Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Pennsylvania Economic Growth

There's a report out from Alter, Fuller, Sontheimer and Seigworth at Penn State, with good summary coverage by Jeff McGaw at the Reading Eagle. It shows how there are really two Pennsylvanias, economically speaking. While this isn't surprising, the degree and timing of the divergence is.

Besides being my home state, Pennsylvania might interest you because it's a swing state, which is in turn directly related to the mix of cultural and economies that comprise it. Pennsylvania is part Northeast/Mid-Atlantic, part inner Midwest/Rustbelt, and - often ignored, but quite important in these numbers - part Appalachia. Overall the state is lagging all of its Northeastern neighbors but one (more on that in a second), because Pennsylvania's numbers are an average of two regions - the sucessful part (Philly and southeastern PA, which have done quite well after the 2008 recession) with the rest of the state.

You can see the figures at the report and article, but here's an instructive map. The top is the county-level 2016 presidential election data. On the bottom is county resident employment in the post-recession period 2008-2016. Even if you don't know PA geography, the resemblance is obvious.

It turns out the only state that Pennsylvania beats in the Northeast group is West Virginia, not coincidentally. The central-and-western PA counties have numbers that look remarkably similar to West Virginia's post-recession numbers in terms of jobs lost and unemployment, but when averaged with Philly and suburbs, these are obscured and you end up with one mediocre-looking state, instead of a very depressed large rural region, and a very successful metropolitan area. West Virginia comes across as struggling much more clearly, because it's the only state entirely within the Appalachians. (The Bad Stripe, a demographic region of bad quality-of-life and human development indicators, roughly corresponds to "Greater Appalachia" and does extend into somewhat into Pennsylvania.)

So these maps tell two stories. First, it's a cliche of campaign strategists and the cultural commentariat that Pennsylvania is "Philly on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between." But that's not exactly right. Pennsylvania is Appalachia, with Philly and suburbs in one corner. And remember all those angry unemployed coal miners we've heard so much about? They live in Appalachia. Second, the late 90s/early aughts began the renaissance of the Northeastern American city, and even the recession couldn't stop that momentum. The divergence you see in these numbers and maps of Pennsylvania is both these stories, playing out in the same state.

The problem is that coal has been dead in PA for decades, and many of the males demanding its return at this point have never even worked in the industry - more likely, their fathers did. It's a cultural problem. We all know that coal is not coming back and that it has nothing to do with regulations, a narrative people in this part of the country are unlikely to accept. (Abstract economic forces are much harder to viscerally hate than bad people hurting you by design.) What's worse, the cities, full of alien people unlike you, have come roaring back; worse still, this has happened just as media has become all-pervasive and reminded you that these people look down their nose at you, whereas at least before, you might have been poor in Clearfield County, without being constantly reminded you were on the bottom of a status hierarchy that was exactly inverted, with the most immoral people at the top.[1]

The reality is, for all us blue-staters in the suburbs and cities, these numbers show you that even though your suburb might be getting better all the time, things really are bad out there in the hinterlands, and this is why they were so desperate for a change they voted for Trump. And they're going to vote for Trump again as long as we don't show some solidarity with our countrymen and ignore their problems or even dismiss them with active contempt,[2] which I admit I've been tempted to myself. It may be taking a while for people to accept that coal is dead, but it's certainly not their fault. I don't have a clear policy prescription for how to help life get better in interior Pennsylvania, but taking people's problems seriously seems like a good place to start - which I deeply hope the Democrats do in 2018 and 2020, or Trump will get re-elected.

[1] Many people called the 2008 recession a "man-cession", with men disproportionately hit relative to women. Nowhere was this more likely to be true than Pennsylvania, with effects lingering until today. Construction and construction-adjacent industries were also propped up by capital flowing in from outside in the days of easy loans, and now that those funds have dried up, those industries aren't coming back either. This region is part of the health-belt, because it has an overabundance of older people, and the one source of income that has grown to these regions - Federal dollars in the form of Medicare disrbusements. Therefore, many of these un- and under-employed men have wives working in nursing or other healthcare fields who are now the breadwinners, a final slap in the face for many people in this region.

[2] More than once, both online and in person, I've seen sub/urban centrists/liberals express sympathy for the plight of people in another country whose luck had run out when the local mineral was exploited, then in the same conversation, say about fellow Americans essentially, "Coal is dead, get over it losers." If Democrats want to win elections at some point, this attitude has to stop, because it seeps through online and in legacy media, and people can smell it.

[3] Mountainous regions tend to be poorer than non-mountainous regions because they're hard to grow - difficulty of agriculture means little opportunity for a service economy to develop. There are exceptions to the rule (e.g. Jackson, WY) but those are based on outside capital brought in by wealthy in-migrants or tourists. Out of curiosity I looked at Colorado to see if a similar relationship exists between election returns, economics and mountains, as in PA (the eastern half of CO is flat prairie and the western half is the Rockies.) Eyeballing it, there may be some pattern, but certainly not as clear as for PA. Speculatively, it could be that PA's mountains are smaller, and have been settled for (generations) longer, therefore producing an actual population that shows the impact of "bad mountain economies" - as opposed to CO, which has a much more thinly scattered population and may be more mobile relative to what resources there are. Concretely: a the coal mine opens in the PA Appalachians and a town grows up around it, which doesn't just evaporate when the mine is played out by 1980 - by this point the families have been there for generations, and the climate isn't so harsh, and leaving just isn't really considered. Versus CO, where an unobtainium mine opened in 1920, and is just about played out - but the settlement around it is a high-turnover one of mostly youngish men who aren't living at 10,000 feet elevation for fun, and they clear out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Differences in Belief Updating Depending on Belief Content

A study by Walter and Murphy in Communication Monographs shows that political misinformation is harder to correct than health misinformation. It also shows that the more educated someone is, the harder it is to correct. This both contradicts and coheres with things we thought we already knew.

We already knew that the more educated people were, the harder it is to correct misinformation they believe (here and here) and depressingly, even that increasing people's access to information only makes them dig in further; it doesn't matter if the extra knowledge is inside or outside our skulls, but where politics is concerned, we will recruit it to confirm what we already believed. But notice that most of these kinds of studies (good roundup here) are about politics. What about other kinds of beliefs?

That's the take-home from the Walter and Murphy study, and one interpretation is that it's identity protection and/or tribal affiliation that all this motivated reasoning is protecting - and that politics is very identity-defining. It's therefore interesting that when given the chance to improve one's own personal traits, people actually chose things things less central to their identity - for instance, musical ability over moral sense - which is of course completely absurd (study is in a post at Overcoming Bias which I'm having trouble finding and will update when I do.) If your moral sense is that much more important, why would you not choose to improve that? (If what you're really doing is reinforcing your identity, it makes perfect sense.) This is why Paul Graham gives the advice of shrinking your identity, to prevent all your identity-defining beliefs from biasing your thinking.

By this argument, in this sample, people's health beliefs were not as identity defining as their political beliefs. A way to test this would be to measure the importance of such beliefs to people's overall identity, and then see if the health-politics difference is as strong, and also if there's a good relationship to identity-centrality. There are lots of food extremists and antivaxxers whose health beliefs might be as central or more central to their identity than their other beliefs, including their political ones. You might also wonder why the U.S. got into its current failure mode of politics having become so central to identity (moreso than religion by many measures) - my guess is some combination of only two parties for 3x10^8 people, along with the decreasing significance of other meaning-providing communities and overlapping status hierarchies. I'm hardly endorsing religion as the answer, although there are plenty of people for whom the vacuum of meaning left by the decreasing role of religion has made them turn to politics - namely, young white working class people, who despite being less religious, voted enthusiastically for Trump.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Most Haunting, Literature-Like Discussion Section Comment In History

From a Lonely Planet discussion page as I'm trying to figure out how to get from Big Bend to Chihuahua without a rental car:
I've taken that train, from Ojinaga to Chihuahua. The train was more like a streetcar than the typical locomotive and passenger cars. We must have hit at least 50 goats that refused to get off the railroad track. Every one made a bump. Started getting used to the routine, a loud whistle then a bump, and a few miles down the track another loud whistle then a bump, and off we went through the dark. I don't know why they bothered blowing the whistle. Not once was there a whistle without a bump.
If you've found this and are actually interested in traveling from Ojinaga to Chihuahua, it is reported that as of 2018 this train is not running anymore, and in fact there is no passenger train service anywhere in Mexico except for two tourist trains in the north (to Los Mochis) and south.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Prepare for People Signalling Their Taste by Seeking Out "Artisanal" Non-Machine-Harvested Wine

Early move toward automation in Napa, predictably there due to land and labor costs and the availability of automation experts. Prepare for the usual pearl-clutching that a culturally important (but nonetheless already commodified) object like wine is being increasingly mechanized. At least this will give the opportunity for future hipsters (I predict on the 5-10 year horizon) to signal their values by only buying human-produced wine.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Instrinsic Social Skills: Small Towns vs Big Cities

PART I. People from small towns find even setting foot in a big city scary - because you have so many more interactions with strangers, you're forced to make frequent decisions about the kind of relationship you're going to have with that person (even if it's for three seconds) and there is sometimes genuine conflict. You can split social interactions with strangers into three tiers.

Tier 1: ignoring strangers, avoiding eye contact, maybe slightly altering your direction of travel to avoid bumping into somebody. The default mode. Note that people in big cities are famous for sticking to this mode more often.

Tier 2: interactions where you acknowledge each other but that are largely ceremonial; e.g. asking someone at a restaurant if you can take a chair they're not using from their table. You'd be surprised by anything but a quick yes.

Tier 3: interacting with strangers in a situation where there are potential divergent interests to navigate, and negotiation and emotional-regulation (of both self and other party) are important; e.g., saying something when someone jumps the line, asking someone for their phone number, asking someone to move their car.

PART II. I had these reflections as I was walking back to my hotel from getting pizza on a Saturday night in Manhattan, categorizing types of social interactions (a very unlikely thing to do if you have innately high social intelligence) and realized that a place like New York does a big favor for people who do NOT have high social intelligence.

One of the things I pay attention to when I visit any big, dense city is the social perceptiveness and effectiveness of people living there. Do they read people well, and are they smoother? (How would you measure this? Not sure overall, but some proxy indicators: automatically understanding the intentions of people they interact with, rate at which they perceive new unspoken hierarchy structures, ability to defuse conflict.) My prediction would be that they're better at these things, because of practice, and they do seem to be a little bit better, but not dramatically so. (In truth, this is mostly based on my observations of New Yorkers, since differences between people in say Tokyo and a Japanese small town are to me as an American much harder to see than the same kinds differences between New York and rural Pennsylvania.)

But, there's a pretty large overlap between the social skill spectra of big cities and small towns, so that even in New York, you meet plenty of socially "slow" people. It's not dramatic, but it still always surprises me to meet a social laggard in New York, just like I'm surprised when I meet someone from Mexico who doesn't like spicy food (believe it or not, there are lots of these folks too.) All that said I'm certainly not the most innately socially intelligent person, but at this point in my life I've consciously learned a lot of tricks, much like someone who works around horses learns consciously how to read them and influence them. And the sheer volume of data a big city provides teaches many of the socially slow among us (like me) how to handle people almost as well as the innately gifted types can - that's the favor that big dense cities do.

The implication is that innately gifted people have a bigger advantage in a small town than they do in a place like New York. It's also worth pointing out that lots of other cognitive characteristics likely co-vary with innate social intelligence, and this may be part of what sorts people into "big city" types and "small town" types. If you're a socially smooth person in a small town, why go to New York? You lose part of your advantage. In a small town, the socially un-gifted have no chance to catch up with you - but in a place like New York, people like me can become almost as socially clever as you, just from social "Big Data" analysis.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

States Emerged In Places With Marginal Agriculture Potential That Benefited From Central Control

I. More Evidence for the Argument That States Emerge When Food Production Benefits from Central Control

If you looked at climate and climate alone, Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, the Andes and the Mexican Plateau would not seem like optimal cradles of civilization. And yet, it's exactly these kinds of marginal places where states first emerged. Yes, those places are hotter and drier than they were during the neolithic, but they still weren't better suited for cultivation than other places with more arable land. They're dry, they rely on rivers, and in some cases there's considerable altitude. So why there?[1] Why did we not first have large states in the Pacific Northwest of North America, or the southern (wetter) African Sahel, or the (early, but not first) wet parts of the Mediterranean? No, it had to be at the edge of the Sahara, or in the highest mountains outside Asia.

The immediate counterargument to such a theory is one word: China. Any theory of early state emergence that does not include China is not much of a theory of early state emergence. And if we're assuming that the cause is marginal conditions for agriculture, we definitely can't explain China, since the Chinese coastal plain is ideal for agriculture and for transporting agricultural goods. Is there still a commonality? One argument is that anywhere conditions are such that farming only works with central coordination of labor - but with such coordination, it really works - you have the conditions for a state. Planning your crops in a harsh environment and relying on the flooding of a river, as in Egypt would be one such setting. Another would be an otherwise fertile environment but where the grain of choice was hard to harvest alone, but paid off handsomely when harvested with central coordination.

In a review of Fernand Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, Reddit user lunaranus quotes Braudel and then expands on him:
Rice is an even more tyrannical and enslaving crop than wheat.
The key difference between rice and wheat is that the former can produce ~7.3 million kcals per hectare, whereas wheat can only reach 1.5 million. Unlike wheat, there was no need for fallow land, and bythe 13thC in China a system of double (or sometiems triple) crop was established. "And thus the great demographic expansion of southern China began."

The high population density created by rice, combined with the necessity for elaborate top-down irritation systems, resulted in strong state authority that constantly pursued large-scale works.
My argument is that this principle applies to the more marginal areas, but the necessity for labor coordination, including irrigation, is really what was important. Any place that could get 1) a big bump in food production from central coordination, and 2) which you couldn't defect from and survive, would favor state formation.

II. A Side Observation About Genetic/Cultural Quality vs. Climate as an Influence on Propensity for Regional Dominance, Toward a Macro-Theory of History

There's also the argument - though this makes some people uncomfortable[2] - that people from climates with wider annual temperature extremes are more behaviorally adaptable, and therefore when they encounter people from less extreme climates, they "win". To the surprise of many, the closer to the poles you are, the more extreme the annual temperature difference (the temperate regions are NOT the most extreme.) That is to say, during the summer Arctic regions are at or close to room temperature but can get to -50 C or worse in the winter. (Is -50 C really that different from - 30 C to humans, livestock and agriculture? Maybe this could be adjusted by "meaningful" temperature variation, but I digress.) Sure enough, the history of China is a history of more northerly groups (including, in two cases, non-Han steppe people) taking over territory to the south. The history of India is a history of Indic speakers coming from the north-northwest and displacing Dravidians. In North America, Na-Dene speakers migrated from the northerly Alaska/Yukon region, displacing people throughout Western North America, just in the last millennium. And of course in 2018 it's Germany, not Rome, that has most influence over the continent. Of note: I recently visited the site of Carnuntum, a Roman garrison town frequently visited by Marcus Aurelius, who was trying to keep the Germanic tribes out of the Empire. At the time he celebrated some successes, commemorated with carvings on cliff faces occasionally like the one in Trencin, Slovakia. But Since Carnuntum is now in Austria we can see how successful he ultimately was.

Of course that begs the question of why we haven't all been conquered by the Inuit already. The pattern of the Germanic takeover of northern Europe gives us a clue. The first Germanic-speakers appeared in non-Scandinavian Europe around 120 BC, migrating from (guess what) farther north in Scandinavia. Even in Julius Caesar's time seventy years later, the Celts were still his main concern. It wasn't until the mid-second century that the Germans were a major concern for the empire, with their numbers now growing after settling in the lands north of the Danube. The idea is this: Scandinavia has more extreme temperature and bred more adaptable people, but it's just too cold to grow enough food for the population to expand (the region still only has 26 million today, fewer than California.) After three centuries of farming in the much-more hospitable northern "mainland" Europe, their numbers had grown, and now they were ready to take on the Roman Empire, which lasted only three more centuries after that. So we have our time scale: six centuries from crossing the Baltic to destroying the Western Roman Empire. (You could even make the argument that Braudel's southern Chinese expansion was actually northern Chinese - Han - who had settled in what was previously tribal areas, done under the more stable-appearing timeline of centralized governments.)

And there we have the outline of a macrohistorical and demographic theory: states began in areas where food production was difficult, either because of local conditions or choice of food source, but where food production benefited greatly from centralized control. The old centers of civilization give way to waves of people coming from areas of more extreme climate, usually from the north. One prediction that follows from this theory is that the Inuit and related people, given time in warmer more fertile land, will start farming and demographically expanding, moving further south and indeed controlling Siberia and Canada, but this might be simplistic. It's not the mere fact of living where there are temperature extremes, it's that you have to adjust your behavior to seasons. The Inuit did outlast the Norse in Greenland but it wasn't because they were better farmers. Even though the Inuit might have to move to follow fish and game, they're still hunter-gatherers. My expectation is that it's seasonal agriculture which is the key factor to producing more adaptable behavior (read: more effective ability to control behavior to plan for the future.) So that being the case, in the year 3000 look for states in Eurasia dominated by people who are Siberian agriculturalists today. (Seem silly? If you had told Julius Caesar that western Europe would be dominated by German-speakers within five centuries, including former Roman territory, he would have fallen down laughing.)

Things that may have checked this trend in some cases in the past, and could stop it in the future:

The Old Word interrupting this process in the New World. (Obviously.) If there are two continent systems and one of them has both better diffusion of inventions and more territory, chances are that one will be "ahead" in terms of cultural evolution (the Guns, Germs and Steel argument) and it won't be because of more adaptable northerners, but the other continent finally crossing the ocean that your state-originating-center will be overwhelmed (i.e. the Columbian exchange.) Without that you might orthodict (rather than pre- or retrodict, that is, predicting alternative histories, granted untestable) that the Mapuche would have been the Germans to the Incas' Romans, and likewise the Comanche or Lakota to the Aztecs; maybe the Maori to indigenous Australians.

Centers of civilization getting too far ahead of the northerners. Also, there may be a point where the sheer population numbers of the old centers of civilization are so far ahead of the northerners that they can't be overwhelmed. Had the Germans arrived a few centuries later at the edge of an even more-developed Roman Empire, they may not have had the same effect. The communication and transportation capabilities of modern states may exaggerate this effect, so that the Inuit don't have the same opportunity. There is a major asymmetry in modern technology in terms of the capital and manpower it requires. The Germanic tribes and Mongols had technology that was not substantially inferior to the people they were inundating (in some cases, actually superior.) And colonials in Pennsylvania could re-invent medieval metal-working techniques which turned out to be good enough to run off the British, whose weapons were better but not that much better. But it's harder to imagine that a nascent state in the boreal forests distant from Moscow, no matter how adaptable its people, could really produce their own technology to resist the drones and agriculture-attacking Stuxnet malware of even a decadent future Russia.

Technology obviating the need to plan and adjust behavior seasonally. This is the most speculative. Living in a northern OECD country today, do you really have to plan that much for the seasons now? Yes, you reserve your beach house in the summer and get your coats out during the winter, but your life is not directly dependent on your ability to plant and harvest and store and ration food as it would have been until just a few centuries ago. The reign of the northerners may then be over. Of course, just living in such a technologically advanced society requires cognitive discipline and planning, but does that often result in poor reproductive success? Sure enough, in Iceland in the last century, genes associated with educational achievement have become less common. Also curious: there is a known bump in births in September, but I don't know if this extends outside the U.S. Is this just because in January people don't have anything better to do? Or an adaptation so more babies are born during the harvest when there are calories available? (Easy to check: does it persist in US states or other countries with low seasonal variation? Does it differ between ethnicities (forbidden question!) whose ancestors are from different latitudes, living together in a high-variation climate?)

[1] Inferring too much from population patterns in terms of climate and impact on agriculture and the local economy is always a precarious road to go down, especially in parts of the New World that have seen most of their development in the industrial age. For example - population density in the United States drops off west of the 100 W meridian. This is commonly assumed to be due to decreasing rainfall and therefore poorer agricultural productivity, but this is not the case - it's most likely a historical artifact, since aside from a few wagon trains willing to risk the long ride all the way to the coast, until the trains went all the way through and were cheap and reliable enough, people generally just moved a few miles west to start a new homestead. Around 1880 trains had become accessible for most relocating families, and by 1880 that slowly moving population front had made it to about 100 W. Here's the data. What's more, to this day, poorer countries have lower agriculture productivity even with the same or better innate agricultural endowments in terms of soil and climate - see Adomopolous and Restuccia, 2018.

[2] This makes no argument as to whether and what combination of genes and culture mediate this effect - but to drive the point home, either genes affect bodies, or they do not. If we accept that they do affect bodies, it's a very tortured argument to say that for some reason genes cannot affect behavior, since that's saying genes can affect other organs but not the brain. There's a similar gyration you can observe when someone wants to say that culture matters (fair enough) but can't effect outcomes in the aggregate (that is to say, culture doesn't affect happiness or survival.) Either culture matters to outcomes, or it's meaningless static.