting elephants, not only to leopards hunting gazelles.)”.

UPDATE 2: I found myself with plenty of free time to read further and no access to the internet recently, so here are more notes. (more…)

You may remember her account of the Michael Bailey controversy. Now check out what she has to say on “Darkness in El Dorado” and how the American Anthropological Association reacted to its charges against Napoleon Chagnon.

The third to last chapter of “The Art of Not Being Governed” is “Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case”. One of the ideas is that there are no real “tribes”, but they are a handy abstraction for those “seeing like a state” (in the words of his previous book) and are made manifest by state action which molds people into the identities defined for them. He views such identity as more fluid and opportunistically adopted by the upland southeast asian peoples who are his primary object of study in this book. I’m quite ignorant about that area and am willing to concede to his greater knowledge. But the old orthodoxy has taken deep enough root in my mind that I can’t jump to applying his theory elsewhere. A footnote references the Bushmen/San of the Kalahari, citing “Land Filled With Flies” to the effect that san-Khoi designates a caste which includes dispossessed Tswana and other non-San speakers (Scott acknowledges this interpretation is controversial and references a review to that effect). My impression had been that genetic data really does support the theory he claims is mythical: that they are the remains of one of the “oldest” human populations (except both sides of any branching event are equally old). An example of people for whom genetic data does not support the story we had previously been telling ourselves are the Basques.

There are some other populations conventionally considered to be made up of assorted refugees from landless laboring like Russia’s cossacks and Florida’s (part African) Seminoles, but in the same paragraph includes the Gypsies. I had never heard such a claim given for them before, and James Scott provides no cite. Genetic evidence shows them to be distinct from European populations, and while they don’t have that much south asian ancestry remaining that is understandable given the long time they have lived elsewhere and doesn’t indicate a very high rate of European influx per generation. Ashkenazi Jews are another population settled in Europe they are often compared to, and like the Gypsies they may have intermarried to a significant degree in during their settler generations, but then became the predominately endogamous ethnic group Scott suggests is mythical. But I’m getting distracted from the Gypsies. Near the beginning of the book he also compared Gypsies to Cossacks (widely acknowledged to be communities created by runaway serfs). He actually does make a citation, to “Gypsies and Other Itinerant Groups”, but no details are given about the text. I’ll quote the sentences on them from that paragraph:
“The history of the [Gypsies] in late-seventeenth century Europe provides a further striking example. Along with other stigmatized itinerant peoples, they were subject to two forms of penal labor: galley slavery in the Mediterranean basin and, in the northeast, forced conscription as soldiers or military porters in Prussia-Brandenburg. As a result they accumulated in a narrow band of territory that came to be known as the “outlaw corridor,” the one location between the catchment areas of these twin, mortal dangers.”

The other populations he discusses fled from conquest to hills or other inaccessible geography and were considered distinct peoples from the peasantry they originated from. Gypsies make a lousy comparison since they are migrants into Europe and as Yuri Slezkine notes depended for their food on host populations they lived among (yet socially separate from). I’d never heard of the “outlaw corridor” and Wikipedia was no help (maybe Thaddeus Russell would know something). There were of course more indigenous populations subject to both forms of conscription, but I’ve never heard of them fleeing to become gypsies. They gypsies are famously subject to persecution throughout history, but nowhere does Scott mention how their sometimes prideful avocation of petty crime relates to that history, which is not quite the stigma applied to the “hill peoples” discussed elsewhere in his book. I would also suggest that their history of persecution is also fairly distinguishable from that of hill peoples. Scott admirably does not shy away from mentioning many “hill people’s” proclivity toward such state-like activities as slave raiding, but this again highlights how different Slezkine’s “Mercurians” are from the “warrior castes” that tend to come from hills.

Enough about gypsies. In one surprising bit Scott cites Benedict Anderson on “the creation by the Dutch colonial regime in Indonesia, virtually from thin air, of a “Chinese” ethnic group”. Is there genetic data on the overseas “Chinese” in Indonesia? My guess is going to be that they really are of Chinese descent.

A lot of the discussion of the Wisconsin union brouhaha is boring (even my own). Karl Smith’s recollection of growing up in a union household is different, as it contains the revelation that not everyone conceives of their position as dictated by “Who? Whom?” considerations. Unions have become one of the least popular appendages of the left, associated with corruption and self-interest. It occurred to me that unions are explicitly supposed to be looking after the interests of their (non-universal) membership, and that is a major reason why they have become a good target. The whole point of a union is also supposed to be that its solidarity gives it strength, and strength is not too popular. It is okay to have explicitly self-interested politically active groups, but only for victims, and they are supposed to win concessions out of our sympathy for them. Unions have long had some sympathy appeal, but they are primarily about achieving power themselves, an aim I respect as a cynic. That was more popular in an age of heroes of accomplishment rather than heroes of suffering. Opponents of unions (particularly teacher’s unions) have had success at even persuading some progressives by framing an opposition between the powerful politically connected union and their sympathetic victims: poorly educated (“left behind”) inner-city kids. One way of phrasing this shift is “Bring on the Victims! Condemn the Fighters!” (indirect hat-tip to an anonymous UR commenter).

I’ve linked before to Jeet Heer on how conservatives and liberals changed position on the Arab-Israeli conflict as the latter went from weakness to strength. There are still influential folks like Marty Peretz and Alan Dershowitz who are strongly pro-Zionist, but they seem like old fuddy-duddies out of step with the hip young “juiceboxers“. A common argument of the critics is to compare the bodycounts on either side, which is sufficient to convince me that Israel is strong enough not to be in great danger (at least until the demographic balance tips). But I think the implicit argument is supposed to be a proof of maliciousness. I, on the other hand, think everybody wants to kick their opponents’ asses and so these relative bodycounts just show who is more competent* at it, and the relatively functional nature of Israeli society causes me to respect them more (though I should note I similarly respect the pacifist Amish). This kind of basic attitude indicates that even if circumstances led me to adopt policy positions associated with the left, I would be a righty at the core. Breeding frailty sounds self-defeating to me, and Donner-party conservatism oddly enough strikes me as progressive. Rather than a “nightmare“, Chinese history sounds to me adaptive and a hardscrapple future sounds better than a singleton. Part of that is also because of the importance of paranoia at the root of my ideology. So rather than focus on the weak as morally superior, I focus on the strongest as the greatest threat and look around for the next strongest alternative centers of power, possibly in the form of a counter-balancing coalition. In the realm of foreign policy, I oppose the hegemony and intervention of my own government because I oppose those things in general (and my taxes pay for it). As far as hegemons go though, the U.S isn’t that bad and in the event of war its opponents would be better off abjectly surrendering.

*Since the original went dead and I had to update (after doing a search for something I only dimly remembered), I figure it’s worth saving the title of Timur Kuran’s “Explaining the Economic Trajectories of Civilizations: Musings on the Systemic Approach”, so I can find it again next time.

Early today, Fabio Rojas proposed his u-shaped theory of Mexican food. Kieran Healy responded with a line-by-line imitation, applying it to higher education. I suppose the question they don’t answer is why people don’t min-max and render the midrange a failing strategy.

That’s a question I asked in this Crooked Timber thread. There has been a lot of subsequent cheering of the protesters (mostly in other threads), but not much response on why the general public should support them.

The same events sparked this discussion of the different nature of unions which are public-sector at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Steve Hsu links to an unpublished paper that Unz wrote as a freshman at Harvard under E. O. Wilson. His theory is remarkably similar to Greg Clark’s regarding the English (Clark said the major difference is that the English were quite filthy, and the resulting disease burden led to higher per-capita wealth, with another difference being the fratricidal tendencies of the aristocracy). There are a number of typos in the paper, but the oddest one which goes uncorrected is the frequent reference to “epigenetics” as the alternative to culture. He seems to be treating it as synonymous with “genetics”, as there is certainly no reference to gene regulation or methylation.

Another interesting bit is that Unz, who I’d thought was a libertarian, referred to old rural China as a “nightmare” of unrestricted free-market social darwinism. Mancur Olson thought its too-stable economy was distorted by trade associations (I’m a bit intoxicated at the moment, but I recall a story about a defecter from a cartel being bitten to death by hundreds of his peers). The more things change.

A commenter at EconLog pointed me to a video of Harold Demsetz criticizing Ronald Coase‘s paper on externalities and transaction costs. There is an appropriate nod to Frank Knight’s argument against Pigou, but the new critique of Coase is completely unconvincing. At the end he acknowledges the existence of “free rider problems” on the commons, but doesn’t explain how that’s different from Coase’s externality problem. He claims that courts introduce the inefficiency by ruling badly, but that strikes me as completely wrong. A world without courts would have the same problem. To take his soot-emitting factory example, what if there were many people doing laundry whose clothes became sooty, and they were unable to organize effectively to strike a bargain with the factory-owner? He mentioned global warming from carbon-emissions, which is a sort of extreme example of having too many parties to effectively make transactions. Even approaching his centennial, Coase should have no problem picking this argument apart.

From Patriotism or Peace by Leo Tolstoy: “But even if patriotism is not retentive, it is restorative – the patriotism of the vanquished and oppressed nations, the Armenians, the Poles, Bohemians, Irish, and so forth. This patriotism is almost the very worst, because it is the most enraged and demands the greatest degree of violence.”
For someone with such a hippy-dippy reputation, it is surprising he doesn’t refrain from “blaming the victim”. Hat-tip to Bryan Caplan.