A cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Arnold Kling sees politics as religion, defining religion as a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe:

A broad set of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices constitutes culture. Narrow that down to a subset of norms, symbols, beliefs and practices that clearly define who is or is not a member of the tribe. Focus on that subset. For example, Jews eat gefilte fish, observe Yom Kippur, and don’t pray to Jesus. But only a subset of those (observing Yom Kippur and not praying to Jesus) are tribally definitive. The rabbis won’t question your Jewish identity if you turn down gefilte fish.

No tribe is perfectly defined by a precise list of cultural characteristics. But bear with me and think in terms of tribally defining cultural subsets.

A tribally defining cultural subset will (a) tend to empower adherents to obey, enforce, and regularly re-affirm tribal norms, and (b) lead its members to fear and despise people who are not members of the tribe.

Further comments:

1. Cosmopolitans (including progressives, libertarians, and conservative intellectuals) would say that, yes, historically, “fear and despise” was part of religion, but that is a bug, not a feature. Ironically, cosmopolitans start to look like a tribe that fears and despises people who espouse traditional religions. And yes, there does seem to be a fourth axis here: cosmopolitan vs. populist, or Bobo vs. anti-Bobo.

2. The role of a transcendent being is to help motivate members to obey tribal norms, for fear of being punished by the transcendent being (See Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods). However, belief in a transcendent being is not necessary to have a modern large-scale tribe. But it does seem necessary to have an out-group that you fear and despise.

3. Historically, major religions have usually fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe.

4. Usually, modern nation-states have fit this notion. There are those who say that nation-states were a better tribal bonding technology (so to speak) than belief in a transcendent being, and hence they made religion relatively unnecessary.

5. Finally, to the commenter’s point, I think that some political ideologies have come to fit my notion of a cultural subset that defines a large-scale tribe. The current progressive ideology seems to me to fit the notion particularly well. But the three-axis model suggests that conservatives and libertarians are tribal, also. Again, the emergence of the Bobo vs. anti-Bobo conflict has scrambled things quite a bit.

The null hypothesis is not an iron law

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Statistically, educational interventions tend to affect resource allocation much more than outcomes, Arnold Kling reminds us, so, for educational interventions within roughly the current institutional setting, the null hypothesis is not an iron law, but it is an empirical regularity. This led me to add:

What stands out to me is just how little variation we see between schooling options. Public schools are all run on the same basic plan. Catholic schools are too, but with stricter discipline. Private schools aren’t much different, but with a wealthier clientele.

Only a few niche alternatives, such as Montessori and Waldorf, offer something truly different, and they obviously attract unusual families.

Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading Regulation Magazine

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Arnold Kling has grown more pessimistic about American political culture:

I think that I would have preferred that the elite stay “on top” as long as they acquired a higher regard for markets and lower regard for technocratic policies. What has been transpired is closer to the opposite. There was a seemingly successful revolt against the elite (although the elite is fighting back pretty hard), and meanwhile the elite has doubled down on its contempt for markets and its faith in technocracy.

I am disturbed about the news from college campuses. A view that capitalism is better than socialism, which I think belongs in the mainstream, seems to be on the fringe. Meanwhile, the intense, deranged focus on race and gender, which I think belongs on the fringe, seems to be mainstream.

The media environment is awful. Outrage is what sells. Moderation has fallen by the wayside.

It seems increasingly clear that no matter who wins elections, my preferences for economic policy get thrown under the bus. The Overton Window on health policy has moved to where health insurance is a government responsibility. The Overton Window on deficit spending and unfunded liabilities has moved to where there is no political price to be paid for running up either current debts or future obligations. The Overton Window on financial policy has moved to where nobody minds that the Fed and other agencies are allocating credit, primarily toward government bonds and housing finance. The Overton Window on the Administrative State has moved to where it is easier to mount a Constitutional challenge against an order to remove regulations than against regulatory agency over-reach.

Outside of the realm of politics, things are not nearly so bleak. Many American businesses and industries are better than ever, and they keep improving. Scientists and engineers come up with promising ideas. Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading, say Regulation Magazine. The latter is the most depressing thing I do all month.

School has become an abnormal setting for children

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

School has become an abnormal setting for children,” according to Boston College psych professor Peter Gray, but “instead of admitting that, we say the children are abnormal.”

Arnold Kling adds this:

Those of us who grew up many decades ago probably would not want to trade our childhood for today’s childhood. My memories are of spending all day playing “hit the bat” out in the street, or practicing handstands in the yard, or playing board games. With no adult supervision.

Gray’s recent book on the topic is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.

He’s on to something, but I don’t completely agree him.

US healthcare is famous for three things

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

US healthcare is famous for three things, Ben Southwood notes:

It’s expensive, it’s not universal, and it has poor outcomes. The US spends around $7,000 per person on healthcare every year, or roughly 18% of GDP; the next highest spender is Switzerland, which spends about $4,500. Before Obamacare, approx 15% of the US population were persistently uninsured (8.6% still are). And as this chart neatly shows, their overall outcome on the most important variable — overall life expectancy — is fairly poor.

But some of this criticism is wrongheaded and simplistic: when you slice the data up more reasonably, US outcomes look impressive, but being the world’s outrider is much more expensive than following behind. What’s more, most of the solutions people offer just don’t get to the heart of the issue: if you give people freedom they’ll spend a lot on healthcare.

The US undoubtedly spends a huge amount on healthcare. One popular narrative is that because of market failures and/or extreme overregulation in healthcare, prices are excessively high. So Americans with insurance (or covered by Medicare, the universal system for the elderly, or Medicaid, the government system for the poor) get the same as other developed world citizens, but those without get very poor care and die younger. A system like the NHS solves the problem, according to this view, with bulk buying of land, labour, and inputs, better incentives, and universal coverage.

But there are some serious flaws in this theory. Firstly, extending insurance to the previously-uninsured doesn’t, in America, seem to have large benefits. For example, a recent NBER paper found no overall health gains from the massive insurance expansion under Obamacare.* A famous RAND study found minuscule benefits over decades from giving out free insurance to previously uninsured in the 1970s. In fact, over and above the basics, insuring those who choose not to get insurance doesn’t ever seem to have large gains. Indeed, there is wide geographic variation in the life expectancy among the low income in the US, but this doesn’t even correlate with access to medical care! This makes it unlikely that the gap between the US and the rest is explained by universality.

To find the answer, consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs.

In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear. Just simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

One of our cultural problems, Arnold Kling adds, is that we spend too much on health care and not enough on public health.


Sunday, July 19th, 2015

Arnold Kling sums up William Manchester’s view of the 1932-1940 period in British history in two paragraphs:

The British ruling class was rotten. The British Prime Ministers of that era were dull-witted and feckless. Traumatized by the first World War and frightened of Bolshevism, they came up with an endless list of excuses not to confront Hitler. The role played by the media during this period was dreadful — covering for Hitler and suppressing the views of Churchill until very late in the game.

Churchill was, in many ways, more out of touch with the twentieth century than were other members of the ruling class. However, he had the strength and intelligence that the leading politicians lacked. And unlike most others of his class, he saw Hitler with clarity.

Between the time he wrote that and posted it, an Islamist terrorist attacked and killed multiple American service members in Tennessee:

A casual reader of the Washington Post could be forgiven for blaming the attack on conservatives and the National Rifle Association. The lead Post story said that this was “the latest eruption of gun violence in the United States.” The print newspaper also provides a second front-page story, headlined “Shooter grew up in conservative family.” [The online version says “middle-class Muslim family.”]

I read every word of the second story, looking for the basis for terming the family “conservative.” Did they have a Romney bumper sticker on their car? A subscription to National Review? Perhaps they flew a Confederate flag? Were active in the Tea Party?


I would love to know how the Post determined on the basis of the content of the story that the best adjective to describe the family was “conservative.” Getting back to the 1930s comparisons, I do not want to equate Muslim radicals with Nazis, because I think that there are important differences. What I am getting at here are the similarities between the British media in the 1930s and what we find in the U.S. today.

As for the American educated in class in general, consider Harry Painter’s analysis of summer reading lists for college students.

Upon browsing the list, one might conclude that all of humanity’s best books are about minorities fighting and ultimately overcoming the oppressive constrictions of Western, male-dominated society.

Anti-Elitist, but Even More Anti-Mobist

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Arnold Kling thinks of himself as anti-elitist, but even more anti-mobist:

When the mob emerges, I cease to be libertarian and instead become ultra-conservative. There is no phenomenon more barbaric than the mob.

Kling was delighted to learn about “unfollowing” on Facebook, so he could unfollow any friends who constantly posted political screeds.

He also cites James Poulos on why Twitter is terrible:

Twitter is a megaphone for the worldview wars. It fosters constant competition among our claims that everyone should care and act as we do.

Hayek and Business Management

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Arnold Kling cannot emphasize enough how much he agrees with this:

If extensive knowledge is possible, then bosses might be able to manage big companies well. If not, then centrally planned companies will be inefficient. Sure, perhaps competition will eventually weed out egregious incompetence, but market forces might not grind so finely as to eliminate all inefficiency.

Kling explains:

Because I spent 15 years in business, I got an opportunity to see large organizations close up. I saw that in a large business, the top management cannot keep track of more than about three major initiatives at a time. I saw that compensation systems have to be frequently overhauled, because employees learn to game any system that stays in place for more than a couple of years. I saw the “suits vs. geeks” divide, as specialists in information technology or financial modeling had difficulty communicating with executives who had only general knowledge.

The notion of large, efficient organization is an oxymoron. If you think that large corporations have overwhelming advantages, then you have explained why IBM still dominates the computer industry, while Microsoft and Apple never really got amounted to much of anything. I like to say that if you are afraid of large corporations then you have never worked for one.

Of course, large corporations do exist. That is because as clumsy as they are, they can still be less clumsy than the alternative, which is to break a corporation into a network of contractually related divisions.

Community College: What is the Right Price?

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Arnold Kling is skeptical about free community college:

Just based on my gut feeling, I think that the vast majority of students attending community college do not have favorable outcomes. [...] I am not even sure that students in the lower tier of four-year colleges have favorable outcomes. Instead, the true cost, including what the students pay out of pocket plus subsidies plus opportunity cost, exceeds the benefit for many who attend college. In contrast, President Obama seems to endorse the fairy-dust model of college, where you can sprinkle it on anyone to produce affluence.

Politicians and policy wonks face different incentives:

If I were President Obama, of course, I would champion universal “free” community college. Worst case, my proposal becomes law. A lot of money gets wasted, but it’s not my money. Best case, the Republicans vote it down and I call them anti-opportunity meanies.

How Civilizations Die

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Arnold Kling describes David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die as very anti-Islam, very pro-Jewish and pro-Christian, very heavy on the civilization-barbarism axis and shares this representative sample:

Wherever Muslim countries have invested heavily in secondary and university education, they have wrenched their young people out of the constraints of traditional society without, however, providing them with the skills to succeed in modernity. An entire generation of young Muslims has lost its traditional roots without finding new roots in the modern world. The main consequence of more education appears to be a plunge in fertility rates within a single generation, from the very large families associated with traditional society to the depopulation levels observed in Western Europe. Suspended between the traditional world and modernity, impoverished and humiliated, the mass of educated young Muslims have little to hope for and every reason to be enraged.

He thinks that recent events will lead people to give more consideration to such darker outlooks — and notices a change in the Zeitgeist:

By the way, my Facebook feed has changed radically in recent months, with much less political snark and a surfeit of cute animal videos. Part of me wonders if something like that happened in Britain when Hitler took power in 1933. Was politics just too unpleasant to contemplate at that point?

The Unintended Consequences of God

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

This year, a Super Bowl ad stated that God created a farmer. God created a money-lender, too:

In The Chosen Few, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein offer an explanation for how Jews wound up in high-skilled, urban occupations. They argue (p. 95) that between 200 and 650 AD,

world Jewry became a small population of literate individuals (“the chosen few”). The unintended consequences of the religious ruling that required Jewish fathers to invest in their sons’ literacy and education fully displayed themselves.

Jews became much more literate than other populations, but at a cost of numbers, as those who could not afford to educate their sons converted to other religions. Over this time period (p. 113)

the general population decreased by about 12 percent, whereas the Jewish population collapsed by roughly two-thirds.

In those days, most people were farmers, for whom literacy’s costs generally outweighed its benefits. However, in an urbanized society with skilled occupations, literacy pays off. As urbanization gradually increased in the late Middle Ages, Jews came to fill high-skilled occupations. Botticini and Eckstein argue that literacy, rather than persecution, is what led Jews into these occupations.

Thoughts on the New Commanding Heights

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Arnold Kling shares some thoughts on the new Commanding Heights of our economy, education and health care.

From Paul Howard:

Government policy both encourages consumer spending in health and education and protects providers in those industries through licensing requirements that reduce competition from lower-cost or higher-quality providers (charter schools, retail clinics, etc.).

From John Goodman:

We are living in a world in which entrepreneurs are encouraged to make unlimited amounts of money exploiting reimbursement formulas, but are not allowed to make any extra money making the formulas better and more effective.

Insiders and Outsiders

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Arnold Kling just got around to reading the book that has been his strongest intellectual influence, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, by Murray Edelman:

The book (or, more specifically, chapter 2) has a long and deep influence on me because it was perhaps the favorite political theory of my father Merle Kling, a political scientist who earned a mention in the acknowledgments. My father constantly invoked the terms “symbolic reassurance” and “political quiescence” in commenting on political events. He would have immediately understood and appreciated my application of the terms to Elizabeth Warren and her role in the nascent financial consumer protection agency.

Imagine you are a 1950′s intellectual, Kling suggests:

To put the book in perspective, I think it helps to try to recreate the intellectual atmosphere of the 1950′s, the milieu that produced Alfred Hitchcock and J.D. Salinger. In five-factor personality jargon, the Fifties stand out for strong Neuroticism. Symbolic Uses was published in 1964, which was a few years before the phrase “Do Your Own Thing” was coined, marking the true onset of the Sixties and its Openness. The book had been in gestation for a long time — the interaction with my father would have taken place in 1961, when I was seven years old. We spent a semester in Champagne-Urbana, when my father took a sabbatical at the University of Illinois, where Edelman was a colleague.

To an intellectual of the 1950′s, the human psyche is dark. Freud’s shadow looms large over all discussion pertaining to human nature. You take it as given that terrible demons lurk in both the individual and collective unconscious. All About Eve could be the story of any one of us. The phenomenon of Adolf Hitler is most easily understood as having sprung out of the collective unconscious of the German people. Suspicious that a similar phenomenon could occur anywhere, you scan the American scene for signs of impending fascist tendencies. Edelman will cite Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (1950) as well as Lipset on “The Sources of the Radical Right” (1955) and “working class authoritarianism” (Political Man, 1960).

You see the ordinary social interactions of American life as ritualized, superficial, and inauthentic. People are playing games (although Berne’s book will not appear until 1967) and engaging in dramaturgy — I think of Goffman (1959), but Edelman cites Kenneth Burke.

The lack of authenticity is typified by the United States position vis-a-vis China. We insist that one of the five seats on the Security Council is to be occupied by Taiwan, while refusing to recognize Red China. How can this be explained other than as a need to use a charade in order to mollify a public’s deep-seated, irrational fears? (If you are inclined to believe that the relationship between the public and the government has matured in the last fifty years, I have two words for you: airport security)

It is in this Fifties context that you should place the terms “symbols” and “quiescence.” The term “symbol” is meant to suggest the essential phoniness of politics, just as The Catcher in the Rye was meant to expose the phoniness of middle-class society. And the term “quiescence” suggests a mass populace with a rage that has been quelled, like a formerly vicious dog rendered meek by Pavlov-Skinner conditioning or a Randle McMurphy lobotomized by Nurse Ratched.

Kling summarizes Edelman’s view by saying that the political world is divided into Insiders and Outsiders:

Given these differences, the Insiders use overt political dramas as symbols that placate the masses while using covert political activity to plunder them. What we would now call rent-seeking succeeds because Outsiders are dazzled by the symbols while Insiders grab the substance.

In other words, expect the banks to be able to do a more efficient job of rent extraction with Elizabeth Warren in place than before.

Edelman thought of insiders as exploiting outsiders, in almost a Marxist sense. For Edelman, symbolic reassurance and political quiescence were somewhat troubling phenomena. The masses were being lulled by symbolic gestures into accepting adverse political outcomes.

What Franklin Roosevelt Accomplished

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

In “The Achievement of the New Deal,” William E. Leuchtenburg defends FDR against left-wing academics, who deplore the president’s long reign as insufficiently revolutionary and anti-capitalist:

Before 1933 the government had paid heed primarily to a single group — white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. The Roosevelt administration, however, recruited from a more ethnically diverse medley, symbolized by Ben Cohen and Tommy Corcoran, the Jew and the Irish Catholic… though, in the entire history of the republic of nearly a century and a half before 1933 only four Catholics had ever served in a cabinet, FDR, in choosing his first cabinet, named two.

That is what Franklin Roosevelt accomplished, Arnold Kling reminds us:

I think that if you want to understand why Roosevelt won such a landslide in 1936 and why the “Roosevelt coalition” was a significant force in American politics at least until the 1970′s, the Masonomics concept of group status is key. The biggest surge in population in the 1920′s had been among non-Protestants — the “hyphenated Americans” from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Roosevelt gave them unprecedented status recognition. On rights for African-Americans, he moved forward just enough to earn the gratitude and loyalty of blacks in the North (where they could vote), while not moving forward fast enough to lose the racists of the Solid South. (The racists stuck with Roosevelt in part because they had nowhere else to go. Even as late as the 1960′s, Republicans were not willing to be as racially regressive as southern Democrats. In 1948, for example, when Strom Thurmond ran against Truman, instead of joining the Republicans Thurmond formed the Dixiecrats.)

Budget Puzzle

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

The New York Timesbudget puzzle certainly makes fixing the budget seem easy enough. (Like Arnold Kling, I love the way they let you simply choose to cap Medicare spending growth. How hard could it be?)