Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

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Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

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American moms spend more time taking care of kids today than they did in the 1960’s. This is perhaps the most surprising of many bold but well-backed claims in economist Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

“According to time diaries, modern parents spend an incredible amount of time taking care of their kids. As expected, dads do a lot more than they used to. Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts. Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard. What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload: Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heydey of the stay-at-home mom [13 hours/week vs 10].”

The major argument of the book, backed up by many twin and adoption studies, is that parenting matters much less than we think- at least as far as children’s long-term outcomes are concerned. A lot of kids’ outcomes seem to be determined by factors outside parents’ control; the biggest way parents do influence their kids long-term outcomes is through genetics. Adopted kids generally end up with education, income, IQ, and many other outcomes being much more similar to their biological parents than their adoptive parents.

In turn, Caplan draws two main conclusions from this argument. One, lay off the tiger parenting, since all it accomplishes is to make kids miserable. Two, for those who do want to influence their kids: “The most effective way to get the kind of kids you want is to pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have.”

Other interesting points:

US kids are about 4 times less likely to die during childhood today than they were in the “idyllic” 1950’s. The reason people think otherwise is because Law & Order SVU has replaced Leave it to Beaver on TV (and the rise of 24 hour news, et c). Homicides actually have gone up a bit, but this is overwhelmed by the massive decline in deaths from accidents and disease.

I thought that government “child bonus” payments were ineffective at promoting fertility, but Caplan cites research showing the opposite. Same with mandatory paid leave- the possible positive externalities of extra kids make me start to rethink my knee-jerk anti-regulation stance.

Artificial wombs are something I’d only heard of in science fiction. But apparently semi-functional prototypes already exist, and only government restrictions are holding back progress.

IVF + surrogacy = totally outsourced babies. Any rules against mass production and/or use by fertile people? This seems like a good way for any rich person to create an army of clones.

Written by James Bailey

January 25, 2016 at 7:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Reverse Syrian Refugee Crisis of 1915

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In 1915 there was a flood of refugees from the Armenian genocide being forced into Syria, on a sort of Trail of Tears. I just learned of this from the excellent book, Lawrence in Arabia, that I’m currently in the middle of:

“As for where this potentially vast sea of internal deportees might be sent, Talaat and Enver had already selected a spot: gathered up from across Anatolia, most would be herded down to the barren reaches of northern Syria. The insanity inherent in this scheme, of uprooting a vast population and casting it into a land already devastated by the deprivations of war, would play out to obscene result: by best estimate, some 800,000 of the Armenian deportees were to perish—starved, shot, or beaten to death—en route.

The consensus among historians is that [Ottomian provincial governor] Djemal Pasha stood very much apart from his Young Turk coleaders in his response to the expulsions. In June, the first survivors of the death marches began to trickle into the north Syrian city of Aleppo, a way station toward their intended destination, the “relocation zone” of Deir al-Zour some one hundred miles to the east. Visiting Aleppo, Djemal Pasha was horrified by what he saw. Reiterating a March decree that commanded his army to protect the Armenians, he lobbied Constantinople to impose the order on military units where it really mattered, in Anatolia. That plea was ignored.

Getting no satisfaction from Constantinople, Djemal allowed thousands of Armenians to remain in Aleppo rather than continue their death march, and despite the deepening hunger and food shortages spreading through Syria, he ordered an increase of government food aid to the refugees. Testament to his love of order and regulations, he issued a rash of new edicts directing that the army regulate and maintain the food supply for the Armenians, that cars and horses be procured for their transportation, even that each refugee be given a financial allowance. But implicit in the stacks of documents that the Syrian governor signed in his office each day was the notion that his regime actually had the wherewithal to carry out these initiatives, never mind that all evidence—evidence that started just outside Djemal’s office windows and stretched to the farthest corners of his realm—argued otherwise. It was as if he fancied himself the administrator of a canton of peacetime Switzerland, rather than of a poor and highly fractured region the size of Italy that was being ravaged by war, hunger, and disease. In the face of the Armenian crisis, as with so many other problems that came his way, Djemal responded with a mixture of bluster, threats, and pleas, and when none of that worked, he simply averted his gaze. By September, with the crisis worsening, he issued a new edict, making it a criminal offense to photograph the Armenians.”

Written by James Bailey

December 10, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Wolf in White Van

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People were always saying how ugly Southern California was, especially when they came back from their summer vacations. They said it looked plastic or fake or whatever, and talked about all the cool things they saw in Ohio, where their grandparents lived. Or in Pennsylvania. The wall behind the arcade was made of giant sparkling white bricks, just like all the other buildings connected to it. There was graffiti on it, indecipherable gang writing. It was dark now and getting a little cold and then the super-bright lights they have behind stores to keep bums from sleeping by the dumpsters came on, and I thought, people who don’t think Southern California is the most beautiful place in the world are idiots and I hope they choke on their tongues.

John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats, has successfully made the rare transition from songwriter to novelist with his new book, “Wolf in White Van.” The book’s protagonist has halfway grown up from being a misfit teen with troubled relationships and an obsession with the dark and fantastic. Pushing through mental illness, seeking solace in things like satanic rock and hitting the arcade with a girl also fleeing her family- it is not hard to draw connections between the world of the novel and songs like This Year, Amy AKA Spent Gladiator, and The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.

As you might expect from one of the best lyricists around, the book is strongest at the level of sentences and paragraphs, which are often beautiful and revealing. But the larger structure of the story, which jumps back and forth through time while largely flowing backward, does work. Darnielle sets up mysteries and gradually, slowly reveals answers, with a few still left to work out by the end.


Written by James Bailey

June 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Things I Don’t Understand About Speed

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1. Why is it that all the Olympian sprinters are jacked, while it seems that the fastest people at frisbee are skinny?

2. I recently read The Sports Gene. A great book that explores which parts of sports success come from genes and innate ability, which from training, and which from odd interactions of the two like genes which make training more effective. For sprint speed, the book generally comes down on the side of genes- success is about the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers you are born with, backing up the old saying that “you can’t teach speed.” But while the book gave many answers, it left me with more questions. After all, it can’t literally be true that there is zero benefit to sprint training- or else why does anyone do it? I still have no idea how much speed a sprint training program would add. Would it cut 1 100th of a second of a 100-meter dash? One tenth? One full second? How different would the results be for someone who spent a year being moderately active, vs one who spent a year sitting on a couch? How different would the results be for people with different levels of “innate” ability, for instance different proportions of fast-twitch muscle fiber?

3. Have you ever run a timed 40-yd dash? Have you ever looked at NFL combine results? When I did, they blew my mind. I never thought I could keep up with NFL running backs or wide receivers, but I did think I could outrun a 330-pound offensive lineman. Not so, apparently- almost all of them can run a 40-yd dash in under 5.5 seconds.

Written by James Bailey

October 26, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Daniel Kahneman’s new book amazes me. Not so much due to the content, though I’m sure that will blow your mind if you haven’t previously heard about it through studying behavioral economics or psychology or reading Less Wrong. It is the writing style: Kahneman is able to convey his message succinctly while making it seem intuitive and fascinating. Some academics can write tolerably well, but Kahneman seems to be on a level with those who write popularly with a living- the style of a Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell, but no one can accuse the Nobel-prize-winning Kahneman of lacking substance.
This made me wonder if it is simply an unfair coincidence that Kahneman is great at both writing and research, or causation is at work here. True, in more abstract and mathematical fields great researchers do not seem especially likely to be great writers (Feynman aside). But to design and carry out great psychology experiments may require understanding the subject intuitively and through introspection. This kind of understanding- an intuitive understanding of everyday decision-making- may be naturally easier to share than other kinds of scientific knowledge, which use processes (say, math) or examine territories (say, subatomic particles) which are unfamiliar to most people. Kahneman says that he developed the ideas for most of his papers by talking with Amos Tversky on long walks. I suspect that this strategy leads to both good idea generation and a good, conversational writing style.

Written by James Bailey

April 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Economics and the Environment: Social Science Denialism

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Perhaps you have seen the following photo making the rounds and accumulating likes on Facebook.


My guess is that people like it because it gives some arguments for their belief that we should be closer to the “Environment” side of “Economy vs Environment” than we currently are. I would say this conclusion is at least reasonable (if not definitely correct), but that most arguments made for it are wrong, and that people should hesitate more to accept bad arguments in support of a pre-existing conclusion.

What are all claims packed into these four short sentences?

1) Unchangeable things are better / higher status / deserve more respect. Things we invented are less important and should be changed.

I don’t know if anyone really believes this when it is stated in its general form like this. I’m sure you can think of many invented things (penicillin, the Internet) you like better than many non-invented things (Lampreys, malaria). You probably have a neutral feeling about most physical constants (speed of light), often wish changeable things would stay the same (how happy we are in this wonderful moment), and perhaps even wish things would move from seeming unchangeable to changeable (all people get old and sick and die).

2) Since we invented the economy, there are no economic laws analogous to physical laws.

Invented-ness has nothing to do with it. Imagine saying that since we invented cars, they don’t need to obey the laws of physics. He just gets through explaining that our biological human nature is unchangeable, then implies there are no economic laws, that all economic interactions are changeable. Well, economic laws come from human nature. Some go even deeper: the law of demand emerges from rational agents with budget constraints (monkeys can qualify, or even computer programs with randomly generated preferences). Game theory is widely used by biologists and ecologists to describe the economic behavior of animals.

3) People sicken and die from ignoring biological laws, but not economic ones

Human lifespans more than doubled with the advent of the modern economy [if you haven’t seen the Hans Rosling video linked there, watch it now, it is way more informative than reading this]. Attempts to form communes while ignoring economic incentives have caused great sickness and death from the 1600’s US to 20th century Russia and China.

4) Environmentalism and Economic Prosperity are Opposed

There is a lot of truth to this; in many areas the tradeoff exists: shale oil vs clean water, jungle vs farmland, saving eagles or Africans. But economic science and environmental science agree more than you might think. Part of this is because people associate economic prosperity with GDP, but what economists actually want to maximize is people’s happiness, and we know that this comes both from GDP and a nice environment. Another part is that economists agree the world is over-polluted due to externalities, and spend time coming up with potential solutions.

What bothers me more besides the specific wrong claims (and the attempt to lower the status of economics) is how quickly the very people who complain about “science denialism” will themselves engage in “social science denialism”, insisting their own armchair analyses of the costs, benefits and tradeoffs of environmental policies must be right as if there were no experts working on the problem. More broadly, it bothers me how readily people will ignore bad arguments from “their side”. As Yvain eloquently put it in another context:

The problem is that screwed-up ethics, no matter how much they save your skin in the immediate problem, are going to stick around. If [Suzuki] pushes bad philosophy, many of [his] readers are going to accept them because arguments are soldiers and we all have to stand up for [the environment]. And then we’re going to end up with a cohort of very politically active people whose zealous opinions on subtle moral questions are based on what argument allowed a blogger to sound most indignant fifteen years ago.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm

The Optimal Amount of Hipsterdom is Increasing

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For a radio station to be profitable, they have to play things there is a large audience for. Since most radio stations only have a few hundred thousand people in range, they need to play popular music in order to get a few thousand listeners.

In the age of the internet, its easy to make your music accessible worldwide, so you can still reach a huge audience even if only 1% of the population likes your music. This much-discussed phenomenon of the “long tail“, and it is one reason that it is easier to listen to obscure bands than it used to be.

Add to this the way the concerts have always worked. Going to see a popular band is expensive, going to see an obscure band is cheap. I can go see Rush for $200, or the Mountain Goats for $20.

The demand for hipster music is downward sloping: when technology makes listening to obscure bands cheaper and easier, more people will do it. And technology has in fact made this cheaper and easier. Thus, the optimal amount of hipsterdom has increased.

Written by James Bailey

October 12, 2012 at 11:42 am