A Sentence about Tetlock’s Famous Study

Jason Collins writes,

However – and this point is one you rarely hear in commentary about the book – the experts outperform unsophisticated forecasters (a role filled by Berkeley undergrads), whose performance is truly woeful.

Read the entire book review.

Herbert Stein wrote a memoir in which he summarized what he had learned is that economists do not know very much, but non-economists know even less.

The challenge is to get people to admit what they do not know. A non-economist who is quite ignorant is only dangerous if he or she tries to engineer the economy. Most economists, believing that they can engineer the economy, are dangerous.

What I’m Reading

A review copy of Erwin Dekker’s The Viennese Students of Civilization. He places Mises and Hayek in the intellectual circles of Vienna between the two world wars, as they watch a once-great civilization collapse. Capitalism and democracy simply could not take root in that part of Europe. I will have more to say about the book once I have finished.

Meanwhile, support for capitalism and democracy among young people in the U.S. is not exactly robust. Timothy Taylor reports,

In both the US and in Europe, young adults have become less likely to say that it is “essential” to live in a democracy.

It is, as Winston Churchill said, the second worst form of government.

Gary Johnson and a Liberal Tension

He said,

But if we allow for discrimination — if we pass a law that allows for discrimination on the basis of religion — literally, we’re gonna open up a can of worms when it come stop discrimination of all forms, starting with Muslims … who knows. You’re narrowly looking at a situation where if you broaden that, I just tell you — on the basis of religious freedom, being able to discriminate — something that is currently not allowed — discrimination will exist in places we never dreamed of.

If I understand him correctly, he would be ok with prosecuting a wedding cake-baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding.

I am reminded of Jacob Levy’s thesis that rationalism and pluralism are in tension with one another. A pluralist would say that the cake-baker has a right to discriminate. The rationalist would say otherwise. For more on Levy’s thesis, see this discussion forum, listen to this podcast, or read his (very expensive) book.

I am currently reading Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (for an obvious reason). Nisbet saw individualism and statism as going together, part of the process of “liberating” people from the oppression of traditional communal institutions. What Levy calls rationalist liberalism is consistent with that. Nisbet did not view this “liberation” as such a wonderful thing.

Rights and Consequences

I read the latest (final? I hope not, because I have some critical comments) draft of Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, which he describes as follows:

I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

One of the issues that Tyler raises that I think ought to be resolved somewhat differently is that of the role of rights in consequentialism. In a sense, basic rights, like property rights, dangle awkwardly in a consequentialist philosophy. If I can create more happiness by giving your corn to someone else, why should you have the right to keep it?

I am inclined to give a Hayekian account of why you should have the right to choose whether to eat, plant, trade, or donate your corn. That is, you are likely to know the best of use of your corn, including the best moral use of it, thanks to your local knowledge. Thus, the consequences are likely to best if you make the decision rather than I make the decision.

In fact, in cases where we think that you are not competent to make the decision (a child, or someone with severe mental deficiencies), we do not treat property rights as absolute. Thus, our intuition about rights is tied up with the issue of how much we respect the person’s local knowledge.

One view of moral philosophy is that our intuitions are basically right, and it is the philosopher’s job to come up with a system of thought that accounts for and perhaps codifies our intuitions. While I would not go to this extreme, it is always something to consider in moral philosophy.

On the other hand, if you told me that economists’ intuitions about what constitute high-quality research are basically right, and the job of economic epistemology is to come up with a system of thought that accounts for and perhaps codifies our intuitions, I would be inclined to object. But perhaps I am willing to say that it something to consider in economic epistemology.

Does War Improve Cooperation?

I review Peter Turchin’s book from 2005. My final paragraph:

For libertarians, these are crucial questions. In order for markets to function well, they must be embedded in cultures that promote pro-social behavior and are conducive to trust. If the absence of external conflict weakens the bonds that prevent internal conflict, then the libertarian goal of peaceful cooperation in all domains will prove elusive.

Coincidentally, the Journal of Economic Perspectives that just came out has an article on this topic by Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilová, Joseph Henrich, Edward Miguel, and Tamar Mitts. They conclude,

Most of the papers in this emerging literature agree on one central matter: that the data strongly reject the common view that communities and people exposed to war violence will inevitably be deprived of social capital, collective action, and trust. Across the 16 studies from economics, anthropology, political science, and psychology, the average effect on a summary index of cooperation is positive and statistically significant, if moderate in magnitude.

Religious Fervor and Demography

Jason Collins reviews Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.

To give a sense of the power of this higher fertility, the Old Order Amish in the United States have increased from 5,000 people in 1900 to almost a quarter of a million members. In the United Kingdom, Orthodox Jews make up 17 per cent of the Jewish population but three-quarters of Jewish births.

…Kaufmann’s case worries me more than tales of government deficits due to demographic change. Even if you assign a low probability to Kaufmann’s projections, it provides another strand to the case that low fertility in the secular West is not without costs.

The numbers cited about Orthodox Jews in the UK struck me as fishy, based on what I know about the U.S. Suppose that there are 80 non-Orthodox Jewish women and they each have one child (a really low fertility rate), for a total of 80 non-Orthodox Jewish births. Then suppose you have 20 Orthodox Jewish women, and they have to account for 3/4 of all Jewish births, which means that they need to give birth to 240 children, or an average of 12 children each. There are in fact several sub-groups within Orthodox Judaism, and there are some sects in which families of that size are common, but there is no way that the average family size of all Orthodox Jews is 12 children.

There is a larger objection that I have, which is that the high growth of the fervently religious starts from a low base. Assume that non-fervent women have one child each, and fervent women have ten children each. If you start with 999 non-fervent women for every fervent woman, it is going to take quite a few generations for the fervent to “inherit the earth.” Meanwhile, much else will change.

[UPDATE: In a comment, Megan McArdle points out that the arithmetic in the above example leads to the fervent reaching parity in 3 generations, and then soaring to dominance thereafter. But as she points out, the discrepancy in fertility between the fervent and non-fervent is not as wide as in the examle. And if nothing else, I can fall back on “much else will change.” By the end of this century, we could very well see dramatic changes in medical science, including reversal of aging and cloning.

The Book Sounds Interesting

Erwin Dekker writes,

The rise of fascism posed an even greater threat to the values of the liberal bourgeois, and at the same time it demonstrated that socialism might not be inevitable after all. One of my book’s major themes is the transformation from the resigned, and at times fatalistic, study of the transformation of the older generation, to the more activist and combatant attitude of the younger generation. Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Peter Drucker as well as important intellectual currents in Vienna start to oppose, and defend the Habsburg civilization from its enemies.

I have seen many references to the article on Facebook and on blogs, including Mark Thoma’s link.

The book seems like it might be interesting, but the publishers are evidently worried that people might buy it, so they are charging a price that should deter that from happening.

Tocqueville, Nisbet, and Kling

Near the end of an Ezra Klein podcast, at about the one hour and twelve minute mark, when asked to name three books that have influenced him, Yuval Levin lists works by those three authors. He is careful to say that Specialization and Trade is not in the same class as the other two, but still. . .

My favorite part of the podcast begins just before the 18-minute mark, when Levin recites his view of how a typical Baby Boomer would have experienced the decades starting from the 1950s. I think his take is both accurate and interesting.

Klein’s response is also interesting. He says that what Levin has just presented is the white male view of history, and his generation is more attuned to women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities. I think as a representation of Klein’s generation, that, too, is spot on. I get the same take from my daughters.

Previous generations of young people were insufferable because they thought that they invented sex. Klein’s generation is insufferable because they think they invented social morality.

Jason Collins reviews Jonathan Last

Collins writes,

So, if government can’t make people have children they don’t want and can’t simply ship them in, Last asks if they could help people get the children they do want. As children go on to be taxpayers, government could cut social security taxes for those with more children and make people without children pay for what they’re not supporting. (Although you’d want to make sure there was no net burden of those children across their lives, as they’ll be old people one day too. There are limits to how far you could take that Ponzi scheme.)

Keep in mind that lower birth rates are an international phenomenon, so I am reluctant to place much weight on U.S.-specific factors. My sense is that the decline in birth rates is correlated with, if not caused by, increased education of women. If that is the main causal factor, then it probably is not something that is going to be reversed.

Also, I am not convinced that there is such a down side to slower population growth and eventual decline. Yes, it messes up entitlement programs for the elderly, but that is because those programs are ill conceived, particularly in not indexing the age of government dependency to longevity. You should fix the entitlement programs to deal with the demography rather than try to fix demography to deal with entitlement programs.

What I am Reading

Jonah Lehrer’s new book, mentioned by Tyler Cowen.

Spare me comments about Lehrer’s past.

The central theme of the book is “attachment theory,” which is on the “nurture” side of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. For example, Lehrer suggests that the Flynn effect may be due to better parenting practices, with parents doing a better job of making their children feel securely attached.

This leaves Bryan Caplan with three possible reactions.

1. Lehrer is wrong. The evidence Lehrer cites for attachment theory consists of observational studies that do not establish causality and “natural experiments” that are unconvincing for other reasons.

2. Lehrer is right, but it is only through the attachment process that nurture affects children. Nothing else that parents do matters.

3. Lehrer is right, and perhaps this means that other parental behaviors matter also. Caplan’s world view has to change.