Catching Happiness

Maybe you've heard about the BMJ study that says that happiness wends its way through social networks? Justin Wolfers says:

The study, by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, concludes that happiness is contagious within social networks.

According to the authors, your happiness depends on the happiness of your friends, and their friends, and their friends. It’s a fascinating finding, and it was duly reported by hundreds of newspapers. Indeed, according to Fowler, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”

Unfortunately, it’s probably not true.

Find out why not!

Nothing to Do With Quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece on the crucial importance of teacher quality and the difficulty of identifying talent is typically Gladwellesque in its irresistable readability, unexpected connections, and profound blindspots. Gladwell's hook is the “quarterback problem.” Did you know that college performance fails to predict pro performance for quarterbacks? Interesting! But what on Earth does this have to do with teachers? Nothing, as far as I can tell. One comes away from Gladwell's essay with the ideas that (a) success as a teacher, like success as an NFL quarterback, requires a combination of traits so ineffable and rare that (b) it can be determined only by actual performance in “the show.”  But (a) is certainly false, which is a relief since we need many, many more successful teachers than the number of NFL franchises.

But who cares? The frothy quarterback stuff is a completely superfluous distraction from the point that emerges in Gladwell's piece. That point is (b): to find out if somebody is a good teacher, you've got to see how well he or she actually teaches. Gladwell illustrates how this sort of thing works by inspecting the way one financial firm casts a very wide net and then narrows the field by filtering out candidate financial advisers on the basis of real preformance. Select and compensate people on the basis of their actual demonstrated skill. It's so crazy it just might work!

So what does Gladwell have to say about this? He makes a number of outstanding suggestions and profoundly important points: 

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s [the financial firm recruiter's] training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance.


Is this solution to teaching’s quarterback problem politically possible? Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one. Teachers’ unions have been resistant to even the slightest move away from the current tenure arrangement. But all the reformers want is for the teaching profession to copy what firms like North Star have been doing for years. … What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children? 

Now, there's no point in saying things that will make your readers think you are an evilcrazy person, so I can understand why Gladwell wastes words on quarterbacks instead of on the deeper mechanisms at work here. But why is it that “society devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?” The obvious answer is that care and patience are in greater supply when care and patience pay. When the provision of education was made a predominantly public, not-for-profit affair, “society” basically ensured that teacher selection would receive far less care and patience than money-handler selection. Maybe we should do something about that. 

Also, why should teachers need a college degree?

Paul Bloom on Glum Atheists, Multiple Selves, and Why Your Wife's Identical Twin Is Sexier than Your Wife

In this week's Free Will, I have a freewheeling discussion with Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about lots of fun stuff. I felt pretty comfortable chatting with Paul, and therefore ended up saying many things that basically ensure that I will never hold higher office. Because one of my future selves might otherwise be tempted to become a politician, which would be terrible, I like to think of saying impolitic things as a kind of “self-binding.”

What We Need More of Is Science

I'm all in favor of this.

Increasing prosperity and longevity are mainly driven by scientific advance. Productivity enhancements within science increase the pace of discovery, which increases productivity enhancement generally, which increases the pace of productivity enhancement within science, which increases the pace of discovery, etc. The way scientific discovery, given the right kind of institutional-economic environment, be self-accelerating is, I think, underappreciated. And I suspect losses in prosperity and longevity from over-zealous IP protection may be underestimated.

[HT: Fat Knowledge]

Pre-Dawn Elephant Groping

This month's Cato Unbound, “What Happened: Anatomies of the Financial Crisis,” is devoted to digging in and getting the real story. We tapped four economists with four very different perspectives. So far, we've heard from three of them, and the fact that each has said such radically different things is both frustrating and illuminating. Larry White says the trouble we're in was caused by a profligate Fed and government policies that encouraged bad home loans.  Bill Black says a lack of regulation left executives with the incentive to maximize short-term profits and capture big bonuses, basically defrauding creditors and shareholders. Casey Mulligan wants to explain the housing boom and bust, and thinks it was based in consumer/investor expectations about future returns to homeownership, not in supply, demand, or subsidies during the boom. But so far, he says, we don't know enough to say whether those expectations were rational — based in reasonable-but-innacurate predictions about changes in preferences or technologies — or were irrationally exuberant. So we don't yet know what to do about it.

Brad Delong will have his say on Monday. At this point, I'm hoping he doesn't agree with any of the previous essayists, so that we can go into the informal discussion part of the issue with total dissensus. But since these guys are all surely hyper-rational Bayesian updaters, we're bound to have perfect convergence by the end of the blog chat. Surely! But, seriously folks, I'm personally left with the sense that White, Black, and Mulligan (who should be named Gray) are all on to deeply important aspects of the One True Explanation of the financial crisis. The sun will soon rise and we'll see this thing in the light. And we'll laugh. Because elephants are morose, yet humorous.

Canada's Leading Public Intellectual

Larissa MacFarquhar appears to have limited critical capacity when it comes to political or economic ideas, but her profile of Naomi Klein is nevertheless insightful. Klein comes off as an incoherent bundle of reflexes. She has passions, prejudices, animosities, an appealing streak of punk nihilism, a cynical and savvy strategic sense, and no ideas. Klein and her husband, Avi Lewis, come off as so saturated in familial left-wing politics that their ideology, such as it is, seems less a set of propositions that might be true or false than an ethnic identity or tribal commitment that can neither be chosen nor forsaken. Bred-in-the-bone cultural assumptions rarely cohere when articulated; their logic is emotional. Which explains how Klein can bounce so blithely and unintelligibly from a milquetoast Canadian faith in government to a petulant, anarchic distrust of large institutions.

MacFarquhar writes:

Klein doesn’t have much use for political parties. When she is asked about this, she explains that she has seen liberation movements betrayed by the politicians they fought to get elected, but her impatience appears to be rooted in something more than that: she seems to dislike parties and, indeed, governments, in a visceral way, almost the way that Milton Friedman does. In principle, she is a Keynesian, but she distrusts centralization, institutions, platforms, theories—anything except extremely small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives. Basically, she really, really doesn’t like being told what to do.

So there you go: a Keynesian in principle with a distrust for “anything except small, local, ad-hoc, spontaneous initiatives.” So would this be a fair summary of Kleinism: The yearning that massive benevolent government initiatives will somehow emerge from within Temporary Autonomous Zones?

I think this passage nicely sums up Klein's romantic, anti-intellectual, solidarity-craving rejection of the extended order of impersonal exhange:

“I’m not a utopian thinker,” Klein says. “I don’t imagine my ideal society. I don’t really like to read those books, either. I’m just much more comfortable talking about things that are.” The only time she has ever felt a whiff of utopia was in Buenos Aires, in 2002, when the political system had virtually disintegrated—during the time that she and Lewis were filming “The Take.” “That moment in Argentina was an incredible time because a vacuum opened up,” she says. “They had thrown out four Presidents in two weeks, and they had no idea what to do. Every institution was in crisis. The politicians were hiding in their homes. When they came out, housewives attacked them with brooms. And, walking around Buenos Aires at night, there were meetings on every other street corner. Every plaza where there was a streetlight, people were meeting under it and talking about what to do about the external debt, I swear to God. Groups of one hundred or five hundred people. And organizing buying groceries together because they could get cheaper prices, setting up barters because the currency was worthless. It was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.”

Klein has no picture of an ideal society. She doesn't like to read books about it, either. What she knows deep down (not in that book-knowledge sort of way), what she's really got to work from, is this: that the sight of nervous people thrown together by crisis, deliberating under streetlights about what to do next in order to make ends meet is… profoundly inspiring. Her objection to “disaster capitalism” is not so much that it is capitalism that follows the disaster, but that the engaged community of disaster eventually comes to an end.

Look On the Bright Side of Strife

This morning on Marketplace, I crib from Casey Mulligan and argue that we shouldn't let the meltdown of the financial sector trick us into thinking that the real economy and the recession is worse than it really is. Also, government shouldn't make it worse.

I Only Sleep With Cosmotarians

Somebody probably ought to write a dissertation about the complexities of this “I Only Sleep With Democrats” business. Maybe we should dismiss this stuff as silly fun for idiot kids. But it's more fun to take this stuff way too seriously. Therefore, allow me to observe that this is offensive on too many levels to count. But also profoundly revealing about the fundamentally debased nature of partisan political commitment!

“Blue Balled,” the video below, simultaneously reduces politics to fashion and elevates fashion to morality. To fail be a Democrat is depicted as something like an embarrassing fashion faux pas so egregious that it deserves a response of moralized disgust. To back the wrong political coalition is to become an untouchable, worthy of contempt. And to extend love, to extend pleasure, to those on the wrong team is beyond the pale.

But, amazingly, “Blue Balled” conceives this as too little to really succeed in enforcing standards of acceptable political identity. TruthThroughAction is not content to communicate merely that Republicans are a disgusting caste apart, but suggests that men with the right politics deserve to be sexually rewarded, or should at least be encouraged to believe that, not only will they escape painful shunning for registering Republican (or Green or Liberartian), but that the chances are good that they will be sexually rewarded for registering, voting, being Democrat. Implicit in this message is that the bodies of faithful Democratic women are tools for securing the success of Democratic politicians and their clients. For what is the sexual life of a young woman if not a means to the greater glory of the Service Employees International Union? What is casual fornication if not a Duty to the Party.

Of course the sexual psychology of all this fails. First, cheap talk. Second, there is more than a whiff of pathetic desperation in “Blue Balled” to brand sensitive intellectual artsy guys as the guys you really ought to want to screw. But the best sex is dirty, dirty transgressive sex. All this lame agitprop could just as easily redound to the benefit of the Young Republican with the popped collar who promises to give appalled Obama girls “the surge.” And an “I Only Sleep With Democrats” shirt on a guy might turn out to be a great way to pick up Republican lasses. Oh, the paradox that is the sexual mind! 

Politics is not about policy, indeed.

Nothing New, of Course

Yet I suspect Milton Friedman did more to end the draft than the accomodating Baez sisters, which I guess suggests something about the relative persuasiveness of certain organs. 

The excruciatingly pedantic former logic instructor in me cannot resist pointing out that this is a rather stronger (and more ridiculous) claim than “I only sleep with Democrats,” as it sets out a sufficient condition for girls saying yes, rather than a mere necessary condition for a girl saying yes. But it is also pointlessly weak, if it is given a not implausible interpretation as “For every boy who says no, there is some girl who says yes.” (Don't think you're getting Joan Baez!) But this follows trivially from the truth that “For every boy, there is some girl who says yes” — especially if money is involved. But there's no denying it's a damn pithy slogan!  

[Thanks to Anonymous Coward for the reminder and Brink for the link.]

Bop: More Utopia Tennis

Roderick Long returns serve from my “Utopia Tennis” post. I think our disagreement is really nothing more or less than the fundamental disagreement between liberals and anarchists. This will emerge pretty clearly in my reply below. Here's Rod:

I’ve never claimed, and do not think, that moderate reductions in state power are impossible. What I do think is that merely moderate reductions in state power are not an adequate solution to corporatism. After all, although the popular notion of the nineteenth-century U.S. as a laissez-faire free-for-all is a fantasy (even if we exclude, as we shouldn’t, legal restrictions on the economic activities of women and nonwhites), it’s still true that the interventionist policies that fueled corporatism in that era are by many measures significantly less extensive than those we have today.

To reiterate my earlier post, I argue for fairly large reductions in state power. I argue that this is quite realistic because large reductions have actually occurred in the recent past, and moderate reductions are ongoing in many places. I don't know enough to question Rod's history. My question is: “adequate solution to corporatism” relative to what? If nothing but anarchy or quasi-anarchy is going to count as “adequate,” then, yes, a Hayek-Buchanan generality amendment will be inadequate. But if something like anarchy is infeasible, as I believe it is, then it's hardly an adequate solution either.    

Wilkinson further describes as “obviously false” my contention that “achieving benign outcomes via the state is a chimera”; for Wilkinson, “[m]any states evidently succeed in achieving relatively benign outcomes.” But I don’t see how this is supposed to be “evident”—unless the claim is just shorthand for the claim that “many states are evidentlycompatible with the existence of relatively benign outcomes,” which is certainly true. But if people who drink small doses of poison are healthier than those who drink large doses, that doesn’t make it “evident” that small doses of poison can achieve relatively benign outcomes. Any measure that shrinks the scope of voluntary cooperation by expanding the scope of compulsion thereby makes things both a bit less just and a bit less efficient.

I'm pretty sure Rod's guilty of Tyler's “libertarian vice” here. Rod doesn't think some states are better than others? That some governments are more effectively limited than others? That people are more free in some places than in others? If he doesn't think that this is evident, then all I can do is ask him to look again, because it's true.

The poison metaphor suggests that any state action is like poison. But I think that some state action is like medicine. I think there is legitimate state coercion. When it's just, it's usually because it reduces compulsion and enhances efficiency relative to the relevant non-state baseline. And I deny that that baseline is Rod's anarchist utopia. My claim in my prior post was that anarchy is an inferior means of reducing corporatism than is further limiting government because anarchy is not stable. In that context, it's rather brazenly question-begging to characterize government action “compatible with relatively benign outcomes” as “poison.” 

Of course, my idea is to shrink the scope of compulsion by limiting illegitimate government action. Rod is coy, but seems to agree that this is possible. But he seems unhappy about it. The question was, What can be done about corporatism? I gave an answer: limit government. If he agrees that limiting state power is possible, which of course it is, then he's pretty much lost the debate unless he can show that his alternative is actually more likely to successfully reduce corporatism. And that's a heavy burden, because then he'd need to establish the feasibility of his happy anarchism. So I can see why he avoided actually addressing my original point about the feasibility of anarchism.    

Finally, Wilkinson is puzzled at my claim that (1) is less unstable than (2). “If (2) is unstable because people will demand state interference in the economy given a state,” he writes, “then (1) is unstable because people tend to demand states.”

But the crucial difference between (1) and (2), as I see it, is not that under (2) people demand more statism, but rather that under (2) people are able to socialize the costs of such demand.

This is just nonresponsive. My point was that you can't get anything out of (1) — anarchy or near-anarchy — that you can't get out of  (2) — keeping the state and limiting it — because there's no plausible way to not have a state. The point is that (1) isn't on the table as an alternative to (2). We're going to have a state. So limiting it is the only game in town. I thought it was clear that this was the claim I was making, but I guess I made a hash of it. 

Anyway, I doubt we're going to resolve the great anarchism v. liberalism debate soon. But why did a discussion originally about libertarianism and corporatism lead here? My best guess is that Rod thinks that the corporatism issue is a smart place to mount an argument for his favorite libertarian ideal theory, freed-market anarchism. So I can see why the idea that effectively limited government is the best realistically available solution to actually-existing corporatism would seem inconvenient. But I think it remains that effectively limited government is the best realistically available solution to actually-existing corporatism. So… bop.