The 25th state?

Canadians used to accuse Americans of plotting to make them the 51st state — indeed, if all of Canada were to be a single US state it would only be the second largest by population. (I remember an article a decade ago or so that suggested that they talk so much about it, it must be their secret desire.)

In the book Investing in Life, about life insurance in 19th century US, there is a reference to the caution of William Bard, first president of New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, in insuring lives lived in climates potentially less salubrious than that of New York City.

For example, while Bard believed the climate of Halifax, Nova Scotia to be “as favorable to life as that of any other state” and consequently appointed an agent there in 1833, he was much more cautious about risks in western New York or the midwestern states.

Christmas Demography

Whereever I have lived in my adult life, the city has been extraordinarily quiet from Christmas to New Year’s — indeed, the quiet starts somewhat before Christmas. The natural explanation is that people go away for the holidays. (Students obviously do, but it’s far quieter than even at other times when students are on vacation.) The problem is, they must go somewhere, so it can’t be that every place empties out. (Obviously, some of the apparent quiet is simply the absence of traffic from people going to work, shopping, etc. When shops and restaurants close down in late December because of lack of customers it’s a bit self-fulfilling.) So why is it that I’m always in the places that people flee for the holidays?

A common pattern is that younger people with children travel to their parents, in their old home towns. In general, if there is a pattern of migration from some places X to other places Y, the sort of people who move around (like myself) will tend to be living at Y. At Christmas, then, the migration is temporarily reversed, and people travel from Y to X. For a brief time, Y empties out and X gets full.  (Even 2000 years ago Joseph and Mary had to go back to their home town for Christmas. And, as we know, the town was full up.) So, people like me notice that whereever they happen to be living is one of the places that empties out, because of the selection bias. People of my parents’ generation are generally living in places that take in visitors at Christmas, and so perhaps seem livelier than at other times of the year.

Plus ça change — post-feminist edition

One of the most useful nuggets of compressed wisdom that I absorbed from the humanities portion of my university education was an off-hand remark by a teaching assistant, Paul Leopold, that “each generation rejects its parents and rediscovers its grandparents.” Implicit was that the rediscovery is often unintentional and even unwitting. It’s just that there is very little scope for real novelty, so those who are both eager to be new will turn away from what is familiar, and can then hardly help — particularly if they think they are avoiding influence by remaining ignorant of the past — but recapitulate an earlier generation.

feminism survey

It has commonly been observed that many women who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, heirs to all the accomplishments of 1970s feminism, who take for granted that they are free to shape their own careers and relationships, reject the word “feminism”. They associate the word with sins of their mothers (even if not their own literal mothers), and identify with various sorts of vaguely defined “post-feminist” ideologies, if they are the sort of people inclined to care about ideologies rather than just living their lives. A recent survey of American women found that among women aged 30-44, only 32% identify themselves as feminists, barely more than in the oldest (pre-baby Boom) age group. Among women aged 45-64 feminism has 41% support; interestingly (and confirming Leopold’s dictum) support seems to have revived among the youngest women.

My impression, from occasional glances at journalism on the issue, is that women wish to separate themselves from the “feminist” label, which they associate with negative attitudes toward family, men, and sex, and a generally rigid view of life, and denial of femininity. This is supported by research finding that current undergraduates were most likely to associate a random feminist with the following adjectives: man-hating, lesbian, unhygienic, angry, behaves like a man, unattractive.

I was reminded by all this by a remark in the chapter on women’s issues in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s:

For most of the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was widely supposed to have disappeared… On the left, it was often seen as divisive, distracting, and self-indulgent… Even articulate outspoken young women like Shirlie Williams, the daughter of the pioneering women’s rights campaigner Vera Britain, rejected the “feminist” label, which was thought to belong to the lost age of the suffragists. “it was,” she said, “a matter of generations.”

And the young Sheila Rowbotham, who… later became one of Britain’s best-known feminist writers, thought that feminists were “shadowy figures in long, old-fashioned clothes, who were somehow connected with headmistresses, who said you shouldn’t wear high heels and makeup. It was all very prim and stiff, and mainly concerned with keeping you away from boys.”

So, right before what now appear as the glory days of militant feminism, a post-feminist malaise had already set in, rejecting the word “feminist” and what was perceived as the joyless feminism of an earlier generation. I suppose it’s cause for hope.

Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

Continue reading “Who is Santa?”

Distant relative: A transitive relation?

With regard to Martin Scorcese’s new film “The Wolf of Wall Street”, portraying ancien règime levels of decadence and debauchery in 1990s New York finance, based on the memoir of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, fellow broker and ex-convict Danny Porush commented

The book … is a distant relative of the truth, and the film is a distant relative of the book.

It’s a strange thing to say. I’m guessing he means to say that the film is even farther from the truth than the book is, but it’s perfectly consistent with a claim that the film (unlike the book) is the truth, or that it is closely related to the truth. By analogy, the famous rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a distant relative of mine. And my brother is a distant relative of Adin Steinsaltz. But I am not distantly related to my brother.

How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives

I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) Continue reading “How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives”

Vitamins, homeopathy, and economic austerity

I was thinking about this comment by Paul Krugman, about the hegemonic certainty among European banking elites that genuine solid prosperity will only come through a long period of suffering through budget austerity:

Europe’s Very Serious People — people who believe in austerity regardless of circumstances, and who also say things like this, from the Bundesbank’s Jens Weidmann, declaring that “the money printer is definitely not the way to solve [Europe’s problems]“. This is stated as if it is a self-evident truth — even though any PRE can easily make the case (as Praet does) that the money printer is, in fact, something that can offer a great deal of help in solving Europe’s problems.

It reminded me of a similar but opposite delusion that I have noticed among health cranks promoting vitamins. “Pharmaceuticals” are by nature unnatural, and to be viewed with suspicion, even while few are willing to go full Christian Scientist when their lives are at stake. The presumption is that there are side effects, maybe worse than the disease, and the companies that developed and manufactured the drugs are basically pernicious in their goals and methods. “Vitamins”, on the other hand, even when manufactured by the same pharmaceutical company in the same factory, are presumptively good, even in doses far exceeding anything that has ever been tested clinically, much less found in nature. On the other side of the holistic medicine world — but often the same people — are the homeopaths, who take nonexistent doses of generally poisonous substance, under the plausible theory that once they’ve been diluted down to the point where not a single molecule of the substance is left in the vial, it can’t hurt.

But how could it help? That’s where they get into some mystical physics. But if we accept the efficacy of water memory, or whatever the explanation is supposed to be, then why should we continue to assume that the modified water couldn’t hurt? My presumption is that anything effective enough to help is also effective enough to harm, and it’s all a matter of getting the timing and the dosage right. That’s why there are few really easy questions in medicine. It’s always a matter of tradeoffs. The same with the vitamins. How can they help if they can’t hurt? And how could a large dose of a completely untargeted substance be more likely to help than to hurt? And indeed, every trial I know of that has put large doses of vitamins to the test has found them to be generally harmful.

One of the greatest nuggets of wisdom offered up by a (nonreligious) crackpot was Paracelsus’s famous apothegm:

Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist.
All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.

The delusion of the austerians is to believe that monetary expansion — “the money printer”, encouraging inflation — obviously can’t help the economy, it can only hurt. Now, there are serious arguments that purport to show that monetary policy has no effect at all on the “real economy”. My nonspecialist impression is that these arguments have been mostly seen off by behavioural economics, but it’s a plausible idea, in principle. Intuitively, it seems strange that something as ethereal as changing the numbers on the central bank’s balance sheet will be effective in mobilising idle labour.

But if you think that inflation and deficit spending are efficacious, it is implausible to suppose that they can only be harmful. I have respect for the conservative mindset that says, tinkering with a complicated structure is more likely to kill than to cure, but it’s not as though this is just some crackpot idea that some radicals just made up last Tuesday. Smart people have been thinking for quite a while about how to structure and dose fiscal stimulus. They might be wrong, but they’re not likely to be obviously wrong.

For the same reason that it can’t be self-evident that megadoses of vitamins couldn’t hurt.

Data-mining for Cthulhu

I don’t ordinarily repost what other people have written, but this post by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal is so beautiful that I feel the need to copy it. It really just consists of juxtaposing the buzzword Big Data with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft — one that I was already familiar with, but had never exactly put into this context. It is the famous opening of The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Safety of a new dark age. Hmm. If only I could turn that into a grant proposal…

The demography of evil…

… or the evils of demography?

I wrote a while back about my concern, as a sometime demographer, about how the word “demographic” had been transmuted, by some offbeat associations, in the language of US electoral politics, into a euphemism for what might more plainly be called “ethnic or religious minorities”.

Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, which I wrote about here and here, reminded me of another, even more disturbing abuse of the name of a perfectly respectable academic subject: Israel’s obsession with its “demographic time bomb”, what other people might call “Arab citizens”.

I just checked Google’s completions for a snapshot of the mass mind: Indeed, if you type “Israel demograph”, the first two completions that Google offers are “Israel demographic time bomb” and “Israel demographic threat”. (I’m not blaming anyone for this directly. There’s no way to know who did all those searches. But obviously they were inspired, directly or indirectly, by official Israeli messaging on the issue. “Demographic time bomb” is not a form of words that one would expect to arise spontaneously.)

But the third most popular search term alludes to the point that I would want to make: “Israel demographic transition”. If Blumenthal is to be believed — and while his account is certainly consistent with other reports I have read, I do not consider myself to be sufficiently informed to judge — respectable debate in Israel on the Arab question runs the gamut from “expel them all” to “pressure them to leave the country voluntarily”, with the reasonable compromise being to expel some, and pressure most of the rest to leave voluntarily. Only the radical fringe pushes extremist ideas like “kill them all” and “leave them in peace and allow them equality as citizens”.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with demography knows that the best way to get a population to stop growing is… to make them prosperous. That’s the “demographic transition”, and there don’t seem to be any exceptions. So, if Israeli Jews were really worried that higher Arab birthrates will eventually make the Jews a minority, they might have chosen to desist from their policies of trying to impede Arab economic activity and make Arab life in Israel a misery — something I first learned about from the fascinating book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, by former insiders in the Jerusalem municipal government — and instead shower them with economic subsidies.

I suspect that there is some willful ignorance behind this promotion of the “demographic threat”. The Palestinians, in this view, aren’t like normal people, who would respond to prosperity with lowered birthrates.

Blood libels we can believe in

If mamma, sir, sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
The world would be Upside-down!

— “Topsy-Turvy World“, by William Brighty Rands (1823-82)

It’s fascinating how every new generation re-invents the old blood libels, in a form that seems plausible and worlds away from the old-fashioned superstitious hatreds. Just now Europe is experiencing a wave of gypsy baby abductions. No, sorry, we’re experiencing a wave of reports of Roma families having dishonestly come into possession of whiteness. In Italy (a few years ago), and this week in Greece and Ireland, we’ve seen authorities removing children from their families because of what seemed to some hobby eugenicists strange disparities between the skin colours of parents and children, whereas children normally have exactly the same skin colour as their parents.

The report in the Times (behind a paywall) was a veritable fount of racist conjecture. They constantly refer to the adults who have raised the child as her “parents” (their scare quotes), and her as their “daughter”. A “consultant” at a hospital “told detectives it would be unusual for Roma parents to have a blonde-haired child.” Well, thank you for that expert opinion!

Why would poor parents with multiple children of their own be abducting children anyway? They quote the head of the “Smile of the Child” “charity” with another expert opinion:

Maria may have been abducted because of her striking blonde hair so she could be used to beg in the streets.

Of course! What else would they do with them? Weirdly, the article then proceeds to report that

In July 2011, more than a dozen people were arrested for arranging for pregnant Bulgarian Roma women to give birth in Greece and then sell their babies for illegal adoption.

The careful reader will note that this example — the only actual case of child abduction, or something like it, that they can find involving Roma — it was Roma children being illegally adopted by middle-class white Europeans.

In the end, it’s turned out that the families were all telling the truth. The Irish child is the biological child of her mother. The Greek child was left with the parents by the biological mother — also Roma, so the mysteriously Arian appearance is still unexplained — who left for Bulgaria and couldn’t afford to take the baby with her. She’s said she would like to have her daughter back, but one suspects that the transfer from one poor Roma family to another would warm the hearts of the public longing to see the child returned to the bosom of the white race.