Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brief: Are Jews who marry outsiders duller?

For much of their history, Ashkenazi Jews practiced endogamous marriage, sticking mostly with their own. It was incredibly difficult to marry in, although nothing would prevent a person from leaving the group by marrying out. Given the almost exclusively white collar niche that they occupied for centuries, it is worth asking whether or not the Jews who left were duller than the ones who stayed -- perhaps they couldn't hack it as a tax farmer and moved on to being a potato farmer.

Obviously we cannot look up IQ data on Medieval Ashkenazi Jews, but we can at least look at contemporary American Jews to give us a hint. The General Social Survey asks questions about your religious preference and that of your spouse. I restricted respondents to only Jews and then looked at the mean IQ of Jews with Jewish spouses (endogamous) vs. Jews with non-Jewish spouses (exogamous). To get big sample sizes, I tried two different questions about your own religion -- what it is currently, and what it was at 16. The results are the same.

Endogamous Jews score 0.03 - 0.04 S.D. higher than exogamous Jews. That's an incredibly puny difference -- it's as if the endogamous were one-tenth of an inch taller than the exogamous on average. I looked at level of education, and that too looked similar.

But although endogamous Jews may not be much smarter than exogamous ones, they do earn more and are higher-status:

Neither group of Jews has many lower-class members, and they have the same proportion who are middle-class. However, 20% of exogamous Jews vs. 12% of endogamous Jews are working-class, and 7% of exogamous Jews vs. 17% of endogamous Jews are upper-class. As for income, both groups have similar proportions that earn less than $20K or more than $100K. However, 39% of exogamous Jews vs. 29% of endogamous Jews earn between $20K and $50K, and 26% of exogamous Jews vs. 33% of endogamous Jews earn between $50K and $100K. The median income for exogamous Jews is between $44K and $46K, while for endogamous Jews it is between $50K and $52K.

So, among contemporary Jews, those who marry within their group may not be smarter than those who leave, but they are wealthier and higher-status. Those who marry out, therefore, couldn't (or didn't want to) apply their equal level of intelligence to acquire as much material success as other Jews, and left for less competitive niches, brides with less lofty financial expectations, or something else.

Whether or not this is what happened when Ashkenazi Jews left their group to join their Eastern European host populations, we can't say for now. But it doesn't seem unreasonable -- only so many people can be high-status within a group, so the rest -- brainy or not -- will have to look elsewhere to find success. One big difference then was that wealth and status mattered a lot more for passing your genes throughout the generations, so -- if the current pattern held back then -- the endogamous Jews would have had a Darwinian advantage over the poorer ones who married out.

GSS variables used: sprel, relig, relig16, wordsum, educ, class, realinc

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brief: Do people vote selfishly when it comes to vices?

In Bryan Caplan's eye-opening book The Myth of the Rational Voter, he devotes some time to the literature showing that voters do not vote their narrow self interests. The well-to-do favor social safety net programs, men are typically more pro-choice, and so on. In general, people claim to and do vote for what they believe will make society better off. He says that the exceptions are personal vices, such as smokers being much more against smoking bans than are non-smokers. I went to the General Social Survey to see what other examples I could dig up on this pattern.


Those who saw an x-rated movie last year, compared to those who didn't, are much more likely to want to keep pornography legal for adults, rather than ban it altogether.


Among married people, those who have cheated on their spouse are much more likely to want easier divorce laws. The idea is that if we had stricter laws, their vice could be more harshly punished, say by having to pay massive damages in divorce court if it were uncovered.


The more sex partners a woman has had in the past year, the more willing she is to support abortion for any reason whatsoever. The idea is that for such women, abortion is one form of birth control, and lacking this method of last resort would constrain their ability to indulge their vice of sleeping with a variety of men.

Finally, an exception to the "vice leads to selfish voting" rule:

These two graphs show that illegal drug users feel the same way as non-drug users about how well our drug policy is doing, rather than view it as too harsh or unjust, as we might have expected from the previous three cases. This case is different in that the vice is illegal, while the other three vices are perfectly legal. Obviously they could not vote selfishly because there are no "legalize it" pieces of legislation on the table.

But even when you just ask them their opinion, they still don't espouse the view that promotes their own self-interest. Perhaps the vices that we criminalize, on average, really are more harmful than those that we don't criminalize -- shooting heroin really is more ruinous than cheating, sleeping around, or watching porn. If that's so, then the heroin addict doesn't view his vice as something that's unobjectionable, and so doesn't view tough drug laws as an untenable constraint on his liberty, in the way that a porn addict would view his own vice and the attempts to criminalize it. He probably recognizes that shooting heroin is something that people should be protected from by making it harder to try out. The porn addict, by contrast, realizes that it never really hurt anyone, so people should not be protected from a false menace.

So, by experiencing how destructive illegal drugs are first-hand, users put on their "do what's best for society" hat and confess that current drug laws aren't as bad as ivory tower detractors might think. The other vices don't appear to destroy society, so those who indulge in them don't think about what's best for society -- you only get into that mindset when you perceive that something is a real problem that needs to be solved.

GSS variables used: pornlaw, xmovie, divlaw, evstray, abany, partners, sex, natdrug, hlth5, evidu

Friday, September 25, 2009

Brief: Are teachers more likely to be perverts?

One stereotype has it that adults who seek out jobs where they interact with teenagers all day every day are at least somewhat motivated by sexual desire. It raises our suspicions to see a 45 year-old man coaching a high school girls' soccer team, for instance.

The General Social Survey doesn't ask about the ages of the people you work with or are responsible for, but it does ask if you've volunteered in the education sector. If the above idea holds water, surely we should see it at work here. The GSS also asks whether you think pre-marital sex between two 14 - 16 year-olds is wrong or not. Surely those volunteering in education for ulterior motives would be more likely to say that it's OK. Here are the results of how wrong or right someone believes teen sex is, by whether or not they volunteered in education:

Clearly those who seek out (unpaid) work in education, compared to those who don't, are less tolerant of teen sex. Education volunteers are half as likely to say that it's merely "sometimes wrong" or "not wrong at all." This mirrors the belief pattern of adults who have varying numbers of teenagers in their household:

So, those who have greater day-to-day interaction with teenagers, whatever the reason, are less tolerant of them having sex. Adults are more likely to have a "let the kids be free" attitude if they don't get daily reminders of how young people actually behave. Those who seek out education work, then, are motivated to be guardians or something similar to parents, not by ulterior motives. An alternative explanation is that these more intolerant views are defense mechanisms so that their minds "don't even go there," preventing them from viewing their charges as potential mates.

The picture doesn't change if we throw the volunteer's sex into the mix. A multiple regression that predicts tolerance by sex and volunteering shows that women and education volunteers are less tolerant. In this model, the effect of sex is statistically significant, and the effect of volunteering in education is marginally significant (p = 0.064). There are only 243 volunteers, so presumably if we had a larger sample size, the p-value would dip below the arbitrary 0.05 level.

The most likely reason for the stereotype of the pervert who seeks out work with young people is what psychologists call the availability bias -- we think events are more likely if we can remember examples of them more easily. Given that we have little direct experience with people who work in education, we rely on news stories, whether from the mass media or spread by word-of-mouth. The cases where the teacher and soccer coach behave themselves don't merit any attention; it's only when they do something unseemly that we talk about working in education and being a pervert. Emotionally charged events like that also stick better in memory, as opposed to bland examples of well behaved teachers and coaches.

Since it's easier for us to recall examples of a teacher or coach who acted like a perv, we think that that's more likely for them than for someone with a job not involving young people. This is another reminder of the value of checking the data rather than relying on our impressions.

GSS variables used: teensex, voleduc, teens, sex

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How are religiosity and teen pregnancy related?

Razib points me to a new study showing that, controlling for various factors, states with greater religiosity scores tend to have higher teen birth rates. So, compared to more secular states, the states in the Bible Belt are more likely to supply underage guests for the Maury Povich show who shout at their parents and the audience that, "I don't care what you think -- I'm gonna have that baby!"

But does this state-level pattern hold up at the individual level or not? To be clear what the question is, it could be that it's primarily the non-religious girls who give birth as teenagers -- say, because both traits reflect an underlying wild child disposition -- and perhaps the religiosity of their community is a response to tame this problem. So, for whatever reason, some states might have a greater fraction of devil-may-care girls, which would cause the state to have a higher teen birth rate as well as a greater religiosity score. (These states would have more of a teen pregnancy problem to deal with, hence a greater community policing response via religion.)

Or the patterns could be the same at the individual and the state levels -- that is, there's something about a highly religious life that makes a female more likely to give birth. For instance, if they thought it was their religious duty to be fruitful and multiply, or if they saw something sacred or divine in conceiving and giving birth -- rather than view it as a threat to their material or career success -- then the more religious teenagers would have higher birth rates.

To answer this, I went to the General Social Survey, which has data on individuals. There is no variable for age at first birth, so I simply created a new variable which is the year of the first child's birth minus the year of the mother's birth. Unfortunately, this restricts the data to just one year, 1994. Still, that was before the teen pregnancy rate had really plummeted, so there should be enough variety among those who gave birth as teenagers for any patterns to show up. In order to get larger sample sizes, I grouped female respondents into four categories for age at first birth: teen mothers (9 to 19), young mothers (20 to 24), older mothers (25 to 29), and middle-aged mothers (30 to 39).

A lot of the questions about religion were not asked in 1994, but I managed to find three each for religious beliefs and religious practice. For beliefs, the questions measure whether she has a literal interpretation of the Bible, how fundamentalist she is (now and at age 16), and whether she supports or opposes a ban on prayer in public schools. For practice, the questions measure how often she attends religious services, how strong her affiliation is, and how often she prays. (See note [1] for how "rarely," "occasionally," and "frequently" are defined.)

First, let's look at how religious beliefs vary among women who gave birth first at different ages:

The pattern is stark: the earlier she had her first child, the stronger her religious beliefs, whether that means Biblical literalism, fundamentalism (now as well as at age 16), or opposing a ban on prayer in public schools.

Now let's look at how religious practice varies:

Here the story is a bit different. Teen mothers have lowest religious attendance, although young mothers have the greatest, while older and middle-aged mothers are in between. Also, teen mothers are tied with middle-aged mothers for lowest religious affiliation, whereas the young and older mothers have more strongly affiliated women. The pattern for prayer is the same as for attendance: teen mothers pray the least often, while young mothers pray the most, with the older and middle-aged mothers in between.

Putting these two sets of results together, we see that both of the plausible explanations for the state-level pattern show up at the individual level. Teen mothers are more delinquent in their religious practice, which supports the view that they have some basic wild-child personality that influences their attitudes toward giving birth and going to church. However, we know it cannot be some underlying antipathy toward religion that causes them to miss church or prayer because they are actually the most likely to hold fundamentalist or literalist beliefs. That supports the view that there's something about having a strong personal religious conviction that gives them a more favorable view of conceiving and giving birth.

Thus, the overall profile of a teen mother is a girl who is passionate enough in her religious beliefs that she sees something wonderful in giving birth, even at such a young age, but whose lower degree of conscientiousness keeps her from performing the institutional rituals as often as she should. Not being so well integrated into the institution, she doesn't feel whatever dampening effects the institution may have exerted through peer pressure (for lack of a better term). Indeed, if you've ever seen one of those teen mother episodes of Maury Povich, this portrait should be eerily familiar -- a misfit who isn't going to change her behavior just to lessen the authorities' social disapproval (whether her parents, Maury, or the jury in the audience), but who finds fulfillment in her private faith and in the ineffable bond between her and her child.

[1] For attendance, "rarely" is never, less than once a year, or once a year; "occasionally" is several times a year, once a month, or 2-3 times a month; and "frequently" is nearly every week, every week, or more than once a week. For prayer, "rarely" is less than once a week or never; "occasionally" is several times or once a week; and "frequently" is once or several times a day.

GSS variables used: sex, kdyrbrn1, cohort, bible, fund, fund16, prayer, attend, reliten, pray.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What predicts income dissatisfaction?

Let's test the idea that as people attain higher status, they believe that their income is increasingly not enough to cover their expenses -- after getting that big promotion and moving to a better neighborhood, you've got more income, but it sure seems like life is more expensive, what with the private tutors and sports coaches for your kids, higher home prices, replacing the IKEA furniture with stuff from Crate & Barrel, etc. Life felt more affordable before.

The General Social Survey asks the following question:

Do you feel that the income from your job alone is enough to meet your family's usual monthly expenses and bills?

Note that the wording does not refer to things in the "take only what you need to survive" category. If you pay for tutoring, that's a usual monthly expense. If you go out to McDonald's several times a month, that's a usual monthly expense. So it's referring to whether the person's income is enough to support their broader lifestyle.

If the above idea is right, the percent who answer Yes should decline as we go up the status scale. In fact, the effect should be especially strong since this question was only asked in 2002 and 2006 -- right before the recent boom, and then during the height of the boom. People were furiously maxing out their credit cards, and they were surrounded by other people with lots of cool new stuff that they bought using maxed out credit cards. A feeling of income inadequacy at the higher status levels should have been particularly acute.

Out of curiosity, I also checked to see how income dissatisfaction varied within other demographic groups. Here are the results (click to enlarge):

The lowest income groups are the least satisfied, although once family income hits $20,000, dissatisfaction stays pretty constant. However, the very rich actually feel even more satisfied than other income groups. The same pattern holds for job prestige (socioeconomic index), education level, and self-reported economic class. Income dissatisfaction is basically constant across IQ levels (the lowest levels, 0 - 2, show funny results because of very small sample sizes). So, there is no evidence that higher-status people -- however measured -- are more bitter about their income level than lower or middle-status people. Quite the opposite.

As for age, surprisingly there is no big change from the college years through middle age, although by the time people are in their 60s, they are a bit more satisfied than before -- perhaps due to the falling need for social preening and oneupsmanship by then. Before then, though, more than 50% of each age group feels inadequate -- just unhappy in its own way (not getting a hot car when young vs. not finding a nice home when older).

Also surprisingly, there are are no race differences at all. We might have expected whites to feel more satisfied since they score higher on average for the above measures of social status. I fooled around by restricting the social status variables to the higher end or lower end, and it didn't seem to matter -- blacks and whites were still basically dead even. What they spend their money on may differ, but no racial group feels more or less satisfied than any other.

Finally, there is a gigantic sex difference, dwarfing anything else we've seen. While 57% of men are satisfied with their income, only 34% of women are. We can't attribute this to women wanting to shop more, or for more expensive things -- men have their eyes on super-expensive cars and other auto-related junk, amateur sports equipment, big flashy gadgets and electronics, and so on. And men don't make that much more than women, so it can't be due to differences in income. I think it must be a personality difference rooted in the brain's wiring. In questionnaires, women consistently score much higher on the personality trait Neuroticism than men. And this shows up in the real world, as they suffer more from depression than men. The feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and impulsiveness that characterize Neuroticism should show up when we ask people if they're satisfied with their income level.

These other demographic findings are pretty neat, but the most robust and important finding is that income dissatisfaction does not increase as you move up the status scale. We may have this misperception because those higher-status people who are not satisfied are the ones most likely to speak up about it, and the ones who the media are most likely to cover because of the schadenfreude value it provides the readers with. No one wants to write or read a news feature on a bunch of people who say, "I'm rich and educated -- and it is all it's cracked up to be!"

GSS variables used: rincblls, race, sex, age, class, sei, wordsum, educ, realinc

Monday, September 7, 2009

Has the free market been taken too seriously or not seriously enough?

In a recent essay in the New York Times Magazine about why so many economists failed to predict the current crisis, Paul Krugman argues that a big piece is the cheerleading of Panglossian free marketeers, which helped to hide from view the possibility that markets can screw up, perhaps in very disastrous ways. Sure, there were a handful of skeptics and nay-sayers, but according to Krugman, they were too small in number or decibel level to get the attention of mainstream economists.

Not knowing much about the history of economic thought, I decided to see for myself by searching the "economics" section of JSTOR for articles that discuss markets failing. If Krugman's right, these should either be low in absolute number (whether they're up or down, they aren't enough to get people's attention), or if they're high in number, they should have been declining (as the cheerleading swept across the profession).

I've previously shown that the idea of money illusion declined in popularity from the mid-1970s onward, which is more of the kind of imperfections that Krugman is talking about. I could look for other ideas related to behavioral economics or behavioral finance, but these focus on how psychology affects economic behavior. I'm not sure they're the best measure of how common are ideas about the market failing. So, I looked instead at market failure ideas related to information -- these don't imply a wrinkle here or there due to some quirk of psychology, but to larger market failures. The most well known example is George Akerlof's hypothetical example of "the market for lemons" (used cars).

The phrases I searched for are "asymmetric information," "adverse selection," and "network externalities." I threw in "irrational exuberance" out of curiosity. If those terms are unfamiliar, I can't explain them at length, except to note that they are hypotheses about how markets can fail. (For instance, if the buyer knows something the seller doesn't, or vice versa; or if people value a technology not only for its use to them as individuals but also in relation to how big the network of users is.) They have Wikipedia entries, though.

I standardized the counts first by dividing by the total number of articles, which gives the % of all articles containing the keyword. This just tells us how prevalent the idea is, but it may be more useful to standardize by comparing the counts of the market failure ideas to the counts of articles that mention some completely basic idea in economics. That way, we can see how much respect the new ideas are given relative to time-tested ones. (It is like a person in 1997 comparing the stock prices of the dot-com companies to stocks in more mature industries.) I chose "supply and demand" as the fundamental concept to compare them to -- that's about as basic and popular of an economic concept as you can think of.

The pattern looks the same no matter what I use as the standardizing term, so I've stuck with the % of all articles measurement for all terms, although I've also included a graph with the comparison to "supply and demand" for two keywords to show just how much attention they have been given. Here are the results:

Clearly these ideas have only been gaining in popularity among economists. Indeed, the pioneers in this line of hypothesis-generating have received the Nobel Prize in economics for this work -- an event that should make us skeptical of Krugman's claim about how clueless economists have been, re: the possibility of markets screwing up. The broadest terms are currently pushing around 10% of all articles -- not too shabby. Moreover, since the late 1990s, the idea of "asymmetric information" has been on par with or even above the idea of "supply and demand" in how commonly discussed they are. It's hard to imagine beating "supply and demand" in a popularity contest, but there you have it.

(Indeed, perhaps it is the infatuation with such ideas that blinded many economists to basic concepts like supply and demand -- for instance, that housing prices were shooting up because demand was shooting up, as it does during a bubble, not because of some radical shift in the interest rate, construction costs, or population size, as Robert Shiller showed years before the bubble burst.)

Krugman did not claim that if only economists had paid more attention to market failure theories involving asymmetric information, they would've seen the crisis coming. But his broader claim about how sanguine the profession had become about the superiority of markets and the small chance that they'd screw up big -- this claim is wrong. Asymmetric information economists and behavioral economists have recently won the Nobel Prize, and we've just seen that the former ideas have only gained in popularity, rivaling even the respect given to the concept of "supply and demand"!

I think the poor showing of economists is not due to theoretical blinders so much as it is to their desire to fit in with polite society (which in turn may influence what theoretical hunches they have). No one wants to rain on the parade during a boom or period of apparent great moderation. Others will take offense, turn them out, and so on. The two economists who had the most foresight, Robert Shiller and Nouriel Roubini, don't care how well accepted they are. Shiller's mind is that of an engineering nerd, which doesn't register a social faux pas very sensitively. And Roubini is someone who gets a thrill out of telling other people how stupid or clueless they are (this is the main appeal for academics in many fields). So obviously he won't care if he's an outcast.

Many view economists as asocial or autistic nerds, but that doesn't seem to be so true -- they have fully functional and thirsty social antennae, but they were the ones left out of the cool kids crowd in high school, and who desperately want to be part of respectable society as adults. Hence all their name-dropping about Mozart, Picasso, exotic cuisine, and which neighborhoods in Zagreb are the most authentic. "See, we're not just a bunch of math geeks! Let us join the party!"

Clearly seeing the current crisis would have required them to call polite society a bunch of idiots -- for believing that home prices can only go up, up, up -- or recklessly ideological for using PC to debauch lending standards. Not the best way to get invited to the right dinner parties, the board of directors at the right institutions, or the conferences of right-thinking society.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brief: When did elite whites start obsessing over blacks?

It's routine nowadays to hear well-to-do white people casually slipping into conversation that their best friend is black, or worrying out loud about how we can improve the lot of blacks in a discriminating society. Clearly that wasn't so at some point -- blacks were out of sight, out of mind. So when did the shift take place? The story we're told in school is that it took the Civil Rights movement to wake white people up. Let's look at the Harvard Crimson archives to see.

Here we have a group of New England white elite college students -- just the group who first paid attention to black causes. I simply searched the Crimson for "negro" and plotted this number as a percent of articles with the neutral word "one," using 5-year moving averages to smooth out the data. Here is the result:

The sharp drop at the end is obviously just an artifact of the word "negro" becoming taboo after the Civil Rights movement. The peak year is 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech during the March on Washington. Also not very surprising. But it's not as if whites were unaware of black issues before then, and were suddenly awakened or caught off-guard by the events of the mid-1950s and after. Far from it: the sustained upward trend begins immediately after the Great Migration of blacks from the southeast into the northeastern US and California. There is another jump around 1940, with greater growth afterward, probably reflecting the Second Great Migration of blacks out of the southeast.

There's also a small rise-and-fall in interest that peaks around 1900, but this could be due to the smaller sample size during these early years. A graph (not shown) of the raw count of "negro" articles shows no hump there, although the swing upward after 1920 or so is apparent.

When you see the graph, it may not seem very surprising -- as blacks came into more frequent contact with Northern whites, it seems natural that Harvard undergrads would start paying more attention to them. This cannot be due to the perceived economic threat that the newly arrived blacks posed, as with the string of race riots that erupted when working class whites saw blacks as labor market competition. Poor blacks from the south were not going to get into Harvard. So, this attention must reflect some combination of paternalism -- "how can we take care of these new people?" -- and cultural, if not economic, anxiety -- "what does this migration mean for our way of life?"

But the graph is very surprising if you only relied on what you were taught in school -- i.e., that whites were lulled into complacency for a long time, thinking that their poor treatment of blacks wouldn't come back to bite them, only to be shocked out of their slumber by Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. That story is wrong, as the data show. The steady increase began decades before the Civil Rights movement, which was more of a culmination than a beginning. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were jumping on a bandwagon that had been picking up speed for decades. It was the Jazz Age, not the Civil Rights era, that woke whites up to black culture.

This serves as a reminder that sea changes in society are rarely due to the actions of single, charismatic individuals, but rather reflect interactions among people at the grassroots level, as Tolstoy believed. The individuals who get holidays named after them are just celebrities that we single out, not the ones who got the bandwagon going in the first place. We can't know their names because it rarely starts off as a concerted movement with planners or leaders.