What if fake news was merely an attempt at political entrepreneurship?

Fake news! The new plague that besets mankind! That is largely the new name given to what 19th century folks would have called “yellow journalism“.

Yellow journalism was sensationalist to the point of distorting the news in order to carry a very emotional message. Generally embedded in that message was a political narrative supporting progressive reforms (not all yellow journalists were progressive but it seems that most were).

The aim of many progressives was to design a new society, to reform the old society by getting rid of old institutions. In many cases, economic historians have documented that these reforms (like with prohibition, workers compensation, antitrust) ended up serving very narrow interest groups who either allied themselves with reforming zealots (as in bootleggers helping baptists pass Sunday sales bans), gained through the restriction of competition or gained at the expense of future workers and minorities. But it is not as if the “previous” order was paradise. The postbellum era prior to the progressive era was highly protectionist, used public funds to bailout poorly performing railways and solicited the federal army to deal with natives rather than peacefully deal with them.  Basically, both eras had their political entrepreneurs who found their way in the political process to obtain favors.

Progressives who indulged in yellow journalism merely wanted to replace one set of political entrepreneurs with another. Just like the Alt-Right, from which emanates most of the fake news. In a way, both are exactly the same. Many members of the Alt-Right are not interested in restraining government abuses, they’re in favor of redirecting government indulgences towards them (Trump did promise less immigration with paid maternity leaves and no reduction in social transfers). Some are well-meaning like the baptists of lore. But there are still bootleggers (example: Steven Mnuchin from Goldman Sachs) who co-opt the process in order to continue indulging in rent-seeking just as they did before.

Are we about to swap one bad set of institutions for another? Given that all I see is the same type of political entrepreneurs (after all, Bannon from the flagship of the fake news alt-right outlet Breitbart is now a member of the government) as those we saw during the progressive era, I am inclined to respond “yes”.

Socialism is just a new form of slavery

When Fidel Castro died he was totally alone. It doesn’t matter if relatives or friends were standing beside him: in the end, we are all alone. We experience the world through our sense of perception. Of the things themselves we have no experience. On the other hand, all humans have perception of themselves. We just know that we are. This self awareness is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Castro’s death already received a lot of attention, but I believe it is a moment really worthy of reflection. Under his half-century regime millions died or suffered, and it’s always important to remember that we are talking about a little country, an island in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas, and today it is one of the most miserable.

It is really sad to see that most of my colleagues are unable to call evil by its name. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx predicted that capitalism was going to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He was not saying that he wanted capitalism to collapse. He was saying that this was a scientific fact, as sure as the next eclipse predicted by an astronomer. Capitalism, of course, didn’t collapse. Marx’s economic theory was simply nonsensical, and was contradicted by logic and facts. But Marxists couldn’t admit it. Instead they replaced economics with culture, and the working class with Others as the oppressed. Blacks, women, Native Americans, underdeveloped countries and many others became the new oppressed class. Fidel Castro fit beautifully in the Marxism of the New Left. He was the charismatic dictator of the charming island nation of Cuba. The US, ruled by leftists in the 1960s and 1970s, was unable to give a consistent answer to it. Latin America, ruled by dictatorships that the left called “right” (no one wants to take their dictators home), was also not in place to contrast the evils of the Castro regime. A perfect storm.

Castro, for all we know, died with no regrets for the evils he committed in life. Political commentators say that history will judge him. But this is a lie. History can’t judge anyone. Only people can judge people. And it is fundamental that political commentators today judge Castro for all the evil he has done. Castro didn’t kill people in Cuba only. He supported, in one way or another, brutal regimes all over the world, mostly in Latin America. To this day he is partly responsible for the evils of Foro de São Paulo. But many political commentators insist in the lie that in Cuba there’s true freedom: they have enough to eat, universal healthcare and universal education. Why would they want freedom?

Freedom is the fundamental state of human beings. We are, in the end, all alone. Of what goes in our hearts, only we are aware of. Sometimes not even us. All of us make choices based on knowledge that’s unique. Circumstances of time and space shape the choices that we make. And life is made of choices. Marxism, socialism, and all forms of statism go against these fundamental truths.

People in Cuba are not free. They are all slaves to the Castro family. Some people want to have life in a cage, as long as they receive food every day. Of course this is a lie. In order to live in a cage you need to have someone outside the cage bringing the food. Someone has to be free. This person becomes your slave as well, and this constitutes a fundamental contradiction of socialism: Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned that socialism is just a new form of slavery. In slavery someone is forced to work for somebody else under the threat of physical violence. Under socialism everybody is forced to work for everybody else. Let’s hope that Castro’s death may help put socialism in the past, where slavery is, and that Latin America may finally see the light of freedom.

The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

Castro: Coercing Cubans into Health

On Black Friday, one of the few remaining tyrants in the world passed away (see the great spread of democracy in the world since 1988). Fidel Castro is a man that I will not mourn nor will I celebrate his passing. What I mourn are the lives he destroyed, the men and women he impoverished, the dreams he crushed and the suffering he inflicted on the innocents. When I state this feeling to others, I am told that he improved life expectancy in Cuba and reduced infant mortality.

To which I reply: why are you proving my point?

The reality that few people understand is that even poor countries can easily reduce mortality with the use of coercive measures available to a centralized dictatorship. There are many diseases (like smallpox) that spread because individuals have a hard time coordinating their actions and cannot prevent free riders (if 90% of people get vaccinated, the 10% remaining gets the protection without having to endure the cost). This type of disease is very easy to fight for a state: force people to get vaccinated.

However, there is a tradeoff to this. The type of institutions that can use violence so cheaply and so efficiently is also the type of institutions that has a hard time creating economic growth and development. Countries with “unfree” institutions are generally poor and grow slowly. Thus, these countries can fight some diseases efficiently (like smallpox and yellow fever), but not other diseases that are related to individual well-being (i.e. poverty diseases). This implies that you get unfree institutions and low rates of epidemics but high levels of poverty and high rates of mortality from tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid fever, heart diseases, nephritis.

This argument is basically the argument of Werner Troesken in his great book, The Pox of LibertyHow does it apply to Cuba?

First of all, by 1959, Cuba was already in the top of development indexes for the Americas – a very rich and healthy place by Latin American standards. A large part of the high levels of health indicators were actually the result of coercion. Cuba actually got its very low levels of mortality as a result of the Spanish-American war when the island was occupied by American invaders. They fought yellow fever and other diseases with impressive levels of violence. As Troesken mentions, the rate of mortality fell dramatically in Cuba as a result of this coercion.

Upon taking power in 1959, Castro did exactly the same thing as the Americans. From a public choice perspective, he needed something to shore up support.  His policies were not geared towards wealth creation, but they were geared towards the efficient use of violence. As Linda Whiteford and Laurence Branch point out, personal choices are heavily controlled in Cuba in order to achieve these outcomes. Heavy restrictions exist on what Cubans can eat, drink and do. When pregnancies are deemed risky, doctors have to coerce women to undergo abortion in spite of their wishes. Some women are incarcerated in the Casas de Maternidad in spite of their wishes. On top of this, forced sterilization in some cases are an actually documented policy tool.   These restrictions do reduce mortality, but they feel like a heavy price for the people. On the other hand, the Castrist regime did get something to brag about and it got international support.

However, when you look at the other side of the tradeoff, you see that death rates from “poverty diseases” don’t seem to have dropped (while they did elsewhere in Latin America).  In fact, there are signs that the aggregate infant mortality rates of many other Latin Americans countries collapsed toward the low-levels seen in Cuba when Castro took over in 1959  (here too). Moreover, the crude mortality rate is increasing while infant mortality is decreasing (which is a strong indictment about how much shorter adult lives are in Cuba).

So, yes, Cuba has been very good at reducing mortality from communicable diseases and choice-based outcomes (like how to give birth) that can be reduced by the extreme use of violence. The cost of that use of violence is a low level of development that allows preventable diseases and poverty diseases to remain rampant. Hardly something to celebrate!

Finally, it is also worth pointing two other facts. First of all, economic growth in Cuba has taken place since the 1990s (after decades of stagnation in absolute terms and decline in relative terms). This is the result of the very modest forms of liberalization that were adopted by the Cuban dictatorship as a result of the end of Soviet subsidies. Thus, what little improvements we can see can be largely attributed to those. Secondly, the level of living standards prior to 1990 was largely boosted by the Soviet subsidies but we can doubt how much of it actually went into the hands of the population given that Fidel Castro is worth 900$ million according to Forbes. Thus, yes, Cubans did remain dirt poor during Castro’s reign up to 1990. Thirdly, doctors are penalized for “not meeting quotas” and thus they do lie about the statistics. One thing that is done by the regime is to categorize “infant deaths” as “late fetal deaths” – its basically extending the definition in order to conceal a poorer performance.

Overall, there is nothing to celebrate about Castro’s dictatorship. What some do celebrate is something that was a deliberate political action on the part of Castro to gain support and it came at the cost of personal freedom and higher deaths from preventable diseases and poverty diseases.

H/T : The great (and French-speaking – which is a plus in my eyes because there is so much unexploited content in French) Pseudoerasmus gave me many ideas – see his great discussion here.

The Genetics of Success

In this article, I will explore the latest science on how our genetic makeup is correlated to our ‘life success’. This post is not for egalitarians who believe that everyone is equally beautiful and talented or that everyone can become an Aristotle through immense self-effort. No, this post argues that our genetic differences result in different expected life outcomes.

Image source

We are living in extremely interesting times. We may have reached a tipping point in genomic research. It seems that we can now weakly predict life outcomes based on genetic tests. Daniel Belsky from Duke University and his team of researchers have recently released a paper asserting that genetic tests can predict adult life outcomes. The magnitude of correlation between genomic tests and adult life outcomes is still very modest, but I believe that the predictions will grow more accurate once we gain more knowledge about the genetic makeup of ‘success’. I believe that this is big news, since this is the first well-developed psychometric/genetic research I have read so far that asserts that life success is to some extent related to our genetic makeup.

When Belsky et al looked at the genetic profiles and the people they studied, they found that people with higher polygenic scores did not only have greater educational attainments, but also had more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, more assets, greater upward social mobility, and were more likable and friendly.

Main research findings

The main research findings can be summed up as follow:

  1. polygenic scores predicted adult economic outcomes even after accounting for educational attainments;
  2. genes and environments were correlated: Children with higher polygenic scores were born into better-off homes;
  3. children’s polygenic scores predicted their adult outcomes even when analyses accounted for their social-class origins; social-mobility analysis showed that children with higher polygenic scores were more upwardly mobile than children with lower scores;
  4. polygenic scores predicted behavior across the life course, from early acquisition of speech and reading skills through geographic mobility and mate choice and on to financial planning for retirement;
  5. polygenic-score associations were mediated by psychological characteristics, including intelligence, self-control, and interpersonal skill.

Belsky’s main research question

In 2013, Rietveld et al reported the first successful genome-wide association study (GWAS) of educational attainment. They analyzed millions of genetic variants in more than 100,000 individuals and found a genetic map that was related to people’s educational attainment. This genetic map could even explain differences in educational attainment between siblings in the same family.

The main research question that Belsky et al ask is: “do genetic discoveries for educational attainment predict outcomes beyond schooling?”

If so, what are the developmental and behavioral pathways that connect differences in DNA sequences with divergent life outcomes?

Image source

Belsky’s research methodology

1,037 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, were tracked through a 38-year assessment of their socioeconomic development. This study became known as ‘the Dunedin study’. The cohort represented the full range of socioeconomic status (SES).

The researchers derived polygenic scores from the approximately 2.3 million genotypes that according to Rietveld et al would make up the genetic predisposition to educational attainment. In addition, adult-attainment scores were derived from extensive analyses of Dunedin members’ life developments. See table 1 for developments that were tracked and the methods through which these developments were measured.

The researchers have for example measured SES, determined from the higher of either parent’s occupational status throughout the Dunedin Study members’ childhoods. Educational attainment was measured, looking at the highest obtained degree. Attainment beyond education were measured by members’ reports of occupation, income, assets, credit problems when they were 38 years old and from social welfare and credit-score records. Reading abilities, taken when the Dunedin Study members were 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 18 years old, were measured as well. What I find extremely interesting is the fact that the researchers have measured not only cognitive ability through picture vocabulary tests and IQ tests, but also certain personal traits like self-control, impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention and interpersonal skills.

More substantive research results

I will list all research results here:

  1. people with higher polygenic scores tended to achieve higher degrees;
  2. people with higher polygenic scores tended to be more socioeconomically successful, holding more prestigious occupations, earning higher incomes, having more assets, relying less on social-welfare benefits, having higher credit scores and reporting fewer difficulties paying expenses;
  3. children with higher polygenic scores tended to come from families with higher SES;
  4. children with higher polygenic scores tended to attain more regardless of whether they began life in a family of low SES or high SES. Children from low SES with high polygenic scores tended to have greater upward social mobility than their low SES peers with low polygenic scores;
  5. children with higher polygenic scores were more likely to talk earlier and quicker to begin communicating using sentences;
  6. children with higher polygenic scores were able to read at younger ages;
  7. adolescents with higher polygenic scores had higher educational aspirations at the age of 15;
  8. adolescents with higher polygenic scores performed better academically and outperformed their peers on standardized tests;
  9. people with higher polygenic scores were more likely to pursue occupational opportunities outside of New Zealand;
  10. people with higher polygenic scores were more financially planful;
  11. people with higher polygenic scores tended to find partners with higher socioeconomic attainments;
  12. people with higher polygenic scores were not more satisfied with their lives;
  13. people with higher polygenic scores performed better on IQ tests and showed more rapid cognitive development during childhood;
  14. people with higher polygenic scores had stronger noncognitive skills, such as self-control, friendliness, confidence, being cooperative and communicative;
  15. children with higher polygenic scores were no healthier than their peers.

Tough questions

Knowing that our genetic makeup partly determine our success in life, would it be ethical to screen embryos for genetic signs of success in life? In some cases, embryologists already check embryos for major diseases, but should we allow parents to select embryos with the greatest genetic odds of future success?

These are interesting questions that, I believe, we will be facing in the near future.

Image source


Belsky et al – The genetics of success

Safe Places, Continued

This is in response to Will’s response to my initial post on safe places. I’d add it to the comments section, but that area has already been bloated.

If I understand Will correctly he is pointing out that in order to be harmed by words one must to an extent cooperate. If we were, for example, to mail the site’s founder with USC memorabilia the act in itself would be meaningless unless he decided to interpret the act to be an attack on his UCLA background. There are exceptions to this rule, such as those with certain mental conditions (e.g. PTSD).

If this is the point Will is making, I agree with him. I do however feel compelled to add that there is another group of individuals, besides those with mental disorders, who cannot willingly change how they react to certain words or cues – children. Why do I bring children into this discussion? Isn’t the safe place discussion mostly about their inclusion in universities? Let me make the case that a large portion of a university’s student body is composed of children; and to be clear I do not say this with malice towards said students.

The concept of childhood is relatively new in human society. It used to be that once a toddler was old enough to move around they were given work to do, be it helping around the farm or the factory. Delaying entrance into the job market required having parents able to ‘buy’ children’s time and so childhood was only possible following the industrial revolution. I’m sure everyone has heard of a version of this story before. If not I recommend the Cunningham book on the subject.

What if these calls for safe spaces are a response to the development of new period between childhood and adulthood? By all means the students on university campuses are physically adults, just look at their facial hair and sexual activity. They aren’t meeting the traditional landmarks of becoming adults mentally though. They are pushing back having children. Many of them are returning to live back home or never left to begin with. I know of several 20-30 somethings who are still trying to get on a career path.

Many, myself included, have seen safe places as infantilizing students. What if it’s the reverse though? It could be that students were already infantilized to begin with and that safe places are a symptom of universities having to respond to that.

If that is the case it is tempting to want to find out who is behind this. As with the development of childhood though the source of this post-childhood stage is our wealth. Our wealth has increased life expectancy. Our wealth has allowed parents to ‘buy’ more and more of their children’s time. Our wealth has allowed us to subsidize institutions (e.g. universities) that give these post-children a place to go and further delay their entrance into the labor force.

Should we really be angry then? We will have to adapt certainly. We will have to stop thinking of universities, most universities at least, as places populated by adults. We need to update our institutions. Should non-adults have the vote? Etc. Etc.

What is our alternative? Destroy our wealth so that this post-childhood pre-adulthood stage can’t exist?

Thoughts and comments are always appreciated.

When are safe places okay?

I am against the idea of safe places (see my previous post on the issue), especially in academia. I believe that if an idea is worthwhile it should be able to survive critic from all sides and safe places, regardless of their intent, hamper that process. How can you critic something if you aren’t supposed to even acknowledge its existence?

I also believe that, if our pluralistic society is to continue, we need to be able to empathize with those who are our intellectual opponents. I’m not saying we should become Marxists and rename the site The People’s Notes. Nor should we become Trumpistas. However we should be able to break bread with non-liberals and hear their side of the story out. We can continue to disagree with them, but we need to be careful to not de-humanize someone because of their ideological leanings. Safe places make this hard to do. If X group isn’t politically correct to talk about, much less with, how can we learn about them?

Safe places are, in more than one way, harmful to a free society.

-But they may still have a place in a free society.

Why the change of heart? It is this whole Trump fiasco. If you haven’t read them yet, several NoL bloggers have written about it here, here, here, etc.

I have seen several extreme reactions to the election of Trump, including quite a bit of anger and sadness. I cried for a good six hours myself when I saw the election results; as I’ve mentioned before I’m an illegal alien and so there is a very real chance I’ll be deported and torn away from the country I’ve loved since childhood. After drying up my eyes though I put that aside and went back to work. How I see it, as liberals we are constantly fighting against anti-liberal forces.

Am I sad that Trump won? Yes, but Hillary wasn’t an angel either. Before Trumpistas we had to fight Communists, Fascists, and every other type of ‘ists’ imaginable. After the Trumpistas are defeated we will have new enemies pop up. I am optimistic that in the grand scheme of things the future is better than the past, but I don’t think we will ever be rid of anti-liberal thought. Equilibrium is an illusion.

But I digress. I went back to work after my crying session, but many others around me didn’t. They couldn’t. And we shouldn’t try to force them to.

I still think safe places are a bad idea in so far that we are concerned about promoting free discussion and would never want to go into one. However maybe I can tolerate one or two of them if they help others improve their mental health. Maybe I can use ‘undocumented’ instead of ‘illegal’ if people are really that emotionally disturbed by it. Maybe I can use someone’s preferred pronoun if ‘he’ really hurts them that much. Maybe I can keep my mouth shut and just listen to someone who is in pain.

I think that in the long run we need to be able to stand up to our critics. If you’re gay, you’ll eventually find someone who goes out of their way to tell you your leading a sinful life. If you’re a woman and feel that the patriarchy is why you’re paid less, an economist will eventually lecture you on why that’s wrong. Infantilizing people doesn’t help them. The world is tough, and you need to be rough to survive it. 

However if someone needs a bit more time before they go out and face that world, is it wrong to provide a safe place for them until they feel ready? If I want to make a controversial remark, maybe I shouldn’t do so in the middle of the class. Maybe I should just blog it on NoL.

As always thoughts and comments are always appreciated.