Monday, July 17, 2017

The fastest way in

"Nature," as Mr Emerson once noted, "has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended."

A similar principle operates with public policies.

To wit, policies that the average person is not willing to openly and publicly defend, under their own name, will eventually be dismantled.

This may sound like a tautology, until you realize that there are lots of policies that exist partially out of inertia. But when you try to explain why they exist, suddenly the explanations sound awkward.

And the awkwardness comes because the mind instinctively feels that they jar with a broader principle that has been enunciated, but not yet everywhere applied. They are, in other words, Larry Auster’s famous unprincipled exceptions. And they are strong candidates when guessing where the liberal zeitgeist might head next, as I’ve written about before.

Auster seems to mostly have had in mind exceptions that get made deliberately, out of a sense by those in power that being consistent would lead to bad practical consequences. While this is true, there are other instances where it seems that inertia explains a lot. Steve Sailer’s quip that the Eye of Soros is powerful, but can’t be everywhere at once, seems quite apt. Sometimes the discussion almost has the flavor of gradually pushing the boundaries of the Overton window leftward until the mainstream feels instinctively that the boundary is catching up to them, and move accordingly.

The most glaring instances of these apply to immigration.

Modern liberalism, if taken at face value, deems it the height of evil and injustice to grant people special privileges and status based on:

-Their skin color when they were born

-Their genitalia when they were born

-Their sexual preference, (according to current fashion, also decided when they were born, though it doesn’t matter much if it happens later).

But so far, it is still acceptable to grant people special privileges based on where their mother was standing when they were born.

Why is this the case?

More importantly, suppose you were asked to justify why this is the case, in an essay that would be printed under your name around your workplace.

How many people would be comfortable doing so? I suspect not very many.

Because there are approximately two defenses

i) F*** you, it’s ours, and we don’t owe anybody anything.

ii) As a practical matter, we can’t let in everyone.

Version i) has a variety of flavors, most of which hinge upon variations of the definition of “us”, ranging from a particular ethnic/religious group (e.g.: Israel), to the current citizens (however they got here), to the current citizens plus whoever we choose to invite at our sole discretion (though this mostly punts the question to that of who we should invite).

I suspect however, that the vast majority of public defenses would be made along version ii).
But version ii) inexorably leads to the current situation – the west absorbs the third world, but at a slightly slower rate. Everyone who is let in, stays in. The ratchet moves gradually, but never moves back.

There are, however, a variety of ways to chip away at the current immigration policies.
You can make the frontal assault on the idea itself – denounce the very idea of citizenship as racist. We may yet end up there, but the frontal assault runs into too many problems of seeming to go against things that normal people love, like the American flag and national anthem.

You can make the bait and switch – citizenship is so important and beneficial, that we must make the important act of generosity and grant it to anyone who wants it. In other words, citizenship changes from something based on lineage (where your parents must be American) to something merely based on assenting to American propositions, with those whose parents are American merely being presumed to assent to them automatically. At that point, it seems like mere mean-spiritedness to not let anyone who wants to assent to the ideas and become American to do so, provided they’re not a criminal. Because, after all, people are all the same, so there could be no differences in anything to consider, none whatsoever, no siree.

Or you can make a circuitous attack. Maintain the idea of citizenship, but find another reason to let people in anyway.

This seems to be the most likely outcome to me. And the vector that seems the most potent here is the expansion of refugee programs.

The notion of refugees circumvents people’s ideas of how immigration should normally work. Sure, we normally screen immigrants carefully and don’t let just anybody move here, but these people are refugees! To send them back to where they came from would be to return them to certain death.

And this association has been built up so strongly that mostly people don’t seem to scrutinize any of the policies being snuck in as a consequence. The clearest sign of this is the fact that the major war being used to justify large migration flows into Europe is the conflict in Syria. However, a cursory glance at either a) immigration statistics, or b) photos of the refugees themselves reveals that a large quantity of them are coming from Africa (or, more recently, Bangladesh!), from regions where there is either no war at all, or conflict at a sufficiently low level that what they are fleeing from is simply everyday life in these places. Suddenly, the definition of a potential refugee has expanded to anyone in a sufficiently crappy country. Which, at last count, is most of the people of the world.

Not only that, but a second bait-and-switch has taken place, also without much discussion. Refugees went from being people that were taken in temporarily for the duration of a conflict, to people who were settled permanently. This process is left quite mysterious to the general public, which appears by design. It’s good if it happens by a court. It’s better if it happens by a permanent civil servant, or a whole lot of them. It’s best if the average person who is annoyed at the idea doesn’t even know whose decision it was.

I write the above sentence with snark, but then honest humility forces me to admit that I also have no idea exactly whose decision it was to have the vast shifts in immigration for most of the west.

Even if asylum is not immediately granted on a permanent basis, the refugee can always claim the risk of violence if he goes back. Like all of these claims, they are incredibly difficult to evaluate from thousands of kilometres away with little, if any, documentary evidence available. One either has to accept most of the claims, or reject most of the claims. The idea that one will be able through careful scrutiny determine the facts of each case seems fanciful. Of course, now that they’ve arrived *we* would be killing them by sending them back, and you don’t want that on your hands, do you, prole?

The other great benefit, to the progressive, is that part of the process happens through bodies like the UN (certainly in the case of places like Australia). Phrases like ‘international treaty obligations’ get thrown around, which are another way of telling the rubes that they have no say in the matter.

Refugees have become the ideal motte and bailey  of the immigration world. The motte is the idea that we're temporarily helping people who would literally die without our help. The bailey is large scale, permanent immigration of people from some of the most dysfunctional parts of the planet, via a mechanism mostly shielded from the political process.

You may wonder why this is a bailey, but that's probably just because you're insufficiently educated in the benefits of diversity, comrade. A little time in reeducation camp will sort you out. Or more practically, knowing how holiness spirals work.

I expect that mass immigration will most be legitimized by a systematic expansion of the practical, though not necessarily the formal, definition of refugee. In the world where policy is determined by feelz, it will come to mean "anyone who might plausibly be portrayed as an object of sympathy".

Which in practice means that anyone is allowed to come, as long as they're some kind of approved minority. In theory, there's probably an additional requirement that they haven't yet been proven to have committed a crime, though the process for evaluating that clause becomes essentially nugatory.

And so the ultimate aim gets accomplished. The others might have got there too, but I suspect this one will effectively dismantle immigration systems with less resistance. The unprincipled exception becomes semi-principled consistency.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On the time-series, the cross-section, and epistemic humility

One of the advantages of the economist's training is just the ability to instinctively think in terms of empirical tests. There's a reason that economists have tended to colonise other fields like sociology, law and politics - as much as anything, it comes from knowing about how to design proper empirical tests, and what good identification is.

Perhaps more importantly, it comes from knowing what poor identification is, including basic issues of endogeneity, reverse causality and omitted variables. For instance, knowing that you cannot infer almost anything about the relationship between prisons and crime just by looking at the variation over time in the total number of prisoners and the total number of criminals in a society.

The gold standard for identification, of course, is pure randomisation. When that isn't available, as it usually isn't outside a laboratory, you go for natural experiments - where something almost exogenous occurred. This gets used as an instrument - in the prisons and crime case, for instance, Steve Levitt used ACLU prison overcrowding litigation as a quasi-random shock to the prison population.

Of course, the pendulum swings back and forth. If the initial identification push corrected the free-for-all of 1980's empirical work (regressing the number of left shoes on the number of right socks!), the subsequent view seems to have gone towards 'identification uber alles'. In other words, the only question of interest is whether you've really truly identified totally exogenous variation, not the importance of the underlying topic. Plus, oddly, very few people seem willing to learn from an imperfect instrument. It seems to me that if there are 100 potential explanations, and an imperfect instrument rules out 90 of them, then we've learned something quite valuable - the answer is either the main hypothesis, or one of the remaining 10. But making the perfect the enemy of the good seems to be the way of things these days.

These questions end up being most important when you actually run empirical tests. Me, I'm lazy - there is a large hurdle for me to actually download a dataset and start fiddling with it. I'm always impressed by people like Audacious Epigone and Random C. Analysis who do this stuff all the time.

But there is another aspect of empirical training that ends up being even more useful for the computationally lazy - helping you sort through hypotheses just by knowing the panel nature of the dataset.

In particular, a lot of questions that purport to be about a time-series are really about a panel. That is, it's not really about a single variable over time (the time-series), it's about a group of different individuals over time. And thinking of the cross-section simultaneously with the time series greatly clarifies a lot of things. That is, instead of just coming up with hypotheses about why the average of some variable as changed over time, think about whether this hypothesis would also be able to explain which individuals would change more or less, or would be higher or lower on average.

One of my favorite examples is birthrates. The classic question is about the time-series : why have birthrates, on average, declined over time?

But there is also a cross-section - whose birthrates? This could be of individuals, or countries, or characteristics. Moreover, the cross-section exists both today, and in the past. If you're too lazy to run a regression and just wanted to sort through hypotheses about the time series with help from your friend William of Occam, one rule of thumb might be as follows: A good variable explains both the time series and the cross section. A mediocre variable explains the time series, but not the cross-section. A bad variable explains the time-series, but predicts the cross-section in the wrong direction.

For instance, suppose I wanted to know why birthrates in the west had declined overall. Here's the US Total Fertility Rate over time

You might look at that graph, and notice a big decline starting in the early 1960s. Certain hypotheses start suggesting themselves. What was going on in the 60's? Feminism? The Pill, approved by the FDA in 1960?

Quite possibly. But what hypotheses would come to mind if instead I showed you this graph:

The US is now in green. But we've also plotted New Zealand, in purple, Sweden, in light blue, and Japan in pink.

I personally would be astonished if your reaction isn't at least partly like mine, thinking that the world is actually quite a lot more complicated than you'd bargained for. Sweden was actually rising in the early 1960s, and New Zealand was higher than the US for a long time. Japan, meanwhile, has a completely different picture altogether.

You can add any number of these together at the excellent World Bank website to test whatever theory you have.

But there are other cross-sections within countries which can be used to test theories further.

Suppose I were primarily interested in the west, and my theory was about a rising cost of having children. It's a lot more expensive to raise children than it was in the past, as you have to pay for daycare, and "good schools", and all this other stuff, because societal expectations are higher.

I certainly hear people with kids complaining about cost all the time, which tells me that maybe there's something to it.

In the first place, I don't think this hypothesis stands up well to an actual examination of the data above. It turns out there's nothing quite like downloading the bloody data and plotting it to explode a lot of preconceptions. This probably actually is the most basic economist's tool of all, to be honest. Because the US graph above shows that not only did birth rates in general go down, but they went down precipitously starting in the 1960s, hit their low point around 1975, and have been slightly rising since then. Of course, since the graph only starts in the 1960s, you have to be wary of giving prominence to this date alone for the initial decline. But still, does this look like a graph of what you expect the cost of raising a child was?

I'd guess not, but with something hard to measure like "the cost of raising a child", who knows, maybe it is. After all, the aggregate time series is always hard. We only have one run of history, and lots of things are changing at once. But the cross-section has a lot more data.

For instance, consider the cross-section of rich and poor. At least in 2000, here's how they looked:

In other words, the poor have more children than the rich.

This immediately doesn't sound like a cost story. Even if the cost has gone up for everyone, why are the rich less able to bear it than the poor? Even if you think that the poor are on welfare so they don't care about the cost, as long as the rich have more money, they still are better placed to be able to deal with it. Are children some sort of inferior good, getting substituted for jetskis as income rises?

And there's another aspect - there's a historical cross-section as well. I suspect, though it turns out to be harder than I thought to find an easy citation for this, that this disgenic pattern in birthrates with respect to income is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly in pre-history or in polygamous societies, only the rich could afford to have large large families (or multiple wives, in the polygamy case). When the Malthusian limit binds, access to resources matters, and the rich outbreed the poor.

I've written before about how I think improved birth control is a big part of the story. But doubt it not, this does not much better at explaining the current cross section as a cost story. That is, it approximately fails to predict it at all (making it mediocre by my rule of thumb), rather than predicting it in the wrong direction like costs do. To get birth control to explain the cross-section of income as well, you'd need to believe that the poor are unable to afford birth control, but are able to afford the resulting children. Seems hard to square to me.

Cost, incidentally, also has similar cross-sectional problems when it comes to the increase in obesity. Leftists love the 'food desert' explanation, whereby the poor are forced to become obese because the stores in their area don't have enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and hence the only options to them are potato chips and coke.

Again, from a cross-sectional point of view, this is possible. But it's a disaster from the time-series point of view. As society in general has gotten richer, we've also gotten fatter. How is it that the poor today "can't afford to eat healthily", but the poor in the 1930's could?

So explanations have to get more complicated. There's no rule of nature that everything has a single explanation. I've picked fertility and obesity because they are two of the most stubborn problems facing the west today, which suggests, but does not guarantee, that they may not be amenable to a single simple explanation.

I think there's something quite humbling about looking at the totality of the data, because it rarely looks like any one neat explanation of anything. It reminds you that your models of the world are just that - models. You include what you think are the most important parts, but you leave out lots of other stuff too. Even if you're right on what's important (a big if), the world is a large and complicated place.