Friday, June 14, 2019

How to play intersectionality

I recently read, in quick succession, “Whiteness as Property” published in 1993 by Cheryl L. Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1991 essay “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color” and her 1989 Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. The latter two essays essentially launched intersectionality in academe.

These essays are either Law Review pieces, or written as such; the first being in the Harvard Law Review and the second in the Standard Law Review. All are clearly written and extensively footnoted. Neither writer is therefore subject to the sort of withering demolition that philosopher Martha Nussbaum handed out to gender theorist Judith Butler in her wonderful 1999 essay “The Professor of Parody” in The New Republic. (If you haven’t read that essay, do yourself a favour and read it: preferably right now, I’ll wait.)

Flattening
The essays of both Harris and Crenshaw are grappling with serious issues, largely centred around the role of racial categorisations in US history and society. I have commented on Harris’s essay at length (probably too much length) in my previous post. That they are grappling with morally serious issues is very much pertinent to how to play intersectionality, because a key element is to use moral concern to flatten the analytical landscape.

The game is relatively simple: any matters pertaining to the function or dynamics of things, including what constraints are operating, are ignored, played down or turned into a matter of oppression and subordination. This is important, indeed central, because it ensures that the invoked moral principles dominate the analytical landscape. This domination-by-denial nowadays extends into using a priori moral commitments to push outright and explicit exclusion of any contrary evidence or analytical framings. A professor of biology describes students attempting to impose this game on what it is permissible for her to teach:

In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true. In fact, IQ can certainly be measured, and it has some predictive value. While the score may not reflect satisfaction in life, it does correlate with academic success. And while IQ is very highly influenced by environmental differences, it also has a substantial heritable component; about 50 percent of the variation in measured intelligence among individuals in a population is based on variation in their genes. Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.

Similar biological denialism exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology. This denialism manifests itself at times in classroom discussions and in emails in which students explain at length why I should not be teaching the topic.

Attempting to explain how things work, what processes and constraints are operating, is to be overridden by the invoked moral principles. But this is the intellectual regime of identity politics and intersectionality with years of operation, interlocking support and public mobbing behind it. Crenshaw is literally operating at the start of the game, so has to operate more circumspectly. 

There are two key elements in Crenshaw’s approach in her Mapping the Margin’s essay. The first is that at no stage does Crenshaw cite any statistics on the actual scale of either domestic violence or rape. The only statistics cited pertain to (some) patterns within the phenomena. Providing no evidence of scale not only elevates natural moral repugnance about domestic violence and rape, it also allows the second key element of the identity politics/intersectionality game to proceed much more smoothly—to make grand moral claims about social significance: in this case, of domestic violence and rape. 

Nowadays, the game has been somewhat augmented by the use of highly dubious, but much invoked, statistics about the scale of sexual assault. In reality, the evidence strongly suggests that rape is a declining phenomena, though domestic violence seems to remain at a consistent level. Nor have they remotely been at the level that can reasonably be described as structural.  Especially given that rape and sexual assault can also be a crime against men and boys (who are about 17% of student victims and 4% of non-student victims of rape in the US). 

Part of the problem with rape is that, as rapists tend to be serial offenders; so a small proportion of males end up preying on a significantly larger proportion of women. This, in itself, gives men and women very different perspectives on rape. Not least because for women the salient danger is rape itself. For men, the overwhelming majority of whom are not rapists, false accusation is the more salient fear.

Rape has always been a crime although, as is a sadly persistent feature of US history, the prosecution thereof was deeply polluted by racial stigmatisation. Rape’s abhorrent and criminal status was mobilised against African-American men while being underplayed (or even implicitly denied) in ways that stripped protection from African-American women. In her Demarginalizing essay, Crenshaw cites some truly appalling comments from the bench:
What has been said by some of our courts about an unchaste female being a comparatively rare exception is no doubt true where the population is composed largely of the Caucasian race, but we would blind ourselves to actual conditions if we adopted this rule where another race that is largely immoral constitutes an appreciable part of the population. Dallas v State,(1918).
And:
A judge in 1912 said: "This court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man [concerning rape]."
As I have argued elsewhere, the denial of adequate police protection for African-American communities (particularly urban communities) has been crucial in creating a culture of bravado violence within African-American communities and, as a result, poisoning relations between Americans of different “racial” origin. The issue is not whether US history has been deeply marred by patterns of racial stigmatisation and subordination, it is how to understand and accurately characterise those patterns and legacies. 

Returning to the issue of domestic violence, Crenshaw engages in the typical feminist-led progressivist conflation of domestic violence with intimate partner violence, thereby glossing over violence against children. The obvious incentive for doing so being that women tend to perpetuate a majority of the violence against children. But grappling with the reality of female violence does not allow the intersectional game to be “played” in the correct fashion.

Except in extremely peaceful societies, most male violence is outside the home. Most female violence is inside the home. But the very notion of female domestic violence, including female intimate partner violence, is written out by the imposed intersectionalist framework. If, as is the case, the dominant pattern in intimate partner violence is violent men and women hitting each other, then one cannot build grand structural claims out of such a messy reality. 

Even for male perpetrators, the evidence is clear that they differ from men in general on several dimensions: hardly surprising, given the relatively low levels of domestic violence. That personality disturbance is a better predictor of domestic violence than sex (/gender) just reinforces this point.

The realities of female violence simply do not conform to the patterns intersectionality so grandly elevates. A study nicely summarises the evidence:

These include a meta-analytic study of 65,000+ respondents by Archer (2000) that found women to be slightly more violent (in terms of intimate partner violence (IPV)) than men. They also include a cross cultural studies of dating violence (n=6900) by Douglas and Straus (2003) that found college girls to be more violent than college boys across 17 countries. We could add to that the recent US National Survey (Gaudioisi, 2006) that found mothers were the most violent group in terms of physical abuse toward and lethality of children (N=718,000+) or Laroche's (2005) (n=25,876) finding (in a nationally representative sample) that women used “intimate terrorism” (instrumental abuse) nearly as much as men.

Privileging disadvantage
Which points to the problem of the privilege rhetoric that has become such a feature of identity/intersectional politics. Talking of advantage and disadvantage incorporates the multi-dimensionality of social phenomena very easily—you can be advantaged in one way and disadvantaged in another. It also permits probabilistic analysis very easily—a group can, on average, have an advantage. An advantage can be a tendency, rather than an absolute. This all accords with the reality and complexity of social dynamics. 

Privilege, on the other hand, is inherently both categorical (you are either privileged or you are not) and moralised (it’s a bad thing to have). Even better, it delegitimises an entire society and feeds into moralised analytical flattening. Eliminating disadvantage focuses on incorporating people into the wider society: acknowledging privilege focuses on blaming, ranking and dividing. The latter is first and foremost a status game.

A recent study indicates that privilege training tended to make Euro-American (“white”) liberals less sympathetic to poor Euro-American (“white”) males but had no effect on the attitudes of social conservatives. The study indicates what little role race plays in the perspectives of social conservatives in the US: social conservatives in the study either had the same (low) level of sympathy for poor Euro-Americans and poor African-Americans or slightly higher sympathy for poor African-Americans. 


This lack of salience for race among social conservatives is not surprising if you have been playing attention to the data on social attitudes in the US. First, that overt racial prejudice is low and declining. Second, that a series of African-Americans have been popular with US conservatives. Third, that as many African-Americans identify as conservative as identify as liberal. To the extent that “white” liberals are now “to the left” of African-Americans on various “race” issues.

Diversity against variety
To grapple with actual social dynamics, one has to be both sociological (concerned with structures) and psychological (attuned to the cognitive heterogeneity of the human). But such heterogeneity within categorical groups is precisely what the grand structural claims of intersectionalism cannot deal with.

Intersectionality does appear to be attempting to deal with the complexities of reality. Indeed, that its key selling point. Crenshaw has some sharp and pertinent observations about how universalising Euro-American (“white”) experience leaves out the realities of very different experiences among African-Americans (“blacks”). She is still, however, arguing for a layered application of what are still categorical structural patterns, which is why female domestic violence simply gets written out of the story. 

Intersectional analysis attempts to wrestle with the multidimensionality of advantage and disadvantage while retaining the categorical patterns of critical race theory, radical feminism and related strains of thought. Since those original categorical patterns (“black”, “white”, male, female, straight, gay) are profoundly inadequate characterisations of American (or any other Western) society, you can always find ways to “play” intersectionality, attempting to “solve” their inadequacies by adding another layer of categorical patterns (the “intersections), creating a multi-dimensional matrix (“black female”, “gay black female”, etc.). But you are still just playing with categorical patterns which are, inherently, too simple to accurately map social dynamics.

As they remain too simple, unable to cope with the diversity of the human and the social, it is not a playing with categorical patterns at all likely to lead to beneficial social outcomes. The same inadequacy that provides the room to “play” intersectionality ensures that any social gains are going to be, at best, an accidental by-product, as only social mechanisms which support the still-required-for-the-intersectionality categorical patterns are considered. Writing female domestic violence out of the analysis is both typical and predictably disastrous as a prescription for action (see this critique of the so-called Duluth model of domestic violence: a model which sees domestic violence as being an expression of "patriarchy"). 

Discrimination games
Crenshaw, being a legal scholar, is very much concerned with anti-discrimination law, critiquing various Supreme Court and other judicial decisions. Anti-discrimination law in the US is about establishing that one is a member of a relevant protected class: such classes being identified due to past discrimination and legislative action. There is therefore an inherent tension between “is one now acting in a way that does not discriminate?” and “are people affected by past discrimination?”. 

The answer to both can easily be yes, leaving it to the courts to negotiate between proper current action and past legacies. Since law is inherently future directed (what should or should not be legal to do?), there is likely to be a tendency for a yes answer to the first question to outweigh a yes answer to the second. This is not, in itself, a sign of privileging, more a natural tendency in law. But to see that requires thinking about social functionality and functioning in a way that intersectionalism, and privilege and oppression talk generally, inherently tend to downplay or ignore. 

PoMo evasions
Crenshaw explicitly invokes postmodernism: 

I consider intersectionality a provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory. In mapping the intersections of race and gender, the concept does engage dominant assumptions that race and gender are essentially separate categories. By tracing the categories to their intersections, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender as exclusive or separable. While the primary intersections that I explore here are between race and gender, the concept can and should be expanded by factoring in issues such as class, sexual orientation, age, and color. 
...
One rendition of this antiessentialist critique—that feminism essentializes the category woman—owes a great deal to the postmodernist idea that categories we consider natural or merely representational are actually socially constructed in a linguistic economy of difference. While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance.
...
But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people--and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful--is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged by them. It is, then, a project that presumes that categories have meaning and consequences. And this project's most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies.
...
I follow the practice of others in linking antiessentialism to postmodernism.

What looks like, and parades itself as, informed and sophisticated scepticism actually rests on a series of trumping simplicities, as Crenshaw’s treatment of domestic violence nicely illustrates.

Talking of people and ideas as being instances of postmodernism raises problems of definition (what do you mean by the term?) and identification (do people see themselves as being, or practising, postmodernism?). What the various lines of thought that might be reasonably called “small p” postmodernism have in common is that they elevate the patterns and claims of discourse over empirical interrogation of reality. The moral urgency of the narrative overrides the complexity of reality. Indeed, as we can see, can preclude accurate characterisation, still less careful examination, of that reality. 

Characterising groups in racial terms has a flattening effect, as it strips away issues of cultural, norms, expectations, etc in favour of skin tone and physical markers of continental origin. Leading to such simplifying nonsense as dividing people into those who are “white-bodied” or “black-bodied”.

Use of the term whiteness by Harris and others has a revealing ambiguity: is it a state of mind, a social category, an inherent feature? It gives continental ancestry both a metaphysical grandeur and an ambiguity of nature that builds any cultural, normative or expectation effects up from one’s skin tone and physical markers of continental origin. Such ubiquitous characterisation in racial terms flattens social analysis all on its own. 

The move to make central notions of structural racism represents another triumphing of the conveniently sociological over the inconveniently psychological. It also illustrates the importance of the moralised flattening of analysis. If it is not intentional, why is it racism? Why is it not simply structural disadvantage? To protect the identity/intersectional narrative from criticism, and elevate the status of those pushing it, provide obvious reasons. 

Avoiding practicality
Crenshaw incorporates, in her Mapping the Margins essay, a critique of Daniel Moynihan’s notorious report on African-American families. Crenshaw attacks the idea that there is anything pathological about female-headed sole parent families. Whatever terminology one wants to use, there is lots of evidence that children raised in fatherless homes are significantly disadvantaged. The collapse of fatherhood in African-American communities has not been good for their children, particularly male children. But it is a lot easier to get huffy about terminological sensitivities if one does not interrogate the practicalities of making things work. 

If US jurisdictions were able to provide effective policing services for African-American urban communities, bravado culture could be successfully undermined and replaced. We know this not only because of indicative successes such as in Oakland but because there is no difference in homicide rates between African-Americans and Euro-Americans in rural US

But a program of more detectives, forensic services and connection-building is far too practical. It is wrongly practical, because it suggests what seem entrenched patterns are soluble if one pays attention to what is required to make things work

The grand structural claims of the identity/intersectional game require that there be profound structural flaws, not correctable disadvantages. Even better, claiming profound structural flaws means one can then play the intersectional game indefinitely. 

Molehills of truth ...
There is a tendency, illustrated here, to divide statements about reality into lies (i.e. deliberate falsehoods) or claims that are seriously attempting to be accurate. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his great essay On Bullshit, points out that there are also a class of statements made without regard to their truth, typically for their persuasive effect. 

Given that morality, as social psychologist Johnathan Haidt points out, binds and blinds, it is entirely possible for people to be engaging in bullshit where the first person they are fooling is themselves. This is especially likely if various moral and cognitive commitments mark membership in a moral community or otherwise buttress a cognitive identityAn impoverished ability to self-correct appears to be a prominent feature of political radicals of all stripes. Our capacity for self-delusion is one reason why doing science well is hard. This is especially true of social science. 

It has become a standard feature of establishment (that is advocacy and institutional) feminism to create mountains of bullshit out of (selective) molehills of truth. The Duluth model of domestic violence as an expression of "patriarchy" is based on doing precisely that, for example. As is how establishment feminism wields the notion of patriarchy

So much of modern prestige progressivism, including intersectionality, arises out of feminism that it is not surprising that creating mountains of bullshit out of molehills of truth has become such a feature of prestige progressivism. Often molehills of truth about morally significant phenomena, all the better to create morally portentous mountains of bullshit. When we dig into, in this case, the actual patterns of domestic violence, we can see quite clearly how intersectionality creates its mountains of morally portentous bullshit out of (very selective) molehills of truth. 

Seeking grandeur
In all three essays, there are serious moral and social issues being grappled with. The problem is that all three essays use that seriousness and moral salience to create grand structural narratives that flatten the analytical landscape in ways that elevate the narrative but drown the practical, and the complexities of reality. 

Identity/intersectional rhetoric not only implies there has been no “real” progress since Emmet Till, it is not directed to anything that is likely to lead to generate genuine progress, just to allowing the intersectional game to be played indefinitely. One suspects that is the purpose. 


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer: there has been some minor edits of the post since it originally went up.]

Friday, June 7, 2019

Sex, Sexuality and doing evolutionary reasoning badly

This post by Darwinian Reactionary provides an excellent example of using evolutionary reasoning badly.

He is using evolutionary reasoning to critique the notion of sexual orientation. There are lots of problems with the concept of sexual orientation. Starting with the fact that human sexuality is multi-dimensional. There is (1) who you fall in love with, (2) who you are sexually attracted to and (3) who or what can provide sexual release. The randier you are, the wider (3) is likely to be, and the broader than (1) and (2) it is likely to be.

As lots of homosexual men down the ages have discovered, a significant proportion of straight young men are, in the right circumstances, seducible. That does not make them bisexual or homosexual, it just makes them randy. Men, particularly young men, in situations which systematically deny them social contact with young women are likely to use other men for sexual release. That is true in prisons, on long sea voyages and in countries which practise sexual apartheid.

The concept of sexual orientation does not really cover all those dimensions. It also does not cover terribly well the evidence that female sexuality seems to be moderately more fluid than male sexuality.

Evolutionary complexity
The problem with Darwinian Reactionary's critique is not that it is directed against the concept of sexual orientation, nor in invoking evolutionary reasoning, it is how evolutionary reasoning is used.

The first difficulty is simply assuming homosexuality is an absolute evolutionary disadvantage: in effect, that it completely blocks reproduction. Lots of homosexuals have had children. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that homosexuality is somewhat of an evolutionary disadvantage in that homosexuality presumably does reduce the propensity to reduce. It is, however, an empirical matter how much it actually does. An empirical matter that, moreover, is likely to vary significantly from human society to human society.

How much a barrier to reproduction homosexuality actually is matters, because it affects how strong the evolutionary pressure is against any genetic basis for homosexuality. The less of a barrier to reproduction homosexuality turns out to actually be, the less evolutionary selection pressure there is against it, and the less a puzzle its persistence in human populations is.

Let us presume, however, that homosexuality is enough of a barrier to successful fertility as to create a significant and persistent element of evolutionary pressure against it. Then we have a puzzle to be answered: why is it persistent? Note that this is not quite the same puzzle as: why does it exist? The latter is a puzzle of identifying the causal mechanism, the former is a puzzle about the persistence of the causal mechanism.

The “gay uncle helps sibling reproduction” hypothesis has some empirical support, though probably not enough in itself to explain the persistence of homosexuality. Especially if we assume homosexuality is an absolute barrier to reproduction, there may be problems with making the evolutionary mathematics work. It would be an informative exercise to work out what level of depressed reproduction above zero is sufficient for the mathematics to work, remembering that the more children the gay uncle tends to have, the less plausible any advantage to sibling reproduction is. Perhaps both effects cancel each other out, but it seems worth checking range and scale.

Cognitive dimorphism
Leaving aside the problem of assuming an absolute selection disadvantage, a further problem with Darwinian Reactionary’s use of evolutionary reasoning is that it is not based in the complexities of being Homo sapiens.

What is missing from the evolutionary reasoning in Darwinian Reactionary’s post is what is often missing from such reasoning: any sense that we are specifically dealing with Homo sapiens. It is all just logic pertaining to a sexually reproducing species. Nothing specific to Homo sapiens is involved.

Three factors specific to Homo sapiens appear relevant: (1) we are the cultural species, (2) we are the non-kin cooperation species and (3) there are significant, at least partly innate, cognitive differences between men and women. (1) and (2) are relevant because homosexual men have a persistent, cross-cultural tendency to be disproportionately involved in cultural activities, (3) because homosexuals have a persistent, cross-cultural tendency to display cognitive traits more common in the other sex. Indeed, their defining characteristic—who they are sexually attracted to—is the most obvious example of this but, revealingly, not the only one.

As an aside, this makes all the more annoying the tendency to reason abut homosexuality and homosexuals in ways which make it blindly obvious that one has entirely failed to consult the experience of actual gay folk. (A tendency much more obvious in the comments on the aforementioned post than the post itself.) One may choose what one does (or does not do) for sexual release. One does not choose who one falls in love with or what one is attracted to.

Attraction to one’s own sex is just as visceral as attraction to the opposite sex. Indeed, it makes much more sense in terms of having a cognitive feature typical of the opposite sex than being something weirdly free-floating. Though it is then a cognitive feature embedded in a different hormonal pattern. Attraction to men plus testosterone is different than attraction to men plus oestrogen, just as attraction to women plus oestrogen is different form attraction to women plus testosterone. Seeing homosexuals as having a cognitive feature more typical of the other sex also separates homosexuality from genuine para-sexualities (such as paedophilia), which are much rarer and much more clearly connected to trauma and dysfunction.

If the persistent difference in cognitive patterns between the sexes is an evolutionary advantage (and it surely has to have been to be as marked as it is), then some mechanism or mechanisms need to persist to maintain the patterns of cognitive difference by sex. If cognitive convergence between the sexes to the extent of being homosexual discourages reproduction, that would be a mechanism which would help maintain cognitive differences between the sexes. Some of the distinctiveness in physiological tendencies among homosexual men and women may point in that direction. Working out the evolutionary mathematics involved is way, way beyond my mathematical knowledge and understanding, but it would seem a useful exercise. One that gives homosexuality a much broader functional role in evolutionary dynamics that may be sufficient for it to be low instance but persistent, particularly if added to the "gay uncle" effect.

A key feature to remember about evolutionary reasoning is that we are talking about population dynamics. For instance, the persistence of psychopathy and sociopathy (or whatever the current approved labels are) at such low levels in human populations illustrate that (1) lack of empathy and normative engagement are not evolutionary advantages except as, at best, parasitic strategies on the overwhelmingly more dominant strategy(ies) using empathy and normative engagement and (2) if they are not propagating as a minor niche parasite strategy, then they are much more likely to be recurring malfunctions of the mechanisms supporting the dominant evolutionary strategy(ies).

Cultural species
That homosexual men in particular have been persistently, disproportionately involved in cultural activities is not much of a puzzle. To the extent that one does not invest in children of one’s own, the greater the pressure to invest in activities that generate social support and status independent of having one’s own children. Providing cultural services does that.

Having cognitive traits that are more “cross-sex” may well aid in creating broadly resonant cultural services, giving homosexual men both more incentive to invest in, and more capacity to successfully provide, cultural services. (That homosexual women have not been so significant is explicable in terms of the value placed on female fertility being such that taking on other roles was discouraged: especially if their fertility was women’s dominant social leverage.)

In the cultural species, having a low instance but persistent minority disproportionately willing and able to invest in cultural services would seem a clear advantage in realising the benefits of culture. Whether this can plausibly be “cashed out” genetically seems doubtful. But add in the helping to block cognitive convergence plus some level of aid to sibling reproduction, and there may well be enough selection effect to lead to the persistence of a low instance sexual minority in human populations. Which makes Darwinian Reactionary's attempt to characterise homosexuality as "selected against" with therefore straightforward consequences to how homosexuality then can, or cannot, be reasonably characterised a naively simplistic application of evolutionary reasoning.

I am absolutely for using evolutionary reasoning to think about why Homo sapiens are the way we are. Applying evolutionary reasoning to Homo sapiens is, however, a much more complex issue than the sort of naive evolutionism that Darwinian Reactionary is using.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Whiteness is not property: deconstructing critical race theory

This is a long post, in part because I do not have time to write a short one. It is a response to a 1993 Harvard Law Review essay by Cheryl L. Harris arguing for the notion of whiteness as property. I not only critique that claim, doing so gives me an opportunity to demonstrate the problems with the treatment of "race" by the critical race theory/intersectionalism/identity/diversity streams of thought that the essay is an example of.

Normally, when I discover a Law Review article on a matter I am concerned with, I am pleased. Law Review articles tend to be thorough, strongly evidence-based, with careful interrogation of key concepts, being thus very useful. The Columbia Law Review article “Polygamy, Prostitution and the Federalization of Immigration Law” (pdf) on immigration bars on Chinese entry, for example, epitomises these virtues.

Friday, May 24, 2019

A climate change election, just not in the intended way ...

Based on a comment I made here.

In its dynamics, the 2019 Australian federal election was 1993 re-run: an Opposition expected to win pre-releases an extensive policy manifesto which a "small target" "devil you know" Government is able to run a scare campaign on the awkward bits.

But it also seems to have turned out to be the climate change election, just not the way the fashionable folk thought. The regional/provincial working class is beginning to not only realise that the inner city elites want to sacrifice regional/provincial working class jobs on the altar of climate change, but to also vote accordingly.

Nothing Australia could do on climate change can make a lick of difference (at about 1% of world GDP, we are not a big enough economy and no one pays attention to what we do[, beyond the odd headline grab]) so the politics of "climate emergency" is sin-and-salvation politics, not practical trade-off politics.

The sacking of a star (Pacific Islander origins) rugby league player (Israel Folau) for quoting a biblical verse on social media probably did not help either. When the diversity totalitarians start coming for sporting heroes, folk you would not otherwise expect are likely to take notice.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bravado in the absence of order

Areo magazine has published another essay of mine, Bravado in the Absence of Order, which examines why African-American urban communities have such high rates of homicide and other violence. The essay uses medieval history, and contemporary societies other than the US, to illuminate social patterns that are less clear if one just looks at the US in isolation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Piety Display not Virtue Signalling

I have an essay in Areo Magazine arguing that piety display is often a more accurate term than virtue signalling for what people are typically referring to. The piece then examines the dynamics of, and the reasons for, political correctness. Read it here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Giving more power to entropy in its endless war against order

Merit and competence is often hard to measure. Give a bureaucracy some simpler metric (say, diversity points) and it will grasp it with all its tentacles. The resulting "boiling frog" decline in competence is too slow and removed to override the ease and short-term benefit of the simpler metric. Until the crash, or crashes even. (Another triumph of entropy over order.)

When progressives take over an institution, there is a strong tendency for the institution to slowly decline. First, because progressives typically do not take the problems of achieving and maintaining order seriously. (Hard for them to do so, because that would tend to make them conservatives.)

Second, because they are cognitively intolerant, tending to deem contrary ideas as evil and/or stupid. This creates a double-bubble. A bubble of like-minded people, as they drive away or refuse to hire those who do not ideologically conform (or, at least, appear to do so). A bubble of conformist thought, because contrary ideas are often simply blocked from consideration.

So, when things start to go wrong, they are only really left with doubling down on the original set of presumptions. Which speeds up the decline rather than reverses it. Helped by the fact that the decline often does not contravene their markers of wrongness but doing something effective about it is somewhat likely to.

Iowahawk expresses the above ideas much more pithily.
This somewhat harrowing description of the experience of teaching in the New York public school system shows what working inside the decline feels like. Basically, progressive ideology (particularly identity politics) + soviet mode of production => bad public schools.

Progressive ideology does, after all, tend to create simple metrics for bureaucracies to follow.

ADDENDA: But increased accountability, openness to innovation and a systematised pragmatic concern with what works can turn schools and school systems around.

Friday, January 11, 2019

India v Pakistan v Bangladesh

India is an extremely genetically diverse nation, with considerable cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. So, what are the common features of India?  English, common law and parliamentary democracy: all legacies of British rule.

Pakistan is a nation with considerable cultural and linguistic diversity. So, what are the common features of Pakistan? Islam, English, common law (being nibbled away by Sharia) and (on a it-comes-and-goes basis) parliamentary democracy. The Middle Eastern Islam (pdf) of Pakistan is eating away at its other institutional commonalities.

Bangladesh ('the country of Bengal') is a country with very little cultural or linguistic diversity. For it, Islam, English, common law and parliamentary democracy are part of a dominant ethno-nationalist identity. It seems to be doing somewhat better than Pakistan, but not as well as India, suggesting that the ethno-nationalist identity is somewhat ameliorating the negative effects of Islam. 

This blog has been quiet

This blog has been quiet because I am writing a book on marriage, to be published by Connor Court, and have been composing essays, hopefully for publication.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Migration complexities and the campaigns against social bargaining

This is based on a comment I made here.

Coming from a country (Australia) with a much higher proportional immigration flow than the US, I find US debates over migration odd.

First, the level of illegal immigration in the US is clearly a huge problem. It distorts the debate, creates a black market in labour and gives lots of voters the feeling of having no effective say (because they don’t). Without effective border control, and with significant inflows of illegal migrants, the effective value of the lever of the ballot is greatly reduced, and and ordinary voters have no other lever other than the vote to influence a policy area fundamental to the future evolution of any polity.

Second, treating immigrants as an undifferentiated mass is just silly. I know economics lends itself to that, with people as interchangeable utility-maximising machines, but what is missed is that culture affects framing, expectations and preferences so that the same situation can create quite different incentives to people of different cultural heritages. (See, for example, the ethnic complexities in who voted leave in the Brexit 2016 vote.)

It is an observable fact that, for example, (1) different groups of migrants have different crime rates and (2) mainstream Sunni Muslims, given that mainstream Sunni Islam is a religion of domination, create problems no other group of migrants do, and the more so the proportionately larger group they are. (As adherents of "permanent minority" forms of Islam IbadisAlevisIsmailis and Ahmmadis are not an issue: they have gone down the same path that rabbinical Judaism did, abandoning the tendency to become homicidally enraged over God's law being trumped by pagan/goy/infidel law.)

Denmark, for example, seems determined to be not-Sweden and to minimise the welfare/crime/cultural difference costs of migration. Cultural difference costs are particularly significant when operating a welfare model which effectively requires high degree of cultural homogeneity to work in order to minimise free riding and maximise information flows between officials and recipients.

Third, treating migrants as having no (negative) effect on incentives within the country of receipt is just silly. For example, the combination of lots of non-voting housing market entrants with positional goods is more or less guaranteed to create regulatory restrictions on the supply of housing land, with consequent upward effects on rents and house-prices. An effect likely to be particularly strong in coast cities with nice hills: economist Paul Krugman's Zoned Zoned versus Flatland effect. [Which means more of GDP goes to land rent.]

Fourth, I am deeply sceptical about “(all) migrants are (always) an economic positive” arguments. See the point about migrants not being an undifferentiated mass, the effect on housing markets, variable social welfare costs and differentiated effects on residents depending on access to capital and place of residence.

Obviously significant migration is a positive to capital holders if it thereby increase the relative scarcity premium from such capital. The effect on labour income is rather more complicated.  For high levels of migration on labour income to not lead to lower-that-it-would-otherwise-be income from labour for the resident providers of labour requires that demand for their labour increase, even though the overall supply of labour is increasing due to the inflow of other providers of labour. Robert Fogel, in his Without Consent or Contract (which I reviewed here) provided strong evidence that mass C19th migration to the US was not good for native-born workers.

Australian migration policy is essentially set up to not disturb the capital/labour balance. (We are the only country in the Western world, that is not a micro-state, whose migrants are a net gain to average human capital.)

Fifth, even in Australia, where popular opinion is generally strongly pro-migrant (but not illegal migrant: conflating the two issues poisons migration debates [and polling results are tending towards having less migration [pdf]), the congestion costs are beginning to wear away at support for current levels of migration. Making sure your physical, social and political infrastructure is up to a significant migrant influx is actually quite difficult. Especially as aforementioned housing market effect actually militates against having adequate physical infrastructure (by raising its costs and lowering its tax revenue benefit). The US political system does not strike me as currently functional enough to well manage such. The EU political system(s) in some ways, even less so.

Sixth, when reviewing "migration is a net positive" papers, relevant questions to ask are:

(1) Does it differentiate between effects on labour income and capital income for the existing residents? If the answer is no, the paper is useless to the point of effective dishonesty, as who gets what benefit (and what costs) is crucial to understanding the effects of migration. Even if it does look at resident labour and capital income effects separately, does it incorporate wage stickiness effects? In particular, does it incorporate that the most likely negative effect on labour income from migration is not to lower wages, but to block their rise? Merely observing that there is little evidence that wages are being actually lowered is not, in itself, proof that wages are not being "flattened".  See here for a relatively simple model which works from precisely that effect.

(2) Does it measure the fiscal/welfare effects? Including any crowding or congestion effects on access to government services and support? Different migrants groups and profiles have very different effects on demand and use of welfare services. It is not helpful, or even analytically sensible, to treat immigrants, in the felicitous words of one study (pdf), “as a homogeneous huddled mass”.

(3) Does it measure crime/distrust effects? Raising the level of ethnic diversity tends to decrease levels of social trust which tends to increase the level of crime even if the newcomers commit less crimes on average than the existing residents. If an incoming group has a higher tendency to commit crimes than the residents, the effect is magnified. (And popular views of relative level of criminality among different migrants groups can be relatively accurate [pdf], though in the US general stereotypes about migrants seems to be dominated by [pdf] perceived patterns among Hispanic migrants.) These effects are, however, likely to be highly localised, with little or no impact on national crime trends, which again points to distributional effects mattering. Though enough localised effects can start adding up, as in Britain's rape gang scandals.  [CORRECTION: It appears that economist Bryan Caplan's criticism of Putnam's original paper on diversity was spot on, that it is not diversity per se which lowers trust, but other features associated with high migrant neighbourhoods: which adjusts, rather than refutes, the point.]

(4) Does it incorporate infrastructure effects? If the paper effectively assumes that physical, social and political infrastructure is infinitely flexible, then it is pushing nonsense on stilts. Simply considering physical infrastructure effects alone, as noted above, the effect of raising the proportion of housing entrants who are non-voters in a situation of positional goods (normal in coastal cities, for example, particularly if there are also scenic-hill effects) greatly increases the likelihood of regulatory limitation of use of land for housing which raises the (opportunity) cost of building infrastructure (as the value of land-for-housing is increased) and reduces the net revenue value of building infrastructure (as regulatory restriction of land use drives up value of taxes on such land in itself).

In my own city of Melbourne, for example, anyone outside the inner city "bubble" is well aware that (1) traffic congestion has got noticeably worse in recent years and (2) the main reason is the failure of transport infrastructure to keep up with the migrant inflow. So people are experiencing, from more and more time spent in heavy traffic, a significant daily cost to them from high levels of migration.

As for political infrastructure, there was much pointing and laughing/sneering that anti-migrant sentiment was an element in the Brexit vote, yet support for leaving was highest in areas with the least number of migrants. There is no contradiction here; if people observe that issues connected to migration take up a great deal of public debate and attention, but there are very few migrants in their area, then that means all that debate and attention is directed away from where they live. An example of the point about political infrastructure not being infinitely flexible.

Status sacralising
What makes all this worse is that members of what economic historian Thomas Piketty calls The Brahmin Left (pdf), but I prefer to think of as Brahmin Progressivism (since key ideas are neither Enlightenment-based nor class-framed, so not "Left" in the sense that applied from 1789 to 1991), have become addicted to using migration as a sacred idea (especially the sacred value of "diversity") for Brahmin Progressivism's moralised, taboo-generating status claims. (Taking the notion and use of 'sacred' from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, see here [pdf].)

Migration is moved out of the realm of social bargaining, operating according to various perceptions and calculations of costs and benefits, and moved into the realm of sacred status-markers where disagreement with any key status-marker position is direct evidence of sin, and one does not, of course, bargaining with sinners! because that is to negotiate with evil. This secular sacralisation (in this case of diversity) creates, for example, sinful books.

Suggesting that diversity has costs, that different migrants groups tend to provide different costs and benefits, even that there should be effective border enforcement, all become attacks on the sacredness of diversity (which, being sacred, cannot be discussed in terms of trade-offs without being tainted). Diversity should also, of course, being sacred, reach everywhere. But not, "obviously", cognitive diversity, because that means sin and evil. This despite cognitive diversity being the form of diversity which studies regularly find does have positive benefits while the forms of diversity which are sacralised have no identifiable connection with, for example, better decision-making or group performance. But such benefits-and-costs analysis are not to be permitted to taint the sacred value of diversity.

Economic papers that essentially "leave out" the hard bits of the effects of significant levels of migration become one-sided chips to be played in in these sacralised status games. They become, rather than contributions to public debate, weapons in a drive to undermine the operation, even the concept, of effective social bargaining over migration conceived as manifesting the sacred value of diversity. [And the politics of migration are hard enough as it is.]


There is a religion-size hole in many WEIRD psyches and, to a significant degree, in Western societies in general. Using politics to feed that hole is disastrous, as politics is about the arrangement and direction of society via public policy, so politics-as-substitute-religion turns policy and politics, not into a system of bargaining and trade-offs, but an exercise in personal salvation centred around barred-from-trade-offs sacred objects and involving a (naturally escalating) war against sin and sinners.

It would be helpful if economists played a little less into such games and rather more into grappling with the genuine complexities of migration.  After all, the Western world has previously gone through a period where politics became about salvation and wars against sin, and it was not a happy experience.


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]