Drug War

I submit the following, seemingly reasonable principle:

If you engage in some costly action, Y, because you believe some other thing, X, is true and then you later find out that X is false, then on pain of irrationality you should cease Y.

Now, it’s possible that in the intervening period you get really lucky and discover another reason to do Y. In general, that seems rather unlikely. More probably, if someone persists in that costly activity, it’s a result of a habit and/or status-quo bias.

How rational does the drug war seem in light of this principle and the following historical quotes promoting drug prohibition?

  • When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.” In Texas, a senator said on the floor of the Senate: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.
  • Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.
  • Under the influence of hashish those fanatics would madly rush at their enemies, and ruthlessly massacre every one within their grasp.
  • There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.
  • …the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.
  • Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.
  • Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.
  • Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing
  • You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.
  • Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.
  • Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain
  • Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are New Southern Menace:Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks
  • one of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities
  • Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy
  • Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.
  • If the Chinaman cannot get along without his ‘dope,’ we can get along without him.
  • ..Negro cocaine fiends are now a known Southern menace.
  • Marihuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration. Easily grown, it has been asserted that it has recently been planted between rows in a California penitentiary garden. Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marihuana cigarets to school children. Bills for our quota against Mexico have been blocked mysteriously in every Congress since the 1924 Quota Act. Our nation has more than enough laborers.
  • Liquor will actually make a brute out of a Negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes. The effect is the same on the white man, though the white man being further evolved it takes longer time to reduce him to the same level.
  • According to Hill, “Gompers [Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor 1886-1924, except for one year] conjures up a terrible picture of how the Chinese entice little white boys and girls into becoming ‘opium fiends.’ Condemned to spend their days in the back of laundry rooms, these tiny lost souls would yield up their virgin bodies to their maniacal yellow captors. “What other crimes were committed in those dark fetid places,” Gompers writes, “when these little innocent victims of the Chinamen’s wiles were under the influence of the drug, are almost too horrible to imagine… There are hundreds, aye, thousands, of our American girls and boys who have acquired this deathly habit and are doomed, hopelessly doomed, beyond the shadow of redemption.”
  • Mexicans became “very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear, I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and that it will take several men to handle one man while under ordinary circumstances one man could handle him with ease.
  • The use of marihuana is not uncommon in the colonies of the lower class of Mexican immigrants. This is a native drug made from what is sometimes called the ‘crazy weed.’ The effects are high exhilaration and intoxication, followed by extreme depression and broken nerves. [Police] officers and Mexicans both ascribe many of the moral irregularities of Mexicans to the effects of marihuana.
  •  It has been stated on very high authority that the use of co- caine by the negroes of the South is one of the most elusive and troublesome questions which confront the enforcement of the law in most of the Southern states
  • cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country.
  • The record of the ‘cocaine nigger’ near Asheville, who dropped five men dead in their tracks, using only one cartridge for each, offers evidence that is sufficiently convincing.

If anyone else has any more such delightful quotes, send them my way, please!

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Fairness, Equality, Efficiency and Parent Perks

I assume the existence of an adversary in this post. I think the adversary actually exists, but be warned, I could be wasting good TV time on a straw man.

First, I read the opening question of this installment of Dear Prudence over at Slate. (Yeah, I read Prudie…SO FREAKIN’ WHAT?!) In short, a childless, junior attorney complains that she has to pick up the slack for her more “Quiverfull” coworkers while they attend to their various parental duties, and she doesn’t think this is fair. Then a little later I read this article, also over at Slate, which takes a more general and principled stand against the same thing, arguing that granting parents more slack is a form of discrimination. (Was the author of the article inspired by the Prudie question?)

In the comments, people bring up a lot of different points about how the parents probably do more work from home that others don’t see, or how each employee may have negotiated different combinations of pay and vacation, etc. These are all worthwhile points, but for now I want to just assume for the sake of argument that these workplaces do, in fact, systematically shift some work from their parent employees to their childless ones without providing any other direct or indirect compensation. In addition, I’m going to make two further assumptions, either of whose failure would make me susceptible to the aforementioned straw man.

  1. A non-trivial number of people (especially childless ones) would find such a workplace discriminatory, or at the very least unfair.
  2. A non-trivial portion of those same people from 1 also think that the US government should require workplaces to provide more lavish, pro-parent benefits, like the ones apparently found in Sweden and Norway.

If you think either of these assumptions is obviously stupid, you can stop reading here and perhaps tell me why. However, in absence of contradictory evidence, they feel right to me.

So, the natural question then is what plausible premises dissolve the apparent contradiction here? When it comes to this kind of pro-parent, redistributive policy, why does fairness trump equality/efficiency at the firm level but not at the federal level?

One reason I found this interesting despite its fairly narrow scope is that debates between pro-market and pro-government folks usually revolve around whether or not the market would provide certain goods that society requires and/or needs. So, one naturally assumes that pro-government people would be satisfied if they believed that the market was already allocating resources justly. However, this makes me wonder if that assumption is wrong because here it seems that the redistribution is deemed just only if it’s done at the “highest” level. Are there any other examples like this?

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Roshanda and Harvard

I don’t really have any well-formed thoughts on this yet, so I’m just throwing it out there. Maybe someone can help me decide how comparable these two phenomena really are.

I had a job interview last week. During the scheduling of the interview, I was given the name of the person who was going to interview me, as doesn’t seem to be uncommon. Being the curious sort, I found my way to this person’s LinkedIn profile the night before, and I noticed that he had attended the Phillips Exeter Academy. I had heard of this school before, but I didn’t really know anything about it. I suppose I fixated on it, though, because of the awfully highfalutin’ name. So in the spirit of killing time, I went to the above Wiki link, where I learned, among other things, its graduates are known as “Exonians”. “Hmm”, I thought, as I often do when filling the nooks of my brain with useless trivia from Wikipedia.

The next day, this trivia emerged from my mental ether at the interview, and I brought it up as small talk during that brief, slightly awkward period between the time the interviewer comes in and when the two of you “get down to business”. He mentioned that any resume with that school’s name on it always catches his eye. This isn’t surprising; I would take special notice of the name of any one of the unremarkable schools that I attended. However, my interviewer’s alma mater was obviously a different story. A resume bearing its name would’ve garnered additional attention from almost anyone because it’s an elite institution. By sheer coincidence, while I was waiting for my interviewer, I was staring at my phone reading this article, about disappearing work opportunities for all but the most skilled of workers. Hence, sitting in my brain’s cache was all of the talk over the recent years about the emergence of a bifurcated society where all the lower-skilled jobs are outsourced or (ultimately) obviated by automation and the few remaining high-skilled jobs command a wage premium and are dominated by an upper class of high-IQ, super-educated Ivy Leaguers who transmit (through genetics or environment or both) this good fortune onto their children, creating a new kind of perpetual, STEM-trained royal lineage. His remark linked up with these ideas and so lingered a little longer in my brain.

Anyway, the upshot of this meandering tale for my present purposes is that, regardless of political affiliations or beliefs about the above rising upper-class theory, I think very few people would criticize an interviewer, HR, etc. for paying special attention to a resume that claimed a Harvard, MIT, or Caltech pedigree. Even if you think that opportunities to attend such schools are unequally distributed and that all sorts of government interventions to change that are justified, you probably still think that it’s OK to “statistically discriminate” in favor of graduates of those schools. That is, most people condone this kind of discrimination because they believe that, on average, graduates of these elite schools really do perform better.

Thinking about resumes and discrimination reminded me of the now widely-known chapter in Freakonomics about black names. To quickly summarize, take identical resumes, put “Roshanda” on one and “Jane” on the other and send them out, Jane will get more callbacks. Suppose a similar experiment were carried out with college names, taking two otherwise identical resumes and putting “Harvard” on one and “LSU” on the other. Although I could be proved wrong with data, I feel comfortable hypothesizing that the Harvard resume would get more callbacks. With somewhat less confidence, I’d also theorize that the positive effect of “Harvard” would be larger than the negative effect of “Roshanda”.

Now, my guess is that a lot of people who would defend discrimination based on Harvard attendance would decry discrimination based on name ethnicity. Also, I don’t think it would be similarly well-received if HR departments defended themselves by saying that, on average, people with “urban” names performed more poorly.

Do you think I am right that most people would display this apparent contradiction? Is it indeed a contradiction, or is there a good reason why one should be OK and the other not, especially if the first kind of discrimination really is having bad sociological and economic effects?

Update

I re-read a post by Bryan Caplan the other day that asks the more general question that considerations like the above lead to. I originally considered making a similar post, but I thought it might be useful to focus on two scenarios to which the median person is likely to have extremely opposite opinions. The post and comments over at EconLong are worth reading.

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Should libertarians more readily condone violence?

Sorry for my long absence. I’ve been occupied with a more pressing agenda lately.

The question I pose in the title is meant to sound odd. Though the spectrum of libertarianism is wide and varied, libertarians generally try to work a strong commitment to non-violence into their theoretical framework somewhere, e.g., the non-aggression principle. This is perhaps largely because they take moral issue with the violence that is implicit in almost any state action. Given that, theoretical elegance would then favor a broadly anti-violence stance. However, it seems to me that a lot of libertarian arguments against violence in certain circumstances very readily suggest arguments for violence in different ones, ones in which we (or at least I) rarely hear libertarians call for the use of force.

For example, one of the more common and (I think) effective ways to argue for more libertarian policies is to use thought experiments about pre-state societies to probe at our moral intuitions about when and to what degree one person should be able to infringe on the autonomy of another. As it turns out, it’s very difficult to square our intuitions about what kinds of things a “government” should be able to do in a 5-person society with the things that everybody accepts that modern governments should be able to do. For a good, made-for-broad-consumption example of this, check out You Can Always Leave. For a perhaps meatier approach, see The Problem of Political Authority. (I admit I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews I’ve read suggest it exhibits this approach.) I think these kinds of arguments exhibit a good approach to moral reasoning: straightforward argument from fundamental moral intuitions and relatively uncontroversial empirical premises. (See this.) However, whenever I consider such arguments, as much as they prime my intuitions to condemn the initiation of force, they also prime my intuitions to condone the use of defensive force.

To see what I mean, suppose that Lumpy and Grumpy both live on a desert island and have been subsisting there for a long time without any problems, generally staying out of the other’s ways. One day, Lumpy discovers that if you burn a certain flower on the island and inhale the smoke, you feel really good for a few hours. For those hours, he completely forgets that there isn’t anyone on the island for him to have sex with and that the constant sun exposure is almost certainly brewing melanomas all over his body. Even though this activity has no direct effect on Grumpy, Grumpy decides that he doesn’t like this. He thinks it’s wrong to purposely distract yourself from your troubles through the use of chemicals. (Well, at least not through those that you inhale; washing away your troubles with fermented coconut drink is perfectly Christian!) Hence, Grumpy starts raiding Lumpy’s hut at night, holding Lumpy at spearpoint while he rifles through his things, destroying any demon plants he might find. Anytime he finds those plants, he confines Lumpy to a small cage for an entire month. Eventually, Lumpy goes to more extreme measures to hide his plant, so naturally Grumpy has to start performing body cavity checks during each of these raids. No choice!

Most people would say Grumpy’s behavior here is immoral, and you can imagine a libertarian posing a situation like this and asking why Grumpy should be condemned while the modern state should be allowed to carry out the drug war. Of course there would be a lot of debate about why this is or isn’t a good analogy. I won’t go into that here. What I’m more interested in is our moral intuitions about Lumpy’s response. What if, after much pleading and debate, Grumpy refuses to relent? Personally, I’m perfectly happy with Lumpy smashing Grumpy’s head in with a rock while he sleeps, and I suspect most others would be, too. My question for libertarians is, if the above (or something like it) is indeed a good analogy for modern drug prohibition, what is the correlate for smashing Grumpy’s head, and shouldn’t it be morally permissible? And if you change the example a little bit, beyond being permissible, shouldn’t libertarians consider some such violence obligatory? Or, if not obligatory, at least supererogatory? After all, what if it’s not Lumpy who is being oppressed? What if instead it’s Susie? Susie also lives on the island and is a 14-year-old girl with a chronic pain condition. Wouldn’t it be morally obligatory or praiseworthy for Lumpy to kill Grumpy in her defense?

Here’s another example. Recently, I watched an excerpt of a debate between Bryan Caplan and Jan Ting over the question of Is War Ever Justified?, which is also linked to from this post. You should watch it. The next paragraph won’t make sense if you don’t! (Aaaaaand my other reader closes the browser tab. Oh well.)

Done? Good.

Now, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to you that I found Caplan’s argument pretty formidable, as I think would a lot of libertarians. What I noted about Caplan’s argument, though, is how important war’s toll on innocent lives is to it. The fact that war results in the killing of innocent people seems to do all of the “heavy lifting” on our moral intuitions. To borrow the example from the debate, I sympathize strongly with Caplan’s skepticism about whether war with Japan in WWII was clearly the right choice. However, if we imagine that instead of an atomic bomb the US had possessed an amazing piece of technology that would have allowed us to press a button and instantly kill only Japan’s warmongering military and political leaders, my pacifism completely evaporates. Now, of course Caplan could make a different argument against war that assumes that no innocent people will die, but it’s pretty clear that it will almost certainly be a much weaker one. And so, it seems his best argument against things like violent resistance against DEA agents must also be much weaker than his arguments against even those wars most widely believed to be justified, e.g., the Civil War and WWII.

These questions seem like really natural ones to ask, so perhaps there is a lot of libertarian literature dealing with them and I’m just ignorant. If not, why not? Are my intuitions just wrong? Something else I’m missing?

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“Secure the border first” policy is irrational

Suppose you were the generous and altruistic owner of a restaurant that served delicious food and had practically unlimited capacity. Being generous and altruistic, suppose that every Wednesday you had a free-food day, where anyone from anywhere could come in and eat all the delicious food they could stomach without paying so much as a tip. Doggie bags allowed! Also, let’s say that the front of your restaurant is beautifully decorated and that you put really attractive people at the front door to greet patrons, like an Abercrombie and Fitch store but without making you want to make this face:

How I feel when I look at an Abercrombie and Fitch store

How I feel when I look at an Abercrombie and Fitch store

However, there’s only one catch: you refuse to serve anyone with the last name Smith. Perhaps random chance has had it that all the misfortune in your life has been directly brought upon you by bearers of this cursed surname. Hence, the attractive greeters at the front door check your ID to make sure you’re not a Smith, after which you are free to move about the inside unperturbed.

Now, suppose one sunny Wednesday you catch someone trying to sneak into your restaurant through the back door. Unlike the front door, this door boasts neither fine decor nor eye candy. Furthermore, reaching it requires traversing a mosquito-infested, briar-laden, doo-doo swamp. Given all this, what are the chances that the person you caught is a Smith? Seems rather reasonable to think that they’re very good. Sure, it’s not a 100% guarantee; this person could be an enthusiastic building hacker. However, it’s a great bet at even odds that this person’s ID will confirm his Smith-hood.

Why is it such a good bet? We have great confidence that the person we caught is a Smith precisely because our admittance policy is otherwise so liberal. If our restaurant denied service to a wide and arbitrarily-determined swath of people, we wouldn’t be able to infer anything interesting about people who try to enter illegally.

And this is why it’s practically impossible for the “secure the border first” attitude to make any sense. Liberalizing our immigration policy makes it easier to secure our borders against the few kinds of people we really want to keep out: criminals and potential terrorists. As it stands, the chance that a person sneaking across our border is a criminal is extremely small because there is a great reason why otherwise law-abiding people would want to enter illegally: that’s the only way to enter!

It’s important to keep in mind that even though I’m presenting extreme cases to make a point, this argument is robust against a broad array of beliefs about the benefits of immigration. Although I favor almost entirely open borders with respect to both skilled and unskilled immigrants, all I’m arguing here is that it makes no sense to make border militarization a precondition on reform. To make it explicit,

  1. Saying you want to secure the borders “first”, implies that you favor some kind of immigration liberalization. (If I ask you out to dinner and you reply that you want to “shower first”, you’ve implied that, yes, you want to go to dinner.)
  2. Favoring any kind of immigration liberalization means you believe that there are at least some immigrants we should let in but that we currently don’t
  3. Liberalizing immigration will cause at least some people to enter the country legally who otherwise would have attempted illegal entry. Hence, ceteris paribus, it will reduce the number of illegal immigrants
  4. For a fixed amount of border security resources, fewer illegal immigrants means that we can commit more resources to determining whether any given illegal immigrant is a criminal or terrorist, which in turn means that we’ll be more likely to catch criminals and terrorists who try to illegally immigrate
  5. Hence, immigration liberalization is a way to make the border more secure.

The only time “secure the border first” makes sense is if the person uttering it actually favors less immigration and is trying to sound nominally rational while forestalling actual reform.

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Why doesn’t this exist?

Maybe it already does? If I’m behind the times and have missed this, please tell me. I’ll describe the idea in terms of browser plugins because it’s such an easy, concrete example, but clearly the idea should be more broadly applicable.

There are a number of Firefox extensions I’d like to have that don’t yet exist. I would be more than happy to pay for them. Furthermore, I wouldn’t care if other people got it for free. I just want to use it, dammit. What this suggests to me is that there should be an “exchange” for Firefox extension projects.

There would be a website where people post requests for extensions along with how much they’re willing to pay, a sort of “bounty” for the extension. The requests themselves would be public and would list all of the requirements for the software. If another person sees the request and also wants that extension, he can add to the bounty. A freelance dev can come along and opt to take on the project, and if she does, she’ll have some agreed-upon period of time to deliver the software, during which time no other dev can work on the project for money. If she fails, the project would go back on the market. When someone successfully delivers the software and gets the bounty, the extension would then be free and open source. The company that runs the website would take a small percentage of the bounty and would take some kind of electronic payment into “escrow”. Until a developer opts to take on the project, the extension requirements can be changed or modified. If very similar projects appear on the market, users could contact one another and agree to merge them and up the bounty.

There are a number of problems that could crop up. The big one I see is that if a buyer and a dev disagree on whether the delivered software really meets the requirements. (People are notoriously bad at describing what they want software to do.) However, I don’t see this as insurmountable. First, the website could insist that terribly unclear requirements be rewritten. Second, the problem would probably fix itself since, given that developers are less likely to take on vaguely-defined projects, the “buyers” would be incentivized to make their project sound attractive. Third, devs and users of the site would comprise a pretty good beta testing group that could collectively render a decision on whether the software met the stated requirements (and whether or not the extension’s bugs were tolerable). Finally, if there were a really hard case, the company could just step in and eat it; just like a financial exchange would make good on one of its participant’s obligations, it could pay the dev and also return the buyer’s money to him.

Other fun things could happen. Maybe someone sets up a rival exchange. If similar requests appear, people could “arb” between them. Also, there’s no reason that the developers have to be individuals. They could be companies that keep a group of devs on salary and assign projects internally. Let a thousand onions bloom.

It seems like a free lunch. We produce truly public goods, but we produce the ones that people really want, as identified through good ol’ price information. That, plus the transparency, is what would make this different from (and cooler than!) sites that simply try to match up companies and freelance devs.

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Rand Paul and the Civil Rights Act

As most of you probably know, Rand Paul made a speech and answered questions at Howard University yesterday in an attempt to “reach out” to black voters on behalf of the GOP. Predictably, the topic of Paul’s (presumed) position on the Civil Rights Act again surfaced as a result. I confess that I’ve always found this controversy rather puzzling. Consider the following two propositions:

1. A citizen should be allowed to promote white supremacy and racial segregation in a personal blog, in a book, in flyers that he hands out on street corners, to his children, or among his neighbors at weekly meetings at his home

2. A citizen should be allowed to refuse service to non-whites at his store

I find it incredibly odd that believing #1 is considered normal, enlightened, and mainstream, while believing #2 is considered crazy at best and mega-, KKK/slave-owning/Django-level racist at worst. In fact, judging from the controversy over Paul’s stance, I think many or most people believe that it is totally impossible to believe #2 without being racist. Don’t get me wrong; I can easily imagine a reasonable set of beliefs that would lead a person to agree with #1 and disagree with #2. However, I can’t imagine how everyone seems to believe the following

3. #1 is obviously true and everyone should believe so, and #2 is obviously false, and anyone who disagrees is either evil or being willfully ignorant.

I can think of two reasons why a person might confidently believe that #2 is false. Unfortunately, neither of these theories explain the widespread belief in #3.

First, a person might believe that there is substantial empirical evidence that allowing businesses to discriminate leads to measurable, severely negative consequences for minorities. He might be armed with, for example, lots of robust time series analysis showing that many measures of the socio-economic health of black Americans took an especially sharp turn upward at the time the Civil Rights Act went into effect and that there was no other contemporaneous event that could plausibly explain the changes. However, this clearly doesn’t explain #3′s popularity because such evidence almost certainly doesn’t exist, and even if it does, only a tiny fraction of the population has ever looked at it or could understand it. Furthermore, this wouldn’t explain why a person in possession of such evidence would be so compelled to endorse #1. How could he be sure that banning the kinds of activities described in #1 wouldn’t also substantially improve the economic status of minorities?

Second, a person might disagree with #2 because he simply thinks racism is such an intrinsic moral evil that we should do all that we can do to eradicate it from our society, regardless of the potential consequences. However, it seems a person with this attitude would be especially likely to disagree with #1 as well.

More reasonable, I think, is to conclude that almost nobody’s attitude toward #1 or #2 is based on any kind of ratiocination. Through a combination of historical accident and the all-powerful status quo bias, endorsing #1 has become a way to express to others that you, too, value freedom, and rejecting #2 has become a way of expressing that you, too, think racism is bad. If you hold these beliefs, then you’re part of our “group”.

So, for whatever else can be said for or against Rand Paul, the knee-jerk condemnation he has drawn on this issue is rooted in base, irrational tribalism rather than an enduring love for minorities or the downtrodden.

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What people value and what they say they value

I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this, but I’ve always liked it: the movies at the top of your Netflix queue are who you are, and the movies at the bottom are who you want to be. (Do you feel the same bit of “poser shame” that I felt when I first read that?)

It’s not at all novel to observe that what people value and what they say they value frequently diverge. This observation holds for just about every kind of person, I believe. (No, it’s not just women when they talk about the type of guy they say they want and the type they date!). One of the traits I think people mostly commonly lie about admiring is non-conformity. Most people profess a great love for non-conformity and non-conformists, and such professions almost always put my skepticism on high alert. However, as much as I might want to put such claims to the test when I meet them in casual conversation, it’s often hard to adduce strong evidence that any given person really prefers conformity. I’ve usually as much reason to suspect the curmudgeon that apparently lives deep inside of me of knee-jerk incredulity.

However, one claim that I think I can convincingly argue is an instance of this misrepresentation is that of hiring managers at companies that recruit really smart people, software and trading companies, for example. Such companies often cull the pack of applicants with brainteaser-type questions putatively aimed at identifying people gifted in mathematical reasoning. Companies frequently claim that these questions were selected as part of a general meritocratic philosophy. If you can answer these questions, they say, we’ll consider you a smart person worth hiring regardless of your educational pedigree. Now it’s certainly true that the ability to answer such questions is highly correlated with raw intelligence (whatever that may be). However, it seems to me that these questions are also meant to weed out people who are too “different”. What makes me suspect this? The kinds of questions they typically ask look nothing like the kinds of questions that cognitive psychologists and other researchers use to study IQ. If these companies really wanted to narrowly target raw intelligence, then they would use something like Raven’s Progressive Matrices tests, tests designed to be as culturally and educationally unbiased as possible.

Instead, they frequently ask questions like “If you roll a fair coin 10 times what is the expected product of number of heads and number of tails?” While there are probably multiple ways to solve this, I’m pretty sure the best and fastest way to solve this is to make use of the formulas for a binomial distribution. Honestly, I actually haven’t even tried to solve this problem, nor have I looked up the answer, but I’m still pretty darn sure the binomial distribution is the way to go because I have seen enough problems like this in the past. Because experience has taught me where to start, I would almost certainly solve this problem faster than a person with a higher IQ who happens to have never finished high school. Now, it’s true that my being able to answer this question at all almost certainly means that I am smarter than the average person, but that’s only because the truly average person wouldn’t be able to pass the stats course required for a math major. However, being able to answer this question tells the company nothing about my raw intelligence (which is what they claim to be measuring) over and above what my transcript can tell them. As a true test of IQ, this question does a terrible job of discriminating between kinda smart people like me and really smart people, especially those really smart people who haven’t had the “right” kind of experiences in life, such as that of going to an upper-tier university, having overbearing immigrant parents, or in the extreme case, having parents who aren’t in jail.

You might say that the question tests for a blend of raw intelligence and certain other traits like conscientiousness or self-motivation. However, this question is even worse as a test of those things. If you want to measure that, why not ask candidates about some real-world task that they’ve actually undertaken out of pure interest and curiosity and then find out how good a job they did. The only kind of conscientiousness a question like this seems to measure is the conscientiousness to memorize arcane questions for job interviews. It appears the only good reason to choose a question like this instead of a more standard IQ test question is to recruit precisely the kind of people who are likely to have a degree from a top university, have overbearing immigrant parents, etc. In short, they’re good for finding people like most of the ones who probably already work at that company, people who conform to that company’s cultural norm.

Please understand, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to recruit these kind of people. As measured by any reasonable standard these people are indeed smart, and they probably make the best employees. I’m just wondering why companies don’t say it. Is it just because it’s not acceptable to say it? Are they being honest but incompetent? In other words, do they really want to select for any kind of high-IQ person, but they’ve never thought about the inferiority of these tests? Is it illegal to use real IQ tests? I’m just curious.

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Dementia and health care

Not much to say here, but this article on the dementia and health care costs highlights one of the reasons people like me look skeptically, if not scornfully, (how about skornfully?) on health care-cost rationalizations for nanny state interventions against obesity and smoking. Expert opinion is better than layperson opinion, but experts are still almost always way too arrogant about their ability to forecast.

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Polyphenols and milk

I don’t know how I missed this issue for so long, but I stumbled across it the other day and still can’t decide if it’s something worth worrying about, or if it’s just another chance to overcomplicate things by “sweatin’ the small stuff”.

The short version of this study on polyphenols and milk is that they fed some people blueberries with water and observed the levels of two major polyphenols as well as the “antioxidant capacity” of their blood for five hours. Then they did the same thing except they gave the subjects blueberries and milk. The milk did three things: 1) “flattened” the curve for serum levels of polyphenols, i.e., slowed down the absorption of both polyphenols, 2) non-trivially reduced the area-under-the-curve for serum levels of one of the polyphenols, and 3) completely muted the sharp increase in antioxidant activity that they saw in the blueberry/water group. As a person who consumes blueberries nearly every day because of their superfood status, this worried me because while I don’t consume them with milk, I frequently consume them with either a protein supplement or in greek yogurt, both of which contain healthy doses of casein, which is one of the two kinds of protein in milk and the thing that the researchers hypothesized was the culprit.

To be sure, this looks like a complicated issue. The Wikipedia blurb on this issue reads

A study of Charité Hospital in Berlin by Lorenzo et al., published in The European Heart Journal, showed adding milk to tea causes the casein to bind to the molecules in tea that cause the arteries to relax, especially a catechin molecule called EGCG, although a more recent study by Reddy et al. (2005) suggests the addition of milk to tea does not alter the antioxidant activity in vivo,[32] and the cardiovascular effect remains controversial.[33][34] A study published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine found that consuming 200 mL of whole milk (vs. water control beverage) abolished the 6.1% increase in plasma reducing and chain-breaking antioxidant potential that resulted from consuming 200 g of blueberries, and reduced the peak plasma concentrations of caffeic and ferulic acids, “as well as the overall absorption (AUC) of caffeic acid.”[35] The authors did not specifically associate this with the milk’s casein content, however. Reviewing previous studies on the impact of milk on absorption of polyphenols, the authors say, “It is a matter of fact that the discrepancy of the results in humans is remarkable, with half the reports suggesting a lack of effect and the other half suggesting an inhibitory effect of milk.”[35]

Also, at least one study showed that milk doesn’t blunt at least one of the major benefits of cacao consumption, but I’m not sure if the cholesterol/cardiovascular benefits of tea and cacao are necessarily thought to be mediated through their polyphenols. The second page of this post over at Longecity has a useful discussion.

So, unfortunately, there is just enough information here to be confusing. However, if it’s not too inconvenient for you, perhaps it’s worthwhile to eat your berries either before or well after you eat your dairy or other source of milk proteins.

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