How does the number of steps to buy a gun relate to overall homicide and suicide rates?

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

A recent New York Times story lamented how few steps there were to buy a gun in the US versus other countries, so sociologist David Yamane decided to ask the obvious question, Is there a patterned relationship between the number of steps someone has to go through to buy a gun in these 15 countries and the countries’ overall rates of homicide and suicide?

Homicide rates are weakly related to the number of steps it takes to buy a gun in these 15 countries. The polynomial trendline increases through the middle of the range then decreases at the high end (Japan), but the correlation is weak (0.071).

The relationship between suicide rates and the number of steps it takes to buy a gun is slightly stronger (0.085), but still weak and not in the direction suicide prevention advocates would like. The polynomial trendline increases fairly consistently through the range then jumps up somewhat at the end (again, Japan).

Looking at the combined rate of homicide and suicide, we see a still stronger though still weak correlation (0.123) with steps to buy a gun, with the polynomial trendline starting at the United States (2 steps and 14.58 combined rate) and arcing its way upward and leveling off toward Japan (13 steps and 18.71 combined rate). In between you can find two countries with 8 steps but dramatically different death rates by homicide and suicide (Austria’s 12.61 rate and Brazil’s 32.34 rate). Ditto for 7 steps: Germany 9.95 combined rate vs. Russia’s 45.91 combined rate.

The closest countries to the United States are Austria (8 steps, 12.61 combined rate) and Yemen (2 steps, 16.67 combined rate).

We could never have imagined what happened in Venezuela

Monday, March 19th, 2018

We never could have imagined — or prepped for — what happened in Venezuela, a Venezuelan “prepper” explains:

An economic collapse this long seemed like something that was entirely out of the question. It was entirely unpredictable. I would have expected a pandemics or a coup d’etat long before this hungry zombie-like scenario.

We knew something disturbing was going to happen sooner or later. We could feel it in the atmosphere…but nothing like this. We never thought it would be impossible to find a battery, or engine oil, or gasoline (Jeez, this was an oil-producing country!!) or that kids were going to be endangered in the very door of their schools.

He lists a number of supplies he should have stockpiled and preparations he should have made. A few stand out:

A large, buried diesel custom-made aluminum tank with a proper sized generator (there is not too much space left in our place: we live in a subdivision, houses are wall to wall next to each other) with a homemade silencer, and adequately rigged to the wiring of the house for the largest systems, like freezers and air conditioning.

Enclosing our garage before the steel rebar disappeared from the white market and the production was destined to the black and grey market. (I hate fencing, it is like living in a birdcage, but this would helped a lot for peace of mind).

Perhaps a chicken coop with a couple of hens. The eggs price has been so inflated this days that a single egg costs more than the minimum wage. A hen produces more than a laborer. Do you remember that stories about the eggs, chocolate, and potatoes acting as currency in the WWII? It is becoming currency here too.

Another SUV, with a much taller ground clearance, larger tires, diesel-powered with no electronics and a huge front fender. Something heavy, strong, black or dark grey, windows covered by that plastic clear bullet proof sheeting, able to plow a pack of thugs in motorcycles out of the way without a blink.

What’s a fire alarm for?

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

What is the function of a fire alarm?

One might think that the function of a fire alarm is to provide you with important evidence about a fire existing, allowing you to change your policy accordingly and exit the building.

In the classic experiment by Latane and Darley in 1968, eight groups of three students each were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a room that shortly after began filling up with smoke. Five out of the eight groups didn’t react or report the smoke, even as it became dense enough to make them start coughing. Subsequent manipulations showed that a lone student will respond 75% of the time; while a student accompanied by two actors told to feign apathy will respond only 10% of the time. This and other experiments seemed to pin down that what’s happening is pluralistic ignorance. We don’t want to look panicky by being afraid of what isn’t an emergency, so we try to look calm while glancing out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting, but of course they are also trying to look calm.

(I’ve read a number of replications and variations on this research, and the effect size is blatant. I would not expect this to be one of the results that dies to the replication crisis, and I haven’t yet heard about the replication crisis touching it. But we have to put a maybe-not marker on everything now.)

A fire alarm creates common knowledge, in the you-know-I-know sense, that there is a fire; after which it is socially safe to react. When the fire alarm goes off, you know that everyone else knows there is a fire, you know you won’t lose face if you proceed to exit the building.

The fire alarm doesn’t tell us with certainty that a fire is there. In fact, I can’t recall one time in my life when, exiting a building on a fire alarm, there was an actual fire. Really, a fire alarm is weaker evidence of fire than smoke coming from under a door.

But the fire alarm tells us that it’s socially okay to react to the fire. It promises us with certainty that we won’t be embarrassed if we now proceed to exit in an orderly fashion.

That’s Eliezer Yudkowsky leading up to his real point, that there’s no fire alarm for Artificial General Intelligence.

Giving us what we actually pay attention to

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker looks at Reddit and the struggle to detoxify the Internet:

The_Donald, with more than half a million subscribers, is by far the biggest pro-Trump subreddit, but it ranks just below No. 150 on the list of all subreddits; it’s roughly the same size as r/CryptoCurrency and r/ComicBooks. “Some people on The_Donald are expressing their genuine political beliefs, and obviously that’s something we want to encourage,” Huffman said. “Others are maybe not expressing sincere beliefs, but are treating it more like a game—If I post this ridiculous or offensive thing, can I get people to upvote it? And then some people, to quote ‘The Dark Knight,’ just want to watch the world burn.” On some smaller far-right subreddits, the discourse is more unhinged. One, created in July of 2016, was called r/Physical_Removal. According to its “About Us” section, it was a subreddit for people who believe that liberals “qualify to get a helicopter ride.” “Helicopter ride,” an allusion to Augusto Pinochet’s reputed habit of throwing Communists out of helicopters, is alt-right slang for murder.

The_Donald accounts for less than one per cent of Reddit’s traffic, but it occupies far more than one per cent of the Reddit-wide conversation. Trolls set a cunning trap. By ignoring their provocations, you risk seeming complicit. By responding, you amplify their message. Trump, perhaps the world’s most skilled troll, can get attention whenever he wants, simply by being outrageous. Traditional journalists and editors can decide to resist the bait, and sometimes they do, but that option isn’t available on user-generated platforms. Social-media executives claim to transcend subjectivity, and they have designed their platforms to be feedback machines, giving us not what we claim to want, nor what might be good for us, but what we actually pay attention to.

There are no good solutions to this problem, and so tech executives tend to discuss it as seldom as possible, and only in the airiest of platitudes. Twitter has rebuffed repeated calls to ban President Trump’s account, despite his many apparent violations of company policy. (If tweeting that North Korea “won’t be around much longer” doesn’t break Twitter’s rule against “specific threats of violence,” it’s not clear what would.) Last fall, on his Facebook page, Mark Zuckerberg addressed—sort of, obliquely—the widespread critique that his company was exacerbating political polarization. “We’ll keep working to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy,” he wrote, then stepped away as a global howl of frustration grew in the comments.

I asked a few social-media executives to talk to me about all this. I didn’t expect definitive answers, I told them; I just wanted to hear them think through the questions. Unsurprisingly, no one jumped at the chance. Twitter mostly ignored my e-mails. Snapchat’s P.R. representatives had breakfast with me once, then ignored my e-mails. Facebook’s representatives talked to me for weeks, asking precise, intelligent questions, before they started to ignore my e-mails.

Reddit has more reason to be transparent. It’s big, but doesn’t feel indispensable to most Internet users or, for that matter, to most advertisers. Moreover, Anderson Cooper’s CNN segment was hardly the only bit of vividly terrible press that Reddit has received over the years. All social networks contain vitriol and bigotry, but not all social networks are equally associated with these things in the public imagination. Recently, I typed “Reddit is” into Google. Three of the top suggested auto-completions were “toxic,” “cancer,” and “hot garbage.”

Waking up to hidden motives

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

I haven’t read The Elephant in the Brain (yet), but I enjoyed Robin Hanson’s talk with Sam Harris about hidden motives:

They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

I especially enjoyed the misguided questions from the audience.

People who want to do anything except confront evil men

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

A law-enforcement veteran with 20 years’ experience shares his thoughts on contemporary policing:

This really is a matter of chickens coming home to roost. There has been a tension since the 60’s about what we want police to do. We no longer have fit men with a strong capacity for violence occupying the majority of patrol cars in this country. What we have been slipping towards for decades are a mass of armed social workers with a small force of violent proficient SWAT guys who are supposed to save the day when bad things really, really need to happen but are never there when you really need them.

Two forces seem to be driving this. First, the massive expansion of the police’s job in this country. Cops no longer just enforce the law and arrest bad guys — we expect them to do everything from run after-school athletic leagues to treat drug overdoses. When a group’s mission is this broad and diverse something, or a lot of things, are not going to be done well. Also, when a mission is this broad, you will bring people into the organization who are better suited for these non-enforcement jobs but they all end up wearing the same uniform and vested with the same trust. Many people familiar with the field would go so far as to argue that for decades we have been deliberately recruiting people for police jobs who want to do anything except confront evil men.

Second, we as a nation have become increasingly uncomfortable with violence, regardless of who does it or why. There is no use of force by police, no matter how legally and morally right that looks “pretty.” For those raised on movies and TV, violence is sanitary and sterile with none of the realities, such as reaction time, that are dealt with in the real world. The simple, ugly, unpopular truth is that one of the jobs police do is to shoot and beat people into submission. Now, we want them to shoot and beat the right people within a well-defined legal context but the reality remains that the effective police officer is an applied violence specialist — or should be.

Recently, there has been a tremendous focus placed on police use of force. We have been told that the police deliberately target minorities and seem to take perverse pleasure in shooting unarmed ethnic minorities. We are asked to ignore the fact that on average 15% of officers murdered are murdered with “personal weapons” (aka hands and feet) and we are supposed to be shocked when the police perceive a threat from someone who doesn’t have a weapon.

[...]

Second, we need to recruit people for their ability to control themselves under stress and their mental fitness to do necessary harm to others. A lot of agencies deliberately hire folks with no capacity for violence in hopes it will solve their use of force problems. This never works as these folks end up overreacting since they are scared. Police officers should have an immense capacity for violence — a capacity exceeded only by their ability to control it and apply it in a lawful and moral context. (There are agencies which refuse to hire anyone with an interest in firearms — this is the exact wrong approach)

[...]

Finally, our society needs to adjust its attitudes towards violence. There is the recently coined term “pro-social violence” which is used to describe “lawful, moral violence in the service of good.” We need to restore the idea that when violent things happen to bad people, it’s OK and society is better as a whole.

You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Robin Hanson discusses signaling and self deception in the latest of Professor Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler:

TYLER COWEN: Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, we have my colleague Robin Hanson. With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?

ROBIN HANSON: As you know, in my new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we have a whole chapter on conversation, which I expect you have perused.

The claim we make in there is that, although we like to talk about conversation as if it was about imparting information and finding out useful things, more plausibly it’s about showing off your backpack of tools and skills in context.

COWEN: So what am I trying to signal with the first question in the podcast?

HANSON: [laughs] You are showing your versatility here; you are showing lots of things. You’re showing how well you know me, and that this is the sort of question I like and can engage. You’re showing the audience that you have an unusual perspective on things.

As usual, apparently, people like your conversations because you have some magic sauce, some special way that you can show that you get to people in a way that other people can’t.

COWEN: In your wonderful new book, The Elephant in the Brain, you outline a theory of human behavior where signaling has a great deal of explanatory power. If you had to, in as crude or blunt terms as possible, how much of human behavior ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signaling? What’s your short, quick, and dirty answer?

HANSON: In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.

[...]

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain‘s main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes — they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

In a world where, say, we’re all showing what strong, virile men we are by fighting battles every day, physical battles, we may each enjoy that until the day we die at 25. [laughs] But from a larger social point of view, there’s a huge loss.

The focus here is on the coordination failure, on the equilibrium being inefficient because we have these huge negative externalities. It’s the negative externalities that are the problem and the fault with the signaling, not so much the fact that you like to show off. You get to show off, and hey, isn’t that great?

Media and the consequences of fear

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok shares some thoughts on school shootings, media, and the consequences of fear:

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

School shootings are actually down since the 1990s (with a lot of variability). Fewer students are carrying weapons to school and fewer students report having easy access to guns (data here).

It’s been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past. Does anyone not know about Parkland? Contrary to common wisdom, mass shootings also occur in European countries and the US is not a notable outlier in this regard. I suspect, however, that the Finnish media don’t cover German shootings as frequently as shootings in Florida are covered in Nebraska — as a result the larger the media-market the greater the extent of availability bias. In other words, the larger the media market the greater the over-estimation of rare but vivid events. (Someone should test this theory.)

I worry about turning schools into prisons and what kinds of citizens this will create. My letter to my son’s high school principal was sent before the recent shootings but I stand by it now more than ever:

Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report

Saturday, March 3rd, 2018

If you haven’t yet watched Bret and Eric Weinstein on The Rubin Report, now’s your chance:

Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker piece looks at Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity — which is not how I’d characterize it:

Like many conversion stories, Peterson’s begins with a crisis of faith — a series of them, in fact. He was raised Protestant, and as a boy he was sent to confirmation class, where he asked the teacher to defend the literal truth of Biblical creation stories. The teacher’s response was convincing neither to Peterson nor, Peterson suspected, to the teacher himself. In “Maps of Meaning,” he remembered his reaction. “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,” he wrote. “I stopped attending church, and joined the modern world.” He turned first to socialism and then to political science, seeking an explanation for “the general social and political insanity and evil of the world,” and each time finding himself unsatisfied. (This was the Cold War era, and Peterson was preoccupied by the possibility of nuclear annihilation.) The question was, he decided, a psychological one, so he sought psychological answers, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from McGill University, having written a thesis examining the heritability of alcoholism.

All the while, Peterson was also pursuing a grander, stranger project. He had fallen under the sway of Carl Jung, the mystical Swiss psychology pioneer who interpreted modern life as an endless drama, haunted by ancient myths. (Peterson calls Jung “ever-terrifying,” which is a very Jungian sort of compliment.) In “Maps of Meaning,” Peterson drew from Jung, and from evolutionary psychology: he wanted to show that modern culture is “natural,” having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to reflect and meet our human needs. Then, rather audaciously, he sought to explain exactly how our minds work, illustrating his theory with elaborate geometric diagrams (“The Constituent Elements of Experience as Personality, Territory, and Process”) that seemed to have been created for the purpose of torturing undergraduates.

The new book replaces charts with cheerful drawings of Peterson’s children acting out his advice.

You can’t have Denmark without Danes

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

You can’t have Denmark without Danes, Megan McArdle notes:

On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.

“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:

The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.

The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.

The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.

The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.

A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”

Ironically, New Yorker Megan McArdle got her phone stolen in Copenhagen:

I learned a lot about Danish culture by the reaction to the theft of my phone. I discovered the loss the day after it happened, just as I was about to leave my hotel for a few last interviews. Suddenly, I had to my name only a few Danish kroner — too few even for a round-trip bus ride. I briefly debated canceling the interviews and spending the afternoon trying to round up some cash and a way to get to the airport the following day. Instead, throwing caution to the winds, I borrowed a bike from the hotel and set off, arriving bedraggled and half-an-hour late. Then I climbed four flights of stairs and nearly passed out.

The man I was interviewing responded by leaving to fetch me an enormous bottle of sparkling water, which I greedily consumed. (Maybe an American would have done the same.) The next man I interviewed, the think-tank scholar Agerup, offered to lend me whatever money I needed to get home. (Maybe an American stranger would have done the same, or maybe not.)

Later, I informed the staff at the Copenhagen Island Hotel that all my credit cards needed to be canceled, meaning that I would be unable to pay the considerable bill the next day. Also, that I had no cash and no way to eat for the next 24 hours. The clerk commiserated. Then he mobilized what seemed like the whole staff to make sure that it would be all right.

The hotel people pre-charged both dinner and breakfast to my room, figured out how to give the airport taxi service a hotel voucher and then closed out my entire bill a day early, right before I canceled my credit card. They did this all for a stranger they had no reason to trust.

It was exactly what I’d been hearing about Danish businesses and government all week — the individual initiative of relatively low-level employees, the pragmatism, the adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of rules.

I don’t mean to imply that my own company would have left me stranded in Denmark if it hadn’t been for the hotel — as soon as the U.S. woke up, I also had my own team of Bloomberg people trying to make sure I got home safely. The point is that I didn’t need much help, because the marvelously efficient and flexible Danes had already taken care of the problem.

Two weeks later, after I’d canceled my credit cards and replaced my phone, I got a package in the mail covered in foreign stamps. The Danish police had thoughtfully mailed my phone case back to me, at their own expense — sans phone, alas, but with driver’s license and credit cards and various wallet detritus intact. It saved me a trip to the DMV to replace my license, and gave me a warm feeling for the Danes who had, apparently as a matter of course, extended themselves to help a stranger.

Read the whole thing.

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age, and it got its start with a “scattered” Supreme Court ruling:

In 1974 California resident Allan Bakke brought suit against the University of California, Davis for twice rejecting his application to its medical school. Despite his having test scores well above average for the school’s applicant pool in addition to four years service in the Marine Corps and a seven month tour in Vietnam, UC-Davis refused Bakke admission. The School of Medicine justified this in part because of his age — such discrimination being perfectly legal at the time — and in part because of the manner in which he blamed his first rejection on the School’s affirmative action policy. Beginning shortly after its founding in 1968, the Davis medical school operated a quota system for racial minorities in which around 15 percent of its admission slots were reserved for non-white students. Although Congress believed its Civil Rights Act banned quotas in employment and the Department of Labor under President Nixon clearly forbade them, colleges and universities had been using various types of admissions quotas for decades and were committed to continuing them.

In 1978, four years after Bakke’s original suit, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. The nine justices issued six separate opinions, none gathering a majority. Justice Lewis Powell’s idiosyncratic opinion, however, garnered enough partial support in places that it stood as the judgment of the Court. In a victory for affirmative action opponents, it ordered Bakke to be admitted to the Davis School of Medicine and barred the use of racial quotas. Yet in a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court also agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course. He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action. According to the country’s most elite private universities, diversity in all its forms — race, region, social class, field of interest, occupational life plan (although not sex, as Harvard College was male-only until 1977 as was Columbia College until 1983) — is a precondition for the best educational experience possible.

Powell’s endorsement of the so-called ‘Harvard plan’ as a constitutionally permissible and even preferable equal opportunity practice spread diversity throughout American higher education and the elite business sector. Equal opportunity officers and consultants morphed into diversity officers and consultants. New diversity categories expanded older affirmative action mission statements. Diversity training replaced race relations workshops. Culture audits burst onto the scene. By the early 1990s, diversity had conquered Corporate America.

Is the education system really a waste of time and money?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Is the education system really a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan asks, as his new book claims right on the cover? This is a strange topic to debate with Eric Hanushek, he explains:

Why? Because if Hanushek had absolute power to fix the education system, education might actually be worth every penny. Hanushek is famous for focusing on what schools teach rather than what they spend — and documenting the vast disconnect between the two. If you haven’t already read his dissection of “input-based education policies,” you really ought to. Hanushek, more than any other economist, has taught us that measured literacy and numeracy are socially valuable — but just making kids spend long years in well-funded schools is not.

Tragically, however, Hanushek is not our education czar. Instead, all levels of our education system are extremely wasteful and ineffective. After spending more than a decade in class and burning up over $100,000 in taxpayer money, most Americans know shockingly little. About a third of adults are barely literate or numerate. Average adult knowledge of the other standard academic requirements — history, social studies, science, foreign languages — is near-zero. The average adult with a B.A. has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average high school graduate. The average high school graduate has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average drop-out. This is the fruit of a trillion taxpayer dollars a year.

For economists, however, there’s a powerful objection to this condemnation. If students really learn so little, why on earth is education so lucrative in the labor market? Why do high school grads outearn dropouts by 30%? Why do college grads outearn high school grads by 73%? Explain that! Employers want profit and they aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t pay exorbitant premia unless education dramatically improved worker productivity, right?

Wrong. There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers. One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the standard “human capital” story. The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters. This is the “signaling” story. In the real world, naturally, it’s a continuum. But since Hanushek is not the education czar, signaling explains most of education’s financial reward.

How can we know this? We should start with the massive gap between learning and earning, combined with the fact that even the most irrelevant subjects and majors yield decent financial rewards. If human capital were the whole story, why on earth would employers care if about whether you’ve studied Shakespeare, Latin, or trigonometry? Think about all the classroom materials you haven’t used since the final exam.

If that doesn’t fully convince you, many other facts that every student knows cut in the same direction. Such as:

1. It’s easy to unofficially attend college classes without enrolling or paying tuition, but almost no one bothers. Why not? Because after four years of guerilla education, there’s one thing you won’t have: a diploma. The central signal of our society.

2. Students’ focus on grades over learning, best seen in their tireless search for “easy A’s.” Signaling has a simple explanation: If a professor gives you a high grade for minimal work, you get a nice seal of approval without suffering for it.

3. Students routinely cram for final exams, then calmly forget everything they learn. Signaling provides a clean explanation: Learning, then forgetting, sends a much better signal than failing.

In The Case Against Education, I also review multiple major bodies of academic research to help pin down the true human capital/signaling breakdown. In the end, my best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff. Key pieces of evidence:

1. Most of the payoff for school comes from graduation, not mere years of study. This is a doozy for human capital theory to explain; do schools withhold useful skills until senior year? But it makes perfect sense if graduation is a focal signal of conformity to social norms.

2. There has been massive credential inflation since 1940. The education you need to do a job hasn’t changed much, but the education you need to get any given job has risen about three years. Hence, the fact that waiter, bartender, security guard, and cashier are all now common jobs for college grads.

3. Though every data set yields different estimates, the effect of national education on national income is much smaller than the effect of personal education on personal income. How is this possible? Signaling! Give everyone more useful skills, and you enrich the whole nation. Give everyone more stickers on their foreheads, and you fritter away valuable time and tax money.

If you’ve been wondering, “What does signaling have to do with wasteful education?,” I hope you’re starting to see the link. Sure, it’s useful to rank workers. But once they’re ranked, prolonging the ranking game is a socially destructive rat race. When education levels skyrocket, the main result isn’t good jobs for every graduate, but credential inflation: The more education the average worker has, the more education the average worker needs to be employable. And while sending fancy signals is a great way for an individual to enrich himself, it’s a terrible way to enrich society.

Given Hanushek’s work, I’m optimistic that he’ll agree with much of what I’ve said. It’s our remedies that starkly diverge. My primary solution for these ills is cutting education spending. In a word, austerity. Austerity: It’s word I love. It’s a word I believe in. If Hanushek’s bleak assessment of input-based education policies is right, austerity will save tons of time and money with little effect on worker skill.

Cutting waste is easy and transparent

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Bryan Caplan has some fun explaining why public education is a waste by analogy:

You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard. Here’s an analogy I use in the book: Imagine that your friend comes to you and says, “You know that toenail fungus cream that you’re spending a hundred bucks a month on?” “Yeah.” “Here’s clear proof it doesn’t work, so stop using it,” and you say, “Well, I’m not going to stop using it until you give me a toenail fungus cream that does work.”

Your friend says, “Well, I don’t really know one that works, and there’s a lot of debate about it, and it’s really hard to find one. What I do know is that you should stop wasting a hundred bucks a month.”

To me, that’s a lot of what’s going on with education. We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.

[...]

Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

Two sweeping moral visions of guns

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ross Douthat notes that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action, because we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions of guns that is too wide to be bridged by incrementalism:

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.

If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.

Naturally the New York Times includes a photo of “high-capacity clips” to adorn the article. (They are regular-capacity AR magazines.)

Douthat is not a gun guy, but he takes a stab at gun regulations that would not apply to every gun owner, but instead would be imposed on the young and removed with age:

Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.

Again, he’s not a gun guy, and he doesn’t seem aware that standard practice already works a bit like this, with long guns (rifles and shotguns) available at 18 and handguns at 21. The legal right to carry a handgun (concealed) generally requires a more thorough background check and a modicum of “training” — you have to sit through a class and not scare the instructor too badly when you go to shoot your gun at the range. Simply requiring paperwork seems to weed out most irresponsible people.

Of course, a system designed to keep guns away from criminals and ordinary hotheads might do very little to keep guns away from quiet loners with a nihilistic obsession.