McCloskey on Piketty

The left loves Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century because it lends pseudo-scientific backing to some of the left’s favorite economic postulates; to wit:

  • Income inequality is bad, even if real incomes are rising across the board. Why is it bad? It just is, if you’re an envious Marxist. But also…
  • Income inequality is bad because wealth usually derives from income. The rich get richer, as the old song goes. And the rich — the super-rich, in today’s parlance — acquire inordinate political power because of their great wealth.
  • Further, inequality yields slower economic growth because persons with high incomes consume a smaller fraction of their incomes than do persons with low incomes. The result, according to the Keynesian consumption-based model, is a reduction in GDP, other things being the same. And other things being the same, slower means that it is harder for low-income persons to rise from poverty or near-poverty.

Deirdre McCloskey‘s forthcoming review of Piketty’s book praises it and damns it. First the praise:

Piketty gives a fine example of how to do it [economic history]. He does not get entangled as so many economists do in the sole empirical tool they are taught, namely, regression analysis on someone else’s “data”…. Therefore he does not commit one of the two sins of modern economics, the use of meaningless “tests” of statistical significance…. Piketty constructs or uses statistics of aggregate capital and of inequality and then plots them out for inspection, which is what physicists, for example, also do in dealing with their experiments and observations. Nor does he commit the other sin, which is to waste scientific time on existence theorems. Physicists, again, don’t. If we economists are going to persist in physics envy let’s at least learn what physicists actually do. Piketty stays close to the facts, and does not, say, wander into the pointless worlds of non-cooperative game theory, long demolished by experimental economics. He also does not have recourse to non-computable general equilibrium, which never was of use for quantitative economic science, being a branch of philosophy, and a futile one at that. On both points, bravissimo.

His book furthermore is clearly and unpretentiously, if dourly, written….

That comes early in McCloskey’s long review (50 double-spaced pages in the .pdf version). But she ends with blistering damnation:

On the next to last page of his book Piketty writes, “It is possible, and even indispensable, to have an approach that is at once economic and political, social and cultural, and concerned with wages and wealth.” One can only agree. But he has not achieved it. His gestures to cultural matters consist chiefly of a few naively used references to novels he has read superficially—for which on the left he has been embarrassingly praised. His social theme is a narrow ethic of envy. His politics assumes that governments can do anything they propose to do. And his economics is flawed from start to finish.

It is a brave book. But it is mistaken.

There is much in between to justify McCloskey’s conclusion. Here she puts Piketty’s work in context:

[T]he left in its worrying routinely forgets this most important secular event since the invention of agriculture—the Great Enrichment of the last two centuries—and goes on worrying and worrying, like the little dog worrying about his bone in the Traveler’s insurance company advertisement on TV, in a new version every half generation or so.

Here is a partial list of the worrying pessimisms, which each has had its day of fashion since the time, as the historian of economic thought Anthony Waterman put it, “Malthus’ first [1798] Essay made land scarcity central. And so began a century-long mutation of ‘political economy,’ the optimistic science of wealth, to ‘economics,’ the pessimistic science of scarcity.” Malthus worried that workers would proliferate and Ricardo worried that the owners of land would engorge the national product. Marx worried, or celebrated, depending on how one views historical materialism, that owners of capital would at least make a brave attempt to engorge it…. Mill worried, or celebrated, depending on how one views the sick hurry of modern life, that the stationary state was around the corner. Then the economists, many on the left but some on the right, in quick succession 1880 to the present—at the same time that trade-tested betterment was driving real wages up and up and up—commenced worrying about, to name a few of the grounds for pessimisms they discerned concerning ”capitalism”: greed, alienation, racial impurity, workers’ lack of bargaining strength, women working, workers’ bad taste in consumption, immigration of lesser breeds, monopoly, unemployment, business cycles, increasing returns, externalities, under-consumption, monopolistic competition, separation of ownership from control, lack of planning, post-War stagnation, investment spillovers, unbalanced growth, dual labor markets, capital insufficiency … , peasant irrationality, capital-market imperfections, public choice, missing markets, informational asymmetry, third-world exploitation, advertising, regulatory capture, free riding, low-level traps, middle-level traps, path dependency, lack of competitiveness, consumerism, consumption externalities, irrationality, hyperbolic discounting, too big to fail, environmental degradation, underpaying of care, overpayment of CEOs, slower growth, and more.

One can line up the later items in the list, and some of the earlier ones revived à la Piketty or Krugman…. I will not name here the men … , but can reveal their formula: first, discover or rediscover a necessary condition for perfect competition or a perfect world (in Piketty’s case, for example, a more perfect equality of income). Then assert without evidence (here Piketty does a great deal better than the usual practice) but with suitable mathematical ornamentation (thus Jean Tirole, Nobel 2014) that the condition might be imperfectly realized or the world might not develop in a perfect way. Then conclude with a flourish (here however Piketty falls in with the usual low scientific standard) that “capitalism” is doomed unless experts intervene with a sweet use of the monopoly of violence in government to implement anti-trust against malefactors of great wealth or subsidies to diminishing-returns industries or foreign aid to perfectly honest governments or money for obviously infant industries or the nudging of sadly childlike consumers or, Piketty says, a tax on inequality-causing capital worldwide. A feature of this odd history of fault-finding and the proposed statist corrections, is that seldom does the economic thinker feel it necessary to offer evidence that his … proposed state intervention will work as it is supposed to, and almost never does he feel it necessary to offer evidence that the imperfectly attained necessary condition for perfection before intervention is large enough to have reduced much the performance of the economy in aggregate.

I heartily agree with McCloskey’s diagnosis of the causes of leftist worrying:

One begins to suspect that the typical leftist … starts with a root conviction that capitalism is seriously defective. The conviction is acquired at age 16 years when the proto-leftist discovers poverty but has no intellectual tools to understand its source. I followed this pattern, and therefore became for a time a Joan-Baez socialist. Then the lifelong “good social democrat,” as he describes himself (and as I for a while described myself), when he has become a professional economist, in order to support the now deep-rooted conviction, looks around for any qualitative indication that in some imagined world the conviction would be true, without bothering to ascertain numbers drawn from our own world…. It is the utopianism of good-hearted leftward folk who say, “Surely this wretched society, in which some people are richer and more powerful than others, can be greatly improved. We can do much, much better!”

Piketty’s typically leftist blend of pessimism and utopianism is hitched to bad economic reasoning, ignorance of economic history, and a misreading of his own statistics:

Piketty’s (and Aristotle’s) theory is that the yield on capital usually exceeds the growth rate of the economy, and so the share of capital’s returns in national income will steadily increase, simply because interest income—what the presumably rich capitalists get and supposedly manage to cling to and supposedly reinvest—is growing faster than the income the whole society is getting.

Aristotle and his followers, such as Aquinas and Marx and Piketty, were much concerned with such “unlimited” gain. The argument is, you see, very old, and very simple. Piketty ornaments it a bit with some portentous accounting about capital-output ratios and the like, producing his central inequality about inequality: so long as r > g, where r is the return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy, we are doomed to ever increasing rewards to rich capitalists while the rest of us poor suckers fall relatively behind. The merely verbal argument I just gave, however, is conclusive, so long as its factual assumptions are true: namely, only rich people have capital; human capital doesn’t exist; the rich reinvest their return; they never lose it to sloth or someone else’s creative destruction; inheritance is the main mechanism, not a creativity that raises g for the rest of us just when it results in an r shared by us all; and we care ethically only about the Gini coefficient, not the condition of the working class. Notice one aspect of that last: in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. Piketty’s vision of a “Ricardian Apocalypse,” as he calls it, leaves room for the rest of us to do very well indeed, most non-apocalyptically, as in fact since 1800 we have. What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer, too. His worry, in other words, is purely about difference, about the Gini coefficient, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition.

Another serious problem is that r will almost always exceed g, as anyone can tell you who knows about the rough level of interest rates on invested capital and about the rate at which most economies have grown (excepting only China recently, where contrary to Piketty’s prediction, inequality has increased). If his simple logic is true, then the Ricardian Apocalypse looms, always. Let us therefore bring in the sweet and blameless and omni-competent government—or, even less plausibly, a world government, or the Gallactic Empire—to implement “a progressive global tax on capital” (p. 27) to tax the rich. It is our only hope…. In other words, Piketty’s fears were not confirmed anywhere 1910 to 1980, nor anywhere in the long run at any time before 1800, nor anywhere in Continental Europe and Japan since World War II, and only recently, a little, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada (Canada, by the way, is never brought into his tests).

That is a very great puzzle if money tends to reproduce itself, always, evermore, as a general law governed by the Ricardo-plus-Marx inequality at the rates of r and g actually observed in world history. Yet inequality in fact goes up and down in great waves, for which we have evidence from many centuries ago down to the present, which also doesn’t figure in such a tale (Piketty barely mentions the work of the economic historians Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson documenting the inconvenient fact). According to his logic, once a Pikettywave starts—as it would at any time you care to mention if an economy satisfied the almostalways-satisfied condition of the interest rate exceeding the growth rate of income—it would never stop. Such an inexorable logic means we should have been overwhelmed by an inequality-tsunami in 1800 CE or in 1000 CE or for that matter in 2000 BCE. At one point Piketty says just that: “r > g will again become the norm in the twenty-first century, as it had been throughout history until the eve of World War I (… one wonders what he does with historically low interest rates right now, or the negative real interest rates in the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s). Why then did the share of the rich not rise anciently to 100 percent?

McCloskey gets it right:

With a bigger pie, someone has to get more. In the event what rose were wages on raw labor and especially a great accumulation of human capital, but capital owned by the laborers, not by the truly rich. The return to physical capital was higher than a riskless return on British or American government bonds, in order to compensate for the risk in holding capital (such as being made obsolete by betterment—think of your computer, obsolete in four years). But the return on physical capital, and on human capital, was anyway held down to its level of very roughly 5 to 10 percent by competition among the proliferating capitalists. Imagine our immiserization if the income of workers, because they did not accumulate human capital, and their societies had not adopted the accumulation of ingenuities since 1800, had experienced the history of stagnation since 1800 that the per-unit return to capital has. It is not hard to imagine, because such miserable income of workers exists even now in places like Somalia and North Korea. Instead, since 1800 in the average rich country the income of the workers per person increased by a factor of about 30 (2,900 percent, if you please) and in even in the world as a whole, including the still poor countries, by a factor of 10 (900 percent), while the rate of return to physical capital stagnated.

Piketty does not acknowledge that each wave of inventors, of entrepreneurs, and even of routine capitalists find their rewards taken from them by entry, which is an economic concept he does not appear to grasp. Look at the history of fortunes in department stores. The income from department stores in the late nineteenth century, in Le Bon Marché, Marshall Fields, and Selfridge’s, was entrepreneurial. The model was then copied all over the rich world, and was the basis for little fortunes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Benton Harbor, Michigan. Then in the late twentieth century the model was challenged by a wave of discounters, and they then in turn by the internet. The original accumulation slowly or quickly dissipates. In other words, the profit going to the profiteers is more or less quickly undermined by outward-shifting supply, if governmental monopolies and protectionisms of the sort Matt Ridley noted in recent British history do not intervene. The economist William Nordhaus has calculated that the inventors and entrepreneurs nowadays earn in profit only 2 percent of the social value of their inventions. If you are Sam Walton the 2 percent gives you personally a great deal of money from introducing bar codes into stocking of supermarket shelves. But 98 percent at the cost of 2 percent is nonetheless a pretty good deal for the rest of us. The gain from macadamized roads or vulcanized rubber, then modern universities, structural concrete, and the airplane, has enriched even the poorest among us.

But Piketty doesn’t see this because he’s a poor economist and a knee-jerk socialist:

Piketty, who does not believe in supply responses [as discussed below], focuses instead on the great evil of very rich people having seven Rolex watches by mere inheritance. Lillian Bettancourt, heiress to the L’Oréal fortune (p. 440), the third richest woman in the world, who “has never worked a day in her life, saw her fortune grow exactly as fast as that of [the admittedly bettering] Bill Gates.” Ugh, Piketty says, which is his ethical philosophy in full.

*     *     *

[T]he effect of inherited wealth on children is commonly to remove their ambition, as one can witness daily on Rodeo Drive. Laziness—or for that matter regression to the mean of ability—is a powerful equalizer. “There always comes a time,” Piketty writes against his own argument, “when a prodigal child squanders the family fortune” (p. 451), which was the point of the centuries-long struggle in English law for and against entailed estates.

*     *     *

Because Piketty is obsessed with inheritance, moreover, he wants to downplay entrepreneurial profit, the trade-tested betterment that has made the poor rich. It is again Aristotle’s claim that money is sterile and interest is therefore unnatural. Aristotle was on this matter mistaken. It is commonly the case, contrary to Piketty, and setting aside the cheapening of our goods produced by the investments of their wealth by the rich, that the people with more money got their more by being more ingeniously productive, for the benefit of us all—getting that Ph.D., for example, or being excellent makers of automobiles or excellent writers of horror novels or excellent throwers of touchdown passes or excellent providers of cell phones, such as Carlos Slim of Mexico, the richest man in the world (with a little boost, it may be, from corrupting the Mexican parliament). That Frank Sinatra became richer than most of his fans was not an ethical scandal. The “Wilt Chamberlain” example devised by the philosopher Robert Nozick (Piketty mentions John Rawls, but not Nozick, Rawls’ nemesis) says that if we pay voluntarily to get the benefit of clever CEOs or gifted athletes there is no further ethical issue. The unusually high rewards to the Frank Sinatras and Jamie Dimons and Wilt Chamberlains come from the much wider markets of the age of globalization and mechanical reproduction, not from theft. Wage inequality in the rich countries experiencing an enlarging gap of rich vs. poor, few though the countries are (Piketty’s finding, remember: Canada, U.S.A., U.K.)), is mainly, he reports, caused by “the emergence of extremely high remunerations at the summit of the wage hierarchy, particularly among top managers of large firms.” The emergence, note, has nothing to do with r > g.

How poor an economist? Consider:

Piketty’s definition of wealth does not include human capital, owned by the workers, which has grown in rich countries to be the main source of income, when it is combined with the immense accumulation since 1800 of capital in knowledge and social habits, owned by everyone with access to them. Therefore his laboriously assembled charts of the (merely physical and private) capital/output ratio are erroneous. They have excluded one of the main forms of capital in the modern world. More to the point, by insisting on defining capital as something owned nearly always by rich people, Piketty mistakes the source of income, which is chiefly embodied human ingenuity, not accumulated machines or appropriated land.

*    *     *

The fundamental technical problem in the book, however, is that Piketty the economist does not understand supply responses….

Startling evidence of Piketty’s miseducation occurs as early as page 6. He begins by seeming to concede to his neoclassical opponents…. “To be sure, there exists in principle a quite simple economic mechanism that should restore equilibrium to the process [in this case the process of rising prices of oil or urban land leading to a Ricardian Apocalypse]: the mechanism of supply and demand. If the supply of any good is insufficient, and its price is too high, then demand for that good should decrease, which would lead to a decline in its price.” [This] clearly mix[es] up movement along a demand curve with movement of the entire curve, a first-term error at university. The correct analysis (we tell our first-year, first-term students at about week four) is that if the price is “too high” it is not the whole demand curve that “restores equilibrium” … , but an eventually outward-moving supply curve. The supply curve moves out because entry is induced by the smell of super-normal profits, in the medium and long run (which is the Marshallian definition of the terms). New oil deposits are discovered, new refineries are built, new suburbs are settled, new high-rises saving urban land are constructed, as has in fact happened massively since, say, 1973, unless government has restricted oil exploitation (usually on environmental grounds) or the building of high-rises (usually on corrupt grounds). Piketty goes on—remember: it does not occur to him that high prices cause after a while the supply curve to move out; he thinks the high price will cause the demand curve to move in, leading to “a decline in price” (of the scarce item, oil’s or urban land)—“such adjustments might be unpleasant or complicated.” To show his contempt for the ordinary working of the price system he imagines comically that “people should . . . take to traveling about by bicycle.” The substitutions along a given demand curve, or one mysteriously moving in, without any supply response “might also take decades, during which landlords and oil well owners might well accumulate claims on the rest of the population” (now he has the demand curve moving out, for some reason faster than the supply curve moves out) “so extensive that they could they could easily [on grounds not argued] come to own everything that can be owned, including” in one more use of the comical alternative, “bicycles, once and for all.” Having butchered the elementary analysis of entry and of substitute supplies, which after all is the economic history of the world, he speaks of “the emir of Qatar” as a future owner of those bicycles, once and for all. The phrase must have been written before the recent and gigantic expansion of oil and gas exploitation in Canada and the United States….

Piketty, it would seem, has not read with understanding the theory of supply and demand that he disparages, such as Smith (one sneering remark on p. 9), Say (ditto, mentioned in a footnote with Smith as optimistic), Bastiat (no mention), Walras (no mention), Menger (no mention), Marshall (no mention), Mises (no mention), Hayek (one footnote citation on another matter), Friedman (pp. 548-549, but only on monetarism, not the price system). He is in short not qualified to sneer at self-regulated markets (for example on p. 572), because he has no idea how they work. It would be like someone attacking the theory of evolution (which is identical to the theory the economists use of entry and exit in self-regulating markets—the supply response, an early version of which inspired Darwin) without understanding natural selection or the the Galton-Watson process or modern genetics.

McCloskey continues:

Beyond technical matters in economics, the fundamental ethical problem in the book is that Piketty has not reflected on why inequality by itself would be bad…. The motive of the true Liberal … should not be equality but [says Joshua Monk, a character in Anthony Trollope’s novel, Phineas] “the wish of every honest [that is, honorable] man . . . to assist in lifting up those below him.” Such an ethical goal was to be achieved, says Monk the libertarian liberal (as Richard Cobden and John Bright and John Stuart Mill were, and Bastiat in France at the time, and in our times Hayek and Friedman, or for that matter M’Cluskie), not by direct programs of redistribution, nor by regulation, nor by trade unions, but by free trade and tax-supported compulsory education and property rights for women—and in the event by the Great Enrichment, which finally in the late nineteenth century started sending real wages sharply up, Europe-wide, and then world-wide.

The absolute condition of the poor has been raised overwhelmingly more by the Great Enrichment than by redistribution. The economic historians Ian Gazeley and Andrew Newell noted in 2010 “the reduction, almost to elimination, of absolute poverty among working households in Britain between 1904 and 1937.” “The elimination of grinding poverty among working families,” they show, “was almost complete by the late thirties, well before the Welfare State.” Their Chart 2 exhibits income distributions in 1886 prices at 1886, 1906, 1938, and 1960, showing the disappearance of the classic line of misery for British workers, “round about a pound a week.”

And it didn’t stop there:

In 2013 the economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry noted that “according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s ‘basics’—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53 percent of disposable income in 1950 to 44 percent in 1970 to 32 percent today.” It is a point which the economic historian Robert Fogel had made in 1999 for a longer span. The economist Steven Horwitz summarizes the facts on labor hours required to buy a color TV or an automobile, and notes that “these data do not capture . . . the change in quality . . . . The 1973 TV was at most 25 inches, with poor resolution, probably no remote control, weak sound, and generally nothing like its 2013 descendant. . . . Getting 100,000 miles out of a car in the 1970s was cause for celebration. Not getting 100,000 miles out of a car today
is cause to think you bought a lemon.”

Nor in the United States are the poor getting poorer. Horwitz observes that “looking at various data on consumption, from Census Bureau surveys of what the poor have in their homes to the labor time required to purchase a variety of consumer goods, makes clear that poor Americans are living better now than ever before. In fact, poor Americans today live better, by these measures, than did their middle class counterparts in the 1970s.” In the summer of 1976 an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago had no air conditioning in his apartment. Nowadays many quite poor Chicagoans have it. The terrible heat wave in Chicago of July 1995 killed over 700 people, mainly low-income. Yet earlier heat waves in 1936 and 1948, before air-conditioning was at all common, had probably killed many more.

There is one point at which McCloskey almost veers off course, but she recovers nicely:

To be sure, it’s irritating that a super rich woman buys a $40,000 watch. The purchase is ethically objectionable. She really should be ashamed. She should be giving her income in excess of an ample level of comfort—two cars, say, not twenty, two houses, not seven, one yacht, not five—to effective charities…. But that many rich people act in a disgraceful fashion does not automatically imply that the government should intervene to stop it. People act disgracefully in all sorts of ways. If our rulers were assigned the task in a fallen world of keeping us all wholly ethical, the government would bring all our lives under its fatherly tutelage, a nightmare achieved approximately before 1989 in East Germany and now in North Korea.

And that is the key point, to my mind. Perfection always eludes the human race, even where its members have managed to rise from the primordial scramble for sustenance and above Hobbes’s “warre, as is of every man, against every man.” Economic progress without economic inequality is impossible, and efforts to reduce inequality by punishing economic success, must inevitably hinder progress, which is built on the striving of entrepreneurs. Further, the methods used to punish economic success are anti-libertarian — whether they are the police-state methods of the Soviet Union or the “soft despotism” of the American regulatory-welfare state.

So what if an entrepreneur — an Edison, Rockefeller, Ford, Gates, or Jobs — produces something of great value to his fellow men, and thus becomes rich and adorns his spouse with a $40,000 watch, owns several homes, and so on? So what if that same entrepreneur is driven (in part, at least) by a desire to bestow great wealth upon his children? So what if that same entrepreneur chooses to live among and associate with other persons of great wealth? He has no obligation to “give back”; he has already given by providing his fellow men with something that they value enough to make him rich. (Similarly, the super-star athlete and actor.)

McCloskey gets the penultimate word:

Supposing our common purpose on the left and on the right, then, is to help the poor, … the advocacy by the learned cadres of the left for equalizing restrictions and redistributions and regulations can be viewed at best as thoughtless. Perhaps, considering what economic historians now know about the Great Enrichment, but which the left clerisy, and many of the right, stoutly refuse to learn, it can even be considered unethical. The left clerisy such as Tony Judt or Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty, who are quite sure that they themselves are taking the ethical high road against the wicked selfishness of Tories or Republicans or La Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, might on such evidence be considered dubiously ethical. They are obsessed with first-[order] changes that cannot much help the poor, and often can be shown to damage them, and are obsessed with angry envy at the consumption of the uncharitable rich, of whom they personally are often examples (what will you do with your royalties, Professor Piketty?), and the ending of which would do very little to improve the position of the poor. They are very willing to stifle through taxing the rich the trade-tested betterments which in the long run have gigantically helped the poor, who were the ancestors of most of the rest of us.

I added the emphasis to underscore what seems to me to be the left’s greatest ethical offense in the matter of inequality, as it is in the matter of race relations: hypocrisy. Hypocritical leftists like Judt, Krugman, and Pikkety (to name only  a few of their ilk) aren’t merely wrong in their views about how to help the (relatively) poor, they make money (and a lot of it) by espousing their erroneous views. They obviously see nothing wrong with making a lot of money. So why is it all right for them to make a lot of money — more than 99.9 percent of the world’s population, say — but not all right for other persons to make even more money? The dividing line between deservingness and greed seems always to lie somewhere above their munificent earnings.

*     *     *

Related reading: David Henderson, “Henderson on Piketty, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6,” EconLog, October 11 – November 9, 2014

Related posts:
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Economic Growth Since World War II
Government in Macroeconomic Perspective
Keynesianism: Upside-Down Economics in the Collectivist Cause
How High Should Taxes Be?
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economics: A Survey
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality
Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
Income Inequality and Inherited Wealth: So What?
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made

Signature

Getting “Equal Protection” Right

More than nine years ago, I wrote:

What “equal protection” really means is this:

Any law that is otherwise constitutional is a valid law, which must be applied equally to all persons.

As long as that law is applied equally to all persons, it is irrelevant if the application of the law happens to lead to unequal outcomes for various identifiable groups of persons….

Four years later, I added this about the decision of federal district judge Vaughn Walker in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger (later Hollingsworth v. Perry):

Judge Walker goes on to address equal protection:

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”…

Proposition 8 targets gays and lesbians in a manner specific to their sexual orientation and, because of their relationship to one another, Proposition 8 targets them specifically due to sex. Having considered the evidence, the relationship between sex and sexual orientation and the fact that Proposition 8 eliminates a right only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise, the court determines that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.

The circularity of Judge Walker’s reasoning with respect to equal protection begins much earlier in his decision, where he writes that

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. Today, gender is not relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

But the right to marry, historically, has been the right to choose a spouse of the opposite sex, not merely to choose a spouse. Judge Walker even acknowledges that fact, inadvertently, when he puts aside “relative gender composition,” as if it were a mere trifle and not central to a social tradition that dates back millennia and should not be swept aside casually by a judge because he finds it “irrational,” on the basis of spurious social science. Walker then says that “gender is not relevant,” thus circularly assuming that which is to be proved. As if in support of that assertion he asserts, laughably, that “gender restrictions … were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage.”

In sum, Judge Walker approaches the constitutional matter of equal protection by assuming that gays have the right to marry. Given that assumption, it is easy to assert that Proposition 8 amounts to a denial of equal protection for gays who seek to marry….

I have never doubted the correctness of my interpretation of “equal protection,” but I’m glad to see it supported by a constitutional scholar. This is from Andrew Hyman’s post, “A Comment in Response to Dale Carpenter Regarding Equal Protection,” at The Originalism Blog (November 23, 2014):

Mike Ramsey recently quoted Professor Dale Carpenter as follows: “The Equal Protection Clause is a self-conscious repudiation of exclusion and hierarchy supported by nothing more than ancient practice.”  Perhaps it would have been wise if the clause really said that, but I don’t think it was written that way…. As I understand it, this clause of the Constitution does not endorse unreasonable exclusion and hierarchy, but neither does it authorize the federal judiciary to make such reasonableness determinations all by itself….

[L]et us consider what a few legal luminaries have had to say about the original meaning of this clause of our Constitution….  Professor Laurence Tribe says that “the Constitution lacks a textual basis for much of what is commonly attributed to the very notion of ‘the equal protection of the laws’….[which] was taken to mean less than ‘the protection of equal laws.’”  As far as I am aware, Professor Steven Calabresi has not altered his view that, “the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about equality in the making or implementing of equal laws.” According to Professor Kermit Roosevelt, “the most natural reading of ‘equal protection of the laws’ probably takes it to be about application or enforcement, rather than content.”… Others could be added to the list, which should at least give pause to anyone who suggests, as Professor Carpenter does, that the U.S. Supreme Court was actually given power in 1868 to strike down whatever governmental classifications that it deems unreasonable and/or hierarchical….

So where did Professor Carpenter’s notion come from?  It is certainly not original to him, so where did it originate?  As best I can tell, the historical source most commonly cited for this idea is the speech of Senator Jacob Howard introducing the Fourteenth Amendment in the Senate, in 1866.  According to the Congressional Globe, he said: “This abolishes all class legislation in the states, and does away with the injustice of subjecting one caste of persons to a code not applicable to another.”  Don’t get me wrong, these are excellent sentiments to guide legislative action, but if Howard was correct then the Supreme Court could legitimately (though unwisely) characterize virtually any legislative classification as verboten, whether it be a law that imposes special burdens or disabilities upon kleptomaniacs, or children, or police officers, or what have you….

Exactly. By the “logic” of Dale Carpenter, Judge Vaughan Walker, and their legalistic ilk, it is unconstitutional to discriminate on any basis. Thus no one should be found unfit for a particular job (that saves Carpenter and Walker); no one should be found unfit for admission to a university; there should be no minimum age at which one is permitted to drink, drive, wed, or join the armed forces; there should be no prohibition of marriage between siblings; churches should be required to ordain atheists; and on and on.

Above all — by the same “logic” — the laws should not have any basis in morality. Because the imposition of morality results in “discrimination” against persons who cheat, beat, steal from, rape, and murder other persons.

*     *     *

Related posts:
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Murder Is Constitutional
Posner the Fatuous

Signature

Some Thoughts about Evolution

I came across this in a post about a psychological trait known as affective empathy*:

[I]f affective empathy helps people to survive and reproduce, there will be more and more of it in succeeding generations. If not, there will be less and less.

I’ve run across similar assertions about other traits in my occasional reading about evolution. But is it true that if X helps people to survive and reproduce, X will proliferate?

Survival and reproduction depend on many traits. A particular trait, considered in isolation, may seem to be helpful to the survival and reproduction of a group. But that trait may not be among the particular collection of traits that is most conducive to the group’s survival and reproduction. If that is the case, the trait will become less prevalent.

Alternatively, if the trait is an essential member of the collection that is conducive to survival and reproduction, it will survive. But its survival depends on the other traits. The fact that X is a “good trait” does not, in itself, ensure the proliferation of X. And X will become less prevalent if other traits become more important to survival and reproduction.

In any event, it is my view that genetic fitness for survival has become almost irrelevant in places like the United States. The rise of technology and the “social safety net” (state-enforced pseudo-empathy) have enabled the survival and reproduction of traits that would have dwindled in times past.

I’m only making an observation. Eugenics is the province of the left.

__________
* Affective empathy is defined by the same writer as the

capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond appropriately.

*     *     *

Related Posts:
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
Evolution and Race
Alienation
Income Inequality and Economic Growth
Egoism and Altruism
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Greed, Conscience, and Big Government
Ruminations on the Left in America
The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI) (first entry)

Signature

Crime Revisited

I last took a comprehensive look at crime seven years ago. That analysis drew on statistics for 1960-2004. The results reported in this post are based on statistics for 1960-2009. The newer analysis doesn’t contradict the older one, but it does add some explanatory power.

Cutting to the chase, the following equation explains the rate of violent and property crimes (VPC) as a function of:

BLK — the number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population

GRO — the change in the rate of growth of real GDP per capita in the previous year, where the rate is expressed as a decimal fraction

PSQ — the square of the decimal fraction representing the proportion of the population in federal and State prisons

ORA — the number of persons of other races (not black or white) as a decimal fraction of the population.

The equation is highly significant (F = 1.44179E-31), as are the intercept and the coefficients (p-values in parentheses):

VPC =

- 333768 (3.30579E-28)

+ 339535 BLK (1.06615E-29)

- 6133 GRO (0.00065)

-174136761 PSQ (1.00729E-15)

- 27614 ORA (0.0018)

(Values are rounded to the nearest whole number. The adjusted r-squared is 0.96, and the standard error of the estimate is 5.3 percent of the mean value of VPC.)

Here are the actual and estimated values of VPC:

Crime rates (actual vs estimated)_2014

I’m satisfied with the equation, including the negative sign on the coefficient of ORA, which mainly represents Hispanics and Asians. But I will reassess the equation if the difference between actual and estimated VPC continues to diverge after 2007, when they were almost identical.

*     *     *

Related reading: Greg Allmain, “Another Study Links Violence to the Presence of Specific Genes,” Theden, November 11, 2014

Related posts:
Lock ‘Em Up
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Hispanics and Crime
“Conversing” about Race
Evolution and Race
“Wading” into Race, Culture, and IQ
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government

Signature

On Writing: Part Four

Part One gives excerpts of W.Somerset Maugham’s candid insights about the craft of writing. Part Two gives my advice to writers of non-fiction works. Part Three recommends some writings about writing, some writers to emulate, and a short list of reference works. This part delivers some sermons about practices to follow if you wish to communicate effectively, be taken seriously, and not be thought of as a semi-literate, self-indulgent, faddish dilettante. (In Part Three, I promised sermonettes, but they grew into sermons as I wrote.)

The first section, “Stasis, Progress, Regress, and Language,” comes around to a defense of prescriptivism in language. The second section, “Illegitimi Non Carborundum Lingo” (mock-Latin for “Don’t Let the Bastards Wear Down the Language”), counsels steadfastness in the face of political correctness and various sloppy usages.

STASIS, PROGRESS, REGRESS, AND LANGUAGE

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven….

Ecclesiastes 3:1 (King James Bible)

Nothing man-made is permanent; consider, for example, the list of empires here. In spite of the history of empires — and other institutions and artifacts of human endeavor — most people seem to believe that the future will be much like the present. And if the present embodies progress of some kind, most people seem to expect that progress to continue.

Things do not simply go on as they have been without the expenditure of requisite effort. Take the Constitution’s broken promises of liberty, about which I have written so much. Take the resurgence of Russia as a rival for international influence. This has been in the works for about 20 years, but didn’t register on most Americans until the recent Crimean crisis and related events in Ukraine. What did Americans expect? That the U.S. could remain the unchallenged superpower while reducing its armed forces to the point that they were strained by relatively small wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? That Vladimir Putin would be cowed by an American president who had so blatantly advertised his hopey-changey attitude toward Iran and Islam, while snubbing traditional allies like Poland and Israel?

Turning to naïveté about progress, I offer Steven Pinker’s fatuous The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker tries to show that human beings are becoming kinder and gentler. I have much to say in another post about Pinker’s thesis. One of my sources is Robert Epstein’s review of Pinker’s book. This passage is especially apt:

The biggest problem with the book … is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going. We live in a time when all the rules are being rewritten blindingly fast—when, for example, an increasingly smaller number of people can do increasingly greater damage. Yes, when you move from the Stone Age to modern times, some violence is left behind, but what happens when you put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of modern people who in many ways are still living primitively? What happens when the unprecedented occurs—when a country such as Iran, where women are still waiting for even the slightest glimpse of those better angels, obtains nuclear weapons? Pinker doesn’t say.

Less important in the grand scheme, but no less wrong-headed, is the idea of limitless progress in the arts. To quote myself:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

And most of the ticket-buying public knows it. Take opera, for example. A recent article purports to show that “Opera is dead, in one chart” (Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post, October 31, 2014). Here’s the chart and the writer’s interpretation of it:

The chart shows that opera ceased to exist as a contemporary art form roughly around 1970. It’s from a blog post by composer and programmer Suby Raman, who scraped the Met’s public database oF performances going back to the 19th century. As Raman notes, 50 years is an insanely low bar for measuring the “contemporary” – in pop music terms, it would be like considering The Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand as cutting-edge.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of Met performances were of operas composed in some time in the 50 years prior. But since 1980, the share of contemporary performances has surpassed 10 percent only once.

Opera, as a genre, is essentially frozen in amber – Raman found that the median year of composition of pieces performed at the Met has always been right around 1870. In other words, the Met is essentially performing the exact same pieces now that it was 100 years ago….

Contrary to Ingraham, opera isn’t dead; for example, there are more than 220 active opera companies in the U.S. It’s just that there’s little demand for operatic works written after the late 1800s. Why? Because most opera-lovers don’t want to hear the strident, discordant, unmelodic trash that came later. Giacomo Puccini, who wrote melodic crowd-pleasers until his death in 1924, is an exception that proves the rule.

It occurred to me recently that language is in the same parlous state as the arts. Written and spoken English improved steadily as Americans became more educated — and as long as that education included courses which prescribed rules of grammar and usage. By “improved” I mean that communication became easier and more effective; specifically:

  • A larger fraction of Americans followed the same rules in formal communications (e.g., speeches, business documents, newspapers, magazines, and books,).
  • Movies and radio and TV shows also tended to follow those rules, thereby reaching vast numbers of Americans who did little or no serious reading.
  • There was a “trickle down” effect on Americans’ written and spoken discourse, especially where it involved mere acquaintances or strangers. Standard American English became a kind of lingua franca, which enabled the speaker or writer to be understood and taken seriously.

I call that progress.

There is, however, an (unfortunately) influential attitude toward language known as descriptivism. It is distinct from (and often opposed to) rule-setting (prescriptivism). Consider this passage from the first chapter of an online text:

Prescriptive grammar is based on the idea that there is a single right way to do things. When there is more than one way of saying something, prescriptive grammar is generally concerned with declaring one (and only one) of the variants to be correct. The favored variant is usually justified as being better (whether more logical, more euphonious, or more desirable on some other grounds) than the deprecated variant. In the same situation of linguistic variability, descriptive grammar is content simply to document the variants – without passing judgment on them.

This misrepresents the role of prescriptive grammar. It’s widely understood that there’s  more than one way of saying something, and more than one way that’s understandable to others. The rules of prescriptive grammar, when followed, improve understanding, in two ways. First, by avoiding utterances that would be incomprehensible or, at least, very hard to understand. Second, by ensuring that utterances aren’t simply ignored or rejected out of hand because their form indicates that the writer or speaker is either ill-educated or stupid.

What, then, is the role of descriptive grammar? The authors offer this:

[R]ules of descriptive grammar have the status of scientific observations, and they are intended as insightful generalizations about the way that speakers use language in fact, rather than about the way that they ought to use it. Descriptive rules are more general and more fundamental than prescriptive rules in the sense that all sentences of a language are formed in accordance with them, not just a more or less arbitrary subset of shibboleth sentences. A useful way to think about the descriptive rules of a language … is that they produce, or generate, all the sentences of a language. The prescriptive rules can then be thought of as filtering out some (relatively minute) portion of the entire output of the descriptive rules as socially unacceptable.

Let’s consider the assertion that descriptive rules produce all the sentences of a language. What does that mean? It seems to mean the actual rules of a language can be inferred by examining sentences uttered or written by users of the language. But which users? Native users? Adults? Adults who have graduated from high-school? Users with IQs of at least 85?

Pushing on, let’s take a closer look at descriptive rules and their utility. The authors say that

we adopt a resolutely descriptive perspective concerning language. In particular, when linguists say that a sentence is grammatical, we don’t mean that it is correct from a prescriptive point of view, but rather that it conforms to descriptive rules….

The descriptive rules amount to this: They conform to practices that a speakers and writers actually use in an attempt to convey ideas, whether or not the practices state the ideas clearly and concisely. Thus the authors approve of these sentences because they’re of a type that might well occur in colloquial speech:

Over there is the guy who I went to the party with.

Over there is the guy with whom I went to the party.

(Both are clumsy ways of saying “I went to the party with that person.”)

Bill and me went to the store.

(“Bill and I went to the store.” or “Bill went to the store with me.” or “I went to the store with Bill.” Aha! Three ways to say it correctly, not just one way.)

But the authors label the following sentences as ungrammatical because they don’t comport with the colloquial speech:

Over there is guy the who I went to party the with.

Over there is the who I went to the party with guy.

Bill and me the store to went.

In other words, the authors accept as grammatical anything that a speaker or writer is likely to say, according to the “rules” that can be inferred from colloquial speech and writing. It follows that whatever is is right, even “Bill and me to the store went” or “Went to the store Bill and me,” which aren’t far-fetched variations on “Bill and me went to the store.” (Yoda-isms they read like.) They’re understandable, but only with effort. And further evolution would obliterate their meaning.

The fact is that the authors of the online text — like descriptivists generally — don’t follow their own anarchistic prescription. Wilson Follett puts it this way in Modern American Usage: A Guide:

It is … one of the striking features of the libertarian position [with respect to language] that it preaches an unbuttoned grammar in a prose style that is fashioned with the utmost grammatical rigor. H.L. Mencken’s two thousand pages on the vagaries of the American language are written in the fastidious syntax of a precisian. If we go by what these men do instead of by what they say, we conclude that they all believe in conventional grammar, practice it against their own preaching, and continue to cultivate the elegance they despise in theory….

[T]he artist and the user of language for practical ends share an obligation to preserve against confusion and dissipation the powers that over the centuries the mother tongue has acquired. It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in language … whatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best (pp. 30-1).

Follett also states the true purpose of prescriptivism, which isn’t to prescribe rules for their own sake:

[This book] accept[s] the long-established conventions of prescriptive grammar … on the theory that freedom from confusion is more desirable than freedom from rule…. (op. cit., p. 243).

E.B. White puts  it more colorfully in his introduction to The Elements of Style. Writing about William Strunk Jr., author of the original version of the book, White says:

All through The Elements of Style one finds evidence of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope. In revising the text, I have tried to hold steadily in mind this belief of his, this concern for the bewildered reader (p. xvi, Third Edition).

Descriptivists would let readers founder in the swamp of incomprehensibility. If descriptivists had their way — or what they claim to be their way — American English would, like the arts, recede into formless primitivism.

Eternal vigilance about language is the price of comprehensibility.

ILLEGITIMI NON CARBORUNDUM LINGO

The vigilant are sorely tried these days. What follows are several restrained rants about some practices that should be resisted and repudiated.

Eliminate Filler Words

When I was a child, most parents and all teachers promptly ordered children to desist from saying “uh” between words. “Uh” was then the filler word favored by children, adolescents, and even adults. The resort to “uh” meant that the speaker was stalling because he had opened his mouth without having given enough thought to what he meant to say.

Next came “you know.” It has been displaced, in the main, by “like,” where it hasn’t been joined to “like” in the formation “like, you know.”

The need of a filler word (or phrase) seems ineradicable. Too many people insist on opening their mouths before thinking about what they’re about to say. Given that, I urge Americans in need of a filler word to use “uh” and eschew “like” and “like, you know.” “Uh” is far less distracting and irritating than the rat-a-tat of “like-like-like-like.”

Of course, it may be impossible to return to “uh.” Its brevity may not give the users of “like” enough time to organize their TV-smart-phone-video-game-addled brains and deliver coherent speech.

In any event, speech influences writing. Sloppy speech begets sloppy writing, as I know too well. I have spent the past 50 years of my life trying to undo habits of speech acquired in my childhood and adolescence — habits that still creep into my writing if I drop my guard.

Don’t Abuse Words

How am I supposed to know what you mean if you abuse perfectly good words? Here I discuss four prominent examples of abuse.

Anniversary

Too many times in recent years I’ve heard or read something like this: “Sally and me are celebrating our one-year anniversary.” The “me” is bad enough; “one-year anniversary” (or any variation of it) is truly egregious.

The word “anniversary” means “the annually recurring date of a past event.” To write or say “x-year anniversary” is redundant as well as graceless. Just write or say “first anniversary,” “two-hundred fiftieth anniversary,” etc., as befits the occasion.

To write or say “x-month anniversary” is nonsensical. Something that happened less than a year ago can’t have an anniversary. What is meant is that such-and-such happened “x” months ago. Just say it.

Data

A person who writes or says “data is” is at best an ignoramus and at worst a Philistine.

Language, above all else, should be used to make one’s thoughts clear to others. The pairing of a plural noun and a singular verb form is distracting, if not confusing. Even though datum is seldom used by Americans, it remains the singular foundation of data, which is the plural form. Data, therefore, never “is”; data always “are.”

H.W. Fowler says:

Latin plurals sometimes become singular English words (e.g., agenda, stamina) and data is often so treated in U.S.; in Britain this is still considered a solecism… (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition, p.119).

But Wilson Follett is better on the subject:

Those who treat data as a singular doubtless think of it as a generic noun, comparable to knowledge or information… [TEA: a generous interpretation]. The rationale of agenda as a singular is its use to mean a collective program of action, rather than separate items to be acted on. But there is as yet no obligation to change the number of data under the influence of error mixed with innovation (op. cit., pp. 130-1).

Hopefully and Its Brethren

Mark Liberman of Language Log discusses

the AP Style Guide’s decision to allow the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, announced on Twitter at 6:22 a.m. on 17 April 2012:

Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update, announced at ‪#aces2012‬. We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.

Liberman, who is a descriptivist, defends AP’s egregious decision. His defense consists mainly of citing noted writers who have used “hopefully” where they meant “it is to be hoped.” I suppose that if those same noted writers had chosen to endanger others by driving on the wrong side of the road, Liberman would praise them for their “enlightened” approach to driving.

Geoff Nunberg also defends “hopefully“ in “The Word ‘Hopefully’ Is Here to Stay, Hopefully,” which appears at npr.org. Numberg (or the headline writer) may be right in saying that “hopefully” is here to stay. But that does not excuse the widespread use of the word in ways that are imprecise and meaningless.

The crux of Nunberg’s defense is that “hopefully” conveys a nuance that “language snobs” (like me) are unable to grasp:

Some critics object that [“hopefully” is] a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick called it) that isn’t attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker’s attitude. But floating modifiers are mother’s milk to English grammar — nobody objects to using “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” or “frankly” in exactly the same way.

Or people complain that “hopefully” doesn’t specifically indicate who’s doing the hoping. But neither does “It is to be hoped that,” which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a “natural” substitute. That’s what usage fetishism can drive you to — you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you’ve improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can’t hear what it’s really saying. The fact is that “I hope that” doesn’t mean the same thing that “hopefully” does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction. I’m comfortable saying, “I hope I survive to 105″ — it isn’t likely, but hey, you never know. But it would be pushing my luck to say, “Hopefully, I’ll survive to 105,” since that suggests it might actually be in the cards.

Floating modifiers may be common in English, but that does not excuse them. Given Numberg’s evident attachment to them, I am unsurprised by his assertion that “nobody objects to using ‘sadly,’ ‘mercifully,’ ‘thankfully’ or ‘frankly’ in exactly the same way.”

Nobody, Mr. Nunberg? Hardly. Anyone who cares about clarity and precision in the expression of ideas will object to such usages. A good editor would rewrite any sentence that begins with a free-floating modifier — no matter which one of them it is.

Nunberg’s defense against such rewriting is that Wilson Follett offers “It is to be hoped that” as a cumbersome, wordy substitute for “hopefully.” I assume that Nunberg refers to Follett’s discussion of “hopefully” in Modern American Usage. If so, Nunberg once again proves himself an adherent of imprecision, for this is what Follett actually says about “hopefully”:

The German language is blessed with an adverb, hoffentlich, that affirms the desirability of an occurrence that may or may not come to pass. It is generally to be translated by some such periphrasis as it is to be hoped that; but hack translators and persons more at home in German than in English persistently render it as hopefully. Now, hopefully and hopeful can indeed apply to either persons or affairs. A man in difficulty is hopeful of the outcome, or a situation looks hopeful; we face the future hopefully, or events develop hopefully. What hopefully refuses to convey in idiomatic English is the desirability of the hoped-for event. College, we read, is a place for the development of habits of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and, hopefully, the establishment of foundations of wisdom. Such a hopefully is un-English and eccentric; it is to be hoped is the natural way to express what is meant. The underlying mentality is the same—and, hopefully, the prescription for cure is the same (let us hope) / With its enlarged circulation–and hopefully also increased readership–[a periodical] will seek to … (we hope) / Party leaders had looked confidently to Senator L. to win . . . by a wide margin and thus, hopefully, to lead the way to victory for. . . the Presidential ticket (they hoped) / Unfortunately–or hopefully, as you prefer it–it is none too soon to formulate the problems as swiftly as we can foresee them. In the last example, hopefully needs replacing by one of the true antonyms of unfortunately–e.g. providentially.

The special badness of hopefully is not alone that it strains the sense of -ly to the breaking point, but that appeals to speakers and writers who do not think about what they are saying and pick up VOGUE WORDS [another entry in Modern American Usage] by reflex action. This peculiar charm of hopefully accounts for its tiresome frequency. How readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel is seen in the similar use of transferred meaning in other adverbs denoting an attitude of mind. For example: Sorrowfully (regrettably), the officials charged with wording such propositions for ballot presentation don’t say it that way / the “suicide needle” which–thankfully–he didn’t see fit to use (we are thankful to say). Adverbs so used lack point of view; they fail to tell us who does the hoping, the sorrowing, or the being thankful. Writers who feel the insistent need of an English equivalent for hoffentlich might try to popularize hopingly, but must attach it to a subject capable of hoping (op. cit., pp. 178-9).

Follett, contrary to Nunberg’s assertion, does not offer “It is to be hoped that” as a substitute for “hopefully,” which would “cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction.” Follett gives “it is to be hoped for” as the sense of “hopefully.” But, as the preceding quotation attests, Follett is able to replace “hopefully” (where it is misused) with a few short words that take no longer to write or say than “hopefully,” and which convey the writer’s or speaker’s intended meaning more clearly. And if it does take a few extra words to say something clearly, why begrudge those words?

What about the other floating modifiers — such as “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” and “frankly” — which Nunberg defends with much passion and no logic? Follett addresses those others in the third paragraph quoted above, but he does not dispose of them properly. For example, I would not simply substitute “regrettably” for “sorrowfully”; neither is adequate. What is wanted is something like this: “The officials who write propositions for ballots should not have said … , which is misleading (vague/ambiguous).” More words? Yes, but so what? (See above.)

In any event, a writer or speaker who is serious about expressing himself clearly to an audience will never say things like “Sadly (regrettably), the old man died,” when he means either “I am (we are/they are/everyone who knew him) is saddened by (regrets) the old man’s dying,” or (less probably) “The old man grew sad as he died” or “The old man regretted dying.” I leave “mercifully,” “thankfully,” “frankly” and the rest of the overused “-ly” words as an exercise for the reader.

The aims of a writer or speaker ought to be clarity and precision, not a stubborn, pseudo-logical insistence on using a word or phrase merely because it is in vogue or (more likely) because it irritates so-called language snobs. I doubt that even the pseudo-logical “language slobs” of Nunberg’s ilk condone “like” and “you know” as interjections. But, by Nunberg’s “logic,” those interjections should be condoned — nay, encouraged — because “everyone” knows what someone who uses them is “really saying,” namely, “I am too stupid or lazy to express myself clearly and precisely.”

Literally

This is from Dana Coleman’s article “According to the Dictionary, ‘Literally’ Also Now Means ‘Figuratively’,” (Salon, August 22, 2013):

Literally, of course, means something that is actually true: “Literally every pair of shoes I own was ruined when my apartment flooded.”

When we use words not in their normal literal meaning but in a way that makes a description more impressive or interesting, the correct word, of course, is “figuratively.”

But people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

Indeed, Ragan’s PR Daily reported last week that Webster, Macmillan Dictionary and Google have added this latter informal use of “literally” as part of the word’s official definition. The Cambridge Dictionary has also jumped on board….

Webster’s first definition of literally is, “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” Its second definition is, “in effect; virtually.” In addressing this seeming contradiction, its authors comment:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”…

The problem is that a lot of people use “literally” when they mean “figuratively” because they don’t know better. It’s literally* incomprehensible to me that the editors of dictionaries would suborn linguistic anarchy. Hopefully,** they’ll rethink their rashness.
_________
* “Literally” is used correctly, though it’s superfluous here.
** “Hopefully” is used incorrectly, but in the spirit of the times.

Punctuate Properly

I can’t compete with Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (discussed in Part Three), so I won’t try. Just read it and heed it.

But I must address the use of the hyphen in compound adjectives, and the serial comma.

Regarding the hyphen, David Bernstein of The Volokh Conspiracy writes:

I frequently have disputes with law reviewer editors over the use of dashes. Unlike co-conspirator Eugene, I’m not a grammatical expert, or even someone who has much of an interest in the subject.

But I do feel strongly that I shouldn’t use a dash between words that constitute a phrase, as in “hired gun problem”, “forensic science system”, or “toxic tort litigation.” Law review editors seem to want to generally want to change these to “hired-gun problem”, “forensic-science system”, and “toxic-tort litigation.” My view is that “hired” doesn’t modify “gun”; rather “hired gun” is a self-contained phrase. The same with “forensic science” and “toxic tort.”

Most of the commenters are right to advise Bernstein that the “dashes” — he means hyphens — are necessary. Why? To avoid confusion as to what is modifying the noun “problem.”

In “hired gun,” for example, “hired” (adjective) modifies “gun” (noun, meaning “gunslinger” or the like). But in “hired-gun problem,” “hired-gun” is a compound adjective which requires both of its parts to modify “problem.” It’s not a “hired problem” or a “gun problem,” it’s a “hired-gun problem.” The function of the hyphen is to indicate that “hired” and “gun,” taken separately, are meaningless as modifiers of “problem,” that is, to ensure that the meaning of the adjective-noun phrase is not misread.

A hyphen isn’t always necessary in such instances. But the consistent use of the hyphen in such instances avoids confusion and the possibility of misinterpretation.

The consistent use of the hyphen to form a compound adjective has a counterpart in the consistent use of the serial comma, which is the comma that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items (e.g., the red, white, and blue). Newspapers (among other sinners) eschew the serial comma for reasons too arcane to pursue here. Thoughtful counselors advise its use. (See, for example, Follett at pp. 422-3.) Why? Because the serial comma, like the hyphen in a compound adjective, averts ambiguity. It isn’t always necessary, but if it is used consistently, ambiguity can be avoided. (Here’s a great example, from the Wikipedia article linked to in the first sentence of this paragraph: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” The writer means, of course, “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.”)

A little punctuation goes a long way.

Stand Fast against Political Correctness

As a result of political correctness, some words and phrases have gone out of favor. needlessly. Others are cluttering the language, needlessly. Political correctness manifests itself in euphemisms, verboten words, and what I call gender preciousness.

Euphemisms

These are much-favored by persons of the left, who seem unable to have an aversion to reality. Thus, for example:

  • “Crippled” became “handicapped,” which became “disabled” and then “differently abled” or “something-challenged.”
  • “Stupid” became “learning disabled,” which became “special needs” (a euphemistic category that houses more than the stupid).
  • “Poor” became “underprivileged,” which became “economically disadvantaged,” which became “entitled” (to other people’s money), in fact if not in word.
  • Colored persons became Negroes, who became blacks, then African-Americans, and now (often) persons of color.

How these linguistic contortions have helped the crippled, stupid, poor, and colored is a mystery to me. Tact is admirable, but euphemisms aren’t tactful. They’re insulting because they’re condescending.

Verboten Words

The list is long; see this and this, for example. Words become verboten for the same reason that euphemisms arise: to avoid giving offense, even where offense wouldn’t or shouldn’t be taken.

David Bernstein, writing at TCS Daily several ago, recounted some tales about political correctness. This one struck close to home:

One especially merit-less [hostile work environment] claim that led to a six-figure verdict involved Allen Fruge, a white Department of Energy employee based in Texas. Fruge unwittingly spawned a harassment suit when he followed up a southeast Texas training session with a bit of self-deprecating humor. He sent several of his colleagues who had attended the session with him gag certificates anointing each of them as an honorary Coon Ass — usually spelled coonass — a mildly derogatory slang term for a Cajun. The certificate stated that [y]ou are to sing, dance, and tell jokes and eat boudin, cracklins, gumbo, crawfish etouffe and just about anything else. The joke stemmed from the fact that southeast Texas, the training session location, has a large Cajun population, including Fruge himself.

An African American recipient of the certificate, Sherry Reid, chief of the Nuclear and Fossil Branch of the DOE in Washington, D.C., apparently missed the joke and complained to her supervisors that Fruge had called her a coon. Fruge sent Reid a formal (and humble) letter of apology for the inadvertent offense, and explained what Coon Ass actually meant. Reid nevertheless remained convinced that Coon Ass was a racial pejorative, and demanded that Fruge be fired. DOE supervisors declined to fire Fruge, but they did send him to diversity training. They also reminded Reid that the certificate had been meant as a joke, that Fruge had meant no offense, that Coon Ass was slang for Cajun, and that Fruge sent the certificates to people of various races and ethnicities, so he clearly was not targeting African Americans. Reid nevertheless sued the DOE, claiming that she had been subjected to a racial epithet that had created a hostile environment, a situation made worse by the DOEs failure to fire Fruge.

Reid’s case was seemingly frivolous. The linguistics expert her attorney hired was unable to present evidence that Coon Ass meant anything but Cajun, or that the phrase had racist origins, and Reid presented no evidence that Fruge had any discriminatory intent when he sent the certificate to her. Moreover, even if Coon Ass had been a racial epithet, a single instance of being given a joke certificate, even one containing a racial epithet, by a non-supervisory colleague who works 1,200 miles away does not seem to remotely satisfy the legal requirement that harassment must be severe and pervasive for it to create hostile environment liability. Nevertheless, a federal district court allowed the case to go to trial, and the jury awarded Reid $120,000, plus another $100,000 in attorneys fees. The DOE settled the case before its appeal could be heard for a sum very close to the jury award.

I had a similar though less costly experience some years ago, when I was chief financial and administrative officer of a defense think-tank. In the course of discussing the company’s budget during meeting with employees from across the company, I uttered “niggardly” (meaning stingy or penny-pinching). The next day a fellow vice president informed me that some of the black employees from her division had been offended by “niggardly.” I suggested that she give her employees remedial training in English vocabulary. That should have been the verdict in the Reid case.

Gender Preciousness

It has become fashionable for academicians and pseudo-serious writers to use “she” where “he” long served as the generic (and sexless) reference to a singular third person. Here is an especially grating passage from an by Oliver Cussen:

What is a historian of ideas to do? A pessimist would say she is faced with two options. She could continue to research the Enlightenment on its own terms, and wait for those who fight over its legacy—who are somehow confident in their definitions of what “it” was—to take notice. Or, as [Jonathan] Israel has done, she could pick a side, and mobilise an immense archive for the cause of liberal modernity or for the cause of its enemies. In other words, she could join Moses Herzog, with his letters that never get read and his questions that never get answered, or she could join Sandor Himmelstein and the loud, ignorant bastards (“The Trouble with the Enlightenment,” Prospect, May 5, 2013).

I don’t know about you, but I’m distracted by the use of the generic “she,” especially by a male. First, it’s not the norm (or wasn’t the norm until the thought police made it so). Thus my first reaction to reading it in place of “he” is to wonder who this “she” is; whereas,  the function of “he” as a stand-in for anyone (regardless of gender) was always well understood. Second, the usage is so obviously meant to mark the writer as “sensitive” and “right thinking” that it calls into question his sincerity and objectivity.

I could go on about the use of “he or she” in place of “he” or “she.” But it should be enough to call it what it is: verbal clutter.

Then there is “man,” which for ages was well understood (in the proper context) as referring to persons in general, not to male persons in particular. (“Mankind” merely adds a superfluous syllable.)

The short, serviceable “man” has been replaced, for the most part, by “humankind.” I am baffled by the need to replaced one syllable with three. I am baffled further by the persistence of “man” — a sexist term — in the three-syllable substitute. But it gets worse when writers strain to avoid the solo use of “man” by resorting to “human beings” and the “human species.” These are longer than “humankind,” and both retain the accursed “man.”

Don’t Split Infinitives

Just don’t do it, regardless of the pleadings of descriptivists. Even Follett counsels the splitting of infinitives, when the occasion demands it. I part ways with Follett in this matter, and stand ready to be rebuked for it.

Consider the case of Eugene Volokh, a known grammatical relativist, who scoffs at “to increase dramatically” — as if “to dramatically increase” would be better. The meaning of “to increase dramatically” is clear. The only reason to write “to dramatically increase” would be to avoid the appearance of stuffiness; that is, to pander to the least cultivated of one’s readers.

Seeming unstuffy (i.e., without standards) is neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to split an infinitive. The rule about not splitting infinitives, like most other grammatical rules, serves the valid and useful purpose of preventing English from sliding yet further down the slippery slope of incomprehensibility than it has slid.

If an unsplit infinitive makes a clause or sentence seem awkward, the clause or sentence should be recast to avoid the awkwardness. Better that than make an exception that leads to further exceptions — and thence to Babel.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (a.k.a. Fowler’s Modern English Usage) counsels splitting an infinitive where recasting doesn’t seem to work:

We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’…. We maintain, however, that a real [split infinitive], though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality…. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any [split infinitive] without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission … has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’… What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept… (p. 581, Second Edition).

Good try, but not good enough. This would do: “In these circumstances, the Commission … has been considering modifications that would better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time meet reasonable Indian demands.”

Enough said? I think so.

*     *     *

Some readers may conclude that I prefer stodginess to liveliness. That’s not true, as any discerning reader of this blog will know. I love new words and new ways of using words, and I try to engage readers while informing and persuading them. But I do those things within the expansive boundaries of prescriptive grammar and usage. Those boundaries will change with time, as they have in the past. But they should change only when change serves understanding, not when it serves the whims of illiterates and language anarchists.

Signature

Election 2014: The Outlook on E-Day

UPDATED BELOW

Here it is, the day that anti-leftists have been waiting for. The portents remain favorable for GOP control of Congress.

As of this moment, the “poll of polls” at RealClearPolitics.com has the GOP gaining 7 Senate seats, for a 52-48 majority (assuming that 3 independents caucus with Democrats), and winning at least 226 House seats (241 if the tossups divide evenly). Henry Olsen also predicts that the GOP will pick up 7 Senate seats. And he sees the GOP taking 245 House seats.

The projected outcome in the House is close to my own estimate, which doesn’t rely on polls. In any event, the GOP is certain to retain its House majority, and almost certain to increase it — perhaps winning more seats than in any election since World War II. But don’t expect to wake up tomorrow morning with a GOP Senate majority in the bag. It may not be secured until December 6, with a runoff between Mary Landrieu (D) and Bill Cassidy (R), or until January 6, with a runoff between Michelle Nunn (D) and David Perdue (R).

The GOP’s resurgence has a lot (perhaps everything) to do with the continuing unpopularity of Obama and Obamacare. Both are less popular now than they were four years ago, when the GOP gained 6 Senate seats and won 242 House seats:

Election indicators - 2014 vs 2010

The indicators are drawn from the Obama Approval Index History published at Rasmussen Reports, and Rasmussen’s sporadic polling of likely voters about Obamacare (latest report here).

The first indicator (blue lines) measures Obama’s overall rating with likely voters. This indicator is a measure of superficial support for Obama. On that score, he’s just as unpopular now as he was four years ago. A plus for the GOP.

The second indicator (black lines) measures Obama’s rating with likely voters who express strong approval or disapproval of him. Obama’s strong-approval rating remains well below the pace of four years ago. A big plus for the GOP.

The third indicator (red lines) represents Obama’s strong-approval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly approve/fraction of likely voters who approve) divided by his strong-disapproval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly disapprove/fraction of likely voters who disapprove). I call this the “enthusiasm” indicator. Higher values represent greater enthusiasm for Obama; lower values, less enthusiasm. This is perhaps the best measure of support for Obama — and it looks a lot worse (for Democrats) than it did in 2010. Another big plus for the GOP.

The green points (connected by lines) are plots of Obamacare’s standing, as measured by the ratio of strong approval to strong disapproval among likely voters. Obamacare is faring much worse in 2014 than it did in 2010. Yet another big plus for the GOP.

UPDATE (11/06/14)

The indicators were on target.

With 52 Senate seats in the bag, the Republican candidate leading the Democrat incumbent in Alaska, and a pending runoff in Louisiana that’s almost certain to result in another GOP gain, it looks like the Reppublicans will end up with 54 seats. That would be a gain of 9 seats, as against 6 in 2010.

The GOP has already won 243 House seats, and it looks like another 5 will go Republican. A total of 248 would give the GOP its largest House majority since World War II.

Signature

On Writing: Part Three

Part One gives excerpts of W.Somerset Maugham’s candid insights about the craft of writing. Part Two gives my advice to writers of non-fiction works. This part recommends some writings about writing, some writers to emulate, and a short list of reference works. Part Four will deliver some sermonettes about practices to follow if you wish to be taken seriously and not thought of as a semi-literate, self-indulgent, faddish dilettante.

WRITINGS ABOUT WRITING

See Part One for excerpts of Maugham‘s memoir, The Summing Up. Follow the link to order a copy of the book. It’s personal, candid, and insightful. And it bears re-reading at intervals because it’s so densely packed with wisdom.

Read Steven Pinker‘s essay, “Why Academic Writing Stinks” (The Chronicle Review, September 26, 2014). You may not be an academic, but I’ll bet that you sometimes lapse into academese. (I know that I sometimes do.) Pinker’s essay will help you to recognize academese, and to understand why it’s to be avoided.

Pinker’s essay also appears in a booklet, “Why Academics Stink at Writing–and How to Fix It,” which is available here in exchange for your name, your job title, the name of your organization, and your e-mail address. (Whether you wish to give true information is up to you.) Of the four essays that follow Pinker’s, I prefer the one by Michael Munger.

Beyond that, pick and chose by searching on “writers on writing.” Google gave me 193,000 hits. Hidden among the dross, I found this, which led me to this gem: “George Orwell on Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself.” (“Herself”? I’ll deliver a sermonette about gender in Part Four.)

Those of you who know (or know of) The Elements of Style, you may wonder why I haven’t mentioned E.B. White. I’m saving him for the next two sections.

WRITERS TO EMULATE

Study Maugham’s The Summing Up for its straightforward style. Consider these opening sentences of a paragraph, for example:

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought.

This is a classic example of good writing. The first sentence states the topic of the paragraph. The following sentences elaborate it. Each sentence is just long enough to convey a single, complete thought. Because of that, even the rather long second sentence should be readily understood by a high-school graduate (a graduate of a small-city high school in the 1950s, at least).

I offer the great mathematician, G.H. Hardy, as a second exemplar. In particular, I recommend Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. (It’s an apology n the sense of “a formal written defense of something you believe in strongly,” where the something is the pursuit of pure mathematics.) The introduction by C.P Snow is better than Hardy’s long essay, but Snow was a published novelist as well as a trained scientist. Hardy’s publications, other than the essay, are mathematical. The essay is notable for its accessibility, even to non-mathematicians. Of its 90 pages, only 23 (clustered near the middle) require a reader to cope with mathematics, but it’s mathematics that shouldn’t daunt a person who has taken and passed high-school algebra.

Hardy’s prose is flawed, to be sure. He overuses shudder quotes, and occasionally gets tangled in a too-long sentence. But I’m taken by his exposition of the art of doing higher mathematics, and the beauty of doing it well. Hardy, in other words, sets an example to be followed by writers who wish to capture the essence of a technical subject and convey that essence to intelligent laymen.

Here are some samples:

There are many highly respectable motives which may lead men to prosecute research, but three which are much more important than the rest. The first (without which the rest must come to nothing) is intellectual curiosity, desire to know the truth. Then, professional pride, anxiety to be satisfied with one’s performance, the shame that overcomes any self-respecting craftsman when his work is unworthy of his talent. Finally, ambition, desire for reputation, and the position, even the power or the money, which it brings. It may be fine to feel, when you have done your work, that you have added to the happiness or alleviated the sufferings of others, but that will not be why you did it. So if a mathematician, or a chemist, or even a physiologist, were to tell me that the driving force in his work had been the desire to benefit humanity, then I should not believe him (nor should I think any better of him if I did). His dominant motives have been those which I have stated and in which, surely, there is nothing of which any decent man need be ashamed.

*     *     *

A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patters with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an ‘idea’, but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated…

…A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words.

A third exemplar is E.B. White, a successful writer of fiction who is probably best known for The Elements of Style. (It’s usually called “Strunk & White” or “the little book.”) It’s an outgrowth of a slimmer volume of the same name by William Strunk Jr. (Strunk had been dead for 13 years when White produced the first edition of Strunk & White.)

I’ll address the little book’s authoritativeness in the next section. Here, I’ll highlight White’s style of writing. This is from the introduction to the third edition (the last one edited by White):

 The Elements of Style, when I re-examined it in 1957, seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold. It was Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin. Will himself had hung the tag “little” on the book; he referred to it sardonically and with secret pride as “the little book,” always giving the word “little” a special twist, as though he were putting a spin on a ball. In its original form, it was  forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.

Vivid, direct, and engaging. And the whole book reads like that.

REFERENCE WORKS

If you could have only one book to help you write better, it would be The Elements of Style. (There’s now a fourth edition, for which I can’t vouch, but which seems to cover the same ground as my trusty third edition.) Admittedly, Strunk & White has a vociferous critic, one Geoffrey K. Pullum. But Pullum documents only one substantive flaw: an apparent mischaracterization of what constitutes the passive voice. What Pullum doesn’t say is that the book correctly flays the kind of writing that it calls passive (correctly or not). Further, Pullum derides the book’s many banal headings, while ignoring what follows them: sound advice, backed by concrete examples. (There’s a nice rebuttal of Pullum here.) It’s evident that the book’s real sin — in Pullum’s view — is “bossiness” (prescriptivism), which is no sin at all, as I’ll explain in Part Four.

There are so many good writing tips in Strunk & White that it was hard for me to choose a sample. I randomly chose “Omit Needless Words” (one of the headings derided by Pullum), which opens with a statement of principles:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine to unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

That would be empty rhetoric, were it not followed by further discussion and 17 specific examples. Here are a few:

the question as to whether should be replaced by whether or the question whether

the reason why is that should be replaced by because

I was unaware of the fact that should be replace by I was unaware that or I did not know that

His brother, who is a member of the same firm should be replaced by His brother, a member of the same firm

There’s much more than that to Strunk & White, of course, (Go here to see table of contents.) You’ll become a better writer — perhaps an excellent one — if you carefully read Strunk & White, re-read it occasionally, and apply the principles that it espouses and illustrates.

After Strunk & White, my favorite instructional work is Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I vouch for the accuracy of this description of the book (Publishers Weekly via Amazon.com):

Who would have thought a book about punctuation could cause such a sensation? Certainly not its modest if indignant author, who began her surprise hit motivated by “horror” and “despair” at the current state of British usage: ungrammatical signs (“BOB,S PETS”), headlines (“DEAD SONS PHOTOS MAY BE RELEASED”) and band names (“Hear’Say”) drove journalist and novelist Truss absolutely batty. But this spirited and wittily instructional little volume, which was a U.K. #1 bestseller, is not a grammar book, Truss insists; like a self-help volume, it “gives you permission to love punctuation.” Her approach falls between the descriptive and prescriptive schools of grammar study, but is closer, perhaps, to the latter. (A self-professed “stickler,” Truss recommends that anyone putting an apostrophe in a possessive “its”-as in “the dog chewed it’s bone”-should be struck by lightning and chopped to bits.) Employing a chatty tone that ranges from pleasant rant to gentle lecture to bemused dismay, Truss dissects common errors that grammar mavens have long deplored (often, as she readily points out, in isolation) and makes elegant arguments for increased attention to punctuation correctness: “without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.” Interspersing her lessons with bits of history (the apostrophe dates from the 16th century; the first semicolon appeared in 1494) and plenty of wit, Truss serves up delightful, unabashedly strict and sometimes snobby little book, with cheery Britishisms (“Lawks-a-mussy!”) dotting pages that express a more international righteous indignation.

Next up is Wilson Follet’s Modern American Usage. The link points to a newer edition than the one that I’ve relied on for more than 40 years. Reviews of the newer edition, edited by one Erik Wensberg, are mixed but generally favorable. However, the newer edition seems to lack Follett’s “Introductory,” which is divided into “Usage, Purism, and Pedantry” and “The Need of an Orderly Mind.” If that is so, the newer edition is likely to be less uncompromising toward language relativists like Geoffrey Pullum. The following quotations from Follett’s “Introductory” (one from each section), will give you an idea of Follett’s stand on relativism:

[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care abut language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition does something, and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty or both does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.

*     *     *

A great deal of our language is so automatic that even the thoughtful never think about it, and this mere not-thinking is the gate through which solecisms or inferior locutions slip in. Some part, greater or smaller, of every thousand words is inevitably parroted, even by the least parrotlike.

(A reprint of the original edition is available here.)

I have one more book to recommend: The Chicago Manual of Style. Though the book is a must-have for editors, serious writers should also own a copy and consult it often. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, you can get an idea of its vast range and depth of coverage by following the preceding link, clicking on “Look inside,” and perusing the table of contents, first pages, and index.

Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand. I use The Free Dictionary, and am seldom disappointed by it. There also look promising: Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. I suggest, you decide (or offer alternatives).

Signature

On Writing: Part Two

In Part One of this series, I sampled the insights of W. Somerset Maugham (English, 1874-1965), a prolific and popular playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and author of non-fiction works. I chose to begin with Maugham — in particular, with excerpts of his memoir, The Summing Up — because of his unquestioned success as a writer and his candid assessment of writers, himself included.

Maugham’s advice to “write lucidly, simply, euphoniously and yet with liveliness” is well-supported by examples and analysis. But Maugham focuses on literary fiction and does not delve the mechanics of non-fiction writing. Thus this post, which distills lessons learned in my 51 years as a writer, critic, and publisher of non-fiction material, much of it technical.

THE FIRST DRAFT

1. Decide — before you begin to write — on your main point and your purpose for making it.

Can you state your main point in a sentence? If you can’t, you’re not ready to write, unless writing is (for you) a form of therapy or catharsis. If it is, record your thoughts in a private journal and spare the serious readers of the world.

Your purpose may be descriptive, explanatory, or persuasive. An economist may, for example, begin an article by describing the state of the economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). He may then explain that the rate of growth in GDP has receded since the end of World War II, because of greater  government spending and the cumulative effect of regulatory activity. He is then poised to make a case for less spending and for the cancellation of regulations that impede economic growth.

2. Avoid wandering from your main point and purpose; use an outline.

You can get by with a bare outline, unless you’re writing a book, a manual, or a long article. Fill the outline as you go. Change the outline if you see that you’ve omitted a step or put some steps in the wrong order. But always work to an outline, however sketchy and malleable it may be.

3.  Start by writing an introductory paragraph that summarizes your “story line.”

The introductory paragraph in a news story is known as  “the lead” or “the lede” (a spelling that’s meant to convey the correct pronunciation). A classic lead gives the reader the who, what, why, when, where, and how of the story. As noted in Wikipedia, leads aren’t just for journalists:

Leads in essays summarize the outline of the argument and conclusion that follows in the main body of the essay. Encyclopedia leads tend to define the subject matter as well as emphasize the interesting points of the article. Features and general articles in magazines tend to be somewhere between journalistic and encyclopedian in style and often lack a distinct lead paragraph entirely. Leads or introductions in books vary enormously in length, intent and content.

Think of the lead as a target toward which you aim your writing. You should begin your first draft with a lead, even if you later decide to eliminate or radically prune the lead.

4. Lay out a straight path for the reader.

You needn’t fill your outline sequentially, but the outline should trace a linear progression from statement of purpose to conclusion or call for action. Trackbacks and detours can be effective literary devices in the hands of a skilled writer of fiction. But you’re not writing fiction, let alone mystery fiction. So just proceed in a straight line, from beginning to end.

Quips, asides, and anecdotes should be used sparingly, and only if they reinforce your message and don’t distract the reader’s attention from it.

5. Know your audience, and write for it.

I aim at readers who can grasp complex concepts and detailed arguments. But if you’re writing something like a policy manual for employees at all levels of your company, you’ll want to keep it simple and well-marked: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, numbered sections and sub-sections, and so on.

6. Facts are your friends — unless you’re trying to sell a lie, of course.

Unsupported generalities will defeat your purpose, unless you’re writing for a gullible, uneducated audience. Give concrete examples and cite authoritative references. If your work is technical, show your data and calculations, even if you must put the details in footnotes or appendices to avoid interrupting the flow of your argument. Supplement your words with tables and graphs, if possible, but make them as simple as you can without distorting the underlying facts.

7. Momentum is your best friend.

Write a first draft quickly, even if you must leave holes to be filled later. I’ve always found it easier to polish a rough draft that spans the entire outline than to work from a well-honed but unaccompanied introductory section.

FROM FIRST DRAFT TO FINAL VERSION

8. Your first draft is only that — a draft.

Unless you’re a prodigy, you’ll have to do some polishing (probably a lot) before you have something that a reader can follow with ease.

9. Where to begin? Stand back and look at the big picture.

Is your “story line” clear? Are your points logically connected? Have you omitted key steps or important facts? If you find problems, fix them before you start nit-picking your grammar, syntax, and usage.

10. Nit-picking is important.

Errors of grammar, syntax, and usage can (and probably will) undermine your credibility. Thus, for example, subject and verb must agree (“he says” not “he say”); number must be handled correctly (“there are two” not “there is two”); tense must make sense (“the shirt shrank” not “the shirt shrunk”); usage must be correct (“its” is the possessive pronoun, “it’s” is the contraction for “it is”).

11. Critics are necessary, even if not mandatory.

Unless you’re a first-rate editor and objective self-critic, steps 9 and 10 should be handed off to another person or persons — even if you’re an independent writer without a boss or editor to look over your shoulder. If your work must be reviewed by a boss or editor, count yourself lucky. Your boss is responsible for the quality of your work; he therefore has a good reason to make it better. If your editor isn’t qualified to do substantive editing (step 9), he can at least nit-pick with authority (step 10).

12. Accept criticism gratefully and graciously.

Bad writers don’t, which is why they remain bad writers. Yes, you should reject (or fight against) changes and suggestions if they are clearly wrong, and if you can show that they’re wrong. But if your critic tells you that your logic is muddled, your facts are inapt, and your writing stinks (in so many words), chances are that your critic is right. And you’ll know that your critic is dead right if your defense (perhaps unvoiced) is “That’s just my style of writing.”

13. What if you’re an independent writer and have no one to turn to?

Be your own worst critic. Let your first draft sit for a day or two before you return to it. Then look at it as if you’d never seen it before, as if someone else had written it. Ask yourself if it makes sense, if every key point is well-supported, and if key points are missing, Look for glaring errors in grammar, syntax, and usage. (I’ll list some useful reference works in Part Three.) If you can’t find any problems, you shouldn’t be a self-critic — and you’re probably a terrible writer.

14. How many times should you revise your work before it’s published?

That depends, of course, on the presence or absence of a deadline. The deadline may be a formal one, geared to a production schedule. Or it may be an informal but real one, driven by current events (e.g., the need to assess a new economics text while it’s in the news). But even without a deadline, two revisions of a rough draft should be enough. A piece that’s rewritten several times can lose its (possessive pronoun) edge. And unless you’re a one-work wonder, or an amateur with time to spare, every rewrite represents a forgone opportunity to begin a new work.

*     *     *

If you act on this advice you’ll become a better writer. But be patient with yourself. Improvement takes time, and perfection never arrives.

I welcome your comments, structural or nit-picking as they may be.

Signature

Election 2014: E-Day Minus 1 Week

UPDATED HERE

As of this moment, the “poll of polls” at RealClearPolitics.com has the GOP gaining 7 Senate seats, for a 52-48 majority, and winning at least 228 House seats (240 if the tossups divide evenly). The numbers will change between now and election day, so just click on the links for the latest estimates.

The projected outcome in the House is close to my own estimate, which doesn’t rely on polls. In any event, the GOP is certain to retain its majority, and almost certain to increase it — perhaps winning more seats than in any election since World War II.

The outcome in the Senate is less certain. But I remain optimistic, given the unpopularity of Obama and Obamacare relative to their standing four years ago, when the GOP gained 6 Senate seats:

Election indicators - 2014 vs 2010

The indicators are drawn from the Obama Approval Index History published at Rasmussen Reports, and Rasmussen’s sporadic polling of likely voters about Obamacare (latest report here).

The first indicator (blue lines) measures Obama’s overall rating with likely voters. This indicator is a measure of superficial support for Obama. On that score, he’s just as unpopular now as he was four years ago. A plus for the GOP.

The second indicator (black lines) measures Obama’s rating with likely voters who express strong approval or disapproval of him. Obama’s strong-approval rating remains well below the pace of four years ago. A big plus for the GOP.

The third indicator (red lines) represents Obama’s strong-approval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly approve/fraction of likely voters who approve) divided by his strong-disapproval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly disapprove/fraction of likely voters who disapprove). I call this the “enthusiasm” indicator. Higher values represent greater enthusiasm for Obama; lower values, less enthusiasm. This is perhaps the best measure of support for Obama — and it looks a lot worse (for Democrats) than it did in 2010. Another big plus for the GOP.

The green points (connected by lines) are plots of Obamacare’s standing, as measured by the ratio of strong approval to strong disapproval among likely voters. Obamacare is faring much worse in 2014 than it did in 2010. Yet another big plus for the GOP.

Stay tuned for my final report on the morning of election day.

Signature

My View of Libertariansim

A reader asked for my definition of “libertarian.” I’ve written about libertarianism many times since my early days as an unsophisticated adherent of J.S. Mill’s solipsistic “harm principle.”

My journey away from solipsistic libertarianism began with “A Paradox for Libertarians.” “Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?” marks the next step in my journey. My declaration of independence from the harm principle is documented in “The Paradox of Libertarianism.” I then wrote “Liberty As a Social Construct,” “Social Norms and Liberty,” and “A Footnote about Liberty and Social Norms.” Those posts go beyond my rejection of the harm principle as the proper basis of libertarianism, and introduce the social aspect of liberty. I reiterated and elaborated my criticism of the harm principle in “The Harm Principle,” “Footnotes to ‘The Harm Principle’,” and “The Harm Principle, Again.”

All of those posts — and more in the same revisionist vein — appeared at my old blog, Liberty Corner. Those many posts set the stage for many more at Politics & Prosperity, including these:

On Liberty

Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

More Pseudo-Libertarianism

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI)

Steve Stewart-Williams asks “Did Morality Evolve?” (The Nature-Nurture-Neitzsche Blog, May 2, 2010). His answer:

[T]here are at least two reasons to think morality bears the imprint of our evolutionary history. The first comes from observations of a class of individuals that psychologists all too often ignore: other animals. Nonhuman animals obviously don’t reason explicitly about right and wrong, but they do exhibit some aspects of human morality. Rather than being locked into an eternal war of all-against-all, many animals display tendencies that we count among our most noble: They cooperate; they help one another; they share resources; they love their offspring. For those who doubt that human morality has evolutionary underpinnings, the existence of these ‘noble’ traits in other animals poses a serious challenge….

…A second [reason] is that, not only do we know that these kinds of behaviour are part of the standard behavioural repertoire of humans in all culture and of other animals, we now have a pretty impressive arsenal of theories explaining how such behaviour evolved. Kin selection theory explains why many animals – humans included – are more altruistic toward kin than non-kin: Kin are more likely than chance to share any genes contributing to this nepotistic tendency. Reciprocal altruism theory explains how altruism can evolve even among non-relatives: Helping others can benefit the helper, as long as there’s a sufficient probability that the help will be reciprocated and as long as people avoid helping those who don’t return the favour. Another promising theory is that altruism is a costly display of fitness, which makes the altruist more attractive as a mate or ally. Overall, the evolutionary explanation of altruism represents one of the real success stories of the evolutionary approach to psychology.

Though I’m disinclined to use the term “altruism,” it’s useful shorthand for the kinds of behavior that seems selfless. In any event, I am sympathetic to Stewart-Williams’s view of morality as evolutionary. Morality is at least a learned and culturally-transmitted phenomenon, which manifests itself globally in the Golden Rule.

*     *     *

Pierre Lemieux decries “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We’” (The Library of Economics and Liberty, October 6, 2014):

One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician’s speech without hearing the standard “we as a society” or its derivatives….

The truth is that this collective “we” has no scientific meaning.

In the history of economic thought, two main strands of analysis support this conclusion. One was meant to criticize economists’ use of “social indifference curves” (also called “community indifference curves”), which generally appeared in the welfare analysis of international trade between personalized trading countries. Countries were personalized in the sense that they were assumed to have preferences, just as an individual does. In a famous 1956 article, Paul Samuelson definitively demonstrated that such social indifference curves, analogous to individual indifference curves, do not exist….

A second strand of analysis leads to a similar but more general conclusion. The problem has come to be known as the “preference aggregation” issue: how can we aggregate—”add up” as it were—individual preferences? Can we fuse them into social preferences—a “social welfare function”—that would equally represent all individuals? This second tradition of analysis follows a long and broken line of theorists. The Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in the 19th, and economist Duncan Black in the 20th all discovered independently that majority voting does not provide an acceptable aggregation mechanism.

I’ve discussed the vacuity of the political “we” and the “social welfare function” in many posts; most recently this one, where I make these two points:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

*     *     *

I’m pleased to note that there are still some enlightened souls like David Mulhhausen, who writes about “How the Death Penalty Saves Lives” (September 30, 2014) , at the website of The Heritage Foundation. Muhlhausen cites several studies in support of his position. I’ve treated crime and punishment many times; for example:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Saving the Innocent
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Governmen

The numbers are there to support strict punishment, up to and including capital punishment. But even if the numbers weren’t conclusive, I’d be swayed by John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who makes a succinct case for the death penalty, regardless of its deterrent effect:

I’m a bit surprised . . . [by the] claim that “the burden of empirical proof would seem to lie with the pro-death penalty scholar.” If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

The same goes for fraudsters, thieves, rapists, and other transgressors against morality.

*     *     *

Walter E. Williams asks “Will the West Defend Itself?” (creators.com, October 1, 2014):

A debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is entirely irrelevant to the threat to the West posed by ISIL, al-Qaida and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups. I would like to gather a news conference with our Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno; Marines’ commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford; chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert; and Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff. This would be my question to them: The best intelligence puts ISIL’s size at 35,000 to 40,000 people. Do you officers think that the combined efforts of our military forces could defeat and lay waste to ISIL? Before they had a chance to answer, I’d add: Do you think the combined military forces of NATO and the U.S. could defeat and eliminate ISIL. Depending on the answers given, I’d then ask whether these forces could also eliminate Iran’s capability of making nuclear weapons.

My question to my fellow Americans is: What do you think their answers would be? No beating around the bush: Does the U.S. have the power to defeat the ISIL/al-Qaida threat and stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions — yes or no?

If our military tells us that we do have the capacity to defeat the terror threat, then the reason that we don’t reflects a lack of willingness. It’s that same lack of willingness that led to the deaths of 60 million people during World War II. In 1936, France alone could have stopped Adolf Hitler, but France and its allies knowingly allowed Hitler to rearm, in violation of treaties. When Europeans finally woke up to Hitler’s agenda, it was too late. Their nations were conquered. One of the most horrible acts of Nazi Germany was the Holocaust, which cost an estimated 11 million lives. Those innocents lost their lives because of the unwillingness of Europeans to protect themselves against tyranny.

Westerners getting the backbone to defend ourselves from terrorists may have to await a deadly attack on our homeland. You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” America’s liberals have given terrorists an open invitation to penetrate our country through our unprotected southern border. Terrorists can easily come in with dirty bombs to make one of our major cities uninhabitable through radiation. They could just as easily plant chemical or biological weapons in our cities. If they did any of these acts — leading to the deaths of millions of Americans — I wonder whether our liberal Democratic politicians would be able to respond or they would continue to mouth that “Islam teaches peace” and “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Unfortunately for our nation’s future and that of the world, we see giving handouts as the most important function of government rather than its most basic function: defending us from barbarians.

Exactly. The title of my post, “A Grand Strategy for the United States,” is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

Doctrinaire libertarians seem unable to grasp this. Like “liberals,” they tend to reject the notion of a strong defense because they are repelled by the “tribalism” represented by state sovereignty. One such doctrinaire libertarian is Don Boudreaux, who — like Walter E. Williams — teaches economics at George Mason University.

A post by Boudreaux at his blog Cafe Hayek caused me to write “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” where I say this:

Boudreaux … states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. Boudreaux embellishes that theme in the the next several paragraphs of his post; for example:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

Signature

Election 2014: E-Day Minus 2 Weeks

UPDATE HERE

As of today, it looks like the GOP will repeat or improve on its showing in the 2010 mid-term election. Four years ago, the GOP won 242 House seats, to retake the majority in that body, and posted a significant 6-seat gain in the Senate.

It’s almost certain that the GOP will hold a larger majority in the House when all the votes have been counted in November. Further, the smart money is on a GOP gain of at least 6 seats in the Senate — enough to recapture the majority.

Obama’s current unpopularity, compared with his unpopularity four years ago, also bodes will for Republicans. I have concocted four indicators of Obama’s unpopularity in 2014 vs. 2010. They’re plotted in the graph at the end of this post.

The first indicator (blue lines) measures Obama’s overall rating with likely voters. This indicator is a measure of superficial support for Obama. On that score, he’s doing  a bit better than he was four years ago at this time.

The second indicator (black lines) measures Obama’s rating with likely voters who express strong approval or disapproval of him. Obama’s strong-approval rating remains well below the pace of four years ago, which is a good sign for the GOP.

The third indicator (red lines) represents Obama’s strong-approval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly approve/fraction of likely voters who approve) divided by his strong-disapproval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly disapprove/fraction of likely voters who disapprove). I call this the “enthusiasm” indicator. Higher values represent greater enthusiasm for Obama; lower values, less enthusiasm. This is perhaps the best measure of support for Obama — and, despite a recent uptick, it looks a lot worse (for Democrats) than it did in 2010.

The green points (connected by lines) are plots of Obamacare’s standing, as measured by the ratio of strong approval to strong disapproval among likely voters. Obamacare is faring much worse in 2014 than it did in 2010 — another good sign for the GOP.

Election indicators - 2014 vs 2010
The indicators are drawn from the Obama Approval Index History published at Rasmussen Reports, and Rasmussen’s sporadic polling of likely voters about Obamacare (latest report here).

Signature

May the Best Team Lose

This update of a five-season-old post is inspired by Paul Mirengoff’s post at Powerline, “A Fall Non-Classic.” Note: I revised this post on 10/29/14 to account for the outcome of the 2014 World Series.

The first 65 World Series (1903 and 1905-1968) were contests between the best teams in each major league. The winner of a season-ending Series was therefore widely regarded as the best team in baseball for that season (except by the fans of the losing team). The advent of divisional play in 1969 meant that the Series could include a team that wasn’t the best in its league. From 1969 through 1993, when participation in the Series was decided by a single postseason playoff between division winners (1981 excepted), the leagues’ best teams met in only 10 of 24 series. The advent of three-tiered postseason play in 1995 and four-tiered postseason play in 2012, has only made matters worse.*

By the numbers:

  • Postseason play now involves 1/3 of major-league teams and 7 postseason series (3 in each league plus the World Series); postseason play originally consisted of a World Series (period) involving 1/8 of major-league teams — the best in each league.
  • Only 3 of the past 20 World Series from 1995 through 2014 have featured the best teams in both leagues.
  • Of those 20 Series, only 5 were won by the best team in a league.
  • Of the same 20 Series, 11 were won by the inferior team, as measured by W-L record.
  • Division winners have opposed each other in only 9 of the 20 Series.
  • Wild-card teams have appeared in 10 of the 20 Series, with all-wild-card Series in 2002 and 2014.
  • Wild-card teams have occupied almost a third of slots in the last 20 Series — 12 of 40.

The winner of the World Series used to be a league’s best team over the course of the entire season, from opening day to the end of the Series. Now, the winner of the World Series can claim nothing more than having won the most postseason games — 11 or 12 out of (at most) 19 or 20. Why not cut out the 162-game regular season, select the postseason contestants at random, and go straight to postseason play?

__________
* Here are the Series-by-Series results for 1994-2014 (National League teams listed first; + indicates winner of World Series):

1995 –
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .625 W-L, best record in NL)+
Cleveland Indians (division winner; .694 W-L, best record in AL)

1996 –
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .593, best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .568, second-best in AL)+

1997 –
Florida Marlins (wild-card team; .568, second-best in NL)+
Cleveland Indians (division winner; .534, fourth-best in AL)

1998 –
San Diego Padres (division winner; .605 third-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner, .704, best in AL)+

1999 –
Atlanta Braves (division winner; .636, best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .605, best in AL)+

2000 –
New York Mets (wild-card team; .580, fourth-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .540, fifth-best in AL)+

2001 –
Arizona Diamondbacks (division winner; .568, fourth-best in NL)+
New York Yankees (division winner; .594, third-best in AL)

2002 –
San Francisco Giants (wild-card team; .590, fourth-best in NL)
Anaheim Angels (wild-card team; .611, third-best in AL)+

2003 –
Florida Marlines (wild-card team; .562, third-best in NL)+
New York Yankees (division winner; .623, best in AL)

2004 –
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .648, best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (wild-card team; .605, second-best in AL)+

2005 –
Houston Astros (wild-card team; .549, third-best in NL)
Chicago White Sox (division winner; .611, best in AL)*

2006 –
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .516, fifth-best in NL)+
Detroit Tigers (wild-card team; .586, third-best in AL)

2007 –
Colorado Rockies (wild-card team; .552, second-best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (division winner; .593, tied for best in AL)+

2008 –
Philadelphia Phillies (division winner; .568, second-best in NL)+
Tampa Bay Rays (division winner; .599, second-best in AL)

2009 –
Philadelphia Phillies (division winner; .574, second-best in NL)
New York Yankees (division winner; .636, best in AL)+

2010 –
San Francisco Giants (division winner; .568, second-best in NL)+
Texas Rangers (division winner; .556, fourth-best in AL)

2011 –
St. Louis Cardinals (wild-card team; .556, fourth-best in NL)+
Texas Rangers (division winner; .593, second-best in AL)

2012 –
San Francisco Giants (division winner; .580, third-best in AL)+
Detroit Tigers (division winner; .543, seventh-best in AL)

2013 –
St. Louis Cardinals (division winner; .599, best in NL)
Boston Red Sox (division winner; .599, best in AL)+

2014 –
San Francisco Giants (wild-card team; .543, 4th-best in NL)+
Kansas City Royals (wild-card team; .549, 4th-best in AL)

Signature

The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule in Outliers: The Story of Success. According to the Wikipedia article about the book,

…Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours….

…[T]he “10,000-Hour Rule” [is] based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples….

Reemphasizing his theme, Gladwell continuously reminds the reader that genius is not the only or even the most important thing when determining a person’s success….

For “genius” read “genes.” Gladwell’s borrowed theme reinforces the left’s never-ending effort to sell the idea that all men and women are born with the same potential. And, of course, it’s the task of the almighty state to ensure that outcomes (e.g., housing, jobs, college admissions, and income) conform to nature’s design.

I encountered the 10,000-hour rule several years ago, and referred to it in this post, where I observed that “outcomes are skewed … because talent is distributed unevenly.” By “talent” I mean inherent ability of a particular kind — high intelligence and athletic prowess, for example — the possession of which obviously varies from person to person and (on average) from gender to gender and race to race. Efforts to deny such variations are nothing less than anti-scientific. They exemplify the left’s penchant for magical thinking.

There’s plenty of evidence of the strong link between inherent ability to success in any endeavor. I’ve offered some evidence here, here, here, and here. Now comes “Practice Does Not Make Perfect” by , , and (Slate, September 28, 2014). The piece veers off into social policy (with a leftish tinge) and an anemic attempt to rebut the race-IQ correlation, but it’s good on the facts. First, the authors frame the issue:

…What makes someone rise to the top in music, games, sports, business, or science? This question is the subject of one of psychology’s oldest debates.

The “debate” began sensibly enough:

In the late 1800s, Francis Galton—founder of the scientific study of intelligence and a cousin of Charles Darwin—analyzed the genealogical records of hundreds of scholars, artists, musicians, and other professionals and found that greatness tends to run in families. For example, he counted more than 20 eminent musicians in the Bach family. (Johann Sebastian was just the most famous.) Galton concluded that experts are “born.”

Then came the experts-are-made view and the 10,000-hour rule:

Nearly half a century later, the behaviorist John Watson countered that experts are “made” when he famously guaranteed that he could take any infant at random and “train him to become any type of specialist [he] might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents.”

The experts-are-made view has dominated the discussion in recent decades. In a pivotal 1993 article published in Psychological Review—psychology’s most prestigious journal—the Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues proposed that performance differences across people in domains such as music and chess largely reflect differences in the amount of time people have spent engaging in “deliberate practice,” or training exercises specifically designed to improve performance…. For example, the average for elite violinists was about 10,000 hours, compared with only about 5,000 hours for the least accomplished group. In a second study, the difference for pianists was even greater—an average of more than 10,000 hours for experts compared with only about 2,000 hours for amateurs. Based on these findings, Ericsson and colleagues argued that prolonged effort, not innate talent, explained differences between experts and novices.

But reality has a way of making itself known:

[R]ecent research has demonstrated that deliberate practice, while undeniably important, is only one piece of the expertise puzzle—and not necessarily the biggest piece. In the first study to convincingly make this point, the cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli found that chess players differed greatly in the amount of deliberate practice they needed to reach a given skill level in chess. For example, the number of hours of deliberate practice to first reach “master” status (a very high level of skill) ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 hours. This means that one player needed 22 times more deliberate practice than another player to become a master.

A recent meta-analysis by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues (including the first author of this article for Slate) came to the same conclusion. We searched through more than 9,000 potentially relevant publications and ultimately identified 88 studies that collected measures of activities interpretable as deliberate practice and reported their relationships to corresponding measures of skill…. [P]eople who reported practicing a lot tended to perform better than those who reported practicing less. But the correlations were far from perfect: Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained. For example, deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variation for games such as chess, 21 percent for music, and 18 percent for sports. So, deliberate practice did not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the performance variation in these fields. In concrete terms, what this evidence means is that racking up a lot of deliberate practice is no guarantee that you’ll become an expert. Other factors matter.

Genes are among the other factors:

There is now compelling evidence that genes matter for success, too. In a study led by the King’s College London psychologist Robert Plomin, more than 15,000 twins in the United Kingdom were identified through birth records and recruited to perform a battery of tests and questionnaires, including a test of drawing ability in which the children were asked to sketch a person. In a recently published analysis of the data, researchers found that there was a stronger correspondence in drawing ability for the identical twins than for the fraternal twins. In other words, if one identical twin was good at drawing, it was quite likely that his or her identical sibling was, too. Because identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, whereas fraternal twins share only 50 percent on average, this finding indicates that differences across people in basic artistic ability are in part due to genes. In a separate study based on this U.K. sample, well over half of the variation between expert and less skilled readers was found to be due to genes.

In another study, a team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden led by psychologist Miriam Mosing had more than 10,000 twins estimate the amount of time they had devoted to music practice and complete tests of basic music abilities, such as determining whether two melodies carry the same rhythm. The surprising discovery of this study was that although the music abilities were influenced by genes—to the tune of about 38 percent, on average—there was no evidence they were influenced by practice. For a pair of identical twins, the twin who practiced music more did not do better on the tests than the twin who practiced less. This finding does not imply that there is no point in practicing if you want to become a musician. The sort of abilities captured by the tests used in this study aren’t the only things necessary for playing music at a high level; things such as being able to read music, finger a keyboard, and commit music to memory also matter, and they require practice. But it does imply that there are limits on the transformative power of practice. As Mosing and her colleagues concluded, practice does not make perfect.

This is bad news for the blank-slate crowd on the left:

Ever since John Locke laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment by proposing that we are born as tabula rasa—blank slates—the idea that we are created equal has been the central tenet of the “modern” worldview. Enshrined as it is in the Declaration of Independence as a “self-evident truth,” this idea has special significance for Americans. Indeed, it is the cornerstone of the American dream—the belief that anyone can become anything they want with enough determination….

Wouldn’t it be better to just act as if we are equal, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding? That way, no people will be discouraged from chasing their dreams—competing in the Olympics or performing at Carnegie Hall or winning a Nobel Prize. The answer is no, for two reasons. The first is that failure is costly, both to society and to individuals. Pretending that all people are equal in their abilities will not change the fact that a person with an average IQ is unlikely to become a theoretical physicist, or the fact that a person with a low level of music ability is unlikely to become a concert pianist. It makes more sense to pay attention to people’s abilities and their likelihood of achieving certain goals, so people can make good decisions about the goals they want to spend their time, money, and energy pursuing…. Pushing someone into a career for which he or she is genetically unsuited will likely not work.

With regard to the latter point, Richard Sander has shown that aspiring blacks are chief among the victims of the form of “pushing” known as affirmative action. A few years ago, Sander was a guest blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy, where he posted thrice on the subject. In his first post, Sander writes:

As some readers will recall, a little more than seven years ago I published an analysis of law school affirmative action in the Stanford Law Review. The article was the first to present detailed data on the operation and effects of racial preferences in law schools (focusing on blacks).

I also laid out evidence suggesting that large preferences seemed to be worsening black outcomes. I argued that this was plausibly due to a “mismatch effect”; students receiving large preferences (for whatever reason) were likely to find themselves in academic environments where they had to struggle just to keep up; professor instruction would typically be aimed at the “median” student, so students with weaker academic preparation would tend to fall behind, and, even if they did not become discouraged and give up, would tend to learn less than they would have learned in an environment where their level of academic preparation was closer to the class median.

I suggested that the “mismatch effect” could explain as much as half of the black-white gap in first-time bar passage rates (the full gap is thirty to forty percentage points). I also suggested that “mismatch” might so worsen black outcomes that, on net, contemporary affirmative action was not adding to the total number of black lawyers, and might even be lowering the total number of new, licensed black attorneys.

This is from Sander’s second post:

Some of the most significant recent work on affirmative action concerns a phenomenon called “science mismatch”. The idea behind science mismatch is very intuitive: if you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether….

Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and Ken Spenner last year completed a study that looked at a number of ways that differences in admissions standards at Duke affected academic outcomes. In one of many useful analyses they did, they found that 54% of black men at Duke who, as freshmen, had been interested in STEM fields or economics, had switched out of those fields before graduation; the comparative rate for white men was 8%. Importantly, they found that “these cross-race differences in switching patterns can be fully explained by differences in academic background.” In other words, preferences – not race – was the culprit.

In research conducted by FTC economist Marc Luppino and me, using data from the University of California, we have found important peer effects and mismatch effects that affect students of all races; our results show that one’s chances of completing a science degree fall sharply, at a given level of academic preparation, as one attends more and more elite schools within the UC system. At Berkeley, there is a seven-fold difference in STEM degree completion between students with high and low pre-college credentials.

As is always the case with affirmative action, ironies abound. Although young blacks are about one-seventh as likely as young whites to eventually earn a Ph.D. in STEM fields, academically strong blacks in high school are more likely than similar whites to aspire to science careers. And although a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report in 2010 documented the “science mismatch” phenomenon in some detail, President Obama’s new initiative to improve the nation’s production of scientists neither recognizes nor addresses mismatch….

Science mismatch is, of course, relevant to the general affirmative action debate in showing that preferences can boomerang on their intended beneficiaries. But it also has a special relevance to Fisher v. University of Texas. The university’s main announced purpose in reintroducing racial preferences in 2004 was to increase “classroom” diversity. The university contended that, even though over a fifth of its undergraduates were black or Hispanic, many classrooms had no underrepresented minorities. It sought to use direct (and very large) racial preferences to increase campus URM numbers and thus increase the number of URMs in classes that lacked them. But science mismatch shows that this strategy, too, can be self-defeating. The larger a university’s preferences, the more likely it is that preferenced students will have trouble competing in STEM fields and other majors that are demanding and grade sternly. These students will tend to drop out of the tough fields and congregate in comparatively less demanding ones. Large preferences, in other words, can increase racial segregation across majors and courses within a university, and thus hurt classroom diversity.

And this is from Sander’s third post:

[In the previous post] I discussed a body of research – all of it uncontroverted – that documents a serious flaw in affirmative action programs pursued by elite colleges. Students who receive large preferences and arrive on campus hoping to major in STEM fields (e.g., Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tend to migrate out of those fields at very high rates, or, if they remain in those fields, often either fail to graduate or graduate with very low GPAs. There is thus a strong tension between receiving a large admissions preference to a more elite school, and one’s ability to pursue a STEM career.

Is it possible for contemporary American universities to engage constructively with this type of research? …

Colleges and universities are committed to the mythology that diversity happens merely because they want it and put resources into it, and that all admitted students arrive with all the prerequisites necessary to flourish in any way they choose. Administrators work hard to conceal the actual differences in academic preparation that almost invariably accompany the aggressive use of preferences. Any research that documents the operation and effects of affirmative action therefore violates this “color-blind” mythology and accompanying norms; minority students are upset, correctly realizing that either the research is wrong or that administrators have misled them. In this scenario, administrators invariably resort to the same strategy: dismiss the research without actually lying about it; reassure the students that the researchers are misguided, but that the university can’t actually punish the researchers because of “academic freedom”….

Leftists — academic and other — cannot abide the truth when it refutes their prejudices. Affirmative action, as it turns out, is harmful to aspiring blacks. Most leftists will deny it because their leftist faith — their magical thinking– is more important to them than the well-being of those whose cause they claim to champion.

Signature

Election 2014: E-Day Minus 3 Weeks

LATEST VERSION HERE

Can the GOP repeat or improve on its showing in the 2010 mid-term election? Four years ago, the GOP won 242 House seats, a gain of 64 and more than enough to retake the majority. Over in the Senate, the GOP gained 6 seats, a good rebound but not enough for a majority.

Despite the loss of 8 House seats in 2012, the GOP retained a comfortable majority. And it’s almost certain that the GOP will hold a larger majority when all the votes are counted in November.

The outlook for the Senate is less clear, though there’s good reason to expect a GOP gain of 6 seats (or more) — enough to restore GOP control of the Senate.

I base my optimism on some indicators that I’ll continue to update as election day approaches. They’re drawn from the Obama Approval Index History published at Rasmussen Reports, and Rasmussen’s sporadic polling of likely voters about Obamacare (latest report here).

Election indicators - 2014 vs 2010

The first indicator (blue lines) measures Obama’s overall rating with likely voters. This indicator is a measure of superficial support for Obama. On that score, he’s doing about as well as he was four years ago at this time.

The second indicator (black lines) measures Obama’s rating with likely voters who express strong approval or disapproval. Obama’s strong-approval rating is below the pace of four years ago, which is a good sign for the GOP.

The third indicator (red lines) represents Obama’s strong-approval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly approve/fraction of likely voters who approve) divided by his strong-disapproval quotient (fraction of likely voters who strongly disapprove/fraction of likely voters who disapprove). I call this the “enthusiasm” indicator. Higher values represent greater enthusiasm for Obama; lower values, less enthusiasm. This is perhaps the best measure of support for Obama — and it looks a lot worse (for Democrats) than it did in 2010.

The green points (connected by lines) are plots of Obamacare’s standing, as measured by the ratio of strong approval to strong disapproval among likely voters. Obamacare is faring much worse in 2014 than it did in 2010 — another good sign for the GOP.

Some words of caution: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Signature

 

Another Look at Election 2014

I’ve been running a series of poll-based posts about the November election. The most recent post is here; an update is due tomorrow. The numbers, to date, suggest a re-run of the mid-term election of 2010, when the GOP won 242 House seats and gained 6 Senate seats.

As a cross-check on the polls, I ran a statistical analysis of House results for 1946-2012, that is, for all 34 elections since World War II.* I won’t bore you with the details of the analysis, but I will share the results, in graphical form:

House seats won by GOP - actual and estimated

The light gray lines represent the 95-percent confidence interval around the estimates.

The estimate for 2014 is 257 GOP seats — a number that would be a post-war record if it comes to pass. The high end of the 95-percent confidence interval is 295 seats; the low end is 218 seats. If I were a bettor, I’d put my money on 257, plus or minus 5 percent, that is, 244-270 seats.

Signature

__________
* I revised this post 5 hours after its initial publication, to incorporate the result of a more robust statistical analysis. The projected number of House seats won by the GOP in 2014 has been revised downward by 6, from 263 to 257.

On Writing: Part One

Lynn Patra offers some writing tips in her post “On Becoming a Better Writer,” and invites readers to add their tips in the comments section. This post will appear while I’m taking a break from the keyboard, so I won’t be able to place it in the comments section of Lynn’s post. Consider this a virtual comment.

This is the first of Lynn’s tips:

Voraciously read the work of great writers and allow yourself to be guided by whatever subjects interest you. If you love to read, this the most enjoyable and engaging way to learn how to write well. With continuous exposure to good writing, your mind will absorb the various lessons that school teachers tried to impart the boring way.

That’s excellent advice. A related bit of advice is to heed what great writers have to say about writing.

W. Somerset Maugham (English, 1874-1965) was a prolific and popular playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and author of non-fiction works. He reflected on his life and career as a writer in The Summing Up. It appeared in 1938, when Maugham was 64 years old and more than 40 years into his very long career. I first read The Summing Up about 40 years ago, and immediately became an admirer of Maugham’s candor and insight. This led me to become an avid reader of Maugham’s novels and short-story collections. And I have continued to consult The Summing Up for booster shots of Maugham’s wisdom.

I offer the following excerpts of the early pages of The Summing Up, where Maugham discusses the craft of writing:

I have never had much patience with the writers who claim from the reader an effort to understand their meaning…. There are two sorts of obscurity that you find in writers. One is due to negligence and the other to wilfulness. People often write obscurely because they have never taken the trouble to learn to write clearly. This sort of obscurity you find too often in modern philosophers, in men of science, and even in literary critics. Here it is indeed strange. You would have thought that men who passed their lives in the study of the great masters of literature would be sufficiently sensitive to the beauty of language to write if not beautifully at least with perspicuity. Yet you will find in their works sentence after sentence that you must read twice to discover the sense. Often you can only guess at it, for the writers have evidently not said what they intended.

Another cause of obscurity is that the writer is himself not quite sure of his meaning. He has a vague impression of what he wants to say, but has not, either from lack of mental power or from laziness, exactly formulated it in his mind and it is natural enough that he should not find a precise expression for a confused idea. This is due largely to the fact that many writers think, not before, but as they write. The pen originates the thought. …. From this there is only a little way to go to fall into the habit of setting down one’s impressions in all their original vagueness. Fools can always be found to discover a hidden sense in them….

Simplicity is not such an obvious merit as lucidity. I have aimed at it because I have no gift for richness. Within limits I admire richness in others, though I find it difficult to digest in quantity. I can read one page of Ruskin with delight, but twenty only with weariness. The rolling period, the stately epithet, the noun rich in poetic associations, the subordinate clauses that give the sentence weight and magnificence, the grandeur like that of wave following wave in the open sea; there is no doubt that in all this there is something inspiring. Words thus strung together fall on the ear like music. The appeal is sensuous rather than intellectual, and the beauty of the sound leads you easily to conclude that you need not bother about the meaning. But words are tyrannical things, they exist for their meanings, and if you will not pay attention to these, you cannot pay attention at all. Your mind wanders…..

But if richness needs gifts with which everyone is not endowed, simplicity by no means comes by nature. To achieve it needs rigid discipline…. To my mind King James’s Bible has been a very harmful influence on English prose. I am not so stupid as to deny its great beauty, and it is obvious that there are passages in it of a simplicity which is deeply moving. But the Bible is an oriental book. Its alien imagery has nothing to do with us. Those hyperboles, those luscious metaphors, are foreign to our genius…. The plain, honest English speech was overwhelmed with ornament. Blunt Englishmen twisted their tongues to speak like Hebrew prophets. There was evidently something in the English temper to which this was congenial, perhaps a native lack of precision in thought, perhaps a naive delight in fine words for their own sake, an innate eccentricity and love of embroidery, I do not know; but the fact remains that ever since, English prose has had to struggle against the tendency to luxuriance…. It is obvious that the grand style is more striking than the plain. Indeed many people think that a style that does not attract notice is not style…. But I suppose that if a man has a confused mind he will write in a confused way, if his temper is capricious his prose will be fantastical, and if he has a quick, darting intelligence that is reminded by the matter in hand of a hundred things he will, unless he has great self-control, load his pages with metaphor and simile….

Whether you ascribe importance to euphony … must depend on the sensitiveness of your ear. A great many readers, and many admirable writers, are devoid of this quality. Poets as we know have always made a great use of alliteration. They are persuaded that the repetition of a sound gives an effect of beauty. I do not think it does so in prose. It seems to me that in prose alliteration should be used only for a special reason; when used by accident it falls on the ear very disagreeably. But its accidental use is so common that one can only suppose that the sound of it is not universally offensive. Many writers without distress will put two rhyming words together, join a monstrous long adjective to a monstrous long noun, or between the end of one word and the beginning of another have a conjunction of consonants that almost breaks your jaw. These are trivial and obvious instances. I mention them only to prove that if careful writers can do such things it is only because they have no ear. Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.

I have read many books on English prose, but have found it hard to profit by them; for the most part they are vague, unduly theoretical, and often scolding. But you cannot say this of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. It is a valuable work. I do not think anyone writes so well that he cannot learn much from it. It is lively reading. Fowler liked simplicity, straightforwardness and common sense. He had no patience with pretentiousness. He had a sound feeling that idiom was the backbone of a language and he was all for the racy phrase. He was no slavish admirer of logic and was willing enough to give usage right of way through the exact demesnes of grammar. English grammar is very difficult and few writers have avoided making mistakes in it….

But Fowler had no ear. He did not see that simplicity may sometimes make concessions to euphony. I do not think a far-fetched, an archaic or even an affected word is out of place when it sounds better than the blunt, obvious one or when it gives a sentence a better balance. But, I hasten to add, though I think you may without misgiving make this concession to pleasant sound, I think you should make none to what may obscure your meaning. Anything is better than not to write clearly. There is nothing to be said against lucidity, and against simplicity only the possibility of dryness. This is a risk that is well worth taking when you reflect how much better it is to be bald than to wear a curly wig. But there is in euphony a danger that must be considered. It is very likely to be monotonous…. I do not know how one can guard against this. I suppose the best chance is to have a more lively faculty of boredom than one’s readers so that one is wearied before they are. One must always be on the watch for mannerisms and when certain cadences come too easily to the pen ask oneself whether they have not become mechanical. It is very hard to discover the exact point where the idiom one has formed to express oneself has lost its tang….

If you could write lucidly, simply, euphoniously and yet with liveliness you would write perfectly: you would write like Voltaire. And yet we know how fatal the pursuit of liveliness may be: it may result in the tiresome acrobatics of Meredith. Macaulay and Carlyle were in their different ways arresting; but at the heavy cost of naturalness. Their flashy effects distract the mind. They destroy their persuasiveness; you would not believe a man was very intent on ploughing a furrow if he carried a hoop with him and jumped through it at every other step. A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident….

Ruminations on the Left in America

I deplore the adage that “we get the kind of government that we deserve.” I’m not part of the “we,” nor are the millions of other Americans who despise the kind of government that’s been forced upon us. The adage should be “We — who despise big government — have gotten the kind of government that others want and therefore deserve.”

On of their government’s favorite themes is “racism.” It’s threadbare from use; it’s the “global warming” of the 2010s. Another favorite theme is “inequality,” which is as threadbare as “racism.” What’s more, the loudest voices against “inequality” are the very persons who could do something about it, personally, inasmuch as they’re left-wing 1-percenters with plenty of money to hand out. I wonder how many homeless persons they have invited into their homes. I wonder how many of those homeless persons are black.

Speaking of “global warming” — or whatever it’s called nowadays — did you follow the recent march against it? Neither did I, though I couldn’t avoid seeing a few mentions of it in “news” outlets. The marchers looked like a roundup of the usual suspects: overenthusiastic youth; naive believers in the power of government to do good (a lot of overlap with overenthusiastic youth); granola-munching, sandal-wearing Luddites who think they’d like to live in the Dark Ages, but with smart phones, of course; and all manner of lefties who think they’d like to live in a place where an all-wise dictator to tells everyone what to do — though I’ve noticed that they’re not flocking to Cuba.

By now, you may have surmised that hypocrisy rankles me. And because it does, I despise most politicians, media types, and celebrities — and all affluent lefties. But I also despise less-than-affluent lefties who simply want to feed at a trough that’s filled by the efforts of others, and who like to chalk up their failures to “society” and discrimination of one kind and another. Those various kinds of discrimination must, of course, be alleviated by government-granted privileges of one kind and another. The idea of making the best of one’s lot, by dint of determination and effort, seems to have vanished from the mental makeup of most Americans (in emulation of Europeans). Claims of victimhood and demands for special treatment by government have become de rigeur.

This is merely a manifestation of the sea-change in the American ethos. Though the origins of the sea-change can be traced to the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and to the New Deal of the 1930s, its inevitability was ensured in the 1960s. It was then that the Great Society enshrined “entitlements” and the media sanctified unwashed, loud-mouthed, quasi-traitors for their trend-setting effort to ensure that government became incapable of doing the one thing that it should do: protect Americans from predators, foreign and domestic.

Closer to home, there’s the People’s Republic of insert-the-name-of-your-municipality (mine is Austin), which hosts dozens of blood-sucking tax-levying jurisdictions in constant search of ways to make life more miserable and expensive for residents (the indolent and dependent excepted, of course); for example:

  • frequent, traffic-jamming street closings for various politically correct observances
  • four weekends of very loud music festivals (the sound carries for miles)
  • tax breaks to attract “jobs,” which means more residents, but not lower taxes per capita
  • a poor road network that could barely handle Austin’s population as it was 10 years ago, but which could have been improved
  • restriction of the inadequate road network’s capacity by adding bike lanes that are used mainly by Yuppies, for exercise
  • a push to install a very expensive urban rail line that will be disruptive while it’s under construction, will displace traffic lanes and parking spaces, and won’t handle more than a tiny fraction of Austin’s transportation needs
  • lack of interest in a rapid bus system because it’s not “sexy” like urban rail
  • “affordable” (i.e., subsidized) housing, to foster “diversity” (i.e., the indolent and crime-prone get to live near and make life “better” for the aspiring and hard-working)
  • expensive “green” energy because it’s “religiously” correct to believe in AGW.

These and other abominations are supported by local lefties, the core constituency of which is the students and faculty of the University of Texas, and a dwindling hippie population that’s being priced out of Austin (an inadequate but welcome recompense). The core has been augmented by the hordes of Californians who have flocked to Austin to escape their home State’s high taxes and onerous regulations. They, of course, favor the programs that yield high taxes and onerous regulations, but are surprised when they figure out (as some of them do) that there’s a link between the programs, on the one hand, and the taxes and regulations, on the other hand. Unless you’re very lucky, you live in a People’s Republic much like Austin.

Which brings me (don’t ask how) to the final part of today’s sermon: euphemisms. These are much-favored by lefties, who seem unable to confront reality (as discussed in the preceding paragraph). Thus, for example:

  • crippled became handicapped, which became disabled and then differently abled or something-challenged
  • stupid became learning disabled, which became special needs (a euphemistic category that houses more than the stupid)
  • poor became underprivileged, which became economically disadvantaged, which became (though isn’t overtly called) entitled (as in entitled to other people’s money)
  • colored persons became Negroes, who became blacks, then African-Americans, and now (often) persons of color.

Why do lefties insist on varnishing the truth? They are — they insist — strong supporters of science, which is (ideally) the pursuit of truth. Well, that’s because they aren’t supporters of science (witness their devotion to the “unsettled” science of AGW). Nor do they want the truth. They simply want to see the world as they would like it to be; for example:

  • a vibrant economy, but without the “too rich” who inevitably accompany it; they should be punished for the sin of being “too rich” (athletes, media stars, and rich benefactors of left-wing causes excluded, of course)
  • redemption for the left’s pets du jour through government programs that never seem to overcome human failings and foibles but always result in well-fed bureaucrats
  • peace on Earth without without swift and certain justice or a strong military, because “we” don’t want to offend a certain racial group or members of a certain religion (who have shown that they hate America, Americans, and some of the left’s pets du jour, namely, emancipated women and homosexuals) — but don’t take away my bodyguard or his .357 Magnum.

And so it goes in what little is left of the Founders’ America. For more about America’s left and the damage it has done to liberty and prosperity, see the related posts listed below.

Signature

*     *     *

Related posts:
Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test
How to Deal with Left-Wing Academic Blather
It’s Not Anti-Intellectualism, Stupid
The Case Against Campus Speech Codes
The Pathology of Academic Leftism
The People’s Romance
Lefty Profs
Apropos Academic Freedom and Western Values
Whiners — Left and Libertarian
Diagnosing the Left
Why So Few Free-Market Economists?
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
The Media, the Left, and War
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Tolerance on the Left
David Brooks, Useful Idiot for the Left
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
The Culture War
Sorkin’s Left-Wing Propaganda Machine
The Pretence of Knowledge

The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment

Updated Here.

Two takeaways:

  • The “official” unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is phony. The real rate remains at 12.4 percent, just 1.1 points below the 21st century high-water mark of 13.5 (reached in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013).
  • The real unemployment rate is disguised by the continued decline of the labor-force participation rate — a decline that has accelerated since the onset of Obamanomics. The decline is concentrated among younger workers, and has probably been helped along by Obamacare. (See the final paragraph of the post.)

Signature