Wednesday 25 June 2014

Nerd Pride

Tyler Cowen reminds us of a Hanson point: politics is about status.
I was disappointed but not surprised by this passage by Gary Silverman:
What I like about Obamacare is that it shows some respect for “those people” – as Hudson called them in Giant – who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to see a doctor from time to time to make sure there is nothing wrong inside.
That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status. Of course critics of Obamacare have their own versions of desired status reallocation, typically involving higher status for the economically productive.


The deeper point is that virtually all of us argue this way, albeit with more subtlety. A lot of the more innocuous-sounding arguments we use all the time come perilously close to committing the same fallacies as do these quite transparent and I would say quite obnoxious mistaken excerpts. One of the best paths for becoming a good reader of economics and politics blog posts (and other material) is to learn when you are encountering these kinds of arguments in disguised form.
I agree.

And so we come to Noah Smith's article wishing for higher nerd status, or at least an end to nerd-bashing.
Seriously, America. The nerd-bashing has gone too far. Sure, there is a grain of truth in all of the criticisms of the tech industry -- but only a grain. Yes, startups are riskier than many founders realize; but founders are people with good skills who will never go hungry. Yes, San Francisco rents are out of control, but this is more about development policy and NIMBYism than Google and Apple. Yes, inequality is increasing, but it’s increasing across all industries and classes, and bashing Silicon Valley isn't going to stop the march of automation. Yes, big American companies and corporate governance need to improve, but bashing “disruptive” startups isn't going to help the situation. Yes, some tech companies ignore the public interest when pushing for deregulation, but show me an industry that doesn’t do that. Yes, there are sociopaths and wackos among the ranks of tech entrepreneurs, but they’re certainly a tiny minority. (The only tech industry problem that really seems to live up to the hype is the sexism.)
We’re looking for rich, successful people to bash. And Silicon Valley happens to be where the rich, successful people are right now. So we’ve turned on the nerds.
Still, I’m irked. I’m a child of the 1980s, when jocks ruled the high schools, and nerds were confined to the basement while the good ol’ boys slapped backs and made deals. When the bespectacled Bill Gates became the world’s richest person, something changed for the better, and I don’t want to go back to the old days. The tech backlash is just another situation where America needs to put aside its urge to turn inward and demonize some subset of the population. We should work to fix the problems associated with the industry, of course, but vitriol isn't the way to do it. The nerds are not the hosts of Mordor.
 Bryan Caplan arguably predicted much of this in his nerd/jock theory of history:
Notice: For financial success, the main measure where nerds now excel, governments make quite an effort to equalize differences. But on other margins of social success, where many nerds still struggle, laissez-faire prevails.
It's suspicious - and if you combine the Jock/Nerd Theory with some evolutionary psych, it makes sense. When the best hunter in the tribe gets rich, his neighbors will probably ask nicely for a share, if they dare to ask at all. But if the biggest nerd in the tribe gets rich, how long will it take before the jocks show up and warn him that "You'd better share and share alike"?
Punchline: Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn't look like a serious effort to "equalize outcomes." It looks more like a serious effort to block the "revenge of the nerds" - to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.
I'd love to see a version of Piketty that looks at inequality in dating success for those aged 16-25. Has that inequality gotten larger or smaller over time? Does anyone know? Does anyone other than the nerds care?

It wouldn't be hard to build a stylised case that social changes from the 1960s through to present that decoupled dating from marriage-search for the first decade of dating strongly benefited the jocks at the expense of the nerds. But we have no empirics on it. How would a Herfindahl dating concentration index change over time? Or a Gini coefficient?

Which inequalities matter is more interesting than what's going on on any particular margin of inequality.

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