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Wang Yi's Other Life

A listener of the podcast writes me about a Christian pastor in China who was recently detained. The pastor Wang Yi has released a personal and theoretical statement that followers of my work (and readers of late Foucault) may find compelling. My listener summarizes the background:

In your podcasts I've often heard you talk about religion and revolution so I thought you might find some inspiration from this letter. Wang Yi was a former academic who became a leader in the house church movement in China. He, along with his wife and over 100 followers, was arrested the other day and has not been heard from since. This letter was written with instructions to release it if Wang Yi went missing for more than 48 hours. It's a profound combination of a statement of faith and a meditation on revolution.

Here is his statement. It's worth reading in full if you're into this kind of stuff. Here are some choice bits as a TLDR.

The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world...

This does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China...

From a positive perspective, all acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world.

That's the "kynical" model of radical politics right there, dating back to Diogenes of Sinope, as discussed by Foucault in The Courage of Truth and by Peter Sloterdijk in The Critique of Cynical Reason.

There's also the following line, which encapsulate the Spinozan dictate "no hope, no fear."

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power.

I wish him the best.

If education is signaling, does moral signaling become a viable major?

In a recent post, I encountered an interesting empirical fact about the college wage premium accruing to low-ability college grads over the period 1979-1994. Looking at a 2003 article by Tobias,  I wrote: "There is a lot of temporal volatility for the class of low-ability individuals. In fact, for low-ability individuals there is not even a consistent wage premium enjoyed by the college-educated until 1990."

I have begun to wonder if this pattern has anything to do with the non-linear relationship between GPA and PC. If the low-ability college entrants feel they are much less certain to enjoy a wage premium over the "townie losers" they left behind, what better strategy than to invest their college-specific word games with extreme moral significance?  That way, even the dumbest college grad can be confident that they will remain distinguished from the more able among the non-college-grads.

[Hat tip to a few high-quality comments on this blog recently, I don't recall exactly but I think someone may have made a point similar to this; the seed of this post might have been planted there, thank you.]

Although this last point is only conjecture, it is curious that right when the wage premium for low-ability college grads arrives is right when the first wave of campus political correctness kicks off — the early 1990s. Especially if you buy Caplan's signaling theory of education, it's not at all implausible that for low-ability college grads their wage-premium is secured primarily through a specialization in moral signaling

The non-linear effect of ability on earnings in the computer age

A reader/watcher/listener has brought to my attention another paper, which shows that, for college-educated individuals, earnings are a non-linear function of cognitive ability or g — at least in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1979-1994. The paper is a 2003 article by Justin Tobias in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics.

There may be other studies on this question, but a selling point of this article is that it tries to use the least restrictive assumptions possible. Namely, allowing for non-linearities. In the social sciences, there is a huge bias toward finding linear effects, because most of the workhorse models everyone learns in grad school are linear models. Non-linear models are trickier and harder to interpret and so they're just used much less, even in contexts where non-linearities are very plausible.

A common motif in "accelerationist" social/political theories is the exponential curve. Many of us have priors suggesting that, at least for most of the non-trivial tendenices characterizing modern polities, there are likely to be non-linear processes at work. If the contemporary social scientist using workhorse regression models is biased toward finding linear effects, accelerationists tend to go looking for non-linear processes at the individual, group, nation, or global level. So for those of us who think the accelerationist frame is the one best fit to parsing the politics of modernity, studies allowing for non-linearity can be especially revealing.

The first main finding of Tobias is visually summarized in the figure below. Tobias has more complicated arguments about the relationship between ability, education, and earnings, but we'll ignore those here. Considering college-educated individuals only, the graph below plots on the y-axis the percentage change in wages associated with a one-standard-deviation increase in ability, across a range of abilities. Note that whereas many graphs will show you how some change in X is associated with some change in Y, this plot is different: It shows the marginal effect of X on Y, but for different values of X.

Tobias 2003, pp. 13.

The implication of the above graph is pretty clear. It just means that the earnings gain from any unit increase in g is greater at higher levels of g. An easy way to summarize this is to say that the effect of X on Y is exponential or multiplicative. Note also there's nothing obvious about this effect; contrast this graph to the diminishing marginal utility of money. Gaining $1000 when you're a millionaire has less of an effect on your happiness than if you're at the median wealth level. But when it comes to earnings, gaining a little bit of extra ability when you're already able is worth even more than if you were starting at a low level of ability.

The paper has a lot of nuances, which I'm blithely steamrolling. My last paragraph is only true for the college educated, and there are a few other interesting wrinkles. But this is a blog, and so I mostly collect what is of interest to me personally. Thus I'll skip to the end of the paper, where Tobias estimates separate models for each year. The graph below shows the size of the wage gap between the college-educated and the non-college-educated, for three different ability types, in each year. The solid line is one standard deviation above the mean ability, the solid line with dots is mean ability, and the dotted line is one standard deviation below the mean ability.

Tobias 2003, pp. 23

An obvious implication is that the wage gap increases over this period, more or less for each ability level. But what's interesting is that the slope looks a bit steeper, and is less volatile, for high-ability than for average and low-ability. There is a lot of temporal volatility for the class of low-ability individuals. In fact, for low-ability individuals there is not even a consistent wage premium enjoyed by the college-educated until 1990.

Anyway, file under runaway intelligence takeoff...

Genetic research disrupts racist views of welfare

Following on my post from yesterday, I've been thinking about how the widespread and often racist views of "welfare" in the United States — especially among poor whites — fester on top of the educated-progressive party line that heritable IQ differences are bunk.

An interesting wrinkle from the study I cited yesterday (Papageorge and Thom 2018) is that the genetics-earnings link is conditioned by family SES. In other words, children with strong genetic endowments for abstract intelligence will not reach their full earnings potential if they are hampered by a poor family environment.

This is consistent with the left-hereditarian position that the normalization and de-stigmatization of IQ differences and IQ testing would, on net, help poor and stereotyped minorities the most. There are highly gifted children in poor and/or minority communities who are not meeting their potential, and we should do everything we can to support them, including the use of IQ tests to fast-track their selection into new opportunities. One could also argue on this basis that redistributive support for such communities is more necessary and/or more "deserved." I'm not personally interested in gradations of desert as a framing for the ethical necessity of egalitarian arrangements, but others might be.

Some of the anti-welfare and anti-black political sentiment of whites is based on the belief that poor black communities should be written off as hopeless in general. This impression is at least partially due to the fact that a lot of government redistribution over the past few decades has been based on truly naïve and false blank-slate ideology, so people now infer that no amount of redistribution could possibly help poor black communities, if it hasn't yet. They come to think we should stop "throwing good money after bad," when they might well be open to throwing good, smarter money after all the bad, dumb money of past efforts. Understanding the reality of how genetic endowments affect economic outcomes, and how those endowments are distributed, promises more than one way to shake up the whole reactionary, conventional framing of welfare politics in general.

Study finds the relationship between genes and earnings increased after 1980

Someone sent me a recent NBER working paper by Nicholas W. Papageorge and Kevin Thom on polygenic scores and educational attainment/earnings. Most pertinent to my theoretical interests is that the link between genes and income appears to increase over recent decades.

In my lectures on the politics of media (really about the politics of technology more generally), I dedicate a session to the topic of skill-biased technical change (SBTC). While the econometrics and specific interpretations are debated, there is a literature in Economics that suggests certain technological innovations (i.e. computing) increase the earnings of the highly skilled relative to the less skilled. I would sometimes wonder to what degree "skills," which sound like primarily acquired things, in fact reflect heritable traits. Or if one could separate these out...

Papageorge and Thom provide one of the first efforts to study this question explicitly. "This is the first study to estimate the returns to genetic factors associated with education using micro genetic data and disaggregated measures of earnings and job tasks across cohorts."

Here is their summary of the genetic effect, conditional on time period:

The returns to these genetic endowments appear to rise over time, coinciding with the rise in income inequality after 1980. Accounting for degree and years of schooling, a one standard deviation increase in the score is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in earnings after 1980. These results are consistent with recent literature on income inequality
showing not only an increase in the college premium, but also a rise in the residual wage variance within educational groups (Lemieux, 2006). We also find a positive association between the score and the kinds of non-routine job tasks that benefited from computerization and the development of more advanced information technologies (Autor, Levy, and Murnane, 2003). This provides suggestive evidence that the endowments linked to more educational attainment may allow individuals to either better adapt to new technologies, or specialize in
tasks that more strongly complement these new technologies.

Basically, they observe what you would expect to observe if the computerization that begins around 1980 allowed the escape and takeoff of "non-routine analytic" power or abstract intelligence by those most genetically blessed with it. Implicitly, individuals less genetically blessed with "non-routine analytic" powers begin to be left behind around 1980.

Their findings cannot explain the entire postwar dynamic of increasing inequality and relative stagnation of the lower classes, however, because the flatlining of median wages begins around 1973 if I recall correctly. The study seems somewhat coy about naming or even labeling the polygenic score; but my non-expert intuition is that it would have to be something quite akin to what is called the "g-factor" or general intelligence, right?

One limitation of the study is that they use a dummy variable for the period after 1980. I would be curious to see what happens if one re-runs their models with a continuous variable for year. My intuition is that individual-level economic outcomes are more skill-biased/g-loaded today than in the 1980s, but I'm not yet up on any studies this precise on that question in particular.

Against the Epistemic Status

I've been considering the idea of assigning an "epistemic status" to each of my blog posts, in the fashion of Scott Alexander. Basically: adding an addendum at the top of each blog post indicating the degree to which I really believe what is said in the blog post. Perhaps I no longer believe what I wrote a year ago — in that case, I might add an epistemic status warning readers that I no longer believe it. That's the idea.

I've decided I'm against epistemic statuses. TLDR: I think at best they are useless, begging the problem they seek to address; and at worst, I think they could very well decrease the total, long-run truth-value obtained within a writing/reading community.

The epistemic status gives a false sense of rigor and humility. One reason is because there's no epistemic status for the epistemic status. An ES is not a confidence interval, derived by some transparent calculation procedure. It is probably more subjective and error-prone than the full blog post. One reason I never post an ES — when I've sometimes had the urge to, especially after weaker posts — is that I always feel so radically unsure of my post-writing impressions that for an ES to actually increase the transparency/reliability of the post, I feel like I'd have to say I'm also utterly unsure of the ES, and so on to infinite regression. Thus, tacking on an ES at the top of the article feels to me primarily like rational self-skepticism/humility-signaling, which doesn't in any way solve the problem. Also, from the reader's perspective, the epistemic status begs the question of how reliable any blog post is, because they still have to decide whether they trust the epistemic status. For new visitors, the epistemic status therefore solves no problem, and merely adds text while bumping the trust/credibility problem up a level.

The practice of adding post-hoc epistemic statuses lends to the entire blog an impression of always being epistemically up to date, but I don't feel I will ever have the time or conscientiousness to really keep all the posts' epistemic statuses up to date with my current judgment. Therefore if I simply overlook some old posts I don't really care about anymore, and readers see there is no epistemic status downgrading them, they might reasonably infer I still fully own those beliefs.

For return visitors and regular readers of a blog, the ES is essentially an appeal to one's own authority, a cashing-in on past trust and cultural capital earned by the author's substantive content.

Ultimately, every claim I make, or inference I imply, nested in every article I write, nested in every collection of articles, has to be given some level of credence by each individual reader. Whether one line is a joke or not, whether one claim is likely to be true or mistaken — these are questions every reader must make for themselves based on whatever information they have about my claims, and the project I'm embarked on, and my reliability as a source. Assigning an ES to each unit I publish would be to lull the reader's vigilance into an unjustifiably comfortable slumber. It might make them feel like I can take care of their meta-rationality for them, when in fact it's an irreducible existential burden for all thinking adults. I don't want my readers to feel like they are cast adrift in the wilderness, but alas they are. So I don't really want to make them feel otherwise.

I think the normal presumptions about the nature of blogging are meta-rationally superior to epistemic statuses. It's just a blog: take everything with a huge grain of salt, but if something is really well demonstrated and supported then believe it, as you see fit. If you see a post from three years ago, of course the author has probably changed their views to some degree. The best response to this is to read more contemporary posts, to judge for yourself what this author really thinks on the whole. If a reader doesn't care to do this, no epistemic status is going to ensure their initial exposure is lodged into their long-term memory correctly. Such a person will either never remember the blog post or, if they are so unwise as to memorize and repeat to their friends something I reported in one blog post three years ago, I suspect they would bulldoze right over even the most cautious epistemic status warnings.

Better is to just put super-wide confidence intervals on everything one writes. Some things I say will be dumb, biased, and/or mistaken. But some things I write will — hopefully — get closer to way bigger truths than I can even appreciate! If you assign epistemic statuses to your blog posts, you really should also say when and where you think you are super correct. Most sane people will not want to place at the top of a blog post "Epistemic status: I feel a 5% chance that the claims below could change the course of world history." But any serious and passionate intellectual gets some taste of this genuine feeling every now and then! Thus, if this epistemic status business does not include such self-aggrandizing caveats, that too might be systematically biasing. I'd rather just give one big caveat about my whole body of writing, that it is merely the inspired guesswork of one person trying their best to be correct. Implicitly, some stuff will be more wrong than it might seem, and some stuff will be even more right than it seems. The only commitment one needs to make is to do one's best, in a way that updates moving forward, rather than attempting to move backward with post-hoc re-evaluations.

I admit that some of my intuition on this question is due to my temperament: I like to work fast, always move forward, never look back. I can do the disciplined work of editing but I'm not exceptionally high in Orderliness; I run mostly on the dopaminergic movements of exploration, inspiration and creation, adding just enough conscientiousness to complete things responsibly. As far as bloggers and "content creators" go, I'm high-variance: I put out a lot of high-quality stuff that I take very seriously, but I also put out a lot of random stuff sometimes bordering on bad comedy. So part of what I wrote above is just rationalizing all of this. But this is also my personal alternative to the epistemic status: self-conscious reflections weaved immanently into any given unit of production.

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