So far this is the must-see movie of the year, directed by Sarah Polley, Wikipedia entry here, and yes it has plenty of social science. Descriptions involve spoilers, so I will desist. If you’ve already seen the film read this to be clued in.
One sometimes hears arguments for busing or against private schools that say we need to prevent the best kids from leaving in order to benefit their less advantaged peers. I find such arguments distasteful. People should not be treated as means. I must confess, therefore, that I took some pleasure at the findings of a recent paper by Carrell, Sacerdote, and West:
We take cohorts of entering freshmen at the United States Air Force Academy and assign half
to peer groups designed to maximize the academic performance of the lowest ability students.
Our assignment algorithm uses nonlinear peer effects estimates from the historical pre-treatment
data, in which students were randomly assigned to peer groups. We find a negative and significant treatment effect for the students we intended to help. We provide evidence that within our
“optimally” designed peer groups, students avoided the peers with whom we intended them to
interact and instead formed more homogeneous sub-groups. These results illustrate how policies
that manipulate peer groups for a desired social outcome can be confounded by changes in the
endogenous patterns of social interactions within the group.
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Do note that this discussion is not a critique of the paper which is very well done.
You will find his essay here, and I have many points of agreement with him, but I think he undervalues the first series. Characters and script were excellent in about sixty percent of the original episodes. It is also noteworthy that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later. It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now. I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like, where Matt can tweet something like “Animated series is non-canon, people. Get with the program.” If you’d like a treat, watch some of the D.C. Fontana-scripted Star Trek episodes, noting that “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is one of the funniest and most profound takes on “the great stagnation” to be found in popular culture or anywhere else for that matter. And it was written before the great stagnation even started, and by Roddenberry’s office assistant at that. Magic was in the air. As for “Spock’s Brain,” well, that is another matter.
I’d be curious to see Tyler’s “completist” list. In other words, authors whose entire body of work merits reading. If this does get a response, I’m most interested in seeing the list begin with literature.
I’ll repeat my earlier mention of Geza Vermes. And to make the exercise meaningful, let’s rule out people who wrote one or two excellent books and then stopped. Adam Smith is too easy a pick. I won’t start with literature, however, but here are some choices:
1. Fernand Braudel.
2. George Orwell. Plato. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Hume. William James.
3. Franz Kafka, he died young.
4. T.J. Clark, historian of art and European thought.
5. J.C. D. Clark, the British historian.
Let’s stop here and take stock. Many historians will make the list, because if they are good they will find it difficult to produce crap. Without research, they cannot put pen to paper, and with research a careful, thoughtful historian is likely to be interesting. With thought you could come up with a few hundred historians who were consistently interesting and never wrote a bad book. Then you have a few extreme geniuses, and J.S. Mill might make the list if not for System of Logic, which by the way Mill himself thought stood among his best works. Timon of Athens hurts Shakespeare but he also comes very close.
Do any producers of “ideas books” make this list? Other than those listed under #2 of course. And are there truly consistent (and excellent) authors of fiction, other than those with a small number of works? I’m not thinking of many. How about Virginia Woolf or John Milton or Jane Austen?
One also could make an “opposite” of this list, namely important authors whose works are mostly not worth reading, and you could start with Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley. The existence of Kindle makes it easier to discover who these people really are.
Here is the abstract:
In this very casual paper, I reproduce results from the Google Ngram Viewer. The main thrust is to show that around 1880 governmentalization of society and culture began to set in — a great transformation, as Karl Polanyi called it. But that great transformation came as a reaction to liberalism, the first great transformation. The Ngrams shown include liberty, constitutional liberty, faith, eternity, God, social gospel, college professors, psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, criminology, new liberalism, old liberalism, public school system, Pledge of Allegiance, income tax, government control, run the country, lead the country, lead the nation, national unity, priorities, social justice, equal opportunity, economic inequality, forced to work, living wage, social needs, our society, bundle of rights, property rights, capitalism, right-wing, left-wing, virtue, wisdom, prudence, benevolence, diligence, fortitude, propriety, ought, good conduct, bad conduct, good works, evil, sentiments, impartial, objective, subjective, normative, values, preferences, beliefs, and information.
The paper is here. Here is one example:
Remember Max, who wrote into MR asking for career advice? Max’s situation now has been turned into an NPR Planet Money segment, link here. There is audio at that link (very cleverly done) but here is part of their text:
The fact that Max and other young college graduates can even entertain this question — “What is my passion?” — is a new conundrum, and still a luxury not everybody enjoys. Yet, Tyler recently told me, it is “a central question of our time.”
So what’s the best, most rational answer for Max? It seems like economics could help; after all, it’s about costs and benefits and modeling complicated decisions.
But, Tyler says, “it was a truly difficult, tough question to make any progress on.”
Months passed. Tyler felt guilty. So he invited Max to lunch, and brought along two other economists — Bryan Caplan and Garett Jones — for backup. The economists posed questions to help Max frame the issue:
- How much are you willing to suffer in the short run to get a better future?
- Have you ever considered working in Asia?
- How important will it be to spend X number of hours with your kids? And what is that X?
- How well do you understand your own defects?
- What does 50-year-old Max want?
- Can your community be a cyber community, or do you need to have a face-to-face community?
In the end, the three economists did not advise Max to pursue some particular career path. They didn’t even give very specific advice. But they did all agree that Max’s lack of a passion could work to his advantage. Pursuing a passion — especially if it’s a popular passion — often doesn’t pay very well.
I’ve seen this work bashed a number of times in the blogosphere over the last few years. It didn’t get everything right, but it remains an important and seminal work and at the time of its publication it was a revelatory work. Let’s turn the microphone over to Albert Hirschman, hardly a right-wing ideologue. This is from Jeremy Adelman’s very useful biography of Hirschman:
…when he [Hirschman] found a copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s recently published…The Road to Serfdom in a Rome bookstore, a nerve was struck: “Reading this book is very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate — it makes you rethink many things and has shown me in how many important points I have moved away from the beliefs I had when I was 18 years old. The experience of the army has also confirmed or rather demonstrated forcefully the advantages of a monetary society, anonymous, and where one preserves at least a sector of private initiative.”
…Even more than a reminder of his skepticism of statist planners, Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes who cause and nature he cannot understand.”
Hirschman was never convinced by Hayek’s desire to rely so heavily on the market, but in this appreciation of the book you will find more wisdom than in the recent attempted take downs. In essence, the critics are not grasping how backward was the intellectual climate when Hayek’s book came out and what a useful corrective it was.
By the way, here is a new and good Cass Sunstein review of the Adelman bio of Hirschman.
Addendum: From the comments, Ricardo points us to Sen’s nice words about the book.
Bentham’s famous defense (or should I say advocacy?) of homosexuality and other non-traditional sexual and romantic relationships — he describes them as the “eccentric mode” — is now available in its entirety, for the first time I believe. Here is a blog post about the new publication. It is a fascinating work throughout and homosexuality is central to his answer to Malthus and the dangers of excess population.
The full text is freely available here (pdf), about two hundred pages. Here is one typical excerpt:
Yet by such a multitude of those who would start with horror at the very mention of a gratification afforded to the sexual appetite in any eccentric mode, how compleatly dissolute and unlimited is the indulgence afforded to the appetites of which the organs of taste and smell are the instruments, and how enormous is the expence at and by which this indulgence is so constantly and regularly procured.By those by whom, to the pleasures of the table, no limits are attempted to be set other than those set, as above, by the allied considerations [of] self-regarding prudence and benevolence, why to the pleasures of the bed should any narrower limits be assigned? With what consistency can any difference be made in the extent given to the limits in the two cases? So much as to the question between the pleasures of the table taken in the aggregate on the one part, and the pleasures of the bed on the other.
Has Andrew Sullivan read this book? Through jstor, here is a related David M. Levy piece.
That is a question from Annie Lowrey, who recognizes its (supposed) “extreme folly.”
I’ve thought about this for years, and always Knoxville, Tennessee comes to mind. Knoxville is big enough to be something, but not a truly large metropolis, being only the third largest city in Tennessee. It is educated enough to avoid some of the more stereotypical features of the South and indeed it was recently named the #2 “reading city” in America. It has elements of the South and of Appalachia, two major regions of the country. Eleven percent of Knox County adults are “binge drinkers.” It is not one of “12 American boomtowns.”
What else in America might be typical?
Ethnically speaking, Wichita Falls is close to the national norm.
According to this article, high poverty and unemployment are wrecking the averageness of Peoria, Illinois.
Louisville is not a bad pick.
Obviously we must rule out NY, CA, TX, and probably any coastal state as well. I can see the virtues of selecting a Kansas City suburb, which picks up elements of both the South and the Midwest, but I fear that is in a way too typical. The most average place in the United States is in fact just a bit off and has some flavor of its own and choosing Knoxville picks up that too.
I don’t think we economists have quite gotten to the bottom of sleep. To the extent we think of it at all, I think we are inclined to think of it as an input in a kind of Gary Becker way. More sleep = less time for production and consumption, but too little sleep harms the productivity of both production and consumption. Solve for the optimum (in which you will be slightly over-tired all the time).In this model the objective function is to maximize the present value of all future WAKING consumption. Adopting this approach, studies showing that more sleep = longer life are not very persuasive, because the effect would have to be huge before more total hours would translate into more waking hours, particularly since the old-age hours are highly discounted. (Of course some people believe the decades-away future may bear huge positive shocks – new therapies, new kinds of experiences, etc.- and this would offset the discount.)I don’t find this model very convincing. Many people don’t view time spent sleeping as time wasted. Is enjoying a good nap merely a synonym for enjoying subsequent consumption more intensively, or do we perhaps actually enjoy a good nap? (My 17 year old son is adamant that he enjoys sleeping and sometimes it seems to be his favorite activity.)
And he follows up with this:
…My conjecture is that these wake drugs will mostly change the intertemporal substitutability of sleep. It will be easy to “borrow” wakefulness the night before an exam, during an extended battle, etc. But the total amount of lifetime sleep will be little affected. Qui vivra, verra.Could also be related to the frequency and pleasantness of dreams. I have frequent and sometimes quite interesting dreams so giving up on sleep would be more of a sacrifice for me than for someone who has few dreams or frightening ones.
Much of it concerns the origins and application of violence, but this blog post on Randall Collins and his theory of ritual, by Xavier Marquez, is interesting throughout. Here is one excerpt:
The (relative) insignificance of ideology. Taken in its strongest terms, Collins’ theory seems to suggest that ideology is generally unimportant. Whether a symbol acquires socially motivating value depends much less on its “generalized” meaning than on its place within chains of interaction rituals; we are not generally the dupes of rhetorical framings and persuasive strategies except in the context of successful ritual situations. (Collins notes, for example, that most advertisement seems to be unsuccessful at actually persuading people to buy products, and is mostly intended to preserve attention space against competitors). From this perspective, the decline of labor movements worldwide, for example, may owe less to any ideological changes (“persuasion” and “manipulation” taken in a very broad sense) than to (intentional or unintentional) changes in the conditions for the ritual production of solidarity. Chris Bertram recently mused on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death that UK society used to be socially more class-differentiated (there were strong institutions where class solidarities and roles were produced) but is now less so (since these institutions have vanished), despite very low levels of economic mobility and higher levels of economic inequality; many people now “feel” that there is more equality. From the interaction ritual perspective, these changes are not the result of the working class becoming simply convinced of lies due to clever persuasive strategies by elites, but of the less central place of rituals and symbols reinforcing class solidarity in their lives. This is in turn due to any number of causes: laws that made labor unions more difficult to organize, structural changes in employment patterns, the decay of rituals of deference, the emergence of rituals focused on celebrities that cut across social class, etc.
Collins is one of the most important social scientists in the world today, though in many circles he remains underdiscussed. You will find previous MR coverage of him here. The pointer is from @HenryFarrell.
The biggest difference between American parents and their counterparts in Europe might be that they are far more relaxed about enrichment than we are, according to a study released this week by Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super at the School of Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.
Not only are Americans far more likely to focus on their children’s intelligence and cognitive skills, they are also far less likely to describe them as “happy” or “easy” children to parent.
“The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else,” Harkness told Slate .
For part of their research, the authors focused just on parents in the United States and the Netherlands. The differences are stark: American parents emphasized setting aside “special time” with each of their children, while Dutch parents spent a few hours each day together with their kids as an entire family.
…American parents were the only ones to consistently mention their children’s advanced intellect, while other countries focused on qualities like “happiness,” being “easy” to manage, or the even more zen-like “well-balanced,” in Italy. (Italians also used the word simpatico, a group of characteristics suggesting social and emotional competence).
The article, by Olga Khazan, is interesting throughout and for the pointer I thank an excellent and loyal MR reader.
I picked up these two volumes on the basis of a very favorable review reproduced on The Browser, by Noel Malcolm. Yet the books sat around the house for months. I figured this was another overwrought survey by a famous person, valuable mainly as an introduction for those who don’t know much about the topic. The subtitle of volume one, by the way, is A History of Political Thought Herodotus to Machiavelli. Volume two picks up from there.
Overall I have been pleasantly surprised. When it comes to readability, interest, and integration of the intellectual narrative with actual history, I give volume one an A or A+. Along multiple dimensions, it would count as the very best book of the year. I do, however, have one major reservation. Whenever Ryan writes about a deep political philosopher, such as Plato, he makes that thinker sound prosaic and thus seem second-rate and shallow. Not terrible, just ordinary. Reading Ryan only, you would never know what all the fuss is about.
It is thus hard to assess the book as a whole, but I will continue with volume two. Ryan himself is a fairly deep thinker. Allan Bloom was a less deep thinker, and yet perhaps for that reason Bloom much better captured the depth of Plato.
Max has me stumped. I promised him an answer months ago, but I’ve come up with nothing of value, other than perhaps citing Adam Smith on alienation and the division of labor. I’ve felt guilty ever since and I suppose today is the day I fess up to having no good response at all. Here is his initial email:
1) As a fairly recent graduate of an Ivy League institution (with a bachelor’s degree), most of my classmates seemed to have some idea that career and life path choice should be driven by a “passion” such that the right choice is self-evident to the chooser. What does this belief mean to you as a social scientist?…
For question two, then, you may sense where this is going…
2) Assume I have no such passion. Furthermore, I am a fairly well-qualified young generalist.* What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing “interesting” work? Doing meaningful work? Achieving social status? (Which of these goals should be primary?) Need I try to develop a passion before selecting a life path/career, and if so how do I do it?
All the best,
*Two years out with a BA from an Ivy League school. Top 10% of the class but not an academic rock star. A record of primarily reading/writing-intensive courses, as well as basic to intermediate economics, calculus, statistics, a proofs course. Time spent abroad in study and travel, though no foreign language fluency. Two years in the private sector with a decent amount of analytic and management experience, but without a big name behind it.
Max is hardly doomed. Still, reading emails such as Max’s makes me more of a determinist. He seems to have a meta-preference for more career passion, but no way of getting there. I would tell Max to at least consider the world of consulting (and here is Robin Hanson on same). I also would tell him that meta-preferences are overrated, as there is no reason per se to side with the meta-preference over the preference. Passion isn’t a value in and of itself.
What other advice can you all give?