September 2011


Reason’s blog has a post up on a poll taken of Americans’ beliefs about what it takes to be successful. The typical divisions between conservatives and liberals come up, with the latter thinking luck has more to do with success than conservatives, who predictably take the boot-strap side. What is dubbed “Pure Independents” leans toward the luck side of the debate. This is all to show how these underlying beliefs inform views on the role of the state in intervening and helping the less lucky (or lazy) get on in life.

I guess I’m in the minority, because my laissez faire orientation notwithstanding, I think luck indeed has more to do with success than hard work (especially if what you’re aiming for is an elite socioeconomic status). Structural forces reign, but include genetic predisposition in addition to global economic shifts. The statistical likelihood of having X life outcome given a certain Y background, or the ability to conclude Y background given X life outcome, is often so overwhelming that it seems laughable to think one can will oneself into success on matters of great consequence. Of course, someone reading such a study about the likely life outcome of a background that fits the reader’s own can take conscious action to alter their future, but the likelihood even here of such a reader being college educated and of above average intelligence is probably, well, far greater than .00.

Those against state intervention should cease with the hard-work talk, and instead tout the ability of markets to experiment and correct for error relative to state supported initiatives, and how this benefits both the lucky and unlucky. This won’t satisfy radical levelers most concerned about economic rather than political equality, but I wonder how many of those types actually exist. This is a less romantic (read: folk economic) narrative, however, and will probably only work within a certain milieu, e.g. the community of political philosophers that inform the policy wonk elite.  At the layperson level – the level the Reason poll was working on – the perpetuation of myths may be necessary, in which case Horatio Alger isn’t such a putz after all, and Virginia Postrel is super insightful.

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From the 1998 Journal of International Security, Chaim Kauffman gives something of a defense of population transfer (aka ethnic cleansing) as reducing violence. I haven’t actually read it yet, but his case studies that critics tend to bring up are Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus.

Hat-tip to Zachary Latif.

I have previously discussed Old Krugman’s argument for the worth of theory, even simplified models. But I wasn’t aware of this example. I don’t even remember how I wound up at that Stephen Gordon post. The short of it is that a meteorologist wanted to know how simple of a model you could use and still get many familiar features of weather on earth. He used “a dish-pan filled with water, placed on a slowly rotating turntable, with an electric heating element bent around the outside of the pan”. And that resulted in “a steady flow near the rim evidently corresponding to the trade winds, constantly shifting eddies reminiscent of temperate-zone storm systems, even a rapidly moving ribbon of water that looked like the recently discovered jet stream”. This despite the reality that weather is a highly complex system, like the economy.

And speaking of economics I like David Glasner’s taking the third option in response to the Keynes vs Hayek debate (I should note I know nothing about Hawtrey and have no opinion on his merits). I expect Hopefully Anonymous would approve as well.

Eric Crampton reports that in New Zealand it is the Maori who are the most anti-immigration, particularly that of whites. Too bad for them there was no public polling during the heaviest migration years. I also wonder which other academics around the world have gone on the record like professor Margaret Mutu.

In an unrelated note, Henry Farrell sounded a bit like Hopefully Anonymous when he wrote “social life is a continual struggle between people with different kinds of cultural, economic and social capital over how different kinds of capital should be valued and exchanged. Thus, for example, when impoverished academics sneer at the ‘vulgar’ taste of rich people, they are semi-consciously trying to improve the exchange rate between the kind of cultural capital that they have lots of (‘good taste’ as they themselves define it) and the kind of economic capital that rich people have lots of (money)” and then applied the idea to geeks.

So says David Page. I previously discussed its possible extinction here. Page mentions that the loss of a pair for the Y to combine with (or to put it another way, the mutations that resulted in “sex chromosomes”) first appeared in reptiles 300 million years ago. I was curious as to what determined sex before then, and sure enough the wikipedia page I linked to in that last post explained how at the bottom and I had simply forgotten.

I don’t put much thought into the causal impact of the media on anything, but I know others do (particularly those with media-like jobs). So I figured I’d link to Making Friends With the Media from orgtheory and “Corporate Media” Theory from Tim Groseclose guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy.
UPDATE: I provided even more links on the topic here.

William McNeill’s “PLagues and Peoples” contains a historical tidbit I hadn’t heard of before. An early form the germ theory, or “contagionism” could be traced back to Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546. In 1822 it was tested by French doctors against its rival, the miasma theory. There was an outbreak of yellow fever (now known to be carried by mosquitoes) in Barcelona and experts led by Nicholas Chervin determined that the victims could not have come into contact with one another to spread the disease. This bolstered arguments by reformers that quarantines were an irrational obstruction resulting from Roman Catholic medieval superstition. Even John Snow’s tracing of cholera infections in London to a faulty pump did not overturn that view because it was only circumstantial evidence. What finally changed things was microscopes that could actually show the infectious organisms. But even Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur’s work did not stop a German doctor in 1892 from acting as a proto Barry Marshall and drinking a beaker full of cholera germs (he was lucky and reported no ill effects). That same year in Hamburg (a latecomer to modern sewage systems), one half of a street became infected with cholera while the other was spared. The infected half drew its water from the town of Altona which had installed a water-filtration plant to sent their sewage elsewhere while the spared half drew clean water from the Elbe. The Hamburgers decided both that the miasmatic theory could explain such results and that it was better to give than receive in the case of sewage.

Another surprising claim is that quinine merely suppresses fever, but does not prevent or cure disease. It seems strange then that this enabled the exploration of non-coastal Africa, since I had always heard that fever is just the body’s natural defense against such infection, making its suppression as hopeless a means of preserving life as the a Russian zoo’s attempt to ward off cold among its animals with vodka.

On finishing the book I suppose I should give some overall thoughts, but I think I’ve already said enough in previous posts. I didn’t previously mention the author’s pessimism regarding the population increases resulting from taming infectious disease. I suppose it was common at the time the book was written.