January 18, 2014

1st Nonwhite Hispanic Bachelor's "Comments on Gays Spark Uproar"

Non-White Hispanic
Last year, the Hollywood Reporter reported:
ABC Names First Non-White 'Bachelor'  
The next Bachelor has been revealed, and he represents a milestone for the ABC reality show. 
Host Chris Harrison announced Monday night that former Bachelorette suitor Juan Pablo Galavis ... will become the first non-Caucasian Bachelor or Bachelorette in franchise history.

But Hispanics, even a Non-White Hispanic like the blue-eyed Galavis, rank pretty far down in the Victimism Power Rankings. They simply lack the whip hand in today's Most Favored Victim struggles. Thus, the New York Times breathlessly reports:
Bachelor’ Star’s Comments on Gays Spark Uproar 
PASADENA, Calif. — ABC faced a potential crisis on Saturday over one of its longest-running hits when a storm erupted here over homophobic comments made by the star of the reality series “The Bachelor.” 
In an interview at a press party, Juan Pablo Galavis, the latest bachelor tasked with picking a possible mate from among a cast of 25 beautiful women, told the editor of the website The TV Page that he was opposed to the idea of ABC producing a season of the show with a gay bachelor. 
White Hispanic
Among other reasons, he said, “I don’t think it is a good example for kids to watch that on TV.” Of gay relationships, he added, “They are more pervert, in a sense.” (Mr. Galavis’s primary language is Spanish.) ...
The reaction to Mr. Galavis’s remarks was quick and intensely critical, with numerous reporters and commenters on Twitter denouncing them both as insensitive and, especially, inappropriate, given that Mr. Galavis is participating in a show that compels him to engage in romantic encounters with multiple women over a period of several weeks. 
ABC and the studio that produces “The Bachelor,” Warner Brothers, issued a statement on Saturday, saying, “Juan Pablo’s comments were careless, thoughtless and insensitive, and in no way reflect the views of the network, the show’s producers or studio.” 
Mr. Galavis posted an apology on his Facebook page on Saturday. “I want to apologize to all the people I may have offended because of my comments,” he wrote. He went on to say that “I have many gay friends, and one of my closest friends, who’s like a brother, has been a constant in my life, especially during the past five months. The word ‘pervert’ was not what I meant to say, and I am very sorry about it. Everyone knows English is my second language and my vocabulary is not as broad as it is in Spanish and, because of this, sometimes I use the wrong words to express myself.” 
There was no mention by ABC or Warner Brothers of consequences, either for Mr. Galavis or the show.

Perhaps as punishment Galavis will have his Non-White Hispanic status revoked.

Somebody needs to publish a Pokemon-style table of Power Points for all combinations of various Victimist statuses so you can instantly calculate who gets over on whom.

Oddly enough, there seems to be a pretty high correlation between how victimized your groups are perceived to be in the media and how powerful your groups are behind the scenes in the media, as Rip Torn implied on a Larry Sanders Show episode directed by Judd Apatow 16 years ago.

How could that be?

WSJ: "Cash for Kidneys: The Case for a Market for Organs"

From the Wall Street Journal:
Cash for Kidneys: The Case for a Market for Organs 
There is a clear remedy for the growing shortage of organ donors, say Gary S. Becker and Julio J. Elias

Why hasn't anyone invented an app with an ironic name for this? I've got dibs on:
Have you ever wanted to wake up in a motel bathtub full of ice cubes? 

The most giantest news story in the history of ever

Three stories from the top of the NYTimes.com homepage right now:

G.O.P. Advice: Christie, Pick a Better Team

Republicans are offering advice, sobering in its candor, for Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey after the Fort Lee scandal. Above, Mr. Christie in Florida on Saturday.


Dangers of Giving In to Impulse for Revenge
The New Jersey traffic jam scandal offers lessons on seeking retaliation for perceived slights.

How long has this lane-closure thing been front-page news? 

Linguistic relativism, Whorf, and fire safety

From the Wikipedia bio of a short-lived contributor to a long-running debate over whether a particular glass is part full or part empty:
Benjamin Lee Whorf

Born April 24, 1897
Winthrop, Massachusetts
Died July 26, 1941 (aged 44)    Hartford, Connecticut 
Nationality American 
Fields linguistics, anthropology, fire prevention 
Institutions Hartford Fire Insurance Company, Yale University 
Benjamin Lee Whorf (April 24, 1897 – July 26, 1941) was an American linguist and fire prevention engineer. Whorf is widely known as an advocate for the idea that because of linguistic differences in grammar and usage, speakers of different languages conceptualize and experience the world differently. This principle has frequently been called the "Sapir–Whorf hypothesis", after him and his mentor Edward Sapir, but Whorf called it the principle of linguistic relativity, because he saw the idea as having implications similar to Einstein's principle of physical relativity.[2] 
Throughout his life Whorf was a chemical engineer by profession, but as a young man he took up an interest in linguistics. At first this interest drew him to the study of Biblical Hebrew, but he quickly went on to study the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica on his own. Professional scholars were impressed by his work and in 1930 he received a grant to study the Nahuatl language in Mexico; on his return home he presented several influential papers on the language at linguistic conferences. This led him to begin studying linguistics with Edward Sapir at Yale University while still maintaining his day job at the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. ...
After his death from cancer in 1941 his manuscripts were curated by his linguist friends who also worked to spread the influence of Whorf's ideas on the relation between language, culture and cognition. Many of his works were published posthumously in the first decades after his death. In the 1960s Whorf's views fell out of favor and he became the subject of harsh criticisms by scholars who considered language structure to primarily reflect cognitive universals rather than cultural differences. Critics argued that Whorf's ideas were untestable and poorly formulated and that they were based on badly analyzed or misunderstood data. In the late 20th century, interest in Whorf's ideas experienced a resurgence, and a new generation of scholars began reading Whorf's works, arguing that previous critiques had only engaged superficially with Whorf's actual ideas, or had attributed him ideas he had never expressed. 
The field of linguistic relativity studies remains an active focus of research in psycholinguistics and linguistic anthropology, and continues to generate debate and controversy between proponents of relativism and proponents of universalism. By comparison Whorf's other work in linguistics, the development of such concepts as the allophone and the cryptotype, and the formulation of "Whorf's law" in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics, have met with broad acceptance....

Whorf graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering where his academic performance was of average quality. In 1920 he married Celia Inez Peckham, who became the mother of his three children, Raymond Ben, Robert Peckham and Celia Lee.[4] Around the same time he began work as a fire prevention engineer (an inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. He was particularly good at the job and was highly commended by his employers. His job required him to travel to production facilities throughout New England to be inspected. In one anecdote his arrival at a chemical plant is described in which he was denied access by the director because he would not allow anyone to see the production procedure which was a trade secret. Having been told what the plant produced, Whorf wrote a chemical formula on a piece of paper, saying to the director: "I think this is what you're doing". The surprised director asked Whorf how he knew about the secret procedure, and he simply answered: "You couldn't do it in any other way."[5] Whorf helped to attract new customers to the Fire Insurance Company; they favored his thorough inspections and recommendations. 
Another famous anecdote from his job was used by Whorf to argue that language use affects habitual behavior.[6] Whorf described a workplace in which full gasoline drums were stored in one room and empty ones in another; he said that because of flammable vapor the "empty" drums were more dangerous than those that were full, although workers handled them less carefully to the point that they smoked in the room with "empty" drums, but not in the room with full ones. Whorf explained that by habitually speaking of the vapor-filled drums as empty and by extension as inert, the workers were oblivious to the risk posed by smoking near the "empty drums".

Did Whorf ever solve the "empty drums" problem?

There was an even worse fire safety problem with the English-language word "inflammable," which means "easily set on fire," but seems like it might well mean "incapable of being set on fire." You really don't want confusion over that when dealing with overturned tanker-trailers, so the word "inflammable" has largely been abandoned in America in favor of the more easily grasped neologism "flammable," as we see here:

McWhorter: Language doesn't affect how you think

More Edge questions about what ideas popular in science should be kicked to the curb: linguist John McWhorter attacks a theory on the Nurture side of the Nature-Nurture divide.
John McWhorter 
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Doing Our Own Thing 
Languages Conditioning Worldviews 
Since the 1930s when Benjamin Lee Whorf was mesmerizing audiences with the idea that the Hopi people's language channeled them into a cyclical sense of time, the media and university classrooms have been often abuzz with the idea that the way your language works gives you a particular worldview.

There are two closely related ideas here:

1. Thought is affected by language form, such as differences in grammar

2. Thought is affected by language content, most notably differences in vocabulary

Content differences include Franz Boas's famous contention that the Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow. Wikipedia says about Eskimos and snow:
The claim that Eskimo languages have an unusually large number of words for snow is a widespread idea first voiced by Franz Boas and often used as a cliché when writing about how language may keep us more or less alert to the differences of the natural world. In fact, the Eskimo–Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but the structure of these languages tends to allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word.[1][2]

But English has a large number of words for snow, too, as you'll note during the upcoming Winter Olympics coverage. So it's silly to be surprised that the size of vocabulary of a tiny illiterate culture isn't larger than that of the huge literate culture that produced the Oxford English Dictionary. It would be a more apples to apples comparison to contrast the number of words for snow in an Eskimo language to the number of words for the white stuff on top of Kilimanjaro in the language of a small African tribe.

Most languages appear to be fairly elaborate in form, but languages differ wildly in quantity of content. The Oxford English Dictionaryfor instance, features 600,000 words.

Orwell depicted Newspeak in 1984 as an attempt to reduce vocabulary to conceptually impoverish the subjects of the tyranny: e.g., the Declaration of Independence translates into simply "crimespeak."

For example, in the Edge essays, numerous scientists on the social engineer side of the spectrum rail against the nature - nurture conceptual framework devised by Shakespeare and Galton as something that should be permanently retired. Why? They offer lots of reasons, but a basic reason is that "nature-nurture" makes it easier for citizens to think skeptically about social engineering plans like Obama-Blasio's notion of fighting income inequality with universal pre-K, so junking the phrase "nature and nurture" would help intellectually disarm taxpayers.

McWhorter goes on:
You just want this to be true, but it isn't—at least in a way that anyone would be interested in it outside of a psychology laboratory (or academic journal).

Or as McWhorter later points out, not in ways we're supposed to be interested in, which would seem like very different things, but is increasingly the same thing to modern people as crimestop -- the predilection for feeling bored by potentially subversive trains of thought -- becomes more beaten into contemporary skulls.
It's high time thinking people let go of the idea, ever heralded as a possibility but never actually demonstrated, that different languages represent different ways of experiencing life.
Different cultures represent different ways of experiencing life, to be sure. And part of a culture is having words and expressions to express it, to be sure. Cell phone. Inshallah. Feng shui. But this isn't what Whorfianism, as it is often called, is on to. The idea is that quiet things in a language's very structural architecture—how its grammar works, how its vocabulary happens to cut up space—channel how the speaker experiences life.
And in fact, psychologists have indeed shown that such things do influence thought—in tiny ways elicitable via fascinatingly peculiar experiments. So, Russian has different words for dark and light blue and no one word that just means blue, and it has been shown that Russians are, indeed, 124 milliseconds faster at identifying grades of dark blue to other ones and grades of light blue to other ones. Or, it has been shown that people whose languages divide nouns into masculine and feminine categories are more likely, if asked, to imagine those things talking in the appropriately sexed voice if they were cartoon characters, or to associate them with gendered traits. 
This kind of thing is neat—but the question is whether the quiet background flutterings of awareness they document can be treated as a worldview. The temptation is endless to suppose that it does. Plus we are always reminded that no one has said that language prevents a speaker from thinking anything, but rather that it makes it more likely that the speaker will. 
... In the early eighties, psychologist Alfred Bloom, following the Whorfian line, did an experiment suggesting that Chinese makes its speakers somewhat less adept at processing hypothetical scenarios than English speakers. 

After all, nobody ever noticed that the Chinese tend to be pretty concrete in their thinking compared to, say, the Hindus or the Ancient Greeks. Oh, except that tends to be everybody's impression. (Whether it stems from language or not is another question, and which aspects of language would be involved is a third ...)
Whoops—nobody wanted to hear that.

Kind of a general problem with the human sciences these days: there are lots of things nobody wants to hear.
There was long train of rebuttals, ending in an exhausted draw.

In other words, Bloom's argument apparently wasn't disproved despite strongly motivated attempts to do so. (This doesn't mean it was proven, just that it was still standing after the spirit of the age took its best shots at it.)
But there are all kinds of experiments one could do that would lead to the same kind of place. Lots of languages in New Guinea have only one word for eating, drinking, and smoking. Does that make them slightly less sensitive to the culinary than other people?

Are you implying that Papuan cuisine isn't quite as sophisticated as Italian or Cantonese? That a French sommelier may come equipped with a more sophisticated vocabulary for thinking about wine than a New Guinea highlander?

Nobody wants to hear that!
Or, Swedish doesn't have a word for wipe—you have to erase, take off, etc. But who's ready to tell the Swedes they don't wipe? 
In cases like this our natural inclination is to say that such things are just accidents, and that whatever wisp of thought difference an experimenter could elicit on their basis hardly has anything to do with what the language's speakers are like—or what their worldview is. But then, we have to admit the same thing about the wisps that happen to tickle our fancies.

No, there is an obvious difference between the two examples.
What creates a worldview is culture—i.e., a worldview. And no, it won't work to say that culture and language create a worldview together holistically. 

How do we know? For example, consider ancient Greece's transformation from barely literate in 700 BC to philosophically sophisticated in 350 BC. The Greek vocabulary developed tremendously during this period as you might imagine. Richard Nisbett argued in The Geography of Thought that ancient Greek was peculiarly well-adapted to coining new conceptual words, a role that it continues to play today in the coining of new scientific and technological terms.

Is Nisbett right? This stuff's over my head. But I wouldn't rule it out. If McWhorter's upcoming book demolishes Nisbett's arguments that Japanese speakers seem to be better at seeing the context and English speakers seem to be better at "object oriented" thinking, with Japanese raised in the U.S. in-between, then good for him. But, so far, I'd consider Nisbett's argument viable if unproven.
Remember, that would mean that Chinese speakers are—holistically—a little dim when it comes to thinking beyond reality. 
Who wants to go there?

Phrased conversely, the Chinese tend to be particularly sharp at thinking about current reality, that they seem to devote a higher proportion of their mental horsepower to the palpable here-and-now.
Especially when even starting to, decade after decade, leads us down blind alleys? Hopi, it turned out, has plenty of markers of good old-fashioned European-style time. ...

A lot of anthropological examples turn out not to be very good since it's so hard to check up on something about some small tribe. Plus, there's the simple brute fact that a lot of languages of small illiterate tribes tend to be conceptually impoverished because the tribesmen don't think abstractly very often, and their brightest intellects who do come up with abstractions can't write them down to communicate them over time to future very bright fellows who would be on their wavelengths. So, the brightest illiterate sages end up playing a game of Telephone with their abstractions, with generally depressing results.

But anthropologists frequently feel the need to gloss over this with highbrow explanations of the tribe's alternative abstractions. (I'm not saying this is the case for the Hopi-Whorf tale in particular. Benjamin Whorf, by the way, was an interesting guy: an MIT chemical engineer who was the top chemical factory fire prevention inspector for a big insurance company, who took occasional breaks to go to Mexico to study indigenous languages. It's hard not to imagine that his death from cancer at age 44 was a real loss to the human sciences because who knows what he would have come up with if he'd lived long enough to turn to linguistics full time.)
What it comes down to is this. Let's ask how English makes a worldview. Our answer requires that the worldview be one shared by Betty White, William McKinley, Amy Winehouse, Jerry Seinfeld, Kanye West, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gary Coleman, Virginia Woolf and and Bono. 
Let's face it, what worldview would that be?

I don't know, but I suspect a lot of Frenchmen, much less Japanese, would have an opinion on the subject.

Evelyn Waugh's theory was that English had evolved not to be precise like French (with its limited vocabulary that seems to encourage the French to ring dazzling changes on a fairly distinct set of ways of the Pleasures of Being French -- French radical philosophers tend to be dazzling but oddly conservative: underneath all the novelty is a core conviction that the highest form of life is to live in France, and the highest form of being French is to sit in a sidewalk cafe and philosophize) or thorough like German (with its ability to turn every sentence into giant words, which may encourage German pedantry and profundity), but to sound good, to be a language for poets to weave their spells.
Sure, a lab test could likely tease out some infinitesimal squeak of a perceptive predilection shared by all of those people. But none of us would even begin to think of it as a way of perceiving the world or reflecting a culture. Or, if anyone would, then we are on to an entirely new academic paradigm indeed.

Perhaps we can broaden Waugh's notion to include playwrights, politicians, salesmen, celebrities, rock stars, actors, rappers, comedians, and the like. Which now that I think of it, pretty much covers "Betty White, William McKinley, Amy Winehouse, Jerry Seinfeld, Kanye West, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gary Coleman, Virginia Woolf and and Bono."

To take a more cynical view than Waugh, perhaps English turns out to be the finest language in practice for salesmen and other BS artists to use to infiltrate their ideas into the minds of others, that English is the ideal language for world-domination?

January 17, 2014

Sapolsky: Nature and Nurture are obsolete

In the 2014 Edge confab of clients of John Brockman, science book agent, seers and sages offer their views on: What scientific concepts should be put out to pasture? Robert Sapolsky argues against nature v. nurture as somewhat distinct concepts:
Robert Sapolsky
Neuroscientist, Stanford University; Author, Monkeyluv
[Anti-] Heights And Lengths And Areas Of Rectangles 
... But what I am focusing on [as bad] is a phrase that is right in the narrow sense, but carries very wrong connotations. This is the idea of "a gene-environment interaction." 
The notion of the effects of a particular gene and of a particular environment interacting was a critical counter to the millennia-old dichotomy of nature versus nurture. Its utility in that realm most often took the form of, "It may not be all genetic—don't forget that there may be a gene-environment interaction," rather than, "It may not be all environmental—don't forget that there may be a gene-environmental interaction."

Uh, no, the dominant mindset in the second half of the 20th Century, one which still reigns implicitly on almost all parts of campuses other than those explicitly dealing with genetics, was that the burden of proof was on advocates of any role for nature.
The concept was especially useful when expressed quantitatively, in the face of behavior geneticist's attempts to attribute percentages of variability in a trait to environment versus to genes. It also was the basis of a useful rule of thumb phrase for non-scientists – "But only if." "You can often say that Gene A causes Effect X, although sometimes it is more correct to say that Gene A causes Effect X, 'but only if' it is in Environment Z. In that case, you have something called a gene-environment interaction." 
What's wrong with any of that? It's an incalculably large improvement over "nature or nurture?", especially when a supposed answer to that question has gotten into the hands of policy makers or ideologues.

You notice how the phrase "nature or nurture" is now denounced as hopelessly simplistic by the ideological descendants of the simplistic and failed orthodoxy: "only nurture, never nature?" The moderates like Galton (coiner of the phrase "nature and nurture") who saw both as important turned out to be right. So now it's considered crucial to obfuscate this highly useful bit of conceptual shorthand.

For example, the Great and the Good now want to "fight inequality" through "universal pre-K public schooling." Leaving aside the overlooked issue of the enormous lag time in how the nurture of 4-year-olds will -- even theoretically -- have much impact on, say, the Forbes 400 (average age 66), this is very much of a nature-nurture question. The proposed policies of Barack Obama and Bill de Blasio are based on two assumptions:

- that the nature-nurture balance in 21st Century American life is tipped so far toward nurture that income inequality in several decades can be substantially affected by a change in nurture at age 4;

- the assumption that the nurture provided by American four-year-olds' loved ones is so far inferior to the nurture that would be provided by government employees that it's all worthwhile (an assumption, by the way, tested in boarding schools for the indigenous in Australia, Canada, and America in the early 20th Century with unencouraging results).
My problem with the concept is with the particularist use of "a" gene-environment interaction, the notion that there can be one. This is because, at the most benign, this implies that there can be cases where there aren't gene-environment interactions. Worse, that those cases are in the majority. Worst, the notion that lurking out there is something akin to a Platonic ideal as to every gene's actions—that any given gene has an idealized effect, that it consistently "does" that, and that circumstances where that does not occur are rare and represent either pathological situations or inconsequential specialty acts. Thus, a particular gene may have a Platonically "normal" effect on intelligence unless, of course, the individual was protein malnourished as a fetus, had untreated phenylketonuria, or was raised as a wild child by meerkats. 
The problem with "a" gene-environment interaction is that there is no gene that does something. It only has a particular effect in a particular environment, and to say that a gene has a consistent effect in every environment is really only to say that it has a consistent effect in all the environments in which it has been studied to date. This has become ever more clear in studies of the genetics of behavior, as there has been increasing appreciation of environmental regulation of epigenetics, transcription factors, splicing factors, and so on. And this is most dramatically pertinent to humans, given the extraordinary range of environments—both natural and culturally constructed—in which we live.

But are the ranges of typical environments to be affected by Universal Pre-K all that enormous? At present, the handful of children discovered to be kept chained to the water heater in the basement are taken away and put in foster care for better nurture, so Universal Pre-K shouldn't be evaluated against worst case scenarios.

Reading between the lines of the countless articles about how poor children are 30 million words behind, it's clear that the picture that liberals have in their minds of whom Universal Pre-K will rescue from inequality are black children being raised by a combination of tired grandmothers and surly welfare mothers with the TV on and various babbydaddies and boyfriends showing up and then disappearing. That's not a good environment, but it's not being raised by meerkats either.

The impact of nature and nurture when it comes to evaluating the expected value vs. the cost of Universal Pre-K are very much empirical questions. But many prefer to obfuscate rather than to try to clarify.
The problem with "a gene-environment interaction" is the same as asking what height has to do with the area of a rectangle, and being told that in this particular case, there is a height/length interaction.

Let's look at a rectangular analogy to Universal Pre-K. You are a downtown real estate developer. The most desirable block downtown is covered with skyscrapers doing a booming business, except for one parking lot with a street frontage of 100 feet in length. (This is, unfortunately, a 3d analogy, so let's just assume away the third dimension for the sake of simplicity: Assume the depth of the parking lot is the same as the depth of all the neighboring skyscrapers on the block and you would build over the entire depth.) The owner offers the parking lot for sale for $10 million. Do you buy it?

Well, the length of the lot is fixed, rather like nature in the short run, so the one thing in question in your mind is the height (nurture's stand-in in this example) of the building you would want to erect on the lot. If you can get the permits and financing to build a 75-story building, you will make a fortune. If you can only get the permits and financing to build a 5-story building, you will lose a fortune. So, your informed judgment about potential height (i.e., nurture), the one variable that is, as it were, up in the air, is absolutely central to your decision-making process. 

Professor Sapolsky then calls you up to explain that it is boring and trivial to think about height/length interaction and that all the most sophisticated thinkers are far beyond that. 

You hang up on him.

Malthus wasn't wrong, he was late

At the annual Edge question (this year: What scientific idea should be retired?), Matt Ridley writes:
Matt Ridley 
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, The Rational Optimist 
T. Robert Malthus (he used his middle name) thought population must outstrip food supply and "therefore we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede," disease, hunger and war. We should "court the return of the plague" and "particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations". This nasty idea—that you had to be cruel to be kind to prevent population growing too fast for food supply—directly influenced heartless policy in colonial Ireland, British India, imperial Germany, eugenic California, Nazi Europe, Lyndon Johnson's aid to India and Deng Xiaoping's China. It was encountering a Malthusian tract, The Limits to Growth, that led Song Jian to recommend a one-child policy to Deng. The Malthusian misanthropic itch is still around and far too common in science. 
Yet Malthus and his followers were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms documents, using English public records such as wills from 1200 to 1800, that the English over these 600 years were using Malthus's 1798 advice to engage in "moral restraint" avant la lettre. The chief mechanism was not exposing babies on mountainsides or whatever, but was simply delaying marriage until a couple could afford the various accoutrements appropriate for their class.

How different in that regard was Jane Austen's world from today? Some, but the similarities should be obvious.

The average Englishwoman married during these centuries between 24 and 26. In contrast, the average Chinese woman married around 18. Thus, the Chinese population would grow faster, but tended to collapse when good government broke down.

In contrast, most of sub-Saharan Africa didn't have to worry about Malthusian traps until fairly recently. Population density outside of a few nice highland locations tended to be well below the agriculture capacity of the enormous amount of land. Diseases, competition with co-evolving wild animals (especially elephants, who consumed crops if there weren't enough people around to drive them off), and lack of fortifications meant that much of Africa tended to be underpopulated. The great African fear was not overpopulation of a region, but of humans dying out all together in an area.

Thus, while European culture tended to encourage sexual restraint, African culture tended to encourage sexual exuberance -- a pattern we can still see today in America.

Much the same system as the English had was at work in the U.S., although that was largely forgotten due to the tendency to assume by the still-dominant Sixties Folks to assume that the Fifties represented How Things Were Done Since Civilization Began. In reality, the very young average age of first marriage for American women in the 1950s compared to previous decades represented a zenith of mass prosperity.

The sheer numbers of the giant Baby Boom, combined with the technological failure to continue to progress to even faster personal transport such as flying cars (which would have vastly increased the supply of suburban land), quickly brought us back to a more historically common situation of delayed marriage.

Richard Dawkins contra essentialism

Every January, literary agent John Brockman gets his authors of popular science books to write short essays answering a question for his Edge website. This year's is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Richard Dawkins contra Essentialism:
Essentialism—what I’ve called "the tyranny of the discontinuous mind"—stems from Plato, with his characteristically Greek geometer’s view of things. For Plato, a circle, or a right triangle, were ideal forms, definable mathematically but never realised in practice. A circle drawn in the sand was an imperfect approximation to the ideal Platonic circle hanging in some abstract space. That works for geometric shapes like circles, but essentialism has been applied to living things and Ernst Mayr blamed this for humanity’s late discovery of evolution—as late as the nineteenth century. If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is "prior to" the existence of rabbits (whatever "prior to" might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself) evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it. ...
Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of "African Americans" are of mixed race.

Sure, but the great majority are majority sub-Saharan. The minority that weren't used to prefer the Latin-style found in New Orleans where they considered themselves a middle group, but in the second half of the 20th Century, public expressions of such views became unpopular for reasons of idealistic solidarity on behalf of the black masses and/or a convenient way to prosper as the leadership of the black masses.
Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates.

No, actually, since the 2000 Census, the U.S. government allows people to tick as many of the racial boxes as they want. I believe there are 63 possible combinations.

On the 2010 Census, the President of the United States chose to ignore his mother's half of his family and tick only the "African-American" box.

The hilariously essentialist Census category is Ethnicity, where you are either "Hispanic" or "Non-Hispanic." Are you a Congregationalist minister and member of the Myopia Hunt Golf Club? Non-Hispanic! Are you a Tamil Brahmin? Non-Hispanic! Are you a Maori character star? Non-Hispanic! (Oh, wait, Cliff Curtis mostly plays Hispanics ... and Arabs ...)
A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called "African American" even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible "contamination metaphor."

Or, these days, it's a good way to get ahead in the world, as the career of the current President shows.
But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.

Lawyers look for "bright-line" distinctions: you are either old enough to drink or you are not. You are eligible for affirmative action or you are not. The government and the culture has been rewarding certain racial groups, so it's hardly surprising that somebody who understands the modern system, such as, to pick a random example, Barack Obama will officially identify solely with the -- if you are a preppie from paradise, all else being equal -- more legally and culturally privileged race.

Something else to keep in mind is that there is one irreducible essence in human affairs that in practice surprisingly resembles a Platonic archetype: the structure of your biological family tree. Every individual has one father and one mother, two grandfathers and two grandmothers, and so forth and so on. If you draw out the shape of the family tree of your ancestors, it is exactly the same shape as every other human's in the world. It's Platonic perfection.

The only thing messy about this is the inevitable inbreeding -- 40 generations back you have roughly a trillion slots to fill in your family tree, but there weren't a trillion people around to fill it, so some (many) of your ancestors fill multiple slots in your Platonic family tree.

Racial groups -- or partly inbred extended families -- emerge from this tension between the Platonic purity of the structure and the messy reality of the names filling the structure.

Gregory Clark: "The Son Also Rises"

An upcoming book by economic historian Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms:
The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) [Kindle Edition] 
Gregory Clark (Author) 
Print List Price: $29.95
Kindle Price: $16.17 
Publication Date: February 23, 2014 
How much of our fate is tied to the status of our parents and grandparents? How much does this influence our children? More than we wish to believe. While it has been argued that rigid class structures have eroded in favor of greater social equality, The Son Also Rises proves that movement on the social ladder has changed little over eight centuries. Using a novel technique—tracking family names over generations to measure social mobility across countries and periods—renowned economic historian Gregory Clark reveals that mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated, do not vary across societies, and are resistant to social policies. The good news is that these patterns are driven by strong inheritance of abilities and lineage does not beget unwarranted advantage. 
The bad news is that much of our fate is predictable from lineage. Clark argues that since a greater part of our place in the world is predetermined, we must avoid creating winner-take-all societies. 
Clark examines and compares surnames in such diverse cases as modern Sweden, fourteenth-century England, and Qing Dynasty China. He demonstrates how fate is determined by ancestry and that almost all societies—as different as the modern United States, Communist China, and modern Japan—have similarly low social mobility rates. These figures are impervious to institutions, and it takes hundreds of years for descendants to shake off the advantages and disadvantages of their ancestors. For these reasons, Clark contends that societies should act to limit the disparities in rewards between those of high and low social rank. 
Challenging popular assumptions about mobility and revealing the deeply entrenched force of inherited advantage, The Son Also Rises is sure to prompt intense debate for years to come.

One of the things that weirded English people out about Margaret Thatcher being Prime Minister was that even after 700 years or so, "Thatcher" was still a pretty downscale name. In contrast, here is a list of Anglo-Norman names from 1066 and all that: Fitzgerald, Mandeville, Percy, Baskerville, Beaumont, Curzon, Grosvenor, Longchamp, Warren, etc.

A lot of heiresses and their mothers have plotted intensely over the centuries in England to marry guys with classy sounding names. For example, according to the speculation of biographer William Manchester, the genetic reinvigoration of the Churchill line after the the half dozen generations following the spectacular John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, was due to Winston's paternal grandmother and mother, daughter of a self-made New York millionaire. Blenheim Palace and grounds (by Capability Brown) is a romantic spot for wooing heiresses.

Future Gregory Clark titles to follow A Farewell to Alms and The Son Also Rises will hopefully include:

For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls
The Old Man and the g
A Provable Least
Depose? No, Kill Him Tomorrow
A Clean, Well-Lighted Race
The Big Uncharted Giver
To Have and Have Not (okay, I can't think of any more bad or nonsensical puns, but Hemingway's cheesiest novel sounds like an economics text anyway)

January 16, 2014

Hispanics led the Housing Bubble, blacks did not

Here's a Urban Institute / Zillow study (via Kevin Drum) that confirms what lots of other evidence already suggested: that the Housing Bubble of 2003-2006 was led by over-inflated expectations about Hispanics. The yellow line above represents home values in Hispanic-plurality communities (not among Hispanics households themselves). All types of communities by largest racial group are indexed against their average residence price in 2000. By the time of George W. Bush's 2002 White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership, Hispanic plurality communities are starting to take the lead in price gains and pull away through 2006, then drop catastrophically from 2007 to 2009.

A recent academic study of a big panel of households found that mortgage delinquency rates among Hispanics were 4.7 times the rate among whites by 2009.

The big run up in home prices was to a notable extent a Ponzi scheme based to a striking extent on the notion that there was a never-ending quantity and unimpeachable quality of people moving in from some south of the border, and that it would be racist to question whether they would be able to earn enough to pay back their mortgages or to make desirable enough neighborhoods to sell out to somebody else.

By the way, this graph explains in large part why Bush did moderately well with Hispanics in 2004, winning about 40% of their vote, while the equally pro-immigration McCain won only 31% in 2008: Bush's "Ownership Society" was intended in part to turn Hispanics into Republicans by making it easy for them to get loans to buy homes. Times were very good for Hispanics by November 2004, as the Housing Bubble put mortgages into their hands and provided lots of jobs in contructions, real estate, and mortgage selling. By November 2008, Hispanics had been hammered economically by the popping of the Hispanic Housing Bubble.

Of course, everybody else in the media seems to interpret the difference in Hispanic share between Bush and McCain as proving that the GOP needs to open the floodgates even wider.

As for blacks and the Housing Bubble, well, we hear a lot about "lenders of last resort." But, judging by this graph, black communities apparently served as borrowers of last resort.

Of course, this study [PDF] is oblivious to the obvious, and instead pounds the drums for more hair of the dog that bit us:
A House Divided: 
How Race Colors the Path to Homeownership 
Key Findings 
Fewer minorities apply for conventional mortgages. Although Hispanics and blacks make up 17 percent and 12 percent the U.S. population, respectively, they represented only 5 percent and 3 percent of the conventional mortgage application pool. 
Blacks experience the highest loan application denial rates. 1 in 4 blacks will be denied their conventional loan application, as opposed to 1 in 10 whites.
Wide disparities in homeownership rates among ethnic groups persist. 73.9 percent of whites own a home, whereas 60.9 percent of Asians, 50.9 percent of Hispanics, and 46.5 percent of blacks own. 
The rise and subsequent fall of home values in the U.S. housing bubble disproportionately affected black and Hispanic homeowners, measured by indexed home values between the peak of the market and the bottom, or “trough.” 
“It’s been more than 50 years since Dr. King fought for equality, yet it is apparent that the American dream of homeownership is not equally shared by all, even today. Our research shows that minority home buyers are encountering difficulties that often aren’t shared by white home buyers, and that even after they achieve the dream, they have been less likely to see a similar return on their investment."
Dr. Stan Humphries, Zillow Chief Economist

So, buckle up because influential people are starting to want to go for another ride on the Diversity Lending Rollercoaster.

Oscar nominees I've actually reviewed

Best Picture nominees:

"American Hustle"


"Captain Phillips"

"Dallas Buyers Club"


"The Wolf of Wall Street"

Glad to see Nebraska getting its share of the endless Oscar love for all things Alexander Payne.

My strong suit as a reviewer, however, is not telling you that good movies are good or bad movies are bad, but finding the ones that aren't quite what they seem to be.

For example, 12 Years a Slave could have been a very good movie by just adding one twist at the end. Remember how the guy comes home at the end from being kidnapped and apologizes to his family? It's a puzzling scene: why is he apologizing? Lots of deep explanations have been offered, but my guess is that the director had him apologize because the first 20 minutes of the movie were as phony as they looked: the weight of historical evidence suggests that Solomon Northup enslavement had started out with him as part of a con man ring playing the old skin game and something went wrong. What a kick in the gut to modern audiences it would have been with an ending in which Northup apologizes to his wife for trying to pull another con and getting caught. But, that would have been too disturbing and interesting for contemporary critics.

From what I've seen so far, I would probably vote for American Hustle. It's a thoroughly entertaining movie that seems like a respectable Interim Placeholder Best Picture until enough time has passed for us to actually figure out what really was the best movie. 

Gravity would be fine, too: my main complaint is that at 91 minutes it's too short, and thus stints on motivation, character development, and some explanations for the audience of Newton's Three Laws of Motion. The missing first act almost writes itself. But to say that you wish the movie were longer is not exactly a devastating criticism, whereas seemingly almost nobody would mind an Editor's Cut of Wolf of Wall Street.

January 15, 2014


Michael Wolf photo of Hong Kong
From Gizmodo
Tall is Good: How a Lack of Building Up is Keeping Our Cities Down
Urbanism -- Alissa Walker
Early in Spike Jonze's new film Her, Joaquin Phoenix's character gazes out his Los Angeles window. As the camera pans, we see not a squat, sprawling metropolis, but a golden-lit landscape of skyscrapers stretching all the way to the horizon. 
When I saw the film last Friday night, this scene made me gasp. 
It wasn't just the shock of seeing L.A. rendered as a vertical city. It was because this L.A. of the future looked like a place where I wanted to live. 
This digitally enhanced, metastasized Los Angeles—an L.A. that grew up instead of out—is almost a secondary character in the film. Jonze tapped graphic designer Geoff McFetridge and production designer K.K. Barrett, and also consulted with architect Elizabeth Diller on the look of L.A.'s future, which—for once—was blissfully free of those dystopian stereotypes. Even against the bleak narrative (no spoilers, don't worry!) the city around the characters is bustling, colorful, vibrant. It's a gorgeous world of tall buildings, mass transit, and busy sidewalks. 
Dare I say, this movie made density beautiful. 
Beautiful density is, of course, a reality for many cities; some of Her's most dramatic shots were filmed on the skyways and skyscrapers of Shanghai. But here in L.A.—like many cities that aren't Shanghai, or Tokyo, or New York—many people are doing everything in their power to suppress this future, citing detrimental side effects from building heights, whether it's shadows or earthquake danger. Even some already dense cities make it impossible to secure air rights, pass ridiculous parking restrictions, and work hard to incentivize low-rise development. 
But there is a huge problem looming larger than any skyscraper. Many major cities are experiencing a housing shortage which is pricing out large swaths of their populations—the workers, the creators, the young'uns. We need to start thinking big—or, rather, tall. 
In theory, most of us know density is good for us—it allows us to live closer together, share resources, save energy, and stay safe. But we like the idea of skyscrapers right up until the point where one is constructed next door. 
Suddenly, we lament that a tall building might obscure our view, or darken our perfect afternoon sunlight. There is an ongoing sentiment that density should be for someone else. I should be able to keep my car and my yard, while my neighbors get a subway and a public park. 
Anti-skyscraper urbanist Jane Jacobs argued for a "proper density," which it can be assumed looked a lot like the typical 1960s Greenwich Village street that she canonized through her writing.

Jane Jacobs liked her own neighborhood. Most people grow fond of where they live. I've liked every neighborhood I've lived in (except the one that had drug addicts shouting all night for their dealer Eddie to buzz them in so they could get their cocaine -- that started to get on my nerves). This is not to dismiss Jacobs, a wise woman, but urban planning mostly works by who it attracts and who it repels, not by the re-engineering of souls.
With this reasoning, we'd organize all the residential buildings into neat four-story walkups and go to work in the skyscrapers (an equation which obviously does not work out in today's cities). Jacobs was fearful of those towers sprouting throughout Manhattan at the time, which she believe took away a neighborhood's diversity and sense of community.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case. Hong Kong, which has more buildings over five hundred feet tall than any other city in the world, has been the muse of photographer Michael Wolf, who captures the towers as well as the people living inside them. These photos are shocking at first in their overwhelming scale. But 80 percent of the residents Wolf interviewed said they were happy, thanks to the sense of community. "The important lesson to be learned is that it's not space which is important for humans," Wolf told Atlantic Cities. "It's your neighbors."


For example, in Chicago, Cabrini Green and Sandburg Village were modernist highrise complexes that were built about a mile apart at about the same time. The former was a public housing project that all the white residents soon fled, while Sandburg was a city-led for-profit project intended to drive out the Puerto Ricans from the neighborhood. It became a proto-yuppie haven. Cabrini Green is gone, but Sandburg Village is still there.

The unmentionable fear, of course, is running out of good neighbors. There are only so many to go around. And the American establishment has had as its policy for decades to make the population less white, more diverse. 

Obviously, immigration policy interacts in all sorts of ways with urbanism policy. America has been testing the diverse future out in ultra-immigrantish Los Angeles for a long time. (You might think that some lessons could be learned, but that'll never happen.) For example, the nice liberals of Beverly Hills have been resisting building the L.A. subway through Beverly Hills for the last 28 years. And if that mountain is finally climbed, the so-called Subway-to-the-Sea will still stop four miles from the sea because nobody has a clue how to get the People's Republic of Santa Monica to agree to a subway.

But you aren't supposed to think about that. Thus, in the movie Her, the population of Future Los Angeles has grown immensely, but almost all the characters are attractive white people.

In reality, Mexicans hate taking public transportation, hate high rises, hate driving Priuses. If they were suddenly renamed South Texans, the New York Times editorial board might even defy Carlos Slim and rethink this whole immigration amnesty project.

Armenian-type white immigrants like driving large expensive new cars really fast.

So, there are urbanist lessons to be learned from L.A.'s experience with immigration, but please don't mention them.

The other issues with high rises are traffic and that American white people don't breed in them. They are like zoo creatures -- to get them to reproduce, you need to take them out of small cages and put them in big enclosures. In Her, there is only one child and she lives in what appears to be the only single family home with a yard in Future Los Angeles.

L.A. subway map from Her
Also from Gizmodo:
One of the best moments in the new movie Her is watching Joaquin Phoenix ride an elevated train through a Los Angeles of the near-future, dance through a bustling subway station, and emerge at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. 
The scene got a surprised laugh from everyone at the screening I attended. After years of nimby battles and funding shortfalls, director Spike Jonze had just completed the Subway to the Sea!

Of course, it's the people who have upcoming movies screened for them who have done the most over the decades to keep the LA subway out of the liberal westside of LA. Funny how that works.

By the way, is this Google driverless car thing ever going to happen? If it does, who will take public transit then if you can sit in your own car and watch videos while Jamesbot drives you right to your destination? (Note, I'm not saying it's going to really happen.)

Heartiste on the bearable whiteness of "Her"

The late River (top)
and Joaquin Phoenix
Heartiste writes about the Oscar-contender Her, which is set in a future Los Angeles purged of anything offensive to advanced tastes:
Replying to a Steve Sailer review of the movie Her as a mischievous chain-yank of the exquisite sensibilities of white people who majored in humanities, commenter stari_momak pithily spits,
You notice how [as] America has gotten darker, white people have gotten fairer (or paler)? 
One consequence of the CH axiom Diversity + Proximity = War is, ironically, a racial self-segregation that belies the media message drumbeat propagandizing the opposite. Her is very much a SWPL (Stuff White People Like) utopia: clean urban spaces, softening pastels, car-less mass transit, bicycle lanes, love affairs with an advanced Siri AI who sounds like the whitest white girl who ever whited, a noticeable lack of bling or vibrancy. 
It’s almost as if the crushing weight of diversity (especially in LA) has freed upper middle class whites to wall themselves off in cultural compounds of their own making. Sure, they have to guss up their motives with doublespeak, but their actions — their revealed preference in economese — is strictly for a society of the whites, by the whites, for the whites.

Here are the names I recognize from the cast of "Her:"

Joaquin Phoenix -- the Spanish first name is due to his having been born in Puerto Rico where his American parents, John Bottom Amram and Arlyn Dunetz Jochebed, had gone as missionaries.
Amy Adams, Matt Letscher, Joaquin

Amy Adams -- Born at an American air force base in Italy, raised in Colorado, ex-Mormon.

Rooney Mara -- Catholic football princess of the Rooney (Steelers) and Mara (NY Giants) dynasties

Chris Pratt
 -- Born in Minnesota, and looks it. The phrase "corn-fed" comes to mind.

Olivia Wilde -- Daughter of one of the Cockburn journalists (making her some kind of distant niece of Evelyn Waugh). Her maternal grandfather was president of the San Francisco Golf Club. The USGA holds the U.S Open next door at the Olympic Club because SFGC doesn't want hoi polloi wandering its superb grounds.

Portia Doubleday -- She's probably not Gen. Abner Doubleday's direct descendant, but she looks like she could be.

Spike Jonze
Voice-only actors:

Scarlett Johansson
Kristen Wiig
Bill Hader
Brian Cox
Spike Jonze

In terms of diversity, Chris Pratt has an Asian-American girlfriend who is a lawyer and has a few lines. And there is an Asian waitress who serves Joaquin and Rooney in one scene. The worker at the next desk at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com is a black lady, but doesn't interact with anybody.

There is one child in the film. She's explained to be the daughter of some friends of Theodore Twombly, who aren't seen in the movie. She's blonde.

The extras in the crowd scenes are heavily Asian (some of the outdoor scenes were shot in Shanghai, some in downtown Los Angeles). Apparently, Asians have pushed Mexicans out of Future LA, which doesn't seem utterly implausible. Overall, though, Larry David's social circle is more diverse than the one in this sci-fi movie.

How precedents are set

Nine years ago, those two noted cosmopolitan universalists, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu, decided that it was time to move beyond all this primitive nationalism and vulgar questions of "Whose side is this guy on, anyway?" and go out and find the technically most wizardly central banker out of all the billions of people in the entire world, who turned out to be Stanley Fischer. 

Now, President Obama has decided that for the role of eminence grise of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, he should follow this precedent established by those famed proponents of national disinterestedness, Sharon and Netanyahu. Obama has put aside all these petty questions of national loyalty to look deep into the vast global pool of talent. And he has found his Own Personal Stanley Fischer, who -- like El Guapo in Three Amigos -- also happens to be The Actual Stanley Fischer:

January 14, 2014

Spike Jonze's "Her:" A Two-Hour Put-On?

Professional letter-writer Joaquin Phoenix's unique emotional insights are affirmed
by his manager Chris Pratt at the lovely offices of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com
From my movie review in Taki's Magazine of the classy little sci-fi film Her, which just won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay:
But critics’ rapturous responses says more about how adroitly director Spike Jonze pushed their class marker buttons. For example, the normally intelligent Christopher Orr burbled in The Atlantic
Why Her Is the Best Film of the Year: Thoughtful, elegant, and moving, Spike Jonze’s film about a man in love with his operating system is a work of sincere and forceful humanism. 
One reason Her is so much less popular with viewers than with reviewers is because it is set in a future Los Angeles depicted as a serene, benevolent utopia stripped of everything that English majors have traditionally found tawdry about the real LA: swimming pools, movie stars, and fancy cars. Granted, those are the only things that the rest of the world likes about LA, but tasteful writers have always been irritated that Los Angeles was the Dream Destination of the Uncouth.
Thus, critic Liam Lacey explains in the Toronto Globe and Mail
Some things about this Los Angeles of the future are much better than today: Density has replaced sprawl, so everyone lives in high-rises looking out over other high-rises (many of the exteriors were shot in Shanghai), to the thrum of a trancey aural wash of Arcade Fire music. They walk on elevated walkways and ride a subway system and work in rooms in velvety pastels. Poverty and cars seem relics of the past. In Theodore’s underpopulated workplace, everyone is polite and supportive.

See photo above.

By the way, writer-director Spike Jonze is the co-creator of the Jackass franchise, and star Joaquin Phoenix made a hoax documentary about how he was quitting acting to become a rap star.

I don't know if I'm right that Jonze and Phoenix are pulling an expensive prank on the SWPL niche audience by making an intentionally dweeby movie, but Her is an awful lot funnier when viewed from that perspective.

Read the whole thing there.

Macroeconomic wizardry v. conflicts of interest

Dave Pinsen asks in the comments:
One question for you Steve, since you've implicated this clique in our ongoing economic malaise: given the constraints of the Fed (e.g., its dual mandate to promote economic growth and maximize employment, and its inability to address economic problems not associated with monetary policy, such as unchecked immigration, naive trade deals, poor fiscal policy, etc.), what would you have preferred it did differently over the last several years?

I don't talk about macroeconomics a lot anymore. I spent a fair amount of time in the 1970s and 1980s thinking about macroeconomics, but ultimately I didn't notice that I had a comparative advantage in that field. 

Perhaps when I was 21 my views on current macroeconomic policy were more correct than, say, Stanley Fischer's, who was 36 at the time (here's a long 2001 interview with Fischer on how his views have evolved toward the right), but if so, that would have been sheer blind luck on my part. (Fischer's disadvantage was that he started out as a child in the Habonim socialist-Zionist youth movement, spending six months at an impressionable age on a kibbutz in Israel, so he had a lot to unlearn.)

As the decades went by, I didn't notice that I had all that much to contribute to understanding macroeconomics.

So, today, I focus on simpler topics that don't attract much attention, such as conflicts of interest among the great and the good. The concept of conflict of interest is a very useful one, but one that the conflicted have largely lost interest in.

Dr. Fischer's career, for example, features a number of interesting conflicts of interest, but we are being told that those should be of no interest to us because he is the world's greatest macroeconomist, according to other great macroeconomists, who are his friends, students, bosses, and so forth. How do we know they are great macroeconomists? Because they are his bosses, students, and friends. The world's greatest macroeconomist wouldn't have friends, bosses, and students who aren't great macroeconomists, right?

I'm really not capable of assessing just how valuable Fischer's macroeconomic policymaking skills are, so perhaps that's why I am skeptical that they make up for his manifest conflicts of interest: I'm not smart enough to be confident that the macroeconomic magic that Dr. Fischer will conjure up will do us so so much good that his conflicts of interest are a negligible price to pay.

More importantly, exceptions rapidly become rules. 

Another "dual patriot"

The New York Times has a good op-ed by retired FBI man M.E. Bowman on another individual whose tireless "apologists portray him as a sort of dual patriot: loyal to the United States, but also motivated to help Israel."

"Stanley Fischer is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

As Adam Smith famously said, "It is not from the self-interest of the macroeconomist, the professor, or the central banker that we expect our economic policies, but from their benevolence."

But one economist once disagreed. It's informative to learn how economists as a whole responded to this insinuation at their national convention.

As I mentioned yesterday, an even more highly credentialed economist than Stanley Fischer, the Bates- and "Nobel"-winner Joseph Stiglitz, pointed out in 2002 that Fischer was richly rewarded by Citigroup immediately after spending seven years at the International Monetary Fund doing things Citigroup generally approved of.

(By the way, you can read the entire contract Fischer signed in 2001 with Robert Rubin and Sandy Weill here. There is no Smoking Gun, but it's just interesting to see the actual text of an incentive agreement among the Big Boys.)

"Incentives matter" and all that, right?

Not to economists, apparently. I found this old Brad DeLong post from 2003 that documents just how much economists hate the idea that anybody should ever imply that they might be self-interested:
January 13, 2003 
Joe Stiglitz is Losing His Argument 
Two of the things I learned at the American Economic Association meeting was that Joe Stiglitz is losing his argument over the desirability of international capital mobility, and why he is losing his argument. 
Now I think that Joe should lose the argument. ... But I will not deny that Joe has a strong case: financial panics, financial crises, irrational booms, irrational busts--economic catastrophe threatens the unskillful and the simply unlucky as they try to dance to the tune played by the far-from-rational financiers of New York and London. 
However, as I said, Joe is losing the argument. He is not losing the argument because rational debate shows that his is the worse cause (although I think that rational debate is likely to reach that conclusion). He is losing the argument because of something he wrote about former MIT Professor, then Principal Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, and current President of Citicorp (Group?) International Stanley Fischer: 
Moreover, the IMF's behavior should come as no surprise: it approached the problems from the perspectives and ideology of the financial community, and these naturally were closely (though not perfectly) aligned with its interests. As we have noted before, many of its key personnel came from the financial community, and many of its key personnel, having served these interests well, left to well-paying jobs in the financial community. Stan Fischer, the deputy managing director who played such a role in the episodes described in this book, went directly from the IMF to become a vice chairman at Citigroup, the vast financial firm that includes Citibank. A chairman of Citigroup (chairman of the Executive Committee) was Robert Rubin, who, as secretary of [the] Treasury, had had a central role in IMF policies. One could only ask, Was Fischer being richly rewarded for having faithfully executed what he was told to do? (pp. 207-208 of Globalization and Its Discontents) 
It is the sentence that I have highlighted in bold that was Stiglitz's complete and total disaster. I have met nobody who knows Stanley Fischer who believes that the answer to Stiglitz's question is, "Yes." Everybody I have met who knows Stanley Fischer sees Stiglitz's question as a knowingly-false and malevolently-intended act of slander. The implication that Fischer was rewarded for slanting IMF policy in a pro-Citigroup direction in return for a future fat private-sector paycheck is universally rejected as totally false. 
And as a result, every day at the AEA, it seemed that there were at least 300 friends of Stanley Fischer who woke up in the morning thinking, "I have to defend Stan against Joe." And they did so, quite effectively. 
Indeed, it is hard to know whether Stiglitz himself regards his question as anything more than an attempt at character assassination. For in the very next paragraph he explains that IMF policy is completely explained by other factors--that there is no need or room to resort to the personal venality of high IMF officials to understand why it did what it did: 
But one does not need to look for venality. The IMF... believed that capital market liberalization would lead to faster growth for the developing countries, believed it so strongly that it... gave little credence to any evidence that suggested otherwise.
In the two paragraphs I have quoted from Globalization and Its Discontents, Stiglitz engaged in the same rhetorical strategy that Mark Antony engages in in his "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. You raise a question ("Brutus hath said that Caesar was ambitious... [but] ambition should be made of sterner stuff" or "Was Fischer being richly rewarded for having faithfully executed what he was told to do?"). You then assert that the answer to the question is "No." ("Brutus is an honorable man" or "one does not need to look for venality"). But the possibility that the answer to the question is really "Yes" (or that the question is open) remains in the listeners' and readers' minds.

Okay, but Brutus and his friends who now ruled Rome had just stabbed Marc Antony's boss Julius Caesar to death. Marc Antony was trying to incite the crowd to avenge this murder while maintain plausible deniability to save his own skin in case it didn't work. Maybe America's economists would have thought it more seemly if nobody had ever mentioned the assassination again?
In this case, however, Stiglitz's rhetorical strategy has backfired disastrously.

Because Stiglitz wasn't addressing a bunch of nobodies, he was talking to the professional equivalent of the Roman senators.
This leaves me with mixed feelings. I think that the side of the debate that ought to win has won. I am too old and cynical to believe that the force of intellectual argument in some approximation to an ideal speech situation invariably carries the day. 
But this is really not how my particular branch of the human race's Long-Term Planning Group is supposed to work...

Seriously, the economists of America decided to interpret Stiglitz's point in the most obtuse, literal-minded fashion imaginable.

Of course Fischer didn't have a formal quid-pro-quo with Citigroup while he was at the IMF. But, surely, someone as astute as Fischer understood the incentive structure he faced in his post-IMF employment search? Did this have the slightest, perhaps unconscious influence upon his decision-making? No doubt he was totally sincere in his beliefs that doing the kinds of things that Citigroup approved of was in the best interests of ... well, of whomever it is that Fischer sees himself as part of. But, as Upton Sinclair might have said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his [future] salary depends on his not understanding it."

Now, let me reiterate that by all the accounts of other economists (except for Stiglitz) and of source-greasing journalists (except Grant F. Smith), Stanley Fischer is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being they've ever known in their lives. Sure, this whole Israeli government to American government transfer might strike yokels as a little dubious, but we're talking about Stanley Fischer here, not some mere mortal. The rules don't apply to people of the quality of Stanley Fischer.

Of course, once the Fischer Precedent is on the books, then it will be used to justify ... well, who knows what? But I'm sure we'll find out.

If you can't trust your witch doctor, who can you trust?

Arnold Kling, a macroeconomist with an MIT Ph.D., made some money on his own startup during the Internet years, which allows him to blog at his AskBlog with a politely jaundiced eye on his fellow MIT economics grads who are still running the world:
A few years ago, I happened to run into Olivier Blanchard. 

Blanchard is an MIT professor and longtime chairman of its economics department on leave to be chief economist at the IMF.
I offered my complaint that folks like Stan Fischer and himself had made macroeconomics narrow and stilted. “We’ve passed the market test,” he replied. 
But the “market test” to which he referred is limited to academic macro. It is a supplier-controlled cartel, not a consumer market.

In general, we still seem to be ruled by the guys who were on top of the world in the 1990s and early 2000s. It's often pointed out that virtually nobody on Wall Street went to jail after 2008, but it's also striking that plenty of economists who were in charge of setting up the system that proved so hollow in 2008 are still on top of the world. For example, Stanley Fischer's return to the U.S. is being greeted with hosannas as a nearly infallible genius because he happened to sit out 2008 as head central banker in Israel, with little mention of his role in setting up the global 2008 as the intellectual godfather of the dominant macroeconomists. 

A lot of this is just an old fear that any jungle tribesman would understand: Yes, maybe we occasionally have doubts that our most prestigious witch doctors know completely what they are doing, but surely they know far more than you or I, so we'd better keep paying them to keep the evil eye away.

In defense of the inbred clique running the world

At Marginal Revolution, economist Alex Tabarrok responds to my flurry of posts on who gets the top two posts at the U.S. Federal Reserve:
Inequality and the Masters of Money 
by Alex Tabarrok on January 14, 2014 at 7:22 am  
This post isn’t about inequality and money it’s about inequality and the masters of monetary policy. Consider Janet Yellen, her recent confirmation to chair the Fed has made her the most powerful woman in the world... Moreover, Yellen is married to Nobel prize winner George Akerlof. The fact that two such outstanding individuals should be married to one another is an illustration of assortative mating. Yellen-Akerlof are the 1% of the 1% and all that political and cultural achievement concentrated in one family is an example of the growth of inequality. Tellingly, one of the drivers of this inequality was greater equality of opportunity for women. 
Now consider, President Obama’s nomination for Fed vice-chairman, Stanley Fischer. Fischer was born in Zambia, holds dual Israeli-American citizenship and was most recently the governor of the Bank of Israel. In all of US history there is almost no precedent [link to me] for a former major official of a foreign country to become a major official of the United States. Given all the economists in the United States one might have thought that a suitable candidate could be found without this peculiar history and yet it’s not hard to understand why President Obama has nominated Fischer–to wit, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone President Obama asked for advice on this question to told him that Fischer would be one of the best people in the entire world for the job. 
Indeed, many of the people Obama spoke to, including Ben Bernanke, would have been Fischer’s students, themselves a large subset of the tiny elite of the world’s top monetary economists. Perhaps the world of monetary economics is an inbred, clique, a supplier-controlled cartel [link to Arnold Kling]. Maybe so, but I see this as part of a larger story. Stanley Fischer, rather than thousands of other nearly equally-qualified people, is being nominated to the U.S. Federal Reserve for the same reasons that large firms, compete madly for a handful of CEO’s (in the process bidding up their wages to stratospheric levels). 
Consider that even in the rarefied world of monetary policy Fischer’s appointment isn’t unique. In 2012, the British appointed Mark Carney, a Canadian, to be the Governor of the Bank of England, the first non-Briton to ever hold the role. 
When even Great Britain and the United States find that their home-grown talent isn’t good enough that tells you that the demand for talent is immense. My favorite example of this from the business world is Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne is the CEO of Italy’s Fiat and the Chairman and CEO of Chrysler, among several other positions.
Small differences in quality at the top have a greater impact the larger the firm, the market, or the economy. How many truly great decisions did Bill Gates make at Microsoft (compared to another plausible CEO)? ... 
It’s also notable that the Federal Reserve is trying to create the highest-quality team.  ... 
The bottom line is this, a common set of factors is driving inequality: equality of opportunity,  assortative mating, O-ring production, increases in the demand for talent driven by the leveraging of talent through technology. The forces are similar and so are the results, the money elite, the monetary elite, the power elite.

So, while it may look to you like a set of friends and lovers has taken over the world through mutual backscratching, that just shows you aren't up to date on O-ring theory. When have O-rings ever failed the U.S.?