June 11, 2011

Politicos on 'roids

I've decorously avoided all mention of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), but a few commenters have been suggesting that steroids might have played a role in his self-inflicted travails. Here's a PG-rated picture of his shaven chest the skinny 46-year-old Congressman took of himself in the mirror for his Internet admirers. 

The impact of steroids on behavior has a fair degree of randomness in it, but it does seem to increase the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time factor. In general, when ambitious men take male hormones, it makes them more ambitious but also increases the odds that they'll feel powerful urges to do things that might undermine their ambitions. In particular, muscle-building drugs seem to increase feelings of vanity and invulnerability.

The impact of steroids on political figures has been curiously underexamined in the press. At least two governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, were professional musclemen before entering politics. Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's running amok that led to a big scandal during the Bush Administration obviously had something to do with performance-enhancing drug use (President Bush greeted him, "Hey, Buff Guy, what are you benching?"), but as far as I can tell, I'm just about the only one who ever mentioned it in public. Andrew Sullivan wrote at vast length in the New York Times in 2000 about the fluctuating impact of his prescription testosterone cycle on his judgment, but practically nobody seems to have noticed.

I'll leave it to others to look for a picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn with his shirt off to see if we can create a General Theory of Self-Destructing 2011 Politicians. But I wouldn't be too surprised. Run for President of France? Of course! Rape the maid? What could possibly go wrong?

By the way, here's a perfectly reasonable letter Weiner sent to the FBI in 2008 suggesting that investigating pitching ace Roger Clemens for perjury over steroids should not be a high priority. So, steroids were at least on his radar.

Chua v. Caplan debate

I've been telling economist Bryan Caplan that he should promote his Slacker Dad book Selfish Reasons for Having Kids by debating Tiger Mother Amy Chua. And, now, here they are together in The Guardian.

Let me add once again that I think it's an extremely bad idea to publish a book about your children.

June 10, 2011

The dumbest $20 billion profit industry

From the WSJ:
Growth in the volume of text messaging is slowing sharply, just as new threats emerge to that lucrative source of wireless carrier profits. ...
The new messaging tools—answers to Research In Motion Ltd.'s popular BlackBerry Messenger—are a growing threat to a texting business that generated $25 billion in revenue in the U.S. and Canada last year. 
Carriers, such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless, charge fees ranging from 20 cents per text to $20 a month for unlimited texting. The texting business has low costs and high margins. A dollar of texting revenue produces at least 80 cents of profit compared with about 35 cents of profit from $1 in wireless data or voice services, according to analysts at UBS.

So, the phone companies make $20 billion in profits on $25 billion in texting revenues? It's a good thing that the Sierra Club and the NAACP are lobbying to let AT&T merge with T-Mobile to alleviate some of this cut-throat competition. My question, though, is: How can phone companies possibly be spending $5 billion per year to carry text messages? How much incremental bandwidth does sending 160 character ASCII text messages use on top of voice and, for a lot of people, video? One percent?

What's the next hi-tech cutting edge communications breakthrough after the great leap forward to texting? Perhaps by this time next year, all the tipping point trendsetters will be tapping out their messages in Morse Code? Or with texting while driving being increasingly banned, perhaps drivers will fill their backseats with smoldering green leaves and open and close their sunroofs to send smoke signals?


From the WSJ:
Declining Cognitive Ability Presents Challenges to Boomer Finances 
As Baby Boomers age, policy makers and economists may be served by looking at the condition of not just their nest eggs, but the health of their brains. 
So says economist David Laibson, of Harvard University in a speech called “The Age of Reason.” Prof. Laibson spoke at Morningstar’s annual conference in Chicago before hundreds of financial advisers and asset managers — industries grappling with the inevitable shift of assets from workers accumulating money to those trying to live on it as they grow older. 
Fluid intelligence — that is intelligence displayed in things like memory tests — decreases dramatically with age. In fact, “it’s all downhill from age 20” Prof. Laibson said. “What about the 80-year-olds? It’s the 80-years-olds who have the million dollar IRAs. Not the 20-year-olds.” 
But clearly, there’s a lot more to life than fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence — memory, wisdom and so on — does increase over time, but less so, on average, in senior years. 
All told, the point at which we make the best financial choices is 53 years old, according to his data. “Of course there are exceptions,” Prof. Laibson said.  
Many seniors end up in a state called cognitive impairment without dementia that isn’t quite dementia, but still (as the name implies) a deterioration of memory. In spite of this, people still may make financial decisions on their own. Prof. Labison estimated that 16% of those 71-79 years old, 29.2% of 80-89 year olds, some 38.8% of those over 90 years old are in such a state. ... 
Those people are at great risk for financial abuse. ...  
Those over the age of 50 end up paying higher interest rates, even though on average they had better FICO scores and lower default rates, Prof. Laibson said. “Middle aged people get better deals,” he said. In terms of risk-adjusted returns on investments, the young do relatively well, but the “old are doing absolutely abysmal,” paying more in fees and suffering from poor asset allocation, he said. 
Prof. Laibson called for keeping things simple for clients, while still giving them a sense of control. He called on policy makers to expand a fiduciary duty for financial advisers and expand regulations requiring power of attorney for the elderly. 
That overoptimism about mental muscle keeps people from asking for help. “We procrastinate. We don’t like complexity… We have bad memory and we don’t know the extent of our bad memory,” he said.

Personally, the last really good financial decision I can recall making was when I was 22 in 1981 and put a few thousand dollars in a 30-month certificate of deposit that paid 16.5% interest. It's been all downhill since.

Retired people with a lot of time on their hands might, however, be better at noticing and complaining when companies add small fees to monthly charges, which seems to be the main road to riches these days. For example, my wife and I spent countless hours figuring out which cell phone plan to get for the family and finally came up with a pretty good deal. But, after a couple of months, the monthly bill went up $6 per month.

Why? I don't know, because computers and bandwidth are getting more expensive I guess. I could probably dig into and find out and get it changed, but it was such an ordeal in the first place to figure out the plans that I don't have the energy to look into it.

As you get older, it gets more difficult to refocus your attention. The fixed cost investment of concentrating upon a task full of complex and arbitrary details goes up. It's like swinging the oil tanker around -- it's just easier to keep going and let the phone company grab an extra $6 per month.

How the World Works, 2011 Version

From Politico:
AT&T Gave Cash to Merger Backers 
By Eliza Krigman 
AT&T is lining up support for its acquisition of T-Mobile from a slew of liberal groups with no obvious interest in telecom deals — except that they’ve received big piles of AT&T’s cash. 
In recent weeks, the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Education Association have each issued public statements in support of the deal. 
The groups all say their public positions have nothing to do with the money they received from AT&T. And AT&T says it supports nonprofit groups because it’s the right thing to do — and not because of any quid pro quo. 
“For decades, AT&T has proudly supported numerous diverse groups and organizations,” a company spokesperson told POLITICO.

June 9, 2011

"The Mismeasure of Science"

Stephen Jay Gould's vastly influential 1981 book on IQ, The Mismeasure of Man, is an odd beast since it is heavily devoted to debunking dead and often forgotten old scientists. For example, a sizable chunk denounces Samuel George Morton, who died in 1851. Gould claimed to have reanalyzed Morton's data on skull sizes and shown that Morton distorted his results to fit his biases. 

A new study of Morton's old skulls by Jason E. Lewis, Ralph L. Holloway, et al, shows that Gould was projecting.
The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias 
Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth” [1], a view now popular in social studies of science [2]–[4]. In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton's data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man [5] argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton's skulls and reexamining both Morton's and Gould's analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases. 
... Our analysis of Gould's claims reveals that most of Gould's criticisms are poorly supported or falsified. 

Brain Scans reveal music appeals thru repetition with variation!

The great thing about the invention of brain scans is that they allow journalists to write articles about anicient topics as if they are news. 

And that's a good thing! There are a lot of important and interesting subjects that aren't "new," that aren't "growing" or "soaring" or "increasing" or all the other words that headline-writers feel obligated to use, but are still interesting. Fortunately, now there are brain scan studies coming out each month that reveal stuff we already kinda knew but are worth revisiting.

Here's a model example from the NYT last month: "To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons." I doubt if there's much of substance in it that, say, George Bernard Shaw wasn't writing about in his music reviews in the 19th Century, but it's still worth repeating about why some music is better than other music.

One thing I noticed in this article was that one of the experiments mentioned involved vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who presumably has, like a lot of artists, some time on his hands. (His hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was back in 1988.) McFerrin is a ridiculously musically talented guy with ten Grammies, and I think studying the talented can be a useful shortcut in science.

For example, I went to a scientific conference in Russia in 2001 with a number of German ethologists who studied human nature by filming hundreds of hours of normal people in various situations for evidence about common facial expressions, body language, and so forth. (Here's my article about Frank Salter videotaping would-be patrons approaching the bouncers behind the velvet rope at an exclusive night club.) My suggestion was that they could save time by videotaping a few professional improvisational comedians who make their living by exaggerating normal human reactions. For example, the old improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Wayne Brady and others is a trove of common but unexpected reactions.

Ann Coulter observes the Lucky Jim effect in action

What I call the Lucky Jim Effect is based on Kingsley Amis's observation that there's no end to the way nice things are nicer than nasty things.

From the Daily Caller:
After a college speech, ‘I can usually tell what the average SAT scores are,’ says CoulterBy Alexa Williams   12:02 AM 06/08/2011 
... “I can usually tell after a speech what the average SAT scores are, because contrary to my prejudice, at the good colleges they do not heckle, they do not throw food, they usually do not have stupid signs outside; they want to beat you in question and answer,” Coulter said. 
... The attacks Coulter and other conservatives face on some college campuses are not generally physical, but include chants and disrespectful behavior at speeches. And it is at the lesser schools that these behaviors are generally exhibited, Coulter has realized. ... 
“It is at the third-tier bush-league schools where you really need double body guard duty. Weirdly, the Jesuit schools – very bad, very, very, very, bad. ... 
At the “good” colleges, they “wait for question and answer and they’re often very good questions; they’re actually listening to the speech, they’ve read what you’ve written.” 
... In 2006, when Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project spoke at Columbia University, students drove the speakers from the stage, the tables were turned over and mics grabbed from the speaker’s hands. “I think if they were Columbia students, they were probably affirmative action students. 
“Because that really is unusual behavior at an Ivy League school or its equivalents. You can tell the SAT scores from how the kids behave in an audience and it’s the dumb ones who are the most susceptible to being jimmied up by other morons like Ward Churchill,” said Coulter.

Gingrich campaign staff resigns en masse

From the Washington Post:
Among the issues, according to knowledgeable sources, was the two-week vacation that Gingrich and his wife, Callista, insisted upon taking against the advice of his top political staff. Coming as it did after one of the most diastrous campaign launches in recent memory, it raised questions as to whether Gingrich would be willing to “commit time to the grassroots,” said Tyler. 
Gingrich had returned earlier this week and visited New Hampshire but remained largely off the campaign trail. 
Carney and Johnson are longtime aides to Texas Gov. Rick Perry who has said in recent days that he is contemplating a run for president himself in 2012. The Carney and Johnson resignations will fuel speculation that Perry is moving toward the race.

I've always kind of liked Newt, but he's a flake. I remember listening to a dinner table conversation in the 1990s about Newt between two people who were much more insiders than me, so I kept my mouth shut and paid attention. The first, who I won't name, was a woman who attained some prominence in politics in the 1990s, but struck me as a flake. She was highly enthusiastic about Newt running for President. 

The other person was General William Odom, who had been Zbig's assistant for military intelligence in the Carter Administration, then head of the National Security Administration in the Reagan Administration. He was not a flake. Odom rolled his eyes at the idea of President Newt, and replied that when Gingrich had first obtained a leadership position in Congress in the 1980s, Odom had invited Gingrich over to get the two-hour NSA briefing reserved for the top few officials in Congress. When Newt showed up, however, he talked for two hours straight, giving Odom's staff Newt's two-hour tour d'horizon. Nobody left the room better informed than they had entered, except in terms of awareness of Newt's chief liability: Americans want leaders who give the impression that they know more than they are saying, but nobody could possibly know more than Newt says.

June 8, 2011

All Things 1962

The new movie X-Men: First Class is set in the year 1962, with a vengeance. It's so 1962ish that after awhile I started wondering about stuff from 1962 that wasn't in the movie: "Hey, how come there aren't any astronauts in this movie? What's more 1962y than astronauts?"

It got me thinking about how it gets easier to figure out what is redolent of a particular year the farther away in time you get. If you started out making a movie about 2011, you'd miss lots of stuff that people in a half century will consider iconic about 2011.

For example, in First Class, one of the mutants designs the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, which they then fly to the West Indies where the U.S. and Soviet navies are squaring off during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the SR-71 first flew in 1962, but you couldn't have put it in a movie in 1962 because it was top secret (and it wasn't even called the SR-71 until 1964 -- the early version that began flying in 1962 was called the A-12). When an A-12 crashed in 1963 in Utah, the only witnesses, a passing family, were both threatened and paid $25,000 each by the CIA.

Michael Fassbender plays one of the leads, Magneto, in the mode of Sean Connery, who became a star in 1962 with Dr. No. But James McAvoy plays Professor X, who was famously bald in the earlier/later movies. But McAvoy plays him with a full head of shaggy hair. Why? Because 1962 is now in the history books as the year of the first Beatles single, Love Me Do, so it makes sense for a movie made in 2011 to make a nod to the Beatles. From the perspective of 2011 the historical importance of cute British boys with shaggy hair seems obvious. But it didn't seem obvious in 1962, when Love Me Do, which is a pretty awful song, only reached #17 on the British pop charts.

"X-Men: First Class"

Here's an excerpt from my review of the new Marvel comic book movie in Taki's Magazine:
X-Men: First Class is the fifth screen adaptation since 2000 of the Marvel Comics series. What’s the appeal of these Homo superior mutants whose superpowers cause them to be oppressed by the bigoted and backward majority, us genetically inferior Homo sapiens?

Read the whole thing there.

By the way, the "First Class" in the title refers to the initial cohort of students in 1962 at Professor X's school for mutant superheroes. There really does sometimes exist a "first class phenomenon" where the first year of students at a new elite academy or program goes on to great success. This is most notable in Hollywood, where the first class of the American Film Institute school included Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Paul Schrader, and Caleb Deschanel. Similarly, the first students of CalArts in Valencia in Character Animation in the 1970s included Brad Bird, Tim Burton, John Lasseter, and John Musker. Congregation of talent or old boy's network?

Here's Matthew Yglesias's posting "Magneto Was Right" on why the mutant supremacist Magneto is right and the nice integrationist Professor X is wrong:
... if you restrict your attention to what’s actually in the text Magneto is clearly in the right and Xavier’s X-Men are a bunch of dupes. The film is a pretty serious departure from the conventional depiction in this regard, but it’s quite thoroughgoing. Magneto’s mutant pride attitude is in every way more admirable than Xavier’s preference for the closet, and Xavier’s political view that mutants and humans can coexist peacefully if mutants avoid provocations is directly contradicted by the events at the end of the film. When Xavier is trying to convince Magneto (and the audience) that Magneto’s more militant methods will cost innocent life he literally says—to a Holocaust survivor!—that “they were only following orders” and therefore their sins are forgivable. 
The mutant pride message is a radical one. It’s too radical for those whose WASP male privilege in their non-mutant lives makes them instinctively want to identify with existing power structures. But a mutant who’s also a Jew, or a woman, or a racial minority, or has had blue or red skin all of his or her life doesn’t suffer from that kind of false consciousness and gets ahead of the curve.

My take is similar but less impressed:
The basic conflict in X-Men between the Martin Luther King-like Professor X and the Malcolm X-like Magneto over whether to tolerate the majority’s prejudice or to give them what they have coming is similar to the struggle in the Harry Potter series between the saintly Dumbledore and the sinister Voldemort. 
In contrast to J. K. Rowling’s tale, however, First Class sympathizes less with Professor X, the outdated assimilationist, and more with Magneto, the mutant supremacist who learned not to trust the majority during the Holocaust. In First Class, one mutant has an epiphany: “We shouldn’t try to be more like them. Society should aspire to be more like us.”

Read the whole thing there.

hbd chick v. Francis Fukuyama

hbd chick has made an interesting response to my review in The American Conservative of Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order. First, another excerpt from my review:
William D. Hamilton’s math was popularized by Edward O. Wilson’s 1975 bombshell Sociobiology and by Richard Dawkins’s 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. (A more accurate title would have been The Dynastic Gene.) According to Fukuyama, however, political science has scandalously ignored the implications of these famous books. That’s true in general, although I have on my bookshelves academic works pointing out the fascinating political implications of kin selection by Pierre L. van den Berghe, Frank Salter, Tatu Vanhanen, and J.P. Rushton, none of whom Fukuyama cites. 
... Fukuyama is worried enough by this unpublicized but powerful line of logic that he tries to brush off the entire concept of ethnic nepotism: 
"Since virtually all human societies organized themselves tribally at one point, many people are tempted to believe that this is somehow a natural state of affairs or biologically driven. It is not obvious, however, why you should want to cooperate with a cousin four times removed rather than a familiar nonrelative just because you share one sixty-fourth of your genes with your cousin."
Indeed, it is “not obvious,” but Fukuyama’s challenge is hardly unanswerable. In arranged-marriage cultures, clans, tribes, and castes can perpetuate themselves indefinitely, making states typically either ineffective or tyrannical. For example, as I’m writing, Colonel Gaddafi has so far survived NATO aerial bombardment by rallying many Bedouin tribes to his banner. Even though most Libyan nomads have settled down, they’ve maintained tribalism as what anthropologist Stanley Kurtz calls their “social structure in reserve” precisely for violent times like these when you can only trust blood relations. 
In the West, in contrast, over the generations familiar nonrelatives—i.e., neighbors—tend to turn into relatives, or at least potential in-laws, because European cultures frequently permitted love marriages with the girl next door. Moreover, as Fukuyama notes, the Catholic Church discouraged even fourth-cousin marriages. The resulting broad but shallow regional blood ties help explain why Western cultures were able to organize politically on a territorial basis without always being looted by self-interested clans.

hbd chick expands my rebuttal to Fukuyama into a General Theory of the West:
No, being tribal is not necessarily the natural state of affairs, but it IS biologically driven. as is being non-tribal. 
Europeans used to be tribal, but that's because they used to marry their cousins, too, just like the afghanis or iraqis or saudis or libyans of today. the church put an end to all that and then some -- it also put an end to all sorts of endogamous practices like polygamy and marrying your dead brother's wife. first- and second-cousin marriage was banned in 506 a.d., and by the 11th century the church had banned marriage up to SIXTH cousins. 
This forced exogamy resulted in, as steve describes it, "broad but shallow regional blood ties." almost all of european (and western) history hinges on these loose genetic ties. the whole evolution of european societies from tribes to city-states (think of the venices and the hamburgs of europe) to the nationalistic movements -- this was made possible because extended family ties were continually loosened over centuries of european history (from the fall of rome onwards). the broadening of political structures (tribe, city-state, national-state) mirrors the underlying broadening of the genetic ties.

June 7, 2011

Gold Chain Homicide

The LA Times has an update on a local 2009 murder that I've referenced a number of times as being characteristic of the more upscale sort of homicides in the modern San Fernando Valley. It turns out that it fits into a couple of my themes: First, that Armenians shooting each other tends to be at least more interesting than Mexicans shooting each other; and second, that social networking technology may be contributing to the decline in crime by making it easier to build a case.
The November 2009 killing that Manjikian is accused of committing drew national attention after being detailed in The Times last year. The events that led to Mike Yepremyan's death began after he sent a text message to his girlfriend, calling her friend Kat Vardanian a bitch. 
According to prosecutors, Vardanian saw the text message and, enraged, called her brother to beat up Yepremyan. Soon after, Yepremyan began receiving phone calls from a stranger who eventually told him to meet him at a Sears parking lot in North Hollywood, according to witnesses. 
There, Yepremyan and several friends encountered two men. The conversation appeared to be coming to a peaceful conclusion when, suddenly, one man struck Yepremyan. Right after that, authorities said, Manjikian brandished a gun and shot the 19-year-old in the back of his head. 
Manjikian and the other man, identified by prosecutors as Vahagn Jurian, sped off in a black BMW with no front license plate. ...

So, this is a pretty standard lunkhead killing. But, then it got interesting as the bereaved father set about data-mining social networks to figure out whodunnit.
In the months after his son's death, Art Yepremyan lost hope that police would find a suspect. He hired Nazarian, and together they began identifying individuals they believed might have been involved based on relationships with Jurian, Vardanian and others. They created a list of hundreds using online social networking sites and other sources, then began honing that list. 
Armenian Americans hail from all over world, but the construction of their last names can reflect their origins. 
Art Yepremyan, an Armenian immigrant himself, said he isolated names that could be traced to Armenia, where he believed his son's killer was from. Using connections from that country, he further narrowed the names down to families that lived in a particular neighborhood there, where he believed the killer's family had lived. 
In an interview in his backyard last year, he scrawled a haphazard web of links from one supposed suspect to another. As unconventional as his methods may have been, he identified Manjikian as the man he thought killed his son, the same man the LAPD eventually accused.

The LAPD finally tracked Manjikian down to a resort town in Puerto Rico and had him arrested, but a local judge let him out on bail and he vanished again.

But the larger point is that today's youths' urge to document every bit of their social lives in text and pictures means that they have even more incentive to behave.

Stop the Presses!

The Washington Post's banner headline is:
Report: Afghan nation-building effort in peril 
Karen DeYoung 4:25 AM ET 
EXCLUSIVE | Hugely expensive U.S. effort has had only limited success and may not survive an American withdrawal, according to the findings of a two-year congressional investigation to be released Wednesday.

I figured that out from watching a movie on VHS in September 2001.

Fun fact:
The report also warns that Afghanistan could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Operation "Murder Qathaf'y" Rolls On

From the NYT:
NATO Attack Destroys Much of Qaddafi Compound 
TRIPOLI, Libya — In a sudden, sharp escalation of NATO’s air campaign over Libya, warplanes dropped more than 60 bombs on targets in Tripoli on Tuesday, obliterating large areas of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya command compound.

Obama's basic foreign affairs philosophy appears to be that it's stupid to invade some third world country when you can score just as many political points by shooting or exploding one guy (along with various bystanders, of course).

Francis Fukuyama's History of the World, Part II

The American Conservative website now has my entire review of Francis Fukuyama's new magnum opus. Here's another excerpt:
In Fukuyama’s telling, The Origins of Political Order is a landmark work of political science because this book finally recognizes that -- although he deplores nepotism as leading to “political decay" -- it is human nature to favor your kin. 
Fukuyama cites evolutionary theorist William D. Hamilton’s famous 1964 papers quantifying “kin selection.” Back in the 1950s, biologist J.B.S. Haldane had quipped that while he wouldn’t give up his life for his brother, he would for more than two brothers or eight first cousins. That joke is funny because each of us shares about half of our variable genes with our siblings and an eighth with our first cousins. Hamilton formalized this insight, offering a revolutionary gene-centric explanation for altruism toward relatives. According to Hamilton’s logic, the ultimate reason you nepotistically gave a job to that useless young nephew of yours was because it might help him thrive and pass on some of your gene variants, one quarter of which you share with him. 
Fukuyama’s recent gig trying to foster state building in Melanesia has reminded him that the human norm is politics without much political philosophy. In preliterate times, what mattered instead were kin relations. When the Westminster parliamentary system was transplanted to Papua New Guinea, Fukuyama explains, “the result was chaos. The reason was that most voters in Melanesia do not vote for political programs; rather, they support their Big Man and their wantok.” (Wantok is pidgin for “one talk,” or ethnic group sharing one language.) “If the Big Man … can get elected to parliament, the new MP will use his or her influence to direct government resources back to the wantok.” 
Yet how functionally different are these Papuan politicians from my own congressman, Howard Berman (D-Calif.)? Berman’s 28-year career in the House has revolved around kinship, too. His primary concern as the former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee was empowering the ethnocentrism of his Hollywood Hills constituents in the Middle East conflict. And in the great crisis of his career after the 2000 census showed that the San Fernando Valley was due a Latino seat, thus making likely a strong Democratic primary challenge by a Mexican-American, Berman hired his brother, who craftily redistricted all of California, ensuring his political survival by selecting a new people for him. Who else could he trust? 
Unfortunately, Fukuyama never gets around to wrestling with the obvious question that has been central to the study of ethnic nepotism since Hamilton made explicit the genetic basis of tribal altruism in a 1975 paper: Who, exactly, are your kin? Where do your relatives end? The answer is: It depends. You grapple with this same question in your daily life, where the answers turn out to depend upon circumstance. You might send a Christmas card to a third cousin whom you wouldn’t invite to Thanksgiving dinner. Similarly, Rep. Berman clearly trusts his brother more than he trusts voters. Yet he also trusts Jewish constituents more than Hispanic ones because he fears the latter will vote for a hermano instead of him. 
When you stop to think about it (which Fukuyama doesn’t), your relations with your relatives are, unsurprisingly, relativistic.

Read the whole thing there.

Mental energy

From The New Republic:
Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?A radical new explanation from psychologists.
Jamie Holmes June 6, 2011 | 12:00 am 
Flannery O’Connor once described the contradictory desires that afflict all of us with characteristic simplicity. “Free will does not mean one will,” she wrote, “but many wills conflicting in one man.” The existence of appealing alternatives, after all, is what makes free will free: What would choice be without inner debate? We’re torn between staying faithful and that alluring man or woman across the room. We can’t resist the red velvet cake despite having sworn to keep our calories down. We buy a leather jacket on impulse, even though we know we’ll need the money for other things. Everyone is aware of such inner conflicts. But how, exactly, do we choose among them? As it turns out, science has recently shed light on the way our minds reconcile these conflicts, and the result has surprising implications for the way we think about one of society’s most intractable problems: poverty. 

By the way, can we try to avoid phrases like "science has recently shed light" -- unless you are Thomas Dolby on a nostalgia tour? The research cited was done by living, breathing researchers, whose hard work deserves at least the recognition that they are human beings, not "science." Moreover, remembering that human beings are making these arguments, not "science," has the salutary effect of keeping in mind that humans aren't infallible.
In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”

This sounds plausible, but the biochemical effect of chocolate versus radishes alone would have an effect on the "food-deprived." Chocolate contains caffeine, sugar, and fat, all of which help previously hungry people concentrate on puzzles. Radishes, not so much.
Over the intervening 13 years, these results have been corroborated in more than 100 experiments. Researchers have found that exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on. As Baumeister told Teaching of Psychology in 2008, “After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task.” 
In addition, researchers have expanded the theory to cover tradeoff decisions, not just self-control decisions. That is, any decision that requires tradeoffs seems to deplete our ability to muster willpower for future decisions. Tradeoff decisions, like choosing between more money and more leisure time, require the same conflict resolution as self-control decisions (although our impulses appear to play a smaller role). In both cases, willpower can be understood as the capacity to resolve conflicts among choices as rationally as possible, and to make the best decision in light of one’s personal goals. And, in both cases, willpower seems to be a depletable resource.

In general, mental energy is limited, and it varies greatly among individuals.
This theory of depletable willpower has its detractors, and, as in most academic topics studied across disciplinary fields, one finds plenty of disputes over the details. But this model of self-control is now one of the most prominent theories of willpower in social psychology, at the core of what E. Tory Higgins of Columbia University described in 2009 as “an explosion of scientific interest” in the topic over the last decade. Some skeptics correctly emphasize the vital role of motivation, and some emphasize instead that “attention” is limited. But the core of the breakthrough is that resolving conflicts among choices is expensive at a cognitive level and can be unpleasant. It causes mental fatigue. 
Nowhere is this revelation more important than in our efforts to understand poverty. Taking this model of willpower into the real world, psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.”

And poor people tend to be bad at doing financial tradeoff decisions: It's the Lucky Jim principle: nice things correlate with nice things, nasty things with nasty things.
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.

In general, this suggests why traditional morality is better for poor people than more modern a la carte morality.

Also, let me put in a word here for an old-fashioned class system. The idea was that there were respectable modes of behavior for whatever class you aspire to, so you don't have to make up your mind a la carte on every damn thing all day long. You just look at what the people in the class of which you wish to be considered a respectable member do, and imitate it.

Retailers often do well for themselves by offering to take over the brain work of choosing products for a particular class. For example, Sears started out as the respectable farmer's mail order catalog company. Then, in 1924, it hired the former Quartermaster General of the army in WWI, Robert E. Wood, who revamped the company to be the store of the home-owning, car-owning middle class suburbanite.

Today, it's interesting to compare the big box stores Target and Costco. Target might carry 100 different varieties of shampoo, while Costco carries about three. Thus, Target has lots of pretty girls shopping there, people to whom choosing the perfect shampoo is an important gambit in the mating game, worth expending scarce mental energy upon.

Costco, in contrast, has very few pretty girls among its customers. Most shoppers look like they have kids and are shopping for 3 to 5 people, and thus they aren't willing to finetune their purchases to meet individual idiosyncracies: just give us something cheap and respectable. Costco makes a big deal out of how they strike vast bulk deals with manufacturers and thus pass on (some) of the savings to the customer.

But a less obvious strategy of Costco is that they won't go terribly low in quality while pursuing bargains. Nor will they go to the gaudy extremes that poorer people like to splurge upon. Their implicit guarantee is that the products they sell will be, while rather dull, considered respectable by middle class to upper middle class family people.

Upper middle class styles in the U.S. have generally evolved away from the formal and fancy toward the casual and utilitarian. Wearing a $20 casual shirt from Costco to a Memorial Day barbecue is highly respectable for, say, a retired McKinsey consultant. (The truly rich tend to wear stuff that looks pretty similar, but costs much more.)

The opposite of the Costco shopping experience is car shopping. Dealers work very hard to make to make buying a car a stressful experience that preys upon your class insecurities. Their ultimate goal is to make you want to impress the salesman by overpaying for the car.

One of the better ways to buy a car these days is through Zag, which partners with companies whose customers are considered by car dealers to be less intimidatable, such as Consumer Reports subscribers and customers of USAA, the insurance company that specializes in selling to military officers. Zag lets you "build and buy" the exact car you want, then offers you "no-haggle" prices at some local dealers.

But that still doesn't get around the enormous mental energy expenditure of deciding what car and what features you want to build and buy. I think there is a real opportunity out there for some firm, such as Costco, to extend its strategy to car sales.

Say that Costco each year offered one SUV, one family sedan, and one compact car, each equipped with the optimal features for the price. Heck, they could offer just one color. They could negotiate a pretty low price from a manufacturer.

This would be particularly appealing to parents buying cars for their kids. For example, that McKinsey consultant is in the market for a car for his daughter graduating from college. He's interested in safety and reliability, and isn't all that interested in indulging her (no doubt strong) feelings about which car most self-actualizes her image of herself. Generally, young women have expensive theories about what kind of car makes them look most cute, but expenditures on cars have relatively low marginal returns for young women in the mating market versus spending money on their personal looks. (The main exception might be the very expensive car that sends the message to guys, "I'm out of your league, so don't waste my time.")

If Costco told him that this year's Costco family sedan was a silver Ford Fusion with lots of airbags and other safety equipment like hands-free dialing for $18,999, he'd go for it in a flash.

But, there's practically no way to cut out car dealers. They have both contracts with manufacturers and state laws on their side protecting them from end arounds like this.

June 6, 2011

Gretchen Morgenson's "Reckless Endangerment"

My VDARE column reviews the new book Reckless Endangerment on the origins of the mortgage meltdown by Gretchen Morgenson of the NYT and financial analyst Joshua Rosner.