How the politics of envy (or “income inequality”) work in the broadest sense

Tyler Cowen writes in “Paul Krugman on the political salience of inequality” that

I see the inequality issue as having high salience for NYT readers, for Democratic Party donors, and for progressive activists. It has very little salience for the American public, especially with say swing voters in southern Ohio or soccer moms. Unlike in Singapore or South Korea, where the major concentrations of wealth are pretty hard to avoid for most people, American income inequalities are well hidden for the most part.

McLean is one of the wealthiest towns in Virginia, but if you drive through the downtown frankly it still feels a bit like a dump. I’ve never wanted to live there, not even at lower real estate prices. You don’t stumble upon the nicest homes unless you know where to look. Middleburg is wealthier yet, but it has few homes, feels unreal, and most people don’t go there anyway. If they do, they more likely admire well-groomed horses and still read Princess Diana biographies. They are not choking with envy over the privileges of old money rentiers, and there is no Walmart in town to bring in the masses (who probably would not care anyway).

(Emphasis added.)

This describes greater Seattle as well: how many people outside the area have heard of Medina, city of mansions? Even within the area, most people who mention it only do so as “the place where Bill Gates lives,” despite the many other freakish palaces there. Those who live in Issaquah (further east, away from Seattle proper) don’t appear to care what happens in Medina and even if they did their political ability to affect Medina is limited. Seattle is not exactly like Cowen’s Virginia—Bellevue now has a real downtown where people want to live and go, for example—but the similarities are real.

The only place I’ve lived which seems to generate envy of major concentrations of wealth is New York, perhaps because a) of the demographics, or at least the people I tend to hang out with and b) many average people see / walk by very expensive buildings. I regularly walk by the new skyscraper on 23rd and Park or Lex where Rupert Murdoch is reputed to have bought a $80 million penthouse. Though he seems unlikely to invite me up for a martini and canapés, his dwelling is much more in your face than Medina or other wealthy places in Seattle; when I live in and near Seattle I never walked by or even got near Bill Gates’s house.

Among those I know who have been to Bill Gates’s house, all were Microsoft interns who are more likely to want to be the next Gates than they are to resent him. Gates and other tech zillionaires also appear to generate very little ill will locally. That may be another difference from New York, since tech zillionaires are widely seen as having earned their money by providing value, while finance riches may not be seen in the same way.*

Later in the post Cowen also links to Seattle’s $15 minimum wage debate, despite the many well-known problems of the minimum wage. If Seattle were serious about making poor and lower-middle class people better off, the city would be focused on providing more housing and not in effect putting gates in front of current and potential residents. But the same people who want higher minimum wages are the ones who hate and protest housing supply increases. There are many ways to make people materially better off and some ways, like building, are much closer to being Pareto efficient. The same political dysfunctions that afflict Seattle are common elsewhere too, in places like Santa Monica.


* I don’t have a strong opinion on those because I don’t know enough to judge, though I have heard plausible views about why finance increases liquidity and enables capital to find useful purposes and plausible views about how finance is an increasingly zero-sum game focused on enriching insiders and corrupting the political process.

Seth Roberts

Seth Roberts died (H/T Tyler Cowen), though unlike Cowen I didn’t know him. But in 2013 he did link to The Story’s Story and I consider that a small but significant achievement. He too was interested in cities and how cities function; he knew so much but was open to talking to strangers: his contact page still says, “Ask Me Anything/Contact Me,” which is often a sign of an active, open mind. Of his recent posts this is my favorite.

I wish he had written more books, which endure better than blogs or papers. For many intellectuals, writers, and thinkers, books are their lasting testaments.

Paying for the Party — Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton

Paying for the Party is a specialist book likely to be of particular interest to two audiences—university-involved people / researchers and parents of high school and college students—but it has a couple other notable features: it inadvertently shows why so many teachers are so bad, it is broadly compatible with Bryan Caplan’s view of education as a signaling mechanism, and the way the authors treat the women they write about like passive receptacles for the amorphously described desires of other people. The authors live with a cohort of freshmen girls in a large dorm and then follow their progress through the university or away from it. Here’s an example of their paternalism:

Even if women are willing to socialize without alcohol, the university offers comparatively few opportunities [. . .] The women on our floor, who loved to dance, often complained that there was nowhere to do this other than fraternities. [. . .] Fraternity men choose party themes, decide who can enter and who can leave parties, and generally dictate the social lives of the campuses youngest and most vulnerable residents. (53–4)

Paying for the PartyThis passage again implies that women have no agency in what they do and aren’t really accountable for their actions: instead, nebulous the “university” or “fraternity men” are the ones who “dictate” what happens to “vulnerable” women. The school in question sounds like the University of Arizona, where innumerable forums were available for dancing: ballroom club, swing club, and a bunch of others. The authors have too much credulousness here; the frat system persists in part because women support it by going to frat parties. That being said, the inability of women to enter bars where older women go to get laid also plays a role; this is an unintended and rarely discussed consequence of making the official drinking age 21 when the unofficial drinking age is much younger.

(EDIT: Sororities apparently pay lower insurance fees in return for not hosting parties. Nonetheless, there are proposals, like mine in the preceding paragraph, to allow sororities to host parties. This seems like a wildly obvious step to me but Armstrong and Hamilton never quite consider it: Without consciously realizing it, they are determined to frame women as victims—and they succeed.)

As with so many social science books the authors seem to have no familiarity with evolutionary biology or for that matter their own society: “All women had to do to get to a fraternity party was to stand out front.” And they got “free alcohol” at frats. Have they not heard of K-selection? Men by and large compete to be selected by women, but my anecdotal observation is that relatively few women perceive this because they’re in turn focused on a relatively small number of high-status men, with status defined differently in different context. Lower status can be nearly invisible. I bring that up in part because Paying for the Party is by and primarily about women.

Beyond that, Harry Brighouse’s Crooked Timber post on the book is good. Of particular interest is this, when Brighouse says that “A typical reaction [from his student reading group] has been ‘I wish I had seen this in my first year of college, I’d have understood the institution and how to navigate it so much better.'” I heard a lot of that in many contexts at the University of Arizona; there is a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge that goes into navigating the educational or health systems successfully, and too little of that knowledge is explicit (that’s one reason I wrote some of my essays about how universities really work). The students who most need to read such essays or a book like Paying for the Party are probably the ones least likely to do so and most likely to pay for their party long after the party is over.

In addition, most of the professors and grad students who teach college classes probably aren’t going to identify with lost or party-oriented students. The kinds of people who become obsessed with a topic enough to go to academic grad school and then make it as a professor are for the most part huge nerds. People tend to self-segregate and consequently the nerds who are teaching classes are looking for the nerds or proto-nerds taking them. That was certainly true of me; the students who didn’t really like reading, English, or thinking weren’t of tremendous interest to me. There’s an inherent culture clash between nerds (who are by and large selected to be grad students and then professors) and party-oriented people. When I was a grad student I provided lots of feedback to students who tended to be nerds (and thus wanted to talk to me) and much less to those who didn’t tend to be nerds (and thus didn’t much want to talk to me).

The culture clash issue is a small example of the general problem that often occurs when taking a thing that was created primarily to do one thing—create knowledge, and train and house future knowledge workers—and then adapt it to do something else—provide job training or at least job signaling for everyone. Nerds, even in a relatively broad sense, have always been and probably always will be a relatively small proportion of the population and by now pretty much every nerd, broadly defined, in the U.S. is going to college. The number of people at the margins who are well-equipped either financially by their parents or intellectually by themselves and their schools to succeed in big research universities is probably small.

Paying for the Party inadvertently mentions why so many teachers in American schools are so bad: they spend much of their life in college partying and know that “education” is an easy major. Hilariously, we find this: “Some women, however, struggled to pass teacher certification tests.” I hope the tests in the Midwestern state studied are harder than the ones in Washington. I’ve written this before, but I took the general teacher test and the English-specific test in Washington State, cold, and got a certificate saying I was in the top five or two percent of the test takers. It was shockingly, insanely easy. I think I would’ve passed when I was in high school. That nominal college grads would struggle on a similar exam could be another datum in Academically Adrift.

The other “easy” majors make college deceptive for marginal students, like many of those Armstrong and Hamilton follow, but from the university’s perspective one shoudl ask: What’s the alternatives? Armstrong and Hamilton recommend making college harder, which sounds fine to me, but students who can’t handle “tourism” or “apparel management” aren’t going to become chemical engineers instead. Even if one removed the easy majors somehow, the marginal students would end up dropping out altogether. Showing up in college and not being able to write simple sentences or do algebra means that real intellectual learning is likely to take a long time to develop—if it ever does.

To return to gender politics, the authors say there is a group of women who “were not poised to move upward” economically and “Virtually all [of them] were servicing substantial debt.” “Several of these women actively sought men who could help support them [. . .] Others struggled to find ideal candidates who were willing to commit” (213). But the authors (again) never look at a man’s perspective: Why would a high-status, high-skill man want to marry a random woman with limited skills or prospects?

The phrase “don’t buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” comes to mind. Evidently the women described didn’t learn about empathy while in college. Men are as selective as women regarding long-term relationships (see here for one example of the research on this subject). The authors do get to something like this point around pages 222 – 3. Many of the women look down on otherwise decent-seeming guys; both they and the authors don’t seem to realize that there aren’t a huge number of jobs in glamour industries like “fashion” or “entertainment.” Unless I missed it, words like “computer science” and “electrical engineering” never appear.

I can’t find the quote right now, but I’ve seen something like this: “What the rich accept as their right the poor pay for with their youth.”

The links we click tell us who we are—

The most-clicked link in “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” comes from this sentence: “In addition, a lot of early socialization about sex and dating is so bad that men and probably women too need to learn how to overcome it.” Usually readers follow more links from the beginning of posts than the ends of post, and the fact that relatively many found this link compelling may tell us something important about what people in general or at least readers of this blog want to know.

I think there’s a level of systematic dishonesty or at least eliding the truth about gender relations and sexuality when many people are growing up, and as a consequence a lot of people hunger for real knowledge. But even as adults that knowledge is still often hidden behind ideology or signaling or wish fulfillment fantasy.

How is this different from academic journals?

Software is not only taking a shot at writing essays but also grading them and providing instant feedback on student work in progress, analysis that is well beyond grading multiple-choice quizzes. These programs still need to work out some bugs (a clever student can game them with coherent-sounding nonsense), but they are much further along than we had been expecting five or ten years ago.

(Emphasis added.)

That’s from Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over.

A surprisingly large number of papers and books in the humanities, as well as grant proposals, are filled with “coherent-sounding nonsense,” and at least in humanities papers I’ve read a lot of incoherent-sounding nonsense (which may help explain declining enrollment in humanities majors). The market for coherent-sounding nonsense is surprisingly robust.

EDIT: Relatedly, much later Cowen writes of the way that in economics “Newly minted PhD candidates are extremely proficient with data, but a lot of them don’t have much microeconomic intuition. [. . . ] Overall, the profession is producing more first-rate empiricists than before, yet theory hasn’t progressed much in twenty years or more. Theory is increasingly ignored” (225). If one could make a similar statement about English the field was a whole would be better. In some ways, perhaps one can: the growth of MFA programs and undergrad writing classes is some in sense the move from a theory of literature to the practice of it.

Men are where women were 30 years ago?

In “Studying U.S. Families: ‘Men Are Where Women Were 30 Years Ago’,” Stephanie Coontz makes some interesting points but, it seems to me, is missing some of the important forces acting on men. She says, for example, that

In some senses, men are where women were 30 years ago. Fifty years ago, women were told, this is your place, stay in it. But about 30 years ago, it was, yes, you can do other things [. . .] Men are at the point where they’re beginning to discover that there are things beyond the old notion of masculinity that are rewarding.

I think the basic issues are simpler:

* Most people have no pre-defined roles in gender or work; this is good in some ways but has costs in others and leads to a lot of confusion, especially given the predominant ideology in schools.

* At some point, probably around 1980 or so (1973 could work, though this wasn’t widely recognized at the time) we entered a period of greater societal, technological, and social volatility. It is hard to predict what the future will look like and what skills and roles will be valuable. My only guess about what will be perpetually valuable is read, writing, and math.

In addition, there is a large number of people (certainly a minority but a reasonably substantial minority) brought up in religious environments that they accept uncritically but that don’t map well onto the modern social world and onto modern hypocrisy. Someone like Dalrock is the consequence (not that I don’t endorse everything he writes or even a plurality of what he writes, but he does criticize many of the social-sexual currents in contemporary Christianity).

* All Joy and No Fun is an interesting book for many reasons, but one is its point about raising contemporary children: many if not most of us don’t know what we’re raising them to do, or be. This makes the task inherently difficult.

* When writers say things like:

It’s so hard to continue the revolution in family life in a situation where there’s so little support for family-friendly work policies, where there’s not good child care available, when there isn’t parental leave. Why don’t we have them?

They actually mean that they want stuff other people are going to have to work to pay for. Not surprisingly most of us want something for nothing. We also have a problem in that lots of old people vote, so their interests are well-represented among the allocation of the federal budget, but not a lot of children do. It’s easy to call for handouts and hard to pay for them.

* Feminism has had a marketing and perhaps a content problem for decades. Among my female students at the University of Arizona, virtually none wanted to be identified as feminists. People who do want to be identified should contemplate why. It may be that students get the motte and bailey issues of modern feminism (do read the whole thing).

* Things that are adaptive in short-term relationships may be maladaptive in long-term relationships and vice-versa, yet I too seldom see this point.

* Men notice the kinds of men who women tend to be attracted to, and a lot of the men women are actually attracted to don’t appear to be the kind who Coontz probably thinks they should be attracted to. In addition, a lot of early socialization about sex and dating is so bad that men (and probably women too) need to learn how to overcome it. Books like Mate and Self-Made Man are important in this respect.

* It should be obvious by now that what people say they want and what they actually do are often quite different.

Links: Drunk idiots, helping guys with sex and women, the great douchebag non-mystery, Japan, and more

* “On the Positive Features of Drunken Idiots“—another response to the Flangan frat piece; mine is “If you want to understand frats, talk to the women who party at them.”

* Tucker Max: “It’s Time To Help Guys Understand Sex, Dating And Women, Part 1.” I needed this book when I was 14.

* “One big reason we lack Internet competition: Starting an ISP is really hard.” If I had Zuckerbergian money I’d fund ISPs.

* “Judge says prosecutors should follow the law. Prosecutors revolt.” File this as another example of insiders being unhappy when they’re held to the same standards everyone else is.

* “Is an internship worth more than majoring in business?” I’ve often expressed skepticism about majoring in business: How many large companies want someone who knows generic “business?” What is a random 22-year-old going to know about someone’s business that a person working in said business for 20 years isn’t going to know already?

* A hilarious anti-Game of Thrones screed. I find the books uneven but not quite as bad.

* “The Great Douchebag Mystery,” solved, or, “People respond to incentives.”

* “What Does the Book Business Look Like on the Inside?” Apparently it’s about as crazy as it looks from the outside.

* How Japan Copied American Culture and Made it Better, which seems like it should be stupid but isn’t; has craftsmanship returned as a value?

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