One Future

A few days ago over at his ANOVA Blog, Freddie deBoer published a piece about the way we subsidize university education in the United States. Freddie’s thesis revolved around the idea that we spend a disproportionate amount of money allowing Harvard and its peers avoid taxes compared to the amount we spend on public university systems. Personally, I would argue that Connecticut State and Harvard enjoy the same proportional level of government support given that both are granted the same tax free status (and Connecticut arguably more support as it gets an actual subsidy), but that’s really beside the point. A necessary component of Freddie’s argument is an assumption of revulsion at the idea that the government doesn’t tax wealth enough to redistribute toward services for the working class. Fair enough. There’s nothing I can change about another’s moral intuition. I can only attack the logic, not the axiomatic foundation, and here the logic is fine. However, you don’t write a blog to agree to disagree, and what struck me about the article (and why I’m pointing it out) was not necessarily the argument itself, but an assumption tucked away in the middle:

What political philosophy, exactly, could possibly justify this condition? What ideology would conclude that this is a good use of resources, either public or philanthropic?

Well, here I am subscribing to a political philosophy that could justify this condition. A political philosophy so morally repugnant that it can’t even be imagined, apparently. I guess I should try to explain.

Reading the rhetorical question I was reminded me of a hypothetical question that had come up a few months ago in conversation with a friend. She was discussing a situation from her high school days wherein a certain amount of money had been made available to the administration. The principal had suggested it be used to provided tutor support to poor AP students who needed additional help, this use struck her as a terrible waste. She felt the money shouldn’t be used to help AP scholars, but instead to provide support for students in danger of dropping out. I disagreed. Both cases involved redistribution, but the question was about which group was more deserving. I found this an interesting test of moral intuition, and posed it to a few more friends. You only have enough money to help one set of kids – do you help the most talented or the least talented poor kids? To me, my solution was obvious, and I cannot think of any image more representative of what I believe to be American values than that of the Land of Opportunity. I imagine it as a place where anyone can succeed if they’re talented, no matter how humble their origin. Now, I don’t necessarily think this is the case in the real America, but I’d certainly like it to be so, and I want to work towards this ideal of America. Of course, this is merely my opinion, but I doubt I’m alone here. The Ivy League is not without its faults, and Freddie is completely accurate when he points out that most of Yale’s incoming class is composed of loathsome rich kids. But there is also no small number of students of disadvantaged background who have made it in on raw talent, and are poised to take advantage of an unparalleled opportunity. Funding this seems to me like a good use of money.

This is of course the current year, and since the discourse is dominated by a bunch of filthy neoliberals addicted to consequentialist ethics, about half the time I ask the above question, it doesn’t cut to the quick of axiology. I just get a blank stare and a half-assed attempt at reasoning out the utilitarian reason for focusing on one group or the other. We’re quickly dragged into a discussion of where the most “social good” can be produced, and thus I must not spare you from this fate. I contend that even limiting myself to such a base moral argument, I still believe keeping the taxman away from our Harvards pays out in social “good” much more than the dollars we grant to our Cal State Fullertons. Graduates of the Ivy League et al are disproportionately represented among company founders, doctors, and academic researchers. The combined force of these professions contribute huge sums to our national product and well being. To drive the point home, let’s just take a quick look at the list of Nobel Laureates by school. Focusing on even the prizes awarded in medicine, these schools produce inventions and developments that improve our lives in immeasurable ways. There are people alive today who would be dead without them. Vast numbers of them. The reason we’re all so much richer and that the world is a better place to live in today than it was before is because of inventions like these – produced by our best universities, and by the alumni of our best universities. Knocking a few ticks off our Gini coefficient by handing dollars to Connecticut State might be a noble undertaking, but it seems like if I were a dictator seeking to maximize our collective well-being, I would likely send more resources to Harvard, not fewer.

Of course, the previous point assumes a few things about the distribution of ability within our society, and especially the value-add that these schools provide.  An astute reader might point out that Harvard may not be a necessary condition for these inventions at all, and that they would be created anyway were Harvard to cease to be. I don’t know if this is the case, and have no way of knowing. But even if it were, there still seems to be some value added by using Harvard as a selection mechanism to draw these talented individuals out of the general population. It would of course be useful to attempt to measure what exactly Harvard manages to do (in order to see if it could be replicated more cheaply), but I wouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg unless I’m fairly certain my alchemy is up to the task of substitution. As to my other point, I won’t say I’m absolutely sure that I know what the distribution of talent is either. My guess is that it’s somewhat normal, however, and the main question is how fat the tails are. If they’re thin, then indeed we would probably be better served in Freddie’s world, trying our best trying to push up the median level of social production by some small amount. But if they’re fat – and I believe we have many reasons to think that’s the case – then taking a shot at seeing how much value these talented few can create is our best bet. I don’t mean to discredit the effort and vast amount of value produced by the masses over the years, but the amount of wealth and prosperity created by say, the steam engine, dwarfs the compounded work of millions. We all have our role to play in society, but it would be foolish of us to deny ourselves the potential wonders of the future that we could obtain by investing in our best and brightest. Let Harvard keep its money.

Authority

A month or so ago, there was a public incident involving United Airlines. Not the one you’re thinking of, but the one that happened about a week beforehand. Two girls were turned away at the gate because they weren’t properly dressed. Incidents like this aren’t uncommon (I assume!) but this one was popularized because a particular blue-check happened to be there to observe it and quickly tweet about it. Now, just a few things: the two girls turned out to be family members of an employee using United’s employee travel program, which allows employees and their families to fly stand-by for free. As this service is being provided by virtue of these travelers being United employees, a dress code is enforced, and leggings don’t meet the standards of said code. Obviously none of this context was provided in the initial tweets, and there were no follow up tweets or clarification from Shannon to indicate that the travelers were not paying customers. Honest arguments aren’t in vogue among blue checks, so this is unsurprising, and really a point for another time. What quickly unfolded however, was an interesting division of opinions in which some commenters openly defended United, but the vastly larger moiety supported the passengers. I myself was on the side of the airline, and it seemed to me the logical choice. An employer may obviously dictate a dress code, this (nearly) all of us can agree upon. So why is it unreasonable that such a dress code would be applied to the family of the employee when using a service of the employer? If your particular contention is that such a dress code shouldn’t apply to the family of the employee, I would point you to the various restaurants and other public spaces that apply dress codes to children of any age. And these are paying customers! Perhaps there is some argument I’m missing here,[i] but it seems to me that those who were ganging up on United weren’t thinking clearly, and were simply doing so reflexively: defending (good) small female children from (bad) Faceless Airline Corporation.

About a month later United was involved in an incident that got far more publicity. A passenger was asked to leave his seat and was then beaten and dragged from the aircraft when he refused to comply. I don’t really need to link to this story, since you’ve obviously heard of it. Twitter (which I use here as a stand in for the public discourse among journalists) again divided into a large camp of individuals excoriating the airline, and a much smaller group who thought United was in the right. I again found myself in the latter category, and my logic followed a similar path. United owns the plane, and they have the right to terminate their contract when they want to. Several other passengers peacefully left the aircraft, and did not need to be removed forcibly. The actions of the man staying on the plane were childish, and he left United no choice but to remove him by force. All the remaining passengers on the plane were terribly inconvenienced because this man refused to act like an adult. He would be rewarded with his behavior with a large settlement, while these other passengers of a more mature disposition, would get nothing.[ii] Here I am, again taking the logical side of the airline and not reflexively caving to emotional reasoning, when a counterexample is provided that completely changes my line of reasoning. “Do it,” my friend says, mimicking the United agent’s supposed tone. “Eat the roll of nickels. We can’t take off until you do, and you’re just holding everyone up.” I was taken aback by this, since it so neatly destroyed the point on which I was resting. Once the request becomes ridiculous and unlawful, obeying the request for the sake of not inconveniencing others becomes absurd. Disobeying an unlawful request becomes the right thing to do, taking a noble individual stand against the tyranny of a corporation. And so it did turn out that the contract of carriage our protagonist had agreed to when he booked the flight[iii] specifically stated that United could not remove the passenger once boarded. Removing him from the plane was entirely unlawful. So maybe I wasn’t using logic. Now my bias is showing.

“The ‘Authoritarian personality’ is a state of mind or attitude characterized by belief in absolute obedience or submission to one’s own authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one’s subordinates,” says Wikipedia. That doesn’t sound like me, but immediately after the prior two incidents I became worried that it applied. Another smaller incident occurred in the interim between the two when I myself boarded a United flight, and watched a man be forced to check a bag when it was apparently oversized. He became indignant, but I experienced such profound schadenfreude over the Rules being enforced that I may have involuntarily blushed. I of course said nothing, like the good Authoritarian I am, and just watched as he was forced to check the bag. This was a good thing. Overhead space is precious, and it’s unfair that any of us be inconvenienced because someone else wanted to use more space than he was entitled to. Rules exist for a reason, guys. Still, Authoritarianism is a dirty word in American culture. It reminds us of Fascists and Communists and according to the Wikipedia article I cited previously, the psychological theory of Authoritarianism was developed in the 50s by a bunch of Freudians trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with people that had supported these things during World War II. But here I am, engaging in a little bit of amateur autoethnography, and realizing that in almost all situations, I despise rule breakers and enjoy seeing those that break norms for personal advantage punished for doing so. I quickly find myself reasoning in favor of authority, and often think “well, if everyone is allowed to disobey the law for personal reasons, what’s the point of the law at all.” Reclamation of a pejorative is a near universal human trait,[iv] and I was obtaining pleasure at secretly subverting the social expectation that I would be against Authoritarianism.[v]

This week, I encountered a survey asking about numeracy and authoritarianism. I jumped at the opportunity, since I was going to get to involve myself in a little bit of data biasing for my own amusement. Of course, it would be wrong of me to intentionally provide inaccurate responses, but I thought I knew what was going on here – this wasn’t the first time Authoritarian tendencies had been correlated (negatively) with metrics of intelligence. The Wikipedia article (I swear I have different sources for this article I haven’t yet mentioned) itself makes that point, and if you recall, the contention had been belabored during the 2016 election. It was observed that Authoritarian tendencies correlated with support for Donald Trump (in Vox speak, this means stupidity). These smug researchers were going to try and smear all us Authoritarians as innumerate, and I was going to take this survey to prove them wrong. Worse, the survey questions all pertained to probability, so it was likely they were going to attempt to imply we were bad at estimating odds. Not to toot my own horn, but getting a PhD in a quantitative field yields more than a little statistical knowledge, so I aced the probability portion of the survey. Honestly, it would have been a real blow to the ego had I not, since it was (I assume!) geared towards the general public. When it came time to answer the authoritarian questions, however, I balked at what I was being asked, as according to the survey, I wasn’t an authoritarian at all. Now, I’m not ready to give up just yet on my newly reclaimed label – according to the text of the survey, I had been asked four times which of two traits were more important in children:

-independence OR respect for their elders

-curiosity OR good manners

-self-reliance OR obedience

-being considerate OR being well-behaved

I have two major reactions to this. First, this seems like you’d have to be a sociopath in order to provide the (obviously) authoritarian options. Second, where’s all that stuff I just said about enforcing rules for the common good and punishing cheaters so that people who play by the rules can get ahead? This doesn’t seem like it measures up at all to what I would consider authoritarianism, and I can’t really begin to describe what I would call this. I feel like this is a bad test, but surely it must be legitimate to have been cited in a Vox article on Donald Trump!

Oh, but wait. So it turns out the Vox article I linked was actually written by the author of this study. A clickbait article being written by the author of the study it purports to summarize? This seems legit, and definitely not a horrific abuse of a journalistic platform. No, really, look at all the publications that wrote articles about this. “But okay,” you might say, “it’s kind of shady that all these publications are incestuously citing a series of articles written by the guy who did the study, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying article is incorrect.” “Just because you don’t think these answers are authoritarian, you’re not the arbiter of what is authoritarian, and surely psychologists are better equipped to declare what is,” you continue. “Furthermore, the article was peer reviewed, so there must be some merit to this claim,” you might finish. Ah, to be so naïve as you, dear reader. Unfortunately, the world is not so kind and innocent as you imagine, and those benevolent Keepers of the Narrative that we must trust to provide us with accurate and unbiased information – our Harvard educated betters who determine what are and are not acceptable facts in the common discourse – have instead abdicated that responsibility to grab some cheap clicks with a bullshit study poking fun at the expense of their favorite target: the back-woods yokels who vote for Donald Trump.

So where do I begin? The journal article underlying to reporting claims that it shows that Authoritarianism, among several other covariates, is the factor that most significantly profoundly predicts trump support among likely Republican primary voters. The data are not publically available and were gleaned from an online survey of likely republican primary voters. The central claim comes from coefficient on Authoritarianism in Table 1. If you’re wondering whether an online survey is a responsible source of data, or that perhaps there exists some latent variable not included in the regression model, yet correlated with both Trump support and Authoritarianism, don’t worry – your concerns are legitimate and… not addressed. But this gets even dumber. One of the main issues I have with the proliferation of statistical software is that it allows people who have never passed calculus to claim to be data scientists. Something that should form immediately in one’s head when one is presented with a “statistically significant” coefficient is a checkbox asking: even if this is a significant statistical effect, what is the size of the effect and what does it mean? In a typical linear regression a coefficient is interpreted as the effect of an incremental increase in the independent variable on the dependent outcome, all other things being held constant. But this is a logit model predicting Donald trump support. I can see it all now: “wait how do I do regression with a y variable that only has two values,” our intrepid researcher types into Google. “Logit” and the relevant Stata command form the first hit, and Science! Is born. Logit coefficients are difficult to interpret since the model is of the form: [p/(1-p)] = exp(a + BX + e) where p is the probability of an event occurring. The easiest way to think of the meaning of B (our coefficient) here is as an odds ratio. For example if exp(B) = 2, then a unit increase in X would mean, all other things held constant, an outcome was twice as likely to occur as not occur (.67/.33, in terms of p ratio). Now what is the coefficient we observe in this paper? .247. That comes out to a probability ratio of roughly 1.31 (or ~.57/.43). And that’s assuming someone with a perfect (1.0) score on the authoritarian scale versus zero. So if the average voter has even odds of supporting Trump (probably not the case but it’s meaningless in comparing the ratio), being a perfect authoritarian increases those odds to only 57%. Sick study dude.

And that’s not all! Per this Quillete article (although it is making the opposite argument I am about authoritarianism in general), “only 16% of the population possesses a personality profile that is significantly more authoritarian than average.” The vast majority of the population has no noticeable authoritarian tendencies, and the population of full four-question authoritarians is likely even smaller (I assume!). Not really sure why we care what they think if they represent such a small fringe, but okay. This plays pretty well into my reaction to the question battery, which is that this isn’t really a personality trait but instead just a metric of extreme bad behavior. So we have a small group of extremists, who are marginally likelier to support a particular candidate. Buried in the footnotes of the paper however, is another startling discovery. Cronbach’s alpha of the Authoritarian battery is .60. Cronbach’s alpha is not at all a perfect measure of internal consistency, but for the purpose of social science research, a consistency metric below .7 is not acceptable to identify a latent trait responsible for a set of answers. So answers to these questions are only loosely correlated with one another. And now the icing on the cake? A 2014 paper in Political Analysis argued (with evidence I freely admit I did not grant scrutiny) that the authoritarianism scale was much higher in Blacks on average, and that it measured not authoritarian tendencies, but specific attitudes towards parenting. Complaining about test bias isn’t really my thing, but since it’s agreeing with me I’m gonna allow it.

So we have a set of questions that probably don’t represent a personality trait, probably just represent attitudes towards parenting rather than a philosophy of power, probably detect this “philosophy” in a small subset of the total population, and when they do detect this “philosophy” represent a 7% bump in support for a particular candidate. But no, please go ahead and put in every news-consuming American’s head the widely supported narrative (from publications across partisan lines no less!) that Trump voters are Nazis. I’ll likely repeat this ad nauseum, but we’d all be better off if political scientists, psychologists, journalists, and anyone else who never took an intro course in linear algebra would just stay away from statistics. We don’t let drunks drive for the same reason.

But this post is about authoritarianism, not just one bad paper. We’ve gotten lost in a little case study on how psychology often grants a veneer of respectability and quantitative rigor to pseudoscience, but that’s not to say it’s all bad. I’ve heard good things about the Big Five personality types, but to be honest, after looking into what I thought was a consensus view on a personality factor, I’m pretty wary. It’s made me wonder, however, how I would produce my own definition of an authoritarian personality type. My own politics are somewhat right of center, and I feel like authoritarianism is unfairly maligned by the left as something that convinces poor, right voters to “vote against their own self interest.” Although I hate to wade into identity politics, there’s something that feels fundamentally off about a rich, left leaning field like psychology attempting to pathologize the behavior of right wing voters. That’s not to say that it’s wrong for them to do so, but rather that they might encounter difficulties in framing the questions they should be asking so as to tease out red tribe motivations. Obviously the current framework for authoritarianism isn’t working very well, and the stench of this article’s lack of substance is redolent of many other articles that attempt to frame basic human ideas like fairness as left wing virtues. Not that I think there can’t be differences in the way groups of people highlight virtue, but before you go ahead telling half the population that they like authority more than fairness, you should consider that maybe the problem is that you’re not asking the question right.  Then you might not produce steaming turds like that Trump article.

For what it’s worth, I think examination of my own authoritarianism has yielded me a few leads.[vi] I believe my love of rules and respect for authority is deeply rooted in the concept of fairness. If I were to give an example of this sort of authoritarian attitude, I would point to my desire to see those punished that take advantage of breaking small rules at the expense of society. Traffic on an interstate often backs up due to individuals cutting a line and attempting to merge right before an exit. It hurts us all, for completely individual benefit. It’s a Pareto loss, as we are in sum worse off due to worse traffic flows. When a police officer gives me a lawful order, I know that if nobody obeyed lawful commands, policing would be impossible. I thus obey and try to sort out any misunderstanding afterward, so that we can maintain a civil society and the rule of law.  This sort of authoritarianism is based on the idea that while we have a right to individual liberty, that right comes with the responsibility not to exercise it at others expense.  There’s an article I read a few years ago that I wish I could dig up to try and present as an example of this effect in the right wing working class. I remember it resounded so much with me because my mother had described her own childhood similarly. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll attempt to summarize: For the working poor, life is hard. Staying in school, staying away from drugs, marrying before having children, keeping that marriage together – these are things that seem so easy for rich people but require a lifetime of sacrifice and forward thinking for the working poor. And those individuals and families that do manage to accomplish it, they’re proud of that fact. They put forth an effort that you and I couldn’t imagine to get what they have. But these people, they see all around them those that make the easy choices. That sell drugs and drop out of high school for quick money and thrills that run out fast. These are often their own family and friends and these cheaters, through either example or direct pressure, multiply how difficult things are for the workers. And what does progressive socialism propose to do? To allow these loafers, these malingerers, to cut the line and get ahead. To let them say “I know you worked your whole life for this, but your hard work doesn’t matter.” It cheapens an entire life of work and sacrifice. And that strikes me as profoundly unfair. “The Ant and The Grasshopper” is a sacred text to the Authoritarian. While we might not all think it the final word, I think we can at least respect it.

[i] If your argument pertains to the fact that these were female children, and that this is an example of policing women’s dress, don’t @ me. I really do want to engage with arguments I don’t agree with, but that line of reasoning would suggest that it is never appropriate at any time for any company or organization to ask a woman to adhere to a dress code. This is of course not a legal reality in America, but more importantly, such logic leads to obviously ridiculous consequences. I, a male, would be thus prohibited from asking a female nudist in my home to please clothe in front of my children. If that’s not the case then where and how do you draw the line? If your argument is airline specific, then please, enlighten me.

 

[ii] Just to point out, I was right about this part: http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/news/companies/united-airlines-dao-settlement/

 

[iii] “lol, nobody reads the ToS” aside, though this is a legitimate criticism of this point.

 

[iv] Again, this should be marked with a huge “I assume!” but if the deaf community is going to try and make the argument that not being able to hear is a good thing, I think we can safely assume this principle exists in some form in any denigrated group.

 

[v] The irony of this is not lost on me, so no need to point it out.

 

[vi] A careful reader would notice that the two step I just performed (suggest a mathematical study is faulty due to the identity of the researcher -> suggest an autoethnography as an alternative) is deeply hypocritical for one who feels this type of criticism is not useful in academia. Indeed I do think that there is a place for this sort of thing, and that the Social Justice movement makes some valid points. Most of my criticism has to do with their tactics and (as Scott Alexander puts it) epistemic vice. My main contention is that I’m not saying all statistics from progressive psychologists are bad, but simply these are, and maybe this will be a fruitful line of reasoning to produce better stats. A full defense of this would take an entire post, so for now mea culpa.

Cultural Polarization

So last fall I saw Moonlight when it was released, and I thought it was pretty good. It was provocative in subject matter, and the heavy focus on style got me thinking about the choices the director had made and why they were made. You know, the stuff you do when you see a “good” movie and want to make sure that you got it. Art house isn’t really my bag, but I enjoy putting on my film-major hat now and again and pretending I understand what’s happening. It was during a conversation later however,  that I was informed that Moonlight had been projected by experts in the matter (whoever they are) to be a strong contender for the Best Picture Oscar. This was a bit surprising, as I wouldn’t have expected such an art house film to be up for the award. Moonlight was well crafted (I assume!) but let’s be real here, it wasn’t exactly captivating.  A wise friend told me it was “so woke it forgot to have a plot,” and I would agree. When I was younger I remember Gladiator winning best picture, and I don’t think anyone would have accused that movie of being “artsy.” And come to think of it, didn’t the Lord of the Rings win in 2004?

Something weird is going on. A quick glance at the Oscar winners for best picture over the past several years seems to confirm this. Winning movies used to be broadly accessible, and now they seem artsy and niche. There could be many, many possible explanations of this, but I obviously won’t let that stop me from making an accusation: I think the Academy is picking them this way. I have some kind of hypothesis here, and so now I need to test it. So what do I do? I scrape movie box office data from here, grab the best picture winners and nominees since 1980 from trusty Wikipedia, and fire up R. The basic idea I want to test is this: is the Academy picking less popular Best Picture nominations then they used to?

So before I get into the statistics, I want to lay out a few descriptives I’ve learned about the movie industry. First, the size of the market has been relatively stable since 1980. I’m not sure what’s behind this, but a broadly comparable number of tickets were sold in 1980 as today (1.3 billion today vs 1.0 billion back in 1980). Second, more movies are produced today than 1980. 735 movies were produced in 2016 versus only 161 in 1980. However, there’s a very strange discontinuity in this series, as the number of movies jumps from 173 in 1981 to 428 in 1982, so I’m going to assume something weird is going on with my data for those two observations and drop them. So now I’m looking at 1982-2016.

What I want for my dependent variable is some measure of how popular these movies are. A cheap way to get a this was to divide the domestic gross of the movie by the average ticket price for that year to get a rough estimate of tickets sold. I used domestic gross as I didn’t want an expanding international market to skew the data. I then wanted to somehow normalize these tickets sold by the expected number of tickets sold.  This presents a problem however, as I don’t have a complete dataset of movies released in a given year. Were this the case, I could construct some idea of what the distribution of ticket sales looks like for a given year and possibly base my inference on this. If you’re thinking, “hey, a Z-score comparison would be perfect here, but the central limit theorem doesn’t apply, so you have no idea what the ticket sale distribution of released movies would be, nor do you have any reason to believe said distributions are comparable year to year,” then you’d be right. I’m not going to lie to you, these data are extremely limited in what they can tell us about the structure of the movie market. So… what can I say?

nomswinsrecents

Well, I can point out that in each of the three data cuts I tried (hand to God, this was a first run through so I wasn’t p-hacking), fewer people are seeing the movies the Academy is picking. In the first graph, we see all the nominees in our dataset. In the second, only the winners. In the third, all nominees since 2000. The line is a univariate linear regression of year on ticket sales, and in each case the coefficient is negative. The outcomes are significant at the p < .01, .10, and .05 levels, respectively, though this isn’t really meaningful, since we’re not trying to pin down an actual value for the coefficient on year. I just thought I’d let you know! Further, significance (and even the sign of the coefficient) becomes fairly sensitive to the cutoff year as our sample size decreases. You can eyeball the winners, for example, and see that if we include the outlier year Lord of the Rings won, plus just a few observations prior to that year, we could get a positive trendline. If you recall, my initial hypothesis only referred to the best picture movies within the past ten years or so, so we’re actually working with a small sample size.

It thus doesn’t look like I can speak with much confidence about my hypothesis, except for the fact that I can say fewer people are going to see these movies in theaters. It could be that people are watching these movies elsewhere. It could be that since more movies are being released in markets of near identical size, even if the best picture nominations are selected from the same point of distributions identical up to number of films released, we should expect fewer people to see them anyway. There are a lot of reasons this could be happening. For next steps, I hope to collect a complete dataset of all movies produced in these years so that I can begin to develop some idea of the market structure of movies released in a given year, and possibly begin to say something meaningful on changes in the types of movie Best Picture nominees are drawn from.

However, in the spirit of ultracrepidarianism (this is a blog, after all), I would like to note that the data thus far have not disproven the narrative I was trying to impose, which is one of cultural polarization. In my mental model of how the Academy is evolving in their decision making process, they appear to be putting more weight on movies that have an artistic or socially meaningful edge (Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, etc.) rather than movies that are merely well made and popular (Gladiator). This means that being a part of mainstream culture is no longer a prerequisite for a movie to win an Oscar, and we see the elite in yet another field (this time Hollywood) begin to isolate itself from the experience of the average person. Anecdotally, in my coastal elite bubble, loudly declaring that Moonlight was a great film deserving of an Oscar was a common sentiment. It was worn with such a badge of pride that one would almost suspect virtue signalling. Now, the elite have always attempted to separate themselves via their taste from the common people, and this may simply be a trend that will correct itself when the plebes develop a taste for movies like Birdman. But, what if it just represents just another way our country is segmenting into different worlds?

The Future Will Horrify You

When I was in high school, I – just like the rest of the country at that age – was tasked with reading Huxley’s Brave New World. BNW was published in ’32 and often draws comparisons to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four since they’re both dystopian visions of a grim future. Though Eighty-Four seems to get a bit more attention, BNW was always more interesting to me. I was growing up in the era of supersize fries and plasma screen TVs1, wherein the mindless pursuit of pleasure seemed much more salient to the quiet desperation of my fellow man than did authoritarianism. Even years later in our time of #Resistance, it still does. So that’s that. Two books we’ve all read, one possibly more prophetic than the other, but both present a vision of the future that we can agree is pretty bad.

That’s at least how I thought about them until quite recently, when I got into a debate with a friend about the merits of our culture’s veneration of promiscuity.2 Arguing caution towards cultural radicalism (and as an erudite sophisticate equipped with an American high school education), I immediately reached for the example of BNW to illustrate my point that perhaps our contemporary take on Free Love can lead us to places we don’t want to go. However, rather than using the novel’s example to illustrate a mechanism by which society might degenerate, I realized what I was actually doing was simply appealing to the authority of Huxley. Not even Huxley, but instead, a more indefinite appeal to the authority of our nation’s high school teachers and college adjuncts who would gladly classify BNW’s future as an example of dystopia. As anyone in a YouTube comment section would gladly tell you, what I had done was generate an example of a logical fallacy.

So here we are, with this book that is meant to disgust us, to warn against the potential excesses of society, but what if we are not disgusted? The casual sex, the easy relationship with drugs, the freedom from want – what exactly is supposed to be disgusting about these things? As far as I can tell, even if we make an argument that these things are bad, the outrage is not self-evident. Here I was, treating BNW’s warning as scripture due to its position in the canon, when in truth there is no reason to assume that a sense of moral disgust is timeless. History is littered with examples of actions that to modern sensibilities seem anodyne, but were once thought to be self-evidently immoral. Indeed, if I had in Massachusetts in 1688 written a flawless logical proof that say, fishing led to blasphemy, you can sure as shit believe fishing would have been outlawed in the Bay Colony. Were I to present the same proof to the authorities in Massachusetts today, regardless of the strength of the demonstrated causation, I’d get a series of raised eyebrows from authority figures wondering why the hell this guy seems to care so much about taking the Lord’s name in vain. We don’t care about blasphemy in 2017. And that’s fine. I really don’t want to live in a world where we do, because as far as I can tell, nobody gets hurt when you blaspheme, so you should be free to do it at your leisure, so long as you’re not forcing it upon me.

That attitude of mutual tolerance is commonly held, and likely represents the ethical foundation of a good slice of my peers. Keeping that in mind, I now encourage you to think about the moral intuitions and resultant prohibitions you do hold. Some of mine certainly seem likely to hold up to the tides of changing culture; prohibitions on most forms of violence, theft (despite what the socialists say), etc. seem necessary for the stability of a society. I don’t think it wise to get into exactly where human moral intuition originates, since I’m not well enough versed in either neuroscience or ethics to save myself from looking like a jackass. It is at least apparent however, that looking at history we see plenty of strongly held moral beliefs change or relax as time goes on. There are a number of beliefs that were commonly held when I was born that are no longer acceptable in polite society. Mostly these prohibitions have to do with homosexuality, and our culture commonly congratulates itself on the speed with which we removed them once we “discovered” they were problematic. Thus, if Huxley doesn’t like a world in which nobody bears emotional attachment to any other, why should we even take pause? Obviously Huxley was a pretty smart guy, but in his era you weren’t allowed to marry someone who was a different race than you, so maybe guiding our ethics using the things that would offend an individual in 1932 is a bad system for making judgments today.

I used to make a joke about the Greatest Generation. It was structured as a rant by one of our grandparents regarding the fact that they suffered and died and bled to defeat fascism and save democracy, but we’ve since used their hard fought freedom to indulge in activities that gravely offend them. “I fought the god damn Nazis and saw my friends die, so what? So that you can fuck each other in the ass?” grandpa would say. This was all a big laugh at the stodgy old timers, but when I really think about it, a pervasive sense of sadness is now all that I can muster from this joke. Not to make a sweeping, ahistorical generalization, but back in the day, you had something to hang your hat on in terms of the purpose and destiny of mankind. I speak mostly of religion, though during the Enlightenment and other periods it could have been progress or something else. Now, what do we have? If we accept that the intellectual and progressive class of the nineteen thirties held disgusting moral beliefs we’ve since demolished, then why would society eighty years hence not do the same to our moral certainties? What are we even working for, if our grandchildren can come up with a way to tear it all down in the most offensive possible way? We have no religion any longer, so there’s certainly no sense of building a Kingdom of God or notion that an eternal morality can guide us. We killed that long ago. Some might make the old Whig counterargument that our new ideology of equality is a step on the “right side of history” leading to greater future equalities, but I don’t buy it. No, we’re going to follow our moral intuitions, and our children are going to develop new moral intuitions, and their children after them. No matter how extreme you think your cultural liberalism is, I encourage you to imagine a medieval scholar holding any of the cultural beliefs we currently do. I don’t care how smart and progressive that scholar was, this is impossible. I don’t care who you are.  Whether or not humanity’s future resembles BNW, it will surely horrify you.

1 Incidentally, neither of these products is any longer available. Weird how these things go.

2 Whether this is a real thing or not I feel has little bearing on what follows, but it’s an interesting thought.

What Scares Us

I was hoping that my first stab at this whole blogging thing would involve some weird application of data and at least one graph, but that stuff is hard and cultural pseudoscience is easy so I’ll begin with this.

I went to a bar this morning and noticed that several of the drinks on the menu were Southern themed. Juleps, bourbon cocktails, and punches (milk and otherwise) were being mixed, and their base liquors proudly bore the label of “plantation.” Plantation rum, plantation bourbon, etc. This was somewhat jarring to me, since I happen to live in Boston, which has to be pretty far up in the running for wokest city in America (Michael Che’s accurate portrayal of the city’s racism notwithstanding). West Coast hippy enclaves may take the cake since they don’t feature working class Irish roots, but in any case, the type of woke I’m discussing is solely the purview of the educated upper middle class. And, as the bar I was patronizing served cocktails in the $12-15 range, employed bartenders sporting undercuts, and played a well curated late 50’s doo-wop and twist playlist, I think I would be safe in assuming significant wokeness among the patrons. Now, perhaps I’m entirely mistaken, and hyperwoke culture has yet to spread from the truly hip neighborhoods of our inner city neo-hipster enclaves to the thirtysomething professionals who desperately emulate the young artist lifestyle from the respectable distance of upper middle class wealth. However, with the knowledge that, as I am in Boston, many of these professionals are the academic type, who thus have quite a bit of exposure to the currents of radicalism inundating campuses, I would have expected more patrons than just myself to have noticed the homage to the antebellum South.

Now, for those of us unschooled in the critical theory that underlies an accusation of being “problematic,” I can briefly summarize the mechanism, using our Lost Cause cocktail bar as an example:  an item glorifying southern culture most definitely counts as a microaggression, as it “casually degrades a marginalized group”. Of course, offense exists solely in the eyes of the offended, but considering Cornell recently felt the need to change the name of their agricultural gardens, it’s safe to assume that there are some who would find a “plantation” bourbon to evoke the horrors of the slave trade. Under such a worldview, this word would be wildly inappropriate for a bar to plaster all over a menu. My prior, as they say, had been challenged. Living in Boston and working in academia means that I’m hyperaware that an accidental use of a word like “plantation” in any setting not specifically decrying slavery and racism would potentially open me up to charges of insensitivity. Is it not the case then, that a bar in Boston would be taking a large risk by using it in their marketing? Clearly, however, they are, and unless the bar owner is a fool about to suffer the wrath of a twitter shame campaign, it’s time for an update.

First, let’s dispense as quickly as we can with the facile explanations. Maybe the bar owner doesn’t know a dreadful mistake is being made? This is entirely possible, and I frequently find myself astounded at the level of racial insensitivity (albeit in the contemporary, microaggressive sense) I see on a day to day basis. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been burned by the same thought and response– “I’m a white male and I know it’s impolite to touch black women’s hair and thus never ask to do so, and therefore surely everyone must know better by now” only to see the exact microaggressive act happen in full public view within a few days of thinking that. It’s sad that I’m so susceptible to this form of egocentrism, but that’s an intellectual bubble for you. Returning to our case study, it is thus entirely possible that what I believe is common knowledge is far removed from the attention of a middle aged bar owner. Second, and just as plausible as the first explanation, is the idea that the bar owner knows, but doesn’t care. That is, enough customers are either oblivious or similarly uncaring that bending to the whims of the social justice youngsters isn’t profitable. I’m not sure how common this cold rationality is, as it seems to me more along the lines of the way an economist would model a bar owner than the thoughts of an actual proprietor, but it’s certainly possible. (Also, I don’t know if that distinction is meaningful, but hey, maybe another time).

The third possible explanation is quite similar to the second, but presents a distinction that I find rather interesting. Perhaps the bar owner knows that referring to the antebellum south on a menu can be perceived by some as a microaggression, and feels bad about it, but isn’t particularly concerned about the consequences. This has some obvious and uninteresting merit to it, as outside of a college campus, charges of racism don’t carry the same weight, and there are very few channels that an outraged patron may pursue to exert control over the bar. A bad Yelp review is about all that can come of it. However, the interesting part arises when I consider that the thing I’d be most afraid of as a bar owner hawking slavery-nostalgia juice is that an indignant patron would take to Twitter or Facebook and I’d end up with an internet shame mob tearing down my door. Honestly, this is terrifying to me, which in a way, is weird. I don’t know if this is a feeling commonly shared by those vulnerable to it, but as a white male academic with right of center politics, I feel I’m constantly one joke (or poor Hawaiian shirt choice) away from getting tarred, feathered, and run out of my job on a rail. Maybe I’m the only one, but given the conversations I’ve had with similarly privileged coworkers, I doubt it. And some of them were even liberals! Whether this bartender knows it or not, more than a few people would take one look at that menu and clam up in fear of what could possible happen to them if they associated their personal brand with the magnolia-and-Spanish-moss aesthetic. And yet, under this theory, the barkeep is unafraid.

I was once told that it’s a useful exercise, when feeling some unpleasant emotion, to examine where that feeling is coming from. Anyone with basic familiarity with common psychological disorders and their treatments will know of cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, a cognitive behavioral therapist will ask the patient to examine a list of common “distorted thinking” – departures from rational thoughts – so as to identify the “distortions” behind the unwanted thoughts. Catastrophizing, for example, leads one to interpret a potentially realistic yet infelicitous outcome in the worst possible unrealistic and extreme way. To imagine, say, an accidental bump on the head has caused an aneurysm that will soon rupture, leading to death (I don’t know how aneurysms work, sorry, but this is the kind of thing I’ve thought so there’s an example). Catastrophizing carries an unambiguously negative connotation, but this type of thinking is so innate to humans that it is easy to pathologize quite common fears as unwarranted cognitive distortions. We do this with glee. I do it all the time. I once bet my grandmother that I’d buy her a Coke if I was murdered by a terrorist, so disdainful was I of her fears. I fail to understand the urgency with which Black1 writers so frequently express their fear of encounters with the police, when in the grand scheme of things, most such encounters are resolved without incident. I don’t understand the fear of flying, given air crash statistics. But if you tell me about the one time someone’s life got ruined by a ‘racist’ tweet, I’ll delete my Twitter and my Facebook, and spend all my time in public worried that a single foul joke could ruin my life. So perhaps, returning to the Dixie whistlin’ drink menu, the bar owner could have the exact same information set I do about the risk of irresponsible slavery references, but come to a different conclusion based on a lack of a cognitive distortion. However, since the whole world appears to share it2, maybe there’s something to it.

I’m not going to attempt to construct the functional form of the distribution each of these event classes follow, since as I said in my preface, I’m not doing any math this time around. But let’s just do what any jerkoff doing “data journalism” would, and assume a rough normal distribution on these events. Just kidding, Poisson for sure. Using terrorist attacks as our example, we can just use the past incidence of terrorism, and use our assumption that terrorist attacks tend to arrive with a fixed frequency to determine the likelihood of a terrorist attack within the next year. If you want to do this yourself, here’s where the FBI keeps data on this3, and here’s how to fit a Poisson in R. Go nuts, it’ll be pretty meaningless since there’s no reason to believe your assumed distribution holds here! In any case, under the assumptions we’ve imposed on our model, there is a low, predictible number of terrorist attacks each year. There will surely be fatalities, but the rate is so minor, that spending time worrying about terrorism is absurd. We can quickly see that any resources spent preventing terrorism would almost certainly be better spent elsewhere. Similarly, there’s almost no reason for me to hide my identity online, because nobody cares what I have to say, and even if they did, it would be rare for enough common outrage to be generated for my employer to care enough to fire me. And yet, here I am, writing anonymously, because that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. And we as a nation endure TSA theater costing us millions. So, bar owner, are you merely a cold headed rationalist whose commitment to reason I should salute? Should I act like an actuary in my own life, and boldly go ahead mixing up King Cotton cocktails knowing my fear of reprisal is in practice minimal. Not so fast. Like I said earlier, modeling these types of events is difficult because standard probability models impose assumptions that are unrealistic. Furthermore, the immense cost of events like this, and the fact that we must repeatedly expose ourselves to these risks means that even a one-in-one-thousand chance of an event occurring becomes rapidly significant if it is related to a task we engage in daily. For the sake of argument though, I’ll proceed with our Poisson, but you should know that my argument breaks if you tamper with these assumptions.

Indeed, in the “cold rationalist Poisson distribution” view of the world, maybe what we need to do is calm each other down. Fear of terrorism affects our entire political process. Think about how different our political system would be currently if the threat didn’t exist. Isn’t that incredible? This completely imaginary fear leads to wild, radical change to real world institutions that actually impact our lives. Terrorism is obviously an extreme example, but how many of our political decisions are based on wholly imagined fears? “That could have been me!” is a death spiral of rational policy making, and you can see it by looking around. Not only are common fears poison for shared political goals, but modern political tribalism is accelerated tremendously by this effect. We hate each other because we don’t take irrational fears to which we are not exposed seriously. We all love to sit on our rationalist high horse and tell the other side “actually, the probability of the thing you’re afraid of occurring is quite small,” and yet when it comes to our personal fears, we react with rage when the other side doesn’t take us seriously. Here I am, telling Black writers their probability of being shot is low while blogging pseudonymously. The hypocrisy is heavy and I am aware of it. This problem has real policy implications, and I have no idea how to think about it, let alone solve it. It’s hard. It clearly deserves a great deal more thought than we currently give it.

From this point of view, my best guess is that the bar owner didn’t think very much about microaggressions.

1 Interesting new blogger point, did you know there’s controversy over whether to capitalize Black? Of course there is!

2  Before you point it out, yes I am aware that getting twitter shamed is not the same as getting shot by the police. If you can, please proceed with my argument ceteris paribus, if only as an intellectual exercise.

3 I should also note that this FBI data has been used to write some of the mind numbingly stupidest takes I’ve ever read, like this one. Yeah, an eco terrorist letting out animals from a lab should totally have the same weight as 9/11 in your analysis, jackass.

Ravings, etc.

I’ve intended for some time to begin writing publicly, and seeing as the internet doesn’t seem to have been completely ruined by now, a blog appears to be my best bet to do so. My intention is for this to be a weekly repository in which to collect my thoughts on economics, politics, culture, and the like, though this reeks thoroughly of something I won’t see through. Know thyself. In any case, I hope that someone may one day get something useful out of all this, or at the very least, that I might not inspire pity in my readers.

So here I go. But briefly about me, I’m a PhD student studying economics, though that certainly doesn’t mean I know anything of the subject. My ignorance doesn’t bother me as much as you might imagine, however, as the field is mostly a parlor game played by failed mathematicians with little resemblance to reality. Perhaps that will one day change, but for the time being, it feels like an appropriate place for my talents. Most of the time I suspect I’ll be posting about politics (American politics to be clear, though this is our internet, so that should go without saying) however, since it’s the spectator sport of our era. Just giving you a heads up in case you thought you might learn something from me. You will be disappointed.

Also, you may have noticed that I don’t know how to write. I assure you, I won many writing awards in middle school, so I’m what you might call an “undeveloped talent.” I don’t suspect I’ll ever learn at this point, seeing as I’m far too old. But the internet is full of jackass morons writing shitty blogs, so I mean, why not me?