Sailer on Status

Steve Sailer also pipes up on status with a Saileresque argument:

Men can invent all the status hierarchies they want, like World of Warcraft (as noted by Half Sigma), but women don't have to be impressed by them. Ultimately, some status hierarchies (e.g., the Forbes 400) are higher status than others (e.g., nerd competitions like World of Warcraft) because the highest status male hierarchies in America are whichever ones attractive women are most impressed by.

First off, Steve makes it out that status competition is just a male thing. It emphatically is  not. It's true that women don't have to be impressed by gamer geeks, but a large part of my point was that nobody has to be impressed by anything. Men don't have to be impressed by Playboy bunnies or heiresses either. But I'll go with Steve's phallocentrism to keep it simple, and because, naturally, I know more about status and mate competition from the guy side.
Some subcultures attract fewer women, and some attract more. But we can enjoy status without ever cashing it in for a mate. So it is possible that guys who already have below average mating prospects feel more free to opt into status games that women aren't generally impressed by. They might do better with women if they rated a solid middle on a dimension more women cared about. But maybe still not that great, and at the perhaps high cost of diminished experienced status. If the quality of woman attainable as a mediocre guy on a broadly respected status dimension strikes the guy as disappointingly low, then loneliness (mitigated by technology and the extralegal service sector) plus high status as a geek may be a better deal overall.

And of course, there always are some women involved in any male-dominated subculture. Some are outliers who just happen to like whatever the guys are doing. And others stumble in and discover that the scarcity of females creates such intense competition that available females can reap all sorts of benefits in terms of attention, emotional investment, and command of material resources that may not be otherwise so easily available to them. The geek who opted for status may find himself with a good woman after all, and, better yet, one who is more likely to admire what he's really good at.

I agree that other things equal, a guy with a lot of money, or a guy who's famous, is going to have an easier time matching up with an “attractive woman.” But this may also cause a filtering problem, with lots of “attractive women” who you won't really like pulling out all the stops trying to convince you that you really do (ever watched The Bachelor?) The really satisfying match can get lost in the shuffle. And somehow I seem to know lots of fellows who are with wonderful, attractive women despite the fact that their attributes are not in furious demand among women in general. I know I'm counting on it! Furthermore, my sense is that a guy who jumps on a broadly admired status dimension, and makes a mad dash for the top just so he can find an attractive woman, is likely to end up rather less happy than his divorce lawyer.

The Great Chain of Status?

Last week Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber objected to the key point of my recent article in Policy (related Cato podcast here), which is that status-seeking need not be a zero-sum game, because there are indefinite dimensions of status competition. (And therefore, the government need do nothing to mitigate the alleged harm of status competition.) It is true that there can only be one winner of every race, but there is no cap on the number or kind of races. The greater the number and variety of races, the more likely it is that everybody will be able to find one in which they can win, place, or at least show. Henry replies:

Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved. Being a world-class scrabble-player isn’t likely to win you much respect among people who aren’t themselves competitive scrabble-players; the best you can expect is that someone will write a book that pokes fun at your gastro-intestinal problems . It’s a very different matter if you’re a world class soccer player; you’re liable to be invited to all sorts of fun parties, hit upon by beautiful people, stalked by the paparazzi and the whole shebang. Being a world class blogger is somewhere between the two, albeit certainly much closer to the scrabble-player than the soccer star. Even if you’re king of your own mountain, you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even a slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination. You’re similarly aware of those less well-advantaged foothills or knoblets whose owners you can look down upon…. In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.

I am unmoved.

I anticipated this objection in a very long blog post back in January. Henry's argument turns on the claim that “These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved.” I think Henry is wrong that there is shared understanding of the meta-ranking and one's place in it, and I think he is confusing status, in the sense I was writing about, with fame.

I was talking about status as it is experienced. Higher status correlates with higher concentrations of serotonin, for example, not necessarily because of some objective feature of the world, but because of the subject's perception (correct or not) of her place in a status hierarchy. Our perception of our place in a status hierarchy is generally constructed from all sort of signals–deference, praise, attention, inattention, mocking–we receive from people in the relevant social group. Henry's story doesn't strike me as having anything to do with meta-rankings, but just to do with the fact that at any time there are a number of different status dimensions we care about. If you are, as Henry says, “despised” and “sneered at,” then that may hurt, if you care your status within your office, or with certain pretty girls. But part of my point was that people can and do often arrange their lives to avoid that sort of thing. If they are able to manage it, then the fact that they would be despised and sneered at in other circumstances makes no difference to their status as they experience it.

Here is an example of how I think Henry confuses experienced status and fame. If I am the quarterback of the champion high-school football team in a football-crazy Texas town, my subjective status-meter is likely pegged to the top of the scale. That Peyton Manning is more famous than me, is a better quarterback, makes millions more dollars, and is more likely to impress a random person at a bar, is simply irrelevant. It's no skin off my back. If I was ever in a room with Peyton Manning, my subjective assessment of my relative standing would no doubt go down. But I'm never in a room with Peyton Manning. In my small pond, I'm a big fish — and I feel like it.

The seminal paper on positional externalities is Robert Frank's “The Frame of Reference as a Public Good.” I suspect Henry wants to maintain the idea there is a single culture-wide frame of reference against which to evaluate not only our relative position on some dimension of status, but also against which to evaluate the relative position of status dimensions. I think this is exceedingly implausible.

If Henry really thinks there is a widely understood meta-ranking, then he ought to be able to say who is higher-status: Peyton Manning or Chief Justice John Roberts? I happen to think that's a nonsense question, since there is in fact no common frame of reference against which to compare the status of superstar NFL quarterbacks with superstar judges. Henry is a social democrat political science professor blogger. I'm a libertarian policy wonk blogger. Whose status dimension is higher in the meta-ranking? Obviously, it depends on who you ask. If Henry hangs out with people who confer high status on Henry, and I hang out with people who confer high status on me, then we both experience a sense of high status, and Henry's doesn't detract from mine, and vice versa. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Henry's dimension is slightly higher in the mysterious zeitgest meta-ranking than mine, but that I rank closer to the top of my dimension. Who's higher status then? Is the worst player in the NFL higher status than the world's best Scrabble player? Again: the question is nonsense. There is no common frame of reference.

I'm fully on board with Julian Sanchez's observation:

I think everyday experience confirms that it's also emphatically not the case that there is any Great Chain of Being among subcultures. My high school, for instance, was fairly sharply divided into pretty clear cliques with porous but recognizable boundaries. But, contra the 1950s teen movie stereotype, there wasn't any single ordering of cliques that all of them recognized. Probably the jocks and their hangers on thought it was still 1953, and that they were at the top of the pecking order—the cool kids. But the hippies, the skaters, the computer nerds, the drama kids—they all thought the same thing, ultimately. Just as every faith is the One True Faith to its adherents, every clique is coolest to its members.

The idea that competition for relative position is a zero-sum game that necessarily creates a loser for every winner is the last redoubt of statist egalitarians. The cultural pliability of status, and the fact of our freedom (and responsibility) to opt in and out of status games and to reinterpret the frame of reference against which we judge our lives truly guts the argument. People too often get sucked unwittingly into shiny, culturally salient status races in which we end up suffering, and we too seldom recognize we have the freedom to reevaluate our priorities, and to opt into competing conceptions of a good life better suited to our satisfaction. This is not easy. Once inside a frame of reference for evaluating status, it can be extremely difficult to switch. But it is possible, and it's much easier if you believe it.

[Also posted at Cato@Liberty]

Fallacy Nomination: The United Nations Fallacy

I like pie, gargling, the first of May, and naming fallacies. Today's fallacy nominee is “the United Nations Fallacy,” which is the error of assuming that supericially similar activities that take place inside two or more political jurisdictions may be usefully compared simply because those jurisdictions are each recognized as “nation states” by the United Nations. For instance, the United States of America has “an economy” and Liechtenstein has “an economy,” so let's compare them! Suppose tomorrow the state of Iowa and the city of Osaka are declared sovereign nations by the United Nations. Would it suddenly make good sense to compare their levels of birth defects, their GDP, their relative levels of “social capital”? If so, why don't we do it now? If not, why do we compare the U.S. to Liechtenstein, Mauritius, or Sweden?

Illusions of Risk

Despite my digs at Jacob Hacker's new book, I don't find it implausible that middle-class Americans do feel that their lives are economically precarious, even when they are, in objective terms, immensely economically secure. The question is whether attempting to ameliorate that feeling is a worthwhile aim for liberal policy. Let's start with a comment Hacker made two weeks ago:

If you have trouble figuring out why risk makes people anxious and unhappy, consider this simple thought experiment: How much of your income would you be willing to put at risk to get a chance at twice your current income? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is “not much”—and for a simple reason: While you’d love to have more money, your life would be thrown into turmoil if your income dropped by, say, half.

Social psychologists have a name for this phenomenon: “loss aversion,” which means simply that we dislike losing things we have far more than we like gaining things we don’t have. No wonder: If your family income fell by half, you would risk losing your home, your health insurance, your retirement savings—in a word, your safety net. And with these vital assets would go your dreams for the future. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that a recent poll found that even opportunity-loving Americans prefer, by a two-to-one margin, the security of having their current income protected to the chance to make more money.

Hacker's right that loss aversion is a very real, very well-documented phenomenon. But he's wrong to imply that the representation of turmoil upon which loss aversion is based accurately predicts the real turmoil that would be experienced in a personal economic downturn. The main point of psychologist Daniel Gilbert's bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness is that we make systematic errors in forecasting our future feelings conditional on the occurrence of big (or even little) events, such as how we will feel upon losing half our income, to take Hacker's example. We think it's going to be a lot worse than it really will be. Famously, people predict that they would be deeply depressed or even suicidal if they lost a leg. Yet real amputees quickly readjust to their new reality, and recover most of their sense of well-being. (And some even report a boost in well-being, their tragedy awakening them to the importance of what they have not lost.) There is certainly a sense of turmoil before one adapts to new circumstances. Indeed, the sense of turmoil is part of the process of adaptation and the recalibration of expectations.

Obviously, whether losing half your family income will dash “your dreams for the future” depends on how big your income was, and what your dreams were. If I had a job that paid 100K, and now I've got a job that pays 50K, then I still have my 501K, my health insurance, and probably a lot more safety net than I need. If I can't now afford the payments on the Mercedes, well, bummer. If the kids are going to have to go to State U, fine. It's not the job of my taxpaying neighbors to ensure that I can indeed afford Yale once I set my heart on it.

Sure, loss-averse Americans might like the idea of a constantly rising safety net that ensures a short fall, no matter how far we rise. But it's not what we need, or even ultimately want. The best explanation for human loss aversion is its utility under conditions of scarcity in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, tens of thousands of years ago. If you're on the edge, a loss can mean death. But when you're further from the edge than people have ever been, like well-to-do Americans are now, anxiety about risk and loss can lock us into bad situations, like unsatisfying jobs or loveless relationships. Our overinflated anxieties about the downside of big changes can be one of our biggest enemies. Middle- and upper-class Americans with college degrees have built-in safety nets in the form of their education and skills, and in virtue of being already enmeshed in the most successful wealth-producing institutions in history. The net is already only two inches from our feet. Losses suck, and we hate them. But I find it hard to believe that this is seriously considered a liberal proposal, or a sufficient basis for massive government intervention into our economy and fantastically comfortable and secure lives.

As I said in the last Hacker post, the main bout in the intramural liberal fight is about which set of institutions will provide what we need to exercise our autonomy and realize our ends. I don't think a lavish social insurance state is the ticket for the poor, and certainly not for the middle. Americans from the middle on up are a class of extremely privileged people whose satisfaction with life ultimately requires moving beyond a complacent sense of safety and facing and taking more risk. Hacker would argue that people will take more risks if the downside is softer. That's may be true, though it is also possible that people will just readjust their sense of entitlement, finding ever-smaller objective risks equally subjectively intolerable. But we would very probably take more rational, life-enhancing risks if we realized, with the help of a little self-administered cognitive-behavioral therapy, that the downside is already softer than we think. Hacker's attempt to goad the American middle class into becoming ever more freaked out by their Pleistocene fear of loss is like telling a spoiled child she should definitely wail with a sense of entitled injustice unless she is given yet another pretty pretty pony. It's perverse, and it's not helping anyone.

If you haven't had enough Hacker, here's Matt Yglesias criticizing Hacker from the left . Let me say something about one point Matt makes about a point he attributes to Hacker:

If the broader economy is getting riskier, this is something public policy should aim to mitigate, rather than exacerbate. The point was simple, useful, and utterly correct.

I don't think this point is simple, correct, or useful for much other than confusion. Again, if the risk we're talking about is just the risk of your income fluctuating a bit, a liberal concerned about economic security has little reason to care as long as the fluctuations occur above the threshold of economic suffciency. Furthermore, if those fluctuations don't generally cause much real harm, but are a symptom of an increasingly dynamic economy that will tend to give people greater opportunity to express their autonomy and realize their ends over the course of their entire lifetimes, then this kind of “risk” may well be something public policy should aim to exacerbate. Progress is not generally something you want to mitigate.

[Cross-posted from Cato@Liberty]

What is "Economic Insecurity" and Why Should We Care?

In his new book, The Great Risk Shift, and on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly website a couple weeks back, Yale political science Jacob Hacker has been selling his line that “economic insecurity” is on the rise, and the state needs to do something about it.

Hacker seems to me to get a lot of mileage out of equivocating systematically between a psychological and objective sense of the word 'insecurity'. Hacker may be right that there has been an increase in income volatility (though, I'm told, it is not clear how much this has to do with systemic economic changes, as opposed to details of Hacker's model and the changing composition of the “households” tracked by the data), and this no doubt causes people some anxiety. But anxiety is not actual insecurity. The Bush administration, in its constant efforts to shore up political support for its so-called “global war on terror” does its best to needle Americans into feeling sufficiently anxious about the constant threat of terrorist attacks. But our anxiety and our national security are two completely separate things. We can feel anxious yet be secure, and we can feel perfectly safe at the same moment a deadly missile bears down upon us from the sky. What matters most is whether we are secure, not how we feel. Likewise with economy security.

Continue reading “What is "Economic Insecurity" and Why Should We Care?”

The Status of the Politics of Status

Here's what happens when you wait a day to publicize your new article in the Australian Centre for Independent Studies' magazine Policy, “Out of Position: Against the Politics of Relative Standing“: David Friedman goes and writes an excellent blog post about the same subject:

It seems obvious that, if one's concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. So this point of view seems to support the approach to politics that sees it mainly as a question of who gets to benefit at the expense of whom, of which side who is on.

Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. It is true that my status is relative to yours. It does not, oddly enough, follow that if my status is higher than yours, yours must be lower than mine, or that if my status increases someone else's must decrease. Status is not, in fact, a zero sum game.

This point was originally made clear to me when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and realized that Harvard had, in at least one interesting way, the perfect social system: Everyone at the top of his own ladder. The small minority of students passionately interested in drama knew perfectly well that they were the most important people at the university; everyone else was there to provide them with an audience. The small minority passionately interested in politics knew that they were the most important ones; their friends were there to be herded into meetings of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats in order to get them elected to positions in those organizations that were the stepping stones to further political success. The small minority….

Right on! Indeed, I talked with David about exactly this for about a half-hour in Vegas this April, though I claim no influence whatsoever. Nevertheless, I claim comprehensiveness! Here's a taste of my 3600 words… (footnotes omitted)

Crucially, there is no limit to the possible forms of excellence. So, while the number of positions on any single dimension of status may be fixed, there is no reason why dimensions of status cannot be multiplied indefinitely. It does not in fact require a violation of mathematical law to produce more high-status positions, for it is possible to produce new status dimensions.

New dimensions of excellence and status often open up due to technological innovation. It was impossible to be a chart-topping pop star or a champion triathalete before there were radios and bikes. Liberal market societies not only create new technologies, they create proliferating forms of association, affiliation, expression, and identity at a sometimes alarming rate. Each musical genre, each hobby, each committee, each church, each club, each ideology, each lifestyle provides a new dimension—a new frame of reference—for positional competition. Environmental purists can compete with one another to conspicuously consume eco-friendly products (or conspicuously refuse to consume much at all), while punk rockers duke it out on grounds of anti-establishment authenticity, and economics professors knock themselves dead trying to get articles into esoteric journals no one else cares about.

The cultural fragmentation some critics lament is precisely what liberates us from unavoidable zero-sum positional conflict. Surfer dudes don’t compete with Star Trek geeks for status. Dynamic market liberal societies create higher-order positive-sum games (for example, the ‘create a new status dimension’ game, or the ‘find the status dimension on which you rank highest’ game) that have lower-order zero-sum games as parts.

Once we recognise the anarchic multi-dimensionality of status, the frequent supposition of Frank, Layard, Cassidy, and others that the distribution of income—whether within the office or within the nation—is the the main dimension of positional competition begins to look bizarre. Struggling artists do not doubt their superiority in the face of successful accountants. And it should not need pointing out that many of us simply don’t know how much our friends make, and don’t much care.

[…]

We are not destined to want fancier cars, bigger houses, and more upscale outfits, nor are we helpless to feel diminished by those who out-consume us. We can opt out by opting in to competing narratives about the composition of a good life. And we do it all the time. We can, like Gauguin, quit law and family to paint naked natives in Tahiti. Or, better, we can move the family to a quieter place where houses are cheap and schools are good. (‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, Iowa.’) If we are aggrieved by the rigours of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat.

There is, of course, much more. Please check it out.

Linguistic False Consciousness and the Myth of Modern Liberalism

I have an allegedly forthcoming essay in Reason that started out as a joint review of George Lakoff and Geoffrey Nunberg's new books. It transmuted into an account of the political upshot of Jonathan Haidt's work in moral psychology as an alternative to the semi-useless framing and narrative stuff. So, while I'm talking about Lakoff, here's a few paragraphs that dropped out as the focus changed.

“If Americans are to hold on to freedom as they grew up with it, as they have come to know and love it,” says a very alarmed Lakoff, “then they have to understand that there is a radically different and frightening notion of what extremists on the right call 'freedom' shaping our culture and political life. You can’t stop it if you don’t see it.” Lakoff calls for the liberating “higher rationality” only Lakoff's theories of “conceptual metaphor” make possible.

To Nunberg's credit, Nunberg and Lakoff have some sharp differences. Lakoff's argument builds on yet another exposition of his intriguingly comprehensive armchair theory of a metaphor-saturated mind and his astoundingly empirically ill-supported conjecture that at some deep, unconscious level we all understand the nation-state (a form of social organization about as primordial as barometers and pendulum clocks) as a family. Lakoff's upshot is that the split between the left and the right boils down to differences in ideal parenting style. Nunberg rightly calls bullshit and accuses Lakoff of making stuff up and projecting his pet presuppositions about conservatives and liberals into the mind. Nunberg notes there are lots of metaphors for the state—a ship adrift, an actor on the world stage, a city on a hill, a house with crumbling foundations—and there is simply no reason to think one of them structures our political thought. We should all thank Nunberg for suggesting that there is no thread, metaphorical or logical, that runs through the contingently evolving packages of partisan commitment. Decision: Nunberg!

However, their mutual quest to assuage Democratic disappointment through linguistic therapy overshadows their intramural differences. Squint and the pair look like low-octane liberal versions of communist philosophers Georg Lukacs and Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1920s sought an explanation of Marx's failed forecast that the working class would “inevitably” rise in revolt against its capitalist masters. Their answer was that the workers couldn't think straight, so thoroughly had the capitalists bewitched them. Through “hegemonic” control of popular mass media, state propaganda, and devious marketing, the capitalists made the proletarians frame their interests in the favored terms of the enemy—to develop a “false consciousness” that kept them complacent, commodified cogs in the machine, unable to see and unwilling to fight for their true good. Likewise, Nunberg and Lakoff argue that if it wasn't for the malign right-wing mental framework so many of us somehow got stuck with, voters would be falling over themselves to pull the lever for Democrats.

[…]

Lakoff and Nunberg's projects are largely animated by smug confidence that their university-issue leftism delivers the hard truth about the American system. “True, people aren't compelled by law to accept the jobs Wal-Mart offers them—they're legally free to take a couple of weeks in Gstaad or go sleep under a culvert, ” Nunberg writes, ridiculing the freedom of contract. Both assume that unless Washington guarantees the worth of our freedoms through large-scale regulation and aggressive redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke. Setting aside his aspirational cognitive science, that's the tired philosophical core of Lakoff's attempt to recapture the concept of “freedom” for the left.

And in an yet earlier version, I expanded on the the essentially anti-empirical character of Lakoff and Nunberg's politics. (Sorry for redundancy from bits that carried over between drafts.)

Nunberg and Lakoff are wholehearted adherents to what Brown political theorist John Tomasi calls the “myth of modern liberalism”: since classical market liberalism does not include government guarantees of material sufficiency, freedoms of contract and secure property are merely formal; unless Washington ensures the fair value of our freedoms through regulation and redistribution, the liberal ideal of equal freedom will be empty—a cruel joke.

Yet whether government attempts to guarantee sufficiency do more than relatively unfettered markets for the value of our freedoms is an empirical question about the best institutional means to shared liberal ends. Classical liberals (and that dying breed, the classical liberal conservative) have almost always defended the market on those terms, in reference to its benefits for everyone, including the least advantaged. Lakoff and Nunberg don't even engage that debate; their dogma precludes the existence of a question. But the same fight over the best means to liberals occurs in miniature among welfare-liberals, as illustrated by the recent Slate punch-up over the effects of Wal-Mart on the working poor between NYU economist Jason Furman and Nickel & Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich. Furman, defending Wal-Mart, calmly devastated Ehrenreich because he actually knew something about markets in general and Wal-Mart's impact in particular. Lakoff and Nunberg don't engage the intramural welfare-liberal debate, either. They're basically pop-socialist Ehrenriechs with linguistics Ph.Ds. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that bad social science is not exactly a problem of framing, rhetoric, or narrative. 

Clearly, I was not impressed by the books.

Piling on Lakoff

Stephen Pinker heaps much-deserved scorn on armchair theorist par excellence George Lakoff in TNR.

There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.

Let us begin with the cognitive science. As many of Lakoff's skeptical colleagues have noted, the ubiquity of metaphor in language does not imply that all thinking is concrete. People cannot use a metaphor to reason with unless they have a deeper grasp of which aspects of the metaphor should be taken seriously and which should be ignored. When reasoning about a relationship as a kind of journey, it is fine to mull over the counterpart to a common destination, or to the bumpy stretches along the way–but someone would be seriously deranged if he wondered whether he had time to pack, or whether the next gas station has clean restrooms. Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly. It must use a more basic currency that captures the abstract concepts shared by the metaphor and its topic–progress toward a shared goal in the case of journeys and relationships, conflict in the case of argument and war–while sloughing off the irrelevant bits.

Also, most metaphors are not processed as metaphors as all. They may have been alive in the minds of the original coiners, who needed some sound to express a new concept (such as “attack” for aggressive criticism). But subsequent speakers may have kicked the ladder away and memorized the idiom by rote. That is why we hear so many dead metaphors such as “coming to a head” (which most people would avoid if they knew that it alludes to the buildup of pus in a pimple), mixed metaphors (“once you open a can of worms, they always come home to roost”), Goldwynisms (“a verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on”), and figurative uses of “literally,” as in Baruch Korff's defense of Nixon during his Watergate ordeal: “The American press has literally emasculated the president.” Laboratory experiments have confirmed that people don't think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.

Lakoff replies at the Rockridge Institute site.
But the best thing you'll find is Chris at Mixing Memory's analysis of Lakoff's reply. Chris has been a one-man Lakoff demolition crew over the past couple years, and absolutely brutalizes Lakoff (and he doesn't even like Pinker).

Lakoff's reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I've seen from a cognitive scientist, and if anyone other than Lakoff had written it, I'd probably just ignore it. But Lakoff is not only famous, he's influential, and more than a few liberal bloggers take him seriously. So I feel compelled to say something. I guess the best way to go about this is to detail their disagreements, and show where Lakoff sinks to all new lows in defense of his position.

It's a long and excellent post, which you should read if you want to get a good sense of Lakoff's intellectual tactics.
Razib at Gene Expression also has a good reply.

Happiness and Economic Growth

My piece on happiness and economic growth in this month's non-American Prospect has escaped from behind the paywall and is now available for your cost-free reading pleasure. I have to say I'm pretty psyched that my kitten-strapped-to-a-guillotine-connected-to-a-bicycle analogy came through intact:

The fact that average self-reported happiness has not risen with average incomes does not imply that there is no point in becoming richer. A steady rate of growth may be necessary to keep happiness and other good things at a high stable level. (Imagine a guillotine, on which a kitten is strapped, connected to a bicycle that must be pedalled ever more quickly to keep the blade aloft. Slow down, and the kitten gets it.) In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues that steady economic growth “fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy”—a list I doubt any politician would come out against.

I assure you that it all makes sense in context.