Sunday, 30 September 2012


The politics underlying Spain's mess.
Children get literally under their mother's skin.
Is Ian Jack just being sentimental here? Don't India's urban masses and poor farmers desperately need a smaller price wedge between them caused by the food chain? And yet... and yet....
Relatedly, this. The Economist wants more Swindon, Peterborough and Milton Keynes for England. I disagree.

TV and ethnicity: contrasting fates of two of Putnam's theses

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam hunts for the causes of declining American social capital and civic engagement. He fingers two suspects: TV and ethnic diversity. Television is supposed to keep us away from our neighbours and ethnic diversity is supposed to make us trust them less.

Both of these supposed links have been scrutinized, but ethnic diversity seems to have spawned a much bigger literature. Here are some rough numbers to back that up:

Search              Google scholar hits   Cites to top hit
Television + 
  "social capital"               43,300                403
Ethnicity +
  "social capital"               88,500              6,714
Ethnic +
  "social capital"              101,000              6,714 

  [within BA cites]               5,750                190
  [within BA cites]               6,310                491   
  [within BA cites]               9,260                150   

Television + trust              555,000                194
Ethnicity + trust               312,000                 72
Ethnic + trust                  887,000                 59

Apart from the "trust" searches, television seems to have fewer articles. I also tried using "TV" or "race", with similar results. More qualitative data - with more insight but maybe more bias - is that I can name many well-known articles in economics on ethnicity, trust and participation, but far fewer on TV and the same. Plus, there is unmistakably much, much more public controversy about ethnicity and multiculturalism than there is about TV. (Just read the comments pages of any UK news website... though not if you want to keep your faith in humankind.)

If this is true, why is it? I suspect that ethnicity is just naturally more controversial. The topic raises our primal hackles against "the other"*; and then, at least for some people, brings out the better angels of our nature to defend diversity and tolerance. 

Perhaps this is a shame. After all, ethnic diversity impinges on most of our lives rather little. It is something we observe while walking down city streets. TV is inside our homes, for four hours a day on average. Has the controversial topic obscured the truly important one?

* I find this phrase pretentious, vague and overused, but it does seem hard to avoid here.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Evaluating Thatcherism

At the start I should say I am sympathetic to Thatcherism. I think the state spends too much, regulates too much, and ought to be smaller and less intrusive. I also agree with her infamous "no such thing as society" quote, which is still taken out of context so often that it deserves reproduction in context here:
... They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.
In the end, however, Thatcherism appears to have been a failure. The central goal was to roll back the state, but this did not happen.
Public spending fell as a percentage of GDP during the Thatcher and Major governments. In real terms, since GDP increased during this time, it increased. (For some purposes the % GDP figures are what matters, and for others -- like measuring the absolute power of the state, for good or ill -- the absolute amount matters.) But the fall was not sustained, and under Labour we returned to almost the heights of the 1970s. You could just blame Labour for this, but that is politically naive. In a democracy, changes that require one party to remain permanently in power cannot be called sustainable!

Taxes also did not sustainably fall under Thatcher. In fact, taxes grew at first, then fell back, and grew again under Major.
Tax receipts % GDP
At least, unlike Reagan, Thatcher did not increase government debt tp pay for tax cuts -- a policy which ought no longer to be respectable in Conservative circles, but sadly remains tempting to US pseudocons.

Perhaps if Thatcher had not been elected, the state would have got even bigger. But Thatcherism did not make it smaller. I also doubt that the state regulated less in 1997 than it did in 1979, although surely that was true in some areas. In that sense the fundamental goal was not achieved.

Some key state companies were privatised. Few sensible people would reverse that decision. However, that agenda has little room to go further. Although choice and competition may be introduced into health and education, they will not be privatised, for probably sound reasons.

All of which means that the Thatcherite agenda must have been mistaken in some way. (Many, many people think it was mistaken in its goals; I mean that it was mistaken in the means it chose.) Conservatives who still support the basic libertarian goals must now find new ways to achieve them.

(By the way, here is Deirdre McCloskey on fine form explaining why you might want to support those basic goals. There is even more of this in her book The Bourgeois Virtues.)

Not very serious linkage

The Scot running one of Germany's largest regions.
Autotune the Nick Clegg apology. It has a nice Pet Shop Boys vibe.
A map of 1000 years of war. Warning: serious selection bias, surely?

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Epigenetics. You heard it here first.

Evidence on how the music industry works, reviewed at Fabio Rojas comments: "We are clearly living in a golden age of sociology of culture." I'd go beyond that: we are living in a golden age of the social sciences. When I was growing up, social science was the target of mockery either for proving the obvious, or for pretentious verbiage. Now we have data and methods to analyse it. There are tons of things that social scientists know -- know, or are reasonably sure of -- which would interest the general public. I will try to blog about a few of them in the coming months.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

At Birmingham University

Apocalypse not yet


Matt Ridley attacks apocalyptic predictions in August's issue of Wired Magazine.

What is the correct empirical model here?
  • Either the world will end in an apocalypse, or it won't. 
  • In both of these scenarios, the first N - 1 apocalyptic predictions will be false. 
Therefore, it is not a good idea to judge the latest apocalyptic prediction by its predecessors. Each has to be evaluated on its own merits. Mayan calendar 2012: not a big worry. Methane emissions from beneath the permafrost: worth freaking out about.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

No, Amazon. No, I did not.

Education Research NNNGGG MY BRAIN HURTS

For reasons of my own I was looking at the state of educational research in the UK and found the British Educational Research Association conference website. Here are some of the titles:

AARE Symposium Cultural Studies in Education: New Approaches to Research
Learning Critical Literacies Outside the White Man's Classroom
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody
Gender and Cultural Studies SOPHI, The University of Sydney

Place Pedagogy and Decolonisation in Cultural Studies Education
Professor Baden Offord 
School of Arts and Social Sciences and Southern Cross University 
Disturbing Thinking about Sexuality and Gender in Educational Research
Dr Mary Lou Rasmussen 
Faculty of Education, Monash University

Growing Queer: Theorising Television, Pedagogy and Homosexuality
Dr Daniel Marshall
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Now, I am absolutely not one of those little twerps who go around asking you to report your Left wing professor. (Most academics are Left, most businessmen are Right, get over it.) And I am sure that research about gender, race and sexuality in education is important and necessary.

But: really? This is what our education research apparatus is still producing? Good quality, rigorous research on how to teach things to children is desperately needed, and we get this? I read these titles and I feel like getting out my Global Hypercolour T-shirt and listening to , because the nineties have obviously never gone away. I honestly thought that modern education research would have got beyond this stuff.

Here, for a quick contrast, are some items from the American Educational Research Association.

More Than a Variable: Race, Research, and Critical Race Theory in Education
Mixed Data Analysis Techniques: A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Approach
Examining the Impact of Teacher Inquiry as a Professional Development Tool
See the difference? It's not that there's no qualitative research, far from it; but there is a basic engagement with ideas like "impact", "data", "variable"; you know: finding out about stuff.


Troubling questions

If the Nazi murder of six million Jews and millions of other people in death camps was an act of monstrous, wicked depravity, so that the Nazi regime will  forever be condemned and abhorred, by all decent people, as nothing but a gang of murderers; then what ought to be our moral reaction to the British and American killing in aerial bombing campaigns of about four hundred thousand German civilians and about five hundred thousand Japanese civilians, and to the regimes that ordered them? Is this it, or part of it?

From the Bomber Command Memorial website:
Only those who have lived through similar times could understand or pass judgement.
Is the first claim in that sentence true? If so, does the second claim follow? What would be your reaction to the same comment, made by a German about the Eastern Front?

Air Marshal Harris, quoted in the Wikipedia article:
the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.
Also from the article, about the bombings of Japan:
Leaflets were dropped over cities before they were bombed, warning the people and urging them to escape the city. Though many, even within the Air Force, viewed this as a form of psychological warfare, a significant element in the decision to produce and drop them was the desire to assuage American anxieties about the extent of the destruction created by this new war tactic. Warning leaflets were also dropped on cities not in fact targeted, to create uncertainty and absenteeism. [My italics]
Questions troubling me, as they have troubled many others before.


Possible rights violations of varying severity.
Something I learned today: the Romans had companies, which issued traded, limited-liability shares.
At the New Statesman, Steven Poole massively disses popular neuroscience.
Dinosaur fights set to house music, of course.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In which Michael Young is prophetic

From his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, first published in 1958:

On promotion by seniority:

“Our grandfathers... did not fully understand that when castes were abolished... there was still another category of people to circumvent – the class of old men.... In an open society the few who are chosen out of the many who are called should be chosen on merit; age is as much an irrelevant criterion as birth.... The story of the third and most recent phase is the story of the way in which the principle of seniority has gradually yielded to the principle of merit.... In any rapidly changing society the young are more at home than the old....”

“... eventually every forward-looking company had its teams of talent scouts combing the universities.... college magazines grew larger and larger on the proceeds of advertisements.”

“... when the retiring age was raised to seventy, the political consequences were so grave that we had to wait twenty years for the age to be raised further to eighty....”

On inequality:

“As for the lower classes.... They are tested again and again.... If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend...”

“... few contemporary observers were aware that economic progress threatened to produce a new kind of selective unemployment.... They knew that the prime purpose of machinery was to save labour, but did not ask – what kind of labour?... More and more was demanded of the skilled men, less and less of the unskilled, until finally there was no need for unskilled men at all.... What was to be done with them? There was only one possible answer... personal service. For instance, most of them could... serve in public restaurants and places of entertainment.... Domestic service could be restored once it was again accepted that some men were superior to others.... The trouble has been the men... no really adequate modern counterpart has been found for the butler and the footman of old. Male unemployment has been higher than female for forty years or more.”

More in a bit.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The North Towers

Just visible on the horizon from Wivenhoe. I am back at Essex as a lecturer.

Monday, 10 September 2012


US job numbers are out. The headline figures are weak and beneath the headlines it's even worse. It turns out that the private sector is creating plenty of jobs; job losses are coming from government.
Matt Yglesias demands US pop music autarky to prevent a dangerous dependence on British imports.
France debates whether we should teach morality in schools. In the past two generations, the idea of schools teaching children about right and wrong has become deeply controversial. I find this interesting.
Barry Eichengreen argues, in a brilliantly lucid essay, that a return to the Gold Standard would not be a sensible idea.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Social science: the virtues of fact collecting

Donald Horowitz has written two big and deservedly famous books about ethnic conflict: Ethnic Groups in Conflict and The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Each of them collects a mass of facts from around the world, and organizes them loosely into themes, like intergroup comparison and party politics.

James Fearon wrote a tough critique of the latter book. He praised it as a source of facts, but criticized its hypotheses as unclearly stated and not properly tested. His arguments are typical of the modern political scientist’s cast of mind: we are supposed to develop clear, precise hypotheses and test them with statistical rigour. In short, to be scientists.

And yet. Some years back an article in Political Science and Politics made a big impression on me. It was from a US army officer serving in Iraq. History, he said, seemed more practically useful to him than political science.

I have a similar intuition. If I were asked to recommend a book on ethnic conflict for somebody practically involved in peacebuilding or peacekeeping, I would choose Horowitz, in preference to other work that is more careful about forming and testing hypotheses. (In preference, for example, to either Varshney’s or Wilkinson’s excellent work on India.)

The point is not that fact collection is an indispensable precursor to hypothesis formation. We can agree on that – Fearon and Varshney and Wilkinson have all put a lot of effort into collecting facts, and have created extremely useful resources for other researchers by doing so. The point is that, if my intuition is right, sometimes fact collection is a useful kind of knowledge in itself – useful for the practitioner, without further intervention from other scientists. How can that be? What kind of knowledge is transmitted by a big lump of semi-organized facts, that isn’t conveyed by those same facts pre-digested?

The answer may come from two facts about social science. First, it’s very hard. Biology is more complex than physics; biological laws are more probabilistic than physical ones and biology will never be reducible to four fundamental forces. Social sciences add another level of complexity: we deal with a very complex organism – the human – which forms even more varied and complex social patterns. Inference from one context to another is notoriously difficult in social science; two schools, towns or countries may work in very different ways.

The second fact about social science is that humans are good at it. Every human, even your worst undergraduate student, is a well-practiced, instinctive “folk” psychologist, organization theorist, game theorist and discourse analyst. (And rabbits are probably pretty good instinctive bunny sexologists, for the same reasons: they have to be.) We are good at spotting the patterns in unfamiliar situations.

What the undigested facts give the practitioner is context. When you are dealing with Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad, some unforeseen slice, taken through a bunch of anecdotes about ethnic conflict globally, may combine with your own local knowledge into a pattern that helps predict the future. The same anecdotes, prepackaged as a database and summarized in a hypothesis which fits them very well, may be irrelevant to your situation.

So, one thing differentiating us social scientists from the physical sciences is the kind of practical advice we can hope to give. We are not very expert, and our audience is quite expert. We therefore want to be humble and not to package our stories too neatly: practitioners will have their own stories to add to them.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Virgin vs. First Group e-petition - million monkey edition

Here's an e-petition asking the government to reconsider handing the West Coast franchise to FirstGroup. I've signed.

I did my PhD on direct democracy. It left me very skeptical of arguments about the wisdom of crowds. For FirstGroup I'll make an exception though. This is handing a franchise from one of the best train companies to one of the worst. I cannot help suspecting that the decision was made by either (1) a government desperate for a quick buck or (2) naive bureaucrats applying a set of Very Carefully Designed Criteria, and being gamed by clever lobbyists. That is my evidence-free suspicion, so:

~~~ Vote Now ~~~
~~~ A Million Monkeys Can't Be Wrong! ~~~


The alleged great US student loan scam. The writer complains about anecdotes being used to paint students as defaulters, but him/herself indulges in anecdotal evidence on a fairly grand scale.
Drezner on the APSA collapsa.
The NYR on the ideologization of Republicans. (NB: the obverse of this is the pragmatization of Democrats, and of the Left in general. I have a pet theory that the pragmatic Left is now the establishment, and the Right are the sometimes loony radicals. Some of my libertarian students strongly remind me of Tommy Judd in Another Country.)
Scott Sumner reviews Coase on China. Here's the book. (Expensive at the moment.)