Discriminations and Disparities

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I have a number of Thomas Sowell hardcovers on my shelves, but since I am now ElderlyOnAFixedIncome, I decided to get his latest, Discriminations and Disparities, via the Interlibrary Loan services of the University Near Here. And it (eventually) came all the way from the University of Wyoming! My deep gratitude to all involved along the way.

Dr. Sowell recently celebrated his 88th birthday, but this book shows he hasn't lost a lot of speed off his fastball. (Sorry about that metaphor, I've been watching a lot of baseball this summer.) This book is relatively short (127 pages of main text), and concentrates on the fallacies people routinely fall into when looking at statistical disparities between groups of people. Those fallacies lead to probably-erroneous conclusions: that either the disparities are due to discrimination or genetics.

There are a number of ways people can go wrong, intentionally or otherwise.

For example, Sowell makes an early point that I haven't seen others make explicitly: outcomes are nearly always a product of multiple factors, all of which are necessary prerequisites. If just one of the prerequisites is blocked or missing for a group, the result is a highly skewed distribution for that outcome. Example: China was a technological leader, coming up with many inventions before the Europeans. But at some point China's leaders decided to impose a substantial isolationism; while China's people remained just as talented as before, this single factor doomed China to backwardness for centuries.

Sowell goes on to slice-and-dice the concept of "discrimination". There's "fact-based" discrimination, the kind we make all the time when making judgments based on objective qualities and empirical evidence—Sowell calls this "Discrimination I". And then there's old-fashioned bigotry, based not on fact but on usually-invidious perceptions and stereotypes: "Discrimination II".

But "Discrimination I" can be broken down further: while we would prefer that decisions be made on totally accurate knowledge about individuals ("Discrimination Ia"), it's also possible for people can base their judgment on individuals from statistical facts about the group they belong to. Sowell's example: suppose 40% of the people in Group X are alcoholics, while only 1% of the people in Group Y are alcoholics. And you are hiring for a position in which having an alcoholic would be ineffective or even dangerous. Deciding to hire from Group Y is "Discrimination Ib": a reality-based call not based in animosity, just a knowledge of probability. Even though that might be bad news for the 60% of Group X who aren't alcoholics.

Sowell's point: don't lump "Discrimination Ib" with "Discrimination II". It's easy (especially for people with no skin in the game) to pontificate about what's "fair": sure, we'd like to judge all individuals on an individual basis. But when that's impractical, and it often is, how can you blame people for making a relatively safer bet?

I've just scratched the surface. Sowell continues to talk sense in an age where people resist that sort of thing.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • Solomon brings the truth in Proverbs 10:4:

    4 Lazy hands make for poverty,
        but diligent hands bring wealth.

    Point taken.

    Everything is relative, however. An Ancient Israeli "wealthy" person would be considered in abject poverty today.

  • Jonah Goldberg's most recent G-File is (roughly) on President Trump's recent loose-cannon comments on NATO. Excerpt:

    I’m worried that we are entering a very dangerous chapter in world history. The idea that international institutions, built on the blood-stained rubble of two world wars, must give way to some glorious new era of nationalism is inflaming the minds of people across the West. It’s a very weird epidemic of Year Zero thinking on a global level. As a Burkean, I’m open to reform: gradual, thoughtful, incremental reform that improves on what we have already built. But the recent blunderbuss rhetoric isn’t about that. It’s a nearest-weapon-to-hand defense of a president who doesn’t understand how NATO even works.

    It's rough when you have a President that, every so often, can't be bothered to appear sane, knowledgable, and honest.

  • Trump's bad enough. His opponents are aguably worse. At Reason, David Harsanyi has a suggestion for us: Get a Grip, America.

    This week, The Washington Post published an op-ed headlined "It's not wrong to compare Trump's America to the Holocaust." As with similar examples of this genre, it's a sickening display of moral relativism that belittles the suffering and murder of millions in the service of some shortsighted and crass partisan fearmongering.

    Elsewhere, Politico published an opinion piece headlined "Putin's Attack on the U.S. Is Our Pearl Harbor," which demeaned the sacrifice of American service members by likening a military attack on American soil that brought us into the bloodiest war mankind has ever experienced to phishing.

    On MSNBC, where illiterate histrionic analogies litter coverage every day, a contributor compared Donald Trump's meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin to Pearl Harbor and Kristallnacht, just to be safe.

    It's a little weird when, by all objective measures, the sanest political party in America is the Libertarian Party.

  • At PJ Media, John Ellis has news you can use. Specifically, 5 Modern Myths People Need to Stop Believing. Example:

    4. After Eating, You Have to Wait to Go Swimming

    People need to let go of this myth because there's no reason to continue torturing kids. And mothers have been torturing kids for generations because of the belief that after eating we have to wait at least 30 minutes before jumping back into the pool. However, as Duke Health says, "Apparently, mother does not know best when it comes to swimming after eating."

    The myth persists, though, because it is true that swimmers can suffer from a mild cramp after eating. Please note the emphasis on "mild." Because, as Medicine Net points out, "the fact is that an episode of drowning caused by swimming on a full stomach has never been documented."

    Ellis's myths are apolitical. For example, he doesn't tackle the myth of Scandinavian socialism.

  • American Consequences has its "Summer Reading" issue online. Editor P. J. O'Rourke essays on Knowing Write From Left. His contrarian take on a musty play:

    Literature hates capitalism. And the hating started while capitalism was still being invented – before “capitalist” was even a word – in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with its nasty portrayal of Shylock, the only worthwhile person in the play.

    All the other main characters are rich lay-abouts, except for the titular merchant, Antonio, and he’s a fool. He’s going to loan his profligate friend Bassanio 3,000 ducats (something like half-a-million dollars) so that Bassanio can afford to date Portia. Meanwhile, Antonio’s business affairs are a mess. He’s cash poor because all his capital is tied up in high-risk ventures. He’s counting on huge returns from emerging market trading ventures.

    Shylock, a keen-eyed financial analyst, sums up Antonio’s investment portfolio: “He hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies… a third at Mexico, a fourth for England.”

    Libya, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and… England? What, exactly, is this Merchant of Venice merchandizing? Looks to me like he’s trading in boat people, smuggled ivory, drugs, and… kippered herring?

    Peej has some alternate reading suggestions, a couple may surprise you! Eek!

  • A student, Ian Smith (but not that Ian Smith), writes sensibly in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: University of Minnesota pronoun policy should not be enacted. It's the (by now) standard: even though a student's birth certificate may say "Stephen", he has the right to be referred to as "Stephanie", use the girl's bathroom, and … oops, I'm probably in trouble for saying "he" back there, because "hir" preferred pronoun is "ze".

    Among the problems Ian perceives:

    • Administrators have full power to expel someone for not using pronouns.

    There is something wrong with a policy that kicks a student out of its school and essentially ruins their lives over their not uttering a one-syllable word. There is something morally in me that can’t quite support a policy that advocates for this. One may make the argument that “the university will only resort to that punishment in extreme cases.” But that’s not how policies work out in effect. When you give administrators wide breadth in disciplinary action, you must assume that they will use it. So be prepared for a student to be expelled for not speaking the exact words the university wants him or her to say.

    Aaaand … cue the lawsuits. Universities need to ask themselves: Is this really a hill they want to die on?

    So anyway, if you know any college students, you might want to invest in our Amazon Product du Jour. Which, outrageously, you can get in either "Men" or "Women" fit types. To the barricades, comrades!