What can be (un)done?

Okay, bear with me on this (or skip the math examples and shoot down to the break).

Say you want to add the following fractions: 2/3x + 5/y. Doing so is no great difficulty, as any high school student can attest. Multiply the top and bottom of each fraction by the other’s denominator, ensuring they have a common term. Then you can add the numerators. That looks like this:

2/3x + 5/y = 2y/3xy + 15x/3xy = (2y + 15x)/3xy

However, if I’d given you the end result and asked you to reverse engineer the original expression, that would be quite a bit harder. (If you don’t believe me, try to rewrite (8x + 7)/(x2 + 3x + 2) as the sum of two fractions with constants in the numerator.) To do so, you have to use a process called “partial fraction decomposition,” which I bet few high school students or adults are familiar with.

Consider another example. Let’s say we have a function f such that f(x) = 5x2 + 3x + 10, and we want to take its derivative. To do so, decrement each exponent by one and multiply the coefficient of each term by the original exponent:

f'(x) = (2*5)x2-1 + (3*1)x1-1 +(10*0)x0-1 = 10x + 3

Once again, however, if I ask you to do the reverse—to find the anti-derivative of 10x + 3—it’s a different story. You have to undo the same process: divide each coefficient by 1 + the current power of each term of x (in this case, respectively 1 and 0) and reintegrate an x into each term. If you do that, you get this:

10x +3 = (10/2)x1+1 + (3/1)x0+1 = 5x2 +3x + C

But this isn’t what we started with: our original equation was 5x2 + 3x + 10! When we took its derivative, we ended up multiplying the 10 by 0 (because 10 can be written in terms of x as 10x0). In doing so, we irrevocably destroyed the information that would give us the final term of the quadratic. We know it’s something, so we write it as C per convention.

This post isn’t actually about math. I think there’s a worthwhile sociological metaphor to be had: in both cases above, it’s easier to go forward than backward, and in the second example, it’s actually impossible to completely return. There is a strain of thought that major public policy decisions should be taken with little hesitation because “if it doesn’t work, we can always try something else.”

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

In a particularly inspired Slate Star Codex blog post, Scott Alexander offhandedly rejects the common characterization of the body as a well oiled machine. Instead, he likens it to a careful balancing act that could easily be thrown off kilter.

People always talk about the body as a beautiful well-oiled machine. But sometimes the body communicates with itself by messages written with radioactive ink on asbestos-laced paper, in the hopes that it’s killing itself slightly more slowly than it’s killing anyone who tries to send it fake messages. Honestly it is a miracle anybody manages to stay alive at all.

Scott Alexander, Maybe Your Zoloft Stopped Working Because A Liver Fluke Tried To Turn Your Nth-Great-Grandmother Into A Zombie

I’d argue that what’s true for the organism is true for the super-organism. Complex society is basically a miracle. The stars have to align for it to form, and it can degrade with comparative ease. When we alter it, there’s no guarantee that going back to the status quo is easy or even possible. Sometimes information may be lost permanently in the transition, while unintended consequences can linger for decades.

The decline of marriage rates among low-income households is a great example. The advent of means-tested welfare programs in the 1960s is widely thought to have dissuaded many lower-income women from marriage through the effective imposition of high marginal tax rates.1 (Their benefits would decrease faster than household income would increase if they married, so it made economic sense not to marry.) This has had all kinds of nasty second-order effects,2 which is why welfare reform in the 1990s explicitly attempted to counteract this unintended consequence—but largely to no avail.

Post-industrial America offers another example. The fortunes of former manufacturing towns in the northeast and mid-west have been almost uniformly bleak since de-industrialization. (If you haven’t yet, seriously, read Sam Quiñones’s DREAMLAND.) There have been and continue to be efforts to reverse this downward trajectory: innumerable economic development programs, paid relocation programs, home-buyer subsidies, corporate tax incentives. But no amount of grant funding or wealth transfers alone can replicate the conditions that created prosperity in those areas. The money was only one part of the equation.

As frustration with the societal status quo increases, people will become more pro-action biased. I don’t necessarily think this is bad—it could be great! But it would be a mistake to proceed without caution where sociological elements are concerned. Introducing a universal basic income, for example, could change… a lot. And there’s no guarantee we could ever go back.

  1. This isn’t the only hypothesis put forth, nor are explanations for this phenomenon necessarily mutually exclusive. Pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad makes the case that the collapse in men’s wages (also) played an important role.
  2. The consequences of the decline of marriage have different valence depending on who’s doing the analysis. There are plenty reasonable-enough takes on why the decline of marriage is good. I think the most reasonable analysis is that it’s a mixed bag generally, but for lower social classes, the results have been less ambiguously destructive. Having been raised in a rather unstable cohabitating household, I’m personally rather attuned to the drawbacks, but that’s just me.

Free speech in the digital age

I finally broke down and wrote a cancel-culture-adjacent piece. It originally appeared at Merion West, an online magazine. Since this essay contains themes I’ve been mulling over but have struggled to articulate for a while, I thought I’d reprint the piece here, with some commentary in the footnotes. Enjoy!

If I had to pick one thing America does better than any other nation, I’d have to go with free speech. The American commitment to free speech is legendary, codified by the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the right to worship, peacefully assemble, and otherwise express themselves without fear of government censorship.

As legal protections for freedom of expression go, the First Amendment remains the gold standard worldwide. We often take this for granted, forgetting that most people don’t live under the same conditions. Hold the American stance on freedom of speech in contrast with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy is punishable by death, or China, where one-to-three million members of an ethno-religious sect are packed into concentration camps for crimes as spurious as abstaining from alcohol.*

If picking on theocracies and dictatorships strikes you as low-hanging fruit, recall that Europeans also live with less freedom of expression. A U.K. man was arrested and fined for posting a YouTube video that showed his girlfriend’s pug performing Nazi salutes, for example. By comparison, the American Civil Liberties Union has used the First Amendment to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and civil rights protestors alike to assemble.

Our commitment to the rights of others to express themselves, even if they hold heinous beliefs, is something uniquely American, perhaps the finest piece of our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment we seem to be turning our backs on—and the First Amendment is often used as a moral license to do so.

The First Amendment guarantees one freedom from government censorship; it doesn’t establish the positive right to speech. This is as it should be, as anything more would require the compulsion of others to either hear or facilitate one’s speech. However, this allows people to take a narrow view of freedom of speech as being merely freedom from government censorship. We might call this the “showing you the door” strain of free speech thought. Such a view, while legally coherent, ignores that free speech has a cultural component as well—one that needs constant maintenance if it’s not to fall into disrepair.

That component might be described as a willingness to err on the side of permissiveness when it comes to public discourse—or perhaps an understanding that we generally tend to benefit from living in a culture where people can push boundaries without intolerable social and economic risk.** Its bedrock values are charity, humility, and tolerance. 

When I speak of a threat to free speech culture, I’m talking about the newly enabled impulse to defenestrate and defame people, often for trivial transgressions, sometimes years after the offense—“cancel culture,” if you must. It is distinct from free speech culture in that it doesn’t seek to confront opposing views but rather to erase them, often in ways that are financially or personally ruinous for the offending party. It’s the self-righteous, vindictive justice of the mob.

Because the internet

Anyone observer of humanity can tell you this is not new behavior. On the contrary, it’s been more the rule than the exception. But it does seem exacerbated and facilitated by modern life, especially the internet.

As more of life moved online, it became easily searchable, permanent, and largely public. This migration—the result of social encouragement to live in full view of your friends, casual acquaintances, and advertisers—has spawned a panopticonic social archive that can easily be turned against you.*** These are conditions unique to life in the 21st Century that many adults, let alone children, seem understandably ill-adept at navigating.

When paired with the rapid mutation of norms (also aided by the internet) surrounding acceptable speech and the mob mentality incentivized by social media and click-hungry outlets, this creates an environment ripe for reflexive, post-hoc defamation, to which even—or more accurately, especially—powerful liberal institutions (the very same tasked with guarding free inquiry) are showing little resistance

In such a hostile environment, the obvious choice becomes to abstain from speech that not only is controversial but also that which might someday be controversial. (The exception being those who are financially immune to cancelation and can thus be afforded public free thought.) This is clearly at odds with a culture of free speech, in which ideas can be freely debated, and people can change their minds over time. 

We’re already seeing the consequences: authors pulling their own books from publication for excruciatingly trivial offenses; professionals being fired for sharing objective research that supports unhappy findings. But the future consequences will be unseen: the important medical studies that aren’t conducted; the bold art that isn’t created; the policy failures that can’t be named, much less halted. From this vantage point, the future looks bleak, the province of the anodyne and ineffectual.

Censorship has been outsourced to private actors

Much like the social surveillance system under which we live (voluntarily, it must be said), the modern thought police regime is not a product of the state. Censorship has been outsourced to private companies and zealous volunteers, who are themselves often exercising their free speech rights in the course of policing others’ speech. From a legal standpoint, this is of course distinct from government censorship, and therefore not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to a subreddit or a Twitter handle or a New York Times op-ed.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that these companies and individuals don’t or can’t pose a threat to free speech in the broader, cultural sense. To do so, you would have to ignore the market power of the relatively few actors that control the channels of speech in the modern era. The collapse of local media and the consolidation of firms within the industry, for example, have endowed the remaining actors with the power to filter the coverage of events and viewpoints that millions of Americans are exposed to. Do you trust them not to use it?

Over half of Americans get their news through Facebook, which is known to have manipulated users’ feeds to alter their emotions. Some 80% of search engine traffic flows through Google, home to famously opinionated, activist employees. About a quarter of journalists turn to Twitter—the use of which has been shown by at least one study to affect journalists’s judgement of newsworthiness—as their primary news source. The case of social media platforms and search engines is particularly illustrating: while they are private actors that users engage with of their own volition, network effects are built into their business models, meaning once established, they’re not as vulnerable to competition as other businesses and products are.

These companies are well within their legal rights to create their own policies and remove content that violates them, to algorithmically promote or suppress content on their properties, or to flag content as misinformation if they deem it so. But to deny that in doing so they might chill, stifle, or otherwise impact free expression is fanciful.

There are no easy fixes

Part of the irony of this problem is that addressing it in the most straightforward way (through policy or regulation) would actually represent a huge step in the wrong direction. Do I worry about the market power of companies that control the modern channels of speech? Yes, especially given the political power dynamics at play in many of our most powerful institutions. Do I think media polarization is dangerous and bad? You bet. But maintaining the independence of private actors, and thus the core of the First Amendment, is more important than the pursuit of an ephemeral unbiased public sphere.

That’s fine, because this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a cultural problem, and it requires a cultural solution: a revival of free speech culture and the virtues upon which it rests. We need to check our instincts to banish things we don’t like, and we need to voice our skepticism of those who over rely on the power of censorship.**** (It would probably also be a good idea for individuals to rethink how they use the internet.) 

I know this is a lot to ask, especially under the conditions of the digital age. But I have hope. Cultural free speech is a core American value and a key component of life in a pluralistic society. If anyone is going to defend it, it will be us.


* When I started writing this piece (about a week ago), Uyghur oppression was the most relevant example of Chinese human rights violation. By the time it was published, that had changed.

** This is one of those American ideals that has certainly never been implemented or enjoyed uniformly. As sociology professor Rod Graham points out, for a long time, you could risk losing your job and destroying your personal life by coming out as gay, for example. So while the tone of this piece is somewhat pessimistic about the state of modern free speech, I think it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, things have improved.

***  I should have also brought up that sometimes, as in many of the “Karen” videos going around, this social surveillance system is quite literally weaponized. There are incentives in place to do so—mainly the promise of money and virality for the poster.

****  There’s always going to be an Overton window; I don’t mean to suggest it could be any other way. That’s just part of living in a society.

Smoking and the Hispanic Paradox

In the course of writing last month’s post about U-haul’s no-nicotine policy, I created the following graph:

This visualization didn’t make the final cut, but it’s nonetheless cool. It demonstrates that smoking rates among Hispanics are far less responsive to income than those of other ethnic groups (though even for Hispanics, the relationship between income and smoking rates is statistically significant). I was surprised to find this relationship, but apparently it’s a known factor of the phenomenon called “the Hispanic Paradox” (alternatively known as the “Latino Paradox”).

The paradox is that, on average, American Hispanics live longer than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, even though the former tend to have lower incomes and less education. The causes aren’t entirely understood, but Hispanics’ low smoking rates are thought to be a major contributor.

Source: Center for Disease Control, 2013

Some of the difference in smoking rates can be explained by immigration. Latin American countries tend to have lower smoking rates than the United States. Among those born in the United States, only Mexican-Ameicans seem to retain lower smoking rates and the attendant mortality advantage over non-Hispanic whites. It will be interesting to see if the Paradox ebbs as native-born Hispanics begin to account for more of the Hispanic population.

The Hispanic Paradox illustrates the capricious power of cultural influence on real-world outcomes — and conversely forces us to confront our limited ability to re-engineer the world.

We tend to think of (the physical, policy, social, or economic) environment and choice as the chief determinants of human behavior and outcomes. But we are just as much a product of the commingling of genetics and culture. The paths before us are well-worn by our predecessors, and we would be arrogant to think we can wholly resist their inclinations.

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

In 1930, the economist John Keynes predicted that by the century’s end, technology would have advanced such that citizens in rich countries would be working 15-hour weeks. Ninety years later, it’s safe to say that prediction didn’t materialize. In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber offers an explanation as to why.

According to Graeber, technological advances had indeed obviated much of the necessary work by the late 20th Century. But for cultural and political reasons, we have filled the void with largely pointless drudgery — bullshit jobs, as Graeber terms them.

A bullshit job is not merely unenjoyable. Rather, it’s “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence,” though they’re obliged to pretend otherwise.

They are usually white-collar positions, ranging from corporate lawyers to college administrators to middle managers the world over. Also included are those jobs that exist only to support the “bullshitization” of the economy: the all-night pizza delivers, dog washers, and others whose jobs are only necessary because everyone is too busy working.

At the end of the day, whether or not a job is bullshit is an assessment best left to the employee. According to two surveys conducted in the wake of Graeber’s original essay on the subject, around 40% of (British and Dutch) workers believe their jobs make no meaningful contribution to society. All told, Graeber believes bullshit jobs may comprise over half of all employment.

Meaningless jobs

Here is about where your head should be exploding, because from the mainstream economic perspective, this makes no sense. People and firms are assumed to be utility maximizing, so the idea that companies are hiring droves of pointless workers evokes some serious cognitive dissonance.

Graeber offers a few complementary explanations for why companies would do this. The easiest one to engage with is the idea that the nature of the economy changed when it underwent financialization. The name of the game is no longer the production of goods or services that people need or want. Instead, many companies are preoccupied with rent-seeking and redistributing wealth in a system Graeber calls “corporate feudalism.” As an example of what this entails, he points out that General Motors now derives most of its profits not from selling cars but from interest collected on auto loans.

The economic role of bullshit jobs in corporate feudalism is to make operations less efficient, which, from an extractive standpoint, is preferable. To borrow an analogy from the book, if you make your money dealing with leaky pipes, do you fix them or do you let them continue to leak?

Like its historical predecessor, corporate feudalism is as much a political system as it is an economic one. Graeber describes it as such:

“In the process [of extracting and redistributing resources], one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies, or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.”

From the micro perspective, then, bullshit jobs serve the political purposes of increasing the prestige of managers and middle managers by adding employees beneath them and ingratiating the middle class with the politics of their bosses. In a more abstract sense, Graeber believes bullshit jobs also preoccupy the masses, who, with time on their hands, could pose a danger to the status quo.

In addition to the financialization of the economy, Graeber attributes the rise of bullshit employment to cultural and political vectors that elevate work to a moral imperative and a rite of passage. He believes we use the misery of the workplace to justify enjoying the fruits of our consumerist culture — meals delivered by GrubHub, Netflix, etc. — which in turn are the only ways we can eke enjoyment out of a life dominated by spiritually numbing make-work.

Work and the misery it often entails, in other words, have become ends in their own rights, not merely means to achieve material subsistence. That explains why we as a society don’t object to the growth of pointless employment and why it can simultaneously be true that most people hate their jobs and derive a sense of dignity and self-worth from them. The result, in Graeber’s words, is that “economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.”

This might not be so terrible if it didn’t inspire such mental, physical, and spiritual anguish. Bullshit jobs are particularly disillusioning for a members of a society that views work as the primary way we leave a mark on the world. They frustrate an innate human desire to provide meaningful service. Interviewees report depression and fantasies of communist revolutions and climate change-induced apocalypses.

Yet when the time comes to offer a solution, Graeber mostly declines — save for a brief endorsement of universal basic income — claiming that the point of the book is not to make policy recommendations but to begin a discussion about what a genuinely free society might look like.


Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is unique in that it takes seriously the widely held suspicion that millions of us are, indeed, wasting vast amounts of our time at our desks. At least for me, this felt really relatable. I’ve held and quit (with nothing else lined up) a bullshit job, my fear of financial precarity eventually overwhelmed by self-loathing.

A lot of academic books are anodyne and, well, boring. This book essentially looks the modern economy in the eye and calls it a lie, so it’s not that. It’s a welcome throwback to a more radical, deontological strain of leftist moral philosophy, and given that even Microsoft Japan is beginning to suspect their workers really only need four hours a day in the office, the book feels especially timely.

Graeber uses data sparingly for a text of this size and register, mostly making his case through historical and philosophical appeals. This probably ends up working better than a more data-driven approach — say the kind favored by an economist — would have, since the book deals with a lot of qualitative information and is an exploratory work.

Freedom from mainstream economic dogma is a big part of what makes this book work. For better or worse, Bullshit Jobs flies in the face of economic axioms like revealed preferences and the rational actor model. In some ways, this is a necessary antidote to the usually unstated presumption that the economy can be meaningfully separated from other domains of social life. Other times, it sounds like the ravings of a boomer anarchist. But in both cases, it’s fun.


The book is in large part a restatement of Graeber’s original essay on the subject for Strike!, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Many of the ways in which he expands on the original essay are probably more interesting to him than the reader. This includes a progressively refined definition of bullshit jobs, a typology of the five kinds of bullshit jobs, and dozens of interviews that take up a lot more real estate than necessary.

Similarly, the decision not to dwell on solutions is frustrating to the reader. I get that it’s fun and cathartic to expound on the ills of society, especially if you’ve got something novel to say. But in this case, Graeber knows we’re familiar with his argument — he even reproduced his original essay in the forward to the book! In the five years separating the Strike! essay from the book, couldn’t he have come up with something in the way of a solution?

To the extent that a solution is offered, it’s universal basic income (UBI). Cool. It’s ironic that Graeber spends much of his book assailing consumerism only to arrive at the policy recommendation that most wholly embraces the idea that most people are only valuable to the economy as consumers.

Graeber imagines that having their basic financial needs met will liberate people to do what interests them (or to not work, should they so choose). But we already have large populations that live under similar conditions, and it doesn’t seem like they’re spiritually flourishing. In fact, they seem pretty miserable, probably because they feel alienated from society.

If bullshit jobs are the matrix’s way of reconciling humans’ desire to contribute with their growing redundancy, maybe the solution is simply better bullshit jobs. It would have been interesting to read Graeber’s recommendations on how the status quo could be improved short of a complete re-imagination of the economy.

Finally, Graeber is way too bullish on education and wayyyy too hard on finance. His contempt for the latter is biblical; the word “usurious” even makes an appearance. Perhaps Graeber has never needed to borrow money. If he had, he might be more open to the idea that lending money to people is actually a very useful service, even if you charge them for the privilege.

Meanwhile, education is often held in contrast to bullshit employment as some sort of paragon of meaningfulness. I suppose that’s Graeber’s right as an academic. But it feels strange to write an entire book about the phenomenon of pointless white-collar employment and not even discuss the rise of higher education as a cause or effect! In my view, increasing educational attainment is quite plausibly: 1) responsible for the overproduction of elites, which in turn creates the cultural demand for bullshit jobs; and 2) an autoimmune response of the economy to that same surplus of white-collar workers (meaning that school is used to delay their entry into the job market while maintaining their consumer status).

And if you want to talk about feudalism, how does the higher education system escape your wrath? Universities are basically hedge funds at this point, and they are quite guilty of indebting their customers, extracting fees and tolls from them, erecting pointless bureaucracies, and “creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over!” Alas.

Should you read this book?

As indicated, I think you could probably get away with just reading the article that inspired the book. If you think you have a bullshit job, and you’re in need of some catharsis, then I’d say go for it. It will probably feel good to know you aren’t alone in your misery.

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.

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.

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:


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.



  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.)