Philosophy

Ilan Mochari reports:

4. Depersonalize the key questions. Yeh suggests approaching your employees by saying something like this: “It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplishing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

Phrasing the question this way enables you to emphasize the mission, rather than the employee himself. It allows the employee to describe what’s wrong with his job, without feeling like he’s critiquing his own performance or ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

Casnocha says he learned a great conversational tactic from Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The idea is another form of depersonalizing questions: Ask an employee what “most people” think of a certain situation. Usually, the employee will tell you what most people think. But in doing so, she will also provide a glimpse of her own personal feelings. Specifically, Casnocha suggests these conversational cues:

How is everyone feeling about what’s going on in the office?
What do you think people are frustrated about here at work?

These questions allow you, as a leader, to follow up on whatever topics arise. But you can do so delicately, without pouncing on the employee who–even in sharing what “most people” think–has just displayed a great deal of vulnerability.

93% of that country is satisfied with the degree of freedom in that country, ranking it #3 in the world (New Zealand is #1 by that standard).

There is more here.  U.S. is #36.

Happy Fourth of July!

Here is the latest in a rather long-standing debate:

Kang Lee et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming

Abstract:
The classic moral stories have been used extensively to teach children about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence whether these stories actually promote honesty in children. This study compared the effectiveness of four classic moral stories in promoting honesty in 3- to 7-year-olds. Surprisingly, the stories of “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. In contrast, the apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth telling. Further results suggest that the reason for the difference in honesty-promoting effectiveness between the “George Washington” story and the other stories was that the former emphasizes the positive consequences of honesty, whereas the latter focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty. When the “George Washington” story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

…my reading of the available evidence convinces me that a social policy that channels benefits through work and thereby encourages paid employment has important advantages over a UBI [universal basic income] in helping the disadvantaged to live full, happy, productive, and rewarding lives.

What evidence? Let’s start with the well-established finding that unemployment has major negative effects on well-being, including both mental and physical health. And the effects are remarkably persistent. A study using German panel data examined changes in reported life satisfaction after marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a spouse, layoff, and unemployment. All had predictable effects in the short term, but for five of the six the effect generally wore off with time: the joy of having a new baby subsided, while the pain of a loved one’s death gradually faded. The exception was unemployment: even after five years, the researchers found little evidence of adaptation.

Evidence even more directly on point comes from the experience of welfare reform – specifically, the imposition of work requirements on recipients of public assistance. Interestingly, studies of the economic consequences of reform showed little or no change in recipients’ material well-being. But a pair of studies found a positive impact on single mothers’ happiness as a result of moving off welfare and finding work.

There is more here.  And Ross Douthat offers related remarks on whether it really is possible to encourage work — how well have previous welfare reforms succeeded in this end?

I interviewed him.  You will find the full version here, the edited version here.  Not surprisingly, I prefer the full version.  Here is one excerpt:

TC: If I look back at your career, I see you’ve been fighting various kinds of wars or struggles against a lot of different injustices. If you look back on all those decades, during which time you’ve been right about many things, what do you think is the main thing you’ve been wrong about?

RN: Oh, a lot of things. Nobody goes through these kinds of controversies without making bad predictions. I underestimated the power of corporations to crumble the countervailing force we call government. We always knew corporations like to have their adherents to become elected officials; that has been going on for a long time. But I never foresaw the insinuation of corporatism as a policy in one agency after another in government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt foresaw some of this when he sent a message to Congress when he started the temporary national economic commission to investigate consecrated corporate power. That was in 1938. In his message he said that whenever the government is controlled by private economic power, that’s facism. Now, there isn’t a department or agency in Washington where anyone has more power—over it and in it, through their appointees, and on Congress, through lobbyists and political action committees. Nobody comes close. There’s no organized force that comes close to the daily power to twist government in the favor of Wall Street and corporatism, and to disable government from adequately defending the health, safety and economic well-being of the American people.

TC: Let’s say we look at the U.S. corporate income tax. The rate on paper is 35 percent, which is quite high. When you look at how much they actually pay after various forms of maneuvering or evasion, maybe they pay 17–18 percent, which is more or less in the middle of the pack of OECD nations. So if corporations have so much political power in the United States, why is our corporate income tax still so high?

…Sweden, a country you cited favorably, taxes capital income much more lightly than the United States does—not just on paper but in terms of what’s actually paid.

I also ask him about the Flynn effect, whether America needs a new kind of sports participation, and how much American churches have resisted corruption through corporatization, among a variety of other topics.  I tried to avoid the predictable questions.

By the way, you can buy Nader’s new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.  I very much enjoyed my preparation for this interview, which involved reading or rereading a bunch of his books and also a few biographies of him.

Does any sentence better illustrate the human condition in all its political, social and biological complexities than this sentence?

New York state lawmakers have passed a bill banning residents from taking “tiger selfies” — a rising trend on dating websites in which single men post photos of themselves posing with the ferocious felines in hopes of impressing potential mates.

Dissertations are waiting to be written.

I was disappointed but not surprised by this passage by Gary Silverman:

What I like about Obamacare is that it shows some respect for “those people” – as Hudson called them in Giant – who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to see a doctor from time to time to make sure there is nothing wrong inside.

That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status.  Of course critics of Obamacare have their own versions of desired status reallocation, typically involving higher status for the economically productive.

Here is another example of the argument from sympathy, by Norman Podhoretz, applied to a very different field of discourse:

Provoked by the predictable collapse of the farcical negotiations forced by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Palestinians and the Israelis, I wish to make a confession: I have no sympathy—none—for the Palestinians. Furthermore, I do not believe they deserve any.

I am not in this post seeking to adjudicate ACA or U.S. policy in the Middle East.  The easy target is to go after these two authors, but I am interested in different game.  The deeper point is that virtually all of us argue this way, albeit with more subtlety.  A lot of the more innocuous-sounding arguments we use all the time come perilously close to committing the same fallacies as do these quite transparent and I would say quite obnoxious mistaken excerpts.  One of the best paths for becoming a good reader of economics and politics blog posts (and other material) is to learn when you are encountering these kinds of arguments in disguised form.

There is a new Martin and Pindyck paper on this topic, “Averting Catastrophes: The Strange Economics of Scylla and Charybdis”:

How should we evaluate public policies or projects to avert or reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic event? Examples might include a greenhouse gas abatement policy to avert a climate change catastrophe, investments in vaccine technologies that would help respond to a “mega-virus,” or the construction of levees to avert major flooding. A policy to avert a particular catastrophe considered in isolation might be evaluated in a cost-bene fit framework. But because society faces multiple potential catastrophes, simple cost-bene fit analysis breaks down: Even if the benefi t of averting each one exceeds the cost, we should not avert all of them. We explore the policy interdependence of catastrophic events, and show that considering these events in isolation can lead to policies that are far from optimal. We develop a rule for determining which events should be averted and which should not.

The ungated version is here, I do not at the moment see the link to the gated NBER version I printed out and read.  The main point is simply that the shadow price of all these small anti-catastrophe investments goes up, the more of them we do, and thus we cannot do them all, even if every single investment appears to make sense on its own terms.

I think of this paper as providing a framework for assessing the debates between modern Progressives and pessimistic old school conservatives (not exactly the main debate we are seeing today by the way).  The Progressive states “here is a potential or real catastrophe, let us fix it.”  The pessimistic conservative says in response “there are far greater and less visible catastrophic dangers.  We need to address those instead.”  The pessimistic conservative usually is ignored, and so at the relevant margin it appears the Progressive is correct.  Maybe in a sense the Progressive really is correct.  But in another, more systemic sense the Progressive is walking a dangerous path.  Society is losing the resources it may need to avert the more catastrophic catastrophes.

For the pessimistic conservative of course these often involve foreign policy threats, or they may involve “barbarism” more generally.  I find also that pandemics are popular causes of concern with pessimistic conservatives.

Each time one of these Progressive remedies is adopted, the calculus looks even worse for the pessimistic conservative, as there are fewer resources left to address his causes for concern.  Yet the danger of which the pessimistic conservative warns is greater each time, the longer we ignore it, and the more we devote our resources to other endeavors.

It is an interesting question whether optimistic libertarians or pessimistic conservatives have better (as opposed to more persuasive) arguments against Progressives.  The optimistic libertarian can try “we have a better way of solving this problem!”  The pessimistic conservative is still believing “we must neglect this issue so we can prepare for the even greater doom which may await us.”  The Progressive prefers to argue from general grounds of benevolence, rather than debating which potential catastrophes to confront and neglect, and thus a quest for “free lunch” arguments ensues.

Some sophisticated Progressives may think they are in fact the best friends of the pessimistic conservatives.  They may think the choice under consideration is not “which catastrophe to address?” but rather how we can build up our overall willingness to invest in preventing catastrophes.  In this sense the Progressive may be presenting a valuable warm-up exercise, a bit like flexing the muscles for later combat.  Imagine for instance if ACA were to also later help us monitor and confront a pandemic.  Or if it gave us the political will to make other, later sacrifices.  In that case Progressivism could well be right but only as the handmaiden of pessimistic conservatism and the Progressives would become the true Straussians, achieving one view under the guise of another.

Mr. Econotarian wrote:

Actual science is that your brain can be gendered during development in a different fashion than your sex chromosomes. And that gender is not something that hormones alone can “fix”.

For example, the forceps minor (part of the corpus callosum, a mass of fibers that connect the brain’s two hemispheres) – among nontranssexuals, the forceps minor of males contains parallel nerve fibers of higher density than in females. But the density in female-to-male transsexuals is equivalent to that in typical males.

As another example, the hypothalamus, a hormone-producing part of the brain, is activated in nontranssexual men by the scent of estrogen, but in women—and male-to-female transsexuals—by the scent of androgens, male-associated hormones.

I would stress a social point.  If it turns out you are born “different” in these ways (I’m not even sure what are the right words to use to cover all the relevant cases), what is the chance that your social structure will be supportive?  Or will you feel tortured, mocked, and out of place?  Might you even face forced institutionalization, as McCloskey was threatened with?  Most likely things will not go so well for you, even in an America of 2014 which is far more tolerant overall than in times past, including on gay issues.  Current attitudes toward transsexuals and other related groups remain a great shame.  A simple question is how many teenagers have been miserable or even committed suicide or have had parts of their lives ruined because they were born different in these ways and did not find the right support structures early on or perhaps ever.  And if you are mocking individuals for their differences in this regard, as some of you did in the comments thread, I will agree with Barkley Rosser’s response: “Some of you people really need to rethink who you are.  Seriously.”

Some of you people really need to rethink who you are. Seriously. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/06/what-do-i-think-of-david-brat.html#comments

It’s not just the libertarian argument that you have — to put it bluntly — the “right to cut off your dick” (though you do).  It’s that there are some very particular circles of humanity, revolving around transsexuality, cross-gender, and related notions, which deserve a culture of respect, above and beyond mere legal tolerance.

India is not the paradise for cross- and multiple-gender individuals that it is sometimes made out to be, but still we could learn a good deal from them on these issues.  If nothing else, the argument from ignorance ought to weigh heavily here: there is plenty about these categories which we as a scientific community do not understand, and which you and I as individuals probably understand even less.  So in the meantime should we not extend maximum tolerance for individuals whose lives are in some manner different?

No, I do not know what are the appropriate set of public policies for when children should receive treatment, if they consistently express a desire to change, and what are the relative limits of family and state in these matters.  But if we start with tolerance and acceptance, and encourage a culture of respect for transsexualism, we are more likely to come up with the right policy answers, and also to minimize the damage if in the meantime we cannot quite figure out when to do what.

One good answer is from Tim O’Neill:

People were generally very familiar with the Bible pre-1900, so the figures usually cited as the epitome of evil tended to be Judas Iscariot, Herod the Great or, most commonly, the Pharaoh of the story of Moses in Exodus. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen Pharaoh of England forever.”  The Confederates referred to Abraham Lincoln as “the northern Pharaoh” and abolitionists in turn called slaveowners “modern Pharaohs”.  Americans also referred to all tyrants by comparing them to King George III and Napoleon was often cited as the ultimate bogeyman in Britain.  But generally it was Pharaoh who was used the way we use Hitler.

Did they have something akin to Godwin’s Law back then: “if you have to mention the Pharaoh, you’ve lost the argument!”  Somehow I don’t think so.  A link to the Quora forum is here.

Update: It seems Brian Palmer deserves credit for the information behind that answer.

Growth mindsets

by on June 12, 2014 at 11:31 am in Economics, History, Philosophy | Permalink

Scott Young writes:

In logarithmic domains, two mindsets are important. In the beginning, high-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on maintaining long-term habits. Since growth is fast initially, care needs to be taken so that it won’t slide back down once effort is removed.

In the later, low-growth phase, the emphasis needs to be on habit breaking. Since low-growth is often caused by calcifying routines, deliberate effort needs to be taken to break out of that comfort zone.

In exponential domains, the mindset of resilience and endurance are critical. Since feedback is sparse and generally negative during the initial part of the curve, it takes dedication to persist. Part of the reason, entrepreneurs are often consumed by their own vision is that it helps block out the negative feedback until they can reach the exponential part of their growth.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank R.

In a delightful, short article on Economics and Morality, Timothy Taylor asks why economics has a reputation for leading to corruption:

Political science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature are often concerned with aggression, obsessiveness, selfishness, and cruelty, not to mention lust, sloth, greed, envy, pride, wrath, and gluttony. But no one seems to fear that students in these other disciplines are on the fast track to becoming sociopaths. Why is economics supposed to be so uniquely corrupting?

Arnold Kling gives one answer:

I think that economics is singled out for opprobrium because of the way that it challenges the intention heuristic. The intention heuristic says that if the intentions of an act are selfless and well-meaning, then the act is good. If the intentions are self-interested, then it is not good.

I would put the point more directly. Economics is detested because it doesn’t just study vice it shows that some vices have good consequences. The moral inversion of economic thinking begins early, in Mandeville’s scandalous and wicked book the Fable of the Bees, which aimed to show how private vices can lead to public benefits. Later, of course, Adam Smith would make a similar point in The Wealth of Nations with his metaphor of the invisible hand and his famous admonition that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

The private vice, public virtue theme is not limited to self-interest and microeconomics. Keynes was an admirer of Mandeville as an early discover of the paradox of thrift. Namely, that in some situations the virtuous behavior of saving can lead to public ruin and the vice of consumption can lead to riches. Paul Krugman continues to make this point today with his admonition that economics is not a morality play. Krugman offends traditional morality when he writes:

As I’ve said repeatedly, this is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise.

Economists understand composition fallacies: a sum of light feathers is not necessarily light, a sum of bad actions isn’t necessarily bad and a sum of good actions isn’t necessarily good.

It’s no surprise that Hayek was another fan of Mandeville and also an opponent of traditional morality (also here) because Hayek recognized that nominally bad actions and beliefs can lead to good outcomes (“spontaneous order”) and that nominally good actions and beliefs can lead to bad outcomes (“the atavism of social justice”).

Even more recently we see Tim Geithner making the argument against morality:

“…in a panic, to rescue people from the risk of mass unemployment, you’re going to be doing things that look like you’re helping the arsonists…”

Standard morality, as Kling argues, often stops at intentions while economists are interested in consequences. Consequentialist philosophers also look at consequences but economists have the tools to trace interactions as they sort themselves into an equilibrium. Equilibrium outcomes may be very far from intentions. As a result, we find that economists often places themselves and their discipline in opposition to standard morality.

Arrived in my cyberpile

by on June 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm in Books, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

Due out September 3, 2014, self-recommending.

Very good sentences

by on June 2, 2014 at 3:12 pm in Current Affairs, Philosophy | Permalink

From Ross Douthat:

…the feminist prescription doesn’t supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men.

And also:

…our society has lost sight of a basic human truth: A culture that too tightly binds sex and self-respect is likely, in the long run, to end up with less and less of both.

*Becoming Freud*

by on June 1, 2014 at 3:52 pm in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new and excellent book by Adam Phillips, in the US available on Kindle only.  Here is one bit:

…Freud was discovering that we obscure ourselves from ourselves in our life stories; that that is their function.  So we will often find that the most dogmatic thing about Freud as a writer is his skepticism.  He is always pointing out his ignorance, without ever needing to boast about it.  He is always showing us what our knowing keeps coming up against; what our desire to know might be a desire for.

And later:

Psychoanalysis would one day be Freud’s proof that biography is the worst kind of fiction, that biography is what we suffer from; that we need to cure ourselves of the wish for biography, and our belief in it.  We should not be substituting the truths of our desire with trumped-up life stories, stories that we publicize.

Recommended.