October 2012


Reinhardt & Rogoff’s book is an impressive achievement, though hard for a layman reader like me to appreciate. The most significant thing about it is how many countries are covered and over how much time in their dataset, but I’m just reading a book rather than crunching numbers. The thesis that crises of various sorts (external & domestic sovereign debt, banking, hyperinflation, relative currency crash) have happened many times throughout history is well supported. But if you were to ask whether people were irrationally sanguine about such a prospect (perhaps like Taleb on tail-risk), I don’t really know whether their data can say. Perhaps they could have tried to analyze the expected return of certain assets over all that history, bring up equity premium puzzle. But the authors go for re-iterating the message that it CAN happen rather than trying to establish how likely it is. There is a useful empirical finding that developed countries can “graduate” from serial default and very high inflation. There does not seem to be a process of “graduation” from banking crises. On the other hand, the historical summary of banking crises in the final subject appendix can range from relatively detailed descriptions of failures & takeovers to the repeated boilerplate “Some banks experienced problems”. In the absence of reliable quantitative indicators they mark a banking crisis with “(1) bank runs that lead to the closure, merging, or takeover by the public sector of one or more financial institutions […] and (2) if there are no runs, the closure, merging, takeover, or large-scale government assistance of an important financial institution (or group of institutions) that marks the start of a string of similar outcomes for other financial institutions”, so I have to assume something of that sort happened in the vaguer crises. The question of how we should define and categorize crises has become a recent dispute between the authors and Bordo & Haubrich (plus John Taylor). Unfortunately, there is nothing in this book that says what it makes sense to do after a crisis, although there’s no statement of a policy-ineffectiveness proposition either. One thing I will say in response to John Cochrane on financial crises causing sovereign debt crises: R&R state that this is largely caused by reduced revenues. So obviously the problematic policy is pro-cyclical progressive taxation!

Obama on Ayn Rand: Teens Like Her, But They’ll Grow Out of It

Police Not Expecting Riots on Election Day

50 Claims of Grey: Why Fact-Checking Gives No Easy Answers

Is Election-Year Politics Killing Friendships on Facebook?

Porn Industry Prefers Obama to Romney

Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t ‘Cool’ Enough for Kids Today

Male and Female Economists Disagree on the Role of Government

Democrats and Republicans Saying ‘I Don’t’ to Each Other

Lise Eliot’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” is the most cited work among those arguing against “gender essentialism”, or at least that’s my impression. The most telling argument in favor of gender essentialism is the outcomes of children like David Reimer aka “John/Joan” raised as female after having their genitals removed at a young age. I had heard that Eliot addresses the Reimer case, but hadn’t really investigated further. It turns out the section of her book dealing with it is available through Google Books. Eliot finds the case problematic as illustration of a general principle because the surgery that completely removed his testicles took place too late at twenty-two months (although his parents had already started raising him as a girl at seventeen months), and he had an indentical twin brother raised together with him. To me having an identical twin raised by the same parents but treated as a boy is great for illustrative purposes (and Dr. John Money who publicized David as “Joan” agreed). And if we’re just focused on psychological effects, the age seems reasonable to me in finding the effects of parents raising their child to be a girl*. Admittedly, I am nothing like an expert, David & his brother just didn’t seem to have any conscious memory of him previously being a boy.

The best piece of evidence Eliot has to counter the Reimer case is another (unnamed in her book) case reported in 1998 of a boy who also lost his penis in a botched circumcision and was surgically reassigned at seven months. This one continued to identify as a normal woman. I find her citation of a 2005 review by Heinz Meyer-Bahlburg (finding that only seventeen of seventy-seven boys raised as girls for a variety of reasons reverted to females) less persuasive, because as she notes only a minority were cases of “penile ablution”, with most being intersex. This is important, because Money critic Milton Diamond (cited in Colapinto’s linked article above) had started out complaining that all the “successful” cases cited by the Money camp thus suffered a “genetic or hormonal imbalance in the womb”. Since Diamond’s focus was on pre-natal hormonal exposure, his theory would then be falsifiable with an experiment varying the age of post-natal reassignment, even if the change was purely “biological” rather than psychological.
*Interestingly, Eliot’s footnote states that none of the genetic boys raised as males later reverted to female. Her recommendation if you have an intersex child is to raise them as male “if the urogenital system can be adequately reconstructed through surgery”.

I don’t write this to attack Eliot, I find it commendable that she not only addressed Reimer but pointed out the problem with using reassigned intersex children rather than those purely biologically male/female. She is also no strawman (straw-woman?) who claims babies start out identical. Instead the title of her book refers to the small differences at early ages becoming magnified later on. This in itself doesn’t mean much to me because the heritability of many traits increase with age (and puberty obviously plays a role in gender differentiation over time). Judith Harris pointed out in “The Nurture Assumption” that many correlations based on parental treatment are misleading because parents treat children differently as a result of the child’s (heritable) traits. This is just what Eliot believes, although actually untangling the treatment effect of such a feedback loop sounds tricky to me. Unfortunately we don’t allow scientists to give children to robots to raise, completely unaware of the child’s actual gender. It would make for a great sitcom.

I read Robert Crew’s “For Prophet and Tsar” because it was recommended by Razib. As a westerner, the histories of Russia and Islam are unfamiliar to me, that of Islam in the Russian empire even moreso. Unfortunately the book had more information about Russian Islam than I cared to know and was trying to push an optimistic narrative (for politically correct modern times) that I didn’t quite buy. The interesting thing about the Russian empire is that it was a Christian state with Muslim subjects for a much longer period than any other. Unfortunately, the book really only covers the period starting with Catherine the Great’s edict of toleration, several centuries after Muslim subjugation began and not really any earlier than the British & French experience (although with the loss of its Indian territories, I believe France went through an intermission without Muslims). Crews is setting out to argue against Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” by pointing out that a period of cooperation once existed, but Huntington was explicit that civilizational salience was a change from prior divisions by ideologies, nation-states, kingdoms & empires. Crews repeatedly takes care to suggest that Russian state authorities need to treat Muslim subjects well so that new Muslim territories would surrender to them, but the impression I tended to get was that Russian officials treated complaints from Muslim authorities (including ones they had put in power) with indifference at best and expressions of annoyance more often. Near the end he draws a parallel to modern cultivation by European governments of “moderate” Muslims, but imperialists had a different attitude about things. It is true that Slavophiles complaining about the existence of Muslims and demanding they all be converted to Orthodoxy didn’t get their way, but they often seemed to be taken more seriously than Muslims. (more…)