Book Review: “Capital and Ideology”, by Thomas Picket. Part 1, because hoo boy was it long.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty’s #1 best seller about the economics of inequality, was in one sense a bit of a dud.  Supposedly, the main point of Piketty’s book was the following dry equation: When r, the rate of return on capital, is greater than g, the rate of economic growth, inequality of wealth increases.

For the most part, economists were not impressed.  Specifically, they were not impressed by the r > g thing; even Paul Krugman, definitely a Picketty fan in general, calls the book’s central thesis an “intellectual sleight of hand.”  If you’ve paid attention to nerdy online debates about Piketty, you’re probably familiar with the following irony: Piketty’s book about inequality was a runaway success because the 1% have been getting richer and people are upset about that; however, even Piketty himself admits that the r > g isn’t the reason the 1% are doing so well; r > g tells us the rich are getting richer because they’re accumulating ever-greater returns from capital, but in recent decades, what’s actually happened is that CEOs are pulling astronomical salaries.

If you’re not familiar with that debate, don’t worry; we’re moving right past that stuff.  The book was not a best seller because of r > g; the book was a best seller because it’s a comprehensive, data-driven, and engaging economic history of inequality in the United States and Europe during the past hundred and fifty or so years, and a warning that inequality is likely to keep increasing unless we do something about it.

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It Feels Like We’re Thinking?

Ezra Klein recognizes, in Why We’re Polarized, that the literature on political polarization and bias is deeply and personally disturbing.  “To spend much time with this research is to stare into a kind of intellectual abyss,” he says.  The research seems to show that people trick themselves into confirming their own biases, and that people with higher levels of political engagement and knowledge are more, rather than less, prone to doing so.

abyss

The implications should not be lost on the reader.  Chances are, if you’re reading a book by Ezra Klein, you’re a highly educated and engaged consumer of political news, exactly the kind of person this research says is most vulnerable to motivated reasoning about politics.  Everyone recognizes that other peoples’ political reasoning is motivated; in particular, they recognize that the other side’s political reasoning is motivated.  However, it’s incredibly difficult to admit that your own reasoning is political motivated, and even if you were to admit that, what would you do about it?

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Pluralism, Power, Mistakes, and Conflict.

The political theory of pluralism holds that power in liberal democracies is distributed among many different groups, whose interests conflict or align in ways that shift over time. It’s partially a descriptive theory, meant to explain how liberal democracies actually work, but also a prescriptive theory, in that most people who believe that pluralism is how things work also believe that pluralism is a good way for things to work.

Pluralists are often accused of ignoring the fact that some groups are consistently more powerful than others – in particular, Marxists believe that Capital is significantly more powerful than all other groups, and that Labor is the only other group powerful enough to challenge it. While not all Leftists are Marxists, most nevertheless believe in some similar “bipolar” model of power (in some specific cases called a “Power Elite” model): Corporations versus the People, the Kyriarchy versus the Oppressed, and so on. Far-right theorists don’t participate much in mainstream political science, but if they did, they would probably criticize pluralism using similar models – Secular Humanism versus Christianity, Jews versus Aryans, the Cathedral versus whoever neoreactionaries think the good guys are, the West versus the Caliphate, the Caliphate versus the West, and so on.

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Book Review: The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris.

The Nurture Assumption isn’t quite the book I expected. Amazon tells me that customers who bought it also bought The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker, and The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray, which is what I expected. Based on that, you might expect it’s a book about how human nature is influenced by genes rather than the environment, possibly with a racist chapter or two thrown in there. But Harris is less interested in the relative influences of nature and nurture than in changing how we look at the idea of “nurture.” As Steven Pinker says in the introduction, “We all take it for granted that what doesn’t come from the genes must come from the parents.” This book is about why that assumption is wrong.

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The Dickens-Flynn model of IQ, part 4: Implications.

What are the implications of the Dickens-Flynn model – for analysis of race, education, inequality, and other aspects of human nature?

 
The most important thing, it seems to me, is that the Dickens-Flynn model makes it easy to explain racial IQ differences without suggesting that blacks are genetically less able. This was never impossible, but under the Jensen model it was difficult to imagine how the circumstances of black families could be so consistently awful as to explain the size of the IQ gap. So the preferred solution to this problem was to shun IQ researchers, call them racists, and deny mountains of research showing that IQ is important. That’s actually still the most common solution, but thanks to Flynn’s model (and probably also thanks to haranguing by Fredrik deBoer and Scott Alexander), a few liberal outlets – especially Vox – are gingerly dipping their toes in the waters of “maybe not being IQ denialists.” Flynn proved that liberalism’s commitment to racial equality is fully compatible with its commitment to empiricism, which is a really big deal.

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The Dickens-Flynn model of IQ, part 3: The social multiplier, and race.

We’ve established than a one-time intervention for a single person can’t permanently change their IQ, because once their environment returns to normal, so will their IQ.

 

But what if the “normal” environment changes? That’s what Flynn believes has happened over time – average levels of education have increased, more jobs require abstract reasoning, and so on. The sum of all these changes adds up to something vastly more powerful than a one-time intervention, which Flynn calls the “social multiplier.” This is his explanation for the effect that bears his name; it’s why average IQ scores have increased all over the world. And it’s an effect that builds on itself – the more time you spend around people who have developed their ability to reason abstractly, the better you get at reasoning abstractly – and then you become part of the social environment that raises other peoples’ IQs.

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The Dickens-Flynn model of IQ, part 1: Background.

This was originally going to be a review of What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect, by James R. Flynn.  However, like so many of my reviews, it quickly became something else – I realized that I couldn’t fully address what I found important about Flynn’s ideas without drawing also on his earlier work, Race, IQ, and Jensen.  Also, his more recent theories are summarized very well in the article “Heritability estimates versus large environmental effects: The IQ paradox resolved”, which is much shorter than his later book. I will also reference some things Thomas Sowell has written, for reasons I’ll explain later.

(Incidentally, for purposes of this post, I will be assuming that the reader correctly understands the concept of heritability.)

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