Thursday, January 21, 2010

What era are our intuitions about elites and business adapted to?   posted by agnostic @ 1/21/2010 01:36:00 AM

Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don't even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don't have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do -- these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.

So that leaves two major eras -- agricultural and industrial societies. I'm going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order -- hunter-gatherer life -- there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders -- or "natural states" that sprung up with agriculture -- substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen -- who all make up a dominant coalition -- that I'll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.

This way, the strongman doesn't have to work very much to live a comfortable life -- just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won't one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone's land gets ravaged, everyone's peasants can't produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).

The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people's ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn't going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn't those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition -- only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.

It's not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power -- maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren't going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents -- they're going to raid him and take enough so that he's left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won't be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.

Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy -- it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell -- it's a mercantile elite -- rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations -- as opposed to not having the freedom to do so -- that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.

OK, now let's take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits -- that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people's mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.

First, the view that capturing more of the audience -- whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you -- matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs -- boosting profits -- remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they've got them locked in, make money off of them somehow -- by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.

Of course, that hasn't gone away since then, as everyone says that "providers of online content" can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don't think most people believe that charging a subset for "premium content" is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon's reaction to the NYT's official statement that they're going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:

Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven't made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they're incredibly profitable -- and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as "go after audiences" -- they must do that in a way that's profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could "watch revenues follow" by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.

The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn't matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.

Clearly that doesn't work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what -- there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT's ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.

Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence -- not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won't be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It's mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.

Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways -- higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it -- bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!

That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn't want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That's correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there's nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.

The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late '70s and early '80s but couldn't adapt to changing tastes -- and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn't adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-'90s and early 2000s -- and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by -- Nintendo! It doesn't even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-'80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.

But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before -- same amount of food taken -- but now you're getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master's land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair -- he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you're entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.

You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out -- the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial -- but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion -- the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power -- is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.

By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.

But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn't see it -- the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats -- that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen -- we don't want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!

This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering -- hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness -- if we didn't subsidize them, they couldn't provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don't really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.

It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there's a decent trace of it in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli -- and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)

We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains -- we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven't had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I'm sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The grain dole of America   posted by Razib @ 11/29/2009 10:17:00 AM

Ben points to the a new article in The New York Times, Across U.S., Food Stamp Use Soars and Stigma Fades. The county-by-county data are of interest. I've just snatched the csv file, which they made available. Andrew Gelman has a modest critique of the assertion that 50% of children are on food stamps at some point in their childhood. The variance in utilization rates of the program by region (50% in California vs. 98% in Missouri) of those eligible, as well as the near saturation of utilization in much of the Black Belt and highland South (the Appalachians and the Ozarks), implies to me that while in some American subcultures the program is seen as a stop-gap in others it is a background condition of life. A minimum income guarantee or grain dole basically. Also, I recently heard a radio interview with Kevin Concannon, an under secretary of agriculture. In response to criticism of misrepresentation of the results of reports of hunger in America his stance was basically "statistics, schmamistics."

The reason that I'm fixating a bit on the issue of hunger in America is that we're also told that there's an "obesity epidemic" in this country, in particular among the lower classes. Often from the same policy elites who point to long lines at soup kitchens as evidence of a surfeit of food! To be hungry sometimes is uncomfortable, I know this personally, I am hungry sometimes. Though for me it has to do with the fact that I don't think that the immediate response to hunger always has to be food to satiate the pangs (I don't like to eat past a certain hour). Nutritional belt tightening isn't necessarily a bad thing, remember that the Great Depression saw an increase in life expectancy.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

The white vote for Obama, by county & correlates   posted by Razib @ 11/28/2009 03:01:00 PM

A friend of mine who was looking at the distributions on obesity and diabetes wondered about their political correlations. To do that and add anything new it seems that it would be best to estimate the white vote for Barack Obama in 2008 by county. This is how I did it:

1) I looked at the exit polls for each state, which has breakdowns by race for each candidate.

2) Since the white vote probably varies more county-by-county than the minority vote, especially the back, I used the state level exit polls and assumed that the minority vote in every county could be predicted by the state level exit poll. So for example, in New York the exit poll suggest that 100% of blacks voted for Obama. So I would weight appropriately.

3) I also weighted by national turnout numbers. In other words, whites were a little overrepresented in the electorate, blacks equal to their demographic weight, and Asians and Latinos underrepresented. So:

% Obama in county = (White turnout)(White %)(White proportion) + (Black turnout)(White %)(Black proportion) + (Latino turnout)(Latino %)(Latino proportion) + (Asian turnout)(Asian %)(Asian proportion)

Many states did not have results for ethnic minorities in the exit polls, so the white vote estimate is identical to the real results in many counties (the correlation between my estimate and the real returns is on the order of 0.99-0.98 north of 85% or more non-Hispanic white). In places like Mississippi where most everyone is either black or white, we can probably be sure that blacks voted well in excess of 90% for Obama, I think the estimate for whites is probably pretty good. The main issue is with Latinos, who I suspect seem to vary quite a bit more than blacks (in fact, they probably tend to follow whites in voting except that they're more Democratic all variables controlled (again, I had to discard some counties were negative proportions pop up because Latinos are more Republican locally than on the state level).

Fist some maps, then some correlations. Again, note that red is below and blue above whatever threshold I'm using (usually median).

For the correlations, "est" means my estimate. Reduce the confidence in those correlations accordingly, as my data analysis hasn't gone through peer review! (until you comment)

Here are the summaries for Obama vote estimate:

1st quartile = 0.2240
median = 0.3591
mean = 0.3587
3rd quartile = 0.4754

Since Democratic votes are concentrated in a few highly populous counties the low proportions are not a surprise. Lots of counties with few people are anti-Obama.

White Obama Vote (est)- White Diabetes Rate (est) = -0.26
White Obama Vote (est)- White Obesity Rate (est) = -0.29
White Obama Vote (est)- White Birth Rate = -0.17
White Obama Vote (est)- College Degree = 0.42
White Obama Vote (est)- Median Household Income = 0.28
White Obama Vote (est)- Median Home Value = 0.40

(for whites ancestry are proportion of whites, i.e., Irish/White = Irish proportion)
White Obama Vote (est)- Origins in Britain & Ireland = -0.24
White Obama Vote (est)- English = 0.08
White Obama Vote (est)- Irish = 0.37
White Obama Vote (est)- Scots Irish = -0.13
White Obama Vote (est)- American = -0.50
White Obama Vote (est)- German = 0.38
White Obama Vote (est)- Scandinavian = 0.30

Partial correlations controlling for college degree rate:

White Obama Vote (est)- White Diabetes Rate (est) = -0.30
White Obama Vote (est)- White Obesity Rate (est) = -0.29
White Obama Vote (est)- White Birth Rate = -0.20
White Obama Vote (est)- Median Household Income = 0.00
White Obama Vote (est)- Median Home Value = 0.17
White Obama Vote (est)- American = -0.46
White Obama Vote (est)- German = 0.36

Partial correlations controlling for median household income:

White Obama Vote (est)- White Diabetes Rate (est) = -0.36
White Obama Vote (est)- White Obesity Rate (est) = -0.33
White Obama Vote (est)- White Birth Rate = -0.21
White Obama Vote (est)- Median Home Value = 0.30
White Obama Vote (est)- American = -0.52
White Obama Vote (est)- German = 0.35

The correlation between the white Obama vote and the proportion of blacks within a county is in the range of -0.30 to -0.40 (on the high end), even controlling for income and such (the blacker the county, the fewer whites voted for Obama). Interestingly when I control for black proportion the German correlation for voting for Obama drops a bit to 0.26, and the American correlation drops from the other direction, -0.39. Race can explain some, but definitely not all of these inter-ethnic differences in the white vote.

Poking through demographic data, a few things always seem to crop up:

1) Texas isn't quite like the rest of the South. It is more Republican on the federal level than racial polarization into a white and black party would predict.

2) The Latino counties in Texas are hard to fit into a model which is derived from conditions in the rest of the country. They have lower morbidity and are somewhat more conservative than Latinos elsewhere (in fact, their morbidity is lower than whites in many regions of the country). I often have to discard these counties because estimates using state level parameters are weird (in the case of white voting patterns or diabetes rates, negative values).

3) There's stuff going on in Appalachia which needs to be explored. I'm going to analyze Appalachian counties specifically in the near future. I had assumed that aside from outliers like Asheville Appalachia was relatively homogeneous. Not so.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Against infotainment   posted by Razib @ 11/18/2009 07:06:00 PM

Steve has an interesting column up this week:
Who will win the Super Bowl? Well, two minutes on Google leads me to a betting site that says the New Orleans Saints are +360, while the Indianapolis Colts are +385. (I don't even know what those numbers are supposed to mean.) Here's another site that has the Colts at 3:1 and the Saints at 4:1, which at least I understand.
So, there you have my fearless forecast: the Saints will meet the Colts in the 2010 Super Bowl, and one of them will win.
You heard it here first.

If you want political predictions, I can check the Intrade market to see that … hey, what do you know? Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty are neck and neck for the 2012 GOP nomination.

So, that's my 2012 conjecture: taking a page from the late Roman Republic, the GOP will nominate Palin, Romney, and Pawlenty to run against Obama as a triumvirate.
Do you have a better guess?

I suppose I could obsessively study the political tealeaves to learn the minutia of upcoming elections (such as who this Pawlenty person might be). But how much would I be adding to the sum total of human wisdom?

Not much, I suspect. One thing the press does well is cover political horse races....

In terms of politics and sports, I think there is some juice which sites like FiveThirtyEight, The Audacious Epigone and Applied Statistics can squeeze out through quantitative analysis. Additionally, more qualitative analysis like Kevin Phillips (though Phillips does do a lot of exploration of voting records, the output tends to be verbal and not in percentages) have interesting things to say. Unfortunately, over the past year of reading American history it has become clear to me that it's really hard to evaluate the qual analysts who add genuine value because very few people operate with the appropriate data base to comprehend allusions and implicit pointers they are making.* To be marketable you really have to just reflect conventional wisdom, and play on its margins.

* More specifically, without the historical data base it's hard to detect the more subtle bullshit artists.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Germania   posted by Razib @ 11/16/2009 11:20:00 PM

Follow up post on the Isles, the distribution of German Americans.

25th quartile = 0.10
Median = 0.20
75th quartile = 0.30

Correlation(German, English) = -0.16
Correlation(German, American) = -0.74
Correlation(German, Irish) = 0.11
Correlation(German, Scots-Irish) = -0.31

Now let's exclude the South, where there are the fewest Germans.

25th quartile = 0.21
Median = 0.27
75th quartile = 0.39

Correlation(German, English) = -0.55
Correlation(German, American) = -0.47
Correlation(German, Irish) = -0.30
Correlation(German, Scots-Irish) = -0.37

FYI, the correlation between the frequency of German Americans as a proportion of the non-Hispanic white population and voting for Barack Obama is 0.21. The strong inverse relationship between the proportion of "Americans" and German Americans is in part a function of region. Germans are underrepresented in the Southeast quadrant of the country, where Americans are overrepresented. But that still punts the question as to why Americans define themselves in this way.

I think this is plain history. Though a minority of German Americans have ancestors who arrived in the 18th century (including Dwight Eisenhower), the German American presence in the United States dates to the period between 1840 to 1890. This is recent enough that it probably explains the vociferousness of Germanophobia during World War I, when there was still a German language school system extant in the United States. Lawrence Welk was born in the German community of South Dakota, and German was his first language, explaining his slight accent (whether this was affected or not is controversial).

By contrast, as documented in Albion's Seed, most of the ancestors of British Americans arrived in the 18th century. In fact, in New England it may be that most of the English origin population (and their descendant who spread into upstate New York and the Midwest) descend predominantly from 20-30,000 Puritan men and women who arrived in the Great Migration of 1620-1640 (when the religious climate in England was hostile to Puritanism). The ancestors of the Scots-Irish arrived in the 18th century or earlier, peaking in the decades before the American Revolution.

Of course, as is obvious in previous maps, Americans tend to concentrate in the South, whose predominant wave of settlement was a century after New England. So antiquity is not all that is at work. It seems possible that the "Englishness" of New Englanders is in part a function of the fact that the immigration of Irish Catholics made their Protestant English identity more salient. By contrast, in the South the large numbers of blacks, or the relative nearness of blacks, allowed for the hybridization of the "Anglo-Celtic" white identity, which can be labelled as "American" (i.e., "real Americans"). It is interesting that the Germans in Texas still tend to identify as Germans. For Texas:

Correlation(German, American) = -0.60
Correlation(German, English) = 0.16
Correlation(German, Scots-Irish) = -.24

Correlation(American, English) = -0.37
Correlation(American, Scots-Irish) = -0.36

Remember that Germans who settled Texas were generally recent immigrants from Germany. By contrast, the Anglos who settled Texas were secondary immigrants from the South, often regions of later settlement such as Tennessee, settled from the Atlantic states such as South Carolina in the first place.

Addendum: As some commenters have noted, there is also a likely bias in terms of the most recent immigrant lineage. So in the many individuals with both German and Anglo-Celtic ancestry, the former is likely to have been more recent and memorable.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Abortion   posted by Razib @ 11/08/2009 01:22:00 AM

Over at Secular Right I report again that there is no sex difference in attitudes toward abortion in the general population (if anything, women are a bit more pro-life than men). But, to my surprise in the American Congress women do support abortion rights to a greater extent than men. This holds for both Republicans and Democrats.

Quick thoughts:

1) I used one abortion-rights organization's rating for 2007-2008. Would be useful to use pro-life and other abortion-rights organizations, as well as different years, to see if the difference is consistent. The sample size for women isn't very large in Congress.

2) Try to control for other variables.

Those who know more about the selection process for candidates for higher office might have some immediate insight as well.

Addendum: Poking through the GSS I did once find that among college-educated white liberals women placed a greater weight on their support for abortion-rights than men. I suspect that explains the tacit assumption among many liberals that women in particular care about abortion and support its legality to a greater extent than men, in their social set that is quite true. But, that segment of the population (college-educated white liberals) are only ~5% of the total American population.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Center-Right world?   posted by Razib @ 10/29/2009 03:49:00 PM

One of the persistent structural issues with American politics is that a greater number of Americans self-identity as conservative than liberal, so the Republican party can be dominated by conservatives in a manner in which the Democratic party can not. This is not to speak to whether people are in substance more conservative or not, rather, I'm still addressing self-perception. You can see the trend over the past 30 years from the GSS in the United States:

I was curious as to whether this bias is an international phenomenon. There is a question in the WVS which asks: 'In political matters, people talk of "the left" and "the right." How would you place your views on this scale, generally speaking?' The scale goes from 1, which is furthest Left, to 10, which is furthest Right. I looked at the WVS 3, 4 and 5 (a span from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s). Here is a histogram generated from the median values of all the nations (some replicated across waves):

As you can see, the central tendency just a bit to the Center-Right. The median value in the data set is 5.6 (standard deviation 0.68). No idea if this means anything, but I did wonder if sometimes there's a human cognitive bias to perceive oneself as "conservative" because of risk-aversion, but these results don't seem to be very strong (I'm sure some of the results, such as Vietnam, are due some strange quirks of phrasing which didn't translate well). Here's a table of the data points....

Country Mean Political 
Zimbabwe 3.7
India 4.4
Egypt 4.5
Spain 4.6
Andorra 4.6
Burkina Faso 4.7
Germany 4.7
Spain 4.7
France 4.8
Bulgaria 4.8
Iran (Islamic Republic of) 4.8
Germany 4.8
Spain 4.8
Serbia and Montenegro 4.8
Iraq 4.9
France 4.9
Russian Federation 4.9
Russian Federation 4.9
Slovenia 5
Republic of Moldova 5
Italy 5.1
Bosnia and Herzegovina 5.1
Greece 5.1
Hungary 5.1
Israel 5.1
Netherlands 5.1
Slovakia 5.1
Great Britain 5.1
Albania 5.1
Bosnia and Herzegovina 5.1
Hungary 5.1
Macedonia, Republic of 5.1
Netherlands 5.2
Switzerland 5.2
Uruguay 5.2
Chile 5.2
Germany 5.2
Macedonia, Republic of 5.2
Serbia and Montenegro 5.2
Croatia 5.2
Republic of Korea 5.2
Slovenia 5.2
South Africa 5.2
Great Britain 5.3
Slovenia 5.3
Cyprus 5.3
Albania 5.3
Belgium 5.3
Croatia 5.3
Portugal 5.3
Sweden 5.3
Australia 5.3
Belarus 5.3
Romania 5.3
Slovakia 5.3
Sweden 5.3
Switzerland 5.3
Ukraine 5.3
Brazil 5.4
Chile 5.4
Mali 5.4
Austria 5.4
Italy 5.4
Republic of Korea 5.4
Lithuania 5.4
Luxembourg 5.4
Poland 5.4
Armenia 5.4
Chile 5.4
Estonia 5.4
Latvia 5.4
Canada 5.5
Japan 5.5
Canada 5.5
Denmark 5.5
Nigeria 5.5
Uganda 5.5
Ukraine 5.5
Azerbaijan 5.5
Australia 5.6
Norway 5.6
Sweden 5.6
Finland 5.6
Ukraine 5.6
Rwanda 5.6
Ireland 5.6
Republic of Moldova 5.6
Northern Ireland 5.6
Finland 5.6
Nigeria 5.6
Norway 5.6
United States 5.7
Argentina 5.7
Peru 5.7
New Zealand 5.7
Morocco 5.7
Jordan 5.7
Belarus 5.7
India 5.7
Japan 5.7
Peru 5.7
South Africa 5.7
Argentina 5.7
Mexico 5.7
Poland 5.7
Uruguay 5.7
South Korea 5.8
Bulgaria 5.8
Finland 5.8
Iceland 5.8
Latvia 5.8
Malta 5.8
Romania 5.8
Turkey 5.8
United States 5.8
Bulgaria 5.8
Lithuania 5.8
New Zealand 5.8
Peru 5.8
United States 5.8
Poland 5.9
Serbia 5.9
Guatemala 5.9
Estonia 5.9
Jordan 5.9
Morocco 5.9
Pakistan 5.9
Brazil 5.9
Czech Republic 5.9
Georgia 5.9
Japan 5.9
Romania 6
Taiwan 6
Moldova 6
Georgia 6
Argentina 6
Czech Republic 6
Trinidad and Tobago 6.1
Philippines 6.1
Turkey 6.1
Mexico 6.2
Turkey 6.2
Thailand 6.2
Algeria 6.2
Kyrgyzstan 6.2
Venezuela 6.3
El Salvador 6.3
Hong Kong 6.4
Philippines 6.4
Ghana 6.5
Indonesia 6.6
Ethiopia 6.6
Indonesia 6.6
Puerto Rico 6.6
Taiwan Province of China 6.6
Colombia 6.6
Dominican Republic 6.6
India 6.6
South Africa 6.7
Zambia 6.7
Mexico 6.7
Puerto Rico 6.7
Venezuela 6.7
Colombia 6.8
Tanzania, United Republic Of 6.8
Bangladesh 7
Bangladesh 7.6
Viet Nam 9
Viet Nam 9.1

Note: The scale on the question is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. So 1-5 would be on the Left side, and 6-10 on the Right.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

People can't judge their own political ideology   posted by Razib @ 10/21/2009 07:17:00 PM

Or, perhaps they're norming to their local context. In any case, Andrew Gelman pointed to Boris Shor's site, who then linked to his research on ideology, which led me this working paper, All Together Now: Putting Congress, State Legislatures, and Individuals in a Common Ideological Space. Here's what jumped out at me:
I have also found that the common space scores perform exceedingly well as a predictor of individual vote choice compared with even a non-naive three item composite ideology. The common space scores even do as well or better than party identi cation in predicting both presidential and congressional voting. In fact, conventional de nitions of ideology, predicated on self-reporting, show themselves to be completely inadequate.

The "common space scores" is derived from Project Vote Smart's NPAT.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Obese regions do vote for McCain, but McCain voters may not be especially obese   posted by Razib @ 10/20/2009 09:09:00 PM

A friend pointed me to this article in Slate which noted:
This size bias may ultimately play out along party lines. The last presidential election revealed a startling overlap between statewide obesity figures and support for the GOP. Despite losing in a landslide, John McCain carried all nine of the fattest states in the union and 16 of the top 20. (Obama prevailed in 17 of the 20 thinnest states, including New Jersey.) In the race for governor of a very blue state, Christie's girth marks him as an outsider-a member of the chunky-monkey Fox News demographic, the kind of guy who rides around in an SUV and eats Double Down sandwiches. If Christie stands in for America's boorish consumer culture, then Corzine-slender, bearded, and bespectacled-represents the cosmopolitan elite.

The issue though is that black Americans are more obese, and extremely black states exhibit a lot of racial polarization whereby McCain actually those states. My friend wondered if I could look on a more granular level. If I could find obesity data on all the counties in the nation, that would be easy, but I didn't find that. But, I did find obesity data for race, so the proportion of each state which are classified as obese who are non-Hispanic white, as well as exit polls of the white vote for McCain. The scatterplot below shows the outcome.

What about individual level data? In 2004 there was a variable which was interviewer perception of weight. Here's what the GSS says:

The 95% confidence intervals are their, including the N's. Not much difference. Perhaps the sample size is too small to tell, or perhaps how interviewers perceived people differed from region to region. I limited the sample to Non-Hispanic whites. Here's the variables:

Row: INTRWGHT(r:1 "Below Average"; 2 "Average"; 3-4 "Above Average")
Col: partyid(r:0-2 "Democrat";3 "Independent"; 4-6 "Republican") polviews(r:1-3 "Liberal";4 "Moderate" ;5-7 "Conservative")

Oh, and about fat people voting for fat candidates. I think the issue is that many fat people imagine that one day they won't be fat, so it's hard to create an identity around something you want to escape, and think you can, with enough hard work, or a miracle drug, or gastric bypass.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Non-Black voting Democrat in 2008 presidential election   posted by Razib @ 8/29/2009 10:56:00 PM

Map from Andrew Gelman's post, Race, region, and vote choice in the 2008 election: implications for the future of the Voting Rights Act (which has many more charts):

Compare with the last map in my post What's not the matter with Appalachia.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Males are more libertarian   posted by Razib @ 7/17/2009 04:09:00 PM

It is a rather robust cross-cultural finding that if there is a sex difference in religiosity, males will be less religious than females. Bryan Caplan has a theory about this. In any case, likely less surprising to readers is the generalization that males are more libertarian than females. Just as any random group of atheists is going to exhibit male surplus, meetings of self-identified libertarians usually seem to exhibit the same imbalance. Atheists and libertarians are both extreme cases of the distribution, and so it stands to reason that any mean difference would result in radically different representations several standard deviations away from the norm.

To explore this is a cross-culturally I looked at the WVS wave 5. Broke it down by sex & country, and looked at the following question:
People should take more responsibility to provide for themselves vs The government should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for.

The responses exhibit the range from 1-10, with one being "government should take more responsibility" and 10 being "people should take more responsibility." I computed the mean by weighting these values and the frequencies in each class of values. So if a category had a mean value of 6, that would indicate on average a more libertarian sentiment than a mean value of 4. In the total WVS sample the mean value for males is 5.7, and for females 5.6. In other words, men are somewhat more libertarian than women, but only slightly. Contrastingly there are almost 3 units in the range across countries. Below the fold are pairs of charts. The first simply displays the between sex difference for each country. If males are more libertarian in a given country the data are to the right of the chart, and if females are, the data are to the left. The scatter plots show the strong correlation in attitudes between sexes internationally.

Broken down by sex:

Broken down by sex and limited to those over the age of 40:

Broken down by sex and limited to those under the age of 40:

Broken down by sex and limited to those on the political Right:

Broken down by sex and limited to those on the political Left:

It is interesting that the sex difference seems to diminish the political Left, but less so on the Right. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in much of the world the "Right" political party is really not that libertarian in any case, but more focused on social conservatism (e.g., Christian Democratic parties).


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Monopoly allows innovation to flourish   posted by agnostic @ 6/25/2009 12:28:00 AM


This may be old hat for some readers, but it's worth reviewing and providing some good new data for. The motivation is the idea that monopoly-haters have that when some company comes to dominate the market, they will have no incentive to change things -- after all, they've already captured most of the audience. The response is that industries where invention is part of the companies' raison d'etre attract dynamic people, including the executives.

And such people do not rest on their laurels once they're free from competition -- on the contrary, they exclaim, "FINALLY, we can breathe free and get around to all those weird projects we'd thought of, and not have to pander to the lowest common denominator just to stay afloat!" Of course, only some of those high-risk projects will become the next big thing, but a large number of trials is required to find highly improbable things. When companies are fighting each other tooth-and-nail, a single bad decision could sink them for good, which makes companies in highly competitive situations much more risk-averse. Conversely, when you control the market, you can make all sorts of investments that go nowhere and still survive -- and it is this large number of attempts that boosts the expected number of successes.

With that said, let's review just a little bit of history impressionistically, and then turn to a new dataset that confirms the qualitative picture.

Taking only a whirlwind tour through the pre-Information Age time period, we'll just note that most major inventions could not have been born if the inventor had not been protected from competitive market forces -- usually from protection by a monopolistic and rich political entity. Royal patronage is one example. And before the education bubble, there weren't very many large research universitities in your country where you could carry out research -- for example, Oxford, Cambridge, and... well, that's about it, stretching back 900 years. They don't call it "the Ivory Tower" for nothing.

Looking a bit more at recent history, which is most relevant to any present debate we may have about the pros and cons of monopolies, just check out the Wikipedia article on Bell Labs, the research giant of AT&T that many considered the true Ivory Tower during its hey-day from roughly the 1940s through the early 1980s. From theoretical milestones such as the invention of information theory and cryptography, to concrete things like transistors, lasers, and cell phones, they invented the bulk of all the really cool shit since WWII. They were sued for antitrust violations in 1974, lost in 1982, and were broken up by 1984 or '85. Notice that since then, not much has come out -- not just from Bell Labs, but at all.

The same holds true for the Department of Defense, which invented the modern airliner and the internet, although they made large theoretical contributions too. For instance, the groundwork for information criteria -- one of the biggest ideas to arise in modern statistics, which tries to measure the discrepancy between our scientific models and reality -- was laid by two mathematicians working for the National Security Agency (Kullback and Leibler). And despite all the crowing you hear about the Military-Industrial Complex, only a pathetic amount actually goes to defense (which includes R&D) -- most goes to human resources, AKA bureaucracy. Moreover, this trend goes back at least to the late 1960s. Here is a graph of how much of the defense outlays go to defense vs. human resources (from here, Table 3.1; 2008 and beyond are estimates):

There are artificial peaks during WWII and the Korean War, although it doesn't decay very much during the 1950s and '60s, the height of the Cold War and Vietnam War. Since roughly 1968, though, the chunk going to actual defense has plummeted pretty steadily. This downsizing of the state began long before Thatcher and Reagan were elected -- apparently, they were jumping on a bandwagon that had already gained plenty of momentum. The key point is that the state began to give up its quasi-monopolistic role in doling out R&D dollars.

Update: I forgot! There is a finer-grained category called "General science, space, and technology," which is probably the R&D that we care most about for the present purposes. Here is a graph of the percent of all Defense outlays that went to this category:

This picture is even clearer than that of overall defense spending. There's a surge from the late 1950s up to 1966, a sharp drop until 1975, and a fairly steady level from then until now. This doesn't alter the picture much, but removes some of the non-science-related noise from the signal. [End of update]

Putting together these two major sources of innovation -- Bell Labs and the U.S. Defense Department -- if our hypothesis is right, we should expect lots of major inventions during the 1950s and '60s, even a decent amount during the 1940s and the 1970s, but virtually squat from the mid-1980s to the present. This reflects the time periods when they were more monopolistic vs. heavily downsized. What data can we use to test this?

Popular Mechanics just released a neat little book called Big Ideas: 100 Modern Inventions That Have Changed Our World. They include roughly 10 items in each of 10 categories: computers, leisure, communication, biology, convenience, medicine, transportation, building / manufacturing, household, and scientific research. They were arrived at by a group of around 20 people working at museums and universities. You can always quibble with these lists, but the really obvious entries are unlikely to get left out. There is no larger commentary in the book -- just a narrow description of how each invention came to be -- so it was not conceived with any particular hypothesis about invention in mind. They begin with the transistor in 1947 and go up to the present.

Pooling inventions across all categories, here is a graph of when these 100 big ideas were invented (using 5-year intervals):

What do you know? It's exactly what we'd expected. The only outliers are the late-1990s data-points. But most of these seemed to be to reflect the authors' grasping at straws to find anything in the past quarter-century worth mentioning. For example, they already included Sony's Walkman (1979), but they also included the MP3 player (late 1990s) -- leaving out Sony's Discman (1984), an earlier portable player of digitally stored music. And remember, each category only gets about 10 entries to cover 60 years. Also, portable e-mail gets an entry, even though they already include "regular" e-mail. And I don't know what Prozac (1995) is doing in the list of breakthroughs in medicine. Plus they included the hybrid electric car (1997) -- it's not even fully electric!

Still, some of the recent ones are deserved, such as cloning a sheep and sequencing the human genome. Overall, though, the pattern is pretty clear -- we haven't invented jackshit for the past 30 years. With the two main monopolistic Ivory Towers torn down -- one private and one public -- it's no surprise to see innovation at a historic low. Indeed, the last entries in the building / manufacturing and household categories date back to 1969 and 1974, respectively.

On the plus side, Microsoft and Google are pretty monopolistic, and they've been delivering cool new stuff at low cost (often for free -- and good free, not "home brew" free). But they're nowhere near as large as Bell Labs or the DoD was back in the good ol' days. I'm sure that once our elected leaders reflect on the reality of invention, they'll do the right thing and pump more funds into ballooning the state, as well as encouraging Microsoft, Google, and Verizon to merge into the next incarnation of monopoly-era AT&T.

Maybe then we'll get those fly-to-the-moon cars that we've been expecting for so long. I mean goddamn, it's almost 2015 and we still don't have a hoverboard.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

An Effect of Obama's Cairo Speech?   posted by ben g @ 6/08/2009 09:34:00 AM

Price of "Ahmadinejad to Win Iranian Election" on Intrade:


Monday, May 04, 2009

IQ matters when it matters   posted by Razib @ 5/04/2009 05:42:00 PM

As many have noted, The New Republic is now publishing perceptions that Sonia Sotomayor is not that intelligent. Granted, even if affirmative action played a role in her acceptance to Princeton and Yale law school, the fact that she graduated and passed the bar suggests a minimum threshold of ability. But that's not good enough, it seems that many liberals would like someone who can go toe-to-toe with the conservatives on the court intellectually, and she doesn't pass the grade on that elevated level. When the stakes are high, and a Supreme Court position is arguably one of the most powerful positions within the American government, the perceived marginal returns on more g become stark for those who would pooh-pooh it in other contexts.

Addendum: As noted in the comments, yes, it doesn't take a genius to know how political confederates want you to rule. I happen to think that most moral & political reasoning is really moral & political rationalization. So the key is simply to find people who can argue in a crisp manner in favor of positions they already hold a priori. More generally I accept there is some systematic tendencies in terms of what the smart, as opposed to the dumb, believe, regardless of their ideology. See The Myth of the Rational Voter for examples. But let's not confuse the signal for the noise.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reverting to cultural type   posted by Razib @ 4/18/2009 11:39:00 PM

Who I Am Depends on How I Feel: The Role of Affect in the Expression of Culture:
We present a novel role of affect in the expression of culture. Four experiments tested whether individuals' affective states moderate the expression of culturally normative cognitions and behaviors. We consistently found that value expressions, self-construals, and behaviors were less consistent with cultural norms when individuals were experiencing positive rather than negative affect. Positive affect allowed individuals to explore novel thoughts and behaviors that departed from cultural constraints, whereas negative affect bound people to cultural norms. As a result, when Westerners experienced positive rather than negative affect, they valued self-expression less, showed a greater preference for objects that reflected conformity, viewed the self in more interdependent terms, and sat closer to other people. East Asians showed the reverse pattern for each of these measures, valuing and expressing individuality and independence more when experiencing positive than when experiencing negative affect. The results suggest that affect serves an important functional purpose of attuning individuals more or less closely to their cultural heritage.

More in ScienceDaily:

... And elevated mood even shaped behavior, allowing volunteers to act "out of character." These findings suggest that people in an upbeat mood are more exploratory and daring in attitude — and therefore more apt to break from cultural stereotype. That is, Asians act more independently than usual, and Europeans are more cooperative. Feeling bad did the opposite: It reinforced traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained both Western and Eastern thinking about the world.

I think these data are interesting in light of the sort of argument presented in works such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The standard model here is that cultural openness correlates with economic growth, while stagnation results in retrenchment.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tracking economists' consensus on money illusion, as a proxy for Keynesianism   posted by agnostic @ 3/19/2009 02:07:00 PM

I'm probably not the only person playing catch-up on economics in order to get a better sense of what the hell is going on. Just two economists clearly called the housing bubble and predicted the financial crisis, and only one of them has several books out on the topic -- Robert Shiller, the other being Nouriel Roubini. With Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof, Shiller recently co-authored Animal Spirits, a popular audience book making the case that human psychology and behavioral biases need to be taken into account when explaining any aspect of the economy, especially when things get all fucked up. That argument would seem superflous, but economics is the butt of "assume a can-opener" jokes for a reason.

To be fair to the field, though, they point out that before roughly the 1970s, mainstream economists all believed that the foibles of human beings, as they really exist, should be incorporated into theory, rather than dismissing them as behaviors that only an irrational dupe would show. Remember that Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy and wrote extensively about human psychology. From what I can tell, the recent shift does not have to do with the introduction of math nerds into the field, since the man who laid most of the formal foundation -- Paul Samuelson -- was squarely in the "psychology counts" camp. It looks more like a subset of math nerds is responsible -- call them contemptuous autists, as in "What kind of idiot would engineer the brain that way?!" (Again, these are very rough impressions, and I'm winging it in categorizing people.)

Of the many ideas relevant to understanding financial crises, a key one from the old school period is money illusion, or the idea that people think in terms of nominal rather than real prices. For example, if the nominal prices of things you buy go down by 20%, you won't be any better or worse off in real terms if your nominal wages also go down by 20%. However, most people don't think this way, and would see a 20% pay-cut in this context as a slap in the face, a breach of unspoken rules of fairness. This is an illusion because a dollar (or euro, or whatever) isn't a fixed unit of stuff -- what it measures changes with inflation or deflation.

It's the same reason that women's clothing designers use fuzzy units of measurement -- "sizes" -- rather than units that we agree to fix forever, such as inches or centimeters. By artificially deflating the spectrum of sizes, a woman who used to wear a size 10 now wears a size 6, and she feels much better about herself, even if she has stayed the same objective size or perhaps even gotten fatter. How could they be so stupid to fall for this, when everyone knows it's a trick? Who knows, but they do. Similarly, everyone knows that inflation of prices exists, and yet the average person still falls victim to money illusion, and economic theory will just have to work that in, just as evolutionary theory must work in the presence of vestigial organs, sub-optimally designed parts, and other things that make engineers' toes curl.

Animal Spirits provides an overview of the empirical research on this topic, and it looks like there's convincing evidence that people really do think this way. To take just one line of evidence, wages appear to be very resistant to moving downward, even when all sorts of other prices are declining, and interviews and surveys of employers reveal that they are afraid that wage cuts will demoralize or otherwise antagonize their employees. This is obviously a huge obstacle during an economic crisis, since firms will find it tough to hemorrhage less wealth by lowering wages -- even only by lowering them enough to match the now lower cost-of-living.

The way Akerlof and Shiller present the history of the idea, it was mainstream before Milton Friedman and like-minded economists tore it down starting around 1967 and culminating by the end of the 1970s, although they hint that the idea may be seeing a rebirth. As an outsider, my first question is -- "is that true?" I searched JSTOR for "money illusion" and plotted over time the fraction of all articles in JSTOR that contain this term:

Although the term was coined earlier, the first appearance in JSTOR is a 1913 article by Irving Fisher, and the surge around 1928 - 1929 is due to commentary on his book titled Money Illusion. Academics were still talking about it somewhat through 1934, probably because the worst phase of the Great Depression spurred them to try to figure out what went wrong. The idea becomes more discussed during World War II, and especially afterwards when Keynesian thought swept throughout the academic and policy worlds within the developed countries. In the mid-'50s, the term decelerates and then declines in usage, although the policies of its believers are still in full swing. I interpret this as showing that from the end of WWII to the mid-'50s, their ideas were debated more and more, and after this point they considered the matter settled.

Starting in the mid-late-1960s, though, the term begins to surge in usage to even greater heights than before, peaking in 1975, and plummeting afterward. This of course parallels the questioning of many of the ideas taken for granted during the Golden Age of American Capitalism, and the transition to Friedman-inspired thinking in academia and Thatcher-inspired thinking in public policy. Party affiliation clearly does not matter, since the mid-'40s to mid-'60s phase showed bipartisan support for Keynesian thinking, and after the mid-'70s there was also a bipartisan consensus on theory and policy applications. I interpret this second rise and fall as a re-ignited debate that was then considered a resolved matter -- only this time with the opposite conclusion as before, i.e. that "everyone knows" now that money illusion is irrational and therefore doesn't exist.

The data end in 2003, since there's typically a five-year lag between the publication date of an article and its appearance in JSTOR. So, unfortunately I can't use this method to confirm or disconfirm Akerlof and Shiller's hints that the idea might be on its way to becoming mainstream in the near future. Whatever the empirical status of money illusion turns out to be -- and it does look like it's real -- the bigger question is whether or not economists will return to a serious, empirical consideration of psychology -- both the universal features (however seemingly irrational), as well as the individual differences that allow Milton Friedman to easily work through a 10-step-long chain of backwards induction, but not a typical working class person, who isn't smart enough to get into college (and these days, that's saying a lot). If all the positive press, not to mention book deals, that Shiller is getting are any sign, the forecast looks optimistic.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Will the recession bring anti-globalization protests back?   posted by agnostic @ 3/15/2009 03:05:00 AM

When I was a clueless sophomore and junior in college, 2000 - 2001, the cool thing that was sweeping through campuses was anti-globalization. It was more than just that, but this was the core. (There was also the Nader campaign, the Florida vote fiasco, Enron, and 9/11.) At the time I was incredibly far left (left anarchist) but drifted away from the movement around the spring of 2003, the last big protest being against the invasion of Iraq. I didn't have anything to do with it after that, and my views have moved to the center-right.

As this list of anti-globalization protests confirms, I wasn't unusual. The really large protests took place in 2000 and especially 2001, they were on the decline by 2003, and from 2004 through 2006, they were non-existent within the First World (aside from ritualistic May Day protests). There's a slight uptick in 2007, and now The Telegraph reports that London is preparing for the biggest protest in a decade. The umbrella group organizing the protest is G20 Meltdown.

Maybe it's not surprising, but it looks like these things flare up during recessions and abate during booms. The first round took place during the dot-com crash, and by 2004, college students and 20-somethings were too busy applying their dopey open minds to the topics of metrosexual facial moisturizers, which regional real estate bubble they would exuberantly contribute to, and the crunk and post-punk revival music that was out -- way cooler than that Blink182 bullshit that was popular from about 1997 to 2002. But now that young people sense bad things ahead, we may be in for another deluge of protesting professors, fliers for International Socialist Organization meetings, and low-status young males lobbing rocks to impress the one cute anarchist chick at the protest.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

The decline, or at least shift in focus, of neoconservative foreign policy?   posted by agnostic @ 2/08/2009 02:51:00 PM

On the topic of Razib's atonement for war-blogging, at my personal blog I showed a decline in the media's coverage of terrorism and of the individuals and groups involved in 9/11. How much broader does this pattern apply? Here I show similar rises and falls in the coverage of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as other neoconservative ideals like spreading democracy.

First, media coverage of Iraq and Saudi Arabia from 1981 to 2008:

In the early-mid '80s, Saudi Arabia receives noticeably more coverage. Only in 1987 does Iraq take the lead. There are obvious spikes during the Gulf War and the recent occupation of Iraq, although the elites seem to care less and less about it, thank god. 2008 in particular saw a perceptible drop compared to the previous three years. Note that in the wake of 9/11, Saudi Arabia received hardly any coverage, while all the attention was on Iraq, which had nothing to do with it.

Next, the changing prevalence in the national discourse of two neocon buzzwords:

These two graphs look very similar, and Spearman's rank correlation between the two is +0.69 (p two-tailed = 0.0004). This confirms that they're just two facets of a larger phenomenon, namely the rationalizations that supporters gave for invading Iraq, tracking down every last disgruntled Muslim, and so on. These peak in 2005 - 2006 and have sharply declined since, though they're still at post-9/11 levels.

And just for yuks, here's a graph showing the rise and fall of the fad word "Islamofascism" and its variants:

Taken together with the data I presented on my personal blog about the declining coverage of terrorism in general, and of Bin Laden and related groups, this should give us hope. You figure that in about 5 years, our obsession with the worthless sandboxes of the world will have burned out of elite culture. Still, this doesn't mean we won't find some other hellhole to fight over, prolonging the 21st C. version of the risibly pointless Scramble for Africa. But it's somewhat promising that we might soon get back to focusing on the parts of the world that matter.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren & Barack Obama   posted by Razib @ 12/18/2008 09:51:00 PM

Heather Mac Donald, Rick Warren and the Presidency.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sectionalism   posted by Razib @ 11/05/2008 12:49:00 PM

I have some posts on my other weblog about the way regionalism played out in this election. The electoral college map flip; drift?, Where Obama overperformed & underperformed and The Great White Sort. Steve points out the relevance of Affordable Family Formation and the Dirt Gap. It seems likely that we're entering into a very ideologically polarized and sectional period; likely narrow flips back and forth. Looking at state level exit polls can only say so much. I would be willing to bet that a survey of white voters in the Tampa area, where Midwestern retirees congregate, would show Obama gains, while northern Florida whites would resemble those in the rest of the South. This is why I think Florida turned out to be a wash in the white vote.

P.S. If you haven't read Albion's Seed, and these sorts of patterns interest you, you need to read it. It adds a lot of insight. It is handy to know what the "Western Reserve" was, and why it matters today. Or why there is a Portland, OR, and Portland, ME, and a Salem, OR, and Salem, MA.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Which countries does the NYT cover most and least?   posted by agnostic @ 10/26/2008 09:16:00 PM

Greg Cochran left the following comment in a Matt Yglesias blog entry:

What you need is a map of the world in which the sizes of the countries are adjusted to the number of column-inches they get in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I think it would be illuminating.

Well, I've done something close enough. I only looked at the NYT, and I made a bubble chart instead of one of those distorted cartograms. Also, I used number of articles rather than column inches -- but these must correlate highly. It's not as if Tonga gets a few 10,000-word articles, while Iraq gets many 50-word articles. At any rate, let's see what the results look like.

Here are the results for the 192 members of the United Nations. Move the mouse over an unlabeled blob to see who it is, or search for a specific country. The results cover 2000 to the present, and are standardized by dividing by the number of articles for the entire period. To ensure that the graphing algorithm would pick up order-of-magnitude differences, I multiplied the fractions -- which ranged in order from 10^(-5) to 0.1 -- by 10^5, so that they range in order from 1 to 10,000. Some countries I had to estimate rather than get the exact number, since their names are shared with other things, like Turkey (see Note).

The first thing you notice is a few big blobs and lots of tiny blobs, in accord with a Power Law. Rather than futz around with getting my pictures to post here, I'll simply list the frequency distribution, where the first column is the fraction of all NYT articles devoted to some country, binned by order of magnitude:


The one country in the 0.1 bin is the US. Everyone else is lucky to get something on the order of a percent in coverage. Still, the modal country gets mentioned on the order of once every thousand articles -- not too shabby if you're Qatar. Here is the full dataset, in case you want to download and play around with it yourself.

How do we infer the level of insanity in our foreign policy implied by these data? Looking at the countries from greatest to least emphasis, the low-ranking ones make sense -- they belong to the parts of the world you've never heard of, and will not have reason to hear about within your lifetime, such as Tuvalu and Bhutan.

But there are some funny ones at the top. For example, it takes the top 9 to discover all 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. The remainder of the top 9 are Germany and Japan -- which at least are G8 countries -- but also Iraq and Israel. Speaking of the G8, it takes the top 12 to discover them, which adds another lesser country to this elite list -- Mexico (China is not G8 but is still important). Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan also rank pretty high.

This is a perfectly rational outcome -- our foreign policy may obsess over these places, but by placing criteria on them like "permanent member of UN Security Council" or "member of G8," we can see which ones don't deserve the attention. They represent the parts of the world, like Iraq, where we're wasting a bunch of money to squat over an over-glorified sandbox, hoping that our colonial piss will transform it into a lush oasis. Or they're the places, like Mexico, where we're importing a large illiterate peasant underclass from. This seems like a useful way to change our foreign policy: see who we're obsessed with, but who don't really matter, and cut them loose (relatively speaking).

By the way, the Many Eyes website has a global map feature, but it only allows an additive scale for bubble size, with the three smallest orders-of-magnitude collapsed into one bubble-size. So it didn't look very good. Maybe at some point I'll screen-capture the bubble chart, and cut and paste each bubble onto a picture of a world map, but that probably won't happen.

Note: I used the common English names for countries -- e.g., Syria rather than Syrian Arab Republic -- and made the following modifications to make sure I picked up the country rather than something else by that name:

Chad: added "Africa" to search
Georgia: added "Tbilisi" -- probably an undercount, but not my much
Guinea: subtracted "Equatorial Guinea," "Guinea-Bissau," and things like "guinea pig"
Jordan: added "Israel" -- again, an undercount, but not by much
Palau: subtracted "Barcelona" and "Catalonia" (it means "palace" in Catalan)
Turkey: subtracted "Thanksgiving" -- probably an overcount, but not by much
United States: searched "America," and subtracted "Latin America," "South America," and "Central America"

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Increasing partisanship since the 1990s: more evidence   posted by agnostic @ 10/24/2008 02:56:00 AM

In the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State (see Razib's review here and the book's blog here), the authors note that the two major political parties have become more polarized in various ways since the 1990s, even though the average voter hasn't changed much. Also, the key message of the book is that the red state - blue state culture war is mostly restricted to high-income, and to a lesser extent middle-income voters.

They searched some mainstream media outlets for the words "polarizing / polarization," as well as buzzwords for the cultural split like "NASCAR dad" and "soccer mom," and found that they either show up for the first time or increase during the early/mid-1990s and remain as high today. I've searched the NYT for "partisan," as well as a variety of newspapers for the pejorative "partisan hack," and they show the same pattern.

Here are the graphs:

For the first graph, I took the number of articles with "partisan" and standardized this by dividing by the number of articles with "the" -- basically, all articles. (The 2008 point is an estimate based on the year so far.) Aside from 1984, when there was a huge divide between the two presidential candidates, there is nearly no change from 1981 to 1991. However, in 1992, when the culture war begins to take center stage, the frequency increases to about twice as high as during the 1980s.

For the second graph, I did a Lexis-Nexis search for "partisan hack," a common culture war swear-word for what the other guy is. I included the 12 newspapers with the highest counts, and that covered most of the major papers as well as some lesser known ones (see full list below). Not being able to search the database for "the," I couldn't standardize these data, but they show the same pattern as above, so I doubt the year-to-year variation in total output explains it. Here is the total output per year for the NYT, for comparison. Again, the 2008 point is for the year so far.

Aside from a few jabs from The Imblerian in the early 1990s, the first time this phrase shows up is in 1994, and it spreads to an order of magnitude larger by the 2000s. Outside of newspapers, Lexis-Nexis returns a result from 1984 where a politician is quoted as calling another a partisan hack. So the term must have been invented before the 1990s, but surged during the culture war.

These data agree with the larger picture in the book: the topic of partisanship has become much more talked about since the 1990s, and the specific slander "partisan hack" has increased noticeably during the same time.

List of newspapers included in the Lexis-Nexis results: New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Boston Globe, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The Star-Ledger, Richmond Times, Palm Beach Post, St. Petersburg Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Oregonian.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Polls Are Smarter Than You   posted by ben g @ 10/22/2008 10:30:00 AM

Andrew Sullivan points to a post by DJ Drummond which makes the claim that the polls are significantly biased towards the Democrats. This is a perfect example of partisanship taking precedence over facts, and it thus deserves a thorough fisking. Drummond begins:

it needs noting that all of the major polling organizations are based in locations where liberals are strongest and conservatives weakest, where 'democrat' and 'republican' take on meanings wildly different from the rest of the country. The people making the executive decisions at these polls, most likely including the wording and order of polling questions, whether to focus on urban or suburban areas, the weighting of political affiliation, and the definition of 'likely voter', are most likely in regular contact and association with the most liberal factions of politics. It does not mean that they have deliberately skewed their decisions to support Obama, but it is obvious that there is an apparent conflict of interest in their process modality.

To begin with, most major *conservative* media outlets (e.g Fox News, the National Review) are located in these regions. Drummond suggests that through some kind of opinion osmosis, pollsters in urban areas tilt their polls towards liberals. The evidence suggests this contention is wrong:
  1. Fox News and Rasmussen (both Republican-owned) are going in the same direction as the average of all the other polls (including those funded by liberal/democrat organizations). The latest Fox Poll shows Obama leading by 9. Contrast this with the current pollster average difference of 8.
  2. Pollsters polled the Bush-Kerry election correctly, accurately predicting a close victory by Bush. Also, they under-polled Gore by 3 points.
  3. John McCain is campaigning most heavily in the swing states identified by the supposedly liberal-biased polls. His campaign, like all presidential campaigns, has its own internal polling. Apparently it matches up with Gallup et. al to a great degree.

Drummond goes on to make some specific arguments for his point of view:

most people do not have the interest to stop and take an 8-to-10 minute interview, especially from someone they do not know calling them up when they are likely to be busy doing something else. It's been established as well, that democrats in recent years are more willing to take part in polls than republicans, possibly due to perceived bias on the part of the media. But it is quite important to know if the pollsters were getting one person in ten to take the poll, or only one person in fifty, because the people not interviewed matter just as much as those who do participate. Yet I have never yet seen a poll this year that publishes response rates.

Although this has nothing to do with the claimed liberal bias of polling organizations, it is a generic methodological issue worth discussing. Response rates are typically in the 10 to 25% range (PDF link). In general, the candidate who excites their base more (regardless of party) will have a higher response rate from telephone polls. The argument is that this inflates estimates of their support. However, the evidence suggests the opposite; the candidate with more enthusiasm behind him/her inspires people not only to pickup the phone but also go to the voting booth.

It's also worth noting that Drummond ignores any methodological biases which would inflate McCain's estimated share of the vote. For example, people who either have no home phone or use cell phones are typically not being sampled. These people are disproportionately young and/or poor (both demographics favor Obama).

This is a big one that a lot of folks miss. I have noticed in the details, that all of the polls are asking about the public's opinion of the economy, and of their opinion of President Bush, even though he is not running this time.

These questions have been asked for decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. That Drummond is unaware of this shows that he doesn't know enough about polling to criticize it.

many polls ask a question about John McCain just after asking about the voter's opinion of President Bush, subtly linking the two men.

Polls that ask about the election first match the current polling trend. See, for example, that recent Fox News Poll where Obama leads by 9 (PDF link). This poll is in following with the majority of them in asking about Bush *after* they ask about the election.

no questions have been asked about approval of the specific performance of either Majority Leader Reid or Speaker Pelosi, and no other politician is linked to Barack Obama in the same way that polls link President Bush to John McCain.

First off, it's a rarity to poll about the performance of the Speaker or Majority Leader, regardless of whether they're Republican or Democrat. Second, it's not true that there haven't been polls dealing with Obama's connections. There have been several polls asking about voters' opinions on Obama's connections to Ayers and Wright.

Polls taken since Labor day have not mentioned foreign policy at all. There are no questions regarding Russia's invasion of Georgia, nor of Iran's nuclear weapons programs, nor about China's intentions viz a viz Taiwan, even though these are current events which have great significance in a presidential race, yet all of the polls are ignoring them. Again, the economy-only focus betrays a bias which violates the principles of the NCPP.

There have been polls on foreign policy since labor day, and it takes only a simple Google search to know this. See for example this one by the New York Times. The focus on the economy (both by the polls and by the candidates themselves) has not come about because of liberal bias, but because voters indicate that this is what matters to them.

The thing most folks forget about polls which get published in the media, is that the polls' first need is not to accurately reflect the election progress and report on actual support levels; it's about business.

This is a false dichotomy. These needs overlap to a great deal. SurveyUSA went from a no-name to the most respected pollster among bloggers (and, eventually the press) during the dem primaries simply because it more accurately predicted outcomes in the Democratic primary than anyone else. (They were frequently the outlier from the pack, by the way, and we'll get to that in a second). As a result they got more web traffic and citations. So there's definitely an economic and social incentive to give accurate polls. For a "conservative", this guy sure has a great disrespect for market efficiency.

you really think republicans or independents got more excited about Obama because of his convention, or that democrats and independents were more likely to vote for McCain because of the GOP convention? When you think about it, it should be obvious that these bumps are artificial unless there is a clear cause to show a change in support.

A simpler hypothesis is that the polling companies are accurately registering a slight increase in support for a given candidate in response to their increased positive media attention.

There has been unprecedented manipulation of demographics, corrupting even the raw data to the point where effective resolution of public opinion is doubtful. This might be described as an honest mistake, if one is willing to accept greed as an honest motive. Gallup, for example, who has more experience than any other polling group and who therefore should have known better more than anyone else to fiddle with the weights.

Where is the data? Where is the evidence that Gallup is not weighting demographics accurately? Drummond says he has written on it previously, but a search of his site for "gallup census" shows no posts which actually show the gallup weighting to be at odds with the US census. Demographics weighting varies as a function of the pollster. It's worth noting that despite their different weightings, the major pollsters agree that Obama is leading by at least 5 points right now.

So OK, Gallup is having a bad year, but what about the rest? Well, there the phrase to consider is follow the leader.

I've been following the polls since the primaries, and I can safely say: that hasn't been very true for this election or the dem primaries. There have been spreads as great as 15 points (see for example New Hampshire in the Democratic Primary) between various pollsters at several points in this year and last. The models, and occasionally the outcomes, have been significantly different from one pollster to the next. This guy needs to compare SurveyUSA to Gallup to Public Policy Polling before he writes another post accusing them of following one another.

So, could I be wrong? I have to be honest and admit that I could.

That's good to hear, because he actually is wrong. Here's why:

That McCain is more experienced with the key issues than Obama was ignored, that the historical significance of the debates shows that the effects appear several weeks later was also ignored. That the economy could be as reasonably blamed on the democrat-controlled Congress as on the republican President was never considered. That character would be a salient factor in the decisions of voters was rejected out of hand.

Wishful partisan thinking. Drummond wishes that people supported his president and candidate and issues, but because they don't he criticizes the data which proves otherwise.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do   posted by Razib @ 10/17/2008 09:47:00 PM

I have a review of Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do up at my other weblog. A quick, enjoyable, and valuable read.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

McCain v. Obama: turning cognitive elites to blithering fools   posted by birch barlow @ 10/07/2008 06:19:00 PM

I think a lot of the reason for the unfounded hyperbole that has been spewed by many people at GNXP and elsewhere (especially by myself) is that this election is just plain ugly...there are no good choices. While no candidate may be Big Brother, O'Brien, HitlerStalinTojo, or the devil incarnate, they are almost certainly amongst the worst candidates Americans have had to choose from in U.S. history (is worst 10 percent reasonable?)

While there has been a lot of hyperbole against all candidates, there has been also a lot of unfounded praise and optimism, I think in hopes that there is a bright spot somewhere amongst these four candidates. I think this is where some commentators and posters such as myself have been driven to hyperbole.

In any case I apologize to anyone who had to dredge through my inappropriate, polemical, and unfocused posts. Time to go back to science or at least non-tabloid grade history.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Steve Sailer on Grand New Party   posted by Razib @ 7/14/2008 12:02:00 AM

Steve's review of Grand New Party is up. He suggests that much of GNP is laced with Sailerian wisdom; I think that's a fairly plausible point, though Ross & Reihan might claim other sources for the derivation of particular observations or datum. I've read about 3/4 of Grand New Party. I don't talk much about politics because I don't feel like I know much about it, and frankly, I don't allocate many cognitive cycles to the topic (though I do follow politics via my RSS, it's mostly a passive pursuit). Nevertheless, I've liked GNP mostly because the argument and perspective is relatively thickly scaffolded with data which is of a fundamentally apolitical character. I can say the same of one of the few other political books I've read in the past year, Brink Lindsey's Age of Abundance. I'll be putting up a review of GNP at my other weblog soon; I suspect it'll be the first positive review of a right-wing book on Scienceblogs, so I'll count myself a trailblazer after I click "post"!

Update: Ross clarifies (I found the UK working class descriptions to be the sore thumb as well).


Friday, May 16, 2008

What is Conservatism?   posted by Razib @ 5/16/2008 10:32:00 PM

Austin Bramwell, Who Are We?:
Whatever the difficulties of conservatism, surely one can improve upon the typical performance of those who take it upon themselves to explain it. In place of the conventional accounts, try this one: Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. "Legitimacy" here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.

To some extent I think one might make the case that Liberalism is the inverse of Bramwell's definition of Conservatism; what was Liberal in 1920 might be viewed as quite Illiberal today, and what is Liberal in 2008 may seem rather Illiberal in 2028. In any case, I would add that though I don't agree with Bramwell much of the time I'm always impressed with the breadth of his erudition and his good faith attempt to argue rather than scream. Unfortunately most political and social commentary is much closer to the level of morons like Kevin James. Even when one dodges the rank stupidity of someone like James the "punditry" on offer is generally grounded in the incestuous circle-jerk of CW as opposed to facts.

Back to Bramwell's point, if you read this blog regularly you know that I have an amateur interest in antiquity, particularly the period of the Roman Empire. Today we assume that Christianity and the Christian clergy are the Conservative party at prayer.1 But if you focus on the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity went from being a marginalized sect to the established Church of the Empire, you encounter the fact that the Christian religion was fundamentally one perceived as radical and deeply undermining the legitimacy of the ancients (who were pagans after all).2 In the late 4th century you have powerful pagans such as Symmachus making arguments defending tolerance and subsidy for the ancient faith based on reverence for the institutions and precedents of the past and the ancestors. Fundamentally deeply Conservative reasoning arguing for the legitimacy of what has become before. By the late 5th century the pagan historian Zosimus had become quite dyspeptic toward the new dispensation, bemoaning the fall of the older order and observing the decline of his civilization all around him due to the abandonment of the old gods (Zosimus flourished in the years following the Western Empire's fall). To a great extent Zosimus reminds me of modern Conservatives of a Christian bent, who seem pessimistic by constitution when observing the decline of Christendom and the repudiation of its truths.

Today I would suspect that post-Christian Liberals would not necessarily align themselves with radicals for change such as St. Ambrose or rationalist refuters of the relevance of the pagan past such as St. Jerome; rather, their sentiments might be with the pagans who were on the losing end of the march of history because of their current quarrels with Christianity. Similarly, of course Conservatives in the West who are Christian or Christian sympathetic would admire the pugnacity of St. Ambrose and other Church Fathers in overturning thousand year old traditions & customs. The axioms of Christianity made such a rejection of the past eminently rational. And yet if temperament was the guide toward affinity I do not think that this would hold. Church Fathers who admitted pagan learning into the canon offered reasons of utility, as such wisdom might be useful toward Christian ends. A convinced pagan would not have to make such an argument because the classical canon was simply part of the customary education of the non-Christian elite; it was received tradition which needed no reflective analysis and justification. In the 4th century Christian intellectuals dreamed of a new world transformed and shorn of the dead weight of the past with its irrational and unnecessary traditions. Nearly two thousand years later the shoe is on the other foot....

1 - Despite the emergence of Leftish Christian movements such as Christian Socialism or the Social Gospel, I think one can make a strong case that on the balance Christianity has been more associated with Conservatism than Liberalism since the French Revolution and the emergence of a modern politics.

2 - Obviously the influx of classically educated men such as St. Augustine and the Hellenic patina which accrued to the religion moderates this judgement.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Super Tuesday   posted by Razib @ 2/02/2008 09:55:00 PM


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

$$$ X Politics ⇒ Red vs. Blue   posted by Razib @ 1/22/2008 09:38:00 PM

The always interesting Andrew Gelman, Rich state, poor state, red-state, blue-state: it's all about the rich:
Thus, the familiar "red America, blue America" pattern, the "culture war" between red and blue states, is really something happening at the higher range of incomes.

I believe that the details of history are always driven by battles between the elites....

Update: zeil asks if this is a race effect. From Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What's the Matter with Connecticut?:
Could the varying income effects we have shown be merely a proxy for race? This is a potentially plausible story. Perhaps the high slope in Mississippi reflects poor black Democrats and rich white Republicans, while Connecticut's flatter slope arises from its more racially homogeneous population. To test this, we replicate our analysis, dropping all African–American respondents. This reduces our key pattern by about half. For example, in a replication of Figure 5, the slopes for income remain higher in poor states than in rich states, but these slopes now go from about 0.2 to 0 rather than from 0.4 to 0.

To see if the income patterns could be explained by other demographic variables, we went back to the full dataset for the Annenberg surveys in 2000 and 2004 and added individual-level predictors for female, black, four age categories, and four education categories; and group-level predictors for percent black and average education in each state. After controlling for all these, the patterns for income remained: within states, the coefficient for individual income on probability of Republican vote was positive, with steeper slopes in poorer states; after controlling for the individual and group-level predictors, richer states supported the Democrats.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Fear   posted by Razib @ 11/03/2007 09:35:00 PM

Animal Rights Extremists Wreck Scientist's House.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Myanmar/Burma links   posted by Razib @ 9/27/2007 11:57:00 PM

I don't follow the non-science news very closely. I'm curious about what's going on in Myanmar/Burma, if you have an interesting link, drop it in the comment box. Thanks.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ben Barres strikes again!   posted by p-ter @ 9/05/2007 07:26:00 PM

Michael Bailey has posted a response to his critics. The first comment is from Ben Barres, who readers may remember from the women in science "controversy" of last year. The political game Barres is playing should be patently obvious-- calling into radio shows to ask pointed, misleading (and well-"framed") questions is a pretty classic polticial talk show/sports radio show tactic, and it's utterly pathetic to see it in science. Slightly depressing, even. Based on these two examples, I'm going to extrapolate and say that if you've ever got Ben Barres on your side in an argument, you've seriously fucked up and need to re-think.


Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Malthusian me?   posted by Razib @ 7/31/2007 12:09:00 PM

In the comments below in regards to eugenics I made an argument that rationing is going to be inevitable in national health care systems as the information we have about the propensity (or inevitability) of diseases outruns the ability to treat those diseases. In particular, I believe that it may come to the point where though one can treat something in theory with medical technology the costs may simply be prohibitive. The argument I'm making smells a lot like Malthusianism, insofar as I believe that genomic diagnostic technologies will decrease in price in a manner that scales downward to a far greater extent then the treatments for those diagnosed probabilities for the total sample space of possibilities. But of course, we know how Malthusianism worked out when it came to the argument about population & food production, so I'm not sure about this. We (humans) have a tendency not to account for future innovation. In the near-term (less than 20 years) what do those who know about the costs of medicine think?


Saturday, July 07, 2007

GNXP blocked by Websense   posted by Razib @ 7/07/2007 04:37:00 PM

From a reader:
I thought you might find this interesting and sad. I tried to log on to gnxp from work yesterday- web access was blocked by Websense (cisco) - reason- racial hatred. A pathetic sign of the times. Luckily I have a 3g capable smartphone so I was able to log on. But that really sucks. BTW instapundit was also blocked - reason - weapons. PC = damnation!


Thursday, June 28, 2007

The promise of ES cells   posted by amnestic @ 6/28/2007 11:35:00 AM

There is a rather salty piece of correspondence in the new Nature Neuroscience from one Maureen Condic regarding Nature's editorial position on the likelihood of development of ES cell-based therapies anytime soon. Apparently, Condic has a skeptical take on the issue and Nature had some disparaging words.

The issues of immune rejection, tumor formation and hESC differentiation raised in my article are not distortions or mere polemic; they are matters of scientific fact. These same concerns have been raised in the scientific literature and voiced by leading scientists in the stem cell field. James Thomson cautioned that "major roadblocks" must be overcome before hESC-derivatives could be safely transplanted into patients, and concluded that surmounting these roadblocks will be "likely to take a long time". Similarly, Robert Lanza noted that immune rejection is a significant problem, and warned that creating hESC lines to match most patients "could require millions of discarded embryos from IVF clinics". Although the editors dismiss as "tenuous" the connection between therapeutic use of hESCs and the genetic/epigenetic abnormalities introduced during cloning, this same concern was raised by Jose Cibelli's recent article in Science.

I think it is important to hear about these obstacles and be realistic about what ES cells could provide. There are other uses of ES cells besides implantation type therapy, of course. For instance, they aid the understanding of basic cell differentiation and cell cycle regulation, topics that are important in cancer research.

The problem for me is that I find the 'moral' objections ridiculous. So if ES cells have any therapeutic or just plain scientific potential at all, then I'm all for it. Am I living in naive bliss thinking that most average people wouldn't give a damn after they really understood what a blastocyst is? Right now, I'm thinking that this is one of a few scientific areas where you could educate the public and actually impact policy in a positive way.

There appears to be a semi-lively debate underway over at the Nature Neuro news blog: Action Potential.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Immigration bill   posted by Razib @ 6/23/2007 10:30:00 PM

An FOB (friend of the blog) has a prescription for how you can be proactive if you are a restrictionist and want to affect the pending senatorial proceedings.

According to Krikorian and Kaus, these are the 12 Senators on the fence (there may be more). Perhaps you could post this list with the following directions. It took me all of 10 minutes to do this.

1) open up each link in a new tab in Firefox

2) prepare a message in a text editor, such as the following:

"Dear Senator,

Please vote AGAINST cloture on the upcoming immigration bill. It is a
disaster and would be ruinous for this country if passed. Thank you.



[Signature with affiliations, etc. may also be useful to include]"

3) paste it into each text field, update the contact info, and hit send.
It's ok if you're out of state, the Senate in particular is a national


Bond (R-Mo.)

Bingaman (D-N.M.)

Burr (R-N.C.)

Boxer (D-Calif.)

Cochran (R-Miss.)

Conrad (D-N.D.)

Ensign (R-Nev.)

Levin (D-Mich.)

Gregg (R-N.H.)

Nelson (D-Neb.)

Hatch (R-Utah)

Webb (D-Va.).


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

17th century open borders?   posted by Razib @ 6/13/2007 02:45:00 PM

Andrew Sullivan says:
And lepers everywhere! I tell you: the nineteenth century was one frigging amnesty after another. And the seventeenth century! We had no control of the borders whatsoever.

This is a common perception that comes up over and over again. From Albion's Seed:
...The founders of Massachusetts, unlike rulers of other European colonies, deliberately excluded an aristocracy from their ranking system.

At the same time, the leaders of Massachussets also made a concerted and highly successful effort to discourage immigration from the bottom of English society. They prohibited entry of convincted felons (many of whom ahd been punished for crimes of poverty) and place heavy impediments on the path of the migrant poor. A series of poor laws were enacted in Massachusetts, which rules of settlement and "warning out" that were even more strict than in England.

The author, David Hackett Fisher, argues that the character of various American regions, in particular New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the lowland and upland South, was shaped in large part by the character of the British immigrant streams to each region. Whether you quibble with the details of his thesis, the general picture seems to be one where the initial parameters had a strong influence on the future course of events for centuries. In any case, the American colonies were not really characterized by "open borders" by any stretch of the imagination.


Darwin (Catholic) becomes Mexican   posted by Razib @ 6/13/2007 12:12:00 PM

Darwin Catholic has an interest post about work Americans won't do. Darwin & his wife believe in doing their own yard work (I believe they live in Texas, so is probably pretty transgressive). So check this:
I was pounding away with a short-handled mattock when one of a group of teenagers slouching by shouts in my general direction, "Stupid wetback! What ya doin?"

Now, I'm half-Mexican in ancestry, but no one ever guesses it. My hair isn't that dark, and although I take a tan if I get around to going outside enough, I'm not really olive at all. But apparently if I'm wearing workboots, jeans and a white t-shirt and covered in sweat and dirt while working in the yard -- it is actually possible for people to recognize my Mexican background. Perhaps I was even doing some of that famous work that Americans won't do.

A few months ago I was at a fancy restaurant that was going through some renovation, and I overheard one of the diners chatting up one of the owners. They were discussing how nice the new facade was turning out, and the diner blurted out, "Is the man working on this Latin American?" Turns out he wasn't (at least that's what the owner said). Anyway, here is a map of the density of illegal immigrants across the United States. In most of America there is a lot of work that Americans won't do.


Saturday, May 05, 2007

Nussbaum on brownland   posted by amnestic @ 5/05/2007 06:01:00 PM

I just listened to Martha Nussbaum's discussion of her new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, on the Carnegie Council Podcast. Given that I know essentially nothing about India's history or politics I would be interested if any of the more informed cats around could critique or corroborate her assessment of the events surrounding the Gujarati riots of 2002. She uses these riots as a counter-example to the 'clash of civilizations' framework for understanding Islam. As Nussbaum paints it, in the riots, far right Hindu folks informed by a British ideal of masculinity killed and did all sorts of other horrible things to Muslims who were otherwise living peacefully side-by-side with other cultures. I'm currently suspicious of attempts to paint Muslims as oppressed (even though this goes against my guilty liberal inclinations) because I read this article in Commentary about how Muslim's in Europe don't really have it so bad off.

Oh, and I also thought it was interesting how she characterized Nehru's disdain for religion as problematic because he (and his party) lost the ability to use deep cultural symbols to connect with the public at large. In the context of the new Atheism and Hitch's new book, this example illustrates an unforeseen danger of strident atheism. If you're not willing to fill that void in your community's life, someone else with more pernicious aims might be willing to do so. Like Mr. Raymond says, "After tonight, don't leave your girl alone with me, true playa for real."


Conservatives & Darwin   posted by Razib @ 5/05/2007 09:45:00 AM

The New York Times has an article up about the recent AEI event (which you can watch online), Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?. Let me reiterate what I've stated before, if you do a head count, "against Darwin or not?," the 1/3 of Americans who would self-label as "conservative" would mostly be against (see the opinions of white Evangelicals here). That being said, there does exist a "split" among elite conservatives. Humans have multiple affiliations and affinities, and Jonah Goldberg's embarrassment is comprehensible via his identity as a member of the East Coast Pundit Class. If you weight sentiment about Creationism, assign it a positive or negative value, and sum across all self-identified conservatives, I suspect the value would be much closer to 0 then you would have expected because of the shallowness of negative sentiment and the intensity of feeling from the elites.*

Related: TNR surveys conservative movers and shakers.

* And of course, no on really knows much about the process of evolution. It's more a cultural marker.


Friday, May 04, 2007

A different kind of SNP   posted by Razib @ 5/04/2007 05:08:00 PM

Apropos of David's post from earlier this week, Labor bites it! Sunday will likely be Sarko's....


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Value of Being Naive   posted by Matt McIntosh @ 4/09/2007 01:44:00 PM

Go read Hawks on Nisbet & Mooney:

This kind of cynical strategy is the province of used car salesmen and other charlatans. And it's easily exposed by any clever critic who happens to be watching . . .

My point isn't that these critics are right, but that such criticisms pretty much write themselves! A scientist trying to "frame" in this way is going to end up discredited unless they retreat to the facts anyway. This is, after all, why scientists are typically so cautious in print -- because they work in a field where bad arguments are quickly torn apart by their critics. Why in the world would anyone think politics would be any easier?

This is pretty much right, and I just want to add that this is especially bad advice to give to scientists, because scientists wouldn't be scientists if they were really good salespeople. Spinning is not their comparative advantage, and "fight the enemy on his own turf" is awful tactical advice. Scientists owe whatever respect and deference they're given to the fact that they're percieved as being interested primarily in the truth: their reputation for earnestness and lack of guile is a big part of their cred. The best way to get people to regard you as honest is to really be naively honest.

People may be dumb in a lot of ways, but they generally know how to spot when someone's trying to sell them something, and telling scientists that they should behave more like salespeople will result in them being regarded in much the same way—and they are never going to be better salespeople than professional demagogues. I can think of no better way to erode whatever benefit of the doubt that scientists currently enjoy in our culture. If scientists try to play the political game, they're going to lose. Better to try to stay above the fray than get dragged in and trampled for sure.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Eric Alterman, a nationalist socialist   posted by Razib @ 2/21/2007 09:18:00 PM

A few weeks ago I watched Bloggingheads.TV which I found really amusing. Eric Alterman was in a discussion with someone named Bill Scher. I don't know anything about Scher aside from the fact that he makes Jonah Goldberg seem really intellectual and a deep thinker (see their diavlog). But I was struck by the following exchange over foreign policy:
Alterman: "People in these countries don't want us, they hate us, they hate everything about us, they hate the idea of democracy, it's inconsistent with their vision of Islamic republics, which is what they clearly want. So you just like glossing over that, but I think that's fundamental. I think the promotion of democracy in the Arab world creates anti-American terrorists."

Scher: "Well, I mean, democracy in the broader sense, what kind of government do those people want. It doesn't have to be Jeffersonian-"

Alterman: "I don't want them to have the kind of government that they want. OK. I don't want Jordan and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to have the kind of government that they want, because they will want to kill me with it!

I generally cheered for Alterman here. Whether you are an interventionist or not, the whole rhetoric about democracy and its universal appeal on both the Left and Right has gotten out of control. Whether there is a universal yearning for democratic freedom or not, its acceptance as a background assumption in the public discourse has become nearly religious. When someone like Alterman challenges it, you see a "deer in headlights" tendency. There are few counter arguments because people assume any contrary position is either absurd or immoral. These sort of dreamy tendencies are fine when you aren't an imperial power that has to make real-politik decisions (e.g., Iceland?), but at this point bad decisions informed by fallacious assumptions can cost a lot, at home and abroad.

To make the world as you wish it to be, you must first comprehend how it truly is.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Legend & history   posted by Razib @ 2/18/2007 08:55:00 AM

A few months ago a friend made an offhand comment about how they were on the side of the "Andalusian model." His assumption was that Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, was far superior in its method of dealing with religious pluralism than Christian Spain. I've read a fair amount of popular & scholarly work on this period and region, and the reality is more complex than the hype. The friend holds a Ph.D. in a social science from Harvard and has a position as an assistant professor at a moderately elite university. He isn't an uintelligent individual. I tried to communicate to him a few general points:

1) Religious pluralism was a reality in both Christian and Muslim Spain

2) Subordination at the expense of the religion promoted by the the elite was the norm throughout this period

3) Persecution of Jews occurred both in Muslim & Christian Spain

4) One can see a general trend where the dominant religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam, tends to become less tolerant when its numbers are great enough to dispense with accommodation with the majority (or what has become a minority)

The issue that I had was that my friend was making an identity between Muslim Spain and the post-Enlightenment West in regards to freedom of religion when that freedom did not exist in the former. Al-Andalus' tolerance only exists on a relative scale in comparison to the later Spanish expulsion of Jews, Morsicos (crypto-Muslims) and persecution of religious nonconformists (Protestants). The expulsion of Jews from Spain looms large in our minds because of its recency (and its memory in the Sephardic Diaspora), but the pogroms in Muslim Spain during the 10th or 12th centuries were nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, Jews and Muslims played roles in the life of Christian states throughout the transitionary period from 1000 to 1500 (e.g., Muslim soldiers were employed by Christian kings). It would not be factually incorrect to romanticize some of the medieval Spanish kindgoms set against the oppressive nature of the Spanish monarchy after 1492.

There are two major issues that loom in the background for me. First, was Al-Andalus more tolerant than Christian Spain? Let's say we evaluate the period between 700 and 1800. If you construct a "persecution" index with a host of parameters (e.g., expectation someone is subject to a pogrom in any give year, etc.) I would probably bet on Al-Andalus. That is, integrating over the time from conquest to reconquest religious minorities might have had a better time of it in Muslim Spain than Christian Spain from 700 to 1800. That being said, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Second, one needs to put the contextual issues on the table. Muslims were a small minority in their domains for the first few centuries of Al-Andalus, so it was simply not practically feasible to engage in excessive religious persecution. Similarly, afer the Visigothic monarchy converted to Catholic Christianity from the Arian sect in the 6th century there seems to have been more persecution of Jews. Why? Was Catholicism fundamentally more anti-Semitic than Arianism? I suspect not, rather, the Visigothic elite before their conversion were a religious minority, and as such they were in no position to use the ideology of religious conformity to support their rule since they themselves were at variance with the majority confession. After their conversion to Catholicism they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by engaging in religious intolerance as it solidified their rule and identification with the religious majority whom they had so recently joined. Similarly, the Catholic rulers of the Iberian peninsula did not become any less tolerant over the five centuries of the reconquest, the demographic balance of power shifted from Muslims to Christians (just as Christians had once converted to Islam, so Muslims who lived under Christian rule slowly converted over time to Christianity).1 What people tend to do with cultures in a historical context is similar to what they do with individuals in regards to the Fundamental Attribution Error. Instead of Muslim or Christian tolerance & intolerance emerging out of the situation, they become reduced to cultural essences. My friend had internalized and essence of Muslim Spanish culture that it was "tolerant" as a matter of principle when in reality it seems more a matter of pragmatism. The reconquista states also engaged in this pragmatism for centuries before the expulsions and forced conversions began. Conversely, during times of chaos and stress, and when Muslims had attained numerical dominance, Jews and Christians also were on the receiving end of Islamic persecution.

Which brings me to my final point: attitudes and sentiments about Muslim Spain are not about history or an analysis of the data, they are about the beliefs we hold about the modern world in regards to the values we deem to be precious. That is, my friend, scholar though he is, was not really interested in the nature of life in medieval Spain, he was making a comment about his adherence to the principle of religious toleration and the separation of church & state. Muslim Spain is simply a notional marker, a signal, the historical details are pretty much irrelevant, it is the legend that matters. I bring my friend's educational qualifications up because this is a person who is intellectual in orientation, but in hindsight I realize that bringing up the minutiae of historical detail is pointless, and fundamentally a distraction for him. The history is grist for the mill of ideology, not a thing in and of itself. An analogy might be the Bible, no matter the reality of the scholarship Christians will extract from the text and historical details points of relevance to them and their daily lives. Similarly, conservatives and liberals will take from the life of Thomas Jefferson the slices which are relevant to them, no matter the reality of the sum total of his beliefs and sentiments.

This does not mean we can not glean reality from the past, and understand how it was. Rather, I am implying that for most humans such scholarly points of detail are not important, the past is a fiction which simply allows them to justify their own ideals with a more ancient patina. Of course, on this blog I do insist upon fidelity to reality as we understand it. It is simply an acknowledgement of reality and its power than I concede that historical accuracy is of little concern to most, and so it shall ever be.

1 - The Moriscos expelled in 1600 were crypto-Muslims who could not be assimilated into the Spanish state because of the nominal nature of their Catholicism. But, that does not mean that all Muslims living under Spanish rule were destined to become Moriscos, rather, it seems likely that the great majority converted, just as many Jews became Catholics.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Poll the experts!   posted by Razib @ 2/16/2007 07:54:00 PM

Do you remember the age before polling in politics? I don't. Today we bemoan the emphasis on polls and idealize the past, before candidates knew in scientific and statistically significant detail the temperature of the democratic water. But no one is going to ban polls in the near future, for every person who complains about survey data there are hundreds who are clicking refresh over & over to find the most recent tracking results on their website of choice.

I think something similar is necessary for the sciences (or scholarship in general). Is George Lakoff a laughing stock (as Chris would have us believe), or a thinker of gigantic Aristotelian proportions? I suppose if you were a cognitive scientist you'd know, your sample of individuals in the field with whom you'd engaged in personal communication would be vast and you could get a sense of the direction that the wind was blowing. But for someone outside the field you basically have to trust someone on the inside and hope they aren't misleading you (or, themselves). Is multi-level selection the next big thing in evolutionary biology, as Bora claims, or is it a relatively marginal and muddled field, my own general perception? Bora has made the Kuhnian claim that multi-level selection's day will come when the older scientists die off, but how do we know that his perception is correct? One's own sample is obviously going to be biased toward those with whom one is on common ground with, perhaps there are enormous social science departments steeped in conceptual metaphor theory that Chris has no knowledge of because he is boxed in within his old fashioned world of symbolicists?

I think my point is pretty clear here: in the sciences quite often laypeople are in the position where they know with great confidence that a theory is absolutely accepted at its level of precision (e.g., Newtonian Mechanics) or totally rejected (e.g., the Aether theories). It is as if our knowledge of allele frequencies was certain with any degree of confidence only if they were operationally fixed (i.e., greater than 99%) or very rare or non-existent (i.e., less than 1%). Not only would my proposal help the public, I think it could give scientists some perspective about their position within their discipline.

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