Newsflash: Researchers Discover Peer-Pressure

I’m thinking of making this the first post in a series on news that is not news but soon will be. The Washington Post is now reporting that the behavior of your peers influences how you behave. I…am…shocked. I never imagined that being surrounded by people eating pizza might make me want a slice. Even less did I suspect that hanging out with drunks might make it easier to get a drink. I think I need to quit my job, spend a week in the woods and reevaluate my life. Apparently my belief in a personal identity has been a lie.

In all seriousness, however, couched within this absurd restatement of the obvious is both a confession of bureaucratic ineptitude and an ominous signal that we’re probably in store for even more of the same:

“What all these studies do is force us to start to kind of rethink our mental model of how we behave,” said Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist. “Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”

Mr. Watts would probably feel very comfortable in a discussion of “libertarian paternalism” such as the one that took place at the Cato Institute recently (audio link here). I think Will Wilkinson, who took part in that event, has an excellent perspective on the issues (you can get a taste here). My own two cents is that the government is by its nature, slow-moving, inflexible, and unaccommodating so that it should come as no surprise that public policies trying to change peaceful behaviors are ineffective. The more we depend on bureaucrats, in place of our friends and family, for advice, the more we are likely to perpetuate foolish mistakes. Keep an eye on people that think they know how to lead your life better than you do. They don’t.



Is more freedom the solution to the global food crisis?

According to ““, it is:

Definitely makes you think about the unintended consequences of our policy toward developing countries, as well as the policies within those places. It’s the poor who are hungry and suffering because we underestimate the effects of meddling with the market. Just something to ponder the next time you consider filling you car up with ethanol fuel.

via Tom Palmer at Cato@Liberty

A Flash in the Pan

I just finished reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It is a superb marriage of speculation and science. The entire book is basically a fleshing out of the quote by architect Chris Riddle that appears at the beginning of Chapter 2: “‘If you want to destroy a barn,’ a faer once told me, ‘cut an eighteen-inch-square hole in the roof. Then stand back.'” Weisman paints a compelling picture of how much human technology has changed the world we live in and also how quickly nature will change it back once we’re gone. Though he is firmly committed to the value of natural processes and natural beauty, Weisman’s tale is remarkably even handed, acknowledging, for the most part, the equally splendid and valuable contributions of humanity’s presence. If you are concerned for the environment and quality of life, you should definitely check it out. If not, and you just want something entertaining, you should still pick up a copy.


How Progressives Use False Dichotomies to Expand Government

Some people find Barack Obama inspirational. I do not. Unfortunately, charisma is not a proposition with which you can argue. It is a personal trait that has almost nothing to do with a man’s beliefs or intentions, and yet in democratic politics it seems to carry more weight than either. Therefore, I feel fairly confident that Senator Obama will be President Obama come 2009. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Obama’s commencement address delivered today at Wesleyan University should provide cause for concern to anyone who values privacy and personal autonomy. A transcript of the speech is available here, and you should read it to form your own opinion both as to the strength of Obama’s rhetorical skills and the quality of his vision for the country. If you want to know what’s wrong with both, you can continue below.

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Why in the hell do people wait so long to get married?

I was 21 when I proposed to my wife. I was spending the semester studying abroad in Italy, and I was surrounded by Italians and other Europeans who looked at me aghast when they learned that I was engaged to be married. I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, I’d heard plenty about how Europeans, and Italians, in particular, were notorious for prolonging childhood well into their adult years (i.e. 30 year-olds living with their parents, declining birth-rates, etc.). If anything, I probably thought they were right, I was a little bit weird. Even by American standards, Lily and I were preparing to tie the knot well before most of our peers. Here’s a graph I put together from data available at Wikipedia (don’t know what’s wrong with the thumbnail, but the link seems to be working):

As you can see, the United States is somewhere in the middle of the pack across the nations surveyed, but it’s an outlier with respect to its developed cohort. Even still, the average age at first marriage for American men is 27, for American women, 25. From what I gather through personal experience and anecdote, though I don’t have any data at hand to back this up at the moment, those averages increase as people climb the economic ladder. As I’ve gotten older, and gained a little more perspective, I’ve become more and more perplexed by this trend, and I have to ask, what’s going on?

Here’s what I see. Most people I meet (right now heavily weighted towards yuppies and aspiring yuppies)that are my age (currently 26) are unmarried. Most of those approve of marriage as a general concept. Most of those (though a decidedly smaller percentage and with much less confidence) want to have kids. Yet very few of these are currently involved in long term relationships, and those that are seem to have no definite plans on actually getting hitched. Why not?

There was an interesting article in the Atlantic a few months ago describing the situation from the perspective of older-single women. The author even went so far as to propose a solution for younger single women: stop waiting for Mr. Right and start settling for Mr. Good Enough. Do you think she’s right? Are people really just too picky? Seems possible, but I think that may be giving most people too much credit. It seems like that might be a relatively painless way of averting an acknowledgment of fear of commitment. If that’s the case, I have to say that most people seem to have an idea of commitment which runs counter to my experience with marriage. Commitments are hard. Marriage is easy. Getting up every day to go to work is exhausting and requires a conscious effort to balance the rewards (paychecks) with the costs (cubicles and crowded subways). Coming home at night to spend time with my wife is easy. Chasing tail in bars is hard. Going to the movies, taking walks, and eating dinner with your best friend is easy. Having kids by yourself is hard. Having kids with a spouse is a little less hard.

So I ask you: Are you married? Do you want to be? When do you think you’ll get married? What are you waiting for? Just curious.


Ends and Means

Would you rather be free to buy a hot dog and a pack of cigarettes outside a king’s palace or stand in a bread line on the steps of parliament? That’s the question, in so many words, posed by Arnold Kling in his post discussing a recent book on foreign policy by Thomas Barnett. It’s an interesting and useful question that too my mind receives far too little discussion in contemporary American media.

Just this morning, Lily and I were listening to a piece on NPR talking about the infamous butterfly ballots from the Florida presidential election of 2000. The gist of the piece the increasing lack of trust Americans have in the ability of our democratic processes to reliably communicate the will of the people to men and women occupying the seats of power in the government. The main interviewee seemed very upset by the lack of transparency and wished to restore the confidence that had been lost. My assessment was not so uniformly gloomy. While I do believe that a lack of transparency is a bad thing, I am heartened by the potential that more and more people may find themselves driven to engage in the “eternal vigilance” advocated by Thomas Jefferson. As I see it, there are two primary solutions to dealing with a lack of trust in government: we can 1) attempt to get the government to institute procedures that will improve transparency and accountability, or 2) attempt to reduce the size and scope of the government so that potential corruption and incompetency are simply less troublesome because they have a smaller impact on our lives.

Democracy in America was originally conceived as a means to an end: namely, securing the widest scope of personal autonomy consistent with the preservation of equal rights among men. It has since been co-opted by the envious and elevated to a righteous end in itself in order to justify theft, redistribution and oppression. It is a simple fact that political processes are far less responsive to personal preference than free markets. Economic liberty is far more important than political enfranchisement. A house cannot stand without a foundation, but a foundation is worthless without a house. Both Barack Obama and John McCain seek to keep the population focused on constantly fixing cracks in the basement of political representation even as the roof of prosperity collapses on our heads.