The Occupy Wall Street protesters and the bankers share a common delusion

Friday, August 18th, 2017

Eric Weinstein explains the crisis of late capitalism:

I believe that market capitalism, as we’ve come to understand it, was actually tied to a particular period of time where certain coincidences were present. There’s a coincidence between the marginal product of one’s labor and one’s marginal needs to consume at a socially appropriate level. There’s also the match between an economy mostly consisting of private goods and services that can be taxed to pay for the minority of public goods and services, where the market price of those public goods would be far below the collective value of those goods.

Beyond that, there’s also a coincidence between the ability to train briefly in one’s youth so as to acquire a reliable skill that can be repeated consistently with small variance throughout a lifetime, leading to what we’ve typically called a career or profession, and I believe that many of those coincidences are now breaking, because they were actually never tied together by any fundamental law.

Weinstein shares this anecdote about class warfare:

I reached a bizarre stage of my life in which I am equally likely to fly either economy or private. As such, I have a unique lens on this question. A friend of mine said to me, “The modern airport is the perfect metaphor for the class warfare to come.” And I asked, “How do you see it that way?” He said, “The rich in first and business class are seated first so that the poor may be paraded past them into economy to note their privilege.” I said, “I think the metaphor is better than you give it credit for, because those people in first and business are actually the fake rich. The real rich are in another terminal or in another airport altogether.”

The Occupy Wall Street protesters and the bankers share a common delusion, he says:

Both of them believe the bankers are more powerful in the story than they actually are. The real problem, which our society has yet to face up to, is that sometime around 1970, we ended several periods of legitimate exponential growth in science, technology, and economics. Since that time, we have struggled with the fact that almost all of our institutions that thrived during the post-World War II period of growth have embedded growth hypotheses into their very foundation.

That means that all of those institutions, whether they’re law firms or universities or the military, have to reckon with steady state [meaning an economy with mild fluctuations in growth and productivity] by admitting that growth cannot be sustained, by running a Ponzi scheme, or by attempting to cannibalize others to achieve a kind of fake growth to keep those particular institutions running. This is the big story that nobody reports. We have a system-wide problem with embedded growth hypotheses that is turning us all into scoundrels and liars.

Let’s say, for example, that I have a growing law firm in which there are five associates at any given time supporting every partner, and those associates hope to become partners so that they can hire five associates in turn. That formula of hierarchical labor works well while the law firm is growing, but as soon as the law firm hits steady state, each partner can really only have one associate, who must wait many years before becoming partner for that partner to retire. That economic model doesn’t work, because the long hours and decreased pay that one is willing to accept at an entry-level position is predicated on taking over a higher-lever position in short order. That’s repeated with professors and their graduate students. It’s often repeated in military hierarchies.

It takes place just about everywhere, and when exponential growth ran out, each of these institutions had to find some way of either owning up to a new business model or continuing the old one with smoke mirrors and the cannibalization of someone else’s source of income.

Then there’s the Wile E. Coyote effect — as long as Wile E. Coyote doesn’t look down, he’s suspended in air, even if he has just run off a cliff:

But the great danger is understanding that everything is flipped. During the 2008 crisis, many commentators said the markets have suddenly gone crazy, and it was exactly the reverse. The so-called great moderation that was pushed by Alan Greenspan, Timothy Geithner, and others was in fact a kind of madness, and the 2008 crisis represented a rare break in the insanity, where the market suddenly woke up to see what was actually going on. So the acute danger is not madness but sanity.

The problem is that prolonged madness simply compounds the disaster to come when sanity finally sets in.

Prenatal paracetamol impairs masculinisation

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Prenatal exposure to paracetamol (acetaminophen) impairs masculinisation of the male brain and behaviour:

Paracetamol/acetaminophen (N-Acetyl-p-Aminophenol; APAP) is the preferred analgesic for pain relief and fever during pregnancy. It has therefore caused concern that several studies have reported that prenatal exposure to APAP results in developmental alterations in both the reproductive tract and the brain. Genitals and nervous system of male mammals are actively masculinised during foetal development and early postnatal life by the combined actions of prostaglandins and androgens, resulting in the male-typical reproductive behaviour seen in adulthood. Both androgens and prostaglandins are known to be inhibited by APAP. Through intrauterine exposure experiments in C57BL/6 mice, we found that exposure to APAP decreased neuronal number in the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) of the preoptic area (POA) in the anterior hypothalamus of male adult offspring. Likewise, exposure to the environmental pollutant and precursor of APAP, aniline, resulted in a similar reduction. Decrease in neuronal number in the SDN-POA is associated with reductions in male sexual behaviour. Consistent with the changes, male mice exposed in uteri to APAP exhibited changes in urinary marking behaviour as adults and had a less aggressive territorial display towards intruders of the same gender. Additionally, exposed males had reduced intromissions and ejaculations during mating with females in oestrus. Together, these data suggest that prenatal exposure to APAP may impair male sexual behaviour in adulthood by disrupting the sexual neurobehavioral programming. These findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting the need to limit the widespread exposure and use of APAP by pregnant women.

(Hat tip to Richard Harper.)

The path to power for all “decent men” consists in a deeply deceptive competition to appear maximally unthreatening

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Justin Murphy just watched a documentary about John McAfee, and it helped him realize some things about supertoxic masculinity:

The McAfee story is profound because it shows in stunning, horrifying detail how the hyper-masculine drive to dominate really works in contemporary culture: when cranked sufficiently high, it rapidly and easily trounces any quantity of moral outrage and/or legal constraints, in a direct line toward the zenith of the global dominance hierarchy.

Moderate misogyny can get you exiled from contemporary public culture, often for good reason, but hyper-misogyny in an intelligent and driven male appears to give you sovereignty over public culture. It seems to me that, if feminism today has one genuinely catastrophic problem to be rightfully alarmist about, it might just be the small number of males who will not be domesticated through social-moral pressure.

First, a premise of my argument is that SJW culture is genuinely quite effective at minimizing the nastier masculine edges of large numbers of men, because most men are decent people who want to be liked and approved by most others. This is not an empirical article so I won’t go into it, but if you doubt there’s been a general cultural pacification of male aggression just watch a random film from the 1950s and then watch a random film at your local cinema. Anyway, people on the left and right disagree about what to call this trend, but its existence is attested by all. Feminists see this as men learning to be less violent and oppressive, and feminists celebrate women’s long-term positive effect on the civilizing of violent patriarchies; others see this as a kind of female totalitarianism and evidence of civilizational decline. But the fact that feminist cultural politics have exerted notable and widespread effects of generally reducing the expression of masculine aggression in public culture seems hard to dispute.

The hypothesis I would like to advance is that this social domestication of masculine tendencies has made our society more vulnerable to the rare cases of men who escape the filter of social opprobrium. The life of John McAfee is a case study of this problem.

Why would the social pacification of once popular, moderate masculinity empower more virulent forms of violent masculinity? Many lefties think that pacifying the larger mass of men will shift the whole distribution of male behavior, lowering the ceiling of how bad the worst men may become. I would say this is the dominant mental model of most SJWs, because it’s the basic picture that comes out of liberal arts education today (that our images of the world shape what we do in the world, hence the emphasis on media and “representations”).

The problem is that when the baseline of masculine dominance expression is held below it’s organic tendency, defined simply as what men would do in the absence of cultural campaigns to defang it, this increases the potential payoff to those who dare exercise it, as there are more resources to dominate precisely to the degree that other men are not contesting them. Not only does it increase the rewards available, it decreases the risk of competing for them, as the chance of being defeated by an equally aggressive male, or even just the chance of encountering costly competition at all, is lower than it would be in a world of much but minor, local masculine excess. We might also adduce a “rusty monitor” effect: Through the domestication of men over time, most people become blissfully forgetful about what genuinely dangerous men are capable of, decreasing the probability or the speed with which domesticated males might awake from their slumber.

Another reason the over-domestication of moderate masculinity is dangerous is that it makes it too easy for ethically lax “bad characters” to win all of the large number of local hierarchies that would typically have the function of imposing humility and modesty on cocky boys coming of age. If you’re a highly intelligent, confident, and driven young man, the complex difficulty of having to navigate multiple distinct local hierarchies (among other highly driven males themselves sometimes prone to dangerous excess) from a young age, teaches you very quickly that you cannot ever be the best at everything. And that if you cut corners anti-socially you will be destroyed by other males invested in the maintenance of sociality. Examples of local hierarchies are sports competition, dating, ethical honor or “character” in the neighborhood or religious community, or even just fleeting micro-social competition such as battles of wits in social gatherings. All of these things will function as negative feedback mechanisms tempering genuinely dangerous anti-social ambitions in young boys coming of age, but only if the other males are equally able and willing to play all of these games to the best of their abilities.

If you’re overzealous or immodest or you cheat or you ignore your standing in one local hierarchy to dominate another — all of these things tend to get constrained by other males of equal will and ability, who are also sometimes dangerous and who have an interest in knocking all wiley characters down a few notches. What’s happened in recent decades is that a non-trivial portion of the West’s most intelligent and ambitious males pursue cultural careers predicated very specifically on the strategic under-display of their will to power. Take someone like the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — he’s the leading politician of a whole country, so nobody can deny that this is a man with a substantial will to rise to the top through a whole series of competitive filters. But he is one of the best examples of how, today, the path to power for all “decent men” consists in a deeply deceptive competition to appear maximally unthreatening. One reason you get the John McAfee’s of the world is because they went to high school with the Justin Trudeau’s of the world. In all of the little, local hierarchies they encountered throughout life, people like John McAfee and Donald Trump learned that they could be as anti-socially ambitious as they pleased and no other intelligent and able men would check them (because those men were opting for the cultural capital that accrues to being feminist). A serious challenge for feminism is to see that someone like Justin Trudeau is seriously complicit in the production of the McAfees and Trumps of the world. And if your a cheer-leader for the former, you’re an objective supporter and producer of the latter.

I also think that people like McAfee and Trump learn early in life that if you are ostracized from social groups for exceeding moral expectations, then you can just channel your anti-social intelligence to making money all the more efficiently. That is, another key problem is that in secular, advanced capitalist countries such as the U.S., if you are smart and driven enough it is a feasible life path to accept absolute social exile by converting all of your energy into economic capital accumulation, and then build up a new social cosmos for yourself. The interesting thing is to see that this is really only psychologically and materially feasible in a very late stage of advanced western capitalism where non-economic criteria of value have all but disappeared. Whereas above we saw one reason for the emergence of the McAfee’s and Trump’s of the world is that there wasn’t enough local masculine aggression to check them throughout their life, here we note the specific problem that secular society lacks any effective adjudicator of human character other than economic prowess. In this particular dimension we see that the contemporary correlation of anti-capitalism and secularism/atheism is ultimately an untenable loop, because you never have an effective basis for anti-capitalist cultural change if you cannot submit to the possibility that values come from a place higher than practical reality. Of course people pretend they value other criteria, but those criteria don’t operate in the selection of who ultimately wins attention, esteem, and power in society as a whole. There was no person, and no entity, in the entire life of these men who could credibly convey that there exist things in life more powerful than money, for the simple reason that hardly anyone believes this anymore. And so the most toxically ambitious males become the very first to realize that one can very well quit the entire game of socio-moral respectability and shoot to the top of everything via radically unreflective capital accumulation.

Another reason why the constraining of moderate masculine toxicity may increase the power of supertoxic masculinity is that males may become more pathologically power hungry from lacking opportunities for healthy satiation. Once upon a time (for better or worse), masculine prowess promised a fair number of immediate satisfactions. The best football players received the genuine interest of the most desired girls in high school, say. But even from my own observations growing up, it was easy to see that as my cohort aged from about 10 years old up toward about 17 years old, conventionally masculine prowess became less and less effective at winning immediate social rewards. By the end of high school, the most desired girls were more interested in — I kid you not — a nationally competitive business role-playing team. What this suggests to me is that, aside from perhaps an early bump at the very beginning of adolescence, dominance hierarchies rapidly stop rewarding conventional masculine expressions of dominance behavior in favor of the capacity to elegantly dissimulate dominance behavior. Today all of the basic evolutionary machinery of mating and dominance competition remains in full operation, but it’s mind-bogglingly confusing because increasingly females select for males who can most creatively and effectively hide their power. What this means is that precisely the most over-flowingly aggressive males may be less and less likely to receive the basic, small doses of love and esteem that every human being requires, in their early socialization experiences. Combined with the previous point about the ultimate power of money, it’s easy to see how and why the feminist inversion of which males get selected by females (defining dominance as the dissimulation of dominance), has the direct consequence of leaving the most irrepressibly narcissistic and power-hungry males to seek unbridled social domination via capital, as a basic requirement for psychological self-maintenance.

The Celtic Holocaust

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Dan Carlin’s latest Hardcore History, episode 60, about The Celtic Holocaust, is self-recommending, as Tyler Cowen would say.

Celtic Holocaust

While listening, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were a beautifully illustrated and annotated Landmark Gallic Wars, like the Landmark Thucydides I picked up a few months back? Well, it turns out that a Landmark Julius Caesar is on its way. Go ahead and preorder it now. You deserve it.

SciFutures offers “corporate visioning”

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at UCLA:

“It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.” Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other — corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, moved to a smaller house, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and nato. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged. The authors’ stories, she added, which range in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, are “not just marketing pieces, but sometimes we have to pull back or adjust to accommodate a brand.” She and Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters.


One of SciFutures’s more prominent contributors is Ken Liu, a Hugo Award-winning author and the translator of the popular Chinese science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Liu told me that he relishes the level of influence that the firm offers. “As a freelancing gig, it’s not much money,” he said; typically, stories pay a few hundred dollars. “But you have the chance to shape and impact the development of a technology that matters to you. At a minimum, you know that your story will be read by an executive, somebody who’s actually able to decide whether to invest money and develop a product.” Liu dismissed the notion that writing science fiction for corporate clients compromised something essential about the genre. “I’m not a big fan of this vision of the artist as some independent, amazing force for good,” he said. “Everybody writes in a context for an audience.”

The audience that gives SciFutures writers the most freedom to imagine negative outcomes is, not surprisingly, the military. “Those stories can be grittier,” Phillips said. “They already do a lot of worst-case-scenario planning.” Last year, she and her colleagues produced thirteen stories that were read and discussed in a workshop for forty senior officials from a range of nato member countries. One involves a “smart gun” that gets hacked, nearly causing a massacre of civilians. Another, told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl in Uruguay, describes a group of child soldiers around the world who shoot targets through an online gaming site without realizing that the game is real: they are operating drones and other remote weapons that kill enemies of the Russian government. (Readers familiar with Orson Scott Card’s novel “Ender’s Game,” from 1985, may notice some similarities.) A third story follows a member of a Chinese “Fear Battalion,” a group of soldiers who have been genetically modified to emit a pheromone that induces terror in anyone who smells it.

As a woman in tech, Megan McArdle realized: these are not my people

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Until the age of 26, Megan McArdle was employed as a technology consultant by a small firm that served the financial industry, where she realized something:

I built servers and workstations, mostly for banks, and in a happy foreshadowing of my future writing for Bloomberg View, I installed some of the first PC-based Bloomberg terminals for a Japanese firm’s office in New York.

Finance back then was heavily male, as it is now. And technology, the same. At the intersection of the two … well, I can count on one hand all the women I worked with directly during almost four years of consulting.

It was very male-centric. I heard about client outings, involving strippers, to which I was obviously not invited. And the sexual harassment (entirely from clients, not colleagues), could be spectacular.

Which has nothing to do with why I left. This will make me sound a bit dim, but at the time, it never occurred to me that being a female in this bro ecosystem might impinge my ultimate career prospects. Nor did I miss having women in the room. I liked working with the bros just fine. And the sexual harassment, while annoying, was just that: annoying. I cannot recall that it ever affected my work, nor that I lost any sleep over it.

No, the reason I left is that I came into work one Monday morning and joined the guys at our work table, and one of them said “What did you do this weekend?”

I was in the throes of a brief, doomed romance. I had attended a concert that Saturday night. I answered the question with an account of both. The guys stared blankly. Then silence. Then one of them said: “I built a fiber-channel network in my basement,” and our co-workers fell all over themselves asking him to describe every step in loving detail.

At that moment I realized that fundamentally, these are not my people. I liked the work. But I was never going to like it enough to blow a weekend doing more of it for free. Which meant that I was never going to be as good at that job as the guys around me.

Buy more time

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Spending money on time-saving services may result in greater life satisfaction, according to a new PNAS study:

An international team of researchers surveyed more than 6,000 men and women across the United States, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands about their spending habits.

Those in the study who spent money on services to buy time — by paying other people to do the cleaning or cooking, for example — reported greater happiness compared to those who did not, regardless of their level of income.


“Some of our results are intuitive,” she continued. “For example, people should derive some satisfaction from outsourcing things like scrubbing the toilet or cleaning bathrooms. Yet just under half the millionaires we surveyed spent money to outsource disliked tasks.”

One factor that could explain why more people who could afford to don’t purchase these time-saving services could be guilt, the study authors suggest. Some people may feel guilty for paying someone to do tasks they simply don’t want to complete themselves.


“Busy-ness has become a status symbol in North America,” Whillans explained. “People want to feel they can manage all components of their lives.”


In addition to the first large study, Whillans and her colleagues performed a second, smaller experiment in a group of 60 working Canadian adults, giving them $40 to spend on a time-saving purchase one week and $40 to spend on a material purchase the second week. People who decided to spend money to save time, the researchers found, reported greater well-being than when money was spent on a material purchase.

“Here is a blind spot in human decision making: we don’t see the unhappiness from small annoying tasks,” Ariely said. “Part of it is we don’t experiment much. In order to figure out what works best for you, it’s not enough to have an intuition. You need to try out different things, whether for your health, relationships or saving money. The same goes for finding happiness.”

But it wasn’t easy for people in the second study to choose spending money on saving time — only two percent reported on the spot that they would make a time-saving purchase. The authors said part of the reason may be long-standing cultural and gender roles.

Where did summer vacation come from?

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Where did summer vacation come from?

In 1869, a charismatic preacher named William H. H. Murray published a guide to the rugged Adirondacks of upstate New York, extolling them as an antidote to the enervating effects of modern life. He wrote of his desire to “encourage manly exercise in the open air, and familiarity with Nature in her wildest and grandest aspects.”  Murray spoke of how city dwellers weighed down by work emerged from the northern woods revived and bursting with health.

The book was an immediate bestseller, going through numerous printings. In 1869, hordes of tourists dubbed “Murray’s Fools” arrived in the Adirondacks via a new railway line, only to find themselves beset by flies, alarmed by deer tracks, and otherwise flummoxed by life in the great outdoors. The press had a field day with Murray, but the good preacher persisted, and each year, more and more Americans arrived in the mountains.

The massive expansion of railroads opened this and many other locales to white-collar workers seeking a place to spend some time away from the stress of modern life, even if they sometimes made leisure a form of work. Many of today’s favorite summer destinations – the Great Lakes, the White Mountains, the Jersey Shore, the coast of Maine – all began as vacation meccas at this time.

But when parents contemplated bringing the kids, they immediately ran into a serious problem. At this time, schools followed one of two calendars, neither of which was compatible with the idea of summer vacation.  In rural areas, schools opened their doors in the winter and the summer, but closed their doors in the spring and fall, when parents needed children to help out on farms with planting and harvesting. Cities, by contrast, remained open all year. Neither system was conducive to bringing the kids on summer vacation.

But it was precisely this same era that school reformers began voicing the same concerns about “brain work” that doctors had raised about adults. Horace Mann, arguably the most influential school reformer of the 19th century, wrote with conviction that “health itself is destroyed by overstimulating the mind.” Likewise, the Pennsylvania School Journal voiced anxiety that because children spent too much time in school, they were “growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered [and] thin-breasted, all because they were kept at study too long.”

In cities, this argument had particular resonance, no doubt because poorly ventilated, sweltering classrooms were miserable for students and teachers alike. In rural areas studied by Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, education reformers began pushing to revamp the school calendar, as well, creating the now standard school calendar.

In truth, much of the impetus for the shift likely came from the teachers themselves, who had by this time organized themselves.  They pushed for summer vacation because, well, they wanted a break. As one reformer arguing against year-round schooling noted: “Teachers need a summer vacation more than bad boys need a whipping.”

If parents really want to give their kids a movie night, they’ll pay

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Virginia Postrel recently went to see Atomic BLonde, and someone brought two kids to the very R-rated movie:

Its fight scenes are lethal and bloody. “Character is choked with a garrote, very visible and intense, lasts for a :30-:60 seconds,” is one note from IMDB’s parents guide. The only respite from the mayhem is a lesbian love scene.


Like most U.S. theaters, AMC bars kids under 6 from R-rated movies after 6:00 p.m. “Since implementing this policy, guest complaints concerning noise in the theatres have decreased significantly,” a spokeswoman told me by email. Our 7:15 showing was covered by the rule — and demonstrated its flaws.

The first is that children under 6 don’t have driver’s licenses. If the parents say the kids qualify for admission, the theater has to take their word for it. Unless a child is so disruptive that the rest of the audience complains, it’s easy enough to break the rule. Maybe the kids near us were 6, maybe not.

The second is that the mere presence of children too young to understand a movie disturbs other audience members.


Instead of charging children $3.00 less than adults at R-rated movies, charge them $5.00 more. If parents really want to give their kids a movie night, they’ll pay. But if they just don’t want to pay a babysitter, they’ll stay home and let everyone else enjoy the show.

I still remember someone bringing little kids to the matinée of Gladiator years ago. Not cool.

The economic benefits of the French Revolution came about while increasing inequality and consolidating wealth

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

The economic benefits of the French Revolution came about while increasing inequality and consolidating wealth:

In 1789, the revolutionary government seized French lands owned by the church, about 6.5% of the country, and redistributed them through auction. This move provided a useful experiment for the researchers—Susquehanna University’s Theresa Finley, Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Raphaël Franck, and George Mason University’s Noel Johnson.

They tracked the agricultural outputs of the properties and the investment in infrastructure like irrigation, and find that areas with the most church property before the revolution—and thus the most redistribution afterward—saw higher output and more investment over the next 50-plus years. They also found more inequality in the size of farms, thanks to consolidation of previously fragmented land, than in areas with less redistribution.


Before the revolution, large landholders like the church tended to focus on renting out their land to small-holders, but these small plots didn’t reward investment in large-scale irrigation or other improvements, especially since feudal authorities would collect much of the results. They also faced numerous legal obstacles to selling their land to someone who might invest in it. The system put too many costs on smart investments to be effective.


“The auctioning-off of Church land during the Revolutionary period gave some regions a head-start in reallocating feudal property rights and adopting more efficient agricultural practices,” the researchers conclude. “The agricultural modernization enabled by the redistribution of Church land did not stem from a more equal land ownership structure, but by increasing land inequality.”

Some workers simply aren’t worth the trouble

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Some workers simply aren’t worth the trouble, Tyler Cowen notes, and these “zero marginal product” workers account for a growing percentage of out workforce. Handle makes a similar point about military recruits:

During the surge and temporary force-builds, the Army and Marines had to lower standards and accept less impressive applicants in order to meet accession quotas for enlistedmen. Usually that involved relaxing each of the many standards each by a little bit. Actually, the system pretends the standards aren’t being changed at all, but that individuals are being granted discretionary ‘waivers’ of a typical standard on a one by one basis by commanders, which is the system ordinarily used rarely in exceptional cases for people with extreme talent or value in some area, but maybe just under the threshold for one of the standards. Well, suddenly these waivers were routine. Still, there is value to keeping the standards ‘in the book’ the same, since everybody still knows what they are supposed to do, and the waivers will eventually go away when the pressure is off.

But eventually you are going to be cutting into muscle and bone and not able to relax some standards any more. And someone is going to discover where you are going to get the most bang for your buck in terms of the greatest numbers resulting from a policy change in the other standards. That turned out to be in background check department, which gave rise to the whole ‘moral waivers’ problem. A lot of these guys were good soldiers, fit enough and smart enough to fit in, go fighting downrange, and get the job done well, but, inevitably, a huge number of them got into serious disciplinary trouble at some point. They were good workers who would get in trouble, which is a very different problem from the obedient and law-abiding ones that just aren’t up to snuff.

In times when men were desperately needed, when those men got in trouble, they’d get slapped on the wrist with minor penalties, or even just a good old-fashioned “smoke the shit out of him” extended painful-exertion session with an NCO. But as soon as Congress announced the numbers had to go down — by a lot, and quickly — then a very different message went out to commanders. Suddenly every little thing was a dischargeable offense, and it was, predictably, disproportionately the moral-waiver guys who were getting kicked out.

Environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Psychologists have been plagued by a paradox that suggests that environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent:

The paradox emerged from a debate about race. US whites outscore US blacks on IQ tests by 15 points. Does that gap have environmental causes or is it partially due to genes? In 1973, Arthur Jensen constructed a model that applied kinship data to group differences in IQ. Evidence from kinship studies showed identical twins separated at birth and raised in different homes grow up with very similar IQs. The fact that they have identical genes provides an obvious explanation. Jensen argued that fully 75 percent of IQ variance between individuals was due to genetic differences (a value which sits in the middle of the range recently endorsed by a select committee of the American Psychological Association for adult IQ). Jensen’s model showed that a purely environmental explanation of the black/white IQ gap meant that the environment of the average US black must be as unfavorable for the development of IQ as the lowest one percent of white environments measured in terms of their effects on IQ. That simply did not seem possible.

Jensen’s model seemed to preclude a purely environmental explanation for any large IQ gap between groups. Then, in 1987, Flynn showed that in nation after nation, the current generation outscores the last generation by some 9 to 20 IQ points. The gains are greatest on those tests often called the best measures of intelligence. Their size and speed dictate an environmental explanation. Flynn applied Jensen’s model. An environmental explanation meant putting the current generation within the top one-tenth of one percent of the last generation in terms of environmental quality. What was known to be true was shown to be impossible.

How could solid evidence show both that environment was so feeble (kinship studies) and yet so potent (IQ gains over time)?

Dickens has proposed a model that we believe solves the paradox. It assumes that people who have an advantage for a particular trait will become matched with superior environments for that trait; and that genes can derive a great advantage from this because genetic differences are persistent. A genetic advantage remains with you throughout life, while environmental differences tend to come and go, unless sustained by the steady pressure of genes.

Take those born with genes that make them a bit taller and quicker than average. When they start school, they are likely to be a bit better at basketball. The advantage may be modest but then reciprocal causation between the talent advantage and environment kicks in. Because you are better at basketball, you are likely to enjoy it more and play it more than someone who is bit slow or short or overweight. That makes you better still. Your genetic advantage is upgrading your environment, the amount of time you play and practice, and your enhanced environment in turn upgrades your skill. You are more likely to be picked for your school team and to get professional coaching.

Thanks to genes capitalizing on the powerful multiplying effects of the feedback between talent and environment, a modest genetic advantage has turned into a huge performance advantage. Just as small genetic differences match people with very different environments, so identical genes tend to produce very similar environments—even when children are raised in separate homes.

In other words, kinship studies of basketball, no matter whether they involved people with identical genes or different genes, would underestimate the potency of environmental factors. Playing, practicing, being on a team, coaching, all of these would be credited to genes—simply because differences in them tend to accompany genetic differences between individuals. Genes might seem to account for as much as 75 percent of variance across individuals in basketball performance. If someone showed that the present generation was far more skilled at basketball than the last (as indeed they are), Jensen’s math would prove that it was impossible. It would show that those aspects of environment that are not correlated with genes (which is all that environment gets credit for in kinship studies) were very feeble. So feeble that the present generation would have to be within the top one percent of the last in terms of quality of environment for basketball.

The cognitive ability differences measured by IQ tests may have the same dynamics. People whose genes send them into life with a small advantage for these abilities start with a modest performance advantage. Then genes begin to drive the powerful engine of reciprocal causation between ability and environment. You begin by being a bit better at school and are encouraged by this, while others who are a bit ‘slow’ get discouraged. You study more, which upgrades your cognitive performance, earn praise for your grades, start haunting the library, get into a top stream. Another child finds that sport is his or her strong suit, does the minimum, does not read for pleasure, and gets into a lower stream. Both of you may go to the same school but the environments you make for yourselves within that school will be radically different. The modest initial cognitive advantage conferred by genes becomes enormously multiplied.

He picked it up

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Handle has returned to discuss Average Is Over. Tyler Cowen’s book reminds him of a friend’s situation:

I know a Tesla mechanic and he really likes his job. He used to work for BMW, and said it had a truly toxic culture (not one that sounded very traditionally German) and the rats (i.e. other mechanics) were fleeing from a sinking ship. A former BMW maintenance manager was poached by Tesla, and he knew who the good guys were at BMW, and so was given the task of poaching them too.

Which really make you think.

One thing Tesla has is that anyone who can create a new car company from scratch will maintain a permanent advantage over all established car companies, in that it won’t be saddled with all those tremendous pension liabilities to former workers, and established super-powerful unions. Musk certainly has an incentive to get as far ahead on the automation curve as possible to avoid ever having to deal with those problems at anything like the magnitude of burden all the other companies must carry.

That makes it very hard for any established company to eat his lunch by copying simple and widely available tech, while also making it hard for any other new company to overcome the barrier to entry, especially if future subsidies are likely to be less generous than what Musk got to help him get started. That means there is a special, one-time opportunity to pick up this particular $100 bill off the sidewalk. He picked it up.

I admit I didn’t give this particular advantage enough consideration before, and now it seems to help account for Tesla’s unique ability to capitalize on electric cars with big batteries, which, after all, anyone can make. But his timing means that he’s the only one that can make them both with the most generous subsidies and before amassing manufacturing-era labor liabilities and before sclerosis infects his company.

It’s not necessarily regulatory arbitrage as it is also a kind of legacy sclerosis arbitrage. Indeed, this was and remains a considerably portion of the competitive advantage of East Asian automakers in the US market. All else being equal, the Big Three had to make an extra few thousand dollars per vehicle to pay for their liabilities. Tesla gets to start from scratch with a clean slate. That just having a clean slate is such a huge advantage these days is revealing in itself. Combined with ludicrously generous crony subsidies, it makes a strong case for his special, inimitable position.

Furthermore, in addition to not being saddled with the unions and all those pension liabilities to former workers, he’s got another advantage which accrues to any new company in an established sector, indeed one the big Silicon Valley companies have conspired among themselves to avoid by means of forming a labor-market demand-side cartel.

I’m guessing a lot of your work environments are a lot like mine, where compensation is fairly flat and compressed and bears little relation to ones marginal productivity in the short term, despite everyone knowing informally who is really pulling the weight. In the long term high performers are rewarded with promotions, but this suffers from Peter Principle problems, and anyway only works in tall hierarchies. There is a new employee where I work who is getting paid nearly as much as I am, but who is doing 20% of the work, because he is a moron, but he beats everybody in seniority, which is, alas, how the system works. He won’t get promoted, but in a way that’s almost worse, since the good performers will leave the job and people like him will stick around, lowering average productivity.

Everybody I know has lots stories like these.

So that creates another kind of obvious arbitrage opportunity. Maybe “Productivity Correlation Arbitrage.” If one could only pick one good manager in a unit or office, tell him he must fire 60% of people, and that he has unlimited authority to fire anyone he wants, and those he retains will get paid double so long as all the work gets done, then I have no doubt that the company and everyone left will be much better off.

Some seasonal companies actually do something like via over-hiring, automatic attrition, and selective rehiring. I had an uncle-in law who worked a job like this on the Alaskan oil fields and called it something like an “underbrush fire” that left all the big timbers standing.

But most mature organizations, especially those saddled with strong unions, can’t legally or practically manage anything remotely approaching this kind of ruthless culling.

But if a new company can poach a few good managers with the special inside knowledge needed to be future poachers of more good people, then your new company can start off with much better people producing much more value and for only a little more money. Is Tesla doing this too? That’s pretty smart, and it seems to borrow from some insights that may have been gained from Silicon Valley experiences.

Hmm… something to think about.

Invasiveness may explain its potency

Friday, August 11th, 2017

You can call it one hell of a placebo:

The guy’s desperate. The pain in his knee has made it impossible to play basketball or walk down stairs. In search of a cure, he makes a journey to a healing place, where he’ll undergo a fasting rite, don ceremonial garb, ingest mind-altering substances and be anointed with liquids before a masked healer takes him through a physical ritual intended to vanquish his pain.

Seen through different eyes, the process of modern surgery may look more more spiritual than scientific, said orthopedic surgeon Stuart Green, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Our hypothetical patient is undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, and the rituals he’ll participate in — fasting, wearing a hospital gown, undergoing anesthesia, having his surgical site prepared with an iodine solution, and giving himself over to a masked surgeon — foster an expectation that the procedure will provide relief, Green said.

These expectations matter, and we know they matter because of a bizarre research technique called sham surgery. In these fake operations, patients are led to believe that they are having a real surgical procedure — they’re taken through all the regular pre- and post- surgical rituals, from fasting to anesthesia to incisions made in their skin to look like the genuine operation occurred — but the doctor does not actually perform the surgery. If the patient is awake during the “procedure,” the doctor mimics the sounds and sensations of the true surgery, and the patient may be shown a video of someone else’s procedure as if it were his own.

Sham surgeries may sound unethical, but they’re done with participants’ consent and in pursuit of an important question: Does the surgical procedure under consideration really work? In a surprising number of cases, the answer is no.

A 2014 review of 53 trials that compared elective surgical procedures to placebos found that sham surgeries provided some benefit in 74 percent of the trials and worked as well as the real deal in about half.1 Consider the middle-aged guy going in for surgery to treat his knee pain. Arthroscopic knee surgery has been a common orthopedic procedure in the United States, with about 692,000 of them performed in 2010,2 but the procedure has proven no better than a sham when done to address degenerative wear and tear, particularly on the meniscus.3

Meniscus repair is only one commonly performed orthopedic surgery that has failed to produce better results than a sham surgery. A back operation called vertebroplasty (done to treat compression fractures in the spine) and something called intradiscal electrothermal therapy, a “minimally invasive” treatment for herniated disks and low back pain, have also produced study results that suggest they may be no more effective than a sham at reducing pain in the long term.

Such findings show that these procedures don’t work as promised, but they also indicate that there’s something powerful about believing that you’re having surgery and that it will fix what ails you. Green hypothesizes that a surgery’s placebo effect is proportional to the elaborateness of the rituals surrounding it, the surgeon’s expressed confidence and enthusiasm for the procedure, and a patient’s belief that it will help.

Weirdly enough, surgery’s invasiveness may explain some of its potency. Studies have shown that invasive procedures produce a stronger placebo effect than non-invasive ones, said researcher Jonas Bloch Thorlund of the University of Southern Denmark. A pill can provoke a placebo effect, but an injection produces an even stronger one. Cutting into someone appears to be more powerful still.

The general consequences of race mixture can be predicted with confidence

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

A Duke ethics professor made a terrible mistake:

After reading some recent work on the biology of group differences last summer, it occurred to me that as an ethics professor, I should write something about the moral upshot: if there are such differences, what are the consequences for how we should treat one another? Should we support policies that attempt to equalize opportunities only if they produce equal outcomes?

My conclusion was modest: if there are biological differences between groups, and if, as Lee Jussim has argued, some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.

But I had committed a sin in the eyes of the two referees who read and commented on my paper. I simply acknowledged the possibility of group differences while arguing that whether or not they exist, they should not matter. For having done that, the two journal referees used expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered. (Needless to say, the paper was not accepted for publication after such hostile comments.)

This leads Razib Khan to share R. A. Fisher’s thoughts on race and human genetic variation, in response to the UNESCO statement on the Race Concept, published after WWII:

In so far as the Statement condemns any defamation of races and emphasizes the appalling nature of the recent abuse of racial theory, it has my full and unqualified approval. I wholeheartedly agree, also, with its explicit and implicit finding that anthropology and racial studies afford no justification for the assumption that members of any particular race are not entitled the enjoyment of all fundamental rights, or for any form of racial discrimination. And I am very glad that, after all the horrors that have been perpetrated, these principles should have been enunciated clearly and publicized widely by an organization of such standing and by distinguished men as the authors of this Statement.

But the Statement also purports to be an authoritative body of scientific doctrines, and this is quite a different matter. Without touching upon the content of these doctrines, and quite apart from whether or not they meet with my approval, I must register my fundamental opposition to the advancing of scientific theses as such, and protest against it.

I recall the National Socialists’ notorious attempts to establish certain doctrines as the only correct conclusions to be drawn from research on race, and their suppression of any contrary opinion; as well as the Soviet Government’s similar claim on behalf of Lysenko’s theory of heredity, and its condemnation of Mendel’s teaching. The present Statement likewise puts forward certain scientific doctrines as the only correct ones, and quite obviously expects them to receive general endorsement as such. I repeat that, without assuming any attitude towards the substance of the doctrines in the Statement, I am opposed to the principle of advancing them as doctrines. The experience of the past have strengthened my conviction that freedom of scientific enquiry is imperiled when any scientific findings or opinions are elevated, by an authoritative body, into the position of doctrines.

Fisher believed that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concluded that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist”.

Khan goes on to quote from page 238 of his edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection:

The general consequences of race mixture can be predicted with confidence…Their general character will therefore be intermediate, but their variability will be greater than that of the original races. Morever, new combinations of virtue and ability, and of their opposites, will appear in the mixed race, combinations which are not necessarily heterozygous, but may be fixed as permanent racial characters. There are thus in the mixed race great possibilities for the action of selection. If selection is beneficient, and the better types leave the greater number of descendants, the ultimate effect of mixture will be the production of a race, not inferior to either those from which it sprang, but rather superior to both, in so far as the advantages of both can be combined. Unfavorable selection, on the other hand, will be more rapidly disastrous to a mixed race than to its progenitors. It should of course be remembered that all existing races show very great variability in respect of hereditary factors, so that selections of the intensity to which mankind is exposed would be capable of producing rapid changes, even in the purest existing race.