Keeping up with the FITs, 1/27
Bari Weiss talks with an interventionist; Ed West explains lockdown blowback; Freddie deBoer and Scott Alexander on the Null Hypothesis; Tyler Cowen and Scott Sumner vs. Bryan Caplan
Bari Weiss interviews Bernard-Henri Lévy, who is a fan of foreign interventions to promote human rights. Of course, this invites Devil’s Advocate questions, and Weiss delivers. Here is one question and response:
Is it paternalistic to assume that people around the world crave Western democratic norms? According to a Pew study from 2013, 99% of Afghans—men and women—desire to live under Sharia law.
I am aware of that poll. The same words do not necessarily mean the same things. When a woman in Kabul refers to Sharia, she is not advocating for the right to be stoned in the event of adultery. By the way, a real liberal, an interventionist worth his salt, would never deny that broad principles are flexible. We know well that they obviously cannot be applied identically in Afghanistan or Burma, but that they must be adapted.
Lockdown had consistently strong support – indeed lockdown-scepticism must be the least popular populist Right movement in living memory – but now that the crisis is fading from memory, many are having second thoughts. They are starting to wonder if it wasn’t all some weird dream; did police really harass people sunbathing in parks? Did they really take drone photos of people visiting the Peak District? Worst of all, did they really need to stop those attending the funerals of loved ones, or to be present at the birth of their children? Did women need to face the pain of stillbirth without their partners?
West points out that the anger comes from the way that the leaders making and enforcing the rules, like Boris Johnson, violated the rules. I think that the backlash against what West calls plague-socialism is going to build. People will forget that they ever supported lockdowns.
Freddie deBoer points to research that shows that pre-K is ineffective, or worse.
Random assignment to condition for a large and representative n studied longitudinally shows kids who got pre-K do meaningfully worse than those who didn’t.
“Beware the man of one study!” you might say. But, well, we have many more studies than one showing this outcome, now. I just wrote about it not that long ago: the pre-K research record is most optimistically described as mixed and most realistically described as discouraging. I’ve been writing about it for a long time, actually, and the song remains the same.
On a study that purports to reject the null hypothesis for a monetary intervention, Scott Alexander writes,
I'm skeptical of social science studies that use neuroimaging, and although EEG isn't exactly the same as neuroimaging like CT or MRI, it shares a similar issue: you have to figure out how to convert a multi-dimensional result (in this case, a squiggly line on a piece of paper) into a single number that you can do statistics to. This offers a lot of degrees of freedom, which researchers don't always use responsibly.
…people want to discover a link between poverty and cognitive function so bad. Every few months, another study demonstrates that poverty decreases cognitive function, it's front page news everywhere, and then it turns out to be flawed. This recent analysis tried to replicate twenty poverty/cognition priming studies. 18/20 replications had lower effect sizes than in the original, and 16/20 had effect sizes statistically indistinguishable from zero.
The real problems in labor markets arise when “the cultural upstream” intersects with other social institutions in problematic ways. To give a simple example, Princeton kept Jews out for a long time, and that was not because of the government. Or Princeton voted to admit women only in 1969, again not the government. What about Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson or even for a long while after? Much of Jim Crow was governmental, but so much of it wasn’t. There are many such examples, and I don’t see that Bryan deals with them. And they have materially affected both people’s lives and their labor market histories, covering many millions of lives, arguably billions.
…Bryan is not paying enough attention to what is upstream of labor markets, or to how culture shapes human decisions.
Tyler is accusing Bryan Caplan of using too much economics and not enough sociology. Robin Hanson sides with Caplan.
On the topic of inflation, Caplan writes,
in the current environment, prices low enough to create shortages are many times more common than prices high enough to create surpluses. Nowadays, we need lots of prices to rise, and very few to fall. And if this happens, inflation – a general rise in prices – is precisely what we will get. And given our predicament, that’s precisely what we should hope for.
But Scott Sumner says that things are different in macroeconomics.
if prices rise while aggregate demand (NGDP) remains unchanged, then output will necessarily fall. The average American will buy fewer goods. That still might be a good thing, as shortages cause a loss of utility in all sorts of subtle ways not picked up in the government’s real GDP data. Nonetheless, the microeconomic analogy that Bryan uses doesn’t really apply to the macro case.
Scott is using “aggregate demand” the way some people use “systemic racism,” to rule out other causal explanations by tautology. I would say that given the determinants of spending, Bryan is right that higher prices are likely to increase consumption by relieving shortages.
But suppose that you say that what we mean by “aggregate demand” is spending, as opposed to the determinants of spending. Then if you want to say that holding “aggregate demand” defined in this way constant, higher prices reduce consumption, I am not going to argue with you. Just as if you say that disparities in outcomes by race are what we mean by systemic racism, then I am not going to argue with you, even though I think that the determinants of disparities in outcomes include factors that do not correspond to what I think of as racism.
I think its a lot more likely that the polling on pandemic measures was simply bad in the following ways:
1) Who answers the polls.
2) How the question is phrased.
3) What information the person answering the poll is trying to convey to the pollster (this is not necessarily the same as what they are literally saying).
4) How such answers correspond to revealed preferences.
Simply put, the people conducting the polls wanted and expected a certain kind of answer and then uncritically accepted it. I suspect the polling has been bad for most of the pandemic but especially in the post-vaccine era.
That bad polling data was probably the driver behind the second wave of pandemic theatre during the Delta and Omicron waves. Biden correctly tried to declare victory after vaccines and even shocked people by trying to get rid of masks and crafting a very simple pro-vaccine policy (get the vaccine, take off your mask). Then when Delta came he and others saw a bunch of polls that said abandoning that for shrill COVID hawking would be politically popular, and instead it backfired spectacularly because the polling was bad for the above reasons.
This isn't limited to COVID. Pollsters have been getting worse and worse at basically everything for many years now. Either because they are less competent or because they more and more feel pressured to get the "right" poll results. The inaccurate skew is almost always for the left/PC position. One reason the Democratic Party has swerved progressive is that a misplaced confidence in polling has led them to believe this progressive swing is more popular than it actually is.
Re: "Tyler is accusing Bryan Caplan of using too much economics and not enough sociology. Robin Hanson sides with Caplan." [Robin writes: "I think Bryan sees himself correctly has not having much useful advice to offer on how to change cultures."]
But economics does have useful advice on how to change cultures: "Incentives matter" & "Free to choose". Examples:
a) A key finding in 'law & economics': Swift and certain punishment deters wrongdoing. (Severity of punishment matters much less, if punishment is swift and certain.)
b) Always treat persons as individuals.
c) Discourage excuse-making.
d) Practice tough love when necessary.
Collective boot-strapping is crucial in one dimension: Every authority figure (teachers, employers, parents, coaches, cops, etc) should be mindful of 'station and duty' in culture.
PS: Props to Arnold Kling, who has been ahead of "The Science" on inflation. Bryan Caplan's blogpost essentially echoes some points from Arnold's early blogposts on inflation.