Society Evidence File

Nov18: New Social Information: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
“Be Afraid? Yes, But Don’t Overdo It” by Adam Garfinkle in The American Interest 29Oct18
Garfinkle provides a succinct summary of seven important sources of rising individual and group uncertainty and fear that are driving other social and political phenomena:

“A technology tsunami that is arguably unprecedented in nature and scope” that is “producing an accelerating cascade of eruptive discontinuities in social life affecting work and the economy more broadly, family structures, and political life.”

“Our politics have grown polarized and shrill, our military wins battles but not wars, and our political elites – of both major parties – have consistently made promises that fell short.”

“Terrorism has rattled us, starting with 9/11 but continuing through lesser forms of murder and mayhem ever since.”

“Broken families produce insecure children; kids who feel emotionally betrayed by those who are supposed to love and protect them often grow into insecure adults, replicating insecurity by often failing to form secure loving bonds.”

“Mean World Syndrome – research has demonstrated that people who watch a lot of commercial television and Hollywood shock flicks come to believe that violence, perversion, and plain evil are as plentiful in real life as they are in mass entertainment fiction.”

“There has been, arguably, too much immigration too fast into the United States to assimilate in a culture whose swoon in collective self-confidence has made local elites feel guilty about demanding assimilation.”

“Finally, since fear is ubiquitous, every civilization has devised ways to manage it. That has typically been accomplished in the context of religious culture. Dangers are easier to cope with when they are seen as something other than completely random and meaningless, when they are integrated into a shared narrative that makes a certain kind of emotional sense. When traditional religious templates erode, as they have in most Western societies in recent times, the frameworks that control the psycho-social impact of fear erode with them. They have been replaced, in a manner of speaking, with the pseudo-religion of the therapeutic, whose obsession with absolute security has only served to make nearly everyone more anxious, not less.”
Well-Being in Metrics and Policy” by Graham, et al
The paper reviews cumulative research findings on the correlates of self-reported well-being.

Findings about China were particularly interesting: “China is perhaps the most successful example of rapid growth and poverty reduction in modern history. GDP per capita increased fourfold between 1990 and 2005, and life expectancy increased from 67 to 73.5 years. Yet life satisfaction fell dramatically, and suicide increased, reaching one of the highest rates in the world. The unhappiest cohorts were educated workers in the private sector, who benefited from the growing economy but suffered from long working hours and lack of sleep and leisure time.”

This is yet another indicator of underlying domestic fragility in China.
“Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study”, by Twenge and Campbell
This indicator confirms other research that has reached similar conclusions. However, this research is based on a larger sample set than previous studies.

“After 1 hour/day of use, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological wellbeing, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks. Among 14- to 17-year-olds, high users of screens (7+ h/day vs. low users of 1 h/day) were more than twice as likely to ever have been diagnosed with depression, ever diagnosed with anxiety, treated by a mental health professional (RR 2.22, CI 1.62, 3.03) or have taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue in the last 12 months.

“Moderate use of screens (4 h/day) was also associated with lower psychological well-being.”

“Non-users and low users of screens generally did not differ in well-being. Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being were larger among adolescents than younger children.”

Going forward, the individual and social consequences of intensive personal technology use seem poised to become a much more contentious issue.
California Feudalism: The Squeeze on the Middle Class” by Kotkin and Toplansky from the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University
Kotkin and Toplansky have provided a very thought provoking analysis of the consequences of a particular mix of progressive policies in California.

“California has now taken on an increasingly feudal cast, with a small but growing group of the ultra-rich, a diminishing middle class, and a large, rising segment of the population that is in or near poverty. Indeed, amidst some of the greatest accumulations of wealth in history, California has emerged as a leader in poverty, particularly among its minority and immigrant populations and throughout its interior…

“Yet our state leaders, and too many of our business and civic leaders, are convinced that California, far from being something of a cautionary tale, offers a great “role model” for the rest of the country. The state’s drift towards an ever more unequal, feudalized society, characterized by concentrated property ownership, persistent poverty levels, and demographic stagnation does not seem to concern our Sacramento leadership.”

The authors describe how this situation has developed in California, and what could alter its present course.
The Genetics of University Success” by Smith-Woolley et al, in Scientific Reports, 18Oct18

See also, “What Does Genetic Research Tell Us About Equal Opportunity and Meritocracy?” by Robert Plomin in Quillette on 15Oct18

These studies are further indicators of the rapidly accumulating evidence that the impact of genetics on a wide range of life outcomes is significantly larger than previously thought. In the short term, these findings are very much at odds with both conservative and progressive ideologies, and are thus almost certain to be a source of rising conflict. Over the medium term, these genetic findings will also have substantial policy implications in many areas, not the least of which are education, health, and risk management.

“The difference in earnings between high school and university graduates is estimated at $1 million over the course of the lifetime. However, the difference in earnings varies by the type of university attended, as well as achievement at university.”

“Furthermore, the benefits associated with obtaining a university education extend beyond earnings, to include better health and wellbeing, higher rates of employment and even increased life expectancy.”

“Despite this, little is known about the causes and correlates of differences in university-level outcomes, including entrance into university, achievement at university and the quality of university attended. University success, which includes enrolment in and achievement at university, as well as quality of the university, have all been linked to later earnings, health and wellbeing. However, little is known about the causes and correlates of differences in university-level outcomes. Capitalizing on both quantitative and molecular genetic data, we perform the first genetically sensitive investigation of university success with a UK-representative sample of 3,000 genotyped individuals and 3,000 twin pairs.”

“Twin analyses indicate substantial additive genetic influence on university entrance exam achievement (57%), university enrolment (51%), university quality (57%) and university achievement (46%). We find that environmental effects tend to be non-shared, although the shared environment is substantial for university enrolment. Furthermore, using multivariate twin analysis, we show moderate to high genetic correlations between university success variables (0.27–0.76). Analyses using DNA alone also support genetic influence on university success. Indeed, a genome-wide polygenic score, derived from a 2016 genome-wide association study of years of education, predicts up to 5% of the variance in each university success variable”.
“These findings suggest young adults select and modify their educational experiences in part based on their genetic propensities and highlight the potential for DNA-based predictions of real-world outcomes, which will continue to increase in predictive power.”
Beyond Four Walls: A New Era of Life at Home” by Ikea
This report is another indicator of the extent of the social transformation underway in many societies, and in particular suggests further erosion of the family and home as fundamental social units.

“When we talk about what makes a home, we talk about four dimensions that are shared by everyone: space, place, relationships, and things. Five core emotional needs are connected with the home: privacy, security, comfort, ownership, and belonging. Belonging is the need least satisfied by our residential homes. Today, one in three people around the world say there are places they feel more at home than where they live.”
Oct18: New Social Information: Indicators and Surprises
Why Is This Information Valuable?
Experimental Evidence for Tipping Points in Social Convention” by Centola et al.

The authors study “an artificial system of social conventions in which human subjects interact to establish a new coordination equilibrium. The findings provide direct empirical demonstration
of the existence of a tipping point in the dynamics of changing social conventions.

When minority groups reached the critical mass—that is, the critical group size for initiating social change—they were consistently able to overturn the established behavior…Our theoretical predictions for the size of the critical mass were determined by two parameters: individual memory length (M) and population size (N)…When participants have shorter memories, the size of the critical mass is smaller. Even under the assumption
that people have very long memories, the predicted critical mass size remains well below 50% of the population,
indicating that critical mass dynamics may be possible even in systems with long histories.

Variations in population size were explored computationally were not found to significantly affect the predicted critical mass size.

Over all trials, populations with a critical mass equal to or greater than 25% of the population were significantly more likely to overturn the dominant convention than populations with a committed minority below 25%.”
This paper helps to refine our mental model the drivers of sharp changes in sentiment, expectations, and other forms of conventional wisdom in a range of areas, from economics to social values to politics.

An interesting question to ponder is whether the current environment of information overload, constant stimulation, and incessant demands for our limited attention has effectively shortened our memories, and thus reduced the percentage of people in a population who can trigger substantial change.
How Persistent are the Effects of Sentiment Shocks?” by Benhabib et al from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
The economic effects of negative sentiment shocks can persist for up to five years.
What to Do About Africa’s Dangerous Baby Boom” in the Economist.
“THE 21st century, in one way at least, will be African. In 1990 sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 16% of the world’s births. Because African birth rates are so much higher than elsewhere, the proportion has risen to 27% and is expected to hit 37% in 2050. About a decade later, more babies will be born in sub-Saharan Africa than in the whole of Asia, including India and China. These projections by the UN, if correct, are astounding (see article). There is good reason for the world to worry about Africa’s baby boom…The real problem is that too many babies sap economic development and make it harder to lift Africans out of poverty. In the world as a whole, the dependency ratio —the share of people under the age of 20 or older than 64, who are provided for by working-age people—stands at 74:100. In sub-Saharan Africa it is a staggering 129:100.

In stark contrast with most of the world, notably Asia, the number of extremely poor Africans is rising, in part because the highest birth rates are in the poorest parts of the continent.

This has clear implications for future economic migrant flows, and potentially for the emergence of more failed states in Africa, and thus refugee flows.
Workers with Low levels of Education Still Haven’t Recovered for the Great Recession”, by the Brookings Institution

Why Lots of Americans are Sour on the Economy” by Noah Smith, on Bloomberg
Clear implications for the potential social and political implications of another severe economic downturn, such as increased polarization and susceptibility to more extreme political solutions.

Applies to more countries than just the US – e.g., Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the rise of more extreme parties on the continent, which is matched by the lack of strong policy prescriptions and attractive political leaders in the center.

Smith notes that many members of the middle and upper middle class are increasingly frustrated, which magnifies the potential for social, political, and economic change.
The Collapse of Civilizations” by Malcolm Wiener, published by the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School
The author reviews the historical record and finds five recurring (and often interrelated) causes of civilizational collapse: (1) major episodes of climate change; (2) crisis-induced mass migrations; (3) pandemics; (4) dramatic advances in methods of warfare and transport; and (5) lack of societal resilience and the madness, incompetence, and ignorance of rulers.