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Do Whites Benefit from Racism?

Ampersand says, in comic form, that white people who claim not to benefit from racism are in denial. This is a common theme in left-wing circles. I'm not 100% sure, but I believe the idea is to instill in whites a sense of collective guilt, or at least responsibility--even if you're not actively oppressing anyone, you're still guilty of benefitting from racism.

But is this true? To illustrate his point, Ampersand shows five scenes in which Bob and his ancestors benefitted from opportunities that were denied to racial minorities. This is a clear illustration of how racism has historically hurt minorities, but it doesn't follow from this that whites benefit from racism.

If I were to ask Ampersand what he would like to see changed about these scenarios, I'm quite sure that he'd say that minorities should have gotten the same opportunities as Bob and his ancestors, not that Bob and his ancestors should have been denied those opportunities just to make things fair--in short, that without racism Bob would be no worse off than he is now.

The equation of benefit to whites to harm to blacks and other minorities suggests a zero-sum mentality not entirely dissimilar to the mentality which can give rise to racism under different circumstances (commenter BananaDanna alludes to this in comment 29: The "No jobs for blacks while white men go hungry" slogans from the Great Depression).

But economies aren't zero-sum. Racism places constraints on the ability of markets to operate efficiently. When those constraints are removed, there are more opportunities for everyone, not just those who were discriminated against.

While I'm sure that there must be some cases in which whites have benefitted from racism (e.g., highly competitive zero-sum competitions), it's pretty clear that on balance racism has been a net loss for whites. Aside from the general loss of efficiency noted above, racism was largely responsible for the Civil War, arguably the most destructive event in American history, and racism and its legacy have been responsible for a great deal of social strife ever since.

Furthermore, the disproportionately high rates of crime, incarceration, single motherhood, and welfare dependency within the black and Latino communities impose a burden upon white taxpayers (and crime victims, though I'm not sure how many there are, since most crime is intraracial). It is generally believed on the left (and by Ampersand specifically, IIRC) that racism is the root cause of minority underachievement. If this is true then this is yet another way in which whites continue to be hurt by racism.

Also, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. QED.


Strange Spam

Over the past month or so, we've been getting some unusual comments coming from the Philippines. The commenter(s) have used several different names: JJ, Lester, Ajit, Gina, Alicia, Humus, Ronald, and Ermar, among others.

These comments are different from ordinary spam in two ways. First, while they're never very interesting, they're usually uncannily on-topic, enough so that regular commenters sometimes respond to them. I suspect that the comments are left by humans.

Second, I can't figure out what, if anything, they're selling. The links all go to a network of blogs that link to each other and consist of a dozen or so one-paragraph posts each, written at about a seventh-grade level. If there's any herbal viagra there, it's very well-hidden. Alicia's blog does have links to several products, but I don't think any of the other blogs link to it.

I suspect that this is some kind of search engine optimization scheme, but I haven't figured out the details. Has anyone else seen anything like this elsewhere, or does anyone know what this is about?


When Blogs Imitate Life

After taking a few months' break from reading Alas, I checked in just in time to see that Robert Hayes (whose comments, incidentally, make for much better reading than his blog) had left a comment on this post by Jack Stephens:

Bhupinder blogs:

This little book was first published 160 years ago on 21st February 1848.

The world has not stopped listening to it ever since.

The comment (from memory):

Except for its hundred million or so victims. They haven't been doing much of anything lately.

Now why, you may be asking, would I have to rewrite the comment from memory? Well, it seems that the comment has suffered the usual fate awaiting dissidents in communist territory--it's been disappeared! No word yet on whether it was thrown in prison without trial, sent to work in gulags of Blog Siberia, or simply shot.

(To give credit where it's due, I should point out that Ampersand gives his co-bloggers fairly wide latitude in moderating the comments on their own posts, and that this is not indicative of his own moderation policies. In fact, he refused, in the face of considerable pressure from several of his readers, to ban the regular conservative/libertarian commenters.)


Fake Hate Crimes Are Hate Crimes

Following up on my previous post, let's suppose that new evidence emerges proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Constantine hung the noose on her own door. What punishment is appropriate?

I submit that fake hate crimes should be dealt with as if they were real hate crimes--because they are. The primary argument for special treatment of hate crimes is that they act to intimidate every member of the target group. This applies just as well to hate crime hoaxes as it does to real hate crimes. Without knowing that the crime is a hoax, members of the target group have no reason to feel any less threatened than they would if it were real.

Perpetrators of such hoaxes are often praised, after the hoax is exposed, for bringing attention to the issue of hate crimes. But why is this a good thing? Real hate crimes should be sufficient to bring the optimal amount of attention to the issue. When people stage hate crimes, this makes them seem more common than they actually are, which ultimately means that members of the target group are intimidated for no good reason.

So, ironically, when the perpetrators of these hoaxes are praised for bringing attention to the issue of hate crimes, they're actually being praised for is for intimidating members of the target group--in short, for committing hate crimes!


Breaking Noose

Remember Madonna Constantine, the Columbia University professor who found a noose hung on her office door last October? According to the New York Times, an unrelated investigation by the Columbia Teachers College has concluded that she committed multiple instances of plagiarism.

The kicker? The investigation has been going on since 2006, which means that it must have been entering its final stages when the noose incident occurred. Not surprisingly, she is characterizing the plagiarism investigation as a racially motivated witch hunt and the noose as an intimidation tactic by her enemies.

I suspect that the noose was indeed an intimidation tactic, but not in the way Constantine is suggesting. I have for some time vaguely suspected that the noose might be a hoax, but this seals the deal for me, barring any new evidence. The most plausible explanation to me is that, seeing the writing on the wall (the college confronted her with 36 instances of plagiarism last August), Constantine faked the noose incident in order to cast herself as a victim of racially motivated persecution and intimidate the college into backing off the investigation.


More on Labor Productivity

My post yesterday implied that Japanese labor productivity is significantly lower than American labor productivity. I found a paper (PDF) that estimates trends in labor productivity between 1980 and 2002 for several countries including the US, Japan, and France. During this period, the PPP-adjusted Japanese labor productivity has consistently lagged behind American labor productivity by about $15, and the current figures are $22 and $36.

Another paper (PDF) from the OECD estimates labor productivity for all OECD countries in 2004. This gives similar results. Some observations:

1. The trends shown in the first paper are interesting in that the relationships between the countries shown (except for China) are remarkably stable in absolute terms. I'm not sure what to make of this.

2. I've always been under the impression that South Korea was a fairly well-developed nation, but their labor productivity is only 40% of the US's.

3. While France has a much lower GDP than the US, labor productivity is about the same. The differences in GDP are due to lower labor force participation, higher unemployment, and shorter workweeks. I suspect that France's high productivity is due in part to regulations that shut low-skill workers out of the market.

4. Belgium's labor productivity is surprisingly high, too (110% of American productivity).


Japanese Productivity

Regarding Randall's post below, the reputation the Japanese have for long workdays and high productivity appears to be wildly exaggerated, or at least limited to a small subset of the population. Japan's PPP-adjusted per-capita GDP is on par with France and Spain, or about 25% below the US and Ireland. A small part of the gap can be explained by lower labor force participation among women (about 48% versus 58% in the US, according to this PDF), but not more than 3 to 4 percentage points. It's also not attributable to differences in age distributions, according to table 2.3 here.

As for those legendary long hours, the average Japanese worker worked about 1828 hours per year versus 1777 for Americans, or a difference of about 1 hour per week. The South Koreans, on the other hand, average 2390 hours per year--about 12 hours per week more than Americans.


A Cure Is More Profitable than a Treatment

A stock argument against a free market in medicine is that markets rarely provide cures to chronic diseases because it's more profitable to sell pills that merely treat the symptoms of a disease, giving you a customer for life, than to sell a single course of pills that cures the disease.

The obvious flaw in this argument is that people will pay much more for a month-long course of pills that cures a chronic disease than for a month-long course of pills that does nothing but suppress the symptoms for a month. In fact, the price a patient should be willing to pay for the cure is equal to the expected net present cost of paying for the non-cure treatment for the rest of his life, plus the value of not having to deal with any symptoms not suppressed by the treatment. Granted, not everyone has that much cash on hand, but that's what insurance is for. So it should actually be more profitable to provide a cure than to provide a treatment, especially when you take into account the fact that many fewer pills need be manufactured and distributed.

Apparently those who make this argument believe that pharmaceuticals are sold at a fixed per-pill rate which cannot be deviated from. There may actually be some truth to this. If Pfizer were to develop a drug that could cure diabetes, I wouldn't at all be surprised if the government were to lean very hard on them not to charge more than a fraction of the true value of the drug. But that's hardly a flaw in the free-market system.

Of course, all this assumes that selling patients expensive treatments for the rest of their lives is actually an option. Under US patent law, it isn't. Drug patents last 20 years, and the clock starts ticking long before the drug gets FDA approval. By the time a drug reaches the market, it may have only ten years of patent protection left, so it's very much in the company's interest to extract as much profit from it as possible. The best way to do this is with a cure.

So why do we have treatments but not cures for so many diseases? Because it's easier to synthesize insulin than it is to fix a damaged pancreas. Because it's easier to slow the growth of a tumor than it is to destroy it. Some diseases are just easier to treat than to cure.

Besides, if socialism is better at providing cures than capitalism, what cures have the socialized health care systems of Europe given us?


Progressives?

Megan McArdle has a series of posts on how pharmaceutical price controls in Europe and Canada result in the development of fewer new drugs and how introducing similar policies in the US would reduce drug innovation to a mere fraction of what we have now (here, here, here, here, and here). Some takeaway points that aren't made clear in the original posts:

1. Leftism inhibits progress. "Progressive" is every bit as inappropriate a label for the left as is "liberal."

2. Leftism kills--even the softer, gentler, non-Stalinist variety. People are dying for want of drugs that weren't developed because the profits weren't there just as surely as they died for want of food that wasn't grown in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China.

3. European and Canadian governments are killing us (and their citizens) by enacting and maintaining price controls on pharmaceuticals in order to save a few bucks (in 2000, the US spent about $560 per capita on pharmaceuticals). This is despicable at best.


Half a Pound?

According to this NYT article on American meat consumption, Americans consume nearly 200 pounds of meat per capita each year, or roughly half a pound per day. Does anyone else find this utterly implausible? I average 8 to 10 ounces of meat per day, and as a six-foot-tall, 190-pound, decidedly non-vegetarian man on a low-carbohydrate diet, I figure I must be near the upper end of the distribution.

I suspect that the explanation is that the numbers the NYT uses don't take wastage into account--i.e., that the figure is how much is sold to consumers and restaurateurs, with the assumption that none of it is thrown away or fed to pets. But now I feel insecure about my...um...meat cred. Does this figure square with anyone else's experience?


Cash Advances

Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings compares the proposed tax "rebates" to a cash advance on a credit card:

I don’t really mind the feds giving us some money back, but if they’re just going to borrow in our name then it’s not much of a win.  If your spouse came home and said “Look, I just got $600 from the credit card company!” would you give a high-five or note that you’ll have to pay interest on it?

It's worth noting that while this may be a valid analogy in the aggregate, it's not generally applicable at the individual level. Because the top quintile of income earners pay 73% of all federal taxes, any increase in future tax burden resulting from this will be shouldered mostly by a small minority of taxpayers.

In fact, the current tax distribution actually understates the case against the analogy. Lower- and middle-class tax hikes are no longer politically feasible--even proposals to increase payroll tax revenues focus solely on increasing or eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes--so it's quite likely that the top 5-10% of income earners will end up paying for 100% of any future tax burden resulting from the "rebates." Adding insult to injury, these are the very same people who will not be receiving checks because their incomes are too high.

A better analogy, then, is checking your mail to find either that the credit card company has sent you a cash advance drawn on someone else's account, or that it's charged your account for cash advances to one or more of its other customers and given you nothing.


Rational Racism

Unless I'm misreading him, Will Wilkinson sees a potential area of conflict between libertarianism and antiracism:

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it. Maybe I’ll get into the complexities of that question some other time.

I think the key to resolving this conflict is Bryan Caplan's theory of rational irrationality. Racism is irrational, and people are most likely to indulge their irrational preferences when given the opportunity to do at little or no cost to themselves. And rarely is the cost of irrationality lower than it is at the ballot box.

No doubt there are some people so thoroughly racist as to be willing to turn away paying customers or highly qualified job applicants just because they happen to be of a different race, but they are a strict subset of people who are willing to vote for racist policies or politicians.

The upshot, once you add in the feedback effects of the market system, is that any society in which voters are willing to pass anti-discrimination laws is a society in which discrimination is likely to have only a limited detrimental effect on racial minorities. How limited, I'm not quite sure, but the nightmare scenarios predicted by defenders of anti-discrimination law, where blacks would be totally shut out of the mainstream economy, are utterly implausible in any democratic society for which anti-discrimination law is a realistic option.

To be fair, there are cases where anti-discrimination laws can make a real difference. One is in the case of non-democratic governments. In theory, an enlightened despot or oligarchy could impose integration on a racist population. Another exception to this rule is when, as was the case with the American South, a national government uses anti-discrimination laws to impose integration on states or localities in which the concentration of racism is higher than the national average. Of course, as Dave points out, the situation in the South was a product of enforced discrimination, so it's not at all clear that this was in fact a real-world exception.

On top of that, as I have noted before, anti-discrimination laws are not simply a matter of giving up the freedom to be a bigot in exchange for racial equality. Bigots or not, we all pay the price for a legal framework in which the federal government regularly second-guesses the personnel decisions of private companies and local governments.


Drinking for Change

Watch the video. Take a drink every time someone says the word "change."


In Defense of Fallacies

I've seen the phrase "correlation is not causality" abused on several occasions in the past, usually like this:

A: A recent study found that X is correlated with Y.

B: You racist/sexist/classist/heteronormative moron! Don't you know that correlation is not causation?

While it's true that a correlation between X and Y does not prove that X causes Y, a highly statistically significant correlation does strongly imply some causal relationship. Maybe X causes Y. Maybe Y causes X. Maybe Z causes both X and Y. Maybe it's something even more elaborate. But highly statistically significant correlations are, by definition, unlikely to be the result of pure chance. If there are other reasons to believe that X causes Y, the knowledge that the two are correlated increases the likelihood of this hypothesis being true.

"Correlation is not causation [so there's nothing to see here]" is not a valid reason to dismiss the observation of a statistically significant correlation, especially when there's a plausible causal mechanism. Of course, this doesn't mean that the combination of a plausible causal mechanism and a correlation proves causation; only that it makes for a credible hypothesis.

While considering this, it occurred to me that there's a more general point to be made here, namely that there are several other fallacies that can actually be valid tools of Bayesian inference if used properly. For example:

Appeal to Authority: If the vast majority of experts in a particular field believe that X causes Y, that doesn't prove that X causes Y, but learning this should increase your estimate of the probability that X causes Y.

Affirming the Consequent: If the sidewalk's wet, that doesn't prove that it rained last night, but it's a good hypothesis to start with, especially if you don't have sprinklers.

Fallacy of Composition: A team of first-rate engineers isn't necessarily a first-rate engineering team, but all else being equal or unknown, it's likely to do better work than a team of mediocre engineers.

Argumentum ad Hominem: If someone makes an improbable claim, the fact that he has a history of making similarly improbable claims later proven to be false doesn't prove that he's lying this time, but it's certainly cause for skepticism.

Denying the Antecedent: If you don't pay your electric bill, the electric company may decide to keep the lights on just because you're such a swell guy*. But the likelihood of uninterrupted service is much greater if you pay the bill.

*Funny story: I haven't received an electric bill since I moved into my apartment nearly six months ago, and the electric company won't tell me anything because the account's apparently not in my name.


Scale

One of the speakers in the creationist video which Scott posted cited as evidence against abiogenesis the fact that life never spontaneously appears in sealed jars of peanut butter, even though a billion jars of peanut butter are manufactured every year.

This is a silly argument for a number of reasons, but what I find most noteworthy is the idea that a billion such "experiments" per year is an impressive number. I suspect that one of the reasons many people find abiogenesis and speciation implausible is that they fail to take into account the truly unfathomable amounts of space and time which the forces of evolution have at their disposal.

Suppose that a jar of peanut butter is half a liter. A billion jars, then, would be 500 megaliters, or 500,000 cubic meters--roughly equivalent in size to a lake with an average depth of 10m and a diameter of 250 meters.

At .0005 cubic kilometers, a year's supply of peanut butter is about one one-millionth the size of Lake Erie, and Erie is in turn dwarfed by the world's oceans by a factor of about 2.7 million. Earth's oceans had hundreds of billions times more space to devote to cooking up life than all the jars of peanut butter ever made. They also had much more time--on the order of hundreds of millions of years--than peanut butter has had.

And we don't know for a fact that Earth is the only chance the universe has had to produce life. There's no consensus on the number of Earth-like planets in our galaxy, but there could conceivably be billions, and there are billions of galaxies in the known universe--to say nothing of what, if anything, may lie beyond the limits of the known universe.

Nor do we know how long it has taken us to reach this point. The known universe is estimated to be 10-15 billion years old, but we haven't the slightest idea what, if anything, came before. Trillions of years may have passed before intelligent life emerged for the first time, and we wouldn't be able to tell the difference. 

Much of this is highly speculative, of course. But the point is that the improbability of abiogenesis is irrelevant. The vast scale of the Earth alone--to say nothing of the rest of the known universe, or the unknown--is sufficient to give rise to staggeringly unlikely coincidences. And if the universe is truly eternal, then anything which is theoretically possible, no matter how unlikely, was bound to happen sooner or later.