Month: August 2005

New Zealand updates

1. New Zealand may pull out of the Kyoto Treaty.  Although the country is not a major polluter, it would incur high costs to meet the specified standards.  Furthermore it misestimated how much adjustment would be required, and now faces an unexpectedly large bill of compliance.

2. The National Party candidate, Donald Brash, is more or less a libertarian.  The election for Prime Minister will be held September 17.  Brash has been falling behind in the polls because he leaves open the possibility of sending New Zealand troops to Iraq.  I predict he will lose.

3. New Zealand is making extensive preparations for avian flu.  A country of four million people is stockpiling at least 800,000 doses of Tamiflu.

4. New Zealand economists — including the libertarians — usually regard the Bush Social Security plan as a disaster in the making.  They favor, as do I, separating out the welfare and "forced savings" components of any reform.  My thinking on this issue had been influenced by the time I spent here in the early 1990s.

5. "Pox parties" are becoming increasingly popular.  Parents take their kids to parties to expose them to measles, chicken pox, etc., to build up their immunity and to avoid the need for supposedly dangerous vaccines.  NB: This practice is not recommended.

Famous economists’ grave sites

Here is the link, which includes information on location and sometimes epitaphs, courtesy of Rafe Champion and Andrew Norton, via Jacqueline Passey.

Biographies aside, I agree with the views of Thorstein Veblen:

It is my wish, in case of death, to be cremated, if it can conveniently be done, as expeditiously and inexpensively as may be, without ritual or ceremony of any kind; that my ashes be thrown loose into the sea, or into some sizable stream running to the sea; that no tombstone, slab, epitaph, effigy, tablet, inscription, or monument of any name or nature, be set up in my memory or name in any place or at any time; that no obituary, memorial, portrait, or biography of me, nor any letters written to or by me be printed or published, or in any way reproduced, copied or circulated.

Remembering Who Was Right

We spend endless hours arguing who is right in current controversies, but minutes or less remembering who was right before.  Oh we sometimes brag about selected cases, but we rarely collect systematic statistics.  (Rare exceptions include weathermen, business analysts, and sports punters.)

Yet such track records are just what we need to figure out who is right today.  You might think it enough to know which side is smarter or better informed.  But a janitor can consistently beat his arrogant CEO, if the janitor is careful to only disagree on topics where he clearly knows more.  When disputants are aware of each others’ opinions, it is those who better know when to defer and when to stand their ground that should be right more often.

Yes it would be hard to track and score everything everyone says, but we could do a lot more than we now do.  Widespread idea futures or David Brin’s prediction registries could help us estimate which individuals tend to be right more often.  And it should be even easier to evaluate standard demographic categories.

When a husband and wife disagree, who tends to be right?  How about a parent and child, a student and teacher, a boss and employee, a liberal and conservative?  For a few thousand dollars, we could bring dozens of such pairs into the lab, ask them various questions together, and see who is right when they disagree.  Perhaps lab disputes differ from field disputes in unknown systematic ways, but it would be a great first step.

Perhaps even more useful, we could take a sample of real media disputes and see both who tends to take which side, and which side seemed more right in the end.  I have just finished one such analysis, on the dispute over the policy analysis market (PAM), a.k.a. terrorism futures.  Four readers rated 555 media articles on which gave favorable or unfavorable impressions of PAM, and these ratings were regressed on sixteen features of articles, publications, and authors.

The result?  Since five strong indicators of more informed articles agreed on a more favorable rating, the favorable position looks like the “right” one here.  In the case of PAM, these groups were right more often: men, conservatives, web or broadcast media over print and books, and those who talked to people with firsthand knowledge, wrote longer articles, wrote news as opposed to editorials, and wrote for specialty publications with larger circulations and more awards.

Of course we need to look at more disputes to see which of these indicators holds more generally.  But a few tens of thousands of dollars should pay for that.  And with good indicators in hand, we could in real time predict which sides are probably right in current disputes.  Wouldn’t that be something?

Intuition Error and Heritage

Intuitions are our least introspective belief components.  We know the least about their origins, or how they would change if our other beliefs changed.  Of course this does not make them wrong; since we are only consciously aware of a tiny fraction of what goes on in our minds, in a sense most belief is intuitive.

reminds Tyler that initial moral intuitions are often contradictory, and therefore in error.  We should thus “curve fit” around our initial intuitions to create a better estimate of moral truth.  And the higher our error rate, the less influential each specific intuition should be.  In this post, let me highlight a huge error source: cultural and genetic heritage.

Put yourself into the frame of mind of a reasonable creature of some indeterminate species and culture, before your culture or species arose.  Did this creature have a reason to expect the moral intuitions arising in your culture or species to be closer to moral truth than intuitions in other random cultures or species?  If not, then any such correspondence would be random luck.

We do not want to just hope that we happen to believe truth; we want to see that the process that produces our beliefs produces a correlation between our beliefs and the truth.  So random influences on our beliefs are bad, inducing more error.  Unless you can see a reason to have expected to be born into a culture or species with more accurate than average intuitions, you must expect your cultural or species specific intuitions to be random, and so not worth endorsing.

A similar argument suggests you reject ways that your intuitions differ the average in your culture or species.  If a neutral observer would have no good reason to think you special, then neither do you.

Tantrums as Status Symbols

Once upon a time one’s social status was clearly signaled by so many things: fragile expensive clothes, skin not worn from work, accent, vocabulary, and so on.  As many of these signal have weakened, one remains strong: tantrums.

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.

These patterns make sense: after all, beautiful young women and successful older men are at their peak of desirability to the opposite sex.  If you are surprised that toddlers make the list, perhaps you should pay closer attention to the toddler-parent relation.  Parents mostly serve toddlers, not the other way around.

Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

Addendum: Todd Kendall has a data paper on this for NBA players.

Against Intuition

Larry Temkin, the noted philosopher, was trying to convince Robin Hanson and I that some moral values should not be traded.  He posed the following question:

Suppose that you had a million children and you could give each of them a better life but only if one of them had a very, very terrible life.  Would you do it?

"Of course," I answered.  "You would be crazy not to," said Robin.  I could tell by the look on Larry’s face that this was not the answer that he had expected.   "But, but," he stammered, "almost all philosophers would tell you that that is wrong."  "So much the worse for almost all philosophers," I replied.

My response to Tyler’s post on animal welfare is similar.  Tyler wants to find a theory that both rationalizes and is consistent with our intuitions.  But that is a fool’s game.  Our intuitions are inconsistent.  Our moral intuitions are heuristics produced by blind evolution operating in a world totally different than our own.  Why would we expect them to be consistent?  Our intuitions provide no more guidance to sound ethics than our tastes provide guidance to sound nutrition.  (Which is to say, they are not without function but don’t expect to be healthy on a yummy diet of sugar and fat.)

The reason to think deeply about ethical matters is the same reason we should think deeply about nutrition – so that we can overcome our intuitions.  Tyler argues that we don’t have a good approach to animal welfare only because he is not willing to give up on intuition. 

Tyler asks (I paraphrase) ‘Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats?  What about a billion cats?’  He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today.  The introduction of "your good friend" (or "children" in Larry’s example) engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler’s answer goes awry.  But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets.  That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.

Similarly, contra Larry, we do make tradeoffs concerning our children and more generally we accept that some people, such as coal miners,  risk a much worse life, i.e. death, in order to benefit everyone else just a little bit.

The dilemmas that Larry and Tyler raise tell us that our intuitions,
taken as a package, are not rationally derivable from a handful of
premises.  But that is no reason to abandon reason instead we should
happily accept that some of intuitions lead us astray.

A sound mind and a sound body both require that we abandon our gut instincts. 

The economics of droplifting

Droplifting occurs when small bands "anti-shoplift" their CDs onto the shelves
at music stores.  They take shelf space without paying or asking, presumably to recruit future fans. 

This is a Pareto improvement if you think there is slack in the system.  The store has one more CD (book?), and no one is harmed.  Alternatively, you might believe that CDs are "queuing" for shelf space and that something gets pushed out, if only probabilistically.  The question is then whether your slotting is welfare-maximizing, relative to the retailer’s choice.

The retailer will care about expected profit from sales.  If you are a band, you care about your own income and fame.  This may or may not be closer to consumer surplus than is expected profit; on average I predict it is further away (e.g., The Beatles didn’t need to droplift).

If you are a listener discarding a previous purchase, odds are you didn’t like it much.  For the typical listener/discarder, this loser CD will lower social welfare, since on average others share your tastes.  But when it comes to books, what if you only give away your best reads…?  Now we are getting somewhere…

Thanks to Mark Atwood for the pointer.

Self-Deception Explain Lying Ease?

A July 30 New Scientist article (sub. rec.) on lying reports:

A succession of studies using tests like this have shown that most of us are not very good at spotting if someone is lying. Even people whose job it is to detect deception – police officers, FBI agents, therapists, judges, customs officers, and so on – perform, on average, little better than if they had taken a guess. … But a few people seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. … In a range of studies that totalled about 14,000 people, … The researchers identified 29 “wizards” of deception detection, who are now the subject of intensive study … One of the studies, published last year, investigated women’s skills at detecting men who were pretending to have appealing attributes … a man claiming he owned the Ferrari outside, rather than admitting he had borrowed it from a friend for the night. … single women seemed to be better at detecting men who were faking good than those who were in a committed relationship. “Women have a kind of radar for deception in men, which they switch on or off, depending on the context.”

So sometimes we are bad at detecting lies because that serves our interests.  Tyler taught me the centrality of self-deception in human affairs, and so I wonder: could our need to be good at believing lies explain why we are surprisingly bad at detecting lies?  Are those wizards of lie detection the vanguard of a future humanity, or do they pay a high price in their relationships, finding it hard to support the  lies that fill daily life?

My ‘Misspent’ Youth

In Wired, Kevin Kelly describes the colorful web pioneer Ted Nelson:

Computing pioneer Vannevar Bush outlined the Web’s core idea –
hyperlinked pages – in 1945, but the first person to try to build out
the concept was a freethinker named Ted Nelson who envisioned his own
scheme in 1965. However, he had little success connecting digital bits
on a useful scale, and his efforts were known only to an isolated group
of disciples. Few of the hackers writing code for the emerging Web in
the 1990s knew about Nelson or his hyperlinked dream machine.

In 1984 I quit U. Chicago physics grad school to join the unpaid fringe of Nelson’s group.  (Also to pursue A.I., but that’s another story.) I met Nelson a few times, but mostly spent untold hours talking with the brilliant crowd hanging around his Xanadu project.

During those years (through 1993) I learned that with some effort one can discern a substantially clearer outline of the future than is found in Sunday supplement punditry or even conservative academic commentary.  And one can even have substantial influences on key changes.  We were way ahead of the curve on the web, nanotech, and much more.

But I also learned why this is possible – such insight doesn’t produce much compensation or recognition.  Those who made money and fame on the web were at very specific places and times with just the right skills and resources; foreseeing the general outlines of the web mean rather little.  Let this be both an encouragement and a warning to those misspending their youth today.  🙂

Of course if we had enough prediction markets about such things,  such insight might both be rewarded and better guide the actions of others.

Thanks to Chris. F.  Masse for the pointer.

Why no one has a good approach to animal welfare

Surely it seems reasonable to count the welfare of animals — or at least selected high-cognition animals — for something rather than nothing.  But this throws moral calculations into a funk.  Even if you count individual animals for very little, there are many billions of them.

Was it a good idea for humans to have settled the New World?  I’ll answer yes without hesitation.  But what if billions of other mammals died — in net terms — as a result?  I don’t want my answer to depend on my relative weighting scheme for animal vs. human welfare.  Nor would I kill a good friend to save the lives of a million cats.  Or a billion cats for that matter.  Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive.  The Humane Society is not a waste of resources.

We might argue that the value of animal lives, as we sum them up, hits some asymptotic limit.  But if that limit binds, we are back to not caring about individual cats — evaluated at the relevant margin — much more than epsilon.

It is disquieting that so many fascist thinkers have held animal welfare in high regard.  Once we start counting animals in our moral theory, we too easily get used to the idea that violent conflict is an inevitable part of nature.  Human vs. rat, and of course tiger vs. deer as well.  How can we segregate this apparent endorsement of violence away from human-to-human affairs?  Life as a secular moral thinker is difficult.

The issue of animal welfare provides the strongest available case for moral holism.  It would solve many problems to evaluate states of affairs as wholes, rather than adding up, or otherwise weighting, goods and bads from the constituent parts of those wholes.  But being an individualist at heart, I am reluctant to extend such holism to human affairs.  And even holism must resort to additive consequentialist reasoning to address a variety of practical questions at the margin.

Alternatively, we might develop a moral theory which is neither strictly lexical nor strictly additive in terms of how it treats value.  For that achievement we would have to award a Nobel Prize for moral philosophy…

Accident compensation in New Zealand

Get this:

New Zealand has a comprehensive no-fault insurance scheme administered by the Accident Compensation Commission (ACC). The scheme applies to all injuries incurred in New Zealand regardless of the injured person’s country of residence. Under the ACC scheme it is generally not possible to sue for damages due to an accident. To pay for the ACC scheme, levies are payable by all New Zealand resident employers, employees and self-employed contractors.

In other words, instead of being able to sue another party, you get a piddly payment from the government.  Here is material on the history of ACC.  Here are more details, along with accident statistics.  You can buy a law review issue on ACC.  Here is one criticism of ACC, from a market-oriented point of view.  It is, after all, government monopolization of the accident insurance market.  On the other hand, it keeps down lawyers’ salaries.

Here is further information on the safety of bungee jumping.

Addendum: Libertarians who hold great faith in market mechanisms of reputation might favor this system over strict liability.  Consumers could still patronize a high-reputation, high safety bungee-jumping firm, if they wished to, thereby replicating strict liability outcomes.  But other consumers could opt for the "I don’t mind not being able to sue you, anyway I know you otherwise wouldn’t exist and I love risk" kind of ride.  Of course this split will work better for contractual relations than for road accidents.