Thomas Sowell: Economic Facts and Fallacies (1h6m)

This episode features an interview of economics professor Thomas Sowell from 2008 by Russ Roberts, host of EconTalk. They discuss the misleading nature of measured income inequality, CEO pay, why nations grow or stay poor, the role of intellectuals and experts in designing public policy, and immigration. Purchase books by Thomas Sowell on Amazon here.

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Mentoring: The Rationality of Fear

A few months ago, Lean In published the results of a survey by Sandberg and Pritchard showing a dramatic increase in the share of male managers who fear close interaction with female coworkers.  Specifically:

60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago.

The survey’s creators were dismayed:

This is disastrous. The vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men. They have a huge role to play in supporting women’s advancement at work—or hindering it…

There’s not a company in the world that can afford to leave talent on the sidelines because that talent is female. But that’s what will keep happening unless all of us—especially men—commit to doing better.

Most commentators found male managers’ reluctance to mentor women especially reprehensible and irrational.  Male managers aren’t just undermining gender equality; they’re paranoid.  How so?  Because innocent men have nothing to fear except false accusations – and these hardly ever happen.  Thus, Prudy Gourguechon remarks:

The implication of the surveys is that men are afraid of being falsely accused.  But false accusations of sexual impropriety are actually very rare.

Mia Brett tells us:

Despite the framing of this story, male managers refusing to mentor women started long before #MeToo. Furthermore, fears of false accusation aren’t supported by statistics.

Andrew Fiouzi:

[D]ealing with men’s unrealistic fears around false accusations will require unfamiliar amounts of self-reflection on the part of the men in question.

Emily Peck:

Some men also like to claim that women are fabricating claims. Those fears are largely unfounded, Thomas said. She points out that the same myth surrounds sexual assault. False accusations make up a very low percentage of reported rapes, according to several studies — in line with other types of crime.

While it’s dauntingly hard to credibly estimate the rate of false accusation, I suspect all the preceding authors are correct.  Human beings rarely invent bald harmful lies about others.

On reflection, however, this hardly implies that male managers are paranoid or otherwise “irrational.”  For three reasons:

1. You have to multiply the probability of a false accusation by the harm of a false accusation.  Since the harm is high, even a seemingly negligible probability may be worth worrying about.  Consider this passage in Fiouzi’s analysis:

But according to Richard J. Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, there is, practically speaking, no evidence to justify the Pence Rule [not dining alone with women other than your wife]. “You often hear about men being falsely accused of sexual harassment,” he says. “[But] the University of California, San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health conducted a study recently that revealed that two percent of men and one percent of women had been falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, so in fact, accusations, and particularly false ones, are exceptionally rare.”

Taking these estimates at face value, it’s hard to see the paranoia: A 2% chance of severe career damage is a serious risk, especially given the low personal benefits of mentoring.  Furthermore, managers are far more tempting targets for false accusation than ordinary co-workers, so their probability of being falsely accused plausibly rises to 4%, 6%, or even 10%.

2.  In any case, a low rate of false accusation multiplied by a long mentoring career could still readily lead to multiple false accusations.  So it’s hardly imprudent for many male managers to respond with great caution.  Remember: The chance you’ll die in a car crash today if you don’t wear a seat belt is a rounding error.  The chance you’ll eventually die in a car crash if you habitually don’t wear a seat belt, however, is nothing to scoff at.

3. As I’ve explained before, truly malevolent actions – such as falsely accusing others – are far less common than misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings are a ubiquitous unpleasant feature of human life.  One common way to avoid this unpleasantness is to avoid social situations likely to lead to misunderstandings.  This strategy is especially tempting if, in the event of misunderstanding, others will presume you’re in the wrong.  So again, it’s hardly surprising that many male managers would respond to changing norms (#BelieveWomen) by playing defense.

What then should be done?  The emotionally appealing response, sadly, is to fight fear with an extra helping of fear: “You’re too scared to mentor?  Interesting.  Now let me show you what we do to those who shirk their mentoring responsibilities.”  If this seems like a caricature, carefully listen to what the authors of the original survey have to say:

Ugly behavior that once was indulged or ignored is finally being called out and condemned. Now we must go further. Avoiding and isolating women at work—whether out of an overabundance of caution, a misguided sense of decorum, irritation at having to check your words or actions, or any other reason—must be unacceptable too.

The problem, of course, is that mentoring is too informal to easily monitor.  Unless someone loudly announces, “I refuse to mentor women,” there’s not much you can do to him.  Mentoring quotas are likely to flop for the same reason.

The alternative is obvious, but unpalatable for activists: Put the frightened people whose assistance you need at ease.  Be friendly and calm, gracious and grateful.  Take the ubiquity of misunderstandings seriously.  Don’t zealously advocate for yourself, and don’t rush to take sides.  Instead, strive to de-escalate conflict whenever a misunderstanding arises.  This would obviously work best as a coordinated cultural shift toward good manners, but you don’t have to wait for the world to come to its senses.  You can start building your personal reputation for collegiality today – so why wait to get potential mentors on your side?

If you’re tempted to respond, “Why should I have to put them at ease?,” the honest answer is: Because you’re the one asking for help.

If that’s the way you talk to others, though, don’t expect them to give you honest answers.  Intimidation is the father of silence and the mother of lies.  If you have to use threats to exhort help, you’ll probably just get a bunch of empty promises.

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A Loophole for the Lawless: “Qualified Immunity” Must Go

On August 11, 2014, officers from the Caldwell, Idaho Police Department asked for Shaniz West’s permission to enter and search her home. They were looking for her ex-boyfriend. West authorized the search and handed over her keys.

Instead of entering and searching the home, though, the police brought in a SWAT team, surrounding the building.  “[P]olice repeatedly exceeded the authority Ms. West had given them,” a lawsuit she filed complains, “breaking windows, crashing through ceilings, and riddling the home with holes from shooting canisters of tear gas, destroying most of Ms. West and her children’s personal belongings.”

The “standoff” lasted ten hours. But it wasn’t really a standoff. The only mammal in the home larger than a mouse was West’s dog.

Then the cops went on their merry way, leaving West homeless for two months, with three weeks in a hotel as her only compensation.

She wants more, including the costs of repairing and replacing her ruined personal property, damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress, and punitive damages for the assault on a home she gladly authorized a search of, not an attack on. She deserves all of that.

She isn’t getting it — yet, at least — due to a loophole baked into a vile judicial doctrine called “qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity protects government employees from liability for things they willfully decide to do while on duty, unless those actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

The loophole is the phrase “clearly established.”

The Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that “no Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit case clearly established, as of August 2014, that Defendants exceeded the scope of consent.”

How’s that for circular reasoning? “You can only sue over X if someone else has previously successfully sued for X. ” And no one CAN have successfully sued for X, at least since the loophole was introduced in 1982, because they would have been turned away on the same grounds!

The Institute for Justice wants the US Supreme Court to take up West’s case.

It should do so, and when it rules it should go beyond nixing the “clearly established” loophole and do away with the doctrine of “qualified immunity” entirely.

42 US Code § 1983 provides that “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” may be sued for damages.

Not just if someone has successfully sued on the same grounds before.

And not just if a “reasonable person” would have known better.

Government employees are supposed to know their jobs, including the limits on their authority. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be given guns and badges, let alone protection from liability when they exceed those limits.

“Qualified immunity” is the opposite of “equality under the law.”

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Anarchist Colonization of Mars

I was on a recent episode of the Anarchy Bang podcast with the topic being Anarchist Colonization of Mars. Here are the pieces that I wrote for the intro and the editorial for this episode.


In 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published the science fiction novel “The Dispossessed”, which told the story of a movement of anarchists who collectively left an Earth-like planet to go colonize a Mars-like planet, establishing there a new society organized around their anarchist beliefs. In 1992 Kim Stanley Robinson published the science fiction novel “Red Mars”, the first book of his “Mars Trilogy”, which told the story of people colonizing the planet Mars, including a number of explicitly anarchist groups, who then go on to become independent from the various authorities on Earth.

Then last Saturday, September 28th, Elon Musk held a press conference where he introduced the world to the “Starship” vehicle that he intends to use to send humans to Mars to begin the process of colonizing that planet. Musk’s company, SpaceX, has already shown the world that reusable rockets which are capable of going out into space can be made, and that a private company can make them. Prior to this only single-use rockets were made for space travel, and government agencies were seen as the only organizations capable of going out into space.

Taking inspiration from all of this, the question here becomes: How about we build some real-life anarchist colonies on Mars? Our current planet is fucked, in all kinds of different ways, so how about those of us who yearn for a completely different world go set up shop on a completely different world? How about we turn “the Red Planet” into “the Red & Black Planet”? Let’s become Martians!
Join in the conversation!


Editorial for Episode 39 – Anarchist Colonization of Mars

For a long time I advocated for a Global Anarchist Social Revolution. I said that everybody in the world can and should change the way that they relate to get rid of all hierarchy and domination, and instead have voluntary cooperation and sharing be the basis for all of social life. This would involve the elimination of all governments, capitalism and patriarchy worldwide, and the dawn of a beautiful new age of freedom and equality for all of humanity. I saw my role in all of that as being to help inspire people to move to unlock this latent potential to make this happen.

Over time, after a series of different heartbreaks and disappointments, I came to hold a belief that a Global Anarchist Social Revolution (or “GASR” for short) was most likely not going to happen and that it would be best to not be putting my time and energy into things assuming that it would. At around the same time as this, other anarchists were coming to these same conclusions, most notably with the widely circulated text called “Desert”. That piece took things a step further by saying that not only would an anarchist revolution not happen, but the sibling project of “saving the Earth” from ecological catastrophe was not going to happen either, and that we should adjust our plans and expectations to accommodate that. My anarchist goals became much more diminished and narrow in scope, shrinking from a global scale down to a more individualist scale, looking at just me and my own little life.

Then in more recent years a new and completely unrelated development has taken place. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX has publicly announced their intention and plans to send humans to the planet Mars, and they have developed some reusable rockets to help make this happen. SpaceX also has the advantage of also being a private company, not a government agency, thereby showing that these kinds of endeavors can take place outside of the purview of a government. If SpaceX can do this, what can other non-governmental agencies accomplish?

An idea then hit me, perhaps a new big grand world-changing mission can be adopted by anarchists to fill the void left by what was previously occupied by the “GASR” (Global Anarchist Social Revolution). Perhaps instead of focusing on changing this world, anarchists can focus on getting off of this world and settling on Mars instead? Both tasks are enormous, involving lots of work, resources, and would most likely take generations to accomplish. But if we are indeed writing off all hope for this planet, as far fetched as it may sound, there may be some hope in the planet Mars instead.

I would like to have a conversation that I have never had before, and that is to talk about the possibility of anarchists colonizing Mars. How can we conceptualize this project in a way that is in some sense realistic and tangible? How can we even begin to break down this massive undertaking in a way that we can make some progress with it? How would we need to re-organize our tiny little anarchist scene or subculture to be able to tackle such a big endeavor? Or perhaps this all is still a project that is ahead of it’s time, and is best left for a future “wave” of anarchism to take up?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Plus, there are a million other questions and variables to consider when considering something like a project on this scale. But I would like to talk about this, and in particular I would like to talk about all of this while using an anarchist lens. So let’s get going.

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The Fault Is Not in Our Stuff But in Ourselves

Bruce Sacerdote‘s NBER Working Paper, “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” provides a nice update on the measurement of CPI Bias.  The punchline should be obvious, but it’s great to hear such an eminent economist say it: “Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.”

Highlights:

Table 3 shows estimates of annualized growth rates in wages by decade. The first column shows growth in real wages using CPI deflation. This column show real wages fell by 0.8 percent per year during the ten years January 1975-January 1985 and fell by 0.6 percent per year during the ten years ended in 1995.10 In the subsequent two decades wage growth is positive 0.8 percent per year and 0.7 percent per year respectively.

The next three columns calculate growth in real wages using a) PCE adjustment, b) an assumption of 20% upward bias in CPI growth, and c) Hamilton/ Costa adjustment to CPI. The picture looks progressively more optimistic as we move from left to right. PCE adjustment still has negative wage growth in the first two decades (75-85 and 85-95) but the decreases in real wages are smaller. Hamilton/ Costa bias adjustment implies annual real wage growth of 1.4% during 1975-1985, .2 percent per year during 1985-1995, 1.4 percent during 1995-2005 and .8 percent in the most recent decade.

The table in question:

More:

Consumption for below median income families has seen steady progress since 1960. My preferred point estimates are based on CEX measures of consumption where the price index has been de-biased following Hamilton and Costa. These estimates suggest that consumption is up 1.7 percent per year or 164 percent over the whole time period. These estimates of growth strike me as consistent with the significant increases in quality and quantity of goods enjoyed by Americans over the last half century. And my conclusions are consistent with the findings of Broda and Weinstein (2008). Estimates of slow and steady growth seem more plausible than media headlines which suggest that median American households face declining living standards.

The bias adjusted estimates also provide a more positive outlook on real wage growth in the last 40 years than standard media headlines. PCE adjusted wages appear to have grown at .5% per year during 1975-2015 while the de-biased CPI adjusted wages grew at 1% per year over the same time period.

Key caveat:

Importantly these estimates do not tell us anything about why wages grew more slowly than GDP or why inequality increased. CPI bias does not explain decreases in labor’s share of income (Krueger 1999) or the associated rise in inequality (Pikkety and Saez 2003). Adjusting the price index downward leads to higher estimated real wage growth and higher estimated real GDP growth.

The big unanswered question:

What I do not address here is why Americans feel worse off if consumption is actually rising. There are at least four important explanations that may be at work. First, I am only examining consumption within very large sections of the income distribution and there may be specific groups (for example less than high school educated men) for whom consumption is actually falling. Second, it’s possible that the quality of some services such as public education or health care could be falling for some groups. Third, the rise in income inequality coupled with increased information flow about other people’s consumption may be making Americans feel worse off in a relative sense even if their material goods consumption is rising. Fourth, changes in family structure (e.g. the rise of single parent households), increases in the prison population, or increases in substance addiction could make people worse off even in the face of rising material wealth. A deep future research agenda would be to understand how America has lost its sense of optimism about living standards and whether the problem is one of consumption, relative consumption (relative to other people) or something entirely different.

My favorite candidate for “something entirely different”: false consciousness.  Most people embrace a dogmatic pessimistic ideology, and believing is seeing.  Hedonic adaptation amplifies the problem.  After all, it’s easier to deny that your standard of living is great than to admit that you’re unhappy despite your affluence.  The fault is not in our stuff but in ourselves.

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