Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?

I just came across this fantastic op-ed while listening to the author being interviewed.

The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.

It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.

Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.

It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.

But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.

So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.

So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.

Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.

And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.

We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.

* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.

** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.

There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.

And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.

Wedding date and superstitions

There is a neat new paper in the most recent edition of the Journal of Population Research by Gabriele Ruiu and Marco Breschi on wedding dates and superstitutions in Italy. Here is the abstract:

In Italy, it is believed that Tuesdays and Fridays are particularly unlucky days for weddings as well as the 17th day of each month. Previous studies realized in the aftermath of the Second World War have shown the strong influence that these superstitions had in determining the wedding dates in the entire country. We have used exhaustive data collection of all marriages celebrated in Italy in the years 2007–2009 to investigate whether superstitions are still able to influence the choices of spouses. We find that this influence is still present after the great economic, social and demographic transformation of Italian society. We also show that a wife’s education reduces the influence of superstition on the choice of the date of marriage while those who opt for a religious rite are also those who are more careful in avoiding inauspicious days.

Hitching to Sweden at 17

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

Anyway, on that first hitching trip to Sweden, I had some hard times because I looked ordinary. Hitchhiking long distance, it turns out, serves to steel you against a childish sense of injustice that lingers long after childhood among some people. On one occasion, somewhere in the northern Netherlands, I had been standing on the side of the road for two hours when two Highlanders in full kilt regalia including furry sporran passed me and politely started signaling from behind me. (That is, they took their proper place in the queue.) Soon, they were followed by a guy in complete white Saharan outfit, with turban, white flowing robes, and all. The Highlanders were gone in ten minutes. Before the Saharan got picked up, he had the time to confirm that he lived in Paris, that he did not dress that way to work or university, and that he had bought the outfit for the specific purpose of hitchhiking to Sweden to meet girls. I felt under-dressed in my plain cotton pants and my short-sleeved blue shirt. Later, I made myself understand that my travel slowness was not a result of bad luck but of inferior knowledge and skills.

Sex, again

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

Note: This takes place in Brittany when I was sixteen.

The threshing work was divided by age and sex. Young men and boys would stand on the very tall wheat pile; it was thirty feet high or so at the beginning of the process. From there, they would throw sheaves of wheat down to a handler who placed them on a conveyor belt leading into the business end of the machine. That was a dangerous job left to a specialist because the threshing teeth, designed to strip the grain from the stalks, could mangle the man’s arm as he positioned the sheaves. Out of the other end of the machine, came sacks of grain and bales of compressed straw that someone had to tie immediately. Moving and stacking those outputs was the job of girls and young women.

The heat was infernal, the dust was infernal, and the cadence was infernal, so that each team worked only for one hour at a time. At the end of each hour, a supervisor would blow a whistle above the thresher’s din, signaling replacement, which was accomplished in one fell sweep, without breaking rhythm. Those being replaced would move to the area outside the kitchen where food was served continuously, or they would walk out to the hedges lining every road, to relieve themselves. They pretty well had to because they drank without cease, possibly several gallons a day. Since no one ever drank water, they took in huge quantities of cider.

Though low in alcohol, and although heat and exertion probably burned some of that alcohol, cumulatively, the cider must have had some positive effect on the prevailing mood. In addition, everyone dressed lightly because of the same heat and exertion, the girls, in not much more than a sleeveless blouse and a skirt, possibly nothing more at all. No wonder, then, that during breaks, some young people walked well past the point that public decency required for a simple leak. They would wander into meadows made deserted by the on-going work around la mécanique (the thresher). Unavoidably, some young men and some young women ran into each other there. It was summer and the grass was tall under the apple trees, easily concealing people lying down. Anyway, I think, perhaps that was the normal Breton betrothal ceremony. This was so well understood that every time I came back from my break that day, older boys would asked me loudly if I was engaged yet. I was not, not yet, but I came close, damn close! Several times. With several girls. Eventually, I moved away from Brittany, and even from France, and it took me another fifteen years to tie the knot. It would have been sooner if I had lived near a wheat-threshing machine, no doubt.

A non-argument against immigration

I often encounter the argument that immigrants, especially Muslims, are so different from the populations of their host countries that they threaten the institutional foundations of these societies. As a result, the logic goes, we must restrict immigration.

I do not accept that argument as valid nor do I accept it as sufficient (in the case I am wrong) to make the case in favor of further restrictions on immigration.

First of all, the “social distance” between immigrants and the hosts society is very subjective. The caricature below offers a glimpse into how “unsuited” were Catholic immigrants to the US in the eyes of 19th century American natives. Back then, Catholics were the papist hordes invading America and threatening the very foundations of US civilization. Somehow, that threat did not materialize (if it ever existed).  This means that many misconceptions will tend to circulate which are very far from the truth. One good example of these misconceptions is illustrated by William Easterly and Sanford Ikeda on the odds of a terrorist being a muslim and the odds of a muslim being a terrorist. Similar tales (especially given the propensity of Italian immigrants to be radical anarchists) were told about Catholics back then. So let’s just minimize the value of this argument regarding going to hell in a hand basket.


But let us ignore the point made above – just for the sake of argument. Is this a sufficient argument against more immigration? Not really. If the claim is that they hinder “our” institutions, then let them come but don’t let them participate in our institutions. For example, the right to vote could be restricted to individuals who are born in the host country or who have been in the country for more than X-number of years. In fact, restrictions on citizenship are frequent. In Switzerland, there are such restrictions related to “blood” or “length of stay”. I am not a fan of this compromise measure (elsewhere I have advocated the Gary Becker self-selection mechanism through pricing immigration as a compromise position).*

The point is that if you make the argument that immigrants are different than their host societies, you have not made the case against immigration, you have made the case for restrictions against civic participation.

* Another “solution” on this front is to impose user fees on the use of public services. For example, in my native country of Canada, provincial governments could modify the public healthcare insurance card to indicate that the person is an immigrant and must pay a X $ user fee for visiting the hospital. Same thing would apply for vehicle licencing or other policies. Now, I am not a fan of such measures as I believe that restrictions on citizenship (but offering legal status as residents) and curtailements of the welfare state are sufficient to deal with 99% of the “problem”. 

A Bad Teenager

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

…..I repeated my senior year in a high school closer to home that was not nearly as good as the first. I don’t know why I did that. I was like a sheep walking insouciantly and sure-footed to the slaughterhouse. There was no reason to think I would do better the second time than the first. I had not failed from bad luck, or because I did “not test well,” in the mealy-mouthed gobbledygook of today. Rather, it was because vast blank, empty steppes overlaid my mind. I doubt one year would have been long enough to fill up the blanks even if I had tried. At any rate, my heart wasn’t in it. Someone should have yanked me out and sent me to work full-time. I could have learned something useful, like the basics of charcuterie, for example. Perhaps everyone around me got caught short and no one had an alternative plan. At this distance in time, I have trouble evaluating to what extent my parents would have thought such a pragmatic solution to my aimlessness socially unacceptable. I went back to high school as the default solution. I performed just as badly the second time around. That second senior year would have been a total waste except that it changed radically the trajectory of my life. I was the beneficiary of a positive injustice. (I went to California a first time, on a scholarship.)

US Immigration: a Primer

President Trump was elected for a variety of reasons but any observant person knows that the general topic of immigration played a significant role. Mr Trump appears unfamiliar with the current American immigration system and he is ignorant of the economic benefits of immigration, or he downplays them. Below I address modest parts of both topics. I aim for sensationalism rather than for completeness.

First a little bit about the American immigration system such as it is in January 2017. There are two main bizarre ideas among Trump supporters about the real system: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relies on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:


There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

This is worth mentioning because many are under the impression that illegal immigrants are cheats who cut through the line instead of patiently waiting their turn.

The “average Mexican” does not have American-born children, children who are US citizens by birth. Mexicans who do have such children and the children are minors go to the head of the line. There is no (zero) line for those who don’t have close relatives who are Americans or legal immigrants. This example illustrates the US immigration policy that accounts for most legal immigrants in most years: Family re-unification.  

Sophisticated people noticed long ago that there is an instantaneous way to acquire an American relative. It’s to marry an American. Doing so for the purpose of gaining admission to the US is illegal for both parties involved. I don’t know if anyone ever goes to jail for it but it’s ground for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, I am told by some of my immigrant friends that there is a thriving little cottage industry of visa brides and grooms for a fee in some parts of the country. I cannot verify this rumor but I believe it.

Similarly, there is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. (You read this right: a lottery which one may play as often as one wishes; it has not entry fee.) In 2015, only about 49,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

Some legal immigrants gain admission under the broad category of “employment related reasons.”  This category includes high-level programmers as well as farriers. (Look it up.) It’s a small number. In 2015 they made up about 15% of all one million-plus legal admissions. Our average Mexican and our average Irishman does not qualify here either.

You may have heard of an “investor’s visa” accorded to foreigners who will create employment in the US. That’s always a tiny number, about 10,000 in 2015.  It’s not always open. Congress decides about if every so often.

There is a third main, amorphous way by which foreigners are admitted, “asylum” broadly defined. I call it “amorphous” because the definition of who is a refugee or an asylum seeker can be changed by Congress in a very short time. The President decides how many can be admitted in either category. The number admitted under this category is accordingly highly variable. It was about 150,000 in 2015. It could have become 500,000 in 2016 because of a new crisis anywhere in the world. (It didn’t.) The current, Trump figure of  50,000 seems just about normal historically. Yet, there is wide variation about the average.

There is thus no orderly queue that Felipe or Ahmed could join on their own if they wanted to avoid becoming illegal aliens.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in through a side-door the US does not seem able to close.

One more thing, a programmatic idea: Instead of the present admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and try and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound. Such a rational procedure would not not need to eliminate refugee and asylum seekers admissions.

I am personally in favor of such a reform . I also think special policies  should apply  to our proximate neighbors to the north and to the south. I developed this idea with Sergey Nikiforov in an article [pdf] published in the Independent Review several years ago.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself. I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case! Thank you for asking. OK, truth be told, I tried to come in as a spouse of an American citizen but she dumped me.


On to the next misconstrued idea. I keep hearing (on talk radio, I confess) irate citizens affirming that foreigners who don’t want to take American citizenship should not be admitted. The case hardly arises.

In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted. (See above.)

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation or some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual citizenship. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of most countries from which new US citizens originate. (India may be an exception – a curious exception – as if the country were facing an unbearable burden of immigrants of all sorts.)

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship. It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

I think it’s legitimate to be opposed to illegal immigration and even to legal immigration but it’s best to do on the basis of correct information.