Category: Philosophy

Developing object permanence around flinches

Many years ago, I did an exercise where I made a list of thoughts that I flinched away from. Then, I made spaced repetition cards with the thoughts.

The cards were statements like: “As of March 2009, I am currently uncomfortable with the idea that quitting my job might be the right move.” (Totally fake example to communicate the format.)

I think it was a really useful exercise, and it’s pretty easy to implement, and I basically recommend it to people.

I don’t think the part about spaced repetition software specifically was all that important–I think the idea was that I developed something like object permanence around these mental flinches of mine, and that was the way I accomplished that.

If you try this, I wouldn’t try to force yourself to consider the uncomfortable thought at the object level. I would try to internalize that you are in fact uncomfortable considering it at the object level, and maybe meditate on possible cognitive chilling effects of that situation.

Because, in my experience, human brains are pretty good at back-propagating these flinches, and that can cut off a lot of otherwise useful thought. (The linked article is very good, but includes a framing and approach that are, IMO, importantly different from what worked for me. YMMV.)

From Divia Eden, via Alexey Guzey.

Free Will and the Brain

Tyler and I have been arguing about free will for decades. One of the strongest arguments against free-will is an empirical argument due to physiologist Benjamin Libet. Libet famously found that the brain seems to signal a decision to act before the conscious mind makes an intention to act. Brain scans can see a finger tap coming 500 ms before the tap but the conscious decision seems to be made nly 150 ms before the tap. Libet’s results, however, are now being reinterpreted:

The Atlantic: To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

…In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

The Atlantic piece with more background is here. A scientific piece summarizing some of the new experiments is here. Of course, the philosophical puzzles remain. Tyler and I will continue to argue.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

Existential risk and growth

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Leopold Aschenbrenner:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

Bravo!  44 pp. of brilliant text, another 40 pp. of proofs and derivations, and rumor has it that Leopold is only 17 years old, give or take.

If you happen to know Leopold, please do ask him to drop me a line.

For the pointer I thank Pablo Stafforini.

Special Emergent Ventures tranche to study the nature and causes of progress

I am pleased to announce the initiation of a new, special tranche of the Emergent Ventures fund, namely to study the nature and causes of progress, economic and scientific progress yes but more broadly too, including social and cultural factors.  This has been labeled at times “Progress Studies.

Simply apply at the normal Emergent Ventures site and follow the super-simple instructions.  Feel free to mention the concept of progress if appropriate to your idea and proposal.  Here is the underlying philosophy of Emergent Ventures.

And I am pleased to announce that an initial award from this tranche has been made to the excellent Pseudoerasmus, for blog writing on historical economic development and also for high-quality Twitter engagement and for general scholarly virtue and commitment to ideas.

Pseudoerasmus has decided to donate this award to the UK Economic History Society.  Hail Pseudoerasmus!

Rebuilding the British right?

For most of the postwar era, the Conservative Party prided itself on its ability to tell an economic story. Tories traditionally explained their right to govern in terms of an overarching economic vision for the country, a vision which was instantiated in policy and which often set the political agenda.

From Macmillan to Thatcher to Cameron, they presented themselves as the party of national prosperity, and of hard-nosed economic realities, and many people voted for them on this basis. But this no longer seems to be the case.

The last few years have witnessed what elsewhere we called the Strange Death of Tory Economic Thinking. In the years following the EU Referendum, Conservatives in Britain largely dropped the economy from the heart of their political story. This is not just a criticism of Mayism, with its Home Office view of the world; many who professed to be market liberals seemed to do so performatively, without serious consideration of what they wanted to deregulate or how.

The recent change of Prime Minister provides an opportunity to put this right. We hope that the new government will turn away from the trajectory of the last three years, and start taking economics seriously again. If it chooses not to, we would urge others on the centre-right to take up the challenge.

This paper is an attempt to sketch out some principles for a centre-right economic outlook, and some specific policies to focus on.

We begin by presenting a few important stylised facts about the contemporary British economy that should frame an economic narrative; we then set out some political principles for how to turn these into economic policy.

Based on these, we set out a set of policies in four areas where we think progress can be made: tax, housing, infrastructure and devolution, and innovation and technology.

Finally, we conclude with some long-term actions that need to be taken to begin rebuilding an economic narrative for the Right.

This website was written by Sam Bowman and Stian Westlake. If you would like to discuss it, they can be contacted via Twitter (@s8mb and @stianwestlake respectively). If you would like a PDF of the whole website, you can find one here.

Here is the link.

America’s depressing new culture war

What do we learn from reading through a list of top Patreon winners?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Feel free to peruse the list yourself. My own browsing and clicking led me to a new conclusion: America’s culture war is not just left-wing vs. right-wing, or privileged vs. unfortunate, or even Trump vs. his critics. It is between those who believe in aspiring to something greater and those who do not.

You will note that your main criticisms already are covered in my text.

*Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals?*

That is the new book by my colleague Virgil Storr and co-author Ginny Seung Choi.  Here is a summary take on it, excerpt:

This book explores whether or not engaging in market activities is morally corrupting. Storr and Choi demonstrate that people in market societies are wealthier, healthier, happier and better connected than those in societies where markets are more restricted. More provocatively, they explain that successful markets require and produce virtuous participants. Markets serve as moral spaces that both rely on and reward their participants for being virtuous. Rather than harming individuals morally, the market is an arena where individuals are encouraged to be their best moral selves. Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? invites us to reassess the claim that markets corrupt our morals.

Here is a Deirdre McCloskey blurb:

“Storr and Choi have brought economics and politics back to ethics, which should never have been left. Of course values matter. Of course markets smooth off the rough sides of humans. Of course ‘sweet commerce’ reigns, and should. Of course. But it took a brilliant book like this one to show it.”

You can order the book here.

*10% Less Democracy*

The author is Garett Jones and the subtitle is Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses A Little Less, coming soon to a theater near you, early 2020.

If you believe in judicial independence, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you do not think we should elect judges, sheriffs, and dog catchers, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you believe in those European proportional representation systems, with post-election bargaining, you do not believe in complete democracy.

If you are a fan of the EU…etc.

Here is an excerpt from Garett’s excellent book:

Some cities in California appoint their treasurers and others elect their treasurers.  Cities can have elections to decide whether the city treasurer should be appointed by the city government; the default is that they’re elected.  Whalley checks to see which kinds of cities have lower borrowing costs: ones with appointed treasurers or elected ones.  The interest rate paid on a city’s debt is a useful index of how well the city is running its finances…So Whalley’s overall question is this: Do cities with appointed treasurers pay lower interest rates on their debt?

…Over the period Whalley examined, 1992 to 2008, forty-three cities held referenda to ask whether they should switch to appointed treasurers.  He’s therefore able to look at the before-and-after differences of these elections…

[there is] an even bigger benefit of appointed treasurers: seven-tenths of a percent lower interest rates every year.  The average city has $30 million in debt, so that comes out to a savings of $210,000 per year.

Do I hear eleven percent anybody?  Though twenty percent I do not wish to hazard, not at all.

You can pre-order the book here.

Tattoos and time preferences

Survey and experimental evidence documents discrimination against tattooed individuals in the labor market and in commercial transactions. Thus, individuals’ decision to get tattooed may reflect short-sighted time preferences. We show that, according to numerous measures, those with tattoos, especially visible ones, are more short-sighted and impulsive than the non-tattooed. Almost nothing mitigates these results, neither the motive for the tattoo, the time contemplated before getting tattooed nor the time elapsed since the last tattoo. Even the expressed intention to get a(nother) tattoo predicts increased short-sightedness and helps establish the direction of causality between tattoos and short-sightedness.

That is from a new paper by Bradley J. Ruffle and Anne E. Wilson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

David Wright interviews me

Dave is an actuary, super-talented, and one of my very favorite interviewers and best prepared interviewers in the whole wide world (do say yes if he offers to interview you for his podcast).

Here is the audio, most of the questions go well beyond the usual.  It starts with my book Big Business but even gets into the Straussian side of things, globalization, the price of fame, and much more.


Eva Vivalt on Give Later

One of the more important things I’ve changed my mind about recently is the best cause to donate to. I now put the most credence on the possibility that the best option is donating to a fund that invests the money and disburses strategically in the future. I will refer to this as “giving later”, though I actually support giving now to a donor-advised fund set up to disburse in the future, for the value that donating now can have for encouraging others to donate (and because of the risk that even if one thinks one will donate later, one will at some point change one’s mind).

There are several reasons why I prefer a fund that disburses in the future. First, I believe people currently discount the future too much (see hyperbolic discounting, climate change). If people discount the future, that causes the rate of return on investments to always be higher than the growth rate (else people would not be willing to invest). In economics, the Ramsey equation is often used to determine how much a social planner should discount future consumption. It is specified by r=ηg+δ, where r is the real rate of return on investment, η is the extent to which marginal utility decreases with consumption, g is the growth rate, and δ represents pure time preferences. Unless one personally puts a particularly high value on δ, it makes sense to invest today and spend later to take advantage of the gap between the real rate of return on investment (~7%) and the growth rate (~3-4%).

…A second reason that I prefer a fund that disburses in the future is that I think we have very limited knowledge today and that our knowledge is increasing. I am concerned about the problem that research results do not generalize all that well, but with respect to economic development I am optimistic that the situation can improve. With respect to technological change which could bring huge benefits or risks, I think we know even less about the problems future generations will face and may be able to understand them better in the future. It seems unlikely to me that we are at the exact moment in time, out of all periods of time from here on out into the future, that we actually have the best opportunity to do good. We may not recognize the best moment when it comes, but that just pushes the argument back a step: I also think it unlikely that we are at the best moment, out of the whole foreseeable future, to have the best combination of knowledge and opportunity to do good.

Interesting throughout, here is the link, and in sum:

I think it appeals psychologically to many people – myself included – to think that we are living at a particularly important time. However, I recognize that people have thought this throughout history. As more time has passed, I have become increasingly confident that my gut antipathy to the idea that it’s better to “give later” is just a cognitive bias.