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September 27, 2007


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My no doubt unsatisfying answer is "somewhere in-between". Falling back on my own moral code, I clearly don't worry as much about a random given U.S. citizen than about that small subgroup that happens to share my roof, surname, genes, etc. So, for instance, I'm not willing to invest as much in general education as in my kids' college funds.

That said, the prosperity of my fellow citizens is not of zero interest to me, either. Some are friends, many are similar to me, and even the ones that aren't benefit me to some extent through their own prosperity (zero-sum hierarchy games to the side.) So neither am I willing to completely cut-off funding for their education, even though efficiency won't be 100% due to people taking the investment and leaving, getting inappropriate education, failing, etc...

I guess the only way to answer that question is by asking another: how much does the US-Trini population consider themselves Trinidadian? Do they visit "home" a lot? Is there some benefit, in other words, to Trinidad from its overseas community?

Puerto Ricans go back a forth a lot, so whatever benefits "overseas" Puerto Ricans in the States probably benefits Puerto Rico itself. Puerto Rico does feel more like a family than like a business. Well -- clearly Puerto Rico is not a business. Ha. So by a process of elimination, it must be a family.

Does the same apply to T&T?

Michael: Trinis do visit home a lot. I also know of at least one high-powered former emigrant who is now working back on the island. But with 57 percent of every graduating class taking off every year, I don't think that the number of skilled returnees yet is significant.

In addition, Trini emigrants don't send a lot of money home, and they become U.S. citizens at a pretty high rate --- 48 percent after 10 years in-country and 75 percent after 20. Trinidad is one of those countries where its perfectly possible to feel both Trinidadian and American without it ever occuring to you that there might be a conflict, but I'm not sure whether that makes the eventual return of working people more likely or less likely. I tend to think less --- leaving Trinidad is more like leaving Alabama than it is like leaving Rio Grande do Sul.

What about money spent on trips home? That should get booked under tourism, which brought in $755m in 2005. How many of those were visiting relatives? As a percentage of expenditures, I have no idea, but as a percentage of visitors, the number who reported that they were "visiting friends or relatives" came to 29 percent of total visitors in that same year.

(Another British thing about T&T: good statistics.)

I suspect that family visitors spent less than leisure tourists or business travellers, but lets call it $219m. Add that to the remittances, and you get a maximum direct benefit from the expats of $291m. Not nothing, but not a great return on the expense of educating them either --- about $800 per emigrant per year.

So while there is a lot of travel back-and-forth, there doesn't yet seem to be a lot of concrete economic spillovers from the emigrants. That might change, of course.

Or I might be missing a channel. Are there other ways besides returnees, visits, and remittances in which having a big emigrant population might help the mother country?

Bernard: I read what you wrote, but I'd like to ask for some clarification.

What you wrote implied that once you move beyond the circle of people that you know personally, you care more about the well-being of white Cuban-American males than about the rest of the citizenry.

You also implied that by the time a citizen is no longer similar to you, you no longer have any emotional stake in their prosperity. More concretely, you implied that you get little to no satisfaction out of learning that a (say) devoutly Muslim dark-skinned female Bangladeshi-American in Texas who barely speaks English has done well in America, as opposed to (say) a Cuban-American white guy from New Jersey.

I honestly don't think that this is what you intended to communicate, which is why I am pointing out that you may not always realize the way in which you phrase arguments implies rather awful attitudes (that you don't hold) by the prevailing Blue State standard of what it means to be an American patriot. My past SOP would have been to fly off the handle in righteous anger.

I do, of course, take your true point: which is that you feel an emotional connection to your fellow citizens, but not as deep a one as if they were part of your actual genetic family. That's pretty universal: while I'm happy to pay for your grandfather's Medicare and Social Security, he ain't getting any more from me no matter how much he needs it, whereas my own father most certainly would.


My view is certainly more complex than the simple one you illustrated at the top of your reply, and my apologies to you or anybody who took it that way. I think there's a point here worth exploring, though.

I _would_ argue that there's a gradient in how people treat each other even outside of the immediate family.

Practical Similarity: A family flooded out of their home in New Jersey has a much higher chance of impacting me than an equivalent family in New Mexico; better chance that I know them, that somebody I know knows them, that I run into one of them at a supermarket or a clinic or school or what have you. If their kid fails out of school and ends up a net negative to everybody around him, I'm more likely to bear the cost. Etc.

Psychological Similarity: Empathy requires that you believe (rightly or wrongly) that the subject interprets things and feels them in a way similar to the way you do, at least to some degree. The more you identify, the easier it is to take on the other persona and want to fork over. What drives that feeling of similarity or how it operates is not entirely clear to me, but I can see it being impacted by shared beliefs, goals, jobs, roles, etc.

That definitely isn't to say that "by the time a citizen is no longer similar to you, you no longer have any emotional stake in their prosperity." Like I said, "similarity" is still something I'm working on defining in rigorous fashion. For instance, your hypothetical Bangladeshi Texan fem of color, by mere dint of having done well here, signals that she is probably similar to me in ways that I find important. Not family-important, but not meaningless. The color, sex and former national background are trivial.

And generally there are few fellow citizens that I'd say I have _no_ emotional stake in. Varying, yes, but I don't think I'm saying something too remarkable there.

Ok, now you can return to SOP. :^)

Your concept of similarity is something of a luxury, Bernard. High information, gentle gradients, compact spaces. Doesn't work so well out at the edges.

Hmnn. There are a couple of ways I can interpret "luxury" in this context. Do you mean in an Occam's Razor sense of being non-parsimonious or in the sense of low predictive bang-for-the-buck?

Both, and also in a personal sense. To math-ize it, it sounds like you're viewing populations as points smoothly distributed in a high-dimensional social space, and similarity as some sort of well-ordered distance-like function. And since it's a truism that people model what they know, I'm going to guess that your life and your experiences have fit that model pretty well? correct me if I'm wrong.

But someone on the margin -- the periphery, the far right/left of the Gaussian curve, what have you -- might see social space as vastly heterogeneous, and social relations as poorly ordered. They don't have the luxury of being centered in a population. For purely selfish reasons, perhaps, they might want a more inclusive concept of mutual stakehood. Or perhaps for other reasons.

(I should note that I don't *believe* in this sort of mathematical analysis. The math only exists to keep our thinking straight. It's a heuristic, a learning tool. It doesn't represent reality; it only reflects it, and often poorly. If the math comes up with something counterintuitive, it doesn't mean we should start slavishly following the math. After all, how many people have died in the last two hundred years because someone thought people weren't fitting the model well enough? Left, right, center; libertarian and statist. Anyway.)

Ok, gotcha.

I'd reply that I'm not aiming for a normative model here, but rather a descriptive one. If the model leads to something counter-intuitive, I'd look for the result in actual behavior and modify the model if it isn't there, not try to modify behavior to suit.

With regards to "populations as points smoothly distributed in a high-dimensional social space, and similarity as some sort of well-ordered distance-like function", the short answer is yes.

I see your point about how somebody in a cluster on the periphery wouldn't have the same interactive opportunities as somebody well-centered with relation to the population, but I'd raise a few other points.

First, as noted, this is descriptive and by definition centered on the "somebody" in question. My claim would be that somebody isolated from most of the distribution in a lot of different dimensions won't feel particular empathy for the general population in the first place. They might well want a more inclusive definition of state (or some other grouping) for practical reasons, but the empathy won't be there. The feelings or lack thereof should be mutual, so to speak.

Second, keep in mind that we are talking about a high-dimensional space. Lack of congruence along several dimensions doesn't mean isolation on all of them. If a given cluster really is isolated on many levels, isn't that heading in the direction of a separate "in-group" anyway?

Finally, your point that models are only models is well taken and I accept it fully. That doesn't invalidate model-building, though.


Apologies for the thread-jacking. I tossed out one possible answer to the question you posed, but I certainly didn't mean to steer the conversation exclusively towards my pet theory.


Um. Bernard, you know, by many measures, I'm pretty much a demographic of one? It makes personal ads just that much more interesting. And yet, I seem to have this thing called "empathy", go figure.

More seriously, you really should read some of the network sociologists. Randall Collins is a good place to start (although he has a bad case of physics envy, a minus in my book, although in yours, it might be a plus). I think you might find a better formulation in terms of shared interaction chains.

Getting back to Noel's idea, I'm a little worried that it's a false (but thought-provoking) dichotomy. What is a nation's interest, anyway?

"Bernard, you know, by many measures, I'm pretty much a demographic of one?"

You exaggerate! I've had beers with you and you're not that bizarre. Apart from the voice thing....

I'll be sure to check out Collins; thanks for the tip.

As Carlos and Bernard both said, there is a difference between the normative and the positive.

Bernard is making a positive statement: "People are more empathic towards people that /they believe/ to be more similar to them."

Carlos is making three statements, two positive, one normative.

First, in the positive sense, Bernard's idea is only true under certain conditions which probably do not hold for a significant proportion of the American population ... and which are rejected as immoral (even if their actions belie this) by a majority of the U.S. population.

Bernard would agree with that, it seems to me.

Second, "similarity" is a supercomplex and contingent idea. Bernard and I would probably be seen as very similar to a non-American observer. My friend Scott James and myself would be seen as less similar by most foreign observers. (You know, different religions, different regional origins, him having ancestors in this country for like centuries more than mine, different skin colors, all that good stuff.) American ones would probably see things otherwise, and Northeastern ones would certainly see things otherwise. (I am in fact referring to superficial and rather quickly obvious similarities, not worth explaining here. I am not referring to ineffable or unexplainable characteristics.)

In other words, "similarity" is a supercomplex and contingent idea, which can rapidly lose its conceptual usefulness.

I don't think Bernard would disagree with that either.

(Carlos, Scott is the guy who thought that "Huxtability" has serious legs and cracked up when you said, "They can pass!" about the TV star and movie stars who will remain unnamed by me.)

Third, in the normative sense, inasmuch as the idea is true, it is a pernicious one from which little good flows, at least for anyone concerned with the long-term well-being of the inhabitants of a wide east-west band along the northern portion of the American continent. (Or as more commonly known, the United States.)

To be honest, I think Bernard would also agree with that. His statements on this thread certainly imply as much.

Which isn't to say that we're all singing kumbayah. We're Americans in the Age of Bush. It's amazing we haven't started shooting years ago. No, it simply seems to me that there is a surfeit of agreement on both the facts behind and the implications of the statement that, "People are more empathic towards people that /they believe/ to be more similar to them."

The interchange is not a hijacking of the discussion at all, because it's really raised the two key issues behind my post.

What is a nation?

Given the answer to the former, what are a nation's interests?

I will stand slack-jawed if our readers have nothing to say about those two questions.

Oh, and ain't Queens Village pretty? C'mon people. Props to Queens Village!! Just like Hollis, only without the fame.

"What is a nation?"

Okay, I myself don't believe it to be nearly as difficult as the various nation-builders have made it up to be.

For one example, assuming that we'd be middle-to-upper-class Finns living at the time of the fin-de-siècle, we'd have a very essentialist view of the concept of "nation". Basically, to us, "nation" would imply an ideal which is only imperfectly reflected in the actual reality of the existing Finnish nation. In order to reach this higher culmination of the Finnish nation and make the reality to match the ideal of the _volksgeist_ (... which, at least until 1918, they believed would be possible...) we'd have to subscribe to all sorts of "patriotic" norms defined by the elite.

Voluntary adoption of Finnish as the first language. Lutheran ethics. Social gospel. Constitutionalism. Whatever.

... actually, the basic framework hasn't changed at all; the cultural and political elites of today still continue to hold this very same essentialist view of what a nation is and what it _should be_. The norms have changed, but the same demand for conformity is still there.

But of course, this is all complete crap.

The fact is that a "nation" is a biological entity - basically, an abstraction made out of reality. This view contains variation, evolution, drift, everything which is part of the development of any nation, never mind how artificially created or maintained. At the end of the day, the laws of the nature will always step in. By the same token, the interests of any nation are inevitably the same as those of any individual or a larger population; to retain its existence.

It's a family, but it functions like a business.

Just to make my addition to Bernard's comments, my model of thinking is pretty much opposite to that of his. I have family members and relatives of whom I don't give a rat's ass about. I donate blood on regular basis for people whom I've never met and never will, but there are close relatives to whom I wouldn't loan even a small amount of money.

Still, I have some close friends for whom I would be willing to make very significant sacrifices. A few of them are foreigners, whom I regard as fellow citizens simply based on their choice to pick this country as their place of residence.

If this sounds confused, I can clarify it further, but not today.


J. J.

I think I've mentioned it before, but there's an ad running on NYC buses for Jack Daniel's. It reads simply, "Somos Todos Americanos".

There are worse forms of national identity.

My take is, if you're crazy enough to want to be here, you should probably get the label.

A minor mathematical point to Bernard: a big reason I don't believe in high-dimensional cluster models as a rule is because higher dimensions are extremely empty compared to the objects of our intuition. For instance, the volume of a unit sphere tops out at the 4-sphere (which is 5-dimensional, don't ask), and rapidly declines towards zero thereafter (because factorials beat exponentials, I know you didn't ask).

Basically, with the number of independent variables I suspect you're thinking about, everyone is a monad.

Carlos, I owe you and Noel a couple of replies, and I'd like to toss one over to Jussi, too. Alas, duty, my employers and Stewart Airport call. I'll try and post during my stop-over in Atlanta.

Noel: "Oh, and ain't Queens Village pretty? C'mon people. Props to Queens Village!!"

Considering, alas, having never set foot in such an exotic locale as Queens County and all I really know is what I have seen on that there teevee; my first reaction to the picture was

"What's Johnny Drama doing on the set of "All in the Family"?

"And you knew where you were then.
Girls were girls and men were men."

Johnny Drama. The sad thing is that I see it. I completely see it.


It is so completely, utterly different from Rego Park, I am gobsmacked.

BTW, my best student is Trinidadian, and a great kid he is too.

Queens is large, NYMCT. It contains multitudes.

I am not at all surprised that your best student is Trinidadian. What school do you teach at, if you don't mind me asking?

The old Charles Evans Hughes. 78M440. BREC. Humanities.

Isn't that in Manhattan? Not that there's anything wrong with Manhattan.

I've always wondered: how long do you have to be there before you have any say in what school you work in?

(Comment of post)

A remittance economy, or a migration-dependent economy (not exactly the same thing, but usually close) isn't the ideal model of development. Would you rather have Ireland from 1840 to 1990, or Ireland today? I'm sure the Keralans in Dubai and the Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray would have a clear preference.

ObCanadianFolkSong: Stan Rogers, The Idiot.

I remember back six years ago, this western life I chose
And every day, the news would say some factory's going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole, but I'm not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me an idiot, I suppose

So I bid farewell to the eastern town I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust and breathe refinery
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams and I don't like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me an idiot I suppose

So come all you fine young fellows who've been beaten to the ground
This western life's no paradise, but it's better than lying down
Oh, the streets aren't clean, and there's nothing green, and the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul back there in your hometown


I could transfer at will, now that I have tenure. Of course, it's an open market transfer system. Transferring before tenure resets the tenure clock (3 years)

The commute ain't bad, and it's not nearly as bad this year as I expected it to be.

"So, is a country more like a business or a family?"

Two thoughts.

1. There are two ways to understand the question. What I first thought it meant was "Should a country do what is best for its citizens, even if it isn't for the best of the institutionalized government of that country?" What you have been discussing, however, is "Which is a better model for a country, a geographically based community (and the ways of life that predominate there, and the institutions that support those ways of life) or an ethnic group?"

To be concrete, Israel or Canada?

(On a related note, do Trinidadians here see themselves more as an ethnic group, or as people from a particular place? Do Americans living abroad start to see themselves more as a people?)

2. In one of the Eastern European countries, encouraging more educated young people to leave than already are would be disasterous. On an island with high population density and lots of young people, it might be a win-win approach. Does that describe Trinidad?


David Allen

Oh, man, the bottom of the fifth hurt. Hurt bad.


David: three questions.

(1) I understood the comparison when you wrote, "Which is a better model for a country, a geographically based community (and the ways of life that predominate there, and the institutions that support those ways of life) or an ethnic group?" That does, I think, capture the spirit of the question in different terms. But then the Israel-Canada comparison lost me. Could you explain?

(2) "Do Americans living abroad start to see themselves more as a people?"

Don't we see ourselves as a people already at home?

A people and an ethnicity aren't the same. See (1) above. In fact, isn't "people" is a better word than "ethnic group"? It captures the spirit without the ancilliary meanings of "ethnicity," something particularly relevant for multi-ethnic countries like Trinidad. Trinidadians share an identity, a "peoplehood," even in the United States, but not an ethnicity. (Although it is a relatively weak identity, as these things go.) Ditto Americans, at home or abroad --- leastways so it seems to me. What am I missing?

(3) "In one of the Eastern European countries, encouraging more educated young people to leave than already are would be disasterous. On an island with high population density and lots of young people, it might be a win-win approach."

Would you mind explaining why?

Man, this f--kin' game is melting down. 10-3 in the bottom of the sixth. Sweet Mary!

"The Israel-Canada comparison lost me. Could you explain?"

I started out trying to think of examples of countries acting like businesses or citizens WRT their citizens. "Business" didn't work as a model for me and "geographically based community" was substituted. I might have missed something.

Canada seems like a good example of community based citizenship, and an example that Americans can discuss with less emotion than America. As I understand it, at bottom if you're not a Canadian and you want to be, you become one by going there, learning how things are done there and participating, and putting down roots and demonstrating loyalties. It's like becoming a New Yorker with added levels of legalities.

When I think of countries acting like families, what comes to mind is the State of Israel and Beta Israel, the Jews of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Jews didn't come from Israel, didn't look like a lot of Israelis, didn't speak the language, and did things differently. But they were family, so when they were threatened by persecution and famine the Israelis busted their butts to get them out of there.

The good of the family trumped the good of the community.

"Don't we see ourselves as a people already at home? A people and an ethnicity aren't the same."

You're right, "ethnic group" is not the best way to say "family writ large". Clan or tribe would be better. However, I'd say that there is more than one way to be a people.

One of the ways in which I might be wrong, however, is by generalizing from limited experience. The fact that my neighbors and I are all Americans isn't very salient when you live in the Midwest. So I'm asking people who've lived abroad more what happens when the Americans or the Trinidadians are a minority in the community.

(Emigration from Trinidad as a win-win.)

From my limited understanding of demography, having a population with lots of educated young people in an economy which doesn't have enough good opportunities for all of them may lead to problems like crime and social unrest, especially if they're packed in a small area. Facilitating emigration might be good for the emigrees because they have a chance of doing better abroad and good for those who stay at home because they face less competition for just about everything.

Most of the demographic op-eding I've read over the past few years neglects that possibility, because it focuses on the coutries that are in almost the opposite situation.

So, Jussi, Bernard, everyone, you forget about this thread? I'm interested.

David: okay, I got it. There are two implicit assumptions here, I think. The first is that Trinidad is overpopulated; the second is that Trinidad lacks job opportunities for educated people.

The first isn't true. The island's population density is only 645 people per square-mile. Of course, much of the island is unpopulated, but the western suburbs of Port-of-Spain only reach 2,900 per square-mile and the eastern ones 1,850. Meanwhile, while the island imported about $2.5 bn in food products, it also exported $1.5 bn, and it could feed itself if there was any reason to. (FWIW, restaurants and hotels in T&T source 95% of their food and beverage consumption locally.)

Which brings us the second point: the reason why Trinidad imports food isn't because it couldn't grow more than enough to feed its population; it's because there are more and better job opportunities in other things. Like the oil industry, but also finance, medicine, information technology, and tourism management. Trinidad's economy has problems, especially regarding a recent rise in inflation, but it isn't one of the truly malfunctioning parts of the world anymore.

Emigration does raise wages for those left behind, at least in a functioning economy like Trinidad's. (There are countless places around the world with economies broken enough to prevent that from happening.)

The problem, though is that if you believe that those educated people provide benefits above and beyond what they capture in their wages (which they almost certainly do, except at the very margin) then losing them implies a lower standard-of-living for everyone else. This is compounded if tax dollars subsidized the emigrants' education.

(Trinidad has a crime problem; college-educated people aren't committing them. I'll try to say something intelligible about the island's crime problem in a later post.)

Mexico has a clever way of preventing the brain drain --- scholarships turn into loans if the student leaves the country, and families are required to pledge collateral on the grants. This doesn't keep very poor scholarship students from leaving, but since most of the college-educated are not from the ranks of the very poor, it does slow the brain drain.

Of course, Mexico's skills shortages aren't really at the higher end of the skills distribution but much further down, a problem much less advanced in Trinidad.

Enough rambling. Must get back to work.

"Forget"? I said my piece. No feedback.

I could, of course, post a continuation where the main thesis would be something on the level of "Bernard is just plain wrong, and mildly offensive", but you've had those before.

"Empathy requires that you believe that the subject interprets things and feels them in a way similar to the way you do, at least to some degree. The more you identify, the easier it is to take on the other persona and want to fork over." Pffft.

On the other hand, I suppose that this should be seen as the quintessentially American definition of "empathy". Very particularist; as usual, in spite of all the declarations of common interest, it's the group identification that trumps everything.

In my book, the definition of "empathy" is that one is able to overcome such mundane distinctions, relate to the differences and fork over nonetheless.


J. J.

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