Monthly Archives: November 2012

Discrimination in Ivy League Admissions

One of the most eye-opening articles this year: Ron Unz, in The American Conservative, shows that that the Ivy League covertly discriminates against Asian applicants and in favour of Jewish ones. It is long, detailed, and solidly backed with evidence. Here are just a few highlights:

On the under-representation of Asian-Americans:

while … Asian-American academic achievement trends were rising at such an impressive pace, the relative enrollment of Asians at Harvard was plummeting, dropping by over half during the last twenty years, with a range of similar declines also occurring at Yale, Cornell, and most other Ivy League universities. Columbia, in the heart of heavily Asian New York City, showed the steepest decline of all.

By contrast, Caltech selects strictly by merit

since the beginning of the 1990s, Caltech’s Asian-American enrollment has risen almost exactly in line with the growth of America’s underlying Asian population, with Asians now constituting nearly 40 percent of each class

There is, says Unz, who is Jewish, over-representation of Jewish students:

We are therefore faced with the clear conundrum that Jewish students seem to constitute roughly 6 percent of America’s highest-ability high school graduates and non-Jewish whites around 65–70 percent, but these relative ratios differ by perhaps 1000 percent from the enrollments we actually find at Harvard and the other academic institutions which select America’s future elites. Meanwhile, an ethnic distribution much closer to this apparent ability-ratio is found at Caltech, whose admissions are purely meritocratic, unlike the completely opaque, subjective, and discretionary Ivy League system

Each year, the Ivy League colleges enroll almost 10,000 American whites and Asians, of whom over 3000 are Jewish. Meanwhile, each year the NMS Corporation selects and publicly names America’s highest-ability 16,000 graduating seniors; of these, fewer than 1000 are Jewish, while almost 15,000 are non-Jewish whites and Asians.

The reason:

In effect, somewhat dim and over-worked admissions officers, generally possessing weak quantitative skills, have been tasked by their academic superiors and media monitors with the twin ideological goals of enrolling Jews and enrolling non-whites, with any major failures risking harsh charges of either “anti-Semitism” or “racism.” But by inescapable logic maximizing the number of Jews and non-whites implies minimizing the number of non-Jewish whites.

How to improve the system? Unz raises the idea of randomly selecting entrants:

(say) 300 slots or around 20 percent of each entering class are allocated based on pure academic merit (the “Inner Ring”), with the remaining 1300 slots being randomly selected from the 30,000 or so American applicants considered able to reasonably perform at the school’s required academic level and thereby benefit from a Harvard education (the “Outer Ring”).

It might have the benefit of making America’s elite rather more modest.

Ron Unz, The Myth of American Meritocracy: How corrupt are Ivy League admissions? The American Conservative November 28, 2012. (pdf)


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Is the West Best? Monogamy Edition

Most societies recorded by anthropologists are polygynous. (Around 85% by one count.) The few monogamous ones are almost all found in harsh environments. Once agriculture arose, almost all farming societies were polygynous as well as almost all complex societies or civilizations – with one big exception: the West. Europe was peculiar from antiquity onward. Ancient Greece was monogamous, so was Rome, and the Christian middle ages.

Did this make any difference to the history of Western civilization? I think it did.

For one thing, monogamy means more marital equality among men. This probably has an elective affinity with political liberty and democracy. More equality in marital resources seems to go along more equality in politics. European rulers, however despotic they may have been, could not accumulate vast harems.

Also, monogamy means less competition among men to secure more wives. Men can devote less time and effort to getting wives and more to other activities. Unrelated men can cooperate together.

Plus, monogamy probably induces men to devote more paternal investment to their children.

Some argue that the West, or Western civilization, is not a coherent thing, that it has no distinctive identity. Well, monogamy is one thing that is both distinctively Western and which stretches back over more than two millennia.

Consider Western monogamy a long social experiment. Was it a success? It has been adopted far and wide so that betokens major success.


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McCloskey’s Main Event

Here’s Deirdre McCloskey’s explanation, or one version of it, for the advent of modern economic growth:

What did change in northwestern Europe was the spoken attitude towards the bourgeois life and the capitalist economy, in the rhetoric of the bourgeoisie themselves and in that of their traditional enemies. The enemies revived after the Reformation in the Spanish and French lands to crush enterprise — the crushing correlated with fresh religious intolerance which England, Denmark, and Prussia managed to side-step — and then revived again Europe-wide after 1848. Such rhetoric for and against innovation was no side show. It was the main event, and it did change greatly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In England the pro-innovation rhetoric triumphed, and then in the world, arousing in the nineteenth century a counter-rhetoric leading to the catastrophes of the twentieth century.

These look to me like two somewhat different things: “pro-bourgeois” is not quite the same as “pro-innovation”. The latter I would associate with the Enlightenment, a questioning of traditional orthodoxies found in no other civilization. But where did that come from? The former, I’m not sure where it came from.

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What Did Not Cause Modern Economic Growth

Deirdre McClosky has a long, long list of all the Not Causes of the “hockey stick,” the upturn in wealth, the advent of economic growth, the exit from Malthusian subsistence, the Industrial Revolution, in modern times.

Not trade (“the Rest had been vigorously trading in the Indian Ocean long before the Europeans got there”); not coal (“it was transportable and substitutable”); not exploitation (“The profits from the [slave] trade, which were small and were mainly earned by African slave-catchers, did not finance the Industrial Revolution.”) Not Gregory Clark’s genetic theory that the rich out-bred the poor (“non-English people succeeded, as for instance the Chinese now are succeeding. And such people have always done fine in a bourgeois country.”) Not institutions (“England was a land of property rights from the beginning. So “institutional change” does not explain the Industrial Revolution. The timing is wrong.”) Not the Scientific Revolution (“Britain did not lead in science — yet clearly did in technology.”)

More Not Causes involving conditions before 1500 across Eurasia:

Literary, artistic, and scientific flowering; Respect for learning; universities; Education of elite; Printing and paper; Compass; Clocks [but especially in Europe]; Monotheism [especially in Europe including Orthodoxy, and in Muslim world]; Peace and bourgeois prosperity [less in Europe]; Urbanization [less so in northern Europe]; (-? or +?) High death rates in cities; Competent bureaucracy [especially in China]; High seed/yield ratios [not in Europe, which did not have much rice, or any maize]; Investment capability [less so in Europe: see yield/seed ratio]; Wide long-distance trade [less so in Europe]; Slavery and its trade [especially in Middle East]; Wide and deep internal trade and markets; Good internal transportation, especially unimproved rivers, canals, and coastal ships; Temperate climate; (-) Onset of Little Ice Age (1300-1850) after climatic maximum before 1300; (-) Malaria; (-? or +?) The Plague; Desire for profit; Rule of law; Property rights; Money [in China even paper money]; Reasonably sophisticated financial institutions; High incomes in a few favored places; Coal widely used [China, India, Europe]

Even More Not Causes involving conditions after 1500 in Europe:

Protestant ethic; Thrift; Rise of rationality; Rise of greed; Spanish and Portuguese imperialism; The Price Revolution; Dutch, British, French trade (except as contributing to bourgeois dignity); Dutch, British, French imperialism; Slave trade; Rises in the rate of saving; Original accumulation of capital; Surplus value; reinvestment; Routine investment; Exploitation of the working class; Science (until around 1900); (-) Sustained high prestige of aristocracy and gentry; Routine transportation improvement (canals, harbors); English genetics; English social inheritance; Stuart missteps and taxation; The Glorious Revolution; institutional change.

What did cause it? … that’s for another post.

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Question: Why do Nations Fail?

Answer: Because they have extractive institutions, say Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

Political and economic institutions can be inclusive (democracy, wide private property) or extractive (autocracy, monopolies and rents for the elite).

True, nations can succeed temporarily with extractive institutions.

We emphasize that growth under extractive institutions is especially feasible, as in China today, when it can proceed rapidly by importing existing technologies from other economies. One of our central arguments is that inclusive institutions are necessary for sustained innovation, but import of technology can sometimes take place under extractive institutions.

We also go to pains to discuss how, when they feel threatened, rulers and elites in Ming and Qing China, the Ottoman Empire, and 19th-century Russia and Austria-Hungary have opposed the diffusion of technologies. The point we make is that innovation does require inclusive institutions but extractive institutions, though they sometimes allow the use of existing technologies, will often also block the import of technology because this too can be threatening to existing power-holders.

So, there can be extractive growth, for a while, but there will not be extractive innovation.

My take: This perspective if fine as far as it goes but, like all good ideas, raises more questions: What sets some countries on the inclusive path and others on the extractive? And how hard or easy is it to shift paths from one to the other? Is there some X factor that gives rise to both inclusivity and innovation or some Y factor that causes both exclusiveness in institutions and lack of innovation in wealth-generation?

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What is the West?

It’s a thorny problem but Philippe Nemo, a political philosopher, has an answer.

He says that five key episodes formed the West: (1) ancient Greece (reason, philosophy, education, democracy), (2) Rome (law, private property), (3) Christianity (linear idea of time, ethic of compassion), (4) the medieval papal revolution, and (5) the advent of modern liberalism in the 1700s and 1800s, particularly with the English, American, and French revolutions. The last, he thinks, were the most important: intellectual, political, and economic liberty now define what the West is.

So, the distinguishing feature of the West is liberalism, in the classic meaning of the term.

(Most French intellectuals who become influential in the English-speaking world are sworn foes of liberalism. Nemo is unusual. He openly admires the likes of Hayek and Popper.)

I am not entirely convinced.

Firstly, I would add another couple of key episodes to the list.

Second, I would not equate liberalism and the West. If the west is liberalism, would other civilizations that adopt liberalism thereby Westernize? Would the spread of liberalism mean there was no longer a distinctive West, just a universal civilization? If the West is defined by universal values, do its particularistic roots have no significance?

I think (classic) liberalism is one element of what the West is, but not the only feature. Also Nemo does not explain why the West (and particularly Northwest Europe, and especially England) pioneered liberalism.

Philippe Nemo, What Is the West? (Duquesne University Press, 2005).

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The Enigma of Gay Genes

The Left thinks homosexuality is biological. (It’s one of the few things the left reckons is biological.) The Right thinks is is learned. In this case, it looks like the left happens to be correct.

According to David Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education, homosexuality exists among other animals and across many human cultures. Within families it is less likely between adopted (unrelated) siblings than related siblings, and in turn more likely between twins. All these are good indications of it being innate or biological.

No “gay gene” has been found. That is not surprising since genes are usually like bricks: one brick does not make a wall. Also, there seem to be different sources of male homosexuality and lesbianism.

But explaining why it evolved is a real puzzle.

Barash lists a few hypotheses: that gays helped kin so increasing their fitness; that they aided their groups so increasing group selection. Not very convincing.

Maybe more likely is “sexually antagonistic selection”:

A fitness detriment when genes exist in one sex—say, gay males—could be more than compensated for by a fitness enhancement when they exist in another sex. … One study has found that female relatives of gay men have more children than do those of straight men.

But this only applies one-way, not to the male relatives of lesbians. So the origin of lesbianism is a mystery.

All this is treated at length in David P. Barash, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2012), which looks at the ever-fascinating topics of sex, art, and religion.


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