Friday, October 9, 2015

That is a Pavlovian reaction and it is not helpful

A conjunction of articles about the danger of trying to arrive at quick simple answers to complex issues whether it be climate change, diet, or public safety.

First up is this article, For decades, the government steered millions away from whole milk. Was that wrong? by Peter Whoriskey which highlights what has been know for a good while now - the government makes strong recommendations, constrains public choices, and creates policy incentives and disincentives when in fact they don't know what they are talking about.

Since the government first began making strong policy decisions around the public diet, our obesity rate has ballooned. Correlation is not causation but there is emerging evidence to suggest that government guidelines have been a material contributor to this epidemic. So now, still ignorant about the nature of the complex system of food, nutrition, diet and eating habits, we also have massive government programs to stem the obesity epidemic which government programs helped instigate.

Whoriskey is focusing on the situation with the government's recommendations regarding milk. There is now evidence indicating that the advice has not only been wrong but perhaps also harmful, increasing mortality rates of those who moved away from drinking whole milk to drinking skim milk.

To me, the interesting point is not so much that the government gives bad advice, as the basis on which that advice was mustered in the first place. We know that the human dietary and nutritional system is complex, varying over the course of a lifetime and subject to all sorts of externalities and confounding independent variables. We also know that human health systems are likewise complex. You can have people move on to a regimen of cholesterol drugs in order to reduce bad cholesterol and successfully achieve a decrease in deaths by heart attack while experiencing an increase in deaths from other causes. So you haven't changed your mortality rate, just the cause of death. That is not a success.

What we most want is for decisions to be evidence-based and with a clear articulation of the desired outcome in its whole context. The milk issue was originally surfaced out of a fear that drinking milk was correlated with heart disease. The goal was to reduce heart disease by drinking less whole milk. While parts of the causative relationship between milk consumption and heart disease were known, there were all sorts of missing links and there was little overall empirical evidence. No one ran a double blind test of milk consumption presumably because those take a lot of money and decades of time. Instead, based on correlation and theory and an overarching concern to do something about heart disease, the government issued its edicts. Edicts which turned out to be wrong and probably harmful.

Not only was the answer to the question "Does milk cause heart disease?" wrong but it was the wrong question in the first place. The real question they ought to have been asking, since diet and health are such complex multicausal systems, was "What role does milk play in health and mortality?" That broader question would have forced more research that might have saved a lot of time, money and perhaps lives.

Another example is this clip of Charles C.W. Cooke about gun-control. Its a great contrast in two visions of government. The journalist Mark Halperin is making the argument that passions compels us to do something in the face of gun tragedies and Charles Cooke is making the argument that passion has nothing to do with it, instead we should be asking "What are the actions that we can undertake which will have a positive reduction in gun crimes within the context of all other parameters such as civil rights, etc.?" He is making the additional point that this is a complex multicausal issue and that the one we do know is that most of the proffered policy changes will not reduce the problem. If the proposed policies won't solve the problem, then why do we keep making the same recommendations? Cooke by far has the best position in this argument, leaving poor old Halperin without a leg to stand on.

Simple, knee-jerk solutions to complex multicausal problems are rarely productive. Or, as Cooke so eloquently puts it, "That is a Pavlovian reaction and it is not helpful."

Climate change, income inequality, poverty, obesity, etc. They all fall into this category where the system is complex and multicausal. It is not that we should do nothing because they are complex and multicausal. The argument is that we should know enough about what we are doing to be confident that we will achieve the desired outcomes. The bar for confidence with regard to complex multicausal systems is very high. Too often we let our base emotional nature steer us towards glib answers that have nothing to do with the real root causes and end up making the problem worse rather than better.

Have some self-discipline and make considered decisions and avoid emotionally flailing about making a gesture towards a solution without solving the problem.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book

Interesting that it is Slate that has this article, Banned Books Week Is a Crock by Ruth Graham.

I have been mulling on this for a long time. I posted something a couple of years ago with the numbers. In a country of some 310 million. We only have a few hundred book "challenges" in a year.
The statistics certainly sound alarming. Since Banned Books Week was instituted in 1982, the event’s website informs us, 11,300 books have been challenged. In 2014 alone, 311 books were banned or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States, with many more cases unreported. It would be easy to assume that the literal banning of books is still a routine occurrence in the United States.

But take a closer look, and there’s much less for freedom-loving readers to be concerned with. The modifier “banned or challenged” contains a lot of wiggle room, for one. A “challenge,” in the ALA’s definition, is a “formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” By that definition, Sims’ one-woman freak-out in Tennessee qualifies as a “challenge,” despite the fact that it posed no real threat to Skloot’s book, let alone the “freedom to read.”

Once upon a time, book bans were a serious issue in the United States. The Comstock Law, passed by Congress in 1873, made it illegal to circulate “obscene literature.” Even classics like The Canterbury Tales fell under that description in the eyes of Victorian moralists, and in the middle of the last century, publishers and booksellers of forbidden novels including Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill were actually prosecuted in court. But in the years since, social and legal tolerance for censorship plummeted. A 1982 Supreme Court decision, Island Trees School District v. Pico, ruled that local school boards can’t remove books from their libraries simply because they’re offended by them.
So roughly, there was one book challenged for every million citizens. I'd say 1 in a million is pretty good except that there are always people who are eager advocates for suppressing free speech. You have to watch them like a hawk.

I think Graham is a little hard on the American Library Association, who run banned book week. Yes, to a certain extent they are making much ado about nothing, on the other hand, it is worthwhile reminding people in very visible ways that we cannot take any of our civil liberties for granted, you have to be constantly vigilant.

However, there is a tool in the advocacy toolkit that I particularly despise and I am afraid that it is used with some abandon in Banned Book Week, and that is the conscious debasement of language in order to arrive at a faith-based conviction rather than to elucidate an empirical reality.

In this case, as Graham points out, it is the idea that books are being banned. They are not being banned. Federal, State, County, City - no one is allowed to ban books. It simply doesn't happen. There are no banned books in the US.

What is being proffered as banned are two different categories. One category are those books which are being challenged for appropriateness. Usually these are being challenged on two grounds, one is that the content is inappropriate for the community norms. These challenges never, as far as I am aware, succeed. The other grounds are that the book is inappropriate by age. That is a lot more nuanced and reasonable minds can disagree. These challenges are usually in the context of school. Is it appropriate for 5th graders to be reading Go Ask Alice? Perhaps, perhaps not. Often the issue is not about banning the book per se, but moving it into a more age appropriate slot.

The other category are books which schools and libraries are being pressured by parents or residents to either 1) not buy, or 2) remove from the shelves/reading list. Again, neither of these constitute banning. No government entity has an implied obligation to make all books available. There are limits to budgets and bookshelves. So what is being counted as "banned" are really often citizen engagement with the governmental process, which is actually a good thing. We may be disappointed that XYZ school district does not want to teach Huckleberry Finn because of language, but that is not a ban. It is a bad educational choice on the part of that school district.

So ALA broadens the definition of "banned" absurdly and even with that overbroad definition, they are only able to rustle up 311 instances of "banning."

From that perspective, freedom of speech in America is in unassailably good shape. But that's not the case and here's where I think ALA is missing a trick. I understand why they shy away from it but it is actually their most important risk.

Freedom of speech is under undeniable assault in our schools and universities. 55% of our universities apply speech codes which seriously infringe on freedom of speech. Though not as well quantified, there is reason to believe the situation is even worse in high schools. Some universities, demonstrating a phenomenal tone deafness, even go to the lengths of designating free speech zones. Separate from speech codes, there is the emerging problem of heckler's vetoes which more and more universities seem to allow advocacy groups to exercise as evidenced by the number of graduation speaker invitations withdrawn and the number of campus presentations which have to be shut down, moved, or contained owing to people protesting simply because someone is saying something with which they disagree.

It used to be that the threat to freedom of speech and freedom to read what you want was most manifest from the low-browed masses. Now it is the pointy-headed elite who want to ban speech, or, at least, going along with the idea for someone else to ban it (heckler's veto.) Universities and schools still want to benefit from the positive brand image of education and higher education so it is natural that no one wants to talk about this thuggish repression that is being tolerated and cultivated. But ignoring a problem does not make it go away.

See IUPUI says sorry to janitor scolded over KKK book from FIRE for an account of an instance where a university's inclination to suppress freedom of speech leads to express actions to suppress reading.
Sampson’s troubles began last year when a co-worker complained after seeing him reading a book titled ”Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.”

The book’s cover features white-robed Klansmen and burning crosses against a backdrop of Notre Dame’s campus. It recounts a 1924 riot between Notre Dame students and the Klan in which the students from the Catholic university prevailed.

Sampson, a 58-year-old white janitor and student majoring in communication studies, said he tried to explain that the book was a historical account.

”I have an interest in American history,” Sampson said. ”I was trying to educate myself.”

But Sampson says his union official likened the book to bringing pornography to work, and the school’s affirmative action officer in November told Sampson his conduct constituted racial harassment.

”You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your black co-workers,” Lillian Charleston wrote in a letter to Sampson.
That last paragraph sends shivers up the spine, calling forth the totalitarian spirit of the minor bureaucrat finding a way to lord it over someone with even less power, a spirit so ably conjured by J.K. Rowling with her despicable character Dolores Umbridge. See this video of the IUPI incident here.

What ALA, or someone else, ought to be doing is focusing on banned speech. That's where the greatest threat lies. Banned Book Week is, fortunately, a shadow of an issue, more a remembrance of past intolerance than a fight against current banning. The enemies of freedom have moved on and are now focusing on speech itself. But once they suppress speech, books can't be far behind.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Weeping econ professors

I like Paul Theroux well enough, particularly his very earliest writings. But it is regrettable how authors pen op-eds on things they are ill-informed about to stoke outrage that will help sell books (Theroux has a new one out.)

From The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor by Paul Theroux. In this instance, Theroux is trying to stir populist outrage against businessmen and globalization without understanding the nature of economics. The opening paragraphs are enough to make an Intro to Econ professor weep.
Every so often, you hear grotesquely wealthy American chief executives announce in sanctimonious tones the intention to use their accumulated hundreds of millions, or billions, “to lift people out of poverty.” Sometimes they are referring to Africans, but sometimes they are referring to Americans. And here’s the funny thing about that: In most cases, they have made their fortunes by impoverishing whole American communities, having outsourced their manufacturing to China or India, Vietnam or Mexico.

Buried in a long story about corruption in China in The New York Times a couple of months ago was the astonishing fact that the era of “supercharged growth” over the past several decades had the effect of “lifting more than 600 million people out of poverty.” From handouts? From Habitat for Humanity? From the Clinton Global Initiative?

No, oddly enough, China has been enriched by American-supplied jobs, making most of the destined-for-the-dump merchandise you find on store shelves all over America, every piece of plastic you can name, as well as Apple products, Barbie dolls or Nike LeBron basketball shoes retailed in the United States for up to $320 a pair. “The uplifting of impoverished people” was one of the reasons Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, gave in 1998 for moving his factories out of the United States.

The Chinese success, helped by American investment, is perhaps not astonishing after all; it has coincided with a large number of Americans’ being put out of work and plunged into poverty.
This is your traditional zero-sum understanding of the economy going all the way back to Marx and earlier where one person cannot get richer without another person becoming poorer. This is, of course, they very opposite of an open capitalist market where all people become better off through free trade.

It has been known and understood all along in classical liberal economics circles that 1) global markets improve productivity, efficiency and income, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty and 2) all free markets entail creative destruction. Old plants close, new plants open. Jobs requiring heavy repetitive labor move offshore while white collar, creative, services jobs open up here. It is never in stasis, there are always, at any given point in time people that have benefited and others who have lost. But what we do know empirically and beyond doubt is that the free market is the best and fastest way to improve the lives of all people and that there are no other known systems which produce superior outcomes. Actually, we know more than that. All existing alternative systems produce worse outcomes and usually much, much worse. There is no empirical dispute about the data demonstrating this.

Business executives in lawful and free markets do not make fortunes by impoverishing anyone. That is absurd, economically ignorant rhetoric even if it might be ideologically comforting and might sell a few extra copies of his books. It is the rhetoric of envy and populist anger.

Fostering open, lawful, free markets has been a north star for American foreign policy for decades. It has been always understood that such globalization would make everyone, American and foreign, richer but that there would come disruptions with that global competition. Some people suffer those disruptions in the short term and it makes it no easier in the short term to know that in the long run, both you and your children will be better off. What Theroux and his ilk fail to recognize is that even without globalization, change would have come, the factories would still have been shuttered. It would have taken longer but usually, postponed change is even more disruptive. The changes come, quicker or longer. The impact is always greater the longer it is postponed.

Globalization is simply a straw-man.

It is a pity our public intellectuals flood the pages with cognitive pollution and it is repugnant that they do so simply to sell more books.

There is good reason to believe that the institutions of government are now hostage to special interests.

A generally interesting column by Thomas B. Edsall, as his columns usually are, How Did the Democrats Become Favorites of the Rich?

The general gist of the column is the convergence of both the Republican and the Democrat parties on to a model where they are much more dependent on the wealthy patron and donor, than in the past. True enough.

Edsall included a couple of graphs supporting this contention.

Click to enlarge.

My take-away from this is slightly different from Edsall's. Yes, there is a rising dependency on big donors. What I see is that in the 1980s, both parties depended on small donors for 60 or 70% of their financial support. In 2012, they both relied on small donors for only ~25% of their financial support. In other words, in the past thirty-two years, both parties have switched from being broad based parties dependent on the voter to parties which now answer to special interests for 75% of their financial support.

No wonder surveys show that only 15% of the electorate trust Government most the time (and only about 10% trust Congress). Only 6% regard the mainstream media as trustworthy.

There are two trends that get discussed with some regularity, the polarization of politics and secondarily, the disaffection with politics.

I view the polarization issue as unproven. Pundits treat it as a given that politics are more polarized today than in yesteryear but I am not convinced that that is true. In fact, I am pretty confident it is not true based on any reasonable empirical proxy for polarization. I think the second issue, disaffection with politics and lower trust in government, are actually the more important issues that need tackling. It is important to distinguish the two conditions because the solutions are dramatically different.

Polarization is resolvable through the art of politics, negotiation and compromise. It may not be easy but it is old hat. We know how to do this if we wish. Loss of faith in politics as a whole and loss of trust in the institutions of government are far more serious issues requiring much more dramatic changes.

The fact that the main political parties are now beholden to special interests to a far greater degree than in the past indicates to me that there is a very real basis for concern among the average voters and that addressing that will require much more principled decision-marking among the leaders of the major parties than either of them have shown in the recent past.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reversal of misfortunes

From Crime in Europe and the United States: dissecting the ‘reversal of misfortunes’ by Paolo Buonanno, Francesco Drago, Roberto Galbiati,and Giulio Zanella. Abstract:
Contrary to common perceptions, today both property and violent crimes (with the exception of homicides) are more widespread in Europe than in the United States, while the opposite was true thirty years ago. We label this fact as the ‘reversal of misfortunes’. We investigate what accounts for the reversal by studying the causal impact of demographic changes, incarceration, abortion, unemployment and immigration on crime. For this we use time series data (1970–2008) from seven European countries and the United States. We find that the demographic structure of the population and the incarceration rate are important determinants of crime. Our results suggest that a tougher incarceration policy may be an effective way to contrast crime in Europe.
It has been my experiential perception that this, higher crime in Europe than in the US, has been true for a number of years now, though I have not seen the empirical evidence to support that. Interesting to see it here.

But there are always nuances.

My guess is that for the upper two and maybe three quintiles, crime rates between Europe and the US might actually be fairly similar, that most of the variance between the two occurs in the bottom two quintiles.

I suspect that is especially the case for homicide, which they note as the exception. But the US has a very specific homicide problem that it has not yet figured out how to tackle and which is, in fact, politically explosive - no one wants to touch it even though we should be focusing on it and addressing it. That is that half the homicides are committed in an urban environment by African-American males between the ages of 15 and 45. Without those 5,000 murders, the US is, I would wager, significantly safer than Europe even on the homicide measure.

War on Drugs was meant to address this problem, but did not. Because it is so fraught a topic, no one wants to talk about it and so the killings go on.

The abstract sheds light on trade-off choices. There are libraries of conflicting books and research about the relationship between crime and punishment. The US, for past thirty years, has had a much more punitive judicial system than Europe, and we have had, perhaps consequently, a faster and steeper fall in crime than Europe. At this point, Europe is kinder to its perpetrators than the US but it has higher crime as a consequence.

There is much to criticize in the US judicial system (particular the elements where we use the judicial system as a means of revenue generation) and there is an emerging bi-partisan effort to indeed reduce the most egregious features. But it is an interesting trade=-off that is hard to discuss and hard to achieve between mercy and safety. We have one set of outcomes. What are we willing to give (increasing mercy) when it seems clear that all we will get is increased suffering (increased crime).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Guess you can tell who is not a cultural anthropologist

From The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris.

Speaking of the poor repute in which economics is held in some quarters.
Part of this is guilt by association. As a social science, economics tends to get lumped in with "soft" disciplines like cultural anthropology, much of which reads like fairy tales translated into Esperanto, and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, who discovered nothing and cured nobody.

Data and story-telling

I believe all good communication about an issue is a mix of hard logic and data with illustrative anecdotes and stories.

The data provides a platform that separates reality from purely emotion driven interpretations and stories humanize the issue.

Dilbert has an alternative, more binary view.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I asked her for her phone number, she gave me an estimate

From The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris.
For an allegedly dismal science, economics generates lots of jokes. Economists, it is said, are frequently wrong (they "forecast twelve of the past three recessions"), tend to be noncommittal ("If you laid all the world's economists end-to-end, they would not reach a conclusion") and like to hedge their bets ("I asked an economist for her phone number and she gave me an estimate"). Harry Truman wanted a one-armed economics advisor who wouldn't keep saying, "On the other hand." Ronald Reagan speculated that if economists had invented Trivial Pursuit, the game would have a hundred questions and three thousand answers. As early as 1855, Walter Bagehot of the Economist was claiming that "no real English gentleman, in his secret soul, was ever sorry for the death of a political economist."

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Changing expectations of age cohorts

Regarding An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James. The book was originally published in 1972, so written in the early 1970s. 45 years ago. The protagonist is a young woman, Cordelia Gray, only twenty-one years old.

That was a marginal sticking point for me early on. There was a good backstory that could, at a stretch explain it, but she seemed awfully well read and knowledgeable for a twenty-one year old, readily identifying second tier Italian Renaissance painters and recognizing stray poetical quotations, etc. But you never know with auto-didacts.

But as I read along, I began to wonder whether my minor discombobulation was less to do with the author unrealistically having a twenty-one year old taking over a failing one-person detective agency and making a go of it and more to do with a temporal dislocation on my part.

We are today, I think, very adjusted to the idea of late adulthood. Twenty-one year olds are routinely referred to as kids and it seems like adulthood has been pushed back into the late twenties or even the early thirties. We have dramatically shifted our adult age scales. Perhaps it is my contemporary perspective being imposed on the earlier reality that creates the tension.

A year or two ago I read Bob Greene's Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War. From the blurb:
When Bob Greene went home to central Ohio to be with his dying father, it set off a chain of events that led him to knowing his dad in a way he never had before--thanks to a quiet man who lived just a few miles away, a man who had changed the history of the world.

Greene's father--a soldier with an infantry division in World War II--often spoke of seeing the man around town. All but anonymous even in his own city, carefully maintaining his privacy, this man, Greene's father would point out to him, had "won the war." He was Paul Tibbets. At the age of twenty-nine, at the request of his country, Tibbets assembled a secret team of 1,800 American soldiers to carry out the single most violent act in the history of mankind. In 1945 Tibbets piloted a plane--which he called Enola Gay, after his mother--to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, where he dropped the atomic bomb.

On the morning after the last meal he ever ate with his father, Greene went to meet Tibbets. What developed was an unlikely friendship that allowed Greene to discover things about his father, and his father's generation of soldiers, that he never fully understood before.

DUTY is the story of three lives connected by history, proximity, and blood; indeed, it is many stories, intimate and achingly personal as well as deeply historic. In one soldier's memory of a mission that transformed the world--and in a son's last attempt to grasp his father's ingrained sense of honor and duty--lies a powerful tribute to the ordinary heroes of an extraordinary time in American life.
It's a wonderful book. In reading the book though, Tibbets' age startled me. Granted it was war years when many strange things happen, but still. From Wikipedia, Tibbetts was born in 1915:
In February 1942, he became the commanding officer of the 340th Bombardment Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group, which was equipped with the Boeing B-17. In July 1942 the 97th became the first heavy bombardment group to be deployed as part of the Eighth Air Force, and Tibbets became deputy group commander. He flew the lead plane in the first American daylight heavy bomber mission against Occupied Europe on August 17, 1942, and the first American raid of more than 100 bombers in Europe on October 9, 1942. Tibbets was chosen to fly Major General Mark W. Clark and Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gibraltar. After flying 43 combat missions, he became the assistant for bomber operations on the staff of the Twelfth Air Force.

Tibbets returned to the United States in February 1943 to help with the development of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. In September 1944, he was appointed the commander of the 509th Composite Group, which would conduct the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A Colonel by twenty-nine, leader of the first heavy bomber strikes (early in the war when casualties were the highest), then the first 100-bomber strike. He was essentially a test pilot for the mold-breaking B-29 but which also was plagued with multiple failures and crashes throughout its development. Then commander of the 509th for its special mission. All by twenty-nine. They grew up young in those days.

In the end, I think twenty-one year old Cordelia Gray is not so much an author pulling a character out of the nursery. Cordelia Gray is a reminder of how long we now keep our kids in the nursery.


Good to know. I had a different term for it, less sophisticated Greek and more earthy Anglo-Saxon.