Cigarette Daydreams

Last week, U-Haul announced that beginning February 1 of this year it would no longer hire nicotine users in the 21 states that permit employers to take that information into account when hiring. To be clear, this covers use outside of the workplace, and it could affect former smokers who use nicotine patches or similar delivery systems.

If you didn’t hear about this, you have my envy and my respect, as it probably indicates that you’re employed and/or don’t spend hours on Twitter, where the topic was briefly trending.

From what I can tell, the reaction has mostly been cynicism about U-Haul wanting to cut healthcare expenses. I think that’s probably true; smokers can indeed be charged higher premiums than non-smokers under the Affordable Care Act, and presumably U-Haul will cover at least some of this.

But since I spent a small chunk of last year’s blog posts talking about selection effects and signalling (most notably here, here, and here), I feel obliged to point out that selecting against smokers is also an effective way to screen for other undesirable qualities in employees. As smoking rates have plunged, smoking has become an increasingly good proxy for a bunch of socioeconomic factors.

(Pardon the use of 2013 data in the following charts; I happened to have this version of the BRFSS on my laptop, and went with it for convenience. I don’t think there’s a good reason the general idea should have changed much in the interceding years.)

For example, smokers, and to a lesser extent, former smokers, miss more days due to their physical or mental health than non-smokers:

Smokers miss more days
The examples given in the BRFSS codebook of “usual activities” are work, self-care, or recreation.

They’re also more likely to have less education and to have lower incomes:

Educational attainment by smoking status

Income bracket by smoking status

Notably, U-Haul is pitching this as a step in “fostering a culture of wellness”:

“We are deeply invested in the well-being of our Team Members,” said U-Haul Chief of Staff Jessica Lopez in a press release. “Nicotine products are addictive and pose a variety of serious health risks. This policy is a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our Team Members on their health journey.”

So here we have a company policy that is ostensibly for the benefit of employees’ health, but the actual consequences of which will be to save money for the employer and disproportionately preclude the candidacies of many low-SES applicants. Mind you, this is for a job at U-Haul during a period of supposedly record-low unemployment.

I think what bugs me most about this is a feeling (which could be wrong but is at least widespread) that there are diminishing opportunities—especially for low-SES Americans—to participate in the productive side of the economy, which by all indication is something that gives people a sense of meaning and self-respect.

I also can’t shake the feeling that a more powerful or organized constituency would be able to generate some public sympathy in a similar situation. If U-Haul made it policy to deny employment to obese people, presumably to similar effect, there would have been a cascade of outraged NYT opinion pieces and an ACLU lawsuit.

Still more hilarious is the contrast with growing corporate, public, and governmental acceptance (or even endorsement) of marijuana use. A new, publicly announced prohibition on employee use of marijuana would come across as horribly retrograde and likely receive more negative attention.

Smokers, alas, are nearly universally reviled, out of the graces of the upper classes and on the wrong side of demographics.

2019: A short review

With the close of 2019 and the decade, I thought I’d put together a quick highlight reel of the content produced on this blog in the past year. Enjoy the resulting meta-blog post, and if you haven’t already, follow this blog by clicking the button at the bottom of this page.

Top Posts in 2019

The top five most-read blog posts of 2019 were all written in the same year. (That sounds self-evident, but it’s not—some of my older essays remain stubbornly popular, even if I consider them somewhat embarrassing in hindsight.) Here’s the list, with [2019] view counts:

  1. The Kids Are All Right (98)
  2. Summer Vacation to the Southwest (75)
  3. What Colleges Sell (58)
  4. “IRL Impressions” (50)
  5. Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans (48)

It’s hard to infer much from this list, but if I had to guess, it would be an endorsement of graphs and photos—both of which do well on social media and thus bring people to the site. Speaking of which…

Favorite Data Visualizations of 2019

Last year I really leaned into adding data visualizations to these blog posts. This was mostly motivated by a desire to get better at R and statistics. Here are my favorites from this past year, in no particular order:

religious nones

This one is from Kicking Away the Ladder? The rich-world’s flight from religion is one of the defining phenomena of our era. The relationship between religious affiliation and fertility rates, which became one of my favorite topics this year, makes it even more interesting. Also, I think the blue confidence band is pretty.

MGM revenueMarijuana revenue

Both of these graphs are from State of Sin, which looked into the revenue generated by the newly legalized casinos and pot shops across Massachusetts at the end of fiscal year 2019. Mostly, I just think the gap between the state’s expectations and reality is funny. It’s also nice to look at local data. (The MGM casino is two blocks from my apartment.)

One of the cool things I learned from chatting with readers is that the dearth of pot shops across Massachusetts, combined with the ease of growing marijuana in one’s own home, has actually stimulated the “illegal” marijuana market.

abortion any reason

This graph, from Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans, displays the differences (or lack thereof) in men’s and women’s views on whether abortion should be legally attainable for any reason. This is probably my favorite graph of the year, for a few reasons: it contradicts a popular assumption about public opinion, and it effectively and aesthetically displays information. As a bonus, I even managed to throw it and the accompanying essay together while the topic was still hot (during the rash of abortion bans in the summer).

Conservative have more kids

Finally, this year-old graph shows the differences in mean number of children had by men and women of various political persuasions. As I’ve mentioned, I think this is one of the most important political quirks out there. This graph is from The Kids Are All Right, which set an unattainably high bar for essay names.

Improving readership?

As you saw above, there isn’t a tremendous readership at this blog. That’s okay with me, as this is just for fun, but more is obviously preferable! That said, it does seem like this blog has hit its stride in some sense. The site had more views this year than in any other, despite me having only written nine blog posts. That’s efficiency, bay-bee.

Views and posts of eddiethoughts.jpeg
New aesthetic courtesy of ggplot2. Thoughts?

The fact that the blog is doing better by most metrics on a per-post basis leads me to believe that simply writing more would go a long way. Since I, uh, parted ways with my previous employer a little over two weeks ago, I suppose that’s more feasible at the moment than it has been for the last three years.

per post statistics

I’m also up for covering topics that are more interesting to readers, as long as they’re aligned with what I usually write about. (This isn’t about to become a wellness blog or something.) If you have suggestions or requests, get in touch! Use the contact form on the about page or leave a reply below.

Here’s to the new year.

Kicking Away the Ladder?

A report from the Pew Center is the latest to document America’s rapidly declining religiosity. Pew’s numbers show a 12-point decrease in the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christians between 2009 and 2019, while those describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” have risen from 17% to 26%.

These findings are mirrored in the General Social Survey, which has been asking respondents about their religious affiliation since 1972.

religious nones
Shaded area represents 95% confidence interval

The demographic surge of the religiously unaffiliated is a story of treatment effects triumphing over selection effects. A little context will help explain.

Natural selection seems to decidedly favor the religious. As the social psychologist Ara Norenzayan details in Big Gods (an excellent if at times slow book), religious societies, specifically those that follow omnipotent, moralizing “Big Gods,” have historically been able to outcompete others. To summarize Norenzayan’s findings, this is due to three factors, the first two of which are increased trust and greater social stability, both made possible by supernatural monitors (gods) that have allowed societies to scale by “building moral communities of strangers.”

In recent history, some societies (think Scandinavia and Japan) have been able to “kick away the ladder” of religion, replicating the monitoring effects of Big Gods through trusted civic institutions—police, courts, and others that allow for anonymous actors to cooperate in the same way religion used to. But there’s one other important advantage of religious societies that secular societies haven‘t been able to engineer: above-replacement fertility rates.

Fertility by Religion
I’ve restricted my search to 30 – 45-year-olds to try to account for the fact that older Americans are on average more religious and have more children. Huge confidence interval for Jewish women reflect low sample sizes.

The religiously unaffiliated reproduce at notably lower rates—so much so that, even as I’m writing a blog post about their astronomical demographic growth in America, the Pew Center projects they will decline as a share of the global population, from 16% to 13% between 2010 and 2050.

shrinking religiously unaffiliated.png

Followers of Big Gods, especially those of fundamentalist branches of religion, tend to have more children. Note: this is mirrored by the liberal-conservative fertility gap, and both are fueled in part by divergent views on reproduction.

To give you a sloppy illustration, consider the graph below, which I constructed using national-level data from 55 countries that appear in the 2012 Win-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism and Gapminder total fertility rate data from the same year. Nearly every country with an above-replacement fertility rate has a majority-religious population by quite a large margin.

more religion more babies
Horizontal line represents “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman. Vertical line represents median religious society in the data set.

In a personal email quoted by Norenzayan in Big Gods, a colleague confides that despite reviewing all available data and case studies back to early Greece and India, he was unable to find a single example of a secular society maintaining a birth rate higher than two children per women for even a century. France, Germany, Japan, and quite a few other countries are trying—and failing—to address this problem with a variety of subsidies. Thus far, there is no secular substitute for religion’s fertility premium.

So with forces of nature solidly in support of religion, why is it rapidly losing ground across the rich world? It turns out there are countervailing secularizing forces that, it feels safe to say, have grown powerful enough to chip away at the natural demographic advantage of the religious. Unlike the selection effects that propel religiosity, these are treatment effects, meaning they’re driven by exposure to certain conditions. In addition to the aforementioned creation of secular civic institutions, those conditions include education, rising incomes, and the general removal of existential threat (of the “where is my food coming from” variety, anyway).

Notably, somewhere around 78% of all “religious nones” are “converts,” if you will, meaning they were born into a religion and ceased to identify with it over time.

While there is some observable increase of religious unaffiliation within generations, the flight from religiosity is largely driven by generational replacement. In other words, it’s not like longtime worshipers have suddenly lost faith en masse—it’s that their grandchildren aren’t interested, and older generations are losing ground demographically. This fits the pattern of other paradigmatic shifts in public opinion, and to me, suggests there’s an element of timing involved, that conditional secularization may be contingent upon one’s formative environment.

The question that remains to be seen is whether or not the secularizing rich world can support itself. Our economies, infrastructure, and social welfare systems are reliant on people, and a large population that doesn’t reproduce will age with dramatic consequences (see Baby Boomers). In the long run, this is probably one of the most consequential political issues out there.

Summer Vacation to the Southwest

As we did last year, my girlfriend and I took a trip this mid-August. Seizing the opportunity presented by a friend’s wedding in Denver, we decided on a week-long road-and-camping trip, working our way south to the Grand Canyon with stops at Gunnison National Forest, Mesa Verde, and Page, AZ along the way.

Before we begin, a tip of the cap to Megan, whose tolerance for and skill in trip-planning greatly exceed my own. Some brief descriptions and reflections follow — but I’ll try to let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

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Gunnison National Forest

Our trip began with a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver to Gunnison National Forest. After failing to secure a Fiat for Italy, I was adamant about renting an on-theme car. And so we navigated the serpentine Route 285 in a Jeep Sahara (admittedly a car with more amenities than I had pictured).

The drive was scenic, thanks to the Rocky Mountain Range. The Rockies are immense, way bigger than anything we have in Massachusetts. At one point, 10,000 feet up, we were craning our necks to view still-higher peaks. The valleys between the mountains were dotted by ranches and yellowing rolls of hay.

When we arrived at Gunnison, we set up the tent and went for a hike. The cool thing about this particular location was that, aside from the presence of small, sparse clearings and a dirt trail, we were basically alone in the woods. We didn’t register or pay anyone; we just drove into the forest and set up camp. Sadly, we didn’t have the fortitude to fully enjoy the free-wheeling atmosphere. After hearing a mountain lion (or something) roar at dusk, we retreated to the car for the night.

One last thing I’ll say is that I was struck by how much trust this kind of camping requires: campers leave their gear unattended; the state doesn’t try to absolve itself of liability with a waiver; no one is monitored to enforce rules. The imperfect analogue that comes to mind is ski resorts, where people leave expensive gear unlocked and unattended, yet theft doesn’t really seem to be a problem. In both cases, I suspect a kind of sub-cultural solidarity is at play.

Mesa Verde

“Technically, it’s not a mesa, it’s a cuesta.” This seeming piece of pedantry was reiterated to us a couple of times by park staff. It is significant, though, because the south-facing slope of Mesa Verde’s plateau was responsible for the agricultural fertility that, for a while, allowed the Pueblo Indians to thrive there.

Mesa Verde is covered in cedar trees, including many that were burnt in one of the wild fires to which the site is apparently prone. Their white husks cover the mesa, creating an ethereal scene made more so by the prevalence of large, unflinching crows.

The most famous site at Mesa Verde is Cliff Palace, a 700-year-old, 150-room compound built under a rock shelf. Barring some minor restoration by the National Park Service, it’s held up remarkably well to its mysterious abandonment — unfinished building projects on site suggest the Puebloans left in a hurry, and may have intended to return.

Cliff Palace is unquestionably wonderful, a fitting monument to one of America’s oldest cultures. I get the sense that at the time of its abandonment, the Cliff Palace dwelling would have represented the pinnacle of regional architectural and technological development. At the same time, you have to remember that it was finished around 1,300 AD — not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things.

Page, AZ (Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon)

Even though they border each other, Arizona and Colorado have very different terrains. While Colorado is mountains, plateaus, and ranches, Arizona looks like someone did an OK job of terraforming Mars. It’s red and dry, the occasional outcropping rising from the expanse.

We found Antelope Canyon by Googling “things to do in Arizona.” It looked pretty, and besides, we needed something to break up the drive from Mesa Verde to the Grand Canyon. Antelope Canyon was carved by floods that, over time, eroded the sandstone into a narrow, winding series of passages. It still floods every once in a while, according to our tour guide.

We found Wahweap Campground, and thus Lake Powell, by necessity, the result of another Google search. But it should have been a destination in its own right. Situated on the border with Utah, Lake Powell is what you might call the Southwest’s answer to the beach. The water was fresh, clear, and warm.

The Grand Canyon

After years of wanting to go to the Grand Canyon, I was not disappointed. Everything you’ve heard about the Grand Canyon is true. In fact, it’s understated. Its beauty is freakish, prehistoric. From the top, it dominates the landscape — it is the landscape. But looking down on the Canyon only gives you a feel for its magnitude. To really appreciate it, you have to venture down.

Our hike in and out of the Grand Canyon is a tale of unforced error and dogged perseverance. We started our descent at 10:00 am, beginning at the Southern Rim and heading to Bright Angel, a campsite ten horizontal miles and some 7,000 vertical feet away, with about 20 pounds each of camping gear. We’d planned for a three-day voyage: 10 miles the first day, halfway back the second, and the final leg very early in the morning on the third day.

Things didn’t really go as planned, due to a combination of errors and bad luck. The play-by-play is pretty funny, but this post is already too long. So to summarize:

  1. We started way too late the first day. Ten sounds like an early start. It’s not. It’s not recommended that you hike between 11 am and 4 pm because of the mid-day heat. We didn’t arrive at Bright Angel until 7:00 at night.
  2. We didn’t pack right. We brought too much we didn’t need and virtually nothing in the way of snacks (just eight apples). All the food we did bring was dehydrated, and needed to be boiled to eat.
  3. Our cooking fuel spilled in my backpack. This caused us to have to make the trip back in a single day. A ten-mile uphill hike motivated by necessity wasn’t quite what we’d bargained for.

We made it back to the trailhead at night, guided by flashlight. Per Meg’s Fitbit, we climbed the equivalent of 408 flights of stairs that day. There were definitely points along the way when I thought we might not make it. I’ll never forget eating our last two apples while we struggled to hide from the sun on the edge of a switchback.

State of Sin

States are becoming increasingly permissive of various “sinful” economic activities and goods — those understood to be harmful for consumers — allured, at least in part, by the promise of tax revenue they represent. This has certainly been part of the rationale in my home state of Massachusetts, where within the last year the first full casino — MGM Springfield, located a few blocks from my apartment — and recreational marijuana dispensaries opened. Since the fiscal year just ended, now seems like a good time to assess how things are going in that regard.

First, the casino: Before opening its doors, MGM Springfield told state regulators it expected $418 million in gambling revenue over its first full twelve months of operation — $34.8 million per month. According to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s June 2019 report, it hasn’t come within $7 million of that mark yet.

MGM revenue

Since September, its first full month of operation, the casino has generated nearly $223 million in gambling revenue. The state’s take is a quarter of that, about $55.7 million. That’s two-thirds of what was estimated. MGM Springfield’s President attributes its lower-than-expected revenue to a poor projection of the casino’s clientele — fewer “high rollers” from the Boston area and more from up and down the I-91 corridor.

The introduction of new avenues for gambling is well known to cannibalize existing revenue sources. So add to MGM Springfield’s list of woes that the much flashier Wynn Casino recently opened in Everett, MA, a quick trip from Boston, and that neighboring East Windsor, CT is opening another casino next year.

casinos

Massachusetts’ venture into marijuana has been slightly more successful. Sales were supposed to begin in July 2018, the start of the fiscal year, but were delayed until November. Still, the State Revenue Commissioner estimated Massachusetts would collect between $44 million and $82 million from the combined 17% tax (Massachusetts’ normal 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax) over fiscal year 2019. If my math is right, that works out to an expected range of about $32 million to $60 million in sales every month for the remaining eight months of the fiscal year, a threshold met for the first time in May, according to sales data from the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

Marijuana revenue

As of June 26, the last time the data were updated, marijuana sales totaled $176 million, which would put tax revenue somewhere around $22 million this fiscal year. Not bad, but not a great show either — and a bit surprising to me, given the traffic I’ve had to wade through passing a dispensary on my way to work. Furthermore, the state is probably constrained in its ability to raise the excise tax on marijuana, since that could push buyers back into the informal market. And as more states in the region legalize, there’s a good chance sales will drop off somewhat.

On the other hand, sales of marijuana are clearly ramping up as more stores open, and making projections about a brand new industry can’t be easy. I think people more knowledgeable about the regulatory rollout would also contend that Massachusetts bureaucrats are at least partly responsible for the relatively poor sales. The first shops were concentrated in low-population areas of the state, and the closest one to Boston didn’t open until March. Still, the state was off on this one, too. (I thought I was the only one to notice this, but I guess not.)

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A few admittedly tangential reflections on this: The positive spin on the commercialization of marijuana and the proliferation of casinos is that the state is growing more respectful of individual autonomy, abandoning harmful and ultimately unsuccessful prohibitive policy and allowing market forces to dictate what forms of entertainment are viable. If the state should make a few bucks in the process, all the better. Right?

Well, maybe. My natural sympathies lie with the above assessment, but the state’s financial incentive complicates the picture — especially insofar as new sin taxes are attractive alternatives to the prospect of raising traditional taxes.

Taxing the consumption of vices is a markedly regressive form of revenue generation. The most salient example of this is tobacco: its use is more common among those with less education and those below the poverty line, and among smokers, those populations suffer greater negative health effects. But it’s also broadly true that the majority of profits derived from the sale of vices tend to be concentrated among a relatively small group of “power users.” The top tenth of drinkers consume half of all alcohol sold in the United States, for example. I don’t have any data on this at the moment, but if I had to guess, the pathological consumption of vices is probably negatively correlated with the propensity to vote.

The cynical take, therefore, is that the newfound permissiveness of the state is a financially motivated abdication of the state’s most fundamental obligations, a mutually beneficial pact between “limbic capitalists” and politicians.

Ironically, sin taxes have notable limitations as revenue-raisers. For one, unlike other taxes, sin taxes are supposed to accomplish two contradictory goals: curbing consumption and raising revenue. Attention to the former usually requires that tax rates be imposed at higher than revenue-maximizing points. This can also encourage regulators, as with alcohol and tobacco, to tax on a per-unit basis, tying revenue growth to consumption patterns. While they may be tempting stop-gaps, sin taxes are not a long-term budgetary fix, and analysis of their social costs and fiscal benefits should bear that in mind.

“IRL Impressions”

I have, perhaps belatedly, entered the point in life at which I no longer have standing weekend plans to drink with friends. Not coincidentally, I’ve been doing more in the way the contemplative and outdoors-y. A few weekends ago, my girlfriend and I went for a hike on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Credit where it’s due: we got the idea from MassLive’s list of the best hikes in Massachusetts. We’ve tepidly declared our intention to hit them all this spring and summer.)

We opted for the mountain’s most direct root, looking for a challenge. But despite being advertised as strenuous, the trail was mostly tame, its steepest segments obviated by the installation of stone steps. We had a pleasant, if not effortless, ascent, punctuated by this or that detour to examine our surroundings.

After an hour or so, we reached the summit. Monument Mountain isn’t very tall. At a little over 500 meters, it’s about half the height of Massachusetts’ tallest peak, Mount Greylock. But that bit of relativity is less salient when you’re looking down on soaring hawks and the slow-motion lives of the humans below.

It was a beautiful day, and we weren’t the only ones out. In the background, two young women were taking turns photographing each other for the ‘Gram, the perfect receipt of an afternoon well spent. “I’m gonna do some sunglasses on, then do some sunglasses off,” one said. I immediately wrote down the quote in a text to Megan, who laughed.

Every now and again, something like this makes me think about the growing importance of online media — in business, culture, love, politics, and other areas of life. Social media is a mixed bag, but the advantages of scale it offers are pretty much uncontested. I wonder if we’ll reach a point at which the significance of online life — where 10 million can attend a concert and content can be redistributed in perpetuity at low marginal costs — eclipses that of our offline lives. If awareness is a necessary component of significance, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.

A few months ago, my company hired a consultant to help us attract sponsorship for an event. As part of their information-gathering, the consultant asked us what the “IRL impressions” of the event would be — a term that mimics social media analytics and that both parties eventually decided probably meant “attendance.” This struck me as at once amusing and depressing: the internet’s centrality is such that it must now be specified when we’re talking about the real — no, physical — world.

Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans

Last Tuesday, abortion-rights advocates around the country held rallies in response to restrictive abortion laws or bills passed or introduced in several states. At the events, legislators and protesters decried the bills as an attack on women’s rights, an attempt by men to control women’s bodies.

This refrain, that abortion is an issue that divides the sexes, is a common narrative — at least in my social and professional circles. But it’s discordant with data that shows that men and women within a given society, including the United States, often have very similar views on abortion. A graphic from the Pew Center illustrates this nicely:

FT_18.12.14_femaleMaleAbortion420px

Broadly speaking, with respect to the above graph, the differences between nations are much greater than the sex-based differences within them. This suggests to me that cultural factors play a larger role than sex in determining one’s position on abortion and that men and women seem roughly equally sensitive to these forces.

I wanted to check if a similar phenomenon could be observed within the United States’ population. To get a sense of this, I pulled data from the 2018 General Social Survey, which asks respondents “whether or not [they] think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason” — a question similar but not identical to the one the Pew Center asks above.

Unfortunately, the GSS doesn’t release data about which state respondents live in unless you pay for it, which I’m not going to do (since I have certainly not made any money with this blog). So that means we can’t examine the opinions of residents where legislators have moved toward a more restrictive stance on abortion. We can, however, get data at the regional level, which seems like an OK proxy.

The regions used by the GSS aren’t entirely conventional — for example, Montana and New Mexico are both in the “Mountain” region — so here’s a chart for reference:

Gss Map

Keeping with the format, if not pleasing aesthetics, of the Pew graph, here are the results by region, arranged by the percentage of women who think a pregnant woman should be able to get an abortion for any reason.

abortion any reason
My chart title game is weak. Forgive me. Again, the text of the prompt is: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason.”

Our regional chart resembles Pew’s international chart in that it shows larger variances between regions than within them. Notably, the four regions below the national average — South Atlantic, West South Central, West North Central, and East South Central — contain states where restrictive abortion bills have been introduced. Even more notably, women in three of those four regions are less likely than men to have responded affirmatively.

Let’s take a look at another question from the GSS that asks respondents for their views on the morality of abortion. The question is, “Leaving aside whether or not you think abortion should be legal, are you morally opposed to abortion or not, or would you say it depends?”

Again, results are sorted by the percentage of female respondents — this time those stating a moral opposition to abortion.

Moral opposition abortion
The question as written is: “Leaving aside whether or not you think abortion should be legal, are you morally opposed to abortion or not, or would you say it depends?”

In nearly every region in the United States, the percentage of women morally opposed to abortion is greater than the share of men reporting the same. I was so surprised by these results I checked my code three times, but there you have it. It may be explained in part by greater religiosity among women. Nonetheless, it’s out of sync with the narrative that the push for a more restrictive stance on abortion is a manifestation of men’s desires to enforce their beliefs on women since by and large the women in question share these beliefs. (That said, the bills and laws, from what I can tell, are wildly out of step with the way Americans broadly think about abortion.)

I’ll wrap up by saying that I don’t believe the people decrying a war on women’s rights are being disingenuous. I know enough people, men and women, who hold this belief to know that’s sincerely the way they see things. I don’t know very many, possibly any, strictly anti-abortion people — New Englander here — but I think it’s necessary to take their claims on good faith, too. Presumably 30% of women in the South East are not hostile to women’s rights as they see them.

What Colleges Sell (continued)

I’m obviously not one to prioritize quantity when it comes to writing. Counting this one, I’ve written four blog posts this year — not great for a guy whose New Year’s resolution set the pace at two per month. Even less so when you consider that half of them have now been follow-up posts.

However, there was some interesting Facebook discussion on my last post that I felt merited some elucidation here, where those who don’t follow me on social media can digest it. (I won’t ask anyone to follow on social, but to those of you who are here via social media, you should subscribe to get these posts by email.) I’m also working on something else that’s a bit involved, and I thought this would be a good stopgap.

As loyal readers are aware, my last post touched on the college-admissions scandal and the cultural legwork being done by our vision of education as a transformative asset.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

An observation I couldn’t figure out how to work in is that getting into elite colleges seems by far the hardest part of graduating from them. Admissions is, after all, the part of the process the accused parents were cheating, and to my knowledge, none of the students involved were in danger of failing out, despite having been let in under false pretense.

The low bar for good grades at elite colleges, the “Harvard A,”¹ is so widely acknowledged that to call it an open secret would be misleading.² Stuart Rojstaczer, the author of gradeinflation.com documents two distinct periods of grade inflation in the last 50 years: the Vietnam War era, in which men who flunked out would likely be sent off to fight an unpopular war, and the “Student as a Consumer” era of today.

The transition to the latter has meant a change in teaching philosophy and an increased centrality of the admissions process. On his website, Mr Rojstaczer quotes a former University of Wisconsin Chancellor as saying, “Today, our attitude is we do our screening of students at the time of admission. Once students have been admitted, we have said to them, ‘You have what it takes to succeed.’ Then it’s our job to help them succeed.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is consistent with my not-so-between-the-lines theorizing that the later-in-life achievements of elite colleges grads are mostly attributable to selection effects, not education. It turns out this was studied by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale, who found salary differences between elite college graduates and those who applied to elite schools but didn’t attend were “generally indistinguishable from zero.”

Of course, this is kind of depressing, because if good schools don’t make “winners,” but rather attract and rebrand them, then it’s a lot easier to attribute their graduates’ success to factors that are not only beyond their control but for which there are likely no or few policy levers — genetics, culture, family structure, and others.

I think this is an unwelcome conclusion to the point that even incontrovertible evidence — whatever that would look like — would be ignored or stigmatized by polite society. Most people probably agree that public policy should keep away from these areas of life.³

Regardless, I think we should be more honest with ourselves about our obsession with elite schools and our expectations of education more generally.

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Footnotes:

  1. In case you don’t feel like clicking the link: In 2013, Harvard’s dean revealed the median grade awarded at the school to be an A-, while the most common grade given was a straight A.
  2. Though apparently to a lesser degree, this has been the case at four-year colleges across the board, not just top-tier private ones.
  3. Then again, maybe they don’t. A recent survey of over 400 US adults found “nontrivial” levels of support for eugenic policies among the public, increasing with the belief that various traits — intelligence, poverty, and criminality — are heritable and also associated with attitudes held by the respondent about the group in question. The questions in the study were framed as support for policies that would encourage or discourage people with particular traits to have more or fewer children. (If you have 10 minutes, read the study, freely accessible at slatestarcodex. Also good: Scott Alexander’s piece on social censorship, in which the aforementioned paper is linked.)

What Colleges Sell

The recent college-admissions scandal has me, and probably many of you, thinking about the institutional power of elite colleges. It’s remarkable that even those we would consider society’s “winners” aren’t immune to their pull. Take for example Olivia Giannulli, who is from a wealthy family; has nearly 2 million YouTube followers; owns a successful cosmetics line (pre-scandal, anyway); and whose parents, Laurie Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to get her and her sister accepted to USC.

Why?

The standard line is that the point of college is to learn. Getting into a better school avails one of better information, which translates into more marketable skills—human capital accrual, in economics jargon. The many deficiencies of this view have birthed the somewhat-cynical “signaling theory”: the idea that college degrees serve mainly as signals to employers of positive, pre-existing characteristics like intelligence or attention to detail.

Signalling theory is powerfully convincing, but it doesn’t fully explain the insanity endemic to the elite college scene. There’s more going on at the individual, familial, and societal levels.

First the individual. If the human capital isn’t the point, social capital could be. The student bodies of elite schools are well curated for networking among the intelligent, the wealthy, and what we might call the “legacy crowd”—non-mutually exclusive groups that mutually benefit from this four-year mixer. Who you sit next to in class might matter more than what’s being taught.

Colleges, particularly those of renown, provide a sense of unabashed community that is in short supply elsewhere in American life. If you read universities’ marketing or speak with admissions staff, this is often a selling point. The idea that former classmates and fraternity brothers become a nepotistic social network post-graduation is intuitive, and probably a very compelling reason to attend a particular school.¹

What’s true for the individual is true for the family. Parents want the best for their children, and they know the kinds of doors attending the right school will open. But for parents, there are added elements at stake: self- and peer-appraisal.² That is, as educational attainment has become accepted not only as a means to but validation of social mobility, parents have come to define their success by the institutions their children attend. YouGov polling found that thirty-four percent of parents would pay a college prep organization to take a college admittance test on their child’s behalf. One in four would pay college officials to get their child into a good school.

college bribery 2

I’d bet this is an understatement caused by social-desirability bias.³

Last up, and most interesting, is society at large. Even though most of us won’t attend a very prestigious university, if we attend one at all, the legitimacy of those institutions still rests on our perception. For us to be bought in, we need a culturally acceptable premise for the power enjoyed by Harvard, Yale, and the like—a role that can’t be filled by the networking and status-driven benefits I’ve described so far. This brings us full circle, back to the idea of higher education as a method of information conveyance.

Though the human capital accrual theory of education is probably bunk, most people’s belief in it feels sincere. In my view, this is the confluence of three phenomena: observed correlations between educational attainment and positive outcomes, our cultural commitments to self-sufficiency and equal opportunity, and a mostly unstated but potent desire to manufacture equality of outcomes.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

The meritocratic, knowledge-driven higher education model is a product we’re all happy to buy because we like what it says about us. Its violation is disillusioning on a societal level, hence the disproportionate outrage created by scandal involving some 50 students.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with and expectations of the upper echelons of higher education. If we find signaling theory compelling, and I personally do, shouldn’t a society committed to equality of opportunity and social mobility seek to marginalize, rather than fetishize, the institutional power of these universities?

Somewhat more darkly, we should ask ourselves if our belief in the transformative power of education might not be the product of our collective willing ignorance—a noble lie we tell ourselves to avoid confronting problems to which we have few or no solutions. If pre-existing traits—innate intelligence, social connections, wealth, and others—most accurately explain one’s success, what of the increasingly selective institutions that facilitate their convergence?

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Footnotes:

  1. Though I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal claims to this effect (including from an admissions officer during a grad school interview), I don’t have any hard proof. If one of you knows of a such a study, point me in the right direction.
  2. I just wanted to note that this feels very in line with the general trend of wealthier people having fewer children but spending an enormous amount of resources to give them even very marginal advantages.
  3. This is when people respond to polls in the ways they think are more likely to be viewed favorably by others. Basically, people under-report bad behavior (maybe using drugs or committing crimes) and over-report good behavior (like voting).

The Kids Are All Right: Follow-up

My post on the relationship between ideology and fertility rates generated some great feedback and critiques (albeit mostly on a Facebook thread). Sadly, none of this was related to the awesome pun in the title of the piece. (Seriously, no love for “The Kids Are All Right”?)

Well, life goes on.

In light of the interest in the subject, I’ve decided to do a quick follow-up piece to address some readers’ questions and adding a bit of information, particularly as relates to this graph from the original post:

Conservative have more kids

1. Are there more people on the political left?

A couple people asked about the ideological composition of the nation and the sample I used. This is an important question, because if the political right makes up a small enough minority of the population or sample, then my graph, which shows the average number of children per respondents of different ideologies but doesn’t convey sample sizes, is a bit misleading—or at least less compelling. So my fault for not going into it in the first place.

Per the most recent polling by Gallup, The American electorate identifies as roughly 26% liberal, 35% moderate, and 35% conservative. This is after two decades of a slow, steady increase in the percentage of Americans calling themselves “liberal.” More on that later.

The sample I pulled from the General Social Survey (GSS) reflects Gallup’s national numbers pretty well: out of the total 8,539 respondents sampled, 2,346 (27.47%) identified as some degree of liberal, 3,285 (38.47%) as moderate, and 2,908 (34.50%) as some degree of conservative.

sample distribution

2. Are there more women on the political left?

I believe this question is getting at the same idea: if the majority of women are left of moderate, then the higher fertility of women on the right is less consequential for the electorate. According to Gallup’s national numbers, 30% of women identify as liberals—the same percentage as call themselves conservatives. For men, those numbers are notably different: 40% and 21%, respectively.

The sample I used showed more gender parity in ideologies, but it’s not hugely off. At any rate, the important thing is that the elevated fertility rates of conservative women can’t be written off as the effect of a small sample size.

men and women political ideologies

3. But the population has been getting more liberal. Doesn’t that kind of throw a wrench in this narrative?

Only time will tell, I suppose! To be clear, this is how many people read the tea leaves, and the story I’m telling is a bit of heterodoxy. While I can’t offer a firm answer to this question now, I have a few remarks:

  • The past is no guarantee of the future. (Ask GE shareholders, amirite?) Just because the electorate has been getting more liberal doesn’t mean it will continue to.
  • I suspect the secular trend toward liberalization is as influenced by macroeconomics and sociological factors as it is individual characteristics and experiences. The question is, what will be the effects of today’s macroeconomic and sociological upheaval on future voters—or their children?
  • Relatedly, I think time horizon matters a great deal when evaluating whether or not the future looks liberal or conservative. This is theory on my part, but maybe populations naturally move to the right over the long term (because conservatives reproduce more) unless cultural forces pulling leftward—economic globalization?—are sufficiently strong and sustained.
  • Finally, I think it’s worth noting that America’s liberal ranks are mostly swelling at the expense of its moderate contingent, perhaps due to increasing political polarization.

americans becoming more liberal
America has been getting more liberal at the expense of its moderate contingent

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There were a few questions brought up to which I don’t have good answers at the moment. Without promising when, if at all, to address them—I’ve learned not to make firm commitments relating to this fine blog—here are two excellent threads I should follow:

  • Does completing various life milestones (having children, buying a house, getting married) make people more conservative? There must be some longitudinal studies on this somewhere…
  • To what extent do children’s political views match their parents’, and is there symmetry between liberals and conservatives in this regard? (I linked to one study by Gallup in the last post that suggested a 70% match between parents and their children, but there’s probably a lot more work on this out there.)