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Change Your Goddam Voice Mail Message! (Pass It On)

April 10th, 2010 2 comments

Starting today, your outgoing voice mail message should start (and quite possibly end) with:

Hi this is [insert your name here]. Press [star or pound] to leave a message.

I probably don’t have to explain why. But I will.

1. Everybody hates waiting through your message, and they really hate waiting through the instructions on how to leave a message.

2. You  never know whether pound or star will bypass all that crap. Each voicemail system’s different. If you press the wrong one, you’re really pissed off because … you know. So you wait through the goddam message and instructions.

It takes a good twenty seconds to go through that crap, every single time.

It’s not just annoying. A back-of-the-envelope calc (based on utterly reliable data randomly sourced from the interwebs) tells me that all those 20-second annoyances are worth about 1.2 trillion dollars a year (if our time is worth $20/hour).

Yeah: if everybody changed their messages, we’d increase our country’s annual GDP by 10%. (Or enjoy the equivalent in more free time.)

Pass it on.

Delight and Abject Dismay on Richard Dawkins’ Birthday

March 26th, 2010 15 comments

Another of those convergences: I just joined the Richard Dawkins group on Facebook, and discovered that today is his birthday. (Happy birthday sir!) It’s a convergence because over the last week I’ve been horribly dismayed. After decades of near hero-worship on my part, I’ve discovered that he is not acting as the man I’ve always believed him to be.

The issue is his position on group selection. (Don’t go away: it matters.) The way he has defended that position seems contrary to everything I have always so admired about him.

And I have so admired him, for so long. I have to watch myself constantly to avoid the kind of wild-eyed evangelism that serves only to give aid and comfort to the creationist enemy. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype provided (some of) the fundamental underpinnings for my understanding of (human) existence, and the belief and value system that’s built on that understanding.

I didn’t really need to read The God Delusion — preaching to the choir — but I did so and greatly enjoyed it purely for the joy of his arguments — the lucidity, the cogency, the logical and rhetorical coherence.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve recounted his anecdote about an aging professor who changes his mind. (“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” . . .  “We clapped our hands red.”) It still brings tears to my eyes when I read it, and epitomizes how science, for all its real-world failings, is fundamentally different from faith. (Here. Start with “It does happen.”)

So, again, I’m nearly teary-eyed at the stance he has taken, and the rhetoric he’s deployed, in response to a body of thinking that has grown over decades and came to something of a culmination in 2007. (I’m late to the party on this one.) That body of evidence and theory contradicts one of his longest- and strongest-held beliefs: that group selection is hooey, that it could not have had any role in the evolution of human altruism.

Remember the stated goal of Dawkins’ seminal book: “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.”

His basic theory: genes are the units of selection, and organisms are the vehicles of that selection. If a gene causes organisms to have more grandchildren, the gene’s frequency expands in the population.

Based on this, he rightly pooh-poohed warm, mushy, poorly-reasoned notions about genes contributing to “social cohesion” and the like. No altruistic gene could survive in a group if it didn’t provide net benefit for the individual containing that gene — either by helping the individual, helping kin who have the same gene, or through reciprocal payback from other individuals.

But what about the success of groups? Could groups with more altruistic genes have more grandchildren than groups with more purely self-serving genes? Could that group selection effect predominate over individual selection within the group?

It seems plausible, and from the first time I encountered the conundrum, it has always seemed to me to be a purely statistical question.

And that’s how (a damned impressive set of) mid-20th-century evolutionists went at it. They built models, ran the numbers, and determined that no: group selection could not overwhelm the forces of individual selection. If a gene isn’t good for an individual (and/or his kin), it will die out.

That belief achieved an orthodoxy in the political ecology of scientific academe that largely prevented later scientists from even raising the question, and successfully crushed most of the few efforts to re-examine it. It’s agonizingly similar to the despicable response that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology themselves encountered over those same decades, from the likes of Lewontin, Gould, and the “Theory” humanists.

As a result, both professionals and amateurs — including reasonably diligent amateurs like me — have been unthinkingly chanting along with that orthodoxy for years, decades. I don’t know how many times I’ve discredited thinking that seemed rooted in group-selectionist thinking.

And I was wrong. At least, I was too categorical. So I was sometimes/often wrong.

Here’s what makes me so sad: Richard Dawkins has been perhaps the most powerful voice for that orthodoxy, and he seems to be clinging to that idol even when its feet — his feet — are looking resoundingly clay-like.

Cutting to the meat, simplified:

In 2007, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson (the founder of sociobiology and one of the most brilliant, diligent, and sober evolutionary biologists to ever live, as Dawkins certainly agrees) published a paper (PDF) laying out the cogent, lucid, and compelling case that group selection can indeed predominate over individual selection in the evolution of altruistic genes — that the group can be a vehicle of selection, just as the individual can. (They talk about “multilevel selection.”)

In other words, genes that benefit the group can proliferate in the larger population, even if those genes are disadvantaged within the group. Again, it’s all a matter of models and statistics, and the Wilsons (no relation) deployed and cited damned convincing models and statistics showing that the earlier evolutionists probably got it wrong.

Now if Dawkins had cogent takedowns of those models and statistics, there is nobody I would rather hear them from. But his counterarguments have all been from principles, even when those principles are not thrown into question by Wilson and Wilson — their arguments are based on those principles.

What’s more dismaying is that Dawkins’ few dozen paragraphs in reply (remember, it’s been three years since then) bear all the hallmarks of a religionist who has not a leg to stand on, lashing out in frantic, desperate defense with red herrings, tangents, inapplicable arguments, dodges, weaves, and personal invective. (I’m not a professional in the field, but I know good and bad arguments when I hear them.)

This post is already too long, so I won’t detail everything here. You can see one of Dawkins’ replies here (PDF), and you can read the whole story from D. S. Wilson — including much of Dawkins’ response — here. Wilson’s 19-post blog thread is here in a one PDF.

I’ll just quote one passage from Dawkins to give the flavor of those replies:

…as far as I am concerned, the statement is false: not a semantic confusion; not an exaggeration of a half-truth; not a distortion of a quarter truth; but a total, unmitigated, barefaced lie.

This is not the Richard Dawkins I’ve known and (intellectually) loved for lo these many decades. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that Richard Dawkins.

I can only quote D.S. Wilson’s words, which precisely echo my most heartfelt feelings:

In my dreams, I imagine him reading my modified haystack model and saying “Well done, David! I have been wrong all these years.”

Richard Dawkins won’t you please come home?

Socialism and Prosperity: Does One Cause the Other?

October 11th, 2009 2 comments

Regular readers will find me beating something of a dead horse here, but I felt it necessary to respond to a recent post by Bryan Caplan, who continues to speculate on the putative negative economic effects of “socialism.”

>”Lots of developed countries have some significant socialistic elements,” … would be an understatement. Every developed country has some significant socialistic elements.

Brian, yours is also an understatement. Every thriving, prosperous country in the world has major, massive elements of socialism. Even in your favorite poster child, Singapore, 80-90% of residents live in public housing.

I’ve asked you before: if the principles of libertarianism and small government were as economically efficient as you believe, wouldn’t at least one prosperous country have emerged that is governed by those principles, and wouldn’t those countries that have done so have left all the others in the dust?

In fact, over those decades you describe, in developed, prosperous countries (here repeating from a previous post),

Countries with more generous social programs and redistribution regimes grow at least as fast as others.

Countries with more progressive tax systems grow faster than others.

Countries with more wealth equality grow much faster than others.

More-equal countries provide more opportunity for people to climb the economic ladder.

(It’s worth noting here, by the way, that Lane Kenworthy and many others have demonstrated conclusively that equality in prosperous countries is achieved through various methods of redistribution–from education to infrastructure to social support–not through market mechanisms.)

>don’t you think it’s at least possible that, say, the EU would have had 1% higher growth over the last thirty years if it had more free-market policies?

Since the two regions’ growth rates over those years have been the same, you’re effectively asking, “would the EU have kicked our ass?” Certainly an interesting question.

>(I’m not saying that the trade-off is really this stark; it’s just a hypothetical).

This parenthetical disavowal, it seems me, deserves just as much attention as “Marx’s left-handed compliments to capitalism.”

Update 10/24: I notice that they’re hashing this out over at Cato. Will Wilkinson starts it out here, my hero Lane Kenworthy provides his cents’ worth here and here, with other contributions of interest here and here.

I also went back to the most widely-cited paper on this topic (from the world’s most widely-cited economist), Robert Barro‘s 2000 “Inequality and Growth in a Panel of Countries” (PDF). He concludes that over all the countries surveyed, there’s no correlation. He finds a negative correlation for poor countries (more unequal, slower growth) and a smaller positive correlation for richer countries (more unequal, higher growth).

growth and inequality barro

Want Prosperity and Stability? It’s About Wages and Salaries

March 23rd, 2009 No comments

What caused the Great Depression? What caused the current…whatever it is?

According to James Livingston, the roots of both lie in shares of income. When not enough people are getting not enough wages and salaries–and when a large share of income is derived from financial investments, not work–we’re in bubble land, and things fall apart.

(My explanation: because income is not widely distributed, aggregate demand cannot support productive industry, hence there are not enough productive investments available, hence financial assets seek out imaginary returns. We know the result.)

Here’s what that picture looks like (BEA; data here):

income shares

The story this mirror-image picture tells: In 1929, the percent of income received in wages and salaries was at a historic low (see below for 1920s data). There was a strong (and volatile) correction during the Depression and war/post-war years, followed by a long period of stable and historic highs during The Great Prosperity.

Those highs started declining in the seventies, continued down under the sway of Reaganomics, and fell even further under Bush II. By 2008, wage-and-salary share had reached profoundly historic lows.

Did we see the same type of decline pre-1929? Yes—even more so. The BEA time series doesn’t extend before 1929, and I haven’t found a comparable/contiguous series going farther back. But we can get a picture of the 1920s from tax return data. (Large scanned PDFs here [Table 196 p. 203] and here [Table 173 p. 173]). Here’s what that picture looks like:

20s wages and salaries

By this measure, in just a few years the wages-and-salaries share of personal income plummeted from the 50/60% range to less than 40%. ’25 to ’29 represented a truly profound historic low. (Wage-and-salaries’ share snapped back after the crash, of course, because financial profits constituted a proportionally much smaller share of income.)

What about this time? It took a long time for those decades of decline to achieve their ill effects. There are many plausible explanations for this. Here are a few.

• The Fed got a lot more competent at managing the economy’s volatility.

• There was much wider participation in the housing/asset markets/bubbles–maintaining the illusion was a larger group effort.

• Consumer credit became ever-more widely available, temporarily counteracting the declining/stagnating income share.

• Increasing government redistribution (15% of total income in 2008, up from 3% in 1945 and 9% in 1970) buoyed aggregate demand by giving people money to spend even while wage-and-salary share declined.

But the fact remains: both crashes occurred at a time of historically low ebbs in wage/salaries’ share of total income.

Caveat: It must be admitted that total employee compensation (including benefits and employers’ social insurance expenditures) has not shown quite as clear a picture as have wages/salaries alone:

employee comp

Total compensation in 2008 was nowhere near the lows of 1929 (when there was no Social Security and benefits were quite limited). But even with those huge benefit boosts, it had declined to a level not seen since the ’40s—well below the level that prevailed during the Great Prosperity.

This is perfectly in keeping with both a common-sense and an empirical behavioral view of economic incentives. The actual dollars people receive in their paychecks (and/or their transfer payments) every week or two provide them with a far more moving (if short-term) gauge and incentive than the uncertain, rarely perused, and long-deferred benefits that are (only implicitly) promised in boxes 4 and 6 of their annual W-2s.

When people are taking home good money from their paychecks, they spend it on goods and services. That demand supports productive enterprises. That provides truly productive investment vehicles for financial assets. And so the log keeps rolling.