Stuff I Say at School – Part V: Tocqueville and Social Capital

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the active involvement of American citizens in civil society distinguishes America from Europe and helps to prevent American government from becoming over centralized.  In fact, civil society not only prevents Big Government from taking over, but enlarges each citizen’s life, helping them overcome the natural tendency of democratic citizens to isolate from each other.  Contemporary social observers, like Robert Putnam and Marc Dunkelman, have seen trends of disengagement from civil society in their recent studies (and more engagement in virtual communities via technology).   Discuss the significance of civil society from Tocqueville’s perspective and whether these recent trends of disengagement should be viewed as a cause of some alarm.

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville’s view of civil society is very organic; a kind of pre-state network guided by cultural norms and both individual  and communal pursuits. The bottom-up, arguably emergent nature of Tocqueville’s perception is likely why many classical liberal writers quote him so favorably. The ability of private individuals to organize to advance societal goals rather than relying on the coercion of the state appears to be deeply encouraged by Tocqueville. This makes public engagement a necessity to avoid “despotism.” This makes the decline in social capital potentially problematic. 

However, there are a few points worth noting about the claims of social capital decline and the march toward despotism:

First and foremost, government has grown significantly since the mid 1800s. Democracy in America was written 20-30 years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. My own state of Texas had not even been annexed yet. For all we know, Tocqueville might think we’ve been in the era of Big Government for over a century.

Next, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn find that declines in social capital (i.e., volunteering and organization membership, entertainment of friends and relatives at home) between 1952 and 1998 were largely among women due to their increased participation in the labor force. Other contributors were income inequality and increasing ethnic heterogeneity. While income inequality can be a problem (it tends to erode trust), increasing diversity and female labor participation are, in my view, not negative developments.

Parents also appear to be spending more time with their children. For example, a 2016 study of 11 Western countries found that “the mean time the average mother in the 11 countries spent daily on child care in 1965 was calculated to be about 54 minutes, it increased to a predicted 104 minutes by 2012. For fathers, the estimates increased from a scant 16 minutes daily in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012” (pg. 1090). Engaged parenting results in better child outcomes. So while parents may not be entertaining friends or bowling with buddies as much, they are giving their kids more attention. Considering Tocqueville’s focus on family, I think he would find this a plus (especially in the midst of the family fragmentation that has occurred over the last few decades).

But even with these declines, a majority of Americans still participate in various organizations. Drawing on the 2007 Baylor National Religious Survey, sociologist Rodney Stark finds that while 41% of Americans have no membership in non-church organizations, 48% had 1-3 memberships and 11% had 4-5 memberships. “About six Americans out of ten belong to at least one voluntary organization. Add in church organizations and the number rises to more than seven out of ten, and the median becomes two memberships” (pg. 122-123).

Finally, the labor market was dominated by agriculture (76.2% in 1800; 53.6% in 1850) during the period that Tocqueville wrote. By the turn of the 20th century, however, most of the labor force could be found in manufacturing (35.8%) and service sectors (23.6%). By the 21st century, service had come to dominate the labor market (73% in 1999). While social capital in the form of organizational participation may have declined over the last half century, the kind of work we do has changed drastically. This includes our workplace experience. We actually have co-workers that we spend hours each day cooperating with and customers that we are obligated to respect day in and day out. The relationships (and social capital) we establish through the workplace are very different from 19th-century farms or even industrial-era factories. The late Peter Drucker believed that today’s business institutions “are increasingly the means through which individual human beings find their livelihood, find their access to social status, to community and to individual achievement and satisfaction” (pg. 16). I don’t think we should underestimate the long-run impact of commerce on social capital. Numerous studies find that markets foster socially-desirable traits like trust, cooperation, and tolerance.

In short, I think Tocqueville might find some of our over-reliance on government distasteful, but overall would be impressed with how incredibly adaptive the American people have been over the course of nearly two centuries of rapid change and development. This latter point would confirm many of the observations he made about the underlying mores of American civil society.

Stuff I Say at School – Part IV: The Rise and Fall of the 6th Party System

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series

The Assignment

Although scholars generally agree on the timing of of the first few critical elections/realignments, consensus breaks down on the timing of the 6th and 7th party systems. Do you think the 6th party system began in 1968, 1980, or sometime later? What about the 7th party system?  Please think critically and resist giving the answer you hope to be true.

The Stuff I Said

Political psychologist Lilliana Mason argues that over the last 50 years or so, parties have become “more homogeneous in ideology, race, class, geography, and religion,” causing “partisans on both sides [to feel] increasingly connected to the groups that [divide] them” (pg. 40). In other words, political partisanship has become associated with other forms of social identity and therefore has itself become an identity. For example, “party identity is strongly predicted by racial identity, not racial-policy positions (Mangum 2013). The parties have grown so divided by race that simple racial identity, without policy content, is enough to predict party identity. The policy division that began the process of racial sorting is no longer necessary for Democrats and Republicans to be divided by race. Their partisan identities have become firmly aligned with their racial identities, and decoupled from their racial-policy positions” (pg. 33, italics mine). It is this fusion of social and political identity that leads me to lean in favor of those scholars that identify the 1980s with the emergence of the 6th party system. I lean this way largely due to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s (I’d add the rise of “neoliberal” ideology associated with Reagan and Thatcher and solidified by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the Cold War). While Jimmy Carter was popular among religious conservatives, many of his policy stances alienated these same voters, paving the way for Reagan and the Republican identification with conservative Christians. By 1992, the religious divide between Democrats and Republicans had, in Mason’s words, “cracked open…The difference between the parties on the percentage of weekly churchgoers had increased to an 11 percentage point gap, with Republicans more churchgoing than Democrats. Connected to this new divide, Democrats in 1992 were only 2 percent more Catholic than Republicans. Twenty years earlier the difference had been 13 percentage points. The conservative religious were moving toward the Republican Party” (pg. 36). By 2012, “parties differed by 14 percentage points in how many attend religious services each week” (pg. 37). 

I’m unsure if a firm 7th political system has arisen. However, I think we’re beginning to see the crumbling of the 6th party system. The identity politics mentioned above will likely increase in the era of globalization and social media. The election of Trump may be the first inklings of an identity politics party system, along with the recent uptick in student activism and fragility on college campuses. What’s worse, having more extreme political views actually increases one’s happiness. From a recent study:

Results show that congruence of political affiliations of national politicians, especially the president, with individual party affiliation has an effect on reported happiness while there is no effect of state, gubernatorial or legislative, party congruence. Individuals report being happier when the president is a member of their own party. Throughout all specifications, republicans and those holding conservative political values report higher happiness. Shockingly, regardless of liberal or conservative political values, those who hold extreme political values report higher levels of happiness. The large effect of partisanship and extreme views on reported happiness support the view that partisanship is a result of social identity and provides a psychological need for certainty and structure (pg. 10).

Economist Arthur Brooks, current president of the American Enterprise Institute, made this point years ago in his book Gross National Happiness:

Americans who describe themselves as holding extreme political views–somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population–are among the happiest people in America. All of those angry protesters who denounce Dick Cheney as a murderer; all of the professional political pundits who use the rhetoric of rage and misery to get on cable television–it turns out they’re not miserable at all. On the contrary, they’re enjoying themselves rather a lot. 

In 2004, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were extremely conservative gave this response (compared with 43 percent of nonextreme conservatives). Indeed, the gusto with which Bill Clinton’s attackers in 1998 went after him was really a clue that they were having a grand old time. George W. Bush’s harshest critics–those who have felt the predations of the Bush administration to the very depths of their soul–are quite likely to be a great deal happier than more moderate liberals. 

Why are ideologues so happy? The most plausible reason is religion–not real religion, but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable. It is easy to live by the creed that our nation’s ills are because of George W. Bush; it is much harder to acknowledge that no administration is perfect–or perfectly awful. True political believers are martyrs after a fashion willing to shout slogans in public for causes they are sure are good, or against causes they are convinced are evil. They are happy because–unlike you, probably–they are positive they are right. No data could change their minds (pgs. 33-34).

In other words, being a political hooligan feels really good, which makes change unlikely once you’ve discovered the One True Party. Unfortunately, as Brooks points out,

the happiness of political extremists is an unhappy fact for America. They may themselves be happy, but they make others unhappy–that is, they actually lower our gross national happiness. In many cases, extremists actually intend to upset people–it is part of their strategy…Extremists are happy to stir up their own ranks, but they are even happier when they cause misery for their political opponents. For people on the far left and right, people who do not share their views are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish. They deserve to be unhappy…Extremists thrive on dehumanizing their opponents (pgs. 34-35).

Stuff I Say at School – Part III: Rodrik on China and Development

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Group Report on Dani Rodrik’s article “What’s So Special About China’s Exports?

The Stuff I Said

I’m going to bring in some resources that push back against Rodrik. 

2008 paper finds that Rodrik’s “analysis does not adequately address a significant factor that is important in accounting for China’s superior export performance. This factor is the regional trade and production integration mediated by foreign direct investment (FDI) in East and Southeast Asian economies. A close look at the role of FDI in connecting China with other Asian countries to form a regional trading network would improve the understanding of the characteristics of China’s trade structure and the challenges China faces in international trade” (pg. 100). In my view, Liang’s paper actually highlights the importance of trade and integration contra Rodrik’s somewhat dismissive attitude toward it. Yet, this may still be overestimating the “specialness” of China’s exports. A 2010 paper also points out that Rodrik relies on China’s average per capita GDP (PCGDP) to determine the “specialness” of its exports, yet “China’s coastal provinces, which account for over 90% of China’s exports, have an average PCGDP level 1.5 to 2 times that of China’s overall PCGDP. Without taking this into account, one would underestimate the export capability against which the relative export sophistication is evaluated.” What’s more, “although many of China’s exported goods belong to sophisticated categories, they may well be the low-quality varieties” (pg. 483). When these factors are controlled for, the “specialness” of China’s exports declines.

Rodrik is right to point out that China’s growth has largely been under what many call “state capitalism.” Yuen Yuen Ang’s work has traced the co-evolutionary development between markets and institutions within China. But as one of her book’s reviewers notes, the bureaucratic corruption that played a role in spurring market-oriented growth may end up holding it back. (The good thing is that recent evidence suggests that market reforms and anti-corruption reforms create a virtuous cycle.) However, what I find so odd about Dani Rodrik’s somewhat heterodox position on globalization is that he seems to think that because China has experience incredible growth in the midst of its government’s heavy-handedness, the answer for development is state intervention. He basically watches communist China grow once it begins to liberalize its markets and his response is, “Developing countries need more state intervention.”

Economists like Acemoglu and Robinson don’t deny that economic growth can occur under extractive institutions. It’s just that it can’t last in the long run. This is why openness is so important. As David Weil demonstrates,

Our first approach is to see how growth rates compare in open and closed countries…First, the average growth rate of income in the closed group, 1.5% per year, was significantly lower than in the open group, 3.1% per year. Second, among the economies that were closed some or all of the time, there is no observable relationship between the initial level of a country’s GDP and its subsequent rate of growth. Among the countries open to trade, by contrast, we find strong evidence of convergence:Poorer countries that are open tend to grow faster than richer countries. Putting the results in the two figures together, we can see that poor countries that are open to trade grow faster than rich countries, and poor countries that are closed to trade grow more slowly than rich countries. Our second approach to exploring the effect of openness on growth is to consider how changes in a country’s degree of openness affect growth rates. If within a particular country, a change in trade policy (a trade liberalization or the imposition of new trade restrictions) is followed by a change in the growth rate of output, this pattern can supply us with evidence about the way trade affects income.One of the most sweeping examples of trade liberalization comes from 19th-century Japan. In the 12 years after Japan ended its self-imposed economic isolation in 1858, the value of Japanese trade with the rest of the world rose by a factor of 70. The opening to trade is estimated to have raised Japanese real income by 65% over two decades, and put the country on a path of growth that would eventually cause it to catch up to European levels of income…This same effect of trade liberalization has occurred in the 20th century as well. In South Korea, following a sweeping liberalization of trade in 1964–1965, income grew rapidly, doubling in the next 11 years. Similarly, Uganda and Vietnam experienced rapid growth in the 1990s, following their integration into the world economy.In all these examples, increased openness led to higher growth. Conversely,when we look at cases in which openness decreased, we see evidence that lower growth followed. For example, the trade embargo instituted by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807–1809 spawned widespread unemployment and bankruptcy in the United States. Similarly, the wave of tariff increases throughout the world in 1930, including the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariff, contributed to the severity of the Great Depression of the 1930s (pg. 327-329).

Weil, 2013, pg. 307.

Given the evidence above, I think China and other developing countries would do well to open their economies more.

Stuff I Say at School – Part II: Self-Interested Politicians

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

After listening to [Benjamin] Ginsberg‘s lecture, do you agree with his assessment that politics is all about interests and power?

The Stuff I Said

Image result for the elephant in the brain

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s recent book The Elephant in the Brain demonstrates that these underlying desires for power and status inform many of our decisions and behaviors in everyday life. Politicians certainly do not transcend these selfish motives by virtue of their office. I would actually add a subcategory to “status”: moral grandstanding. We want to paint ourselves as “good people” by signaling to others our superior moral quality. This allows us to enjoy the social capital that comes along with the improved reputation. We not only gain status, but we can also think of ourselves as do-gooders; crusaders who fight the good fight. Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that we have inflated views  of our own moral character and that acts of moral outrage are largely self-serving. What’s unfortunate is that social media may be exacerbating moral outrage by making signaling both easier and less costly to the individual.

I think the rise of populism in both America and Europe is a timely example of interests at play. While various elements contribute to the populist mindset, economic insecurity is the water it swims in. And this insecurity has been exploited by politicians of more extreme ideologies across multiple countries. For example, the Great Recession eroded European trust in mainstream political parties: a one percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with a 2 to 4 percentage point increase in the populist vote. A 2016 study looked at the political results of financial crises in Europe from 1870 to 2014 and found that far-right parties were the typical outcome. In America, President Trump made “Make America Great Again” his rallying cry, feeding off the public’s distrust of “the Establishment” during the post-crisis years. In doing so, he advocated protectionism and tighter borders. Oddly enough, you find comparable populist sentiments on the Left: Bernie Sanders has been very anti-trade and iffy on liberalized immigration (open borders is “a Koch Brothers proposal“), all in the name of helping the American worker. One of his former campaign organizers–the newly-elected Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez–has also expressed similar concerns over trade deals (especially NAFTA). This is why The Economist sees less of a left/right divide today and more of an open/close divide. Skepticism of trade and immigration wrapped in “power to the people” sentiments may be invigorating in rhetoric, but it’s asinine in practice. And it’s doing nothing more than riding the wave of voter anxiety. What’s worse, it’s hiding these politicians’ accumulation of power, attainment of status, and moral self-aggrandizement behind what Ginsberg so aptly calls “the veneer of public spiritedness.”

More Stuff

A classmate asked if I believed that politicians always acted in self-interest or if there were moral lines that some would not cross. In response, I pointed out that Simler and Hanson are largely arguing against what they see as the tendency for people to tiptoe around hidden motives and self-deception. It’s not that we’re only motivated by selfish motives. We just tend to gloss over them. But they are deeply embedded. Failing to acknowledge them not only has personal consequences, but public ones as well (their chapter on medicine is especially on point). I think we should consider moral motivations through all possible means available, including life experience and behavior. However, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary. It can certainly help protect us against intentional deception. But perhaps more importantly, it helps protect us against unintentional deception. It’s easy to give more weight to life experience, moral principles, and the like when it’s a politician on “our side,” all while harshly judging those on “the other side” as unscrupulous. Political skepticism or cynicism can aid in keeping our own selfish motives and emotional highs in check. And it can lead us to seek out more information, improve our understanding, and refine our beliefs. Otherwise, we end up being consumed by our own good intentions and moral principles without actually learning how to implement these principles.

Image result for against democracy

My classmate also put forth a hypothetical to get a feel for my position: if legislative districts were redrawn so that legislators now represented districts with a different ideological makeup, how many would change their positions on issues just to stay in power? Personally, I think we would see a fair number of politicians shift their position because it is more advantageous. However, there is considerable evidence that political deliberation with ideological opposites actually backfires. Political philosopher Jason Brennan reviews the evidence in chapter 3 of his book Against Democracy and finds that political deliberation:

  • Undermines cooperation
  • Exacerbates conflict when groups are different sizes
  • Avoids debates about facts and is instead driven by status-seeking and positions of influence
  • Uses language in biased and manipulative ways, usually by painting the opposition as intrinsically bad
  • Avoids controversial topics and sticks to safe subjects
  • Amplifies intellectual biases

There’s more, but that should make my point. So even if some politicians did not flip flop in their newly-drawn districts, the above list should give us pause before we conclude that their doubling down is proof of disinterest in status or moral grandstanding.

I certainly believe that people have moral limits and lines they will not cross. My skepticism (which I prefer to the word cynicism, but I’m fine with interchanging them) is largely about honest self-examination and the examination of others. For example, consider something that is generally of no consequence: Facebook status updates. My Facebook feed is often full of political rants, social commentaries, and cultural critiques. Why do we do that? Why post a political tract as a status? It can’t be because of utility. A single Facebook status isn’t going to fix Washington or shift the course of society. It’s unlikely to persuade the unsaved among your Facebook friends. In fact, it’s probably counterproductive given our tendency for motivated reasoning. When we finally rid ourselves of the high-minded rationales that make next to zero sense, we find that it boils down to signaling: we are signaling our tribe. And that feels good. We get “Likes.” We get our worldview confirmed by others. We gain more social capital as a member of the group. We even get to moral grandstand in the face of that friend or two who hold (obviously) wrong, immoral beliefs. Sure, some of it may be about moral conviction and taking a stand. That certainly sounds and feels better. But I think we will all be better off if we realize that’s really what those behaviors are about: sounding and feeling good. And I think our politics will be better off if we apply a similar lens to it. 

And More Stuff

A classmate drew on Dan Ariely’s work to argue that people–including politicians–have a “personal fudge factor“: most people will cheat a little bit without feeling they’ve compromised their sense that they are a “good person.” When people are reminded of moral values (in the case of the experiments, the honor code or 10 commandments), they don’t cheat, including atheists. So while politicians may compromise their values here and there, they still have a moral sense of self that they are unlikely to violate.

In response, I pointed out that a registered replication report last year was unable to reproduce Ariely’s results. That doesn’t mean his results were wrong, just that we need to be cautious in drawing any strong conclusions from them.

When discussing his priming with the 10 Commandments on pg. 635, Ariely references Shariff and Norenzayan’s well-known 2007 study. This found that people behave more prosocially (in this case, generosity in experimental economic games) when primed with religious concepts. They offered a couple explanations for this. One hypothesis suggested that “the religious prime aroused an imagined presence of supernatural watchers…Generosity in cooperative games has been shown to be sensitive to even minor changes that compromise anonymity and activate reputational concerns” (pg. 807). They then cite studies (which later studies confirm) that found people behaving more prosocially in the presence of eye images. “In sum,” the authors write, “we are suggesting that activation of God concepts, even outside of reflective awareness, matches the input conditions of an agency detector and, as a result, triggers this hyperactive tendency to infer the presence of an intentional watcher. This sense of being watched then activates reputational concerns, undermines the anonymity of the situation, and, as a result, curbs selfish behavior” (pg. 807-808). In short, religious priming makes us think someone upstairs is watching us. This has more to do with being seen as good.

However, religious priming obviously doesn’t work for the honor code portion. Yet, Shariff and Norenzayan’s other explanation is actually quite helpful in this regard: “the activation of perceptual conceptual representations increases the likelihood of goals, plans, and motor behavior consistent with those representations…Irrespective of any attempt to manage their reputations, subjects may have automatically behaved more generously when these concepts were activated, much as subjects are more likely to interrupt a conversation when the trait construct ‘‘rude’’ is primed, or much as university students walk more slowly when the ‘‘elderly’’ stereotype is activated (Bargh et al., 1996)” (pg. 807). Being primed with the “honorable student” stereotype, students were more likely to behave honorably (or honestly). 

In short, Ariely’s study I think shows a mix of motivations when it comes to behaving morally: (1) maintaining our self-concept as a good person, (2) fear of being caught and having our reputation (and the benefits that come with along with it) damaged, and (3) our susceptibility to outside influence.

My point about moral grandstanding is not that we should interpret all behaviors by politicians through the lens of self-delusion and status seeking. But being aware of it can help us cut through a lot of nonsense and avoid being swept up in a collective self-congratulation. To quote Tosi and Warmke, “thinking about grandstanding is a cause for self-reflection, not a call to arms. An argument against grandstanding shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it’s an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues. Are we doing good with our moral talk? Or are we trying to convince others that we are good?” And as philosopher David Schmidtz is said to have quipped, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.

Stuff I Say at School – Part I: Tocqueville and the “Nones”

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

I started my MA program in Government at John Hopkins University this past month. Homework is therefore going to take up a lot of my time and cut into my blogging. Instead of admitting defeat, I’ve decided to share excerpts from various assignments in a kind of series. I was inspired by the Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says.” While “Sh*t I Say at School” is a funnier title, I’ll go the less vulgar route and name it “Stuff I Say at School.” Some of this material will be familiar to DR readers, but presenting it in a new context will hopefully keep it fresh. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The Assignment

A recent Pew study showed that millennials are less religiously affiliated than any other previous cohort of Americans (sometimes called the rise of the “nones”).  Given the emphasis Tocqueville places on the role religion plays in creating a culture that helps to keep democracy in America anchored, analyze these developments through Tocqueville’s viewpoint[.]

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville would likely have a strong affinity for Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark’s research on religion. Stark’s sociological analysis of religion takes a similar approach to Tocqueville, acknowledging that the religious competition and pluralism (i.e., religious free market) that resulted from religion’s uncoupling from the state produces a robust, dynamic religious environment. He puts it bluntly in his book The Triumph of Faith: “the more religious competition there is within a society, the higher the overall level of individual participation” (pg. 56). It is the state sponsorship of churches, he claims, that has contributed to Europe’s religious decline.

I was struck by the claim in the lecture that 95% of Americans attended church weekly in the mid 19th-century because it contradicts the data collected by Stark and Finke:

On the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched. By the start of the Civil War this proportion had risen dramatically, to 37 percent. The immense dislocations of the war caused a serious decline in adherence in the South, which is reflected in the overall decline to 35 percent in the 1870 census. The rate then began to rise once more, and by 1906 slightly more than half of the U.S. population was churched. Adherence rates reached 56 percent by 1926. Since then the rate has been rather stable although inching upwards. By 1980 church adherence was about 62 percent (pg. 22).

Tocqueville might also be more optimistic about the state of America’s religious pulse. For example, Stark has criticized the narrative that often accompanies the “rise of the nones”:

The [Pew] findings would seem to be clear: the number of Americans who say their religious affiliation is “none” has increased from about 8 percent in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2014. But what this means is not so obvious, for, during this same period, church attendance did not decline and the number of atheists did not increase. Indeed, the percentage of atheists in America has stayed steady at about 4 percent since a question about belief in God was first asked in 1944. In addition, except for atheists, most of the other “nones” are religious in the sense that they pray (some pray very often) and believe in angels, in heaven, and even in ghosts. Some are also rather deeply involved in “New Age” mysticisms.

So who are these “nones,” and why is their number increasing–if it is? Back in 1990 most Americans who seldom or never attended church still claimed a religious affiliation when asked to do so. Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of nonattenders say “none,” by which most seem to mean “no actual membership.” The entire change has taken place within the nonattending group, and the nonattending group has not grown.

In other words, this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion. So whatever else it may reflect, the change does not support claims for increased secularization, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are “nones.” The reason has to do with response rates and the accuracy of surveys (pg. 190).

Finally, Tocqueville was right to recognize the benefits of religion to society. As laid out by Stark in his America’s Blessings (pg. 4-5),the religious compared to irreligious Americans are:

  • Less likely to commit crimes.
  • More likely to contribute to contribute to charities, volunteer their time, and be active in civic affairs (a recent Pew study provides support for this last one).
  • Happier, less neurotic, less likely to commit suicide.
  • Living longer.
  • More likely to marry, stay married, have children, and be more satisfied in their marriage.
  • Less likely to abuse their spouse or children.
  • Less likely to cheat on their spouse.
  • Performing better on standardized tests.
  • More successful in their careers.
  • Less likely to drop out of school.
  • More likely to consume “high culture.”
  • Less likely to believe in occult and paranormal phenomena (e.g., Bigfoot, UFOs).

Overall, I think Tocqueville would be pleased to see data back up his observations.

More Stuff

A classmate pointed to a recent study claiming that when one controls for social desirability, the amount of atheists in America possibly rises to over a quarter of the population. The study is certainly interesting, though I wonder if this would hold up in other countries. Based on Stark’s The Triumph of Faith, these are the following average percentages of atheists across the world:

  • Latin America: 2.5%
  • Western Europe: 6.7%
  • Eastern Europe: 4.6%
  • Islamic Nations: 1.1%
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 0.7%
  • Asia: 11.3%
  • Other (Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand): 8.4%

As for the unaffiliated Millennials, unchurched and irreligious are two different things. A Pew study from last year found that 72% of the “nones” believe in some kind of higher power, with 17% believing in the “God of the Bible.” Even 67% of self-identified agnostics believe in a higher power, with 3% believing in the “God of the Bible.” But unchurching can lead to other forms of spirituality. The Baylor Religion Survey has found, perhaps surprisingly to some, that traditional forms of religion and high church attendance have strong negative effects on belief in the occult and paranormal. In other words, a regular church-goer is less likely than a non-attendee to believe things like Atlantis, haunted houses, UFOs, mediums, New Age movements, alternative medicine, etc. This is probably why Millennials are turning to things like astrologyalternative medicinehealing crystals, and the like.

Economic Growth Begins in the Home

Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and economist Joseph Price have an important chapter in a recent Cambridge-published book on the link between family structure and economic growth. They write,

A stable marriage matters in part because it allows couples to make decisions over time that maximize the economic prosperity of their family unit. Stably married persons have incentives to invest in their marriage and benefit from specialization and economies of scale; their households also tend to earn and save more than their peers who are unmarried or divorced (Stevenson and Wolfers 2007; Lerman and Wilcox 2014). Marriage also has a transformative effect on individuals, especially men. It seems to increase men’s productivity at and attachment toward work, and reduces men’s willingness to engage in risky behaviors, including criminal activity (Akerlof 1998; Nock 1998; Sampson, Laub, and Wimer 2006). What is more, it looks like married parenthood may be especially influential in encouraging men’s engagement in the labor force (Killewald 2012). In the aggregate, then, higher levels of marriage, and probably two-parent families, should boost men’s labor force participation and reduce criminal violence, both to the benefit of national economies. At the same time, insofar as motherhood tends to reduce women’s participation in the labor force (Budig and England 2001), we also explore the possibility that higher rates of marriage and two-parent families reduce growth. Finally, higher rates of intact marriage foster stable two-parent families, which are more likely than single parents to supply children with the human capital they need to thrive first in school and later in the labor force (Lerman and Wilcox 2014; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). Accordingly, the more children are born and raised in stable, two-parent families, the more a society should experience economic growth (pg. 179-180).

Wilcox and Price continue to lay out the evidence that married, two-parents households:

  1. Have more income and savings.
  2. Lower crime rates.
  3. Higher educational achievements for children.

They conclude,

[W]e find that a significant association between family structure and
economic growth. Every 13 percentage point increase in the proportion of adults who are married is associated with an 8 percent increase in per capita GDP, net of controls for a range of sociodemographic factors. Likewise, every 13 percentage point increase in the proportion of children living in two-parent families is associated with a 16 percent increase in per capita GDP, controlling for education, urbanization, age, population size, and other factors. There is clearly a link between family structure and economic growth. 

…[W]e also note that the cross-national relationship between family structure, household savings, and crime are generally consistent with
our expectations about how marriage and two-parent families foster a social environment more conducive to economic growth in countries around the world. It is striking that more two-parent families are linked to less crime and more savings. If nothing else, the patterns documented in this paper suggest that stronger families, higher household savings rates, less crime, and higher economic growth may cluster together in mutually reinforcing ways.

...In conclusion, this chapter indicates that strong and stable families are
linked to higher levels of economic growth in nations across the globe, despite the fact that marriage and two-parent families are in decline across much of the globe. Given the potential economic importance of marriage and family stability to a nation’s economic life, policymakers, business leaders, and civic leaders should pursue a range of public and private policies to encourage and strengthen marriage and stable families. That is because what happens in the family may not affect only the welfare of private families but also the wealth of nations (pg. 194-195).

Economic institutions at the macro-level matter. But so do the ones at the micro-level. Probably more so. 

Scholarship or “Scholarship”?

A group of academics performed another Sokalesque sting operation, but took it to eleven with multiple articles in multiple journals.

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The authors explain,

We spent that time writing academic papers and publishing them in respected peer-reviewed journals associated with fields of scholarship loosely known as “cultural studies” or “identity studies” (for example, gender studies) or “critical theory” because it is rooted in that postmodern brand of “theory” which arose in the late sixties. As a result of this work, we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

How did they come up with ideas for papers?:

Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist using Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinand Lacanian psychoanalysis? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” as a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat Studies.

At other times, we scoured the existing grievance studies literature to see where it was already going awry and then tried to magnify those problems. Feminist glaciology? Okay, we’ll copy it and write a feminist astronomy paper that argues feminist and queer astrology should be considered part of the science of astronomy, which we’ll brand as intrinsically sexist. Reviewers were very enthusiastic about that idea. Using a method like thematic analysis to spin favored interpretations of data? Fine, we wrote a paper about trans people in the workplace that does just that. Men use “male preserves” to enact dying “macho” masculinities discourses in a way society at large won’t accept? No problem. We published a paper best summarized as, “A gender scholar goes to Hooters to try to figure out why it exists.” “Defamiliarizing,” common experiences, pretending to be mystified by them and then looking for social constructions to explain them? Sure, our “Dildos” paper did that to answer the questions, “Why don’t straight men tend to masturbate via anal penetration, and what might happen if they did?” Hint: according to our paper in Sexuality and Culture, a leading sexualities journal, they will be less transphobic and more feminist as a result.

We used other methods too, like, “I wonder if that ‘progressive stack’ in the news could be written into a paper that says white males in college shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class (or have their emails answered by the instructor), and, for good measure, be asked to sit in the floor in chains so they can ‘experience reparations.’” That was our “Progressive Stack” paper. The answer seems to be yes, and feminist philosophy titan Hypatia has been surprisingly warm to it. Another tough one for us was, “I wonder if they’d publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The answer to that question also turns out to be “yes,” given that the feminist social work journal Affilia has just accepted it. As we progressed, we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature.

What were the results? 7 papers were accepted (including one recognition of excellence), 2 were revised and resubmitted, 1 was still under review, 4 were in limbo, and 6 were rejected. Here are a few highlights:

The put it crudely, the paper argued that men should have the “rape culture” trained out them in ways similar to dogs. Reviewers described it as an “incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written and organized given the incredibly diverse literature sets and theoretical questions brought into conversation.” More telling, the editor wrote to them,

As you may know, GPC is in its 25th year of publication. And as part of honoring the occasion, GPC is going to publish 12 lead pieces over the 12 issues of 2018 (and some even into 2019). We would like to publish your piece, Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon, in the seventh issue. It draws attention to so many themes from the past scholarship informing feminist geographies and also shows how some of the work going on now can contribute to enlivening the discipline. In this sense we think it is a good piece for the celebrations. I would like to have your permission to do so.”

To sum up, the paper argues that social justice warriors shouldn’t be made fun of, but that they maintain the right to make fun of others. One reviewer wrote, “Given the emphasis on positionality, the argument clearly takes power structures into consideration and emphasizes the voice of marginalized groups, and in this sense can make a contribution to feminist philosophy especially around the topic of social justice pedagogy.” Another thought it was an “Excellent and very timely article!” 

Bottom-line: feminazi is apparently a thing. The reviewers found it “interesting,” stating that the “framing and treatment of both neoliberal and choice feminisms well grounded.” In their view, the paper had “potential to generate important dialogue for social workers and feminist scholars.”

If you will excuse the language, this is why others have referred to this brand of scholarship as scholarsh*t.

You can see what other academics are saying about the hoax here.

Does Gender Egalitarianism Reduce the STEM Field Gender Gap?

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Apparently not, according to a new study. Similar to findings in cross-country studies regarding gender differences in psychological traits, this study finds,

that, paradoxically, countries with lower levels of gender equality had relatively more women among STEM graduates than did more gender-equal countries. This is a paradox, because gender-equal countries are those that give girls and women more educational and empowerment opportunities and that generally promote girls’ and women’s engagement in STEM fields (e.g., Williams & Ceci, 2015).

In our explanation of this paradox, we focused on decisions that individual students may make and decisions and attitudes that are likely influenced by broader socioeconomic considerations. On the basis of expectancy-value theory (Eccles, 1983; Wang & Degol, 2013), we reasoned that students should at least, in part, base educational decisions on their academic strengths. Independently of absolute levels of performance, boys on average had personal academic strengths in science and mathematics, and girls had strengths in reading comprehension. Thus, even when girls’ absolute science scores were higher than those of boys, as in Finland, boys were often better in science relative to their overall academic average. Similarly, girls might have scored higher than boys in science, but they were often even better in reading. Critically, the magnitude of these sex differences in personal academic strengths and weaknesses was strongly related to national gender equality, with larger differences in more gender-equal nations. These intraindividual differences in turn may contribute, for instance, to parental beliefs that boys are better at science and mathematics than girls (Eccles & Jacobs, 1986; Gunderson, Ramirez, Levine, & Beilock, 2012). 

We also found that boys often expressed higher self-efficacy, more joy in science, and a broader interest in science than did girls. These differences were also larger in more gender-equal countries and were related to the students’ personal academic strength.

…We propose that when boys are relatively better in science and mathematics while girls are relatively better at reading than other academic areas, there is the potential for substantive sex differences to emerge in STEM-related educational pathways. The differences are expected on the basis of expectancy-value theory and are consistent with prior research (Eccles, 1983; Wang & Degol, 2013). The differences emerge from a seemingly rational choice to pursue academic paths that are a personal strength, which also seems to be common academic advice given to students, at least in the United Kingdom (e.g., Gardner, 2016; Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, 2015).

The greater realization of these potential sex differences in gender-equal nations is the opposite of what some scholars might expect intuitively, but it is consistent with findings for some other cognitive and social sex differences (e.g., Lippa, Collaer, & Peters, 2010; Pinker, 2008; Schmitt, 2015). One possibility is that the liberal mores in these cultures, combined with smaller financial costs of foregoing a STEM path…amplify the influence of intraindividual academic strengths. The result would be the differentiation of the academic foci of girls and boys during secondary education and later in college, and across time, increasing sex differences in science as an academic strength and in graduation with STEM degrees (pgs. 10-11).

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High-Culture Activities and Meaning

I’m very much looking forward to economist Bryan Caplan’s Princeton-published book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Have been for several years. Battles over higher education usually focus on its ultimate purpose. Many argue that the goal of college transcends mere earning potential and is instead concerned with molding students into informed, critical-thinking members of society. The problem is that the latter is largely a fiction and I’m sure that Caplan’s book will demonstrate this more fully.

Interestingly enough, a draft of one of Caplan’s chapters is available online and it raises even more questions about the tastes and preferences people have.

Educators hope to enrich the soul in a hundred different ways. But there’s one form of enrichment high school and college pursues more explicitly and energetically than any other: instilling appreciation for high culture. English classes push classic novels, plays, and poetry: William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost. Music classes push traditional music, especially classical music: Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and above all else, John Philip Sousa. Art classes are more hands-on, but still try to raise the status of visual works in top museums. Even school’s iconoclasm is conservative: Academic curricula often cover Kurt Vonnegut, Arnold Schoenberg, or Jackson Pollock, but rarely George R.R. Martin, Lady Gaga, or Frank Miller. Though some schools promote high culture more energetically than others, academic curricula are plainly tilted against pop culture.

How effectively has this tilt fostered high culture?

Image result for i hate reading gif…Consumer demand is shockingly low overall: American spend 0.2% of their income on all reading materials, barely more than $100 per family per year. Americans used to spend more on reading, but never spent much: Back in 1990, well before the rise of the web, reading absorbed 0.5% of the family budget. Today’s Americans spend about four times as much on tobacco and five times as much on alcohol as they do on reading. Within this small pond, high culture is no big fish. Here are three rankings of the bestselling English-language fiction of all time. Sales figures include school purchases and assigned texts, so they overstate sincere affection for the canon.

While sales figures are plainly flawed, all three lists [Wikipedia, Ranker, How Stuff Works] paint similar pictures of the public’s long-run literary tastes. High culture is but a niche market. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities tops two of the three lists. The Catcher in the Rye, Ben Hur, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, and Lolita all appear on at least one list. But fantasy – Tolkien, Rowling, Lewis – dominates. The point is not that fantasy lacks literary merit; by my lights, Lord of the Rings towers over Catcher in the Rye. The point is that the books high school and college classes hail for their supreme literary merit lose out to much less prestigious genres. By and large, literature teachers fail to “get through” to their captive audiences: They rarely spark love of reading, much less love of the genre they urge their students to admire.

In music, pop culture’s victory over high culture is even more decisive. The Three Tenors in Concert is the best-selling classical album ever. With twelve million copies sold, it does not even break into the top fifty albums of all time. Looking at overall sales, classical music is only 1.4% of the U.S. music market. Country is eight times as popular, and rock/pop over thirty times as popular. Classical does better globally, but still only commands a 5% share of the world’s music marketplace. Well, at least it beats jazz. The point, again, is not that classical music alone is aesthetically worthwhile. Bad Religion isn’t Bach, but it’s good. The point, rather, is that schools’ aesthetic priorities have negligible cultural impact. Even if American schools are the root cause of all U.S. consumption of classical music, their combined efforts only boost its market share from 0% to 1.4%.

Why is this the case?

The straightforward story, though, is that high culture requires extra mental effort to appreciate – and most humans resent mental effort. Students are overwhelmingly bored by Shakespeare, and the rare fan of high culture would probably have come to love the Bard on his own. Students sample a little high culture when their grades depend on it. As soon as the exam ends, however, the vast majority of students rush back to their low-brow comfort zone. Anyone reading this book is probably a bird of a different feather. You may even remember the names of the teachers who opened your eyes to the finer things in life. I owe my love of classical music to Mr. Zainer (General Music, 7th grade), and my love of literature to Mrs. Ragus (Honors English, 11th grade). A quick look at the basic facts, however, shows that our experiences are abnormal. The vast majority of our classmates emerge from years of cultural force-feeding with their aesthetic palates unchanged.

He concludes,

I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. The best teachers in the world couldn’t inspire them with sincere and lasting love of ideas and culture. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring; they can’t even convince themselves to love ideas and culture, much less their students. I’m cynical about “deciders” – the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students obey. Deciders barely care if students inwardly transform for life as long as they outwardly submit until graduation.

…Mandatory study of ideas and culture ruins the journey. Even if you bite the end-justifies-the-means bullet, compulsory enlightenment yields little enlightenment. For all their Orwellian self-congratulation, schools are unconvincing. Under auspicious conditions, they fail to make either high culture or liberal politics noticeably more popular. Regimentation may be a good way to mold external behavior, but it’s a bad way to win hearts and minds – and a terrible way to foster thoughtful commitment. As Stanford education professor David Labaree remarks, “Motivating volunteers to engage in human improvement is very difficult, as any psychotherapist can confirm, but motivating conscripts is quite another thing altogether. And it is conscripts that teachers face every day in the classroom.”

I’m interested to see if Caplan beefs up his arguments in the final version. Nonetheless, this helped me realize that claims that we should, say, “save the arts” because it’s where people find “meaning” are exaggerated. Or at least misleading. “Saving the arts” is rarely (if ever) about saving low-brow entertainment, but most people prefer the latter. Most people don’t find meaning in books, opera, or Shakespeare because most people don’t engage them. Meaning, it seems, lies elsewhere for most people.

Most people just want to veg.

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How Do Professors Vote?: 2017 Update

Earlier this year, I highlighted a 2016 study that unsurprisingly found that professors vote Democrat. The same researchers released an updated version of the study, having accidentally omitted two Florida universities. Of course, this didn’t change the outcome much:

The findings for the two omitted Florida universities, the University of Miami and the University of Florida, are consistent with the findings in our initial sample of 40 institutions. With the present addendum, our revised investigation now covers 42 top universities. In the new grand set, the either registered-Democrat-or-registered-Republican faculty from the newly added universities constitutes 6.1 percent of that of faculty of all 42 schools. As it turns out, the overall Democrat to Republican ratio (or, D:R ratio) changes so little that it is the same to the first decimal point, 11.5:1. Three of the five disciplinary ratios change slightly (pg. 56).

These findings are consistent with previous research. As I pointed out in my last post, economics departments tend to be more politically diverse than other social sciences. You can see the political diversity of various departments below, with the most diverse toward the bottom.

Cardiff & Klein, 2005, pgs. 246-247.