Its much easier to go along with the crowd

Sometimes social facts are social facts because its easier for everyone to just agree with everyone else. Example:

There is nothing wrong with being gay. But having a minority sexual preference by definition has costs: a lot fewer potential partners to choose from, for starters. It also makes having children with a partner much more complicated, at least until technology enables us to fuse the DNA from two eggs or two sperm. A loving, non-homophobic parent could choose to turn the gay genes off simply in order to ease their child’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with social stigma.

But of course, even aside from reinforcing (however implicitly) the idea that gayness is a problem, this [pills that make people not gay] is bad for other gay people. They suddenly have even fewer partners to choose from, even less political clout. Moreover, the more parents, or adults, who make that choice, the less attractive gayness becomes, which will tend to push marginal choosers into the “straight” camp. And the charge probably will be led by parents who make their children straight, not to avail them of the network benefits of a majority preference, but by parents who are simply repulsed by homosexuality. One imagines that the gay community will be somewhat resistant to letting those parents in effect make choices for them.

Moreover, reducing variance is bad genetic strategy. The less genetic variety you have, the more vulnerable you are to unforeseen circumstances; genetic variance is a reservoir of potential adaptations. Similarly, even if they were not worthwhile in themselves, the subcultures we now have the medical possibility of destroying are sources of dynamism in our society. We will all be poorer without them.

Actually, read the whole thing to get two other examples.

Sentences of Enduring Value

(Extremely depressing edition)

One of the most disturbing, I think perhaps the most disturbing fact in our whole book is that black students coming from families earning over 70,000 are doing worse on their SATS, on average–it’s always on average–than white students from families in the lowest income group. You want to cry hearing that figure. I mean, it’s so terrible.

— Abigail Thernstrom as quoted in this depressing article on race and IQ at gnxp.

The second amendment as social fact

This post by Cass Sunstein (I think) reminded me of that thing I was talking about last week. Paraphrasing myself: “social facts are different than physical facts… blah blah blah… one of the things that makes them different is they change over time.”

Sunstein argues the second amendment has only very recently been broadly interpreted by experts as granting an individual right to own guns. For example, “[a]s recently as 1992, Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative Republican appointee, rejected the individual rights view in public.” He speculates as to what caused this change: better interpretation of the amendment (the scholarship had it wrong before), the NRA cajoled everyone into believing the more pro-gun view, judges (who have a lot of sway in the public imagination in these matters) have become more conservative or there has been information cascades.

Even if supposing what he says about the shifting consensus is true, I’m not sure what to make of Sunstein’s list. Are these things causes of the shift or effects of it? For example, maybe judges are becoming more pro-gun rights because the politicians who appoint them are pro-gun. Politicians are being elected by people that had already become more pro-gun. The consensus changed so the judges changed.

Also, information cascades may be a mechanism for the consensus on the second amendment to change, but it wouldn’t be the cause of a change. There’s no reason why a different consensus wouldn’t have been “cascaded”, so to speak. Sunstein mentions some prominent liberal scholars that helped legitimize the individual rights view. Why did these scholars have such sway whereas other anti-individual rights scholars relatively little sway? ((It would take one hell of an argument to convince me some agency like the NRA was so genius as to pull off such a brilliant gorilla marketing campaign. I’ve worked in marketing. Those people ain’t no geniuses.))

Another issue is why does the shifting consensus of academics and judges matter. Because they’re the experts, does their interpretation of the amendment become the truth about it? Are social facts just the consensus of experts or the elite? If so, who makes up an elite or who gets to call themselves experts? I think the answers to these questions will depend on which domain we’re talking about, but it seems likely that the expert consensus matters less in the area of constitutional law, especially in democracies.

What causes social facts, like the interpretation of the second amendment, to change over time? There could be “real” changes like the physical facts or other higher-order social facts (e.g. the scholarly reinterpretation of the amendment) have changed. Otherwise, there may be legitimate (e.g. judges) or illegitimate (e.g. special interests) power shifts in society. One group becomes relatively more powerful ((But you have to wonder why they became more powerful.)) and so their views become more important in determining the social fact.

Ethical truth

I just think the idea that ethical truths are universal and timeless is just silly. Take this question from “Ask Philosophers”: “Once capital punishment was right and fornication was wrong. Now the reverse seems generally true. Is there any way that philosophy can prepare us for future alterations in our values, perhaps by indicating where they are likely to arise?”


It is not at all obvious that captial punishment used to be morally permissible. What is obvious is that most people, or some powerful people, or something along those lines thought it was morally permissible (that is, “right” or “OK”). It may well be that it was always morally impermissible (that is, “wrong”), but people didn’t realize this. That would certainly be my view.

There’s nothing peculiar about what I’m suggesting. People used to think the earth was at the center of the universe. It wasn’t. They were wrong. People used to think it was OK to leave babies on the sides of mountains to die in the noonday sun. They too were wrong. Maybe the same goes for capital punishment. And even sex outside of marriage.

So philosophy can at least contribute that sort of clarification. And maybe a bit more: By examining our presumptions carefully, perhaps philosophy can help us realize that what we think, even what we really, firmly believe, isn’t right, after all.

Why was leaving babies on the sides of mountains to die in the noonday sun bad always; why is this a truth like the heliocentric solar system? Its not.

Infanticide is only wrong because we’ve coordinated on an equilibrium in which it is wrong. It didn’t have to be that way and some day we may migrate to a different equilibrium in which killing your newborn is ok. Some people call this “relativism” and scoff at the idea that ethics are “socially constructed,” but ethical truths are no different than economic truths like “little green pieces of paper of value and they can be used for trade.” There is no universal and timeless fact of nature that makes money valuable ((The time is coming when there probably won’t be paper money.)). We’ve just decided it is so ((The interesting question is what the hell does this process entail? I mean, what does “we” mean? Does a majority of society need to agree with the fact for it to be true? Everyone? And what does it mean to coordinate? I don’t think voting or explicit political processes are enough… there’s too much implicit facts for them to be generated by explicit processes.)).

Importantly, economic truths (and their cousins, ethical truths) are objective facts as much as physical truths are. I can’t just make up my own economic facts just like I can’t make up physical facts. Me wishing gravity pointed up doesn’t make it so and this piece of scrap paper on my desk is not money just because I really, really want it to be. Economic facts are facts. So what if the mechanism for making them so is human action (versus God or the Big Bang).

Similarly, ethical truths, while created through social processes, are nonetheless facts.

Ethical and economic facts are weird facts, though. They’re not immutable (you can’t kill your infant anymore), they’re hierarchical (“money” only makes sense in an “economic system”) and there may be two true facts that contradict each other (“murder is wrong” and “capital punishment is right”) ((If you’re interested in professional philosophizing on these points, see Searle’s Construction of Social Reality)).

Frankly, physicists have it easy compared to us social scientists!

UC Davis Econ in the News

Prof. Lindert’s work on pre-modern inequality is discussed by Tim Harford in the Financial Times.

The US, as the richest society in history, is therefore potentially the most unequal in history. The US population could be kept alive for the cost of about $100bn a year.

If the elites had total control, that would leave another $13,800bn (the rest of US GDP) a year to distribute among friends of the president – almost enough to give a sum equal to Bill Gates’s lifetime wealth to a new crony each working day.

But the US is not remotely this exploitative, no matter what you may feel the next time you buy a copy of Windows.

In the newly coined jargon, it has a low “inequality extraction ratio”, meaning that the poor have much more than it would take to keep them alive.

That is faint praise for the US, perhaps. But it is interesting to observe that while modern societies are rich enough to be much more unequal than their predecessors, they show similar patterns of income inequality. Perhaps – I am speculating wildly – human societies have some hard-wired tolerance for inequality?

What would determine that “hard-wired tolerance for inequality”? Does it vary by society? If so, why?

“common sense revolts at the idea”

What a great line from a 1946 Supreme Court opinion deciding property owners don’t own the airspace above their land.

Larry Lessig has a good talk about property rights and copy rights in general. He makes two great points: First, he talks about how we need to set up a system were content that is “more free” (e.g. user generated content, mixes, etc) competes with content that is “less free” (e.g. music labels, etc). This is a good idea, but included in that discussion is one of the best statements of the virtue of competition I’ve ever heard. He says, the two competitors will “teach one the lessons of the other”. In other words, competition is about learning.

The second point: Kids know they are living outside the law when they’re following their instincts to recreate culture by remixing. Obviously, this “realization is extremely corrosive to a democracy” in which laws are meant to be for everyone.

Actually, besides these points and overall good content, the presentation itself is really good. Lessig puts on a good show.

So watch it already:


Is this a good model of entrepreneurship?

Every so often, a dwarf in this game will fall into a strange mood. They will seek out a specific workshop and begin gathering items from all over your fortress. When they gather all of the items they require, they will begin a mysterious construction. When finished, they will produce an item of unsurpassed quality, and your dwarves will hail its creation. If it’s the right kind of mood, your dwarf will advance to legendary status in the skill required to make that item.

Often, though, your obsessed dwarf can’t find a specific item that they crave, and they’ll eventually go mad. This is a huge incentive to develop your infrastructure; there’s no telling when a dwarf will suddenly take over a forge and demand uncut tourmalines and bat leather.

Clark take-down

Standard rationalizing models, those that have agents optimizing their own material outcomes, don’t explain all economic facts, especially those dealing with the very, very long run. This has obliged many economist to augment the standard models to include other motivations or objectives of the agents.

For example, to explain the fact that in rich countries richer people tend to have fewer children (which is opposite of the case poor countries), in addition to their desire to optimize their own income you can add the desire of parents to optimize their children’s income. These parental preferences create a trade-off between the quantity and quality of children. Parents choose to have many low-quality children to work on the farm or few high-quality children they send off to college.

Professor Clark has criticized these sorts of adjustments to the standard model, saying they represent arbitrary additions. He complains: “This should make clear that the references specified over goods and children in all these models have no function other than making a bow towards the form of maximizing over preferences in economic models. They do not somehow better explain the world they are just ways of reproducing, mathematically, observed behavior.”

Personally, in the last month I’ve seen models that include preferences for “fairness”, “equality”, “efficiency” and “reciprocity”. There was a macro seminar a couple weeks ago that used “ambiguity aversion” to explain the home portfolio bias and I’ve seen models where “beliefs” and “norms” determine payoffs. In some cases, I felt these additions to the standard model were arbitrary and ill-supported, but my main issue is with model robustness. If we add one sort of psychological or sociological motivation to the model and we get non-standard results, why shouldn’t we add all such motivations? Perhaps adding more psychology to our models would change the results further, perhaps some psychological quirks cancel out other ones.

I guess I’m saying that if economic-man is unrealistic, why isn’t economic-man plus “reciprocity” (or whatever) equally unrealistic?

In any case, The Economist blogger ((who I bet has a really cool first name)) thinks adding such preferences to the standard model is moving the science forward and that Clark is wrong to object.

I think economists should become more comfortable with non-rationalizing models.

Ideas not Institutions, part 1

Prof. Clark gave an interview the other day at the Intrepid Liberal Journal blog. Here’s Clark discussing what national and international governments should (and shouldn’t) do to help those places stuck in Malthusian Traps today:

ILJ: Fair enough. Professor Clark you’ve been very generous with your time. A final question if I may sir. Assuming all your conclusions about the importance of culture in facilitating the industrial revolution are correct, what lessons can we draw from history as we try to influence economic growth in the underdeveloped world in the 21st century?

Clark: Well, the lesson is unfortunately a little pessimistic. But I think one thing that is important is that for fifty years institutions like the World Bank have been applying the same kind of medicine. And it’s like pre-industrial doctors, you try bloodletting, and when it doesn’t work, you conclude let’s do more bloodletting.

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: And there is this emphasis now, it seems, a very strong emphasis, on achieving good government in a bunch of African societies which really have a hard time maintaining Western style governments. But yet when you look you see someone like China growing very rapidly with a very corrupt government, terrible social institutions, and the rule of law really evaded on a massive scale (laughs).

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: And so when you see this you think maybe to focus all your energies on institutions is not the way to go. What the very clear problem, say, within these African societies, is that even inside production enterprises it’s very hard to get people to cooperate in production in a way that makes workers have high value. And the shocking thing that’s occurred recently is that in Zambia and Malawi, where Chinese entrepreneurs have moved into these very poor African countries, wages are much lower now then they are in most of China. But they’ve actually been importing Chinese workers in factories in sub-Saharan Africa.

ILJ: That’s ironic.

Clark: And encountering a lot of local opposition. The puzzle then is it seems just very hard to get people to cooperate effectively in production in these societies. I think that says this is an area where we really must examine what is going on here. One interesting idea is that the nature of modern technology is very demanding in terms of how careful workers have to be, how exactly they have to follow rules. So one thing to think of is there any way to develop other technologies more forgiving of the cultural histories of these societies? Another thing to look at is if we expose workers more to the kind of Western high income economic life and send them back would that actually help in changing workers attitudes and changing the economic life of those societies? But I don’t have any simple recipe for economic growth, and anyone who does is someone you should avoid.

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: I do think that we’re looking in the wrong place, and have been systematically. And it’s the ideology of economics that pushes us there but it’s very clear that it is the wrong place. So it’s at least worth considering, given the true constraints, what can we do? How can we operate? What are the processes we can set in place? And if we are going to solve the problem of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, the solution is going to come in a very different form then the followers of Adam Smith are going to accept.

Might there be some value in the conservative virtues?

Answer, “balance”. Response, “re-balance”.

Neither Douthat’s answer or Wilkinson’s response address Haidt’s original point about conservative virtues: “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.”

What sort of balancing or re-balancing of the virtues in society gets the modern mix ((I guess its obvious that modern, liberal virtues are better…)) right and still maintains what “religious people… are doing right” to make them happy?