Results for “The Spirit Level”
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The Spirit Level Delusion

The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett made a big splash a decade ago by showing many correlations between inequality and various problems. In a recent talk, Pickett summarized the thesis of the book with the graph at right.

Even at the time, however, there were peculiarities in the data–for example, some countries were dropped without explanation and data with different definitions were spliced together–as pointed out by Christopher Snowdon in the Spirit Level Delusion. Adding in a few more countries, for example, made many of the correlations disappear.

Snowdon now has a nice post with another test. Suppose we run the same or similar regressions using today’s data? If the relationships are robust we ought to see the same correlations or even stronger correlations given the increase in inequality.

Here, for example, is a key graph from The Spirit Level on inequality and life-expectancy.

If, however, we use the same countries but today’s most up-to-date figures on inequality and life-expectancy we find no correlation.

If we add the four countries that are unequivocally richer than Portugal and were excluded from The Spirit Level for no good reason (South Korea, Hong Kong, Slovenia and the Czech Republic (now known as Czechia)), there is a statistically significant association with inequality but it is in the opposite direction to that predicted by The Spirit Level hypothesis, with greater inequality correlating with longer life expectancy (r2=0.145, R=0.385, p-value=0.0495).

After examining a variety of data. Snowdon summarizes:

In summary, most of the biggest claims made by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level look even weaker today than they did when the book was published. Only one of the six associations stand up under W & P’s own methodology and none of them stand up when the full range of countries is analysed. In the case of life expectancy – the very flagship of The Spirit Level – the statistical association is the opposite of what the hypothesis predicts.

If The Spirit Level hypothesis were correct, it would produce robust and consistent results over time as the underlying data changes. Instead, it seems to be extremely fragile, only working when a very specific set of statistics are applied to a carefully selected list of countries.

It’s certainly possible that inequality has a causal effect on various issues (both positive and negative) but it seems that such effects are small and subtle enough to require much more than cross-sectional country-level data to uncover.

Friday more assorted links

1. Vancouver automation.

2. “…we reexamine one of the largest partisan shifts in a modern democracy: Southern whites’ exodus from the Democratic Party. We show that defection among racially conservative whites explains the entire decline from 1958 to 1980.”  Income seems to play essentially no role.

3. Eric Chyn: “I study public housing demolitions in Chicago, which forced low-income households to relocate to less disadvantaged neighborhoods using housing vouchers. Specifically, I compare young adult outcomes of displaced children to their peers who lived in nearby public housing that was not demolished. Displaced children are more likely to be employed and earn more in young adulthood. I also find that displaced children have fewer violent crime arrests. Children displaced at young ages have lower high school dropout rates.”

4. The book The Spirit Level does not hold up to scrutiny.

5. Paul Romer on the gender gap.

6. MMT profile.

Sweden, Medicare, and what really matters

Tino writes:

Medicare was introduced 1965 in the US. Public health coverage for the elderly existed by 1950 in Sweden, but full universal coverage dates to 1955 in Sweden (a public health insurance was founded in 1891, and public municipal public health existed for even longer).

In 1950, before Medicare, and before Universal coverage in Sweden the difference was +2.6 at birth and +0.3 at 65. In 2001-2005 the difference between the Sweden and US was +2.7 at birth and +0.3 years at 65. Identical!

First, regarding the life expectancy at birth we can note that 50 years of different health policy, labor mark policy, welfare state coverage seems to have had zero effect on total outcome.


Last note: around 1900, before the expansion of the welfare state, the estimated life expectancy at birth was 54.0 years in Sweden and 47.3 years in the US, a difference of 5.3 years, twice the current gap.

If you scroll through Tino's blog, you will find various critiques of The Spirit Level.  On the health care point, I would stress that Hansonian results also can be used to argue for the extreme exercise of monopsony power, so don't think the policy implications of this are so simple.

Our Regulatory State Isn’t Learning

Outsourced to John Cochrane:

Delta is the fourth wave of covid, and amazingly the US policy response is even more irresolute than the first time around. Our government is like a child, sent next door to get a cup of sugar, who gets as far as the front stoop and then wanders off following a puppy.

The policy response is now focused on the most medically ineffective but most politically symbolic step, mask mandates. An all-night disco in Provincetown turns in to a superspreader event so… we make school kids wear masks in outdoor summer camps? Masks are several decimal places less effective than vaccines, and less effective than “social distance” in the first place.* Go to that all night disco, unvaccinated, but wear a mask? Please.

If we’re going to do NPI (non pharmaceutical interventions), policy other than vaccines, the level of policy and public discussion has tragically regressed since last summer. Last summer, remember, we were all talking about testing. Alex Tabarrok and Paul Romer were superb on how fast tests can reduce the reproduction rate, even with just voluntary isolation following tests. Other countries had competent test and tracing regimes. Have we built that in a year? No. (Are we ready to test and trace the next bug? Double no.)

What happened to the paper-strip tests you could buy for $2.00 at Walgreen’s, get instant results, and maybe decide it’s a bad idea to go to the all night dance party? Interest faded in November. (Last I looked, the sellers and FDA were still insisting on prescriptions and an app sign up, so it cost $50 and insurance “paid for” it.) What happened to detailed local data? Did anyone ever get it through the FDA’s and CDCs thick skulls that even imperfect but cheap and fast tests can be used to slow spread of disease?

…And then we indulge another round of America’s favorite pastime, answers in search of a question. Delta is spreading, so… extend the renter eviction moratorium. People who haven’t paid rent in a year can stay, landlords be damned.

All true. I got dispirited on testing. It’s insane that we don’t have cheap, rapid testing and good ventilation ready for a new school year. As I wrote about earlier, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is shouting from the rooftops that the FDA is deadly slow. The eviction moratorium is a sick joke. Just a backhanded way to redistribute wealth without a shred of justice or reason. Disgusting.

Here’s one more bit (but read the whole thing there is more.)

To learn from the mistakes, and institutionalize better responses would mean to admit there were mistakes. One would think the grand blame-Trump-for-everything narrative would allow us to do that, but the mistakes are deeply embedded in the bureacracies of the administrative state. Unlike bad admirals in WWII, nobody less than Trump himself has lost their job over incompetent covid response. The institutions have an enormous investment in ratifying that they did the best possible job last time. So, as in so many things (financial bailouts!) we institutionalize last time’s mistakes to keep those who made them in power in power — which means we do not learn from mistakes.

What makes an interview podcast good or great?

A few people have asked me lately what makes for a good podcast.  Since my podcast is far from the most popular, and since most podcasts are not like mine, and do not (and should not) try to be like mine, perhaps I am not the right respondent.  Nonetheless I offered a simple formula:

A podcast really works when it is the dramatic unfolding of a story and mood between the guest and host.

Or expressed in other words:

What makes for a good podcast is the dramatic tension between the guest and host.

If you think of Russ Roberts at EconTalk, often “the story line” is something like “I am a Mensch and you are a Mensch, and we are going to talk this through together.”  In earlier times, it had more elements of “you are going to put forward some mainstream points, and I am going to push back with market-oriented economics.”

Many of the most famous podcasts are variants of: “We will pretend to be talking about something, but in fact we will exploring new visions of masculinity for a Woke and post-Woke world.”

The visual images and home pages associated with those podcasts are often so…manly.  The T-shirts!  The muscles!  It is also why those podcasts fail so badly at having significant numbers of interesting female guests, addressed on their own terms.

Many episodes of Conversations of Tyler are “I’m going to try to show people just how smart you are, but it will end up a wilder and more precarious ride than you might have thought.”  Occasionally a guest flunks the test (though they might still be smart).  Alternately, the podcast with Daniel Carpenter was the first episode of “Tyler gets upset at a guest, they really have at it!”

I called my podcast with David Deutsch “weird and testy” — that too is dramatic tension.  One listener tweeted: “Tyler’s delight at having a guest who doesn’t hedge or mealymouth is palpable.”  Few tweeted about the substance of the disagreements.

One woman wrote about it: “Without understanding everything he said, I find myself mentally stimulated & spiritually inspired. Such a purist, an idealist, a truth-seeker w/ religious zeal. Not religious myself, I could see myself eventually submit to his religion”

She meant Deutsch.

Some listeners enjoy how the guests are surprised and delighted by the questions.  With Alexander the Grate — the homeless guy — the question was how he would perform at all.  I thought he was excellent and very interesting, but there was real suspense leading up to that point.  “And will Tyler question him just like he does everyone else?”

Get the picture?  I’m not saying these listeners are indifferent to the content, rather they filter it through the unfolding story about the dialogical interaction.  I don’t know of any successful podcasts that violate this principle.

One reader wrote to me:

…some very few podcasts are high level professionals in the same field, with a lot of respect for one another, exploring the space and enjoying each other’s company, especially when effectively “meeting for the first time.” I feel like this is maybe on the order of 1-5% of podcasts I hear. Most podcasts I listen to are “just” very high quality interviews

My podcasts with Lex Fridman or Tim Ferriss would be examples of that, and there are plenty more out there without yours truly.

So, to use Hansonian rhetoric, “Podcasting isn’t about the podcast!”  If you are seeking to understanding a podcast, including your own, start by asking what the basic story line is.  Where the dramatic tension lies.  Do you have enough dramatic tension in what you are doing?  What is the actual reason why you are not attracting more quality guests of a particular kind?

I am not claiming comparable expertise, but to return to my own endeavors, they are most influenced by: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (especially the interview segments, which maintain remarkable dramatic tension), Seinfeld (wonderful ensemble work), Curb Your Enthusiasm (for how long can you keep people on edge?), and the TNT halftime show with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, etc. (what makes for a dramatic or memorable interjection?).  I doubt those are the right sources for your podcast, but perhaps you should look far and wide as well, rather than just listening to other podcasts.  Howard Stern is perhaps another useful source?

If they had had another season of Seinfeld, would Jerry have to have started (again) dating Elaine?  The dramatic stories in a podcast also need to change and evolve over time, and perhaps I will return to that topic in the future.

Corrupted by Commerce?

Many people claim that commodification, transforming a good or activity into a commodity bought and sold on a market, corrupts that good or activity. As Michael Sandel puts it:

Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.

But few people have tested this idea which is why I loved Stephen Clowney’s Does Commodification Corrupt? Lessons from Paintings and Prostitutes. Clowney does something simple. He interviews art appraisers and male escorts, people who live with commodification, and asks them about art and sex. In short he uses the “lived experiences of those affected by commodification” to test whether commodification corrupts.

Does appraising art, for example, reduce the appraiser’s appreciation for art the way working in a pork factory might reduce a worker’s appetite for bacon?

Scott Altman, a legal scholar who has studied commodification, perfectly captures the standard market skeptic position: “[s]omeone who spends all day estimating the value of art might eventually have difficulty appreciating art in any way other than as worth a certain amount.”

What does Clowney find?

Of the twenty assessors interviewed for this study, not one reported that market work disfigured their ability to enjoy the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities of artistic masterworks. In fact, most appraisers insisted they can easily and completely compartmentalize their professional duties from their private encounters with art. This finding challenges the panicked rhetoric of many anti-commodification theorists who continue to insist that commerce diminishes the meaning of sacred things. Contrary to the predictions of market skeptics, the appraisers in this study spoke with joyful enthusiasm about their experiences viewing exceptional works of art. Even the most senior appraisers—those who have monetized thousands and thousands of objects—remain passionate consumers of art in their personal lives.

…Jane C.H. Jacob, an appraiser with thirty-five years of experience, explained, “[the appraisal work] does not corrode my enjoyment at all. I never get tired of looking at art. Never bored. I love art more now than I did 20 years ago.” She continued, “[f]or me, the joy is being able to experience it and inspect it. Listen, I don’t love art because of the price, but because of the way I respond to it. When I see [Monet’s] Water Lilies I never don’t get excited. A tear comes to my eye.”

In fact “a majority of the assessors stated that ascribing values to art actually increased their admiration for paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other creative work.”

But how could that be so? Given the widely reported dangers of commodification, how could non-instrumental values blossom in the hard soil of the marketplace? Anti-commodification scholars, it seems, have failed to appreciate that market work is a powerful educational agent that breaks the stale cake of ignorance, turns apathy into understanding, and nurtures new insights about the sacred. Imagine, for example, an appraiser confronted with attaching value to Mary Cassatt’s painting, Young Mother Sewing. Anyone attempting to price such an object must, at the outset, become well-versed in the artist’s career, the provenance of the work, and the ethos of the larger impressionist movement. Then, the appraiser must probe to explain whether the painting is a “good, better, or best” example of Cassatt’s work.

… Arch-anti-commodificationist Elizabeth Anderson even suggests that those who engage in ranking and valuation of art are “philistines, snobs, and prigs, precisely those least open to a free exploration and development of  their aesthetic sensibilities.” But that is quite wrong. Commodification does not render these artworks flat and fungible. And it is not carried out by Philistines. Just the opposite. Putting an accurate price on sacred objects demands education, rigorous training, and cultivation of the eye. Appraisers must understand the objects on an intimate level in order to properly evaluate their quality and make suitable comparisons between seemingly disparate works. Such knowledge only enhances appreciation for the way that creative work can exhilarate, sooth, baffle, enlighten, and uplift.

See also Tyler’s classic In Praise of Commercial Culture on these points.

What about sex?

In a sprawling literature, commentators have argued that exchanging sex for money “commodif[ies] sexuality,” degrades intimacy, “impedes human flourishing,” and foments attitudes that undermine the sacredness of the body. In short: market skeptics believe that prostitution corrupts the meaning of sex.

Clowney interviewed male escorts because he argues that the market in male escorts is freer and more developed. Male escorts, for example, are less likely to be abused by the police or pimps. Some will question that choice but for the purposes of the commodification theory it should still be the case that commodification degrades sex for the male escorts. Does it?

the escorts I interviewed insisted that selling physical intimacy did not corrupt their understanding of sex. While the physical demands of the job often left the interviewees feeling exhausted, each of the prostitutes revealed that they continued to experience the loving (and joyfully profane) virtues of the sexual act. Indeed, a majority of escorts confided that their market work positively impacted their private lives—commercial sex honed their sexual skills, boosted their confidence, and deepened their understanding of other men.

For these men, sex remained a joyful and cherished activity, even after years of selling their bodies.A strong majority of the escorts reported that engaging in commercial sexual activities actually improved the quality of their private lives and their appreciation for sacred things.Just as appraisal work revealed new insights about the creative process, prostitution taught the interviewees about the complexity of desire, gave them a deeper understanding of the sexual act, and enhanced their ability to satisfy a private partner.

Thus, far from turning sex into a flat and interchangeable commodity, market work deepened the escorts’ understanding of physical intimacy. Sex work instilled the importance of honest communication between partners, revealed that men have many different (and often colorful) needs, and showed that not all fantasies can be met by working off the same script. On these points, the market is an exacting teacher.

Clowney’s paper is a highly original, major new work in the commodification literature and contains much more of interest. Read the whole thing.

Emergent Ventures winners, fifth cohort

James Gallagher

16-year-old programmer from Northern England, grant for career development and his interest in income-sharing agreements.  Here is James on Twitter.

Namrata Narain

Incoming Harvard Ph.D student in economics, for work on “What happens to the ability of firms to write contracts when courts are dysfunctional? [in India]” and related ideas.  Twitter here.

Tejas Subramaniam

17-year-old from Chennai, Twitter here.  

Andy Matuschak

San Francisco, to support his project to reexamine and fundamentally improve the book as a method for learning and absorbing ideas, Twitter here.  Here is his essay on why books do not work.

Nicholas Donahue and Austin Kahn

Has a start-up, open source VR headset focused towards makers and web developers, based on the notion that the web is the proper platform for VR.

Clementine Jacoby and Recidiviz

To start a non-profit to collect and spread data on recidivism and penal reform for state-level policy, Fast Company article on Recidiviz here.

Mehdi Nayebpour

GMU, Schar School, “How can we explain a specific AI outcome? What if the law mandates it?”, with an eye toward an eventual start-up.

Colin Mortimer

Washington, D.C., for career development and to explore the marketing of neoliberal ideas through social media.

Shruti Rajagopalan, for Indian political economy and improving Indian economic policy, in residence at Mercatus.  Twitter here.

Jasmine Wang

20-year-old infovore, career development grant, Twitter here.


A non-profit working with survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, article here about their work.

If you have received an award lately, but are not listed, don’t worry — you’ll be in the sixth cohort.  Here are the earlier cohorts of winners.

Why is Expedia banning Haiti?

Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada and France that have led to at least one booking company — Expedia — blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.

People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following violent protests that erupted on Feb. 7. Though Haitians were shuttered in for more than a week, with schools and businesses closed, international carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying.

But Expedia didn’t seem to care…

The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning.

“Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites,” said Philip Minardi, director of communications for the Expedia Group. The block will remain in effect until the advisory lifts, he said.

Here is the full story, I find this troubling.  On top of everything else, State Department Level warnings are inefficiently sticky.

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

Is legal marijuana more potent?

Yes, here is Keith Humphreys from Wonkblog:

Although some people believe prohibiting drugs is what makes their potency increase, the potency of marijuana under legalization has disproved that idea. Potency rises in both legal and illegal markets for the simple reason that it conveys advantages to sellers. More potent drugs have more potential to addict customers, thereby turning them into reliable profit centers.

In other legal drug markets, regulators constrain potency. Legal alcohol beverage concentrations are regulated in a variety of ways, including through different levels of tax for products of different strengths as well as constraints on labeling and place of sale. In most states, for a beverage to be marketed and sold as “beer,” its alcohol content must fall within a specified range. Similarly, if wine is distilled to the point that its alcohol content rises too high, some states require it be sold as spirits (i.e., as “brandy”) and limit its sale locations.

As states have legalized marijuana, they have put no comparable potency restrictions in place, for example capping THC content or levying higher taxes on more potent marijuana strains. Sellers are doing the economic rational thing in response: ramping up potency.

How about the Netherlands?:

The study was conducted in the Netherlands, where marijuana is legally available through “coffee shops.” The researchers examined the level of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main intoxicant in marijuana, over a 16-year period. Marijuana potency more than doubled from 8.6 percent in 2000 to 20.3 percent in 2004, which was followed by a surge in the number of people seeking treatment for marijuana-related problems. When potency declined to 15.3 percent THC, marijuana treatment admissions fell thereafter. The researchers estimated that for every 3 percent increase in THC, roughly one more person per 100,000 in the population would seek marijuana use disorder treatment for the first time.

The Dutch findings are relevant to the United States because high THC marijuana products have proliferated in the wake of legalization. The average potency of legal marijuana products sold in the state of Washington, for example, is 20 percent THC, with some products being significantly higher.

I believe that marijuana legalization has moved rather rapidly into being an overrated idea.  To be clear, it is still an idea I favor.  It seems to me wrong and immoral to put people in jail for ingesting substances into their body, or for aiding others in doing so, at least provided fraud is absent in the transaction.  That said, IQ is so often what is truly scarce in society.  And voluntary consumption decisions that lower IQ are not something we should be regarding with equanimity.  Ideally I would like to see government discourage marijuana consumption by using the non-coercive tools at its disposal, for instance by making it harder for marijuana to have a prominent presence in the public sphere, or by discouraging more potent forms of the drug.  How about higher taxes and less public availability for more potent forms of pot, just as in many states beer and stronger forms of alcohol are not always treated equally under the law?

Who’s complacent?

Not Jordan Peterson:

Raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, Jordan Peterson has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt plane, piloted a mahogany racing sailboat around Alcatraz Island, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with a group of astronauts, built a Native American Long-House on the upper floor of his Toronto home, and been inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.

He’s been a dishwasher, gas jockey, bartender, short-order cook, beekeeper, oil derrick bit re-tipper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker. He’s taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and businessmen, consulted for the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Sustainable Development, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an advisor to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, identified thousands of promising entrepreneurs on six different continents, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe.

With his students and colleagues, Dr Peterson has published more than a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, and revolutionized the psychology of religion with his now-classic book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. As a Harvard professor, he was nominated for the prestigious Levinson Teaching Prize, and is regarded by his current University of Toronto students as one of three truly life-changing teachers.

…Dr. Peterson’s online self-help program, The Self Authoring Suite, featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, CBC radio, and NPR’s national website, has helped tens of thousands of people resolve the problems of their past and radically improve their future.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Adam Kazan.

*Eurasian Mission*, by Alexander Dugin

I had heard and read so much about Dugin but had never read him.  The subtitle is Introduction to Neo-Eurasianism, and here were a few of my takeaway points:

1. His tone is never hysterical or brutish, and overall this comes across as scholarly (except for the appended pamphlet on “Global Revolution”), albeit at a semi-popular level.

2. He is quite concerned with tracing the lineages of Eurasian thought, thus the “neo” in the subtitle.  Nikolai Trubetzkoy gets a lot of play.  The correct theories of history are cyclical, and the Soviet Union was lacking in spiritual and qualitative development and thus it failed.

3. Dugin is a historical relativist, every civilization has different principles of development, and we must take great care to understand the principles in each case.  Ethnicities and peoples represent “inestimable wealth” and they must be preserved against the logic of a globalized, unipolar world.

4. Geography is primary.  Russia-Eurasia is a “steppe and woods” empire, whereas America is fundamentally an Atlantic, seafaring civilization.  Globalization tries to universalize what is ultimately quite a culture-specific point of view, stemming from the American, Anglo, and Atlantic mindsets.

5. Eurasian philosophy ultimately can contain, in a Hegelian way, anti-global philosophies, as well as the contributions of Foucault, Deleuze, and Debord, not to mention List, Gesell, and Keynes properly understood.

6. “It is vitally imperative for Turkey to establish a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation and Iran.”

7. The integration of the post-Soviet surrounding territories is to occur on a democratic and voluntary basis (p.51).  The nation-state is obsolete, so this is imperative as a means of protecting ethnicities and a multi-polar world against the logic of globalization.  Nonetheless Russia is to be the leader of this process.

8. “America’s influence is the most negative tendency in the world…”, and American think tanks and the media are part of this harmful push toward a unipolar world; transhumanism is worse yet.  Tocqueville, Baudrillard, and Dugin are the three fundamental attempts to make sense of America.  The Statue of Liberty resembles the Greek goddess of hell, Hecate.

9. The Eurasian economy must be subjugated to “higher civilizational spiritual values.”  City-dwellers are often a problem, as they too frequently side with the forces of globalization.

10. “Japan…is the objective leader of the Pacific.”  It must be liberated from the Atlanticist sphere of influence.  Nary a nod to China.

11. On Moldova: “Archaic?  Let it be archaic.  It’s great!”  At times he does deviate from #1 on this list.

12. Putin is his own greatest enemy because he leans too far in the liberal direction.

13. Dugin enjoys writing with bullet points.

14. “Soon the world will descend into chaos.”

Apart from whatever interest you may hold in these and other particulars, this is a good book for rethinking the notion of intellectual influence.  Very very few Anglo-American intellectuals have had real influence, but Dugin has.  That is reason enough to read this tract.

Addendum: Here is good background on what Dugin is up to these days.  His current motto: “Drain the swamp.”

What are the core differences between Republicans and Democrats?

Paul Krugman has a long post on this question, here is part of his bottom line:

…the Democratic Party…[is] a coalition of teachers’ unions, trial lawyers, birth control advocates, wonkish (not, not “monkish” — down, spell check, down!) economists, etc., often finding common ground but by no means guaranteed to fall in line. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has generally been monolithic, with an orthodoxy nobody dares question. Or at least nobody until you-know-who…

My view is not so far from that, but I would put it a little differently and then push harder on some other dimensions of the distinction (btw Brad DeLong comments).  The Republican Party is held together by the core premise that the status of some traditionally important groups be supported and indeed extended.  That would include “white male producers,” but not only.  You could add soldiers, Christians (many but not all kinds), married mothers, gun owners, and other groups to that list.

(The success of Trump by the way is that he appeals to that revaluation of values directly, and bypasses or revises or ignores a lot of the associated policy positions.  That is why the Republican Party finds it so hard to counter him and also fears it will lose its privileged position, were Trump to win.  The older Republican policy positions haven’t delivered much to people for quite some time.)

Democrats are a looser coalition of interest groups.  They agree less on exactly which groups should rise in status, or why, but they share a skepticism about the Republican program for status allocation, leading many Democrats to dislike the Republicans themselves and to feel superior to them.  In any case, that underlying diversity does mean fewer litmus tests and potentially a much broader political base, as we observe in higher turnout Presidential elections, which Democrats are more likely to win these days.  That also means more room for intellectual flexibility, although in some historical eras this operates as a negative.

Right off the bat, this distinction between the two parties puts most blacks, single women, and most but not all Hispanics in the Democratic camp.  Not-yet-assimilated immigrants have a hard time going Republican, even though a lot of high-achieving Asians might seem like natural conservatives.  No matter how much Republicans talk about broadening their message, the core point is still “we want to raise the status of groups which you don’t belong to!”  That’s a tough sell, and furthermore the Republicans can fall all too readily into the roles of being oppressors, or at least talking like oppressors.

Republicans, who are focused on the status of some core groups at the exclusion of others, are more likely to lack empathy.  Democrats, who oppose some of the previously existing status relations, and who deeply oppose the Republican ideology, are more likely to exhibit neuroticism.

It is easy for Republicans to see the higher neuroticism of Democrats, and easier for Democrats to see the lesser empathy of Republicans.  It is harder for each side to see its own flaws, or to see how the other side recognizes its flaws so accurately.

Academics are one of the interest groups courted by Democrats.  Academics want to appear high status and reasonable, and Democrats offer academics some of those features in the affiliation, including the option to feel they are better than Republicans.  So on issues such as evolution vs. creationism (but not only), Democrats truly are more reasonable and more scientific.  Academics consume those status goods, plus the academics already had some natural tendencies toward neuroticism.

Academics shouldn’t feel too good about this bargain.  They are being “used” as all party interest groups are, and how much reasonableness they can consume in the Democratic coalition will ebb and flow with objective conditions.  In the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, it was common for Democrats to be more delusional than Republicans, and those days may someday return, though not this year.

Next, we must move beyond the federal level to understand the two parties, and that is also a good litmus test for whether a discussion of the two parties is probing as opposed to self-comforting.

At the state and local level, the governments controlled by Republicans tend to be better run, sometimes much better run, than those controlled by the Democrats (oops).  And a big piece of how American people actually experience government comes at the state and local level.

This superior performance stems from at least two factors.  First, Republican delusions often matter less at the state and local level, and furthermore what the core Republican status groups want from state and local government is actually pretty conducive to decent outcomes.  The Democrats in contrast keep on doling out favors and goodies to their multitude of interest groups, and that often harms outcomes.  The Democrats find it harder to “get tough,” even when that is what is called for, and they have less of a values program to cohere around, for better or worse.

Second, the states with a lot of Democrats are probably on average harder to govern well (with some notable Southern exceptions).  That may excuse the quality of Democratic leadership to some degree, but it is not an entirely favorable truth for the broader Democratic ethos.  Republicans, of course, recognize this reality.  Even a lot of independent voters realize they might prefer local Republican governance, and so in the current equilibrium a strong majority of governors, state legislatures, and the like are Republican.

Think on those facts — or on the state of Illinois — the next time you hear the Democrats described as the reality-oriented community.  That self-description is “the opium of the Democrats.”

If you wish to try to understand Republicans, think of them as seeing a bunch of states, full of Republicans, and ruled by Republicans, and functioning pretty well.  (Go visit Utah!)  They think the rest of America should be much more like those places.  They also find that core intuition stronger than the potential list of views where Democrats are more reasonable or more correct, and that is why they are not much budged by the intellectual Democratic commentary.  Too often the Democrats cannot readily fathom this.

At some level the Republicans might know the Democrats have valid substantive points, but they sooner think “Let’s first put status relations in line, then our debates might get somewhere.  In the meantime, I’m not going to cotton well to a debate designed to lower the status of the really important groups and their values.”  And so the dialogue doesn’t get very far.

Again, both the Democrats and the Republicans have their ready made, mostly true, and repeatedly self-confirming stories about the defects of the other.  They need only read the news to feel better about themselves, and the academic contingent of the Democrats is better at this than are most ordinary citizens.  There is thus a rather large cottage industry of intellectuals interpreting and channeling these stories to Democratic voters and sympathizers.  On the right, you will find an equally large cottage industry, sometimes reeking of intolerance or at least imperfect tolerance, peddling mostly true stories about the failures of Democratic governance, absurd political correctness, tribal loyalties, and so on.  That industry has a smaller role for the intellectuals and a larger role for preachers and talk radio.

It is easier for intelligent foreigners to buy more heavily into the Democratic stories.  They feel more comfortable with the associated status relations, and furthermore foreigners are less likely to be connected to American state and local government, so they don’t have much sense of how the Republicans actually are more sensible in many circumstances.

It would be wrong to conclude that the two parties both ought to be despised.  This is human life, and it is also politics, and politics cannot be avoided.  These are what motivations look like.  Overall these motivations have helped create and support a lot of wonderful lives and a lot of what is noble in the human spirit. We should honor that side of American life, while being truly and yet critically patriotic.

That said, I see no reason to fall for any of these narratives.  The goal is to stand above these biases as much as possible, and communicate some kind of higher synthesis, in the hope of making it all a bit better.

This year, I’m just hoping it doesn’t get too much worse.  In the last few years I have seen some nascent signs that Democrats are becoming less reasonable at the national level, for instance their embrace of the $15 national minimum wage.  I also am seeing signs that the Republicans are becoming less fit to govern at the local level, probably because national-level ideology is shaping too many smaller scale, ostensibly pragmatic decisions.  The Trump fixation also could end up hurting the quality of Republican state and local government.  So this portrait could end up changing fairly rapidly and maybe not for the better.

What Was Gary Becker’s Biggest Mistake?

The econometrician Henri Theil once said “models are to be used but not to be believed.” I use the rational actor model for thinking about marginal changes but Gary Becker really believed the model. Once, at a dinner with Becker, I remarked that extreme punishment could lead to so much poverty and hatred that it could create blowback. Becker was having none of it. For every example that I raised of blowback, he responded with a demand for yet more punishment. We got into a heated argument. Jim Buchanan and Bryan Caplan approached from the other end of the table and joined in. BeckerIt was a memorable evening.

Becker isn’t here to defend himself on the particulars of that evening but you can see the idea in his great paper, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. In a famous section he argues that an optimal punishment system would combine a low probability of being punished with a high level of punishment if caught:

If the supply of offenses depended only on pf—offenders were risk neutral — a reduction in p “compensated” by an equal percentage increase in f would leave unchanged pf… increased probability of conviction obviously absorbs public and private resources in the form of more policemen, judges, juries, and so forth. Consequently, a “compensated” reduction in this probability obviously reduces expenditures on combating crime, and, since the expected punishment is unchanged, there is no “obvious” offsetting increase in either the amount of damages or the cost of punishments. The result can easily be continuous political pressure to keep police and other expenditures relatively low and to compensate by meting out strong punishments to those convicted.

We have now tried that experiment and it didn’t work. Beginning in the 1980s we dramatically increased the punishment for crime in the United States but we did so more by increasing sentence length than by increasing the probability of being punished. In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice, crime rose and then fell mostly for reasons other than imprisonment. Most spectacularly, the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.

Why did the experiment fail? Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.

Instead of thinking about criminals as rational actors, we should think about criminals as children. In this light, consider the “Becker approach” to parenting. Punishing children is costly so to reduce that cost, ignore a child’s bad behavior most of the time but when it’s most convenient give the kid a really good spanking or put them in time out for a very long time. Of course, this approach leads to disaster–indeed, it’s precisely this approach that leads to criminality in later life.

So what is the recommended parenting approach? I don’t want to get into a debate over spanking, timeouts, and reasoning but one thing all recommendations have in common is that the consequences for inappropriate behavior should be be quick, clear, and consistent. Quick responses help not just because children have “high discount rates” (better thought of as difficulty integrating their future selves into a consistent whole but “high discount rates” will do as short hand) but even more importantly because a quick response helps children to understand the relationship between behavior and consequence. Prior to Becker there was Becaaria and in Beccarian theory, people must learn to associate crime with punishment. When responses aren’t quick, children, just like scientists, have difficulty learning cause and effect. Quick is thus one way of lowering cognitive demands and making consequences clear.

Animals can learn via conditioning but people can do much better. If you punish the child who steals cookies you get less cookie stealing but what about donuts or cake? The child who understands the why of punishment can forecast consequences in novel circumstances. Thus, consequences can also be made clear with explanation and reasoning. Finally, consistent punishment, like quick punishment, improves learning and understanding by reducing cognitive load.

Quick, clear and consistent also works in controlling crime. It’s not a coincidence that the same approach works for parenting and crime control because the problems are largely the same. Moreover, in both domains quick, clear and consistent punishment need not be severe.

In the economic theory, crime is in a criminal’s interest. Both conservatives and liberals accepted this premise. Conservatives argued that we needed more punishment to raise the cost so high that crime was no longer in a criminal’s interest. Liberals argued that we needed more jobs to raise the opportunity cost so high that crime was no longer in a criminal’s interest. But is crime always done out of interest? The rational actor model fits burglary, pick-pocketing and insider trading but lots of crime–including vandalism, arson, bar fights and many assaults–aren’t motivated by economic gain and perhaps not by any rational interest.

Here’s a simple test for whether crime is in a person’s rational interest. In the economic theory if you give people more time to think carefully about their actions you will on average get no change in crime (sometimes careful thinking will cause people to do less crime but sometimes it will cause them to do more). In the criminal as poorly-socialized-child theory, in contrast, crime is often not in a person’s interest but instead is a spur of the moment mistake. Thus, even a small opportunity to reflect and consider will result in less crime. As one counselor at a juvenile detention center put it:

20 percent of our residents are criminals, they just need to be locked up. But the other 80 percent, I always tell them – if I could give them back just ten minutes of their lives, most of them wouldn’t be here.

ThinkingProblemsCognitive behavioral therapy teaches people how to act in those 10 minutes–CBT is not quite as simple as teaching people to count to ten before lashing out but it’s similar in spirit, basically teaching people to think before acting and to revise some of their assumptions to be more appropriate to the situation. Randomized controlled trials and meta-studies demonstrate that CBT can dramatically reduce crime.

Cognitive behavioral therapy runs the risk of being labeled a soft, liberal approach but it can also be thought of as remedial parenting which should improve understanding and appreciation among conservatives. More generally, it’s important that crime policy not be forced into a single dimension running from liberal to conservative, soft to tough. Policing and prisons, for example, are often lumped together and placed on this single, soft to tough dimension when in fact the two policies are different. I favor more police on the street to make punishment more quick, clear, and consistent. I would be much happier with more police on the street, however, if that policy was combined with an end to the “war on drugs”, shorter sentences, and an end to brutal post-prison policies that exclude millions of citizens from voting, housing, and jobs.

Let’s give Becker and the rational choice theory its due. When Becker first wrote many criminologists were flat out denying that punishment deterred. As late as 1994, for example, the noted criminologist David Bayley could write:

The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime. This is a myth

Inspired by Becker, a large, credible, empirical literature–including my own work on police (and prisons)–has demonstrated that this is no myth, the police deter. Score one for rational choice theory. It’s a far cry, however, from police deter to twenty years in prison deters twice as much as ten years in prison. The rational choice theory was pushed beyond its limits and in so doing not only was punishment pushed too far we also lost sight of alternative policies that could reduce crime without the social disruption and injustice caused by mass incarceration.

Building the Voluntary City: Lessons from Gurgaon and Jamshedpur

The world’s urban population is growing very rapidly, especially in the developing world. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that in India alone such an expansion will require the building of, in essence, a new Chicago every year for the next several decades. The problem with these numbers is not the expense. The problem is political and organizational. Many currently less-developed countries, including India, remain high in corruption and low in efficiency, especially in the administration of their towns and cities. It would be wonderful if foresighted and public-spirited government planners would provide India and other developing nations with wise urban planning but it seems unwise to rely on what has historically been rare for this massive transformation. Is there an alternative?

In Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s private city (working paper) found in a new book Cities and Private Planning  Shruti Rajagopolan and I explore this question. Gurgaon, which I have written about before, shows both the successes and failures of private development. On the surface, Gurgaon is a gleaming, modern city built nearly overnight on wasteland. Gurgaon was built, however, without benefit of planning and its failures–most notably poor and inefficient provision of  water, sewage, and electricity–are a warning. The failures all stem from high transaction costs, Gurgaon’s private developers have simply not managed to Coasean bargain and internalize externalities. It’s clear from Gurgaon that cities need advance planning–a reservation of rights of way for water, sewage and electricity at the very minimum–but does the planning have to be provided by government which is often incapable of such foresight?

The lessons of Jamshedpur, India, suggest another approach. Jamshedpur is a private township, planned from the beginning by visionary businessman Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, who, after travelling to the United States to see Pittsburgh, returned to India to found Tata Iron and Steel. Jamshedpur has been run by a single, integrated entity for over 100 years and as it is integrated it has internalized externalities. As a result, Jamshedpur, India’s other private city, has some of the best urban infrastructure in all of India.

Gurgaon shows the benefits of competition. Jamshedpur the benefits of integration. Can we get the best of both worlds?

If the rights to develop Gurgaon had originally been sold in very large packages, some five to seven proprietary but competitive cities could have been created in that region. Within this system the role of the state is to make it possible to auction large parcels of land. Once such parcels and associated rights to develop the land are created, private developers will provision public goods and services up to the edge of their property.

As proprietary communities, the competitive cities would have every incentive to invest in and especially to plan for appropriate infrastructure. Moreover, with five to seven communities in the same region, competitive pressures would keep rents low and at efficient levels for maximizing net benefits (Buchanan and Goetz 1972, Sonstelie and Portney 1978). Within the larger city, subdivisions on the order of neighbourhoods and business districts could be sublet and run by competitive firms with the overarching city establishing rules to internalize externalities. Competitive private governments would also generate experimentation and innovation in new rules that would then spread through intercity learning (Romer 2010).

Thus, Rajagopolan and I conclude:

In the next five decades many entirely new cities with populations in the millions will be built in places where today there is little or no population or infrastructure. Most of the urban development will occur in the developing world where government resources are stretched thin and planning is in short supply. Gurgaon illustrates the scope and the limits of private sector provisioning when the state machinery fails to provide essential public goods. The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.