Month: February 2011

What counts as enough progress?

Bruce Cleaver asks:

Pondering your thesis in TGS, (which has some evidence to back it up; the change in society from the early part of the 1900's to 1973 does seem sharper than subsequent change, irrespective of the status of median income),  I would ask you (in all seriousness) what changes/inventions now, today, if they were to exist, would cause you to say "The change from 1973 onward was just as sharp".  Flying cars? Affordable interplanetary space travel? Teleportation?

Teleportation is not required, though it would…suffice.  Alleviating traffic congestion would have been a significant advance, though we are moving in the opposite direction.  Add in a cure for cancer, 3-D printing, seventy percent green energy, life expectancy of ninety-five, a Segway that people want to use, and higher graduation rates than we had in the late 1960s, and we are getting there.  Median family income of $90,000.  As it stands, it seems we will be getting 3-D printing, although I am not sure exactly when or for how many items.

Coming at this from another direction, a few years in the late 1990s genuinely did not exhibit "great stagnation" numbers and this is consistent with on-the-ground observations at the time.  Think of the last forty years, and imagine that thirty or thirty-five of them were like that period. 

The Lucas critique and twin adoption studies

It is odd to cite a twin adoption study, and its results, as a response to a methodological critique of…a twin adoption study.  Nonetheless, the paper Alex cites, and the associated graph, show very readily the problems in interpreting such studies.

If you check out the graph, for a variable such as "religious importance" it shows family transmissibility of about thirty percent, with varying estimates of transmissibility for other religious variables.  That is the result from a data set involving a) parents who try hard to transmit religion with some idea of what to do, b) parents who don't try very hard, and c) parents who try hard and have no idea of what is an effective technique, as they might be advised by a well-informed social scientist. 

Here's the key point.  The original "control" question we were debating was about a) alone, yet in response Alex is putting forth a measure of the marginal efficacy for a-c, namely including the families who aren't trying to transmit.  Obviously the marginal product of the informed, trying families should be higher than the average marginal product for the group as a whole.  At the very least we can take thirty percent as the lower bound here, not the best estimate of the effect we are trying to measure.

The Korean-American Protestant study finds transmissibility of religious fervor, through family influence, of two-thirds.  That paper does not control for genetics, and of course because of genetic similarity family influence will run especially easily and this figure is an overestimate of the net family effect.  You can think of two-thirds as the upper bound here.  If we had commensurable studies (not the case), we would have lower and upper bounds for trying-to-transmit families.

One way to think about the Korean study is to recognize that out of 100 Protestant children, parental inculcation "worked" for 66 of them.  The correct marginal product question is: without that inculcation, how many of those 66 kids would have found their way to a comparably observant religion?  Of course we don't know, but that's the right question to focus upon.

Twin studies encourage you to think in terms of a different question about marginal products: if you had those Protestant families adopt 100 kids, and try to inculcate the same religion, would 66 of them have ended up observant?  Very likely not.  Of course the two thought experiments are quite different, and they give you different measures of marginal product, most of all because there are non-linear interactions between parenting, peers, and genes.  Since most children are not adopted, it is the first thought experiment which gives the more accurate measure of marginal product of parental inculcation of religion. 

What about the religious variables which don't seem very transmissible at all?  Alex cites "born agains," drawing on the same paper.  But this interpretation again mirrors a major drawback of many interpretations of twin adoption studies, namely that they don't reconcile the cross-sectional and the time series comparisons.  Alex is walking a simple pitfall here, as does the paper he cites.

What does this mean in practice?  Born agains (or arguably, their revival) are a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States, dating from the 1970s.  (There is a similar revival in biblical literalism, although perhaps less extreme.)  The study takes adults from the mid-1990s.  That means you will have lots of "born again" descendents who had strongly below average prospects of having had "born again" parents.  The correlation will appear very weak, but this doesn't show the variable is not transmissible going forward.  We simply don't know, at least not from this data set.  

To put this final point another way, the father of Abraham was not a Muslim, and so back then the correlation was zero, but this does not show the family cannot transmit Islam in later periods of time.

I'd like to stress again that when it comes to Bryan's book, I agree with most of his points.  But on religion in particular I don't think Alex is making sound claims.

What are the incentives here?

Although inmate labor is helping budgets in many corners of state government, the savings are the largest in corrections departments themselves, which have cut billions of dollars in recent years and are under constant pressure to reduce the roughly $29,000 a year that it costs to incarcerate the average inmate in the United States.

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, introduced a bill last month to require all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. Creating a national prison labor force has been a goal since he went to Congress in 1995, but it makes even more sense in this economy, he said.

Not that this could ever affect parole or imprisonment decisions…  I prefer a situation where each prisoner costs the state government a good deal.

The full story is here.

On-line juries

Is your spouse hogging the new car? Or refusing to do the dishes? Now you can take your dispute to an online jury of your peers at a new website called

Fast Company calls the website “The People’s Court for the Facebook generation,” while a press release dubs it “a true people’s court.” It’s the brainchild of Chicago entrepreneurs Kevin Wielgus and Angelo Rago, who came up with the idea after Rago settled an argument with his girlfriend by asking bar patrons to weigh in. The dispute: Did his girlfriend have a right to be mad when he refused to visit her father in the hospital? (He was suffering from hemorrhoids, not a life-threatening disease.)

Recent cases posted at the website raise age-old questions such as: Are dogs superior to cats? What’s the need for all those decorative pillows on the bed? And what’s the big deal about chewing with your mouth open?

The full article is here, and for the pointer I thank Eapen Thampy.

How to think about refugee policy

Dave Bieler, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I see that you've provided some commentary on Marginal Revolution about refugee situations, but I'm curious to know what you think about refugee policies – i.e. what is the role of government? What is the role of private insitutions? How can different types of institutions and organizations improve or make worse various situations? Do you have any thoughts or links to articles or books? I think it would make for an interesting blog post!

This question may be more relevant soon, although Muslim refugees from the Middle East do not have the best chances of getting into America.  I have read that one small town in Sweden has taken in more Iraqi refugees than has the entire United States.  Here is Wikipedia on refugees.  I hold a few views:

1. Refugees are deserving of migration toleration when possible, but they are not more deserving than equally destitute non-refugees.

2. Refugees nonetheless capture the imagination of the public to some extent, albeit for a very limited period of time.  Their beleaguered status provides a useful means of framing, to boost migration for humanitarian reasons.  When it comes to private institutions, refugee issues may be a useful way of raising funds, again for humanitarian aid, although again refugees should not be privileged per se, relative to other needy victims.

3. Legal treatment of refugees is inevitably arbitrary and unfair.  There is not and will not be a clear set of rational standards for who gets in and who doesn't.  There are better and worse standards at the extreme points, but don't expect this to ever get rigorous, not even at the level of ideal theory.

4. There always exists some pool of refugees who will help the migration-accepting country, even if you do not believe that about all pools of refugees.  Let's take in some Egyptian Copts, who possibly are in danger now.  Some groups of African migrants have done quite well in the United States and we can take in more oppressed women from north Africa.  In other words, "immigration skepticism" may redirect the direction of refugee acceptance, but it need not discriminate against the idea of taking in refugees.

5. Optimal refugee policy is most of all an exercise in public relations, as ruled by the idea of the optimal extraction of sympathy.  Explicit sympathy from the public cannot be expected to last very long.  In the best case scenario, sympathy for the refugees is replaced by fruitful indifference, so as to avoid "refugee fatigue."

See my earlier remarks on sovereigntyHere is an argument against admitting refugees; I don't agree with it.

The Pippi Longstocking essay and gay adoption in Sweden

Thanks to Jayme Lemke, it has fallen into my clutches; the previous summary reference was here.  The essay by Henrik Berggren and Lars TrägÃ¥rdh, is interesting throughout.  It has useful insights on Sweden, statism, how collectivism and individualism interact, what architecture reflects, and why many things are not always as they seem.  Here is one good passage with a different slant than what I already covered:

While it is obviously true that gay marriage remains a highly controversial issue in the US, what is often over-looked is that adoption of children by gays is not prohibited but indeed rather common.  In Sweden the opposite is true: gay marriage or partnership is today relatively uncontroversial (although an opposition of course exists there as well), where the adoption of children by single or couples gays remains a problematic issue.

One way of understanding this difference is to see that while in the US marriage is a highly public matter, and the family a sacred institution, children are by and large seen as a kind of private property, or something to which every adult individual has a right.  In Sweden, on the other hand, the family is a private matter, while it is the child who is the public matter.

Can Swede readers attest to this?  This short BBC bit seems to confirm.  Gay adoption was legalized in Sweden in 2002, but in 2000 16 children were put up for adoption in Sweden.  As in the Netherlands, it seems that Swedish gays are not always encouraged to adopt abroad, given that the source countries often object.  There is now a Swedish film comedy about gay adoption.

You can find the essay in this unorthodox and stimulating book.  

Genetic Factors and the Religious Life

It's getting late but for the record you can find a good study of genetics and religion in Do Genetic Factors Influence Religious Life? Findings from a Behavior Genetic Analysis of Twin Siblings. PSYDIR offers a good summary:


It's a fairly standard twin study. They took a sample of around 600 identical and non-identical twins from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS), and looked at a number of religious characteristics.

Basically, their analysis allows them to tease out the variations that are shared by identical twins but not by non-identical ones (genetic factors), by non-identical twins (family factors or shared environment), and that differed even among non-identical twins. This last factor was put down to the effects of external environment (i.e. things that happen in you life that aren't shared by your twin).

I've put the results in the graph. First off, look at childhood religiosity. The biggest factor is your family, and not your genetics. It's not until adulthood that the effects of genetics really start to shine through. No surprises there!

The 'salience', or importance of religion in your life is about one-quarter defined by genetics, as is your spirituality. The most important factor here, however, is the external environment. You get similar results for religious attendance.

When you get to more personal beliefs, the patterns start to shift. There are three factors that are about 40% driven by genetics, with your family upbringing having hardly any effect. These factors are: how often you turn to religion for guidance, whether or not you take the bible literally, and whether people should stick to one faith, or experiment with others (exclusivist beliefs).

It is true that there are tricky statistical issues with twin research and it is certainly possible that results like these will be overturned in the future. If that happens, however, it will be because of better twin/adoption and direct genetic studies. The type of evidence that Tyler cites is simply not capable of answering the fundamental questions that are being asked by this type of research. It is also true that these results are conditional on an environment, that is a time and place. (But that is the relevant measure for parenting today.)

I would also note that if you think the statistics get the numbers wrong you also have to deal with the fact that the patterns make sense. Parents have the biggest influence on childhood religiosity, non-shared environment has the biggest influence on attendance, genetics has the biggest influence on being "born-again." (Even the word suggests nature.) Bryan's book reviews a number of studies like this which are broadly similar.

Response to Alex on parenting and religion, and a bunch of other points on twin studies

Alex is right on one point, that Bryan's book is very important and everyone should read it.  Otherwise, his discusson of Yana indicates that both genes and upbringing matter, which is my point — that both matter.  He mistakenly cites that example against me, rather than against Bryan, who claimed upbringing and inculcation do not matter for language. 

Orthodox Jews are clearly a case where parenting matters for the religion and religiosity of the kids, not just the abstract fact of having the parent or the possible genetic transmission of general religious fervor.  Orthodox Jewish parents are effective, in part, because they inculcate the religion in their children.  Or look at the data on Korean Protestants.  I could spend a whole day finding credible studies on this question and they are not restricted to a few extreme points (though they also don't cover everyone, and probably strict inculcation of Unitarianism won't work).  There is overwhelming evidence that parenting often does transmit religious observance and if twin adoption studies do not show that it is a sign of their limitations.

In the comments, Cournot (not Augustin) nails it:

Tyler is not rejecting the studies. He's rejecting Caplan's interpretation.

Imagine this were a drug and the trials showed that the drug clearly reduced fever in a stat sig group.

However a number of non-statistically significant side effects were observed. Some patients died, got rashes, or became crippled. We also have anecdotal evidence and even some good theory that there may be weird interactions with some subpopulations, but to date no good studies showing these effects have been conducted.

Should I assume that it's safe to take these drugs? I think not.

Indeed, doctors often warn us of side effects even though most of the side effects don't show up as statistically significant in clinical trials.

Tyler is just saying some of the side effects of parenting on kids may well be significant and until clearly proven otherwise, it is unsound to ignore non-statistical anecdotal evidence [TC: there is plenty of statistical evidence also] just because the major studies don't show any effects.

And here is Richard A.:

The Body-Mass Index of Twins Who Have Been Reared Apart

We conclude that genetic influences on body-mass index are substantial, whereas the childhood environment has little or no influence. These findings corroborate and extend the results of earlier studies of twins and adoptees. (N Engl J Med 1990; 322:1483–7.)

IOWs, the reason why white kids of today are much fatter than white kids of the 50s and 60s is due to genetic influences and environment has little or no influence

This shows that the twin studies are flawed.

If that doesn't convince you, ponder the Zoroastrians, an extreme minority in most of the places they have lived.  Parents inculcated religious observance for centuries, yet now that pattern of replication seems to be falling apart and the religion and way of life is in danger.  In other words, now we are viewing the time series evidence (as does Richard A. in the case of body weight).  Parental inculcation can matter a lot, or not so much at all, depending on circumstances.  The very size of that variation suggests two points: a) cross-sectional evidence alone won't pin down the proper genetic component, for instance studying this group today, rather than across time, would overestimate the genetic influence, and b) if the transmissibility can change so quickly we are pushed away from genetic explanations, though of course without abandoning them altogether.  Genes are still very, very important.

In contrast, what do you expect for the heritability of IQ over the generations?  Lead poisoning and the like aside, I expect estimates of that heritability don't change much over time at all.  That is more closely tied to genetics, and the time series evidence confirms it.

Labor history bleg

C.R., a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I'm writing with a small favor, I was wondering if you could recommend (or ask for recommendations on MR) for a good history of labor unions in the US. I know a lot has  been written especially from the left labor economists, but I don't have the knowledge to sort out the good from the bad. I'm interested in it from a historical perspective (origins and accomplishments) and a current political analysis perspective (what are reasonable claims about the costs&benefits of modern union membership).  The case in Wisconsin has really grabbed my attention and I'm curious about unions as a case study of the creation, growth and changes of institutions.

I know where to go for the standard economics of labor unions, if you wish start with the surveys in Journal of Economic Perspectives (on-line and free) and then go to the Handbook of Labor Economics.  But what about labor history?  What is the best way to approach this often controversial topic?

Parenting: Anecdotes and Data

Tyler's post, What Can Parents Influence (below), uses anecdotes from his own family to try to rebut some findings from behavioural genetics. I don't think the rebuttal is successful. Moreover, Tyler's anecdotes are selective. A fuller description suggests a more balanced accounting of nurture and nature.

Yes, Yana speaks Russian which she learned from her mother. Yana also speaks French, German, Spanish and I believe several other languages. Tyler tells me that Yana has a gift for languages. Tyler also does not mention that his wonderful wife, Natasha, doesn't simply speak Russian she is an accomplished translator. Perhaps the gift runs in families?

But enough of anecdotes. On religion, I don't think Tyler has fully confronted the evidence from genetic studies. Of course, a child born to Orthodox parents is more likely to practice and be Orthodox. EVERYONE agrees with this. So how can Bryan say parents "have little long-run effect on intrinsic religiosity or observance"? Parents with blue eyes often have children with blue eyes but parents don't have much influence on whether their children have blue eyes.

More fundamentally, what Bryan is asking is how much does parenting influence religiosity? To answer this question we have to distinguish parenting from parents. How do we do this? Adoption and separated twin studies. What adoption and separated twin studies show is that once you have controlled for parents, parenting has very little influence on adult religiosity. These studies could be wrong but, contra Tyler, stamping your feet is not good enough on this issue because what we naturally observe (primarily parents raising their biological children) is not what we need to know to answer the fundamental question.

I could say more but instead let me say this, buy Bryan Caplan's book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. It's a remarkable book. I place it alongside Guns, Germs, Steel and The Selfish Gene as one of those books that, whether one agrees with the conclusions or not, everyone owes it to themselves to read in order to be informed, educated, and part of the conversation.