Too much transparency makes the world more opaque.

Kathleen Kingsbury of the NYTimes editorial page is proudly announcing that instead of following their historic practice of talking with the candidates off-the-record and then announcing an endorsement they will be utterly “transparent.”

On Jan. 19, the @nytimes editorial board will publish our choice for the Democratic nomination for president. It won’t be the first time we’ve endorsed a candidate — we’ve been doing that since 1860 — but we aim to make it our most transparent endorsement process to date. Historically, endorsement interviews are off-the-record — meaning nothing said leaves the room, other than the board’s final judgement.

[But now,] in a first for @nytopinion, all presidential candidate interviews will be on the record and filmed. Next week, we’ll be publishing the full, annotated transcripts online.

What an awful idea, sure to neuter whatever influence the NYTimes might once have had.

Here’s the problem. Under the off-the-record system a candidate could sit down with some smart people and say things like “look, I know tariffs won’t help but the WTO will knock them down anyway and I need to appeal to my base.” Or, “taxes on billionaires won’t raise enough to fund everything I want but to raise taxes on the middle class we need the middle class to know that everyone is going to pay their fair share.” Or “Our troops are demoralized and the plan isn’t working.” If everything is recorded, none of this can happen.

Indeed, what possible value-added can the NYTimes make with a “transparent,” “public” process? Everything that will be said, has been said.

In contrast, a non-transparent, off-the-record process can reveal new information because less transparent can be more honest. The off-the-record system isn’t a guarantee of useful information, as the NYTimes has its biases and the off-the-record system only works because it is coarse, but coarse systems can reveal more information.

The demand for transparency seems so innocuous. Who could be against greater transparency? But transparency is inimical to privacy. And we care about privacy in part, because we can be more honest and truthful in private than in public. A credible off-the-record system leaks a bit of honesty into the public domain and thus improves information overall. Too much transparency, in contrast, makes the world more opaque.

The Big Farmer Bailout Was Never Debated

Farmers are getting billions of dollars in bailout money to compensate for the trade war with China. If big banks or big business were being bailed out there would be an uproar but big farmer bailouts seem immune to opposition as Dan Charles points out in this piece from NPR:

…a few weeks later, the USDA announced another $16 billion in trade-related aid to farmers. It came on top of the previous year’s $12 billion package, for a grand total of $28 billion in two years. About $19 billion of that money had been paid out by the end of 2019, and the rest will be paid in 2020.

…it’s an enormous amount of money, more than the final cost of bailing out the auto industry during the financial crisis of 2008. The auto industry bailout was fiercely debated in Congress. Yet the USDA created this new program out of thin air; it decided that an old law authorizing a USDA program called the Commodity Credit Corp. already gave it the authority to spend this money.

“What’s unique about this is, [it] didn’t go through Congress,” Glauber says. Some people have raised questions about whether using the Commodity Credit Corp. for this new purpose is legal.

This is a telling example of how politics works–the process rather than the fundamental question determines much of the outcome. In this case, since the spending was not authorized by Congress there was no debate. No debate in Congress meant no opportunity for soundbites, no debate in the media and thus no debate among the public. The battle for attention was lost before it was begun. On the plus side there was no opportunity for grandstanding in Congress either and the money was approved and spent quickly.

The New Arthashastra

The Arthashastra, the science of wealth and politics, is one of the world’s oldest treatises on political economy. Written by Kautilya, legendary advisor to the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya (reign: 321–298 BCE), the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince and has been a touchstone in Indian political economy for well over a thousand years.

In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by [Kelkar, Vijay, Shah, Ajay]Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, two long-time advisors to the Indian government, have written the new Arthashastra, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economy Policy. In Service doesn’t go into great detail on current policies in India (Joshi’s Long Road is the best recent overview), it instead distills timeless wisdom on the making of political economy.

When faced with a potential government intervention, it is useful to ask three key questions. Is there a market failure? Does the proposed intervention address the identified market failure? Do we have the ability to implement the proposed intervention?

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) the resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint. These five problems interact, and jointly generate government failure, of both kinds; pursuing the wrong objectives and failing on the objectives that have been established.

A government organization that is riven with corruption is not one which was unlucky to get a lot of corrupt people. It is one where the rules of the game facilitate corruption.

The competitive market process should force the exit of low-productivity firms. This does not happen when the low-productivity firms violate laws–e.g. a low productivity firm may emit pollution, while the high-productivity firm incurs the higher costs associated with the pollution control required in law….When enforcement capabilities, of laws or of taxes, are improved…production will shift from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms. This reallocation will yield GDP growth, in and of itself.

There are two pillars of intervention in banking in India. On one hand, the state regulates banking. In addition, the Indian state produces banking services through the ownership of bank….There are conflicts between these two [pillars]. Regulation by the state may be indulgent towards its own entities….this calls for strong separation between the two pillars.

Kelkar and Shah are especially concerned with policy making in the Indian context of low state-capacity:

A policy pathway that is very successful in (say) Australia may not work in India as it is being placed in a very different setting. Envisioning how a given policy initiative will work in India requires deep knowledge of the local context.

If the fine for driving through a red light is Rs 10,000, there will be pervasive corruption. Jobs in the highway police will be sought after; large bribes will be paid to obtain these jobs. There will be an institutional collapse of the highway police. It is better to first start with a fine of Rs 100, and build state capacity.

(On that theme see also my paper with Rajagopalan, Premature Imitation.)

In Service to the Republic is the book that every policy maker and future policy maker should be given while being told, “before you do anything, read this!”

Addendum: I will be in India next week and after a visit to Agra and Hampi, I will be giving some talks at Ramaiah University in Bangalore and later in the month at the Indian School of Public Policy.

What is Full Employment?

As Tyler argued last week one of the most common analytical inaccuracies on Twitter is to blame the Fed for being too conservative with monetary policy over the last few years. I see this problem on both the left and the right. One of the ways the argument goes is as follows::

This month’s unemployment rate is lower than last month’s unemployment rate. Thus, we could not have been at full employment last month.

Followed by:

Monetary policy should be less conservative. If only we had been more aggressive earlier, we could have reached where we are sooner and made millions of people better off.

All of this is wrong. To begin, full employment does not mean the lowest possible unemployment rate. We are at full employment when we are at the natural rate of unemployment and as Milton Friedman wrote:

The ‘natural rate of unemployment’….is the level that would be ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations, provided there is imbedded in them the actual structural characteristics of the labor and commodity markets, including market imperfections, stochastic variability in demands and supplies, the cost of gathering information about job vacancies and labor availabilities, the costs of mobility, and so on.

The natural rate can change over time, even in a sustained direction, as the structural characteristics of the economy change, as demand, supply, demographics, information and so forth change. Change does not mean disequilibrium. When the production of apples is bigger this year than last year we don’t jump to the conclusion that last year the apple market was out of equilibrium. Similarly, the fact that unemployment was lower this year than last year does not mean that we weren’t at full employment last year.

The point of Friedman’s 1968 piece was that monetary policy can’t do much to influence the natural or full employment rate. Thus, the second half of the argument also doesn’t follow. In other words, it doesn’t follow from the fact that unemployment is declining that monetary policy last year could have achieved this year’s unemployment rate last year. My children are taller this year than last year but that doesn’t mean I could have accelerated their growth by feeding them more last year.

Monetary policy can make a big difference in arresting a negative spiral of declining spending leading to declining income leading to declining spending….Keynes was right. Scott Sumner was also right to call for more aggressive monetary policy in 2008-2010. But that was a disequilibrium event, now long over. When children are starving, you can get them to grow faster by feeding them more, but don’t try using that rule in normal times. Today we are in normal times. The economy has been growing steadily for over a decade. We are not in a downward spiral and wages and prices are not stuck at 2008 levels. In fact, since the end of the recession a large majority of workers are in new jobs! Indeed, a good chunk of the labor force has retired since 2008 to be replaced by entirely new workers. Nothing sticky there.

Standard macro models do not imply that monetary policy can always lower unemployment. (I can’t believe I have to write that in 2020 but the great forgetting is well upon us). Indeed, the standard models, as Tyler discussed, are all about testing and deepening our understanding of the Friedman list, most notably “the cost of gathering information about job vacancies and labor availabilities.” Bottom line is that nobody ever said that we had to like the Walrasian equilibrium but like it or not, monetary policy can’t do much to change it.

Nuclear Energy Saves Lives

Germany’s closing of nuclear power stations after Fukishima cost billions of dollars and killed thousands of people due to more air pollution. Here’s Stephen Jarvis, Olivier Deschenes and Akshaya Jha on The Private and External Costs of Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out:

Following the Fukashima disaster in 2011, German authorities made the unprecedented decision to: (1) immediately shut down almost half of the country’s nuclear power plants and (2) shut down all of the remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. We quantify the full extent of the economic and environmental costs of this decision. Our analysis indicates that the phase-out of nuclear power comes with an annual cost to Germany of roughly$12 billion per year. Over 70% of this cost is due to the 1,100 excess deaths per year resulting from the local air pollution emitted by the coal-fired power plants operating in place of the shutdown nuclear plants. Our estimated costs of the nuclear phase-out far exceed the right-tail estimates of the benefits from the phase-out due to reductions in nuclear accident risk and waste disposal costs.

Moreover, we find that the phase-out resulted in substantial increases in the electricity prices paid by consumers. One might thus expect German citizens to strongly oppose the phase-out policy both because of the air pollution costs and increases in electricity prices imposed upon them as a result of the policy. On the contrary, the nuclear phase-out still has widespread support, with more than 81% in favor of it in a 2015 survey.

If even the Germans are against nuclear and are also turning against wind power the options for dealing with climate change are shrinking.

Hat tip: Erik Brynjolfsson.

Solitary Confinement is Torture

Rather than fading away, solitary imprisonment, a form of torture in my view, has become more common:

Criminal Justice Policy Review: Solitary confinement is a harsh form of custody involving isolation from the general prison population and highly restricted access to visitation and programs. Using detailed prison records covering three decades of confinement practices in Kansas, we find solitary confinement is a normal event during imprisonment. Long stays in solitary confinement were rare in the late 1980s with no detectable racial disparities, but a sharp increase in capacity after a new prison opening began an era of long-term isolation most heavily affecting Black young adults. A decomposition analysis indicates that increases in the length of stay in solitary confinement almost entirely explain growth in the proportion of people held in solitary confinement. Our results provide new evidence of increasingly harsh prison conditions and disparities that unfolded during the prison boom.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

Artificial Intelligence Applied to Education

In Why Online Education Works I wrote:

The future of online education is adaptive assessment, not for testing, but for learning. Incorrect answers are not random but betray specific assumptions and patterns of thought. Analysis of answers, therefore, can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery of the material. Computer-adaptive testing will thus become computer-adaptive learning.

Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand—much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students. In his novel Diamond Age, science fiction author Neal Stephenson describes a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions with specific information and also teach young children with allegories tuned to the child’s environment and experience. In short, something like an iPad combining Siri, Watson, and the gaming technology behind an online world like Skyrim. Surprisingly, the computer will make learning less standardized and robotic.

In other words, the adaptive textbook will read you as you read it. The NYTimes has a good piece discussing recent advances in this area including Bakpax which reads student handwriting and grades answers. Furthermore:

Today, learning algorithms uncover patterns in large pools of data about how students have performed on material in the past and optimize teaching strategies accordingly. They adapt to the student’s performance as the student interacts with the system.

Studies show that these systems can raise student performance well beyond the level of conventional classes and even beyond the level achieved by students who receive instruction from human tutors. A.I. tutors perform better, in part, because a computer is more patient and often more insightful.

…Still more transformational applications are being developed that could revolutionize education altogether. Acuitus, a Silicon Valley start-up, has drawn on lessons learned over the past 50 years in education — cognitive psychology, social psychology, computer science, linguistics and artificial intelligence — to create a digital tutor that it claims can train experts in months rather than years.

Acuitus’s system was originally funded by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for training Navy information technology specialists. John Newkirk, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, said Acuitus focused on teaching concepts and understanding.

The company has taught nearly 1,000 students with its course on information technology and is in the prototype stage for a system that will teach algebra. Dr. Newkirk said the underlying A.I. technology was content-agnostic and could be used to teach the full range of STEM subjects.

Dr. Newkirk likens A.I.-powered education today to the Wright brothers’ early exhibition flights — proof that it can be done, but far from what it will be a decade or two from now.

See also my piece with Tyler, the Industrial Organization of Online Education and, of course, check out our textbook Modern Principles of Economics which isn’t using AI yet but the course management system combines excellent videos with flexible computerized assessment and grading.

The Innovation Prisoner’s Dilemma

I find windmills beautiful but many people disagree, even in environmentally conscious Germany.

Bloomberg:…it’s getting harder to get permission to erect the turbine towers. Local regulations are getting stricter. Bavaria decided back in 2014 that the distance between a wind turbine and the nearest housing must be 10 times the height of the mast, which, given the density of dwellings, makes it hard to find a spot anywhere. Wind energy development is practically stalled in the state now. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, passed a law this year demanding that wind-farm operators pay 10,000 euros ($11,100) per turbine each year to communities within 3 kilometers of the windmills.

…local opponents of the wind farms often go to court to stall new developments or even have existing towers dismantled. According to the wind-industry lobby BWE, 325 turbine installations with a total capacity of more than 1 gigawatt (some 2% of the country’s total installed capacity) are tied up in litigation. The irony is that the litigants are often just as “green” as the wind-energy proponents — one is the large conservation organization NABU, which says it’s not against wind energy as such but merely demands that installations are planned with preserving nature in mind. Almost half of the complaints are meant to protect various bird and bat species; others claim the turbines make too much noise or emit too much low-frequency infrasound. Regardless of the validity of such claims, projects get tied up in the courts even after jumping through the many hoops necessary to get a permit.

Another reason for local resistance to the wind farms is a form of Nimbyism: People hate the way the wind towers change landscapes. There’s even a German word for it, Verspargelung, roughly translated aspollution with giant asparagus sticks.

As I wrote earlier, more and more the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows and, as a result, nothing can get done because there are so many veto players in the system. We have locked ourselves into an innovation prisoner’s dilemma where each player can say no and as a result we are all worse off.

Windmill, Energy, The Windmills, Wind, The Power Of

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, and IQ

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, an authoritative review with well-over a dozen distinguished co-authors, is unusually forthright on the effect of pollution, most especially lead, on IQ. I think some of their numbers, especially in paragraph three, are too large but the direction is certainly correct.

Neurotoxic pollutants can reduce productivity by impairing children’s cognitive development. It is well documented that exposures to lead and other metals (eg, mercury and arsenic) reduce cognitive function, as measured by loss of IQ.168

Loss of cognitive function directly affects success at school and labour force participation and indirectly affects lifetime earnings. In the USA, millions of children were exposed to excessive concentrations of lead as the result of the widespread use of leaded gasoline from the 1920s until about 1980. At peak use in the 1970s, annual consumption of tetraethyl lead in gasoline was nearly 100 000 tonnes.

It has been estimated that the resulting epidemic of subclinical lead poisoning could have reduced the number of children with truly superior intelligence (IQ scores higher than 130 points) by more than 50% and, concurrently, caused a more than 50% increase in the number of children with IQ scores less than 70 (figure 14).265 Children with reduced cognitive function due to lead did poorly in school, required special education and other remedial programmes, and could not contribute fully to society when they became adults.

Grosse and colleagues 46 found that each IQ point lost to neurotoxic pollution results in a decrease in mean lifetime earnings of 1·76%. Salkever and colleagues 266 who extended this analysis to include the effects of IQ on schooling, found that a decrease in IQ of one percentage point lowers mean lifetime earnings by 2·38%. Studies from the 2000s using data from the USA 267,268 support earlier findings but suggest a detrimental effect on earnings of 1·1% per IQ point.269 The link between lead exposure and reduced IQ 46, 168 suggests that, in the USA, a 1 μg/dL increase in blood lead concentration decreases mean lifetime earnings by about 0·5%. A 2015 study in Chile 270 that followed up children who were exposed to lead at contaminated sites suggests much greater effects. A 2016 analysis by Muennig 271 argues that the economic losses that result from early-life exposure to lead include not only the costs resulting from cognitive impairment but also costs that result from the subsequent increased use of the social welfare services by these lead-exposed children, and their increased likelihood of incarceration.

https://marlin-prod.literatumonline.com/cms/attachment/1755ebf7-a99e-4e30-837f-2cb1846c9e66/gr14_lrg.jpg

Extreme Aging

Japan now has over 70,000 people who are more than 100 years old.

That stunning fact comes from Extreme Economies, an interesting new book by Richard Davies. Davies looks at extreme economies around the world such as extreme failure (Darien, Kinshasa, Glasgow), extreme resilience (Aceh, Angola Prison, LA), extreme inequality (Santiago) and in the case of Japan (Akita), extreme aging.

Japan’s aging is unprecedented and is having effects throughout the economy and society:

In 1975 social security and healthcare spending commanded 22 percent of the country’s tax revenues; by 2017 the figure, driven up by elderly care and pensions, had risen to 55 percent. By the early 2020s the figure is set to hit 60 percent. To look at it in another way, every other public service in Japan — education, transport, infrastructure, defense, the environment, the arts–could rely on almost 80 percent of tax revenue in 1975, but the increase in elderly-related spending means that only 40 percent is left for other national public expenditures. In budgetary terms, ageing is eating Japan.

As a country, Japan is aging not just because it’s people are getting older but because it’s birth rate is well below replacement. This year there will be fewer than 900,000 births in all of Japan–a number not seen since 1874 when Japan’s total population was much smaller. Overall, Japan’s population is declining.

Population decline may have some good effects but the combination of fewer young people and more elderly people is straining Japanese culture along with its finances. The young naturally resent the increasing burden put on them for supporting the elderly. As with all Ponzi schemes, pay-as-you-go social security schemes come under stress when the population is no longer growing.

…over the next 30 years or so, many countries’ pension systems will require young workers to fund a system that everyone knows will be far less generous by 2040. It is hardly a way to generate confidence in public policy.

And those 70,000 centenarians? Almost 90 percent are women so an aging society is a gender unbalanced society meaning old people lose caregivers or at least someone to share a household with.

Davies is interested in Japan as an example of where many countries are going,

Southern Europe, in particular, is following fast with Italy, Spain and Portugal already experiencing population decline. Germany will start to shrink in 2022, Korea in the early 2030s. Akita, Japan’s cutting edge of ageing economics,…offers a valuable window on the future.

Most Popular Posts of 2019

Here are the top MR posts for 2019, as measured by landing pages. The most popular post was Tyler’s

1. How I practice at what I do

Alas, I don’t think that will help to create more Tylers. Coming in at number two was my post:

2. What is the Probability of a Nuclear War?

Other posts in the top five were 3. Pretty stunning data on dating from Tyler and my posts, 4. One of the Greatest Environmental Crimes of the 20th Century,and 5. The NYTimes is Woke.

My post on The Baumol Effect which introduced my new book Why are the Prices So Damned High (one of Mercatus’s most downloaded items ever) was number 6 and rounding out the top ten were a bunch from Tyler, including 7. Has anyone said this yet?, 8. What is wrong with social justice warriors?, 9. Reading and rabbit holes and my post Is Elon Musk Prepping for State Failure?.

Other big hits from me included

Tyler had some truly great posts in the last few days of 2019 including what I thought was the post of the year (and not just on MR!) Work on these things.

Also important were:

Happy holidays everyone!

FDA Dual Track Legislation Advances

S&P Global: Four Republican lawmakers have authored new legislation to permit drugs for critically ill patients to enter the market before completing late-stage trials, saying the bill was necessary because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process was too slow and burdensome.

The bill would create a time-limited conditional approval pathway in the U.S. similar to a system that has long been used by European regulators.

…The conditional approval would be valid for one year and could be renewed annually for up to five years….Companies would be required to meet certain obligations, like completing clinical investigations to provide full demonstration of safety and effectiveness and other studies.

…Companies could seek full U.S. approval at any time. The FDA would be required to let manufacturers include in their applications the real-world evidence they collected during the conditional approval period.

The lawmakers want the FDA to be able to grant the limited marketing authorization to new drugs that have successfully completed phase 1 and 2 trials, with the idea that companies could generate revenue to help fund their phase 3 studies.

They emphasized their legislation is targeted especially at small biopharmaceutical companies that may struggle to cover the costs of late-stage trials.

Under the dual-track approval system, companies would be able to sell pharmaceuticals earlier but would be required to track outcomes so greater real world information would be developed in the FDA process. The result is a more dynamic approval process better suited to modern medicine. The idea is due to the excellent Bartley J. Madden (note my bias).

Madden and Nobel-prize winner Vernon Smith explained the dual-track idea, noting:

Today’s world of accelerating medical advancements is ushering in an age of personalized medicine in which patients’ unique genetic makeup and biomarkers will increasingly lead to customized therapies in which samples are inherently small. This calls for a fast-learning, adaptable FTCM environment for generating new data. In sharp contrast, the status quo FDA environment provides a yes/no approval decision based on statistical tests for an average patient, i.e., a one-size-fits-all drug approval process.

A similar process has been adopted in Japan for regenerative medicine.

10% Less Democracy

My colleagues at GMU are awesome and you can see why by reading the opening to Garett Jones’s forthcoming new book, 10% Less Democracy.

ONCE I GOT THE CALL FROM CAMPUS POLICE, I knew I needed to write this book.

It was spring semester 2015, and I’d recently given a brief talk to a student group at my university. Natalie Schulhof, a reporter for the student newspaper, Fourth Estate, had come to the event and reported on my talk, entitled “10% Less Democracy.” That was the first time I’d spoken at any length about this book’s central idea: that in most of the rich countries, we’ve taken democracy, mass voter involvement in government, at least a little too far. We’d likely be better off if we kept the voters and even the elected officials a little further away from the levers of power. Let the government insiders run more of the show. After all, the insiders don’t have to be perfect for 10% less democracy to be an improvement; they just have to be better than the voters.

About a week after my talk, Schulhof’s piece came out, quite thorough and extremely accurate, complete with a photo of me standing before the small student audience. From the article: “Garett Jones, associate economics professor at George Mason University, says that there should be less democracy in the United States. . . . Less democracy would lead to better governance.”

But in our new age of social media, that article, accurate down to the last detail, wasn’t the article that became widely shared online. Instead, the subsequent firestorm was fed by ideology-driven websites, with authors posting articles loosely based on Fourth Estate’s original piece but filling in the blanks of the short, accurate article with their own vitriol and blue-sky speculation.

…In the days after these ideology-driven websites wrote about my talk, I discovered a torrent of hate polluting both my email inbox and my Twitter account. I welcome disagreement with my ideas, and passionate disagreement is part of a healthy public debate, but for a brief period, I had my sole experience (so far!) as an object of profanity-laced Internet rage. It culminated in the call from campus police—and in my dozen years at George Mason, that was the first and still the only time I’ve received such a call. An officer left a voice-mail message, and I called back at my first opportunity. She said someone had left an angry voice mail criticizing me on a general campus phone number, and the officer noted with great discretion that the voice mail contained at least one profane expression. Was there anyone who might be upset with me lately? the officer asked.

I had an idea. And that idea became this book. So to the unknown person who left that voice mail, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. I dedicate this book to you.

By the way, the title of Garett’s book might sound inflammatory but it’s only 10% inflammatory. Surely, we can talk about that rationally? Do we want all judges to be elected? Aren’t two year terms a little short in the modern age? Might we better off with an independent tax authority more like an independent central bank? Garett discusses these and many other ideas and unlike much of the constitutional economics of the past, Garett brings plenty of empirical evidence to bear–this is a good book to learn about modern political economy regardless of whether you buy the conclusions.

You can pre-order 10% Less Democracy at the link and you should, it’s very good.

Sex Differences in Personality are Large and Important

Men and women are different. A seemingly obvious fact to most of humanity but a long-time subject of controversy within psychology. New large-scale results using better empirical methods are resolving the debate, however, in favor of the person in the street. The basic story is that at the broadest level (OCEAN) differences are relatively small but that is because there are large offsetting differences between men and women at lower levels of aggregation. Scott Barry Kaufman, writing at Scientific American, has a very good review of the evidence:

At the broad level, we have traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness. But when you look at the specific facets of each of these broad factors, you realize that there are some traits that males score higher on (on average), and some traits that females score higher on (on average), so the differences cancel each other out. This canceling out gives the appearance that sex differences in personality don’t exist when in reality they very much do exist.

For instance, males and females on average don’t differ much on extraversion. However, at the narrow level, you can see that males on average are more assertive (an aspect of extraversion) whereas females on average are more sociable and friendly (another aspect of extraversion). So what does the overall picture look like for males and females on average when going deeper than the broad level of personality?

On average, males tend to be more dominant, assertive, risk-prone, thrill-seeking, tough-minded, emotionally stable, utilitarian, and open to abstract ideas. Males also tend to score higher on self-estimates of intelligence, even though sex differences in general intelligence measured as an ability are negligible [2]. Men also tend to form larger, competitive groups in which hierarchies tend to be stable and in which individual relationships tend to require little emotional investment. In terms of communication style, males tend to use more assertive speech and are more likely to interrupt people (both men and women) more often– especially intrusive interruptions– which can be interpreted as a form of dominant behavior.

…In contrast, females, on average, tend to be more sociable, sensitive, warm, compassionate, polite, anxious, self-doubting, and more open to aesthetics. On average, women are more interested in intimate, cooperative dyadic relationships that are more emotion-focused and characterized by unstable hierarchies and strong egalitarian norms. Where aggression does arise, it tends to be more indirect and less openly confrontational. Females also tend to display better communication skills, displaying higher verbal ability and the ability to decode other people’s nonverbal behavior. Women also tend to use more affiliative and tentative speech in their language, and tend to be more expressive in both their facial expressions and bodily language (although men tend to adopt a more expansive, open posture). On average, women also tend to smile and cry more frequently than men, although these effects are very contextual and the differences are substantially larger when males and females believe they are being observed than when they believe they are alone.

Moreover, the differences in the subcategories are all correlated so while one might argue that even among the subcategories the differences are small on any single category when you put them all together the differences in male and female personalities are large and systematic.

Relatively small differences across multiple traits can add up to substantial differences when considered as a whole profile of traits. Take the human face, for example. If you were to just take a particular feature of the face– such as mouth width, forehead height, or eye size– you would have difficult differentiating between a male face and a female face. You simply can’t tell a male eyeball from a female eyeball, for instance. However, a look at the combination of facial features produces two very distinct clusters of male vs. female faces. In fact, observers can correctly determine sex from pictures with greater than 95% accuracy [4]. Here’s an interesting question: does the same apply to the domain of personality?

…There now exists four large-scale studies that use this multivariate methodology (see here, here, here, and here). All four studies are conducted cross-culturally and report on an analysis of narrow personality traits (which, as you may recall, is where most of the action is when it comes to sex differences). Critically, all four studies converge on the same basic finding: when looking at the overall gestalt of human personality, there is a truly striking difference between the typical male and female personality profiles.

Just how striking? Well, actually, really striking. In one recent study, Tim Kaiser, Marco Del Giudice, and Tom Booth analyzed personality data from 31,637 people across a number of English-speaking countries. The size of global sex differences was D = 2.10 (it was D = 2.06 for just the United States). To put this number in context, a D= 2.10 means a classification accuracy of 85%. In other words, their data suggests that the probability that a randomly picked individual will be correctly classified as male or female based on knowledge of their global personality profile is 85% (after correcting for the unreliability of the personality tests).

In other words, you can predict whether a person is male of female from their personality traits almost as well as by looking at their face. Overall, the big differences are as follows:

Consistent with prior research, the researchers found that the following traits are most exaggerated among females when considered separately from the rest of the gestalt: sensitivity, tender-mindedness, warmth, anxiety, appreciation of beauty, and openness to change. For males, the most exaggerated traits were emotional stability, assertiveness/dominance, dutifulness, conservatism, and conformity to social hierarchy and traditional structure.

I have also pointed out that gender equality magnifies differences in gender choices and behavior which is probably one reason why fewer women enter STEM fields in societies with greater equality. Consistent with this, personality differences between the sexes are large in all cultures but “for all of these personality effects the sex differences tend to be larger– not smaller– in more individualistic, gender-egalitarian countries.”

Addendum: See John Nye and co-authors on testosterone and finger length for some biological correlations.