On a piece of bad reasoning about race and class

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2020

Most people interested in thinking about inequality, will have come across the dry and sarcastic saying from Anatole France that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” France shows us how the reality of class, economic inequality, makes a mockery of equality before the law because of the different real-life effects of the same law.

Now why is sleeping under bridges bad? Well, presumably, it is bad because it makes you more vulnerable to certain harms: exposure to the cold, or being beaten up by gangs of strangers. We can imagine a kind of objection to Anatole France, albeit a very obviously silly one. It would go like this: the thing we should really be concerned about is the harms that people are exposed to. And when we investigate we find no difference in those harms between rich people who sleep under bridges and poor people who sleep under bridges. (We can assume that a few rich people, inebriated after a night at their club, end up under bridges too). According to the silly objection, what we should concentrate on is the group of people who sleep under bridges: there’s a perfect match between membership of this group and those who suffer the harms, whereas it turns out that lots of poor people, because they never sleep under bridges, are not at risk of such harms.

It is a silly objection, and obviously so. And yet we come across something very similar in form in many arguments about race and class. There are harms reliably associated with low socio-economic status and those harms fall on people regardless of their race. Kerching! – it is claimed – race doesn’t matter in the explanation of those harms! But obviously, if being black increases your relative propensity of being sorted into a poor working-class group that is exposed to such harms, and if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted, then race is actually a big part of the picture. Showing that, of those who are in a category that is strongly pre-selected for by race, harms were not associated with race, does not lead to the valid conclusion that those harms are not associated with race.

Where do you get your ideas?

by John Q on August 28, 2020

The most memorable answer to this question came from science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who said “Poughkeepsie” (on checking Wikipedia, I learn that he died a couple of years ago).

But in the context of discussions about remote work, I’m interested in the claim that random physical meetings (the archetypal example being corridor or water-cooler encounters with colleagues) are an important source of ideas, and therefore a reason for not working remotely.

This seems to be the kind of topic for which the data will consist mostly of anecdotes and introspection. A marginal improvement is too look over my own list of publications to see if I can identify any where the source arose from some particular interaction.

Looking at my 100 most-cited papers in Google Scholar, most collaborations are the result of planning rather than chance. In pre-Internet days, most of my collaborations started from seminars and conferences I spoke at or attended because the topic was of interest, or else from direct approaches by a colleague, usually in the same department. From the early 1990s onwards, direct approaches mostly came by email, and work has often been done the same way. In several cases, I have written joint papers before ever meeting my co-author(s), though in other cases in-person collaboration with one or two co-authors works better.

More interesting to me, are the cases where the idea has come from blogging. Some notable examples

  • My Zombie Economics book. Starting with blog discussions, the idea for a book came from blog commenter Max Sawicky, and was picked up by Seth Ditchik at Princeton UP, who also commissioned Economics in Two Lessons and my current book-in-progress Economic Consequences of the Pandemic
  • Cross-disciplinary collaborations with Henry Farrell and LA Paul both arising from my involvement with Crooked Timber
  • This paper, which started with a comment on a blog post to the effect that “future generations” are in fact already alive (At least I think that’s how it happened. I could never locate the comment to acknowledge the source.)

It seems to me that that these are much more like the kind of serendipitous links that are supposed to be generated by water coolers.

Of course, academic research is a special kind of work, and I’m much more involved with the Internet than most of my colleagues (or, at least, a few years ahead of the general adoption trend). So, I’d be interested in anecdotes from others and links to actual research, if there is any.