Los Angeles Public School Food Waste: $100,000 per Day

April 15th, 2014

Three-quarters of LAUSD students are Latino.

By coincidence, 80 percent of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. (They’re not just lunches anymore. LAUSD now offers free breakfast via its “Food for Thought” program.)

Federal rules — this is all federally funded — require that students take at least three items each day — including one fruit or vegetable — and that’s leading to kids throwing away $100,000 worth of food per day:

The extra produce costs school districts $5.4 million a day, with $3.8 million of that being tossed in the trash, according to national estimates based on a 2013 study of 15 Utah schools by researchers with Cornell University and Brigham Young University.

Other studies also have found significant waste, including 40% of all the lunches served in four Boston schools. In L.A. Unified, a forthcoming study of four middle schools has confirmed substantial waste and “significant student aversion to even selecting a fruit or vegetable serving,” according to McCarthy, who co-wrote it. He declined to provide further details until the study is published.

Yet federal rules bar schools from allowing people to take the uneaten food off campus. The school board voted to allow nonprofits to pick up extra food under the federal Good Samaritan food law that allows such actions to aid people in need. But Binkle said that not enough schools participate to solve the massive waste problem.

Teachers and parents have also complained about widespread waste in the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which requires L.A. Unified students to take all three items offered.

Nationally, the cost of wasted food overall — including milk, meats and grains — is estimated at more than $1 billion annually. A U.S. General Accountability Office survey released in January found that 48 of 50 states reported that food waste and higher costs have been their top challenges in rolling out the 2012 rules.

The massive amount of food dumped into the trash shows that the diverse students aren’t starving, Brenda Walker suggests, but see free-to-them meals as an entitlement.

Good Drug, Bad Delivery System

April 15th, 2014

Who smokes? And why?

Warner: If you look at the population that is at the poverty line or above it, about 18% of them are smokers. If you look at the population below the poverty line, it’s about 29%. If you look at college graduates, 7.5% of them smoke today. If you look at people with only 9 to 11 years of high school education it’s about 36% percent. If we go back to the time of the Surgeon General’s report…

Dubner: That, remember, was 1964.

Warner: …those numbers were very close to each other. So that’s a huge issue, is a socio-economic disparity. And then there is one we that have finally started to recognize and talk about in the field of tobacco control and it is very important — perhaps as many as 40 to 50 percent of all smokers have a concurrent mental health disability or morbidity and/or other substance-abuse problem. The cigarette industry has always liked to talk about smoking as being a rational choice of well-informed adults and yet we have this strong correlation between smoking and mental illness.

Dubner: So this opens up a whole other way to look at smoking – that it is, to some degree, self-medication, with side effects of course. Paul Newhouse is an m.d. who runs the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt. For 30 years, he’s been studying the effects of nicotine on the brain:

Newhouse: We jokingly say in our lab: You know, good drug, bad delivery system.

Dubner: Newhouse tells us that nicotine itself has a number of potentially positive characteristics.

Newhouse: It appears to activate a class of what we call receptors important for regulating a whole variety of brain functions. And so we think that nicotinic receptors are important for things like attention, for behavioral strategies, for what we call executive functioning, which is the ability to make decisions and evaluate information, we think it’s important for memory, and so that has kind of led us to thinking about what particular disorders might be helped by stimulating nicotinic receptors either with nicotine or with something else.

Dubner: So Newhouse and others in his field are exploring if nicotine therapy might be used to treat schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, or other maladies.

Newhouse: Things like memory loss disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, pre-Alzheimer’s disease, which is called mild cognitive impairment, we’ve looked at ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Other investigators have looked at things from Tourette’s Syndrome to anxiety disorders to depression. I think the full potential of nicotine and nicotinic drugs is really not even fully known yet.

Dubner: Newhouse does believe, however, that nicotine has medicinal effects, and that is why some smokers smoke.

Newhouse: If you look at heavy smokers you will find that many of them have mood disorders or anxiety disorders as well. The rates of psychological problems among heavy smokers these days are very high. And we think that one of the reasons they smoke is because it produces benefits to them. Maybe it improves their mood, maybe it stabilizes their anxiety, maybe it helps them pay attention or inhibit impulsiveness, etc.

Infant IQ Tests Predict Scores in School

April 14th, 2014

Twenty-five years ago, Gina Kolata of the New York Times reported on infant IQ tests that predicted later school performance:

The tests, which attempt to measure what babies remember, are based on the assumption that they will be more interested in stimuli they have not previously encountered. One test involves showing infants photographs or pictures and measuring how long they look at them. In theory, babies will look at a new stimulus for a longer time than one they remember having seen before. Babies that are likely to be below average in intelligence will remember fewer of the stimuli they have seen before.

Working independently, Dr. Bornstein and Susan Rose of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have found that a baby’s performance at age 4 months and 6 months on tests of visual memory correlate with I.Q. at 4 and 6 years of age. They used tests that they developed themselves but that are similar to those developed by Dr. Fagan. The predictions are independent of the parents’ education and income group, which also are correlated with I.Q.

The original article is full of fears that such tests might give already-advantaged children even more advantages.

Kenneth Change, also of the Times, revisits the original article:

For the most part, the validity of the Fagan test holds up. Indeed, Dr. Fagan (who died last August) and Dr. Holland revisited infants they had tested in the 1980s, and found that the Fagan scores were predictive of the I.Q. and academic achievement two decades later when these babies turned 21.

“It’s really good science,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”

But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass. “There are some centers that have it,” Dr. Holland said. “It never came to be the kind of thing where it’s widely available.”

The trend is perhaps in the other direction, away from dividing young children by I.Q. and its surrogates out of concerns that the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Private schools in New York City, for example, have agreed to abandon intelligence tests for 4- and 5-year-old applicants.

This stands out:

For the last decade of his life, Dr. Fagan was unexpectedly drawn into the “genes versus environment” debate over intelligence after he found that babies from widely different cultural backgrounds performed equally well on his test. That, he argued, undercut the argument for a biological basis for the stark “achievement gap” between white and black children, or rich and poor.

The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome

April 14th, 2014

Randall Collins discusses the breakdown of democracy and the return of family murders in Rome:

The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.

Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina– she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir. That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.

Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son– just to make sure; then killed his own mother– the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.

It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina. The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.

I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars.

Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family. This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina. Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.

The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.

How to Make People Quit Smoking

April 14th, 2014

How do you get people to quit smoking?

Warner: What we know is that if you increase the price by 10 percent you will decrease total cigarette consumption by 3 to 4 percent.

Dubner: Now, you may think, well of course Warner would talk about price theory – he’s an economist! But even a layperson can look at the data and see the relationship between cigarette prices and smoking. The economist Frank Chaloupka has calculated the inflation-adjusted price spike of cigarettes over the past few decades, and where that spike comes from. Overall, he found that a pack of cigarettes costs more than twice as much today as it did in 1990. Some of that increase comes from the manufacturers – especially since the late 1990’s, that’s when cigarette companies began passing along the costs from the Master Settlement Agreement. That was the deal between the big tobacco companies and 46 state attorneys general, which required the companies to pay out billions of dollars for, essentially, producing a dangerous product. By passing along some of that settlement cost to smokers, the companies added about 50 cents a pack. But a variety of taxes also made cigarettes much more expensive. Between 1990 and 2009, Chaloupka found the federal excise tax on cigarettes rose from 16 cents to more than $1 per pack. And state taxes, on average, more than quadrupled. Now, keep in mind that’s on average. There’s huge variance across states. Missouri adds only 17 cents a pack; Rhode Island adds a state tax of $3.46 per pack! On top of of all that, some cities add their own taxes. In 2002, for instance, New York City raised its excise tax from 8 cents a pack to $1.50. So, today, a pack of cigarettes in New York City costs, on average, more than $11. It is probably not coincidental, therefore, that New York State has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country. And who does an $11 price tag hit the hardest? The smokers who are most “price sensitive” – like teenagers. Indeed, between 2000 and 2012, the smoking rate among high schoolers in New York State fell by 56 percent. So if you want to fight smoking, you can see why economists, at least, agree that raising the price will work. Here’s Kip Viscusi, at Vanderbilt:

Viscusi: It’s a very powerful tool. You know, it doesn’t wear out. As you keep on the increasing price, it will keep on decreasing the demand for cigarettes.

Dubner: But just as different states in the U.S. have wildly different tax rates on cigarettes, different countries have wildly different cigarette taxes and prices, which are influenced by all sorts of factors. In China, for instance, the average cost is about $2 per pack of cigarettes; in Australia, it’s about $11, with talk of pushing that up to $20 a pack. And smoking rates around the world are extremely diverse. Among the lowest are the U.S. and Canada, Australia, much of South America, and most of Africa. Europe is generally in the middle, and Asia – well, if you look at the World Health Organization’s map of smoking rate by country, Asia is basically one big cloud of smoke. But even in the U.S., where as Kenneth Warner told us we’ve returned to the smoking rate of the 1930’s, that still translates into a lot of smokers.

When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real

April 13th, 2014

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes-Electra story were first made popular in Greece, Randall Collins asks, in the century before Philip and Alexander?

These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490–466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

*Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.

The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past — not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece — Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus — a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

*Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.

In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man — a road-rage dispute — and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker, but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King — the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

*Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents. That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21). Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander’s attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.

The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son — a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other. The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics). The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme — bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king — tyrannos — eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults — and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions — would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.

Diversity and Dishonesty

April 13th, 2014

It would be far better if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla simply said that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or BYU is Mormon, Ross Douthat argues:

I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

Culture, Resources, or Genetics

April 13th, 2014

Gregory Clark discusses social mobility — or the lack of it — and whether it comes down to culture, resources, or genetics:

DE: So social mobility does take place but over many generations. What are the mechanisms by which people revert to the mean?

GC: For me, as a social scientist, this is the most interesting part of the story. The question that really comes up is: is this a cultural phenomena? Is it a familial culture that is being passed on? Is it resources? Or is the basic genetics of inheritance? And if it’s cultural or resources, what it says is that societies are dramatically failing to achieve appropriate rates of social mobility; that it’s a number one problem for all societies; that President Obama is right to say that this is the problem his administration will tackle. If it’s just a basic issue of genetics and of assortative mating and then the transmission of certain types of abilities or competencies, then actually two things: one is we don’t have a problem. And the second thing is we shouldn’t devote enormous resources to trying to deal with it.

DE: So let me press you on that. So, one interpretation is that all that’s happening is that intelligent people are passing their genes on to intelligent people and so remaining in the elite. Another is that there are barriers to a meritocratic society. Which is it?

GC: My own personal bet is that genetics plays a much greater role in this than people have been willing to consider. One test would be, in cultural explanations, your grandparents; your cousins; your other relatives should all have some influence on your outcomes. If you’re from the Jewish community, for example, then being part of that larger community network should have significant influence on your outcomes. In a genetic interpretation, if we truly knew the status of your parents – the underlying status – that would be the only predictor of your outcomes. Your grandparents, all the rest of the stuff would not matter. And also, things like resource shocks should be relatively unimportant. And interestingly, again using Oxford and Cambridge data, we can actually test. do your parents only matter or does your more extended lineage matter to predicting future success?

And the answer is: it’s only your parents. If we can get the data, it’s only your parents that matter. Another test is a genetic explanation would say that any elite group that only intermarry internally would not actually regress to the mean. Because, the genetic information is not being lost from that group. And that, again, we can test by looking at various examples. And what we find then is that in societies with a high degree of endogamy, the rate of social mobility doesn’t seem to slow down. Another interpretation here would be that any elite group would simply have been selected from a larger population by some mechanism – or any underclass group. And we again can test this by looking at history and saying for example: Ashkenazi Jews are elite; Sephardic Jews are elite. Are they a subset of a larger population? And the answer overwhelmingly and very clearly is yes. Only a small fraction of the original Jewish population has survived as Jewish. The rest converted to Christianity. And, there’s very strong evidence that that was the elite share of the population.

And, we can also see in modern America that new social elites are actually being formed by immigration policy which means that people coming from areas distant from the US, without familial connections to the US, are being drawn from very high-level elites in those societies. So now, the super-elites in the US are Coptic Christians; Indian Hindus; Iranian Muslims; Maronites. And when you look across those groups, what you see is – culturally – an incredible diversity. The only groups that are not represented now in the modern US elites are protestant Anglo-Saxons. (Laughs.) So what you actually see when you look at this data, it seems to me, is that eliteness has nothing to do inherently with culture; it’s to do with the familial transmission of abilities.

What or who gives a nation its sacred values?

April 12th, 2014

What — or who — gives a nation its sacred values?

A moment’s reflection should tell us that, in fact, they emerge from political discussions within each nation. It is natural to wonder, then, whether powerful interests cannot steer those discussions towards certain desired ends. If they can, aren’t these so-called ‘sacred’ values really just the inventions of manipulative elites?

In a sense, that’s exactly what they are. Yet the process as a whole remains a matter of blind evolution, in which no party can be certain of the outcome. Suppose a particular interest group – a band of ideological entrepreneurs – were to introduce an ideological ‘meme’ into the public discourse (think of Cato the Elder’s catchphrase, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’). These memes compete against others. Some become popular and are internalised by a majority of the population; others remain niche preoccupations or fall by the wayside altogether. In time, popular memes come to exert an influence over the behaviour of the state. Then natural selection, acting through international conflict, eliminates those states that have internalised ‘bad’ memes.

This is a long-term dynamic involving multiple generations. In the short term, it’s true that ruling elites can whip up nationalistic fervour. External events (an attack, for example) can trigger it. But it still depends on the existence of certain bedrock attitudes that have evolved over many years. That means it isn’t always the elites who manipulate the wider population; popular attitudes also constrain elite choices and actions. And this suggests a further corollary: states in which the elites and the general population share the same bedrock values will tend to be much more effective in the international arena, committing to their course without demur.

No Heroes to Simplify Our Memory

April 12th, 2014

The Hellenistic period of Greek and Middle-Eastern history is not a popular one, Randall Collins says, because there are no heroes to simplify our memory, and above all because it is too complicated:

Alexander’s conquest did not change the pattern of succession crises. As soon as he died, at least 10 contenders came forward to take control of the Empire, including the older generals Alexander inherited from Philip, plus his own important commanders. This produced a volatile situation of multisided conflict that took over 20 years to settle down.

The first three years after Alexander’s death were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances, side-switches, and deals. The senior commander of the infantry phalanx proposed as successor Alexander’s half-brother, a feeble-minded illegitimate son of Philip (under his guardianship, of course); rivals proposed Alexander’s infant son by Roxane. Perdiccus, the senior cavalry commander, proposed as a compromise that both should rule jointly, then had the phalanx commander murdered, leaving himself as sole guardian. Perdiccus then alienated Antipater, the Macedonian viceroy, by jilting his daughter to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra.* Perdiccus in turn was betrayed by his own troops to Antigonus, a one-eyed general whose lineage would eventually get the Macedonian part of the empire. It wasn’t just family members who killed each other in this atmosphere of betrayal.

*Not the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt 51–30 BC, had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and ordered the murder of her own brother Ptolemy, her adolescent co-ruler. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were both popular Macedonian names.

Eventually the 10 contenders winnowed down to 4 or 5. After the initial free-for-all, the strongest concentrated on hunting down and eliminating Philip and Alexander’s relatives, all the contenders and pretenders. Alexander’s son by Roxane, who should have been the legitimate heir, was killed at age 13. The Empire began to settle into a pattern of 3 states: Egypt; an Asian state in the heart of the old Persian Empire (Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria); and Macedon/Asia Minor. But they kept trying to take each other’s territory — general Ptolemy in Egypt for instance used his fleet to control the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea — and wars and betrayals kept on happening. In Macedon, a surviving son of the monarchy, now called Philip III, was manipulated by his wife into allying with the son of the viceroy Antipater; they were opposed by Alexander’s mother, Queen Olympias, who engineered the death of yet another of her stepsons, until she herself was executed.

Forty years after Alexander’s death all his relatives were dead, but the sons and daughters of his generals were still at it. The current ruler of Macedon, Lysimachus, was persuaded by his third wife, Arsinoe, to put his own son to death, in favor of her own children. Lysandra, the widow of the slain man, allied with her brother Ptolemy II and the Asian forces of Seleucus to invade Macedon and kill Lysimachus; at which point Ptolemy II had his ally killed so as not to share the spoils with him. And this was another sibling quarrel, since Arsinoe, Lysandra and Ptolemy II were all half-brothers and half-sisters, all children of the many wives of Ptolemy I. It was a chain of revenges and murderous ambitions such as the Greek dramatists described as divine powers of the Furies, or Nemesis.

Batman: Strange Days

April 11th, 2014

Bruce Timm, co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, has produced a new short, Batman: Strange Days, to celebrate the character’s 75th anniversary:

Bruce Timm explains that he always wanted to do a Batman period piece that actually takes place in 1939.

(Later in that DC All Access piece, they get Ralph Garman to show off his Batman ’66 collection.)

The Role of Individuals in History

April 11th, 2014

Both politicians and the general public overestimate the role of individuals in history, Peter Turchin suggests:

Presumably that’s why, when Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the US press revolved around the personal motivations of Putin. In reality, however, individual statesmen have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and sociocultural forces. Putin is an important player, no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his support groups in Russia: his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population.

All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) are solidly behind Putin. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. It was hardly surprising that Putin’s party, United Russia, supported him. But the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also solidly behind him. That is less usual.

Even more importantly, the general population overwhelmingly supports Putin on this issue. In a large sociological study that polled almost 50,000 Russians, more than 90 per cent said that they wanted Crimea to become part of Russia. Only 5 per cent were opposed. Putin’s policy of ‘reunification with Crimea’ is extremely popular. His approval ratings soared from an already high 60 per cent to 76 per cent. Sociologists such as Alexander Oslon, of the Public Opinion Foundation, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, say they have never before seen such a degree of unity on any issue in Russia.

I grew up in Russia, and I was very struck – in a way that no US commentator appears to have been – at how insistently Putin’s annexation speech of March 18 drew upon Russia’s systems of shared meaning. Early in his speech, Putin reminded his audience that Crimea was where Saint Vladimir was baptised in the 10th century. It was he, as Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted Russia to Christianity, thus laying the foundations of the Russian civilisation. Putin also referred to the bones of Russian soldiers, buried all across the peninsula. ‘All these places are sacred to us,’ he said.

In another little-noticed part of his address, Putin evoked the image of NATO establishing a naval base in Sevastopol should Crimea slip out of Russian control. There is a suspicion among Russian policymakers that the real motive of the US in detaching Ukraine from Russia is to expel the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and replace it with a NATO military base. It doesn’t matter whether this is really the US goal; what matters is that the thought of NATO boots on Sevastopol’s hallowed soil is intolerable to many Russians. As Putin remarked: ‘I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.’

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have claimed that Putin ‘lives in another world’. She is right. Putin’s world is the Russian cultural space, which is quite different from the western Europe in which Merkel now operates. ‘Putin has done what our hearts were longing for,’ a Crimean pensioner told the news agency Reuters. ‘This finally brings things back to what they should be after all those years. For me, for my family, there can be no bigger joy, for us this is sacred.’

Family Murders in the Persian Ruling Class

April 11th, 2014

Family murders were a recurring feature of top-level politics for centuries both before and after Alexander the Great’s time:

Consider the Persian Empire. The founder, Cyrus (reigned 559-530 BC, two hundred years before Alexander) unified the tribal chiefs in the highlands of Iran; conquered the major nearby states (Media, Babylon), then expanded west (into the Greek kingdoms and city-states of Asia Minor) and east (into the tribal zone of Central Asia). His methods sowed the seeds for the troubles that would come later. Where he conquered by force, he always legitimated himself as successor to the local kings or restorer of the local gods. Many of his accessions were peaceful, since his reputation preceded him and smaller chiefs welcomed him as a “friend”– which is to say, a political friend, involving obligations of military support and material or monetary tribute. In cities which had strong internal politics– such as the Greek city-states– Cyrus operated more by subsidy/bribery, resulting in takeovers that the losing faction regarded as treachery. Superficial political friendships were the prevailing manner; underneath was an atmosphere of side-switching and distrust.

When Cyrus the Great King died, the regions of the empire took the opportunity to revolt. Violence broke out in the royal family; the first son inherited and killed his brother, who ruled the eastern provinces, to eliminate opposition. This pattern would repeat itself, with a succession crisis after each death of a King. Sometimes the new King that emerged was weak, sometimes the process filtered out the weak and created someone strong.

The third King, Darius, rose from being son of a provincial satrap. He got his chance when the previous King, Cambyses, was away putting down a revolt in Egypt, whereupon an impersonator of the King’s brother was placed on the Persian throne. Cambyses died of a wound during the struggle to regain the throne; Darius joined the conspiracy to assassinate the pretender and emerged on top. Darius reigned 522-486 BC, spending his first two years traveling around the Empire with a mobile army putting down revolts, and started the first Persian invasion of the Greek mainland, which was turned back at the battle of Marathon (490 BC). After Darius died came the usual round of revolts, temporarily derailing the Greek enterprise, while his son Xerxes had to deal with revolts in the major provinces of Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes put together a huge army for another invasion of Greece, which eventually petered out through problems of logistics and maintaining connection via a mercenary fleet. Xerxes was assassinated in a palace plot in 465. His son Artaxerxes I ascended the throne, but his brother revolted (with the support of Athens– both sides could play the game of interfering in internal affairs of the enemy); eventually all the royal brothers were assassinated. Next came Darius II (reigned 424-405), an illegitimate son, who killed his illegitimate brother, who had killed his legitimate brother, Xerxes II, a murderous game of tag. Darius II married his half-sister, a cruel woman who controlled him and ruthlessly suppressed all enemies.

And so on. Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-338 BC) came in with the usual round of violence, in which several dozen brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins of both sexes were killed. Now we hear of killing royal women; apparently connections on the female side were becoming increasingly important. Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his favorite court eunuch in 338 BC, followed by several years of royal family plots and assassinations; so many were murdered that the succession had to turn to a distant cousin. In the same year Artaxerxes III was murdered, Philip of Macedon won a great battle over the Athenian alliance (with his 18-year-old son Alexander leading the cavalry), making Macedon hegemonic in Greece, and setting the stage for the invasion of Persia. It was precisely the bloody succession crises that made Persia look like an easy target.

The atmosphere of betrayal and revolt spread into the administrative structure, even beyond the royal family. In the struggles and revolts under Artaxerxes II around 390 BC, a rebel satrap was betrayed by his son, who switched sides to line up with the victorious ruler, and had his father crucified. This sort of thing goes beyond family rivalry; it was a cruel public display of family hatred. Artaxerxes II is remembered mainly because his brother, Cyrus, with the support of his mother the former Queen, recruited the famous Ten Thousand mercenaries from Greece for an expedition to capture the Persian throne. This Cyrus died trying to cut through the bodyguards to reach his hated brother.

Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital

April 10th, 2014

Russ Roberts interviews Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital:

Bryan Caplan: So, in terms of the research, one very well-established fact that gets very little play is what’s called the ‘Sheepskin Effect’. So, we’ve sort of been touching on this point on how not finishing, starting college without finishing seems to raise earnings by only 10%, whereas it raises earnings by, seems to raise earnings by 83% if you do finish. So, this is actually part of a much more general fact, which is that a lot of the payoff for education comes from getting your degree. It comes from crossing the finish line. Right now, in the early decades of the signaling model, this fact was not well-established. And so there was a lively debate: Is there a sheepskin effect? Is there not a sheepskin effect? But until the sheepskin effect was well-established, when it was still in debate, almost everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important. Because otherwise, why would it be so important to just get over that finish line? So, in terms of the human capital model, it’s really puzzling. What is it, the last class that teaches you —

Russ Roberts: The capstone. It’s the capstone class. The whole idea.

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the capstone class. So, like, why is it the person one [?] class short of graduation is only getting 10%, whereas if you finish that class you would get 83%?

Russ Roberts: Well, hang on. Two things. First of all, for those who are — I don’t know if this is a universally understood name, but a ‘sheepskin’ is another word for graduating college. ‘Getting your sheepskin.’ I don’t know the origin of that. Do you know it, Bryan?

Bryan Caplan: Yes. Yes, I do. So, it’s another word for ‘diploma.’ And the reason is diplomas used to be written on sheepskins, actually.

Russ Roberts: Oh, which is called, like, is it vellum? What’s it — there’s a name for sheepskin. What’s another name?

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that sounds right.

Russ Roberts: I’m not sure that’s right. But I see what you are saying. It’s a form of ancient paper-like stuff. Um, so —

Bryan Caplan: Yes. So, anyway —

Russ Roberts: Hang on. My question is: Is 10% — you said the return is 10% if you don’t finish. Is it 10% if you go for —

Bryan Caplan: Yeah, the premium.

Russ Roberts: The premium. Sorry. The premium over high school students is over 10% if you don’t graduate. That is, attending college makes you a little more money relative to a high school graduate. Is that true if you go for one year, two years, three years? What you are claiming is, you might be claiming — if you go for 3 and a half semesters and you are 1 course short of graduation, you still only get 10%? Is that true?

Bryan Caplan: It’s a little more complicated than that. So, if you go and take a very close look at the data for college, you’ll see something like for the first year of college, that might increase, if you [?] essentially finish that, that might increase your earnings by 5-10%. Then year 2, maybe another 5-10%. Year 3 seems to give you nothing. And then it’s year 4 that gives you the remainder. Which is huge.

Russ Roberts: I guess the question would be —

Bryan Caplan: And we see that’s very similar for high school as well. So, like, 9th grade seems to give you a bit, 10th grade a bit; 11th grade seems to give you nothing at all; and then 12th grade, finishing that, getting a diploma, that’s what gives you a very big raise over what a high school dropout would earn.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I guess the complication is that the people who do get, say, three and a half years into their college degree or one course short, why don’t they finish? And what does that tell you.

Bryan Caplan: [?] Exactly. Now you’re thinking like someone who believes in signaling. Now you’re saying, [?] asking, why didn’t this person finish? What is wrong with that person? Maybe they just had some bad luck. But also it suggests, look, in our society it’s expected that you finish; you [?] finished; there are a lot of different ways that you could have made up whatever problems that you had; so I’m nervous about you as an applicant. But let me go back to how the debate played out. So there was a long period when economists just weren’t sure if there was a sheepskin effect or how big it was. During that period everyone took for granted that a large sheepskin effect would show that signaling was important and the lack of one would at least undermine that. Now, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, it became totally clear that there were huge sheepskin effects — better data came along and several papers were published and they’ve never been challenged successfully. Not even challenged successfully — no one’s even tried to challenge them. The data are now so clear. But almost as soon as the evidence came in very strongly that sheepskin effects were very real and very large —

Russ Roberts: Let me guess —

Bryan Caplan: Then labor economists moved the goal posts and said, Well, that doesn’t really prove anything.

Russ Roberts: Of course not.

Bryan Caplan: And then they came up with some very sophisticated mathematical models where it wouldn’t have to prove anything. So, yes, well, you can come up with a model where it doesn’t prove anything, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. In order to show that it — basically, in order to say that it doesn’t mean anything, you have to say, well, there’s got to be some totally unmeasurable difference between the people who just finish and the people who just don’t, and I can’t tell you what that thing is; and none of the things we actually measure worked; but that’s my story. Right? And when you know that these people making these arguments have been through the entire educational process; they finished at least three different degrees. To be a researcher on this, you finished your high school degree, you finished your bachelor’s degree, your master’s, probably your Ph.D. And for people like that to say, I’m totally unconvinced that it matters whether you actually get your degree and cross the finish line, to me it’s just insane. Like, you know very well, you were a student, you know that if you didn’t finish that would ruin your life and prevent you from getting this job. You know that. Everyone around you knew that. If you were to go and deny that to your fellow students and say, I’m not showing up for the final exam because what difference does it make? It makes a lot of difference. And it makes a lot of difference because people who don’t finish are quite different from people who do, and employers will hold it against you.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Any other empirical evidence you want to cite that’s relevant besides the sheepskin effect?

Bryan Caplan: Sure. Well, so there is some abstruse research evidence that I could go over, but actually I’d rather focus on some arguments that — in a way I think there should be research on them although in a way they are too simple and clear to get a paper out of it. Like, here is one fact that I’ve often noticed. What do students do when a professor cancels class? They are happy. They cheer. And from a human capital point of view this is bizarre. Basically, the rest are saying, you know how you [?] for me to train me to be a better worker so you can do better in real life? Yeah. Well, I’m going to keep your money and I’m not going to give you the training. See ya’. That is effectively what the human capital model is saying is happening when a professor cancels class. On the other hand, so the signaling model says, well why don’t the why are the students happy? Because the employers will never know that you canceled class. What they are learning they are probably going to never need to know again. It’s not going to show up on their transcripts. If everybody learns less then this is not going to change the distribution of grades in all likelihood. So then students get an extra afternoon off and then it’s not going to affect their future. So, this is something that my 11-year-old sons who are fanatical about doing their homework, yet they are delighted with every snow day, say, why are you delighted? Well, it doesn’t disadvantage us compared to anyone else. Aren’t you worried you are going to need to know the stuff you didn’t learn? Even 11-year-olds, they’re cynical enough to go, yeah, right, like that’s ever going to happen. Kid, you appear deeply in the system and [?]

Russ Roberts: I fight off the urge to say, Well, Bryan, in your classes they cheer, but in my classes they weep. But I’m going to leave that out. I’m not going to say that. That would be cruel.

Bryan Caplan: Or here’s another one of my favorite debating points. Claim: Right now you can get the best education in the world for free if you want it. What am I talking about? Well, suppose you think Princeton is the best education in the world. You don’t need to apply; you don’t need to get admitted. All you do is move to Princeton and start attending classes. And in my experience, no one will stop you; no one will card you. If you go to the professor and say, I’m not a student here but I’m interested in your class, most professors get a tear in their eye: Someone actually wants to learn from me. But if you go and get this totally free Princeton education for four years, there is one thing you won’t have at the end: any proof you ever did it. Right. And if you consider — Deal A is you go to Princeton and you get a Princeton education with no record you ever did it, or you go to a much lower-ranked school where you admit you are getting a worse education but there is a record, which one is going to do more for your career? Almost everyone says, well, obviously the second one. The first one may make you an interesting person, may be a great experience, but employers aren’t going to care. They won’t believe you if there is no sign you were ever there. Whereas getting a bachelor’s degree by the book from Podunk State on the other hand, that actually, that gives you — it doesn’t give you nearly as much as getting a bachelor’s degree from Princeton but it gives you something that is real and tangible.

Sacred Crimea

April 10th, 2014

Crimea wasn’t always sacred land — but it has been for a while:

Consider the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Initially this port was just a convenient naval base that allowed Russia to project power into the surrounding region. Because of this geopolitical value, the city played a key role during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Russia fought Britain and France for the right to expand into the waning Ottoman Empire. This first ‘heroic defence’ of Sevastopol left a significant imprint on Russia’s collective psyche; not least Leo Tolstoy’s important early work, Sevastopol Sketches (1855).

The second ‘heroic defence’ of the port came in 1941-42, during the war against Nazi Germany. Indeed, the siege of Sevastopol remains only slightly less resonant for Russians than the more famous Siege of Leningrad. But it is climbing the rankings. In the midst of the present conflict, Russia designated Sevastopol a city of federal significance, a status it shares only with Moscow and St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. As we watch, Sevastopol is being woven ever more tightly into Russia’s national mythology.

If Crimea is so precious, one might wonder why Russia ever let it go. The simple answer is that it didn’t mean to. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine as an essentially symbolic gesture. Ukraine was then a Soviet imperial possession, so this seemed an innocuous arrangement. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia itself started fragmenting. Chechnya achieved de facto independence. In a more peaceful fashion, Tatarstan was acquiring greater autonomy. There was talk of the Far East seceding. Crimea, in short, was not the priority.

Such periods of disintegration generally end in one of two ways. Russia rallied. During the 1990s and 2000s, it gradually squeezed out its pro-Western liberal elite, though not before they had almost halved GDP, created extreme differentials of wealth, and lost Russia its Great Power status. With the liberals in disgrace, a new, nationalistic cadre seized the moment. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia began to claw back its lost lands, beginning, in 1999, with the reconquest of Chechnya. And now here we are.