Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"I'm a Boy!": Why New Gender-neutral Pronouns Are Moribund

Having recently written about the impotence of words, I find this news, reported by Russia Today, to be very well-timed, indeed. The 2015 edition of the Swedish Dictionary is set to include a gender-neutral pronoun (hen, pronounced, I believe, like the fowl), apparently rather a new word, to be used, if one wants, instead of the Swedish versions of 'he' and 'she'. More specifically, the article reports that:
"In the dictionary, the pronoun will have two uses: for cases when the gender is unknown or irrelevant, or if the information is viewed as irrelevant."
In my aforementioned blog post from earlier this month, I referenced the legendary H. L. Mencken's report in his great book The American Language (a book that is certain to feature again on this blog) of a similar episode in the English (American) language when the word hesh was proposed to mean he-and-she about a hundred years ago. The book contains other such attempts; the word thon (originally meaning yonder in Northern English) and thon's for he-or-she and his-or-her, respectively, for instance. So one may think of the new Swedish pronoun as corresponding to thon.
Notice the two uses of the new Swedish pronoun: the first says that the word is to be used when the gender of the person is unknown, the second that it is to be used when the information is irrelevant. Trans-gender people and individuals fitting into the "third legal gender" introduced in Germany last year would therefore be certain thons. Persons viewing themselves as male or female are thus apt to feel offended if referred to by thon. The presence of persons with one clear gender (i.e. most people) would drive down the use of the new Swedish pronoun. Perhaps down into oblivion. After all, thon was in Webster's New International Dictionary as recently as 1934 (Mencken, p. 460 n.), but who uses it now? Who even remembers it now? does not recognize it.
At least I know I would feel offended if referred to by a word used to indicate (even if only by some small probability) third-gender and trans-gender individuals. This is not because there is anything wrong with those people. There is not. But if people think I have uncommon preferences, it will adversely impact my opportunities in the marriage market. I would think most people reason similarly, so my small "model" above should hold: The presence of men and women and the relative fewness of individuals in-between drive out the use of third-gender or gender-neutral pronouns. The prediction which comes out of this model is clear: languages which have ever had established gendered pronouns will remain that way and never see gender-neutral pronouns; languages with gender-neutral pronouns may evolve into gendered-pronoun languages, but will not necessarily do so.
This is actually a testable hypothesis. The word son from the French language is a gender-neutral pronoun (third-person singular genitive). I don't know Latin, but French comes from Latin, so if Latin had gendered third-person singular genitives, my hypothesis fails. There are many other languages to consult for yet more evidence. This is something I will keep in mind.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Do Immigrants Import Bad Institutions?

One of the best arguments against laxer or no immigration restrictions is that third-world institutions may rub off their flavour on first-world policies. For instance, a person may be interested in how the presence of more immigrants as a share of a state's population impacts that state's general level of "freedom", such as defined by researchers William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens in their "Freedom in the 50 States" project. From their website and from the Migration Policy Institute, I collected data to make a small graph depicting the percentage-point change in immigrants' share of each state's population between 2000 and 2012, and the same state's change in the freedom index between 2001 and 2011 (the years do not match exactly due to limited data availability).

Before proceeding, I should point out that, while data on freedom may not be of much concern to everyone, they should help inform the present case, since changes will reflect what has happened to policy in general. Thus, if nothing jumps out from the data, immigration might not impact policy much. So, without further ado, this is what I found (click to enlarge):
In case the quality is too poor for the graph to be informative, there is a slight tendency for states which have declined in terms of freedom to have had an increase in immigrants' share of total population. But this tendency is slight indeed; Nevada, New Jersey and Maryland are the three points farthest to the right which have seen declines in freedom. Remove them and no trend is visible at all. However, these states also happen to be the ones which have had the greatest increase in immigrants as a share of their populations, so one should not speak with too great certainty.
One might suspect that the origin of the increased share of foreign-borns matters. In Maryland, persons born in Latin America were 40.1 per cent of all foreign-borns in 2012, up from 34 per cent in 2000. The corresponding numbers for Europeans and Asians are 10.5 and 16.8, and 32.5 and 35, respectively (i.e. decreases for both groups). African-born individuals were the only major group to join the Latin Americans among those increasing their shares, being 15.4 per cent in 2012 and 12.1 in 2000. Perhaps there is something fishy about Latin American and African institutions?

However, the share of Latin American-borns in Nevada declined over the same twelve-year period (from 61.4 to 58.2), and Africans' share increased only a little bit (from 1.6 to 2.3). Asian-borns were the big relative gainers, up from 22.9 to 29.1 per cent. New Jersey, the third state to have had much immigration and a sizable decline in freedom, offers further heterogeneity; its biggest changes were a decline in the Europeans' share from 23.9 to 15.9 per cent, and an increase in the Asians' share from 27.8 to 32.1 per cent. The other groups did not change much. More detailed data are available here.
Which leads me to conclude that,  in the main, the thing that is really conspicuous about my graph is that nothing stands out. Now I would be a fool to make any grandiose claims based on this unsophisticated little exercise, but it is some evidence that immigrants' impact is not too great. Increases in shares of the population by several percentage points over just twelve years are not associated with any general changes in Ruger and Sorens' Freedom Index, so maybe fears of imported third-world institutions are overblown?

Friday, 25 July 2014

What Really Causes National Homogeneity?

In recent column, America's favourite jingoist Pat Buchanan laments the lack of national unity in America (Noah Smith adds thoughtful comment, although I disagree with his main point). Now I am a sceptic when it comes to nations. I do not believe they really exist in any moral sense, so when Noah Smith speaks favourably of nationalism of the "being one unified people instead of just a collection of unrelated individuals who happen to live in the same geographical space"-variety, I object that we really are a collection of individuals who happen to live in the same geographical space!

Nations do not make decisions, only individuals make decisions. Is it not a criterion for moral value that one can make a decision, or at any rate could, provided that certain impediments (such as crippling disease or infancy) be overcome? In principle, I can see nothing that could make nations capable of deciding anything. This may not sound very inspiring, but maybe it is the truth? Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution has a timely post on this theme. Thus, "unity" is apt to mean some individuals' treating society like their doll's house, but people plainly are not dolls and have wills of their own.
But this post is not really about the moral value of nations. In his column, Buchanan starts by perpetuating common stereotypes about immigrants (how about his assertion that "millions from Mexico exploited his [George W. Bush's] magnanimity to violate our laws, trample upon our sovereignty, walk into our country and remain here"?) and then proceeds to talk about the "good old days":
"[The immigrants] came later. From 1845-1849, the Irish fleeing the famine. From 1890-1920, the Germans. Then the Italians, Poles, Jews and other Eastern Europeans. Then, immigration was suspended in 1924. 
From 1925 to 1965, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants were assimilated, Americanized. In strong public schools, they were taught our language, literature and history, and celebrated our holidays and heroes. We endured together through the Depression and sacrificed together in World War II and the Cold War. 
By 1960, we had become truly one nation and one people."
And here is Buchanan on the present "mess":
"We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.
We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays. Christmas and Easter have been privatized. Columbus is reviled. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon. Cesar Chavez is in."
Estimates have it that immigrants' share of the US population is presently around 12.5 per cent, which is well more than a doubling from 1970, but comfortably short of historical peaks around 15 per cent in the late 19th century. So the share of immigrants alone is unlikely to explain Buchanan's perception of increased heterogeneity.

Total per-capita spending on education has increased since 1960, so Buchanan's "strong public schools"-point makes little sense to me, nor do his remarks about "enduring together" a bunch of wars and times of uncertainty; if these events tend to create a sense of unity, it did not happen during the Vietnam War, nor (particularly) in many European allies in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which certainly caused a great deal of discord. Maybe an enemy is required that is clearly evil and worth fighting, but then some other country must suffer under such a tyrant. That is hardly worth it to create "unity".

So if Buchanan is right about heterogeneity being on the rise, he must still be wrong about the causes he suggests. So what else has happened since the 1960's? Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, the Vietnam War and the Hippie movement, Inflation, Ronald Reagan, Welfare reform and September 11th, 2001 may be the biggest factors. If there is any trend in these things that may be supported by the data, it is one towards a bigger role for government (which increased even under Reagan). If immigrants are to be part of the explanation, maybe this is an indication that heterogeneous populations are (especially?) bad at governance?

On the other hand, I find Buchanan's points to hold up so badly, that maybe the US is actually more homogeneous now than ever before?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Futility of Advocacy

Many stories are themed in a way such that two (or more) sides are in a struggle for local or world domination (Star Wars and even Björn Kurtén's terrific award-winner Dance of the Tiger come to mind). I wonder why the "good guys" should get so much credit; what reason is there to think they will act differently if in power? After all, if conditions are a certain way under the "bad guys", that is proof that rulers can make things go bad. Maybe the protest songs are right and successful rulers are all the same?

Of course, absent music, there are also other stories which purport to illustrate the difficulty for putatively powerful men to accomplish change. For instance, Robert Graves' I Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God depict the stuttering Roman emperor as a surprisingly cunning Republican, who nevertheless fails to resurrect his cherished system.
The reason Claudius failed to change the system is that "power" is demanding, a theme I have touched upon earlier on this blog (and here, too). To get it means to be obsequious to the right individuals, in particular to those individuals whose support, if withdrawn, does the most damage to one's continued sway. Those supporters, in turn, probably depend on other individuals, and so on. Everyone in this system has certain things he wants out of those in charge. As long as the dominant wish is not policy that is based upon clear-headed reasoning, this means that advocacy has the odds against it from the beginning.

Advocacy is tricky because all the individuals who exert even the tiniest pressure on politicians - which is to say everyone who adjusts his behaviour to public policy, adjusts his behaviour to others' adjustments to public policy, or votes, or just plain "everyone" - have next to no incentive to find out what good policy really is, and about the same incentive to follow their politicians' actions to make sure they adhere to good policy. This is because doing so will have no positive effects on one's own well-being, since one person is rarely going to be pivotal in collective decision-making. Time is scarce, so the individual had better spend it on things which might have some impact.

Thus, the door is opened to interest groups to control public policy. This does not have to be bad, but compared to a universe in which logic and evidence get full respect, policy will suffer. But even without interest-group pressure, rational biases (such as those explored by Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter) can help explain democratic shortcomings. 

There are many issues on which logic and evidence provide rather clear policy recommendations, on many consequentialist as well as deontological grounds. Yet, policy repeatedly fails to respect advice based upon such logic and evidence. For instance, minimum wages destroy bargaining options and kill jobs, compulsory military service (even disregarding its ethical shortcomings) is costlier than is a professional army (or no army) and free trade beats restricted trade.

Imagine devising a really clever argument in favour of, say, free trade. It is so clever that anyone who spends two seconds listening to it is instantly swayed forever. That still does not do away with the fact that it is in the self-interest of very few people to make sure that elected politicians follow good policy, and it still does not do away with the fact that many voters - even while convinced of the general beneficence of free trade - have a special interest against free trade in their particular sector.

The world is usefully thought of as being in equilibrium. It is not all bad, because it means we have a fairly stable business environment and of course many things are hunky dory on Tellus. But to change an equilibrium requires changing the rather mighty pressures which bring it about, and advocacy appears ill-suited at that. Perhaps the best one can do is to vote with one's feet. Maybe seasteading will improve migratory choices?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Hypotheticals, Again

The venerable Professor Scott Sumner has criticized anti-utilitarian hypotheticals very many time lately, writing, in but one instalment, that:
"If opponents of utilitarianism are forced to come up with implausible examples involving cognitive illusions to make their point, then that suggests to me that utilitarianism is a quite useful system."
I have written here before that the criterion for hypotheticals to be valid is that they not be impossible by the standards of science. So if something is at all possible, it may be safely used in thought experiments.
Harvesting organs from one person in order to give them to many other people, thereby saving many lives on net, is certainly possible on a small scale (it is likely impossible on a large scale due to the fear and concomitant disutility which widespread harvesting would induce). Thus, the utilitarian conclusion must be that a doctor should occasionally kill his patients (particularly if they are unhappy and have no friends). But rather than really tackling this issue, Sumner instead argues for organ markets, which of course would be a lot better than killings, but what can the individual doctor do to make that happen? Moreover, some patients in need of organs might not be able to come up with the necessary funds.
Ignorance of utility-reducing facts stands opposed to Truth, another valuable thing which one may not want to trade off for (just any small amount of) utility. For instance, a man whose wife is unfaithful has been raising a number of kids who are not his own. If the wife tells him, he might be unhappy for the rest of his life. Of course, a consistent policy of honesty and non-cheating may do more for utility, but once these things have happened, utilitarianism seems to sacrifice a great deal of Truth for utility. This leads into the discussion about Robert Nozick's Experience Machine, in which no lived ideas are really true.
In a comment to Professor Sumner's post, I wrote that "homosexuals are a very small fraction of the population and are also quite unpopular in certain parts. One does not have to imagine death camps to make points against utilitarianism - would additional taxes be justified so as to compensate the heterosexual majorities for "putting up with them" (or perhaps discourage the activity)? More lenient sentences for crimes against gays than for crimes against others?" This is another instance of a plainly-not-implausible scenario in which utilitarianism's failure to acknowledge the individual's dignity is exposed. So why slough over it rather than engage in the hypothetical?
Here is another short hypothetical: A person, call him A, finds a perishable good in a place where no-one will set foot in weeks or more (by which time the good has gone bad). Maybe he is hiking in the Himalayas or is in Chernobyl just before the 1986 disaster. Anyway, A could consume the perishable good or leave it for absolutely no-one (it rots or becomes poisoned). A would gain a little bit of utility by consuming the good, and if he abstains (global) utility will remain unchanged. If one considers this an "implausible" hypothetical, try many "minute-wise, hour-foolish" strategies instead and notice the plausible prevalence of sacrificing own utility.
According to utilitarianism (and Ayn Rand's philosophy known as Objectivism), A is behaving immorally if he does not consume the good. Non-consequentialist moral theories, on the other hand, would claim that A's decision lacks any moral importance. The same holds whenever a utility-increasing action is abstained from which would have no impact on anyone else. Now of course there would be a very strong tendency for individuals not to abstain or to be "hour-foolish", but why should that be considered immoral? Is it not their prerogative?
However, the best arguments against utilitarianism come, I believe, from introspection. If a fixed amount of utility in a lifetime truly can be distributed in any way, then perhaps nothing but utility matters, but from introspection I believe many individuals would not be indifferent; for example (1, 1, 1) may be thought better than (103, -50, -50). Perhaps these non-indifferent individuals are wrong. In that case, does it follow that public policy should force them to act differently?
Now it is clear that none of this refutes utilitarianism. But perhaps this blog post manages to show that hypotheticals arguing against utilitarianism need not be extreme or implausible and may anyway be worthy of more respect than they frequently get.

Monday, 21 July 2014

"Independence" for the Scots?

There is presently a lot of talk about the Scottish referendum in September to determine whether it shall become a nation independent from the rest of the UK. I believe the Union has a lot going for it; English-Scottish ties are legion in people's professional and social lives with a lot of intermarrying and cross-border migration, so in those respects two separate nations with concomitant border-control nonsense could only make things worse (though need not necessarily do so; of course). There is in fact nothing too distinctive that separates Scotland from the rest of the Union. It is North Britain, really, and England and Wales are South Britain.
Yet, there are advantages to an increasing number of nations in the world. Since there is only so much surface on Tellus, more nations means smaller nations. Small countries should tend to be more open, because relying on domestic production is more difficult. Also, migration to "competing" political jurisdictions should be easier the smaller is the "own" jurisdiction, encouraging good policies to be adopted.
I can think of a couple of secessions which were followed by neat developments: Hong Kong (though I believe it took a while to really prosper) and Taiwan became much richer than Red China. Finland grew healthily after its independence from then-revolutionary Russia. Other cases are perhaps not so clear, though the amputated countries may not have done much better either (Eritrea, the Republic of Ireland may be examples of secession being followed by relative non-prosperity, although I am not an expert on these countries, particularly not Eritrea).
The new states after the Soviet break-up have been a mixed bag, but I am not sure there is one among them that has fared much worse relative to its initial position. And others have done very well. I know much too little about Pakistan and Bangladesh to be able to judge those cases, but maybe there is a slight tendency for secessions to be followed by positive developments (but are there adverse consequences for the amputated countries which cancel out the good things?).
In the particular case of Scotland, competition with Westminster will likely intensify due to the presence of Diasporas, both south and north of the border, easing transitions for Britons voting with their feet. Technically, a more decentralized Britain could accomplish the same thing sans any secessions, and what has been known as "Devolution" (essentially more "home rule") has meant small steps in this direction. Devolution currently means, as far as I can understand, that Scotland presently gets money to spend from Westminster without having to worry about how to raise it (I think the Edinburgh Parliament can adjust (some?) Scottish tax rates up or down by three percentage points). This is of course an unfortunate arrangement, but again does not technically require secession to be solved.
I am ambivalent about the issue. As I say, the Union has a lot going for it and secession is by no means logically required in order to have some things that would benefit Britons (and indeed everyone) today. Yet, it is possible that secession would be a good way of bringing them about. More radical and real Devolution would be my preference, but if that is off the table I am not sure what to think.
(PS. "Independence" is in quotation marks in the title of this blog post because no Scot would really be independent whichever way the majority votes in September; they will still be forced to pay taxes and obey rules imposed by third-parties which no Scot might choose for himself. The only difference is that the third party would then be a different government.)

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Schumpeter's Calculation and the Present State of Things

In his great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter envisioned further economic growth eliminating "want" (an unfortunate choice of word, since wants are really limitless, but what is meant is destitution or something like that) in just a few decades. The kind of economic growth which would achieve this immense feat would have to be in line with the growth numbers which had been seen during the past century or so up to his writing the 1947 edition of the aforementioned book. On page 67, for instance, Schumpeter notes the availability of modern dentistry to workmen which Louis XIV would not have obtained even if he had spent all his wealth. On page 69, Schumpeter continues:
"Now if the system had another run such as it had in the sixty years preceding 1928 and really reached the $1,300 per head of population, it is easy to see that all of the desiderata that have so far been espoused by any social reformers - practically without exception, including even the greater part of the cranks - either would be fulfilled automatically or could be fulfilled without significant interference with the capitalist process. Ample provision for the unemployed in particular would then be not only a tolerable but a light burden."
The emphasis is in the original. According to the BLS's inflation calculator, $1,300 in 1928 is $17,963.80 in 2014, well below even half of the American GDP per capita. So by the Great Austrian's reckoning, spending on transfer payments should be a very low fraction of GDP, indeed. Yet the welfare state consumes a lot more today than it ever has before. For instance, Charles Murray's Coming Apart cites the figure $1,500,000,000,000 (called a trillion and a half in America; I wonder if numbers have ever got this big in the UK, but Britons would call the figure one and a half billion) spent purely on income transfers in America, and throughout the West, total government spending as a share of GDP is typically around 40 per cent.
Now consider the $1.5 billion (or "trillion") figure and relate it to what Schumpeter had to say about eliminating want. It comes to almost $5,000 per American (of whom there are almost 320 million according to the Census Bureau), which is not that much less than one third of the $1,300 per-capita GDP in 1928 that Schumpeter nicely argued would suffice for wants to be eliminated "without significant interference with the capitalist process". But almost a one-third of per-capita GDP being spent on transfers is surely significant interference. Yet there remains poverty, although it is incredibly rare by world standards. What gives?
These facts indicate to me that the welfare state is not really about helping poor people. Moreover, there is the suspicion that there are laws in social science which make it incredibly difficult for welfare programmes to fulfil their ostensible purpose. One such candidate is Director's Law, named after University of Chicago Law Professor and Economist Aaron Director. It is not really a "law" as much as a vast and coherent set of empirical findings, for instance that tuition at fancy universities is often subsidized even though college students typically come from fairly affluent families.
However, there is some logic to Director's "Law", independent of observation. If a welfare programme is designed to help the poorest decile (say), it is plain that this is paid for mostly by persons far richer that that. The poorest decile is not a very useful group for office-seeking politicians, who must seek the approval of many more people than these in order to gain power (besides, people this poor tend not to vote much). Consequently, the winning proposals will have money shifted from fewer people than 90 per cent of the population, and to more people than just the poorest decile. Programmes specifically directed at the poor will tend to go unfunded.
What about expanded programmes? Everyone wants to be a beneficiary of such programmes, so they might easily grow a great deal, but once they have grown enough, the bottom ten per cent may no longer be such a valuable part of whatever coalitions form. Expanded programmes are palpably more attractive to interest groups than are narrower ones, and so those who can organize politically will tend to secure the benefits for themselves. Thus, farmers and other small and non-poor groups appropriate a lot of transfer money by good lobbying. Again, the poor folks lose out.

In addition, the poor may tend to be disadvantaged in utilizing whatever programmes for which they qualify. To get good health care, it helps to be articulate and to already know a bit about the system (for instance, by having friends within it), traits which the poor may well possess, but perhaps not as much as middle-class individuals. Services directed at poor areas may also be at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting talent to provide them. I can imagine good teachers shunning schools in poor areas. Raising the salaries in those schools will attract better talent, but as has been shown, this is politically difficult to do.

Schumpeter's calculations were surely correct and, on merely technical grounds, poverty could be eliminated today even with a much smaller government. It just happens that that is not how politics works.