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May 03, 2012

The Fascinating World of Alternative Explanations

The graph embedded in this post from Mark J. Perry reminded me of some research I did a while back on the changing demographics of the American electorate. Perry's animated graph tracks changes in population distribution by age from 1950-2025. He comments:

Watch the U.S. "population distribution by age" change over time in 5-year intervals from 1950 to 2050 in the animated graphic above, from the Calculated Risk blog. At around the year 2035, the age distribution will make it obvious why the Social Security System is headed for insolvency.

I find these moving charts fascinating for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that they provide insight into the complex forces driving societal change. My earlier post dealt with aging and shifts in the sex ratio (the balance of males to females):

It's hard enough to balance legitimate competing interests without demonizing everyone who doesn't belong to the target demographic. But when we see someone try to pin every social problem on a single cause, we can't help thinking "confirmation bias". Of all the implications raised by the following chart (affordability of entitlements, changes to the tax base, effects on education, the housing market, marriage, and the labor market come to mind) one of the most interesting is the literal feminization of America:

United_States_Population_by_gender_1950-2010.gif

...The following chart tracks the overall sex ratio in America (past, present, and projected) over nearly two centuries:

As the population ages and the center of mass shifts from younger to older people, females begin to outnumber males. It's amusing to entertain the notion that perhaps some of the societal changes we're seeing are due to changes in the underlying demographic mix of society over time.

The end result may well be the same regardless of whether you believe it's all a wicked conspiracy (i.e., a tiny cabal of feminists swiped the collective corn flakes of the patriarchal hegemony whilst they sat rooted to their BarcoLoungers, transfixed by the scantily clad charms of the Dallas cheerleaders) or are willing to consider the possibility that more benign/organic forces may be at work as well (possibly, changing proportions of men and women in the general population?).

Nah... it's so much more fun to identify an Enemy and blame him (or her, depending on your political persuasion). Speaking of interesting alternative explanations, here's another one that examines the possibility that big government is a natural byproduct of technological advances:

Thanks to the half dozen people who sent me copies of Cowen's "Does Technology Drive the Growth of Government?" The paper's even better than I remember...
I start with what Gordon Tullock (1994) has called the paradox of government growth. Before the late nineteenth century, government was a very small percentage of gross domestic product in most Western countries, typically no more than five percent. In most cases this state of affairs had persisted for well over a century, often for many centuries. The twentieth century, however, saw the growth of governments, across the Western world, to forty or fifty percent of gross domestic product... I'd like to address the key question of why limited government and free markets have so fallen out of favor.

Cowen's paper, which I'm still digesting, is well worth your time. I've long believed that big government was an inevitable result of increasing population density. To me, it makes perfect sense that the closer people live to each other and the more they interact, the greater the need for laws and an infrastructure for enforcing them. When families live in relative isolation and are fairly self sufficient (think the family farm), relatively few forces bring them into conflict/competition with other human beings. An individual can, for instance, blast Megadeth CDs at earsplitting volume or play strip poker with the sheep and one's neighbors will be ne'er the wiser.

Transport the same families to cities where they live in apartments, specialize, and participate in an economy that is highly interdependent, and the opportunities for conflict - as well as the impact one person's acts have on another - grow exponentially. Is it really any wonder that government has mushroomed too?

Cowen's paper takes on various theories that purport to explain government growth before pointing out something that meshes well with our discussion about the likelihood of a transformative, re-aligning election. Given that politicians are well known for saying whatever they think will get them elected, how likely is it that we've had big government foisted upon us by malignant forces who hate Amerikka, freedom, and cute puppies? Is it possible that the problem really is us?

No matter how incomplete it may be, there clearly must be something to the voter hypothesis. That is, there must be some demand for big government. If all or most voters, circa 2009, wanted their government to be five percent of gross domestic product, some candidate would run on that platform and win. Change might prove difficult to accomplish, but we would at least observe politicians staking out that position as a rhetorical high ground. In today's world we do not observe this. Voter preferences for intervention are therefore a necessary condition for sustained large government. Democratic government cannot grow large, and stay large, against the express wishes of a substantial majority of the population.

How we change these wishes - or whether such change is even possible given other forces pushing us in the direction of steadily increasing government intervention - is a different question.

What fascinates me in all of this is just how much of what we think of as human nature, may in fact be a complex interaction between human tendencies that are far more mutable than we think them to be and culture, affluence, education, population density....

... and a small but determined cohort of radical, man hating feminists who, despite being stupid, ugly, and incompetent have somehow managed to control every facet of American life over the past 50 or so years.

Posted by Cassandra at May 3, 2012 08:06 AM

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Comments

...when we see someone try to pin every social problem on a single cause, we can't help thinking "confirmation bias".

You confirmation bigot, you....

Without having read Cowen's paper (yet) a couple of alternative explanations jumped out at me, perhaps erroneously. ...the paradox of government growth. Before the late nineteenth century, government was a very small percentage of gross domestic product in most Western countries, typically no more than five percent. ... The twentieth century, however, saw the growth of governments, across the Western world, to forty or fifty percent of gross domestic product....

I wonder two things here: what was/is the per cent of GDP occupied by monarchist, or other fundamentally dictatorial, governments? The modern growth of government also coincides with growth of government power in individual and economic affairs in democracies. Is the growth in GDP per cent an outcome or a driver of that growth in power (assuming the two growths are connected at all)?

Finally, your graphs suggest an aging America, and this aging appears to correspond, roughly, with growth in our government. I wonder whether the two are connected by an aging population thinking it's decreasingly capable of seeing to its own ends and thinking, as a result, that it must depend increasingly on bigger government.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 3, 2012 11:56 AM

I wonder two things here: what was/is the per cent of GDP occupied by monarchist, or other fundamentally dictatorial, governments? The modern growth of government also coincides with growth of government power in individual and economic affairs in democracies. Is the growth in GDP per cent an outcome or a driver of that growth in power (assuming the two growths are connected at all)?

Here's another interesting question for you (and this, I realize, is heresy):

What's the relationship between government growth and GDP growth? Outcome, or driver?

I've long thought that part of the reason liberals and conservatives argue endlessly about whether government intervention is a good thing or not is that both sides oversimplify the relationship they're arguing for.

So liberals argue (though I suspect many don't really believe it) that government intervention as something of an unlimited good - the more government intervenes in our lives, the better off we'll be as a society.

And conservatives argue (though I suspect many don't really believe it) that freedom from government is an unlimited good - the more government stays out of our lives, the better off we'll be as a society.

It makes more sense to me that government intervention is beneficial up to a point, at which (like too much water or fertilizer) it kills the plant.

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at May 3, 2012 12:22 PM

...your graphs suggest an aging America, and this aging appears to correspond, roughly, with growth in our government. I wonder whether the two are connected by an aging population thinking it's decreasingly capable of seeing to its own ends and thinking, as a result, that it must depend increasingly on bigger government.

Eric, you ignorant slut :) Everyone knows big government is caused by single women who want the government to support the illegitimate progeny they plan to have someday.

For people who clearly don't take precautions or think about consequences, these folks sure are doing a lot of advance planning :p

Seriously, I attempted to say something similar at Grim's place a while back, but was jammed at work and didn't articulate it very well. It's not just the elderly - you also have adults who are raising their own children but are also worried how taking care of Granny will cut into their lifestyle.

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at May 3, 2012 12:35 PM

Speaking of how this growth started in the late 19th century, the big debate at that time was the institution of a progressive income tax (to pay for the expanding government that people wanted). It was backed chiefly by labor, but also by small farmers who were suffering from dropping agricultural prices.

In both cases, what was really at work was that the economy was destroying families. The industrialization of labor meant that people were moving to the cities, leaving behind the extended families that they could have relied upon for support in earlier times. The application of capital (like tractors) to farming meant that the supply of everything was increasing, so that it was harder to make a living if you didn't have access to capital goods on a large scale (a problem for family farms that continues today). This meant that the farmer could no longer support his family on what he could earn by honest sweat.

If this aging crisis follows the same form, we'll end up with Single Payer health care. In 1894, the Democratic party passed an unworkable and unconstitutional tax law that was challenged and defeated before the Supreme Court; but the crisis was lasting enough, and wide enough, that the response was an amendment to the Constitution that allowed for income taxes (and thus, practically, for the expanding government).

We could easily see the health care law defeated in court; but if there is no better solution to be had, we'll end up with a popular movement that demands free health care from the government. That there is no way to pay for this is not an obstacle, really; the government can dragoon people into the health care market. Doctors must provide services for whatever we are willing to pay; people who score at certain levels on mandatory standardized tests are required to go into medical school; and everyone must pay confiscatory taxes to support it.

The danger in that approach isn't just the loss of freedom, but the fact that we don't get at the real problem. The real problem is the same one that we had in the 1890s: the destruction of family structures. If we can solve that problem, we can reduce the role of government, restore liberty, and all the rest of the good things we need to do.

If we can't solve that problem, we're in trouble. Most people aren't going to starve to death for their principles. That's a pretty well-established fact of human history.

Posted by: Grim at May 3, 2012 01:10 PM

I would say technology is a huge driver in the growth of government. For example, consider just electricity generation and distribution. In 1900 there was virtually none, and today it's a transnational generation, and distribution system made up of multiple types that impinges on multiple interests.

The question then becomes how do you manage and integrate that system? It seems that people were comfortable with the idea that government should fulfill that role. Thus, as that system grew the government associated with it grew.

Some others to consider: food distribution; mass vaccinations, and general health care; interstate and international transportation; international trade.

Posted by: Allen at May 3, 2012 01:21 PM

I find animated graphs fascinating. Did anyone else notice that the population ages very much like an outline of Eric Cartman?
I's also like to see an animated chart illustrating, by age group, the amount of time men spend each month thinking about that "small but determined cohort of radical, man hating feminists who, despite being stupid, ugly, and incompetent have somehow managed to control every facet of American life over the past 50 or so years."

Oh wait, I've got one that'll work right here...

Posted by: spd rdr at May 3, 2012 01:21 PM

"spd, honey... what are you thinking?"

*running away*

Posted by: Angry, Man-Hating Feminazi - but then I repeat myownself at May 3, 2012 01:49 PM

We could easily see the health care law defeated in court; but if there is no better solution to be had, we'll end up with a popular movement that demands free health care from the government. That there is no way to pay for this is not an obstacle, really; the government can dragoon people into the health care market. Doctors must provide services for whatever we are willing to pay; people who score at certain levels on mandatory standardized tests are required to go into medical school; and everyone must pay confiscatory taxes to support it.

I often wonder whether passing health care is one of those lines that - once crossed - we can never reverse?

We passed Prohibition but when it became apparent that it wasn't working as planned, we changed things back. I would like to think that at some point the marginal utility of free health care would be outweighed by the loss of freedom, but you may well be right, Grim.

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at May 3, 2012 01:52 PM

What's the relationship between government growth and GDP growth? Outcome, or driver?

Yup--both sides of the question need to be explored. And the question of whether these two have no bearing at all, and it's something else driving the growth--other than aging, perhaps the laziness and loss of vigilance from success and wealth.

Eric, you ignorant slut

I am not ignorant.

For people who clearly don't take precautions or think about consequences, these folks sure are doing a lot of advance planning

A lazy man--or a preggers wanna-be--spends a lot of energy avoiding work.

...you also have adults who are raising their own children but are also worried how taking care of Granny will cut into their lifestyle.

There is that, but I suggest that the adults with children of their own who also worry about grandma are more focused on their children, and in any event, they tend to know that there's tomorrow. Grandma, however, knows that there is no tomorrow.

...the amount of time men spend each month thinking about that "small but determined cohort of radical, man hating feminists who....

I'd also like to see that broken out into categories: guys who've been dumped by their disrespectful girlfriends, guys who've been divorced by their uppity, money-grubbing wives, guys who can't get a girlfriend, and so on.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 3, 2012 02:06 PM

You guys never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Thank you, for the gift of your friendship and wit.

Posted by: Cass at May 3, 2012 02:22 PM

Sooo....let me get this straight.....you're not supposed to play strip poker with sheep while in the city...........why was that, again?
0>;~}

Posted by: Snarkammando at May 3, 2012 04:27 PM

"And conservatives argue (though I suspect many don't really believe it) that freedom from government is an unlimited good - the more government stays out of our lives, the better off we'll be as a society."
I'd put it differently: the less government does that can be done reasonably well by private institutions responding to individual incentives, the less collective prosperity will be siphoned off into either waste or unproductive behavior. That's just because, for whatever reason, resources get allocated more efficiently on average if the decisions about them are outsourced to a zillion free market participants than if they are centrally directed. I think it's funny that we take for granted that societies will work better politically if decisions are voted on by any many citizens as possible, but we can't seem to feel the same way about economic issues.

But as always, whenever I can see a strong need for rapid, coordinated responses to large-scale emergencies, I opt for local, state, or even federal government solutions. That makes many police-power and national defense issues a no-brainer, together with epidemics and natural disasters -- even many environmental threats, especially if they are subtle, long-term, and non-point-sourced. Healthcare and retirement planning, not so much.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 3, 2012 04:52 PM

...resources get allocated more efficiently on average if the decisions about them are outsourced to a zillion free market participants than if they are centrally directed.

I suggest that the outsourcing runs in the other direction: it's the government to which we individuals outsource our decision-making.

I can see a strong need for rapid, coordinated responses to large-scale....

Certainly in such situations, leadership (vis., a government) is highly useful. But a true leader does not usurp such authorities by retaining them after the emergency has passed.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 3, 2012 05:19 PM

Cass, I'm not a complete buy-in for the whole conspiracy schtick. But I do believe that the notion that there are NOT groups of people pushing the nation in certain directions -- some much more successfully than others -- is just as foolish as blaming everything ill upon them.

I'd also concur with the notion that women are more prone to try and "feel" the solution to problems and less likely to really apply critical thought the the problem-solving process. Yes, that's a generalization and, from what I've observed, does not apply to Cass, it does apply to a large percentage of women. This is significant given that shift in sex-ratios you've noted herein. It, along with, but not solely because of, modern media is a part of why a politician that "looks good" is more likely to be elected than one that "does good".

Posted by: IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States at May 3, 2012 05:53 PM

>>> For people who clearly don't take precautions or think about consequences, these folks sure are doing a lot of advance planning :p
LOL, Cass, you're not assuming a possible simbiotic relationship that might be at play here...

One class of eloi, one class of political morlocks who use the eloi to justify "enslaving" the rest of us to their purposes. The morlocks exercise the power, but the eloi vote for them, and take advantage of, the theft from the rest of us.

Not saying this is the case -- just that it would resolve your claims of improbability while still producing the defacto same result.

Posted by: IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States at May 3, 2012 05:57 PM

>>> Sooo....let me get this straight.....you're not supposed to play strip poker with sheep while in the city...........why was that, again?

Are you kidding? Have you TRIED to clean up sheep poo for an entire herd of sheep on the city street?

"Curb your sheep" is not a pretty sight!

And just DARE let your sheep graze anywhere (which is to say, everywhere) they have "keep off the grass" signs!!

Posted by: Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master at May 3, 2012 06:01 PM

>>> I'd put it differently: the less government does that can be done reasonably well by private institutions responding to individual incentives, the less collective prosperity will be siphoned off into either waste or unproductive behavior.

Yet another way to look at it is that all too many people think of government as the horse to pull the cart of society where the people want it to go.

I put it to you that governments make lousy horses....

No: industry is the horse.

Government should be the carrot-and-stick.

The first is large and powerful. The latter small and carefully applied.

Posted by: IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States at May 3, 2012 06:06 PM

All those comments (this is my first, after lurking in fascination for nearly a year), and no one said anything about the obvious change at about 1973.

Posted by: Roy at May 3, 2012 06:26 PM

Roe v. Wade? (I am guessing - I literally don't know what year that decision came down, but it seems plausible).

Posted by: Cass at May 3, 2012 06:43 PM

Sooo....let me get this straight.....you're not supposed to play strip poker with sheep while in the city...........why was that, again?

Are you kidding? Have you TRIED to clean up sheep poo for an entire herd of sheep on the city street?

I believe the good cops and sanitation corps in the Zuccotti Park district have some experience at that....

...I do believe that the notion that there are NOT groups of people pushing the nation in certain directions...is just as foolish....

You bet there are such groups. Two that come to mind are the liberals and the conservatives. That's not all bad.

...the notion that women are more prone to try and "feel" the solution to problems and less likely to really apply critical thought....

I wouldn't go that far. It comes perilously close to conflating intuition with...Ella?

Lots of sound results come from intuition. Intuition is what lets us make leaps of logic, and fill in the blanks later after discerning some areas in which to look that weren't apparent before the leap.

I'm not even convinced that women are more intuitive than men. That's a matter of socialization and training.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 3, 2012 06:47 PM

1973:

--The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Denmark entered the European Economic Community and started their long slide into the sovereignty of government over the people.

--Yom Kippur War, and Israel learned they weren't bullet proof.

--Watergate scandal, and Richard Nixon learned that he wasn't bullet proof.

--Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6–4, 6–4, 6–3, at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, and Riggs learned he wasn't bullet proof.

--Yankee Stadium closed for a two year renovation, during which they ruined the stadium by taking the monuments out of center field.

??

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 3, 2012 06:57 PM

Oh, and welcome Roy! :)

I hope this won't be the last time we hear from you!

Cass, I'm not a complete buy-in for the whole conspiracy schtick. But I do believe that the notion that there are NOT groups of people pushing the nation in certain directions -- some much more successfully than others -- is just as foolish as blaming everything ill upon them.

You'll get no argument from me on that score. What annoys me is people who focus like a laser beam on one group and then try to shoehorn (almost always with zero actual evidence) every news story into that same size 6 1/2 Manolo pump... err... narrative.

Do some feminists dislike and distrust men and want to see women get ahead... at their expense? Absolutely. But then there are LOTS of men - and worse, conservative men - who spout the same unthinking, morally bankrupt nonsense.

Liberal guys are (I think) afraid of feminists. Too many conservative guys let feminists turn their brains to mush. There's not a whole lot of critical thinking going on there.

I'd also concur with the notion that women are more prone to try and "feel" the solution to problems and less likely to really apply critical thought the the problem-solving process.

I don't agree with that one at all. Men are every bit as emotional (and often irrational) as women in my experience. But they define "emotion" as predominantly female emotions so when they get emotional and irrational - and I have seen a LOT of that over the years - it's different somehow.

I have seen men blow their stacks during meetings - completely lose it: yell, swear, berate people for no reason, get their feelings/pride hurt over things I have no problem taking in strike, blame things that are their fault on others, whine. So has my husband (and that's in the military!).

I have never yet seen a woman do that, yet I would never argue that that means it doesn't happen. For one thing, there just aren't as many women in meetings :)

Yes, that's a generalization and, from what I've observed, does not apply to Cass, it does apply to a large percentage of women.

Again, not sure I can agree. Women use more openly emotional language, in general. In general most men control their emotions more rigidly - and that's something I think women are learning to do, but not to the same degree as men do as a matter of course. But that doesn't mean emotion isn't driving the bus. I see men make emotional arguments all the time - it's just that they cloak them in a thick layer of post hoc rationalization that doesn't hold together :p

Now if you want to argue that women are more likely to be concerned for the poor/weak/helpless, I agree. I feel that way too. It's just that reasonable people can differ about the best solution for those kinds of problems.

This is significant given that shift in sex-ratios you've noted herein. It, along with, but not solely because of, modern media is a part of why a politician that "looks good" is more likely to be elected than one that "does good".

I don't blame that on emotion, but rather on laziness. How many people really bother to do their research about a candidate? I did, this election. Men hire women on looks all the time, so it's hard to buy that they're less affected. Men respect other men that are tall and good looking more than they do men who are shorter or not as handsome.

I think perhaps we notice what the opposite sex does more (and it bothers us more) because we don't understand them. I have always adored men, but I could easily come up with a list of 25 things men do that drive me absolutely, batsh** crazy.

Posted by: Cass at May 3, 2012 07:02 PM

OK, I just looked it up.

Roe was decided in 1973.

Posted by: DING DING DING!!! at May 3, 2012 07:05 PM

"I see men make emotional arguments all the time - it's just that they cloak them in a thick layer of post hoc rationalization that doesn't hold together :p"

*Shoulders slump, head hangs, drags club back towards cave for the night wondering if it was really that obvious*

Posted by: Neil Ander-Thal at May 3, 2012 07:44 PM

Now I'm mad, we men do not, I repeat, do not, do anything on an emotional basis. Wait a minute that didn't come out right. OK, now I'm P.O'd about it, because you made me do it. :)

You know, that's one of the things I love about horses; I put them trhough their paces tonight. They are mostly instinct/emotion, and the human must see them through it, and quell them with reason. It reinforces my own process of dealing with things.

Posted by: Allen at May 3, 2012 10:02 PM

"...size 6 1/2 Manolo pump..."

Ummm.....gonna stick with that?
Afterall, I have seen your feet....

*shucks and ducks out the door*
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at May 4, 2012 08:37 AM

Bupkis: Re the government as carrot-and-stick -- that's a popular way of thinking that I believe often goes too far. The free market makes tremendous and very effective use of widely dispersed carrots and sticks. Far too many people, in my view, want the government to "improve" on these by tweaking an incentive here and an incentive there. I'd prefer to see the government mostly use a stick to deter outright crime, and to coordinate where absolutely necessary. Otherwise I think incentives are better left to people and their private institutions.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 4, 2012 08:47 AM

Sorry that you had to look up Roe date, Cass.

Been saying since about '78 that Roe and OASDI headed for train wreck, since late '80s that somewhere in 2010s to 30s that wreck appear as imminent.

Even if there were no moral reasons to oppose Roe, there exist logical reasons.

Posted by: Roy at May 4, 2012 04:21 PM

I don't mind Googling things in the least - I learned something!

Posted by: Cassandra at May 5, 2012 07:53 AM

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