Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brief: When statesmen weren't elderly

A book that I'm reading casually mentioned that the English politician Bolingbroke became Secretary at War in 1704 -- at age 26. When something seems like it's from another world, it probably reflects the massive changes that the West has seen since making the transition to a society characterized by open entry and competition in both the economic and political spheres. To check this, I've plotted over time how old the entering British Secretary at War was (or whatever new title he may have had, such as Secretary of State for Defence). Here are the results:

Sure enough, up through the first quarter of the 18th C., the Secretary at War's age hovers around 30. By the end of the century, his age has moved to the upper 30s and 40s. During the 19th C. there is more variance, with a handful of Secretaries in their early 30s, but the trend is still upward into the 40s and 50s. After 1900, the youngest has been 38, the oldest 73, with the average at 52. The men with heavy war responsibilities are about 20 years older in post-industrial than in pre-industrial times.

One reason may be that everyone started living longer with industrialization, not just the statesmen. But when you think about it, that cannot explain things. Presumably the 17th C. counterparts of today's lead singers of a rock band were also in their 20s. Elite athletes were likely also in their 20s, as they are today. If there were supermodels back then, you can bet they would have been in their 20s as well. Instead, there has been a shift in what type of people are considered fit for war secretary, which in turn reflects a change in the job description itself.

Violence and Social Orders, the book I'm reading, posits a framework for understanding history through the lens of controlling violence. In a primitive social order, such as those of hunter-gatherers, there is continual violence, no state, and mostly no social organizations beyond kin networks.

The limited access order (or "natural state") controls violence by using the state to create rents for elite members of a dominant coalition. Each elite gets his own piece of turf to extract rents from, and each elite respects the turf of the others because otherwise violence will break out, and that disorder would destroy the rent-creation. To make sure that the rents are sufficient to persuade elite members to refrain from violence, access to the elite is restricted -- if it were open, lots of people would pour in and shrink the amount of the rents going to each person. Still, the shadow of violence always looms over the society, since the means of violence are spread out over the entire elite -- not monopolized by the state -- and they only refrain as long as no one trespasses against them. The threat is always there.

Open access orders are the ones we live in today, where there is political control of the military, the state is used to provide public goods for the masses rather than private rents for the elites, and where the economically powerful earn their money through profits -- doing something productive -- rather than parasitizing rents from the peasants under their control. Violence is rare because the state monopolizes the legitimate use of violence, rather than every elite member being a violence specialist himself or closely allied with one. Elites compete on the basis of the price and quality of the goods and services they provide -- not based on who can defeat whom in a violent battle.

My guess for why open access orders have older statesmen is that since the shadow of violence has been largely removed, you don't need people running military affairs who are itching to pick up arms and go kick some ass. Being a hormone-crazed young person is great in a natural state -- your hair-trigger emotions are suited to a world where you always have to be prepared to fight, and your choleric temper provides a credible threat to would-be trespassers during peacetime. For example, Alexander the Great became King of Macedon at 20 and had conquered much of the known world by his death at 32.

But in open access orders, violence has been stripped from the broad elite and concentrated in the state, and civil war -- that is, intra-elite war -- is rare. So, too, are elite uprisings against the state -- before, these resulted from elites losing their rents and going after the people who were supposed to be providing them. So in these societies hot-headed young people are only going to threaten the peace. The elites are no longer constantly prepared to battle each other, so we only require a calm person to make sure everyone continues to get along. A 26 year-old in charge of the army, by contrast, would grow bored with peace so quickly that he'd want to stir things up "so we at least have something to do."

It's funny that we worry today about how to control young males' violent impulses, which threaten the peace. Only 300 years ago, we would have been grateful to have a young violent male in our social circle -- he would've been extracting rents from us, but at least we'd have someone to protect us from all those other specialists in violence. We truly live in a different world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brief: How does racial ideology vary by income level for blacks and whites?

One school of thought says that ideology is something that the poor are more likely than the rich to rely on -- e.g., Marx's view that religion is the opiate of the masses -- while another holds that ideology is costly, so that the wealthier you are the more you can indulge in it. Let's see how this works out with the ideology of racial consciousness among blacks and whites as a function of income.

The General Social Survey asks how important ethnic group membership is to your sense of who you are. Here is how whites (1st) and blacks (2nd) respond, split up into the upper, middle, and lower thirds of the black income distribution:

As whites become richer, they rely less and less on their ethnicity to define themselves, while the opposite is true for blacks. Blacks of all income groups are more likely than whites to be highly racially conscious (i.e. by answering "very important"), but this gap widens as we move up the income scale -- from about 30 percentage points among the poorest third to over 50 percentage points among the richest third. There is greater race polarization among the rich than among the poor, which rules in favor of the idea that ideology is costly and so that the rich consume more of it than the poor. (Wealthy whites do not consume pro-white ideology but rather an ideological form of cosmopolitanism.)

This result is similar to the Republican - Democrat gap that widens as you move up the income scale, as shown by Andrew Gelman and colleagues in Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. They come to the same conclusion that arguing over Starbucks, gas-guzzling SUVs, etc., is due to post-materialism -- something you indulge in after your basic financial needs are well taken care of.

Another question asks if you believe harmony in the US is best achieved by down playing or ignoring racial differences. This is the Rodney King view, the opposite of the Malcolm X view. Here are the results for whites (1st) and blacks (2nd):

Whites feel virtually the same across income groups, while richer blacks are less likely to agree with the Rodney King view and more likely to stand strongly against it. Again we see greater race polarization as we look at higher-earning people, which reinforces the post-materialist take on how and why ideology varies across income levels.

GSS variables used: ethimp, ethignor, race, realinc

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brief: Generational views of communism

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, let's take a look at how the various generations viewed communism.

The General Social Survey asked a question from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s about your view of communism. I've restricted the respondents to those between the ages of 18 and 30 to make sure that we're looking at those most prone to idealistic foolishness of one stripe or another. The generations I've chosen are earlier Baby Boomers, later Baby Boomers, the disco-punk generation (perhaps Second Silent Generation is better), earlier Generation X-ers, and later Generation X-ers. Here are the results:

I knew beforehand that those born between the two most recent loudmouth generations (Boomers and X-ers) would be the least sympathetic to commies because they came of age during a decidedly non-ideological period -- roughly the late '70s and early '80s, in contrast to the highly ideological Sixties and early '90s that the other two generations grew up during. Young people during the social hysterias felt compelled to embrace the larger world in order to change it for the better, while young people during a period of relative social calm felt like telling the larger world to go get a life of its own, leave us alone, and let us have fun.

I'm putting together a more detailed post about generational differences in voting patterns across the years, so stay tuned.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Brief: Too smart for their own good or just showing off?

Returning to the theme of whether people favor policies that benefit their narrow self-interests, let's have a quick look at who says the government should provide a minimum income. The self-interest view says that as people make more money, they should be less likely to favor such a policy -- they earn too much to qualify, and they'd pay for it through higher taxes. Indeed, that's just what the GSS shows, whether we look at real income or self-described class. Here are the results, where red is support, blue is neutral, and green is reject:

But what about support for the policy based on your brains? The self-interest view predicts the same pattern as above -- college graduates are very unlikely to qualify, yet they'd have to pay higher taxes to fund it. And in the GSS, real income increases steadily as your intelligence increases (data not shown here), so we'd expect smarter people -- who are also wealthier people -- to want the policy less. That's mostly true, except at the very high end:

Support for a minimum income policy decreases as you poll smarter and smarter people -- until you reach the high end, who get 9 or 10 out of 10 questions correct on a makeshift IQ test. Similarly, support erodes as you poll more and more educated people -- until you reach the high end, who have more than 2 years of post-graduate study (i.e., not just a masters but a doctorate).

You might think that overly brainy or overly educated people make less than those just below them -- think of the English PhD who works at Starbucks -- but remember that using this measure of IQ, the upper end makes more money than those just below them. You might also think that the high end has simply been exposed to more silly ideas -- again, think of the English PhD who had to read some Marxist stuff for his theory classes -- but why doesn't this hold for those with 1-2 years of college, 3-4 years of college, or who hold a masters? Surely they've been more exposed to silly ideas than those just below them, and yet they are less and less likely to support the policy. And remember that the reversal also shows up in IQ, which just measures how smart you are, rather than how much time you've spent listening to professors.

So perhaps there is something to the idea of people at the upper end of the intelligence scale being "too smart for their own good." Minimum income policies will keep more poor and low-skilled people out of work because an artificially high price (i.e., a wage or salary higher than what employers and workers would agree to) means that employers won't offer as many jobs as they would if the wages were somewhat lower. As people have more intelligence to see this -- or at least sense it intuitively -- support for the policy generally drops off. But maybe being at the upper end makes people arrogant -- "Well, that's the obvious answer, so it can't be right. There has to be a more complicated and different answer!"

Alternatively, the high end could be trying to signal their braininess -- "I'm so smart that I can hold all sorts of ridiculous views and not suffer any consequences." Why don't people on the high end of income and class try to signal their status in the same way? Because income and class are more acquired traits, whereas differences in intelligence in modern societies mostly reflect different genetic endowments. If you're trying to signal how good your genes are, the trait that you claim to be so high on -- "I'm so X that I can afford to..." -- would have to show a strong genetic influence.

These data don't allow us to decide between the two main explanations, but they do rule out the strong version of the self-interest view.

GSS variables used: govminc, realinc, class, educ, wordsum