Philosophy

Northern lights, darkness, meatballs and suicide rates are just some of the suggested topics of conversation for a new hotline backed by the Swedish Tourist Association.

Launched this week, call +46 771 SWEDEN from anywhere in the world and you’ll be connected to a random Swede. The service honours the 250th anniversary of the country abolishing censorship and hopes to “connect people in troubled times.”

Here is the full story, which includes a taped conversation with a Swede (but is he random?), via Michelle Dawson.

Long distance charges may apply.

And via Samir Varma, here is one story of someone who called and spoke with a Ugandan.

Let’s say a group of criminal defense lawyers kept a database of their confidential conversations with their clients.  That would include clients charged with murder, robbery, DUI, drug abuse, and so on.  In turn, a hacker would break into that database and post the information from those conversations on Wikileaks.  Of course a lot of those conversations would appear to be incriminating because — let’s face it — most of the people who require defense attorneys on criminal charges are in fact guilty.  When asked why the hack was committed, the hacker would say “Most of those people are guilty.  I want to make sure they do not escape punishment.”

How many of us would approve of that behavior?  Keep in mind the hacker is spreading the information not only to prosecutors but to the entire world, and outside of any process sanctioned by the rule of law.  The hacker is not backed by the serving of any criminal charges or judge-served warrants.

Yet somehow many of us approve when the victims are wealthy and higher status, as is the case with the Panama Papers.  Furthermore most of those individuals probably did nothing illegal, but rather they were trying to minimize their tax burden through (mostly) legal shell corporations.  Admittedly, very often the underlying tax laws should be changed, just as we should repeal the deduction for mortgage interest too.  But in the meantime we are not justified in stealing information about those people, even if some of them are evil and powerful, as is indeed the case for homeowners too.

Once again, politics isn’t about policy, it is about which groups should rise and fall in relative status.  And many people believe the wealthy should fall in status, and so they will entertain the morality of all crimes and threats against them.  These revelations will of course lead to some subsequent cases of blackmail, against Chinese officials for one group.

I had tweeted “Are your views on privacy and consistent? Just asking…” and my goodness what a response, positive and negative.  Most interesting of all, many people had never pondered the question before.  Somehow “good things” such as “privacy” and “transparency” cannot stand in such conflict because all good things, like all bad things, must come together.

Here is a good Kaddim Shubber discussion on FT Alphaville.

Here is Veronique de Rugy on the Panama Papers.

Here is Ray Lopez on the same:

1.  There’s a tension between US and foreign law firms and FATCA (United States Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) has the objective of reducing tax evasion by American taxpayers with foreign accounts).  This is because law firms are exempt from reporting on clients past crimes, not future crimes, however, money laundering is considered a future crime.  When a known criminal is setting up an offshore account with the help of a law firm, is the law firm an accessory to money laundering or not?  The better view is they are not:  it’s up to the client to report any offshore account to the government, and not the law firm’s responsibility.  That’s the better view, but see point #2, which rebuts this.

2.  There’s a tension between client confidentiality and tax treaties.  Check this out: https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/practice-resources/practice-briefings/FATCA-and-New-Zealand-Law-Firms.pdf   In New Zealand, which is probably representative of others, a passive non-financial foreign entity–which almost always will be a law firm trust account holding money from a client–has a duty under FATCA to report on the client to the US government (“know your customer” is the buzz phrase banks use, which as you know already are required to ‘spy’ on their customers).

Both points 1, 2 are relevant for the conduct of the law firm of Mossack Fonseca.  Except for the alleged destruction of evidence by them, I don’t see them doing anything that bad (by law firm standards; remember, any law firm of decent size has former crooks as clients, and for a firm in Panama I would say that’s not the exception but the rule!)
Did you know the Guardian media firm is closely connected to shell companies?  According to the FT: “…even the World Bank and other development finance institutions used offshore investment hubs, in a sign they have come to play “a systemic role in international investment flows”.”  Speaking of the FT, Tim Harford suggests some useful tax reforms.

From the comments
, here is Kai:

I practice law in cross-border banking and finance in China. I am puzzled by how non-professionals in this field view offshore jurisdictions as categorically related to criminal activity, embezzlement and corruption, etc.

Almost all cross-border transactions involve offshore jurisdictions at some level. For instance most companies listed on the HK stock exchange are incorporated in the Cayman Islands. Anything to do with Bermuda, Cayman, BVI, etc. in cross border transactions is very, very mundane.

According to the papers, Xi Jinping has relatives who are owners of offshore companies. How is that any sort of evidence of wrongdoing by them (much less of Xi Jinping)? I doubt anyone can provide an intelligent answer.

Maybe yes, maybe no, but I don’t see that the people rendering judgment know more about it than he does.

The authors are Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. and the subtitle is Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.  I found this book subtle and thought-provoking throughout.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, many conservative academics feel more at home in the progressive academy than in the Republican Party.  This alienation is not because most conservative academics we interviewed are Rockefeller Republicans. In some respects, they are more conservative than self-identified Republicans in the general population.  Instead, the Republican Party tends to trouble even the most conservative professors because they share with the American founders a small-c conservatism that is sensitized to the dangers of democratic movements.  This political orientation inclines conservative professors to look askance at the populism that has shaken up the Republican Party in recent years…

What also comes through in this book is the remarkable diversity of thought among the so-called “intellectual right.”  And I enjoyed this anecdote:

A professor of history at an elite university, meanwhile, turned right after taking a course with the Marxist historian Arno Mayer.  This admiring historian recalled Mayer announcing to his class, “I’m going to assign the book I most disagree with in the twentieth century, and I’m going to ask you not to critique it, but to recreate its arguments with intellectual empathy.”  The book was Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

If only the blogosphere was always so tolerant.  I feared I would be bored by this book, but I found it a work of quality scholarship, yet highly readable too.  Here is a Jonathan Marks WSJ review.  And here is a relevant column by Virginia Postrel.

Here is a 42-minute video of a talk I gave on that topic at Duke University recently.

I start with Keynes’s prediction that we will be working 15 hours a week by 2030 and ask why it doesn’t seem to be coming true.  Along the way, I consider the dominance of the substitution effect over the income effect for labor supply, and ponder why we don’t all have more sex.  I conclude that progress is real rather than illusory, and we are not all caught up in a destructive rat race.

A paper on the same is forthcoming.

The paper title is Believing there is no free will corrupts intuitive cooperation, and the authors are John Protzko, Brett Ouimette, and Jonathan Schooler.  The abstract is this:

Regardless of whether free will exists, believing that it does affects one’s behavior. When an individual’s belief in free will is challenged, one can become more likely to act in an uncooperative manner. The mechanism behind the relationship between one’s belief in free will and behavior is still debated. The current study uses an economic contribution game under varying time constraints to elucidate whether reducing belief in free will allows one to justify negative behavior or if the effects occur at a more intuitive level of processing. Here we show that although people are intuitively cooperative, challenging their belief in free will corrupts this behavior, leading to impulsive selfishness. If given time to think, however, people are able to override the initial inclination toward self-interest induced by discouraging a belief in free will.

I would say that we need a large swathe of society to believe in ideals of free will and individual responsibility, even though such concepts are not entirely faultless from a metaphysical point of view.  For a given thinker, it is worth asking whether he or she adds to or takes away from that social belief.  For some writers, the concepts of individual blame and responsibility apply only to their intellectual adversaries!

For the pointer I thank Ben Southwood.

It is sad to see so many people, including those on the Left or in the Democratic Party, criticize the idea of a Trump presidency without ever uttering the phrase: “No man or woman should have so much political power over others.”  I agree with many of the moral criticisms of Trump as a leader, but don’t let them distract you from this broader truth.

It is strange but instructive how many Democratic criticisms of Trump circle back into criticisms of other, earlier, and now often irrelevant Republicans.  That is simply a language of attack they are more comfortable with.

The good news, if that is what one should call it, is that the best criticisms of Trump involve the concept of individual liberty and freedom from arbitrary legal authority and pure presidential discretion.  The bad news is that so few intellectuals have the relevant ideological vocabulary in that regard.

This one is about the power of the individual, the authors are Makan Amini, Mathias Ekström, Tore Ellingsen, Magnus Johannesson, and Fredrik Strömsten:

Failure to express minority views may distort the behavior of company boards, committees, juries, and other decision-making bodies. Devising a new experimental procedure to measure such conformity in a judgment task, we compare the degree of conformity in groups with varying gender composition. Overall, our experiments offer little evidence that gender composition affects expression of minority views. A robust finding is that a subject’s lack of ability predicts both a true propensity to accept others’ judgment (informational social influence) and a propensity to agree despite private doubt (normative social influence). Thus, as an antidote to conformity in our experiments, high individual ability seems more effective than group diversity.

The co-editor on the paper was John List, a paragon of both innovation and self-criticism, but perhaps we need to ask a diverse focus group instead…

Mao

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

This one is transcript and podcast only, no video, and we will be doing some more in that format.  Jonathan was in top form, here are a few bits:

COWEN: If we get to a very fundamental question — left‑wing individuals and right‑wing individuals, and let’s take, for now, only America. As people, in other ways, how different do you think they are?

Or, is it just there are these semi‑accidental triggers which have set off certain modules in the left‑wingers and different modules in the right‑wingers, but otherwise they’re going to dress the same, they’re going to treat their spouses the same way, or not? Are they fundamentally different?

HAIDT: Not fundamentally different, but different in predispositions. The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

If you and I were twins separated at birth and raised in different families, our families would pick which religions we were raised in and they would pick how often we go to church or synagogue, but once we’re out on our own, we’re going to both converge on our brain’s natural level of religiosity.

Same with politics, whether you’re on the right or left is not determined by your genes, but you’re predisposed.

And:

COWEN: If you’re in a swing state in, say, proverbial southern Ohio and in a natural setting you meet a person. With what probability do you think you can guess or forecast if they’re left‑wing or right‑wing? Even-up would be 0.5.

HAIDT: Probably 0.58, 0.57. People are incredibly variable.

And:

COWEN: Would it be a partial test of your theory if we looked at a lot of different cultures and asked, “Who are the people who dress neatly and who have a lot of calendars and stamps?” to measure whether those were typically the conservatives?

HAIDT: Yes, that would be a test.

And:

COWEN: For gay individuals, maybe not all minorities, but many minorities this is very much a positive thing. If morality is fundamentally so nonrational or arational in some key ways, is it not the case we’re always either undershooting or overshooting the target, that we can never hit it just right?

Maybe for America to be more tolerant, you need the norms to be quite crude and blunt, and overstated, and we get this political correctness. Yes it’s bad, but maybe it’s less bad then when we used to undershoot the target?

Jonathan had a good answer but it is too long to excerpt.

COWEN: Let’s say you’re Brown or Yale, and students set up a lacrosse team, and they call it the Brown Redskins, and they do some rituals which offend some people. No matter what the intent would be, should Brown or Yale step in and say, “You can’t do that?”

HAIDT: There’s a big, big line between saying, “Brown or Yale should step in and tell people what they can’t — .” In general I think no, in general the idea — .

COWEN: No they shouldn’t step in?

HAIDT: They should not step in. We should be extremely limited when we say that authorities can step in and change things. The very fact of doing that encourages microaggression culture, encourages students to orient themselves towards appealing to these authorities. The point of the microaggression article is young people these days have become moral dependents.

And:

COWEN: Let me try another analogy on you. You mentioned the army, but take private corporations, and Brown and Yale are in a sense private corporations. Harvard was originally. I wouldn’t call them restrictions on free speech, I think that’s the wrong phrase, but if one’s going to use the phrase that way, there are numerous restrictions on free speech within companies, at the work place.

If you went to the water cooler and said a number of offensive things, you would be asked to stop and eventually fired, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. So if we think of Brown, Yale, or Harvard as like a normal company, isn’t there still even with all the nonsense, a lot more free speech on campus than in actual companies?

HAIDT: Yes, and there should be. Again, a company is organized to be effective in the world. Just like the army where their priority is unit cohesion, in a company your goal isn’t to encourage everyone to express their values and criticize each other, your goal is to get them to work together.

There is much much more, including on LSD, Sigmund Freud (overrated or underrated), Cecil Rhodes, how Jonathan would change undergraduate admissions, whether behavioral economics is realizing its full potential, Adam Smith, antiparsimonialism, the replication crisis in psychology, and whether Jonathan enjoys eating insects.

…Dante’s fame as a necromancer is also in a certain sense documented.

Such notoriety shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, he had a reputation as an expert in astrology, and we know that this discipline could easily spill over into magical and necromantic practices.  And then, above all, he was famous after the publication of Inferno for having descended live into the realms of the afterlife and for having encountered devils there, the souls of the damned, and having spoken to them.  It must have been a rumor widely spread and also disturbing.  It seems, according to Boccaccio, that the women who used to pass him in the street would say to each other: Look, “he who goes into Hell, and returns whenever he likes, and brings back news of those who are down there…”

That is from the new Dante biography by Marco Santagata, Belknap Press at Harvard, definitely recommended, it will make my best non-fiction of the year list for sure.

That is a question posed by Robert H. Frank in his forthcoming book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.  The main point of this book is to illuminate the major role which luck plays in our lives and then to flesh out the social and policy implications of that fact.

My view is more Straussian than Bob’s: I think we have to believe in a concept of meritocracy whether it is justified or not.  (Do note that Bob covers a version of this point in one of his chapters, where he argues that reminding people of their good fortune makes them more generous; I still think society requires strong feelings of desert, and generosity often follows from a kind of false magnanimity about one’s good fortune.)  But as always with Bob, this is a deep and stimulating book, well written too.  You also learn a great deal about Bob’s highly interesting life, such as how he survived his heart attack, pulled out Cornell tenure at the last moment, and decided to track down his birth parents.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is chapter one, which starts with the heart attack story.

Anyway, the comment section is open: what is statistically the most improbably thing that has happened to you?

If you read narratives of recent history from the perspective of the left and the right, each side believes it is losing. One could dismiss this as marketing strategy. If our side is winning, then why is it urgent to read my book or donate to my organization?

But I think it is possible for the each side to sincerely believe it is losing.

The left presumes that government can solve problems. We have problems. Therefore, we must be losing!

The right presumes that the government causes problems. We have problems. Therefore, we must be losing!

That is from Arnold Kling.

I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, Tuesday, April 12.  What should I ask her?

Erwin Dekker’s The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered is an original and interesting look at the foundations of the Austrian School of Economics, properly situating it in the context of its time.  Here is one bit:

In the “Civilization and its Discontents” — as Rosten attempts to point out to Hayek — Freud argues that civilization means constraining ourselves. Freud argues that morality works through a sense of guilt, and that restraint and hence civilization is created and upheld by this sense of guilt.  As civilization progresses, this sense of guilt has to be intensified or heightened.  This is in line with Hayek’s ideas, as we will see later, but Hayek refuses to acknowledge this.

Dekker also discusses the relevance of Nietzsche, Hermann Broch, and Peter Drucker for the Austrian school, and goes beyond the usual hagiography.

However, we find that economic conservatives are as or more scientifically literate and optimistic about science than economic leftists. Our results highlight the importance of separating different sub-dimensions of political orientation when studying the relationships between political beliefs, scientific literacy and optimism about science.

That is from Carl, Cofnis, and Woodley, via Ben Southwood.

No experiment can ever be replicated so each attempted replication must assume that the things which differ don’t matter. The more and the more important the things that we can plausibly assume don’t matter, the stronger is the original study. Chemistry students have done the same experiments for hundreds of years and that’s useful because we can plausibly assume that who and when the experiment is conducted doesn’t matter. The recent brouhaha between Nosek et al. and Gilbert et al. illustrates a weaker case.

In their critique of Nosek et al., Gilbert et al. say that some of their replications failed because things were different.

An original study that asked Israelis to imagine the consequences of military service was replicated by asking Americans to imagine the consequences of a honeymoon

Now that sounds like two very different studies but Nosek provides important context. The original study in question wasn’t about military service or honeymoons it was about the conditions that promote reconciliation between victims and injurers after an injustice has been committed. The original study asked Israelis what they would do and how they would feel about a specific injustice. Namely you and a co-worker have been working on a project for a long-time but just before submission you are called away for reserve duty [male]/maternity leave [female]. Your co-worker takes credit for all the work and gets promoted while you later get demoted. The study then went on to ask questions about the conditions necessary for reconciliation. The reserve duty/maternity leave bit was just the story element needed to explain the situation not the focus of the study.

Nosek et al. tried to replicate the study in the United States where being called up for reserve duty is less common than in Israel and where being demoted for taking maternity leave could raise legal issues so they substituted ‘had to leave for honeymoon’. Everything else was the same. One of the original authors approved the new design.

Nosek et al. were not able to replicate the original findings. Is this because they didn’t replicate the study or because the study failed to replicate? Gilbert et al. say Nosek et al. failed to replicate the study.

In my view, Gilbert et al. are caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the studies don’t replicate they aren’t interesting and if the studies replicate but only under extremely precise conditions they also aren’t interesting. We are interested in general features of the human condition not in descriptions of the choices that 75 female and 19 male Israeli students made at a particular point in time. Moreover, if changes in wording matter then surely so does the fact that the original study was on Israeli’s in 2008 and the replication used Americans in 2013 (a lot has changed over these years!) and so must also a hundred other differences. But if so, what’s the point?

Hat tip: Andrew Gelman who has more to say.