From Joe Palazzolo at the WSJ:

There is no research yet on whether the use of risk evaluations in sentencing has aggravated, for example, the gap between sentences for black and white men for similar crimes.

Ms. Starr said the disparities created by risk measures are evident. “When it comes down to it, these assessments stand for the proposition that judges should sentence people longer because they were in foster care as children or had too many bouts of unemployment,” she said.

Christopher Slobogin, a Vanderbilt University law professor, said the alternative was potentially worse. “At least these risk-assessment instruments don’t explicitly focus on race or poverty, unlike what might occur in a sentencing regime where judges are making risk assessments based on seat-of-the-pants evaluations,” he said.

Some observers, such as U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Nebraska, say age or race should be considered if doing so yields a more accurate measurement of risk. He wrote in a blog post last month: “If race, gender or age are predictive as validated by good empirical analysis, and we truly care about public safety while at the same time depopulating our prisons, why wouldn’t a rational sentencing system freely use race, gender or age as predictor of future criminality?”

There is more here.

I say yes.  A number of you have been asking me for comments on this now-famous Atlantic piece by Ezekiel Emanuel.  You should read his whole argument, but here is one bit:

…here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Ezekiel basically wishes not to live beyond age 75.  Not that he will do himself in, but he regards that as a limit past which it is probably not desirable to go.  Just to be clear, I don’t read Emanuel as wishing to impose or even “nudge” this view on others, he is stating a personal vision.  Still, it strikes me as a somewhat strange approach to understanding the value of a life or estimating when that value ends.  The value of an individual life is to be sure somewhat ineffable, but for that same reason it is difficult for a life to lose so much of its value.

It is easy for me to see how a person could be a valuable role model for others past the age of seventy-five.  I expect Ezekiel in particular to fulfill this function superbly.  I still think frequently of the late Marvin Becker, the Princeton (later UM) Renaissance historian, who for me was an important role model at the age of seventy-seven.  Marvin often used to say “Oh, to be seventy again!”  He had more than his share of aches and pains, but he was always a comfort and joy to his wife Betty, and most likely to his children and grandchildren as well.

Or visit the list of words in Emanuel’s paragraph, cited above.  Many people are “disabled” to begin with, and many other lives are “deprived” to begin with, for one thing most of the lives in the world’s poorer countries.   But they are still, on the whole, extremely valuable lives.  I don’t just mean that external parties should respect the rights and lives of those persons, but rather internally and individually those lives are of great value.

To pick another word from that paragraph, “creativity” is overrated and most of us do not have it in the first place.  And if one does have it, perhaps its passing is in some ways a liberation rather than a personal tragedy.

I would rather be remembered as “that really old guy who hung on forever because he loved life so much” than as vibrant.  At some points I felt this piece needed a…marginal revolution.

And to sound petty for a moment, I don’t want to pass away during the opening moments of a Carlsen-Caruana match, or before an NBA season has finished (well, it depends on the season), or before the final volumes of Knausgaard are translated into English.  And this is a never-ending supply.  The world is a fascinating place and I fully expect to appreciate it at the age of eighty, albeit with some faculties less sharp.  What if the Fermi Paradox is resolved, or a good theory of quantum gravity developed?  What else might be worth waiting for?

I cannot help but feel that Emanuel is overrating some key aspects of what are supposed to be making his current life valuable, and thus undervaluing his future life past age seventy-five.  (See David Henderson too on that point.)

It was Dan Quisenberry who once said: “The future is much like the present, only longer.”

More to the point, and coming from the marginalist camp, there is Art Buchwald, who noted: “Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.”

Jeremy Waldron on Nudge

by on September 23, 2014 at 11:08 am in Books, Education, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

Waldron is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is one bit from his NYRoB essay:

More reassuring, I think, would be a candid assessment of what might go wrong with nudging. One of Sunstein’s many books (from before his time in the White House) is entitled Worst-Case Scenarios. Could we please have something like that as a companion to Nudge?

I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused.

The full piece is here.  By the way, there is a new Cass Sunstein book out, which I have not yet read, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State.

The Twitter pointer is from Michael Clemens.

In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers had reached 49 percent and 33 percent. Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

And this:

To test for political prejudice, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. They found people’s political bias to be much larger than their racial bias. When Democrats see “joy,” it’s much easier for them to click on a corner that says “Democratic” and “good” than on one that says “Republican” and “good.”

To find out whether such attitudes predict behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of these resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race mattered. African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73 percent to 27 percent. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin. But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80 percent of the time.

That is from Cass Sunstein.

This is the new and fantastic book by Arthur M. Melzer and the subtitle is The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.  It is the best book I know on esoteric writing and its history and furthermore it is clear and to the point!  (I think)

Melzer starts his chapter eight with this quotation from John Toland’s eighteenth century Pantheisticon:

[Esotericism is] practiced not by the Ancients alone; for to declare the Truth, it is more in Use among the Moderns.

Here is another bit from the book:

To begin with, we need an author who, in his interpretations, is willing to follow the very un-Straussian injunction — often found on mathematics exams — “show all work.”  We need to see, once or twice, how the sausage is made.  The best writing for this purpose that I am familiar with comes from an appropriately un-Straussian source: Stanley Fish.  His “Georgics of the Mind: The Experience of Bacon’s Essays” is a brilliant and nuanced exercise in textual analysis that openly displays, at every stage of Fish’s encounter with the text, what he thinks and why he thinks it.

…Another excellent and highly communicative reader…is Robert Connor.  His Thucydides is a very sensitive reading of Thucydides’s great history, a reading openly arrived at and clearly conveyed.  In conjunction with this, one should also read Clifford Orwin’s superb The Humanity of Thucydides.


I wrote this in 2004 on MR:

Here are my suggestions:

1. There is always time to do more, most people, even the productive, have a day that is at least forty percent slack.

2. Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you.  Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate.  Don’t make exceptions.  The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

3. Some tasks (drawing up outlines?) expand or contract to fill the time you give them.  Shove all these into times when you are pressed to do something else very soon.

4. Each day stop writing just a bit before you have said everything you want to.  Better to approach your next writing day “hungry” than to feel “written out.”  Your biggest enemy is a day spent not writing, not a day spent writing too little.

5. Blogging builds up good work habits; the deadline is always “now.”

Rahul R. asks me if I would like to revise the list.  I’ll add these:

6. Don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t take drugs.

7. At any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis.

8. Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to.  I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist.

I think I would take back my old #5, since I observe some bloggers who have gone years, ten years in fact, without being so productive.

What I’ve been reading

by on September 8, 2014 at 12:23 pm in Books, Philosophy | Permalink

1. Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.  A genuinely interesting book about why someone with tenure at Harvard might be crazy enough to run for high public office, and then what it is like to lose somewhat ignominiously.

2. Ha-Joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide.  A genuinely humble and pluralistic introduction to the economic way of thinking, from a “developmentalist,” linkages are important for economic growth, anti-free trade point of view.

I disagree with both Ignatieff and Chang pretty thoroughly, but of the last few dozen books I read, these are the two which are truly philosophical, in the best sense of that word.  There is no need to list the others, except there is Umberto Eco on Peanuts, scroll down about four paragraphs to start reading.

Very good sentences

by on September 6, 2014 at 9:39 pm in Current Affairs, Philosophy, Religion | Permalink

The point is that as a society changes, as what’s held sacred and who’s empowered shifts, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.

So don’t expect tomorrow’s predators to look like yesterday’s. Don’t expect them to look like the figures your ideology or philosophy or faith would lead you to associate with exploitation.

Expect them, instead, to look like the people whom you yourself would be most likely to respect, most afraid to challenge publicly, or least eager to vilify and hate.

Because your assumptions and pieties are evil’s best opportunity, and your conventional wisdom is what’s most likely to condemn victims to their fate.

That is from Ross Douthat, on the general lessons of Rotherham.

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg

by on August 19, 2014 at 2:16 am in Medicine, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Or should that title read “Is Neil Harbisson a cyborg?”

Protruding from the back of Harbisson’s skull is a metal antenna that allows him to convert the frequencies for color into frequencies for sound and vice versa. He was born colorblind and the appendage has essentially given him a sixth sense to make up for what his vision lacks.

…Harbisson gets visibly dizzy when his antenna is off center. Moving it slightly to the left, he closed his eyes and said, “If I do this, I feel unbalanced…it does feel like a body part, an extension of a bone or something.” Even though the antenna is metal and has no nerve endings, Harbisson says he can feel when someone touches it, the same as a natural body part.

There is more:

Moon Ribas, Harbisson’s partner, has an extension she wears on her arm that makes her body vibrate when there’s an earthquake. (She plans to one day have it implanted under her skin.) As a choreographer, Ribas takes inspiration from nature and thought the extension would enhance her creativity. It syncs with an app that collects data on earthquakes around the world to make her body vibrate when there’s seismic activity (it happens frequently enough that she vibrated once during our interview).

But the appendage cannot be submerged in water, and neither can Neil’s. They are both hoping to update their devices so that in the future they can go swimming. “Then I will be able to perceive the colors in the ocean,” Harbisson says.

There is more here, including a photo.  It is noted that security guards are sometimes unsympathetic to Harbisson, who is moving from Spain to New York, where he feels he will be seen as less unusual.

For a related pointer, I thank Samir Varma.

Sentences to ponder

by on August 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm in Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

“Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart.” This is the counsel Leo Strauss, among the most consequential teachers and scholars of political philosophy in the 20th century, offered an advanced graduate student who had asked for a general rule about teaching.

In a short essay published in the early 1960s, “Liberal Education and Responsibility” (based on a public lecture he gave), Strauss elaborated on his exquisite advice. “Do not have too high an opinion of your importance,” he said, “and have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility.”

There is more here, by Peter Berkowitz, via Andrea Castillo.

How to look smart?

by on August 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm in Games, Philosophy | Permalink

Perhaps these results are speculative all around, but I am happy to report them for your consideration:

Another strategy identified by the survey, wearing glasses, appears to be surprisingly effective. Figures released in 2011 by the College of Optometrists, in the U.K., show that 43 percent of the people it surveyed believe glasses make a person look more intelligent.

But you may not need glasses if you’re beautiful. A Czech study found that certain facial features—narrow faces, long noses, and thin chins—correlated with both perceived intelligence and attractiveness. Interestingly, men who were considered smart-looking actually tended to have higher IQs; the same was not true for women.

Other ways to signal intelligence without opening your mouth include walking at the same pace as those around you. Subjects in one study rated a person moving faster or slower than “normal human walking speed” as less competent and intelligent. Speaking of incompetence: don’t drink in public, at least not at work functions. The perceived association between alcohol and stupid behavior is so strong, according to a 2013 study, that merely holding a beer makes you appear dumber.

How you write matters, too—particularly how you write your name. Middle initials apparently lend a person a certain cachet. Participants in a study published this year rated writing samples more favorably when the author’s name included a middle initial; they also presumed people with middle initials to be of higher social status than their uninitialed peers. Typing your initial in the Comic Sans font, though, could ruin the whole thing: a Princeton researcher found that a hard-to-read font made an author seem dumber, while a clean, simple typeface (Times New Roman, in the study) made him or her seem more intelligent.

The same researcher also looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.

The full link is here, with footnotes and sourcing, hat tip goes to Catherine Rampell.

David H. writes:

Yes, this Forbes list is a miserable failure, but it got me thinking about how to quantify coolness. Good restaurants are valuable, but to be cool, restaurants also need to be affordable and a little off-putting. If I were doing this, I would generate a list of touring bands that rank highly in RYM, knock out the superstars, and then see what US cities they played in the last 4 years. Each band-visit would count as a portion of coolness for that city, and a partial portion for the immediate vicinity. Also, RYM records which cities the bands came from. That should count for a lot. Then I would look for cities with an outsized and lively gay scene. I’m not sure how the causation works – whether a gay scene adds substantial coolness or whether it follows coolness – but the correlation seems pretty clear to me.

Coolness is unstable partly because it’s much more difficult to achieve in expensive cities. San Francisco and Berkeley are sinking in coolness partly for this reason. A truly cool city needs a critical mass of underemployed creative types who will devote a great deal of time to “the scene”, and this is hard to do when you’re paying $6+ for each of your beers. So, the lower the urban rents and general cost of living, the cooler the city, other things being equal.

OK, Forbes was right that proportion of young people living in the city is important. I also think that trends are important, like: Which cities are gaining young people, and which are losing them?

What else?

The link to RYM was added by me.  I would think that a truly cool place cannot be rated as cool by too many other sources.  How about that retirement community in Florida, an incorporated city, ruled largely by contract, where only the elderly live and the visits of grown children are regulated and rationed?  How about the city in America which has the highest birth rate?  Isn’t that kind of cool?  Seriously.  That would put Memphis, Ogden, and Provo in the lead.  What’s so cool about tracking RYM?

It turns out we are getting our own branch of Momofuku.  And Forbes recently decided DC is the coolest city in the United States.  As an act of apparent satire, they followed up by naming Bethesda #19.  I say Bethesda is about the least cool town around, Annandale should have done better.

What do I think?  Well, Washington would be cooler if it were breeding its own Momofuku equivalents; northern Virginia did produce or at least refine or perhaps drive crazy the unreliable Peter Chang.  David Chang, the Momofuku guy, did grow up in northern Virginia and ate in the “American-Chinese” restaurants of Vienna, VA, before striking out on his own in New York City, rated by Forbes as the eleventh coolest city in America (doesn’t NYC have to be either #1 or “totally not cool at all”?  Can you really sandwich it between #10 Dallas and #12 Oakland?).

You know, I very much enjoy and admire quite a few Forbes writers, most of all Modeled Behavior.  So I don’t mean for what follows to cast any aspersions on Forbes, but…you know…Forbes itself isn’t actually all that cool, not in the world of media at least.

Can we agree that…Washington really does deserve to be Forbes’s idea of the coolest city in America?

(I thank J.O. for a useful conversation related to this blog post.)

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.


And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.