In a recent post, Science versus Ideology: Readers Comment on Ultrasociety, I encouraged comments from readers, both good and bad. Here’s one response.
In a blog post, titled rather alarmingly, Can we trust Peter Turchin?, Alex Guzey writes,
This is a short-ish critique of his book Ultrasociety. I’ll only cover its one paragraph, which, I hope to show you, is absolutely enough. The paragraph was taken from the 4th chapter titled “Cooperate to Compete”.
Here’s the offending paragraph:
Frederick Wiseman and Sangit Chatterjee sorted the Major League Baseball teams into four payroll classes, ranging from those with the biggest disparities to those with the smallest. Between 1992 and 2001, teams in the most equal class won an average of eight more games per season than those in the most unequal class.
Guzey then accuses me of massaging the Wiseman and Chatterjee results to suit my theory:
There are three data points: one that contradicts him (1985-1990), and two that support him (1991-1997 and 1998-2002). Turchin just ignores the first one and goes on to report the latter ones.
In fact, Guzey’s critique shows a misunderstanding of how statistics work. Here’s the relevant part from Table 3 of Wiseman and Chatterjee:
The results from 1985-1990 do not contradict the hypothesis that more equal teams win more games. The relatively more equal teams won (marginally) more games than the relatively unequal ones, but the relationship is weak and statistically not significant. What is more interesting and important is why the relationship becomes strong in the next two periods.
The reason is that during the 1980s there was very little disparity in pay within teams. The median Gini coefficient, measuring inequality of pay within teams, was only 0.36 in 1985 (as Figure 2 in Wiseman and Chatterjee shows). It increased during the next 10 years and reached a peak of 0.64 in 1995, then decreasing a little to 0.58 in 2002.
Note that the strongest effect inequality had on performance was during the second period, when it reached the peak. So we see a clear relationship: when overall levels of inequality are low, it’s irrelevant to performance. Beyond a certain threshold the more inequality you have, the stronger is its effect on performance.
Gini of 0.36 is pretty small, and corresponds to inequality in a country like Japan, while 0.58 characterizes highly unequal countries, like Honduras. In fact, my expectation would be that if the Gini fell much below 0.3, we would see more equal teams performing worse—because such overly equal distribution of rewards would be perceived as unfair.
I have dealt with the difference between inequality and unfair inequality in another recent post, Dimensions of Inequality.
Thus, I conclude that charges leveled by Guzey at me are unfounded.
According to Guzey’s site, he is a sophomore majoring in economics at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, the well-known bastion of neoliberalism in Russia. I am not terribly surprised that someone with this background would find the general message of Ultrasociety highly unpalatable. Several architects of the Russian economic collapse of the 1990s have found refuge in Higher School, and I have no difficulty imagining what they teach their students (see also Naked Self-Interest is a Recipe for Social Dissolution).