German export history Germans are good at exporting

The growth of foreign trade was especially significant for Germany, which by the middle of the nineteenth century was among the world’s three leading exporters.  The German export trade at the time was mostly in food and raw materials.  As worldwide economic connections grew and Germany itself developed from an agricultural into an industrial nation, world trade became increasingly important as an agent of German prosperity.  Between 1850 and 1913 German foreign trade increased on the average of 4% annually, even faster than overall economic production.  As a result, Germany’s share in the volume of world trade had reached 13% in 1913, while the export quota of the German Reich amounted to 17.5% of total industrial production.

That is from Wilfried Feldenkirchen, Werner von Siemens: Inventor and International Entrepreneur.

Tuesday assorted links

Girls’ comparative advantage in reading can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields

In an earlier post, Do Boys Have a Comparative Advantage in Math and Science? I pointed to evidence showing that boys have a comparative advantage in math because they are much worse than girls at reading. (Boys do not have a large absolute advantage in math.) If people specialize in their personal comparative advantage this can easily lead to more boys than girls entering math training even if girls are equally or more talented. As I wrote earlier:

[C]onsider what happens when students are told: Do what you are good at! Loosely speaking the situation will be something like this: females will say I got As in history and English and B’s in Science and Math, therefore, I should follow my strengthens and specialize in drawing on the same skills as history and English. Boys will say I got B’s in Science and Math and C’s in history and English, therefore, I should follow my strengths and do something involving Science and Math.

A new paper in PNAS by Breda and Napp finds more evidence for the comparative advantage hypothesis. Breda and Napp look at intention to study math in ~300,000 students worldwide taking the PISA.

PISA2012 includes questions related to intentions to pursue math-intensive studies and careers. These intentions are measured through a series of five questions that ask students if they are willing (i) to study harder in math versus English/reading courses, (ii) to take additional math versus English/reading courses after school finishes, (iii) to take a math major versus a science major in college, (iv) to take a maximum number of math versus science classes, and (v) to pursue a career that involves math versus science. Our main measure of math intentions is an index constructed from these five questions and available for more than 300,000 students. It captures the desire to do math versus both reading and other sciences.

What they find is that comparative advantage (math ability relative to reading ability) explains math intentions better than actual math or reading ability. Comparative advantage is also a better predictor of math intentions than perceptions of math ability (women do perceive lower math ability relative to true ability than do men but the effect is less important than comparative advantage). In another data set the authors show that math intentions predict math education.

Thus, accumulating evidence shows that over-representation of males in STEM fields is perhaps better framed as under-representation of males in reading fields and the latter is driven by relatively low reading achievement among males.

As the gender gap in reading performance is much larger than that in math performance, policymakers may want to focus primarily on the reduction of the former. Systematic tutoring for low reading achievers, who are predominantly males, would be a way, for example, to improve boys’ performance in reading. A limitation of this approach, however, is that it will lower the gender gap in math-intensive fields mostly by pushing more boys in humanities, hence reducing the share of students choosing math.

The authors don’t put it quite so bluntly but another approach is to stop telling people to do what they are good at and instead tell them to do what pays! STEM fields pay more than the humanities so if people were to follow this advice, more women would enter STEM fields. I believe that education spillovers are largest in the STEM fields so this would also benefit society. It is less clear whether it would benefit the women.

Hat tip: Mary Clare Peate.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard J. Williams, Why Cities Look the Way They Do.  Mostly interesting, think of this as a humanities-laden approach to cities, but without too much mumbo-jumbo.  Excerpt: “As long ago as 1968, a British art critic, Lawrence Alloway, grasped something of this.  Writing about the Biennial, he argued that Venice wasn’t a city, but should be better understood as a cultural medium, like an exhibition or a newspaper, ‘compounded of famous architecture, recurrent festivals, and tourist industries’.  Venice, he wrote was ‘ a communicative pattern, a geo-temporal work of art’.”

2. Evan Thompson, Why I am Not a Buddhist.  For every view, there should be a book “Why I am not X.”  This gets us part of the way there.  That said, I have simpler reasons for not being a Buddhist, namely I do not think it is true.

3. Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life.  Definitely recommended, this is an excellent boxing book, race relations book, 1960s and 70s book, and much more.

4. Mary Robinette Kowal, The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel.  Readable, with a clear and propulsive plot, but somehow it stopped being of interest to me about halfway through.  It is the recent Hugo and also Nebula Award winner for best novel.

5. Manjit Kumar, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality.  A very good study of the developments of early 20th century physics, the parts about Rutherford and Planck being most novel to me.

6. Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, with essays by A. Roy, Mishra, and others.  You may or may not agree with the pro-Kashmiri take of this book, but some issues you learn best by reading the partisans on each side, who offer clarity if nothing else, and then drawing your own conclusions.  I suspect the Kashmir crisis falls into that bucket.  (Learning when to apply this trick is one good way to make your reading more productive.)

Richard M. Eaton, India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765 is a useful, non-partisan, and coherent take on exactly what the title suggests.

Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite, has gotten good press on Twitter, but it reminds me of Churchill on democracy.

I started two very long novels — Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, but neither clicked with me.  The former seems too simple/brutal/masculine for its 1300 pp. length, and the latter is a mix of American and obscure I don’t care about this kind of stuff.  Still, I will try them each again.

The new Stripe Press book is Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto, Get Together: How to build a community with your people, a how-to guide.

Monday assorted links

Do Extreme Rituals Have Functional Benefits?

To show their devotion to Murugan, the Hindu God of War, devotees in South India and Sri Lanka (all males) are pierced with large hooks and then hung on a festival float, as if they were toys on a nightmarish baby mobile. It’s an amazing and horrifying display not unlike Christian devotees in the Philippines who are nailed to crosses.

But what are the effects of these practices on those who undergo them? Surprisingly, positive. In, Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being, a group of anthropologists, biologists and religious studies scholars compared measures of physiological, psychological and social well being in a small group of devotees compared to a matched sample. The group performing the ritual had no long lasting health harms but did appear to benefit psychologically through feelings of euphoria and greater self-regard and socially through higher status.

Despite their potential risks, extreme rituals in many contexts are paradoxically associated with health and healing (Jilek 1982; Ward 1984). Our findings suggest that within those contexts, such rituals may indeed convey certain psychological benefits to their performers. Our physiological measurements show that the kavadi is very stressful and high in energetic demands (fig. 2C, 2D). But the ostensibly dangerous ordeal had no detectable persistent harmful effects on participants, who in fact showed signs of improvement in their perceived health and quality of life. We suggest that the effects of ritual participation on psychological well-being occur through two distinct but mutually compatible pathways: a bottom-up process triggered by neurological responses to the ordeal and a top-down process that relies on communicative elements of ritual performance (Hobson et al. 2017).

Specifically, the bottom-up pathway involves physical aspects of ritual performance related to emotional regulation. Ritual is a common behavioral response to stress (Lang et al. 2015; Sosis 2007), and anthropological evidence shows that in many cultures dysphoric rituals involving intense and prolonged exertion and/or altered states of consciousness are considered as efficient ways of dealing with various illnesses (Jilek 1982). In our study, those who suffered from chronic illnesses engaged in more painful forms of participation by enduring more piercings. Notably, higher levels of pain during the ritual were associated with improvements in self-assessed health post-ritual. Although the pain was relatively short-lived, there is evidence that the social and individual effects of participation can be long-lasting (Tewari et al. 2012; Whitehouse and Lanman 2014).

The sensory, physiological, and emotional hyperarousal involved in strenuous ordeals can produce feelings of euphoria and alleviation from pain and anxiety (Fischer et al. 2014; Xygalatas 2008), and there is evidence of a neurochemical basis for these effects via endocrine alterations in neurotransmitters such as endorphins (Boecker et al. 2008; Lang et al. 2017) or endocannabinoids (Fuss et al. 2015). These endocrine effects are amplified when performed collectively, as shown by studies of communal chanting, dancing, and other common aspects of ritual (Tarr et al. 2015). While it is uncertain how long-lasting these effects are, such euphoric experiences may become self-referential for future well-being assessment.

At the same time, a top-down pathway involves social-symbolic aspects of ritual. Cultural expectations and beliefs in the healing power of the ritual may act as a placebo (McClenon 1997), buffering stress-induced pressures on the immune system (Rabin 1999). In addition, social factors can interact with and amplify the low-level effects of physiological arousal (Konvalinka et al. 2011). Performed collectively, these rituals can provide additional comfort through forging communal bonds, providing a sense of community and belonging, and building social networks of support (Dunbar and Shultz 2010; Xygalatas et al. 2013). The Thaipusam is the most important collective event in the life of this community, and higher investments in this ritual are ostensibly perceived by other members as signs of allegiance to the group, consequently enhancing participants’ reputation (Watson-Jones and Legare 2016) and elevating their social status (Bulbulia 2004; Power 2017a). Multiple lines of research suggest that individuals are strongly motivated to engage in status-seeking efforts (Cheng, Tracy, and Henrich 2010; Willard and Legare 2017) and that there is a strong positive relationship between social rank and subjective well-being (Anderson et al. 2012; Barkow et al. 1975). Indeed, we found that individuals of lower socioeconomic status were more motivated to invest in the painful activities that can function as costly signals of commitment. Recent evidence from a field study in India shows that those who partake in these rituals indeed reap the cooperative benefits that result from increased status (Power 2017b).

In addition, the cost of participation can have important self-signaling functions. On the one hand, it can boost performers’ perceived fitness and self-esteem, which positively affects mental health (Barkow et al. 1975). On the other hand, through a process of effort justification, such costs can strengthen one’s attachment to the group and sense of belonging (Festinger 1962; Sosis 2003). This role of costly rituals in generating positive subjective states (Bastian et al. 2014b; Fischer et al. 2014; Wood 2016) and facilitating social bonding (Bastian, Jetten, and Ferris 2014a; Whitehouse and Lanman 2014) may offer insights into the functions of painful religious practices.

The mind has an amazing ability to turn what would be torture under some scenarios into something else.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.

East Germany fact of the day

Evidence of a widening gulf has become too copious to ignore. Last month, for example, a poll by the Allensbach Institute asked eastern Germans whether they saw democracy as practised in Germany as the best form of government. Only 31 per cent agreed. Two years ago, the figure was 53 per cent.

In western Germany, meanwhile, 72 per cent described democracy as the best form of government, broadly unchanged from two decades ago.

The same divergence shows up when Germans in both parts of the country are asked about their identity: 47 per cent of eastern Germans say they identify above all as eastern Germans, compared with only 44 per cent who feel simply German. This, too, is a sharp reversal from only a few years ago.

Also striking is the sheer persistence of specifically eastern German views and stereotypes: even 30 years after the fall of the wall (and with an east German chancellor, Angela Merkel, holding office since 2005), more than a third of eastern Germans describe themselves as “second-class citizens”.

That is from Tobias Buck in the FT.

America’s depressing new culture war

What do we learn from reading through a list of top Patreon winners?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Feel free to peruse the list yourself. My own browsing and clicking led me to a new conclusion: America’s culture war is not just left-wing vs. right-wing, or privileged vs. unfortunate, or even Trump vs. his critics. It is between those who believe in aspiring to something greater and those who do not.

You will note that your main criticisms already are covered in my text.

Do Inheritance Customs Affect Political and Social Inequality?

That is a new paper from Anselm Hager and Hanno Hilbig, here is the abstract:

Why are some societies more unequal than others? The French revolutionaries believed unequal inheritances among siblings to be responsible for the strict hierarchies of the ancien régime. To achieve equality, the revolutionaries therefore enforced equal inheritance rights. Their goal was to empower women and to disenfranchise the noble class. But do equal inheritances succeed in leveling the societal playing field? We study Germany—a country with pronounced local‐level variation in inheritance customs—and find that municipalities that historically equally apportioned wealth, to this day, elect more women into political councils and have fewer aristocrats in the social elite. Using historic data, we point to two mechanisms: wealth equality and pro‐egalitarian preferences. In a final step, we also show that, counterintuitively, equitable inheritance customs positively predict income inequality. We interpret this finding to mean that equitable inheritances level the playing field by rewarding talent, not status.

The potentially surprising bit in there is “equitable inheritance customs positively predict income inequality,” emphasis added by this blogger.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?*

That is the new book by my colleague Virgil Storr and co-author Ginny Seung Choi.  Here is a summary take on it, excerpt:

This book explores whether or not engaging in market activities is morally corrupting. Storr and Choi demonstrate that people in market societies are wealthier, healthier, happier and better connected than those in societies where markets are more restricted. More provocatively, they explain that successful markets require and produce virtuous participants. Markets serve as moral spaces that both rely on and reward their participants for being virtuous. Rather than harming individuals morally, the market is an arena where individuals are encouraged to be their best moral selves. Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? invites us to reassess the claim that markets corrupt our morals.

Here is a Deirdre McCloskey blurb:

“Storr and Choi have brought economics and politics back to ethics, which should never have been left. Of course values matter. Of course markets smooth off the rough sides of humans. Of course ‘sweet commerce’ reigns, and should. Of course. But it took a brilliant book like this one to show it.”

You can order the book here.

Estimating US Consumer Gains from Chinese Imports

>We estimate the size of US consumer gains from Chinese imports during 2004–2015. Using barcode-level price and expenditure data, we construct inflation rates under CES preferences, and use Chinese exports to Europe as an instrument. We find significant negative effects of Chinese imports on US prices. This effect is driven by both changes in the prices of existing goods and the entry of new goods, and it is similar across consumer groups by income or region. A simple benchmarking exercise suggests that Chinese imports led to a 0.19 percentage point annual reduction in the price index for consumer tradables.

That is from AER Insights by Liang Bai and Sebastian Stumpner.  I would have expected a somewhat higher magnitude, and perhaps this in part explains why the trade war has been proceeding.