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In Which Matthew Yglesias Loses All Sense of Proportion

Matthew Yglesias on the reasons the US doesn't have shiny new infrastructure like Singapore's:

In part, a country like the United States just isn't going to be able to compete infrastructure-wise with a newly-prosperous country like Singapore -- we have a lot of stuff that's oldish, but still usable, and shutting it down to fix or replace it would be extremely inconvenient. But it's also the case that Singapore's not spending 1 percent of GDP a year on a misguided effort to control Iraq.

Right. It's not the sprawling welfare state on which we spend something like 10% of GDP more than Singapore. It's that extra 1% of GDP we spend on the military.


Blacks, Hispanics, and Health Outcomes

In the US, blacks score significantly worse than non-Hispanic whites* on many health metrics, such as life expectancy and infant mortality. In 1999, a black man could expect to live 6.4 years less than a white man, while a black woman could expect to live 5 years less than a white woman. And the infant mortality rate for black mothers is more than twice that for non-Hispanic white mothers.

One of the most popular hypotheses to explain this fact is that blacks don't have as much access to quality health care as whites. This is superficially plausible--see for example the chart on page 18 of this PDF, which shows that 10.6% of non-Hispanic whites lack medical insurance compared to 19.4% of blacks.

But let's take another look at those charts. We see that nearly a third (32.8%) of Hispanics lack health insurance. So their health outcomes must be even worse, right? Well...no. The infant mortality rate for Hispanics is marginally lower than that for non-Hispanic whites, and their life expectancy is 2.4/3.6 years (male/female) greater than the life expectancy of non-Hispanic whites.

This is probably due in part to the fact that about 40% of Hispanics in the US are foreign-born, since immigrants tend to outlive native Americans of the same race, but this can only explain why Hispanics live longer than whites--it doesn't explain why they live so much longer than blacks, who have greater access to health care. Nor can it explain the longevity and low infant mortality of Asians, who are also significantly more likely than whites to lack health insurance, yet manage to live 6.1/6.4 years longer.

It's times like this when I think that the world might make a bit more sense if I believed in human biodiversity.

*For some reason Latinos are considered to be whites of Hispanic origin in most US government statistics.


Female Privilege

If you hang around feminists for more than fifteen minutes, the term "male privilege" will come up. Essentially, this is the term feminists use to collectively describe the ways in which life is easier for men and/or harder for women.

One interesting characteristic of male privilege is that it's largely invisible to men. It's like an iceberg. We men, from our privileged terrestrial positions, can only see the tip of the iceberg, but women, forced to live in the icy depths of the Arctic Ocean by their male oppressors, can see the whole thing. Also, while feminist men can't see it directly, they can infer its presence. Feminism is kind of like sonar that way.

Anyway, some time back Ampersand nailed the a list of 46 aspects of Male Privilege to the door of the Patriarchy headquarters. We were out touring the world's strip clubs and golf courses on official business at the time, so we're just now getting around to responding. Ballgame over at the Feminist Critics Blog is on it with a Female Privilege Checklist. You'll note that his list is only half as long as Ampersand's, but we're still going to give him twice the recognition. Great job, Ballgame. Have another link.

I have some more items to add to the list:

  1. If I marry, there is a very good chance that I will be given the option to quit my job and live off my husband’s* income without having my femininity questioned.
  2. If I become pregnant, I and I alone choose whether to terminate the pregnancy or have the baby. As a result, I can be reasonably certain that I will never be held financially responsible for a child I didn’t want to have, and that I will never have my unborn child aborted without my consent.
  3. Many employers, including the government, have policies specifically designed to privilege me over male candidates.
  4. If my husband is unfaithful to me or abuses me, I will receive sympathy unmixed with derision.
  5. I am significantly more likely to graduate from college than I would be if I were a man.
  6. Moderately impaired social skills are not a serious impediment to my ability to achieve romantic and sexual fulfillment.
  7. Although I am every bit as likely as a man to allow my sex drive to compromise my judgment, I will never be accused of thinking with my clitoris.
  8. I can expect to pay a significantly lower premium for car insurance than a man with a similar driving record would.
  9. If I commit a crime, I will likely be treated much more leniently in a court of law than would a man who had committed the same crime.
  10. Men are expected to buy me drinks, meals, flowers, and jewelry in exchange for a chance to spend time with me.
  11. Because I am not expected to be my family’s primary breadwinner, I have the luxury of prioritizing factors other than salary when choosing a career path.
  12. I have the privilege of being unaware of my female privilege.

While I can't speak for Ballgame, I do not intend, in contributing to this list, to advance the idea that men are being oppressed by the Matriarchy. I certainly don't feel oppressed**. What I'm trying to do is refute the notion that either sex is privileged over the other.

Of course, I don't deny that there are certain privileges given to men that are not given to women. What I reject is the concept of Male Privilege: The idea that men are unambigously privileged over women. In reality, women have their own privileges, and very often privilege and obligation go hand in hand. For example, Ampersand cites as an example of male privilege this: "If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home." But the flip side of this is that a man faces much stronger social pressure to be his family's primary breadwinner. Certainly working mothers far outnumber stay-at-home fathers.

Which sex has the better package of privileges and obligations is largely a matter of personal preference. Yes, most feminists think men have it better, but that's because modern feminism, having little left to offer a woman who relishes her role as a full-time wife and mother, disproportionately attracts women who think they're getting a raw deal. This may also explain why lesbians tend to be overrepresented among feminists--denied male privileges and unable to take advantage of those female privileges tied to heterosexuality, they really do get a raw deal.

*Yes, several of these items are shamelessly heteronormative. Because that's how we patriarchs roll.

**I note this because a common feminist tactic is to cast any attempt to point out female privileges as whining by men afraid of feminism's challenge to their own privilege. Of course, talking about Male Privilege is speaking truth to power, not whining.


On Consumption vs. Income Taxation

Quoth Megan McArdle, when asked why she doesn't support a shift from income tax to consumption tax in the form of unlimited IRAs:

Because with a decent tax code, there's no reason for the government to artificially bias peoples' choices towards savings and away from consumption. The bourgeois moral affection for savings is a socially useful cultural belief, but it is not actually a moral law. Savings is just time-shifted consumption. I see no moral difference between consumption now and consumption later.

I disagree for a couple of reasons. First, it's not clear to me that a consumption tax would artificially encourage savings any more than an income tax encourages current consumption. And by inflating the currency while not allowing taxpayers to adjust the cost bases of our investments for inflation (i.e., if inflation is 3% and I sell a bond which has earned a 5% annual return, my real annual return is only 2%, but I'm taxed on the full 5%), the government is arguably actively dicouraging saving.

Furthermore, investment, while not necessarily morally superior to current consumption, has positive externalities that we should be encouraging. A higher capital-to-labor ratio increases labor productivity and drives up wages. And certainly it's good for society--both in a practical sense and in a moral sense--if more people have enough money socked away to smooth over a rough spot or two without suffering the indignity of relying on the government for help.


Correlation Is Evidence

Commenting on a post by Arnold Kling, Megan McArdle says that correlation is not evidence of causation:

Correlations are, at best, suggestive. They are not by themselves evidence--nay, not even if you cross your arms, scowl at your opponent, and say "Well, then give me another explanation for this astonishing correlation!" Until you've got something better than a simple correlation, the burden of proof remains upon you.

As I've said before, a strongly statistically significant correlation is, by definition, unlikely to be spurious, and therefore strongly suggestive of some kind of causal connection. It's not conclusive evidence--dredge through enough data and you're bound to turn up some spurious collations with very small p-values--but it's evidence nevertheless.

Of course, you don't get to pick the causal relationship you like best and claim that the correlation proves it--there are always alternative explanations. But neither can you say "correlation is not causation" and then sweep an inconvenient correlation under the rug. A highly significant correlation almost always means that there's something interesting going on, and a model that can't explain it is likely flawed, or at best incomplete.

The more interesting point raised in Dr. Kling's post is his observation that correlations may not always be as significant as they appear, because a steady trend is really only two data points.


Great Moments in Advertising

Not a loan shark

Because when you're in the market for a 30-year loan, nothing inspires confidence like a shark.

To be fair, the actual ad is an animated GIF whose next frame says "Stop feeding the rent shark." Still...wow.


The Optimal Solution Is Two for Me and None for You

This old post from Megan McArdle came up in a conversation with a friend:

In his books Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks talks about status-wealth disequilibrium; the wealthy coastal cities are crowded with people who have money made in un-fun jobs, and people who have fun jobs that don't pay so well. The ideal, Brooks points out, is for members of one group to marry the other, to even things out, but unfortunately it generally doesn't work out that way.

From ten thousand feet, this seems to make sense. But the flaw becomes apparent as soon as you start to think about it: The reason this doesn't happen is that the person with the fun job brings nothing to the table. The rich person can share his money, but the advantages of a fun job can't be shared, and go exclusively to the person doing the job. This evens out wealth inequalities without evening out fun inequalities, which actually increases inequalities in total utility.

All else being equal, just about everyone would prefer to have a spouse who makes a lot of money. Granted, there are many men--me, for one--who would prefer not to make less than their wives, but I suspect that virtually all men making $X per year would prefer a wife who makes $0.8X per year to one who makes $0.2X. And so we get assortative mating: Lawyers marry lawyers, and starving artists marry starving artists.

The primary exception to this rule is when the person with the fun job is an attractive woman. But what she brings to the table here is her looks, not her job--an attractive woman with a high-paying job is still preferable to an attractive woman with a fun job.

I guess another exception might be when the couple plans on a traditional family in which the wife stays home and takes care of the children--if she's not working, it doesn't matter what kind of work she's not doing.

It's possible that McArdle is misstating Brooks' thesis--she refers to a status-wealth disequilibrium, so maybe Brooks had envisioned a scenario in which a high-status, low-paying job somehow confers status on the worker's spouse. I can't think of a good example though.

In any case, the solution as summarized by McArdle is one only a journalist could love.


Beyond Repair

Bored Maytag Repairman

An anonymous commenter at Bobvis has this to say:

Ideally, a product so shoddy that it shouldn't be bought, would be removed by the market when people figured out not to buy it.

The problem: people are so jaded towards crappy-quality products (and throwing things away rather than repairing) that the market is indeed failed in this regard. It's no longer a choice of not buying the badly-made product, they're all so badly made you might as well pick the least expensive.

I encounter this sentiment a lot, and honestly, I don't know what these people are talking about--as far as I can tell, durable goods nowadays are more reliable than they've ever been. My grandfather was a refrigerator repairman, but I've never in my life known a refrigerator to break down. In fact, my experience with durable goods in general has been almost totally positive. The only durable goods I've ever had break down on me were a few computer parts (arguably my fault in most cases), a monitor, a water heater, and a toaster oven.

It's true that we don't repair broken durable goods as often as we used to, but there are several good reasons for this that have nothing to do with being jaded.

First, the Baumol effect. While productivity in capital-intensive fields like manufacturing tends to increase rapidly, productivity in labor-intensive fields like repair tends to increase slowly if at all. As a result, the cost of replacement relative to repair tends to fall over time.

Technological improvements can make repair more expensive in absolute terms as well. Many durable goods are much more sophisticated than they used to be, often replacing or supplementing mechanical parts with electronic circuitry and embedded computers. These may enhance funcitonality or reliability (moving parts are far more likely to break down), but reduce serviceability.

Furthermore, rapid technological improvement can shift the cost-benefit analysis in favor of replacement. If repairing something costs $200 and replacing it with an identical model costs $400, it probably makes sense to repair. But if $400 buys a newer and much better model, then it may make sense to buy the newer model rather than repairing the old one.

Ironically, increased reliability may actually contribute to a tendency to replace rather than repair. Designing products to be easily serviceable is not without its costs--to make a product serviceable, it may be necessary to make it larger or more expensive, or to compromise in other ways. When an expensive product has a 50% chance of failure in the first few years, it probably makes sense to design it for serviceability. But if there's only a 5% chance of failure, it may not.

There are probably some other factors that I haven't thought of, but those are the big ones.


Taxpayer Is Not a Binary Classification

I've noticed that some people tend to think of "taxpayer" as being a binary classification--i.e., one either pays taxes or one does not, and the amount is irrelevant. For example, here's Ampersand protesting that, contra Megan McArdle, he doesn't just want to tax the rich to pay for his favorite social programs--after all, he pays taxes, too.

Well, that's technically true. But Ampersand once mentioned that a one-percentage-point increase in the payroll tax rate would cost him $2.30 per week, suggesting wages of about $12,000 per year. Income taxes at that level would be negligible, and as an Oregon resident he pays no sales taxes. I gather that he's part-owner of a house, so he probably does pay some property taxes. If we count the full ~15% for payroll taxes, that suggests an annual tax bill of about $3000, barring significant royalty or other non-wage income.

In the US, government at all levels spends nearly $14,000 per person per year. Merely paying a few thousand in taxes does not mean that a person is making a net contribution to the public treasury and thus helping to pay for social programs and various forms of redistribution. These are paid for almost exclusively by people in the top income quintile, and among them the burden is skewed heavily towards the top, with some people paying tens, hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of times more in taxes than Ampersand.

Nor are all taxpayers affected equally by changes in the tax structure. While I'm not sure about Ampersand specifically, almost all left-wing proposals for increasing tax revenues are narrowly targeted to the top 5-10% of income earners. While it's true that not everyone in this category is a conservative or libertarian, it's also true that the vast majority of welfare statists are not in this category, so Megan was perfectly correct to say that most people who favor increased government spending want to do it with other people's money.

This post by hilzoy at Obsidian Wings provides another example. Responding to Pat Buchanan's claim that white Americans have spent huge sums of money trying to lift black Americans out of poverty, hilzoy writes:

Who provided welfare, food stamps, etc.? Not white people, but the US government, and through it, the taxpayers. Blacks pay taxes. They helped to provide those programs. To imagine that they did not is, quite literally, to write them out of the citizenry.

Well, no, it isn't. It's an acknowledgement of an incontrovertible fact. Yes, most black Americans pay taxes at some point in their lives, but on average they pay much less per capita than whites do, because of their lower earnings and the progressivity of the tax system. I don't think the IRS collects tax data by race, but I would hazard a guess that blacks pay 5% of the taxes in the US, give or take a few percentage points. While there are a great many black Americans who have made net contributions to the government coffers, there's no question that AFDC, WIC, Medicaid and the like* have, in the aggregate, redistributed wealth from white Americans to black Americans**.

This fallacy is not limited to the left. I've seen conservatives and libertarians appeal to the unfairness of making the working poor pay taxes to subsidize things that benefit primarily the upper and middle classes, like higher education, national parks, and funding for the arts. While I certainly agree that it would be good to scale back these subsidies, it simply isn't true that the working poor are subsidizing these programs. They may be paying taxes, but "taxpayer" is not a binary classification.

*The direction of redistribution due to Social Security is not obvious. Blacks have lower life expectancy than whites, but people with lower lifetime incomes tend to have a more favorable benefit/tax ratio while living.

**This is not to say that these programs haven't actually contributed to the persistence of black poverty, but if that's the case, then welfare statists have no one to blame but themselves.


The Infant IQ Gap

Micha's post below quotes a description of Roland Fryer's purported debunking of the black-white IQ gap:

Are blacks genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than whites? With a collaborator from the University of Chicago, Mr Fryer debunked this idea. Granted, blacks score worse than whites on intelligence tests. But Mr Fryer looked at data from new tests on very young children. At eight months to a year, he found almost no racial gap, and that gap disappeared entirely when he added controls for such things as low birth weight.

The paper, co-authored with Steven Levitt, is here (PDF).

While I think it would be great if environmental adjustments could correct the IQ gap, and I hope Dr. Fryer is successful in finding a solution, this is by no means a debunking of the genetic hypothesis.

For one, it's not at all clear that infant testing measures the same underlying factor as adult IQ tests. The test used is the Bayley Scale of Infant Development, which according to the paper has a correlation of 0.3 with IQ at age 5, meaning that it explains only 9% of the variation in IQ at the age of 5, and the correlation with adult IQ is presumably somewhat weaker. It's likely that BSID is more a measure of normal development than of genetic potential for intelligence. Note the reference to low birth weight babies having lower BSID scores, and also this study, which found that BSID weakly predicted IQ in children exposed to an environmental toxin but not at all in the matched controls.

Or it could be the case that black and white children simply develop along different trajectories. This is consistent with adoption studies, which have found that the IQ gap between black and white children adopted into white families starts small and grows over time. Granted, this is not the only possible explanation (e.g., it could be due to peer group effects).

Also worth noting: At eight months to a year, there is no sexual gap in facial hair growth.


Seek And Ye Shall Find

In case any of you are still harboring any lingering suspicions that there might be anything at all that a Republican can say without being accused of racism:

The “hard-working Americans, white Americans” is a classic Wallace/Helms/Buchanan equation of whiteness with hard work and honesty. The opposite is either effete white intellectuals who don’t work, or lazy blacks who also don’t work. In fact, the Reagan coalition GOP even dropped the word “white,” knowing that “hard-working” and “law-abiding” already implied, in their minds, white people.

Emphasis mine. That's right. If you use terms like "hard-working" or "law-abiding," you're pandering to racists, and probably a racist yourself. This supports my hypothesis that a race card shark can "find" racism anywhere he wants.

Via Alas.


More on American Meat Consumption

Back in January, I questioned Mark Bittman's claim in the NYT that Americans consume on average 200 pounds of meat per year.

I've found data from the USDA on loss-adjusted food availability--that is, edible parts actually available for consumption and not known to have spoiled or otherwise been wasted. According to them, the carcass weight of available meat in 2005 was 159g/117g/16g (mammal/poultry/fish) per capita per day, or 235 pounds per year. Retail weight, excluding bones, was 110g/74g/16g, or 160 pounds per year (150 pounds after adjusting for retail spoilage). Total loss-adjusted weight (after adjusting for consumer-level losses) is 83g/52g/14g, or about 120 pounds per year.

So it looks like the number Bittman was using was the retail weight. To call 160 "almost 200" is a bit of a stretch, but maybe he was counting the bones. From a culinary or health perspective he's exaggerating, but from an environmentalist perspective it's not unreasonable to include wastage and bones.

Another interesting point: I occasionally hear people refer to the typical American diet as "meat-based," but we can see from the data here that this is wildly inaccurate. Of the 2680 loss-adjusted calories available per capita for consumption each day, only 375, or 14%, come from meat of any kind. Compare this to 610 (23%) from flour, 480 (18%) from added sugars, and 640 (24%) from added fats, of which about 84% are seed oils. The typical American consumes more than four times as many calories from sugar, flour, and seed oils as from meat.

Update: The picture was posted by Dr. Wilde. I most emphatically do not endorse the overcooking of a perfectly good steak.


Trackbacks

Sending trackbacks should work now. We've been able to receive trackbacks for a while, but due to a bug in the content management software, attempts to send trackbacks have silently failed. This should no longer happen. Let me know if you have any further problems.


Anyone Can Save

Megan McArdle is doing the lord's work in debunking (part 1, part 2) Elizabeth Warren's speech about the impending death of the middle class. While McArdle's response to the first myth--that ordinary people can't afford to save anymore--is worth reading, I'd like to point out a reason why this is utterly implausible: Incomes vary widely, yet just about every household manages to pay its current expenses. If a family of four can get by on $40,000 per year, then a similar family of four making $50,000 per year can save $7,000-8,000 per year after taxes.

There doesn't appear to be any mechanism keeping people's incomes at parity with the cost of the basic necessities for their situations*, and that this would happen purely by chance is astronomically improbable. The parsimonious explanation is that people are using their discretionary income to increase consumption rather than saving it.

*Well, in areas with relatively high cost of living, labor mobility can create a wage floor at the subsistence level as people with incomes below that move to lower cost-of-living areas, but this is the exception rather than the rule--even in high cost-of-living areas most people have incomes well above subsistence level.


Socioeconomic Creationism

Patri's recent post on economic creationism reminds me of a similar analogy that's been on my mind recently, though I call it socioeconomic creationism. While Patri is correct in identifying the rejection of science shared by metaphysical and economic creationists, I think the similarities run deeper than this. Metaphysical and socioeconomic creationists both commit the same basic fallacy; the only difference is that they apply it to different sets of phenomena.

Metaphysical creationisism is the rejection of the idea that the physical features of the world around us and/or life are the product of spontaneous order, instead insisting that they must be the product of some form of intelligent design.

Socioeconomic creationism is the rejection of the idea that the social and economic features of the society in which we live are the product of spontaneous order, instead insisting that they must be the product of some form of intelligent design.

For example, if some have much more wealth than others, the socioeconomic creationist believes that this is the product of government policies specifically designed to transfer wealth from the many to the few, rather than the natural result of market transactions between people of disparate abilities and preferences.

If the average man makes more than the average woman, the socioeconomic creationist concludes that this must be due to the misogynistic oppression of women, rather than the natural outcome of men and women having different preferences, opportunity costs, and/or abilities.

From the recent increase in the price of gasoline, the socioeconomic creationist infers a conspiracy among greedy oil producers and gasoline refiners, rather than recognizing that this is the natural and predictable result of rapidly-growing demand coupled with relatively inelastic supply.

In both forms, I think the fallacy is the same. Lacking a clear understanding of how spontaneous order works, creationists fail to see how it can produce the phenomena they observe, and from this they infer the existence of a designer.