Links for May, 2021

Zoning reform, devastating earthquakes, culture and public policy.

A Table of Contents (because sometimes people don’t scroll to the end)

  • Links

  • Books I’m reading

  • Books I’ve finished


  • Previously linked review of Fussell’s book on class and culture (Scott Alexander) By request. A large excerpt of the book itself is available here as well.

  • Matt Yglesias on zoning reform (Slow Boring) Local zoning regulations and the ensuing debates about local development are a tough but interesting problem.

  • Matt Yglesias on removing lead pipes (Slow Boring) There’s really no safe level of lead exposure. Children absorb it much more readily than adults and suffer larger negative effects from it.

  • Prospera, a Honduran libertarian city (Astral Codex Ten) If you had the chance to design a city from scratch, how would it work? How would you deal with property rights, decide on laws, and fund the government?

  • Terribly teaching the humanities (The Scholar’s Stage) The best use of, for example, Dostoevsky—and history, philosophy, and poetry more generally—is not to “contextualize Dostoevsky's literature within his theological and anthropological milieu” but to “help us lead better lives and be better people.”  

  • What is the effect on job loss of raising the minimum wage? (David Neumark and Peter Shirley) One worry some have about raising the minimum wage is that it increases unemployment. Someone’s effort may be worth $10 dollars an hour but not $15. Instead of hiring two people, they’ll just give the more productive person more hours or automate the second person’s job. You might expect the largest impact to be on low-skill or less productive workers—the young and the less educated. There’s hundreds of studies on the impact of minimum wage laws on unemployment. Neumark and Shirley survey the literature and find that: (i) there is a clear preponderance of negative estimates [increasing the minimum wage reduces employment] in the literature; (ii) this evidence is stronger for teens and young adults as well as the less-educated; (iii) the evidence from studies of directly-affected workers points even more strongly to negative employment effects; and (iv) the evidence from studies of low-wage industries is less one-sided.

  • Inside the making of Facebook’s Supreme Court (The New Yorker)

  • Where has all the sperm gone? (New York Times) Facebook markets in donor sperm proliferate as sperm banks go dry.

  • McNamara’s Morons (Youtube) I never knew this. From the video description: “Because so many college students were avoiding military service during the Vietnam War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara lowered mental standards to induct 354,000 low-IQ men. Their death toll in combat was appalling.” Part of this was apparently a well-intentioned desire to teach them useful job skills they could use after the military. More in this video. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a good article on this topic. Hence the links to YouTube

  • The Really Big One (New Yorker) An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. Great read.

Books I’m Reading

Books I’ve Finished

The Limits of Social Policy by Nathan Glazer

Nathan Glazer was a sociologist at Harvard and published this book in 1988 as a reflection on the prior 30 years of social policy in the United States, a period of very intense and optimistic social engineering on the part of the federal government and on behalf of the American public to eliminate poverty, improve education, reduce crime, and do a number of other things. He talks about whether these goals were met (no, they actually became worse), why (the most interesting part), and the response to all this failure by the Reagan administration (the least interesting part). One of the key insights that he draws attention to and that is maybe underemphasized even today is that government policy affects culture which affects the impacts of policy. I think laymen often understand this better than the experts.

[A]s I worked on our policies in housing, health, social welfare, quite a different point of view impressed itself on me, and I can summarize it in two propositions:

  1. In our social policies we are trying to deal with the breakdown of traditional ways of handling distress. These traditional ways are located in the family primarily, but also in the ethnic group, the neighborhood, the church.

  2. In our efforts to deal with the breakdown of these traditional structures, our social policies are weakening them further and making matters in some important respects worse. We are making no steady headway against a sea of misery. Our efforts to deal with distress are themselves increasing distress.

He restates this idea a few pages later:

But aside from all these problems of expectations, cost, competency, limitations of knowledge, there is the simple reality that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, of voluntary associations. In doing so, social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents […]

On Character: Essays by James Q. Wilson

Recommended. Public policy depends, for its effectiveness, on certain qualities of the culture in which it is embedded. Public policies also effect, in the medium- and long-term (over decades) the culture itself. James Q. Wilson was a political scientist at Harvard and UCLA, frequent collaborator with RAND researchers—there is a room in the RAND library with his old papers and writings—and an expert in crime, policing, and bureaucracy. The author trying to understand character:

I still had not answered these questions to my own satisfaction when a few years later I spoke at Beloit College. I described, as best I could, how character was formed. The first question was from an intelligent young woman, who rose and asserted that “character” was a code word for compliance and subservience; teaching character, she argued, was to teach young people to sit still with their hands folded and not to ask questions. Character, she implied, was the enemy of self-expression and personal freedom. Before making her point, she waited until I had called on her; when speaking, she did not raise her voice or speak insultingly; on finishing, she listened politely to my response.

Whatever my response was, it was inadequate. What I should have said to her was this: “Character” is not a code word, it is a real word that describes how you behaved even though you felt strongly that I was wrong and perhaps wicked. While claiming your right to speak, you acknowledged my right to speak; while making your point, you addressed yourself to my argument and not to my personality. You attacked my views but not my self-esteem. Character is not the enemy of self-expression and personal freedom, it is their necessary precondition.

I am not surprised to find that young people are skeptical of lectures on character delivered by middle-aged professors. It is the natural inclination of the middle-aged to talk about rules and obligations; it is the natural inclination of the young to dream about freedom and self-realization. But I am surprised to learn that a concern for character is taken as the infallible sign of a conservative disposition. Anyone who explains high rates of drug abuse, criminality, or family dissolution by some defect in character (rather than as a consequence of social inequality, unemployment, or political oppression) is immediately taken to be a reactionary, probably in the grip of some extreme evangelical obsession.

Now I confess to being conservative, at least by the standards of contemporary academia. But there is no necessary connection between a conservatively inclined politics and a character-oriented psychology. It is hard to find regimes more dedicated to creating a new personality and to stamping out hooliganism than those inspired by Marxist doctrine. If a young man wanted to kick up his heels, it is hard to know whether he would be worse off in Beijing or in Riyadh. The great revolutions animated by egalitarian sentiments have never been content to leave people alone to act as they pleased within the context of new, presumably more just social arrangements; they have inevitably insisted on changing people into the new Soviet man or the French citizen or the disciplines of the teachings of Mao. By the standards of these regimes, a modest American concern for good manners and personal decency seems the height of democratic sensibility.

Meanings of Life by Roy Baumeister

One common thread in much of my reading over the past year or so is a nebulous interest in whether society has become too complex for experts to control and for most people to understand and function successfully within. What does this mean and how would we know if it was true?

On an individual level, this might look like Robert Kegan’s In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life where he finds that a large percentage of the population may not know or be capable of understanding and balancing work, relationships, and family in the ways required by modern society, and that they struggle mightily because of it.

On a governmental level, it might look like Jeffrey Friedman’s Power without knowledge: a critique of technocracy where he talks about how modern democracy is bedeviled by the difficulty its citizens face in simply identifying problems not to mention finding experts who might be able to solve them without being experts themselves. We have a government and regulations and policies and programs and subsidies finely tuned by the smartest and most ambitious people carefully selected and bred by our finest kindergartens, magnet schools, and Ivy-league universities and yet few things work at all like we intended them (See The Limits of Social Policy below)

On a a historical level, we have the Enlightenment, Humanism, and liberalism that unleashes amazing technological progress that feeds the world, pulls billions from poverty, and doubles our lifespans. And yet we live in a society with poverty, where the individual seems increasingly atomized, stark inequalities persist, and where the solutions to these problems seem eternal and intractable.

Baumeister’s book is a little bit history but mostly psychology. It’s not going to tell you what the meaning of life is, but attempts a broad synthesis of the social science research (as of about 1990 when it was written) on the ways people create meaning in their own lives.

Meaning is a fuzzy term, but Roy offers the following:

A rough definition would be that meaning is shared mental representations of possible relationships among things, events, and relationships. Thus, meaning connects things.

Essentially, meaning-making is the process of taking our experiences and telling stories with them. Meaning promotes stability and connection in people’s lives. Meaning helps people adapt to and control their environment, regulate their own emotions and desires, and forge a sense of belongingness. One of the broad generalizations that Baumeister draws is that the purpose of meaning is to fulfill certain needs, namely a need for (1) purpose (goals and fulfillment), (2) value, (3) self-worth, and (4) efficacy. In the modern world people tend to derive meaning, and thus fulfill to varying degrees these needs, through (1) self, (2) work, (3) love and family, and (4) religion.

That is, to know how people construe the purpose and value of their actions, and to know how they sustain efficacy and self-worth, is to know what their lives mean to them.

Meaning is also hierarchical. There are lower-level meanings (e.g., why am I writing this email? or learning this skill?) and higher-level meanings (e.g., why did I choose this career path? or believe in this God?). Lower-level meaning can feed upwards into higher-level meaning as an attempt to make sense of and connect disparate events that have occurred in one’s life. And higher-level meanings can feed downward to make lower-level experiences feel like they’re all part of a big plan.

He also takes a historical look at how these different meaning-generators have evolved and become more or less central over time. Where did the Protestant Work Ethic come from? Why did it fail? Why does modern society put so much emphasis on motherhood and child-raising when it did not before?

There were a couple of takeaways from all this:

  1. Modern society is good at supplying sources of purpose, self-worth, and efficacy. It has a harder time supplying a source of value (something previously supplied by religion). The self has increasingly become this source of value and the ultimate justification for many of our actions and decisions. We must follow our hearts, do what’s best for ourselves, etc., etc.

    [T]he first task is to examine how our modern society stand with respect to the four needs of meaning. It will be apparent that the single biggest problem area concerns value. That is, our society lacks firm value bases that can provide solid criteria for knowing right and wrong and for justifying actions. […] And this is where the self comes in. Modern Western culture has struggled to establish the self as a major value base. People have always had selves, but selves have not always had to carry the burden of supplying meaning to life in such a far-reaching fashion. The reason for the modern fascination with self, then, is that the self has been made into a fundamental and powerful source of value in modern life. This new burden of selfhood is not an easy one, and identity crises and other problems of selfhood derive in part from the new demands people today place on the self.

    […] Just as modern society lacks a widely accepted concept of fulfillment, it also lacks a firm, agreed-on set of values. Indeed, some have suggested that modern values are in a state of chaos. The discussion of values has shifted its emphasis from obligations to rights, and the relevant aspect of decision-making has shifted from moral duties to legalities. […] The lack of a strong, collective faith in moral truth is reflected in many patterns, including widespread cynicism, debunking, recognition of moral relativism, and admiration for clever rule-breakers (often idealized in movies and other popular media).

  2. One of the difficulties of modern life may be that people have a lot of free choice in deciding what goals to pursue, and the manner in which they measure and evaluate their own success. This level of autonomy is, historically, unprecedented and, for many, overwhelming, disorienting, and stressful. Not only must people determine how to achieve their goals, they must determine what their goals are in the first place, and constantly weigh their choice against the multitude of other goals they could otherwise be pursuing. And the options are nearly unlimited. It seems likely that there are a great many people who are either not inclined to do this, fail to do this successfully, or both. This is FOMO.

  3. Additionally, one of the ways in which people try to understand their lives is by attaching stable categorical terms to fluctuating and nebulous realities. One example given in the book is “marriage,” a stable term we affix to what is actually a constantly changing relationship with ups, downs, and transformations. Another is death in which we often believe in some form of continued living (e.g., religions with an afterlife, trying to leave our mark on the world, leaving a legacy for children) even if in reality there is little evidence that such things are possible or will be remembered.

Some speculation:

  1. A common perception is that the world today “is changing faster than ever.” I am not sure if this is true or in what ways, but if it is then one might think that the human tendency to treat certain phenomena as stable when they are in fact changing more quickly would leave us increasingly out of tune with reality and perhaps less well-adapted to the present and future. If our present-day institutions are designed for and assume a less quickly changing present and if the way we categorize and label things actively obscures a much more dynamic reality, then we will be confused and frequently surprised by our failures to achieve our goals and control our environment. “Meaning combats change,” but it also obscures reality.

  2. It is interesting to me how we can end up with a world that the average person may not be quite adapted for and that’s less than satisfying. Abjihit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 and wrote a NYT OpEd summarizing their work. One of the many interesting claims they made was that financial incentives drive human behavior much less than we supposed. Rich people don’t work less when their taxes are increased and people do not generally stop working when their welfare benefits become more generous. Blogger Scott Alexander, in response to this piece, points out that “‘most people don’t respond to most economic incentives’ is totally compatible with ‘economic incentives rule the world and control everything around us.’” Because if you want someone to work on the weekend, you don’t care if most people will refuse your double overtime pay, you only care that at least one person takes double overtime pay. You don’t care that most doctors would not take payments from pharmaceutical companies to oversubscribe opioids, you care that a few did and managed to cause a huge jump in opioid addiction and death.

    And over time, the thing that one person did can become normalized.

    Or: most people would never cheat on welfare. But there are Alabama counties where over 25% of the population are on disability, an increase of 50% from just fifteen years earlier. I don’t want to accuse any of them of cheating, per se, and see here for a more in-depth analysis. But I think it’s easy to normalize taking disability for lesser and lesser afflictions, and that part of the normalization process involves an economic incentive to do it and a lack of incentive not to.

    Or: in Sierra Leone, 84% of people say they have paid bribes; in Japan, 1% have. So do “people” care about financial incentives or not? Grant that “status, dignity, [and] social connections” are more important, and that this is what prevents bribery in Japan. But once these factors permit bribery, it becomes rampant. And are these factors themselves maintained partly by incentives, eg punishments upon being caught? I’m not sure.

    Most people might feel that Twitter is toxic and actively degrades the discourse in America, but it only takes one person to see an opportunity to make money, and a few people to gain notoriety through its use, before it has become a central node in political culture.

Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis by Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, Maxwell Palmer.

Why is housing so expensive? Why can’t we build more? Less highly recommended. Tedious academic prose. Compared to Wilson’s writing, quite a downgrade. But still interesting. It looks very closely at the ways in which local residents often impede higher-density development in their neighborhoods.

The main problem, if you see it that way, is one of the relative dispersion of costs and benefits across the community. The benefits of higher density development are spread across the community. It keeps housing affordable, encourages more people to move there, start businesses, etc. More importantly the benefits extend to future residents of the community. Conversely, the costs, even if outweighed by the benefits for the community as a whole, fall disproportionately on a few—the people living closest to the new development. Costs in noise, traffic, property values, etc. Because these people individually feel the costs more than the benefits, they are more inclined to complain at local city council meetings while those that benefit don’t live there or don’t benefit enough, individually, to do the same. The result is that things that are highly beneficial for the community as a whole get delayed or cancelled by a few outspoken critics.