The Contradiction of Expelled

Larry Arnhart states it well:

The folks at the Discovery Institute have made a big mistake in their production of this movie. The political rhetoric of the Discovery Institute's “wedge strategy” depends upon hiding a fundamental contradiction. But this movie makes the contradiction so evident that any viewer can see it. On the one hand, the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute is to say that “intelligent design” is not a creationist religious belief but pure science, and therefore teaching “intelligent design” in public high school biology classes does not violate the First Amendment's prohibition on establishing religion. On the other hand, the popular success of the Discovery Institute's rhetoric depends on appealing to Biblical creationists who assume that “intelligent designer” is just another name for God the Biblical Creator.

This contradiction–both affirming and denying that “intelligent design theory” is the same as Biblical creationism–became evident in the 2005 case in Dover, Pennsylvania. Leaders of the Dover Area Public School board wanted to teach Biblical creationism. They were warned that this would violate U.S. Supreme Court decisions declaring that teaching creationism as science violated the First Amendment separation of church and state. They then decided to teach “intelligent design theory” as a disguised form of Biblical creationism. The trial made clear their deception, and this also exposed the contradiction in the Discovery Institute's rhetoric.

Rather than covering up this contradiction, this movie makes it hard for any viewer to ignore the contradiction. When Bruce Chapman–President of the Discovery Institute–is interviewed by Stein, Chapman says that journalists distort the true position of intelligent design by saying that it's a creationist religious belief, because the “intelligent designer” is clearly God. Chapman vehemently denies this. But then for the rest of the movie, it's asserted that anyone who denies “intelligent design” is therefore an atheist who denies the existence of God!

Read the whole thing. You can hear me ranting about intelligent design in this now-vintage America's Future Foundation roundtable.

Do People Have Weird, Abstract, Pareto-Damaging Preferences?

Lane Kenworthy shows some evidence that when asked to choose one of five pictures that best represents their preference for their country's income distribution, people tended to pick one of two options — options D and E:

D and E are identical in their population shares at the bottom. The difference between them is that D has a larger share in the middle, whereas E has a larger share at the top. Average income is higher in E. Inequality is lower in D.


I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude from this that people tend to value low inequality over high incomes. Other ways of posing the question might yield different results. But it does suggest that inequality matters to people.

I find these pictures a bit hard to interpret myself, and I think the idea that people have some kind of standing preference over the shape of the national income distribution is plain bizarre. The question embodies and encourages a nationalist orientation to economic patterns, as if this is the natural level at which to look at economic patterns, as if this is the natural level at which people will have preferences about such patterns. But why think people actually have prior preferences about such things? The national income distribution is not experienced. The local income distribution isn't experienced. Differences in local visible consumption may be experienced, and it seems plausible that people would have preferences about that. But that's not what the question was about. Anyway, this seems to me a bit like asking about my preference over the proportion of luxury to compact cars in the nearest parking garage. Why would I have one?

Anyhoo, if people really have these preferences then many of them are malicious. E is a world in which many people are better off than in D but in which no one is worse off. It's Pareto Awesome! If so many people really do like D better, does that tell us that there is latent support for egalitarian political institutions, that such support is based on a deep moral error, or both?

How about tackling the question a bit more rigorously? Will Ambrosini points us to Matthew Rabin and Gary Charness’s “Understanding Social Preferences with Simple Tests” [pdf], which tests plausible local preferences for equality, efiiciency, and reciprocity in a lab setting:

Our findings suggest that the role of inequality-reduction in motivating subjects has been exaggerated. Few subjects sacrifice money to reduce inequality by lowering another subjects’ payoff, and only a minority do so even when this is free. Indeed, we observed Pareto-damaging behavior more often when it increased inequality than when it decreased inequality. While this comparison is itself confounded by other explanations, our data strongly suggest that inequality reduction is not a good explanation of Pareto-damaging behavior.

My faith in humanity is restored. Sort of.

The Quotable Cowen

The general point remains that most discussions of global warming focus on prices and technologies alone, without incorporating realistic models of politics.

More here. The failure to incorporate realistic models of politics into one's thinking is the reason many people are statist in the first place. When they are romantically statist, you know there is little hope in having a productive conversation.  When concerted political action based on this or that moral framework is conceived as a redemptive ideal, questioning its desirability just makes you a bad person. Tyler is right that “Being pro-science also means being pro-economic science.” But for many pushing large, immediate anti-warming action, there is exceedingly little interest in science per se, but a great deal of interest in the rhetorical and political possibilities of science. When you see Scientific American giving its pages over to English teachers to argue that economics is not a science, in order to clear the way for political action, you can be sure that the science of it all is not really the paramount concern.

Hunger Exists to Destroy Itself

Alex Singleton makes a nice point:

We moan about modern Britain in a way that does not seem to scientifically correlate to how good – or bad – it is, empirically. Indeed, complaining is something of a national pastime and, ironically, something that people seem to enjoy.

Far from being a major problem, there is something virtuous about being unhappy with our present circumstances. Ludwig von Mises, one of the 20th century's leading free-market economists, said (pdf) that to be happy with one's existing condition: “and to abstain apathetically from any attempts to improve one's own material conditions, is not a virtue. Such an attitude is rather animal behaviour than conduct of reasonable human beings.”

It is not the level of wealth that makes us happy. Instead, it is the process of betterment – the pursuit of it – that makes us happy. Whether we are twice as rich today as in 1971 has little bearing on our happiness, because it is in the past. Whether people can see their lives improving in the future is what counts. That is why economic growth remains a key component in happiness, despite what the happiness researchers might tell us.

There really is something wonderful about a place that keeps getting better. Those are the places most likely to already have it good, as a consequence of a history of improvement. But people are not driven to make things better for themselves because they are fully satisfied, but because they aren't. Of course, happiness researchers do tell us that the level of wealth, and the growth that caused it, matters to happiness. Shall we then conclude that dissatisfaction, when harnessed to the institutions of wealth creation, is the source of its own reduction? Yes.

Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness After All

David Leonhardt reports in the NYT on the Stevenson and Wolfers paper I blogged last week. This gives me hope that the conventional wisdom is starting to shift with the evidence. It's worth noting that although the new Gallup World Poll has been very useful, the evidence isn't really new. Here's Ruut Veenhoven in the discussion we had on happiness almost exactly a year ago in Cato Unbound:

Time series data on happiness are much improved lately and now present a different picture.[2] Happiness appears to have risen in many nations over the last forty years. The greatest increases have been observed in non-Western nations such as Brazil, Egypt, India, and Mexico, with an average gain of about one point on a scale from 0 to 10 since the early 1960s. Happiness has also risen in the eight EU nations that have participated in the Eurobarometer survey since 1973, with a gain of about 0.3 points in 33 years. A similar trend is observed in the United States, where average happiness also rose 0.3 points since the early 1970s. However, compared to the first happiness surveys conducted in the late 1940s, American happiness seems to have hardly improved.

This is, in broad outline, the same story Stevenson and Wolfers are telling.

This past weekend I was at a conference that discussed a number of papers from the past decade or two drawing on the happiness literature. It is truly maddening how the measure least likely to be informative — the trend in average national self-reported happiness — is what gets top billing, over and over again. It has been crystal clear in the data basically forever that there is a positive correlation between average income and average national happiness. And that within countries there is a positive correlation between individual income and happiness. The evidence has always been strong that money makes a significant positive difference for happiness. Upon seeing a flat trend in average happiness over time as average income rises, you'd think the right thing to do would be to ask what is wrong with THAT measure. A ceiling effect? Scale renorming as expectations rise? But no. The measure that suggests income growth really does us no good, that must be right. So let's hold that fixed and then try to explain away the significance of the strong within-country correlation by making up ill-supported just-so stories about zero-sum status races.

Now that it is increasingly clear that there is a cross-national connection between income and happiness, that it doesn't exhaust itself at $15,000, that just about every country that has gotten richer has gotten happier, and that within these countries, richer people tend to be happier than less rich people,
I'm sure we can all look forward to a new set of ingenious theories that avoid the obvious interpretation of the data, which is that, other things equal, having more money makes life better.

[UPDATE: Here's Justin Wolfers' first blog post about the Easterlin paradox and his and Betsey's paper at the Freakonomics blog.]

The Bitter Truth

David Park has datadata! on where bitter, god- and gun-clinging poor rural voters turn:

Park writes:

We can see a steady decline of Republican support among rural poor voters starting in 1972. Even with a big jump in 2000, support for the Republican presidential candidate was less than 50 percent. So, Obama, it looks like poor rural Americans have no problem voting for Democrats.

Guns, religion … and government transfers?

Beating the Average (and Not Your Kids)

I think Bryan Caplan's latest post on kids and happiness suggests a better angle for his project:

I looked at this question using the GSS, regressing happiness on marital status, job satisfaction, real income, a personality measure (“You sometimes can't help wondering whether anything is worthwhile any more.”), and number of children. Children have the standard negative effect, and it's statistically significant, too. But the size is miniscule. Each child brings you down by .015 steps on a 3-point happiness scale.

In contrast, just being married gives you a boost of .286. If you take the linear model literally, that means that a married person would need 19 kids to have the expected happiness of a childless single! Of course, the linear model is pretty silly, but it does put the standard finding in perspective. The average effect of children on happiness is very tiny.

Now consider: In the real world, a very small average effect probably means that some people hate having kids, while others love the experience. So before you decide that you're too selfish to accept even a small reduction in your personal happiness, you might want to find out the best ways to beat the average. …

Let me just say that, yes, the simple model is pretty silly. The famous-for-happiness-research panel study by Diener, Lucas et al. found that “on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage.” (But see Zimmerman and Easterlin [pdf], who are skeptics, like me, of the strong setpoint-adaptation theory.) So Bryan wouldn't want to make his comparison in quite this way. But Diener et al also found a good deal of individual-level variance. Some people were much better off right after marriage and never completely adapted. Some people were much worse off after marriage and never completely adapted. So the question you want to know is: which kind of person are you?

No doubt people respond differently to children as well. So Bryan and his readers would be well served by exploring what kind of people are most and least likely to take a happiness hit from breeding, exploring the reasons kids cut into happiness for most people, and examining strategies for, as he says, beating the average. That is, his angle ought to be: You can do things to make having kids not as bad as it usually is. Instead of: Kids make you happier than you may recognize. Because what people don't recognize is not that kids are a joy, but that they are more likely than not to make you less happy.

Dreams from My Grandfather

A while back, on a lark, I googled my maternal grandfather, Leo Draveling. Because sports archivists are weirdly thorough, I found more than I was expecting. Best of all, I found pictures. Folks, here's the 1930 Michigan Wolverines:

He's number 37, second row (seated in chairs), second from the left. (Click for a bigger pic.) They went 8-0-1, tying Northwestern for the conference championship.

According to the roster, he was a tackle, and the second heaviest guy on the team at 208 lbs. Apparently he wrestled heavyweight for Michigan in the 2nd NCAA tournament in 1929. He didn't place. He played in the NFL for one year with the Cincinnati Reds. I had no idea his nickname was “Firpo.”

Never met the man. He died when my mom was a teenager. He was apparently something of a brute and not entirely admirable. Roots mean somewhat less for me than for most people. That about a quarter of my genes are his makes his story part of mine only in a small causal sense. If this minimum of significance becomes meaningful or deep,  then it is because I choose to make up a story about myself in which it plays that role. I don't. My junior high English teacher (or the sum total of things I have eaten, for that matter) have more to do with what I am.  That said, it is definitely interesting to vainly pick out the points of physical resemblance. I lament the cleft chin that might have been. And I find that, looking at my strapping grandfather, I am happy to believe that I possess a latent store of powerful athleticism. That hopeful and self-flattering interpretation of the chancy genetic facts will be useful, and to me entirely justified, if I am thereby moved to join a gym and reveal my inner All-American before I do come to weigh more than a tackle for the Michigan Wolverines.

Police Corruption Is Structural

Peter Moskos explains, in this 4 minute clip, how the structure of police compensation rigs the game against young, poor black men:

The relationship between the war on drugs, police incentives, and the deprivation of liberty and self-reinforcing destruction of opportunity for a whole class of Americans may well constitute the most egregious injustice in the structure of American institutions.