Category Archives: Economics

Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]

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gdp_per_capita_slide

gdp_growth

The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of the darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.”

Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. But it is delusional to want to return to the good old times because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

In addition, we now have social media, where grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.

And:

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

[…]

We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

And:

Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”

And:

How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of circumstance is the most important one that can be made. But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion.

Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on whose echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative to disqualify the other group on the basis of race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponents. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:

pew_better_worse

Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

Bots, Markets, and Assortative Mating

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Tay, AlphaGo, and News Feed Algorithms

AI reached two milestones last month: beating the top human player in the world at Go, and creating a “teen girl AI” that “became a Hitler-loving sex robot.” As an enthusiast in chess, I was under the impression that Go was way more complicated and that it would take decades from now for a computer to outplay a human. Oops. The future is here. It seems pretty awesome, but other than that, I feel unqualified to speak further about the Go match.

I do feel more than qualified, however, to talk about Tay. I mean, I’m not an expert on Hitler-loving sex robots, but I have spent a lot of time arguing with people on the internet, and wow do things derail quickly. So my obviously hindsight reaction is Come on, how did you not expect this? Like, have you ever seen the comments section of a YouTube video? If you train on that, was any other result even possible? My solution is, find anyone who has made any angry comment on any YouTube video, and hire them to break your AI during testing. Also, when I imagine what people in the 1990s worried about in terms of AI development, I’m sure this was not one of them. Thanks, internet.

One more thing about AI: Facebook and Twitter news feeds. I’m generally in favor of any change that makes me have to do less work, such as scrolling past posts which, according to some algorithm, I probably don’t care about. However, the paranoia is that if I “like” an article titled, “Microsoft deletes ‘teen girl’ AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours,” I would be horrified if Facebook thought I were interested in Microsoft, teen girl AIs, and Hitler-loving sex robots from that action and then show me posts about them. Apparently, this worry is already prevalent:

In Karahalios’ study, many people voiced a common Facebook complaint: too many baby photos in their feeds. They said they would Like a friend’s baby picture out of a feeling of obligation, but then immediately hide the post to try to tell Facebook they didn’t actually want a feed full of toddlers.

So the solution is to like the story but then immediately hide it? I’ll remember that for the day when Microsoft releases a schoolgirl chatbot in the culture that is Japan.

Oh wait, that already happened.

Stocks and College Tuition

When a stock price is too low, you buy, and when it is too high, you sell. That is the most basic thing about a market. Of course, there are a million reasons why this is not so easy to do and why there is an entire sector of the economy trying to do this. And of course, as a disclaimer, nothing on this blog is ever financial advice, even “buy low, sell high.”

Now the “buy low, sell high” strategy may be even more difficult to do in things outside of stocks. One side is pretty easy to do: if groceries or cars or houses are being offered too low, buy them.

But the other side is tricky. If your grocery store is selling oranges at $50 per orange, and people are actually buying them, you probably want to sell oranges at $45 to compete with them. But you need oranges! One way to obtain oranges is to buy them for a cheaper price elsewhere, and resell them at a higher price. So you could go to a nearby city, buy 100 oranges for $1 a piece, pay $100 in transportation fees and resell them for $45 a piece, for a net profit of $4,300. But if oranges are also selling $50 in the other town, you can’t do this, so you would need to grow your own oranges, and that takes some effort, but may be worth doing depending on how much demand there is for these oranges.

The same is true for cars and houses. If the prices for them are just too high overall, the right thing to do may be to found a company that produces oranges or cars or houses and sell them at exorbitant prices. By creating competition, you are also ever so slightly lowering prices to be closer to the fair price.

During the housing bubble, if you thought prices for houses were too low, you would buy houses hoping to flip them out at an even higher fair price. But if you thought house prices were too high, it was more difficult to make that bet. You could buy a financial instrument called a credit default swap on subprime mortgage bonds, or you enter the competition by building houses for a relatively low cost and selling them at very high prices. Both options were difficult and risky.

Enter college tuition [Bloomberg]:

college_tuition

No longer is it the rent that is too damn high, but the college tuition. It has become a political issue now, with politicians in both parties decrying the cost of higher education. Among the 2016 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has made a particularly big deal about this, going so far as to propose universal free college tuition. Even Donald Trump agrees in spirit: “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.”

How are markets supposed to work again? Do you buy when prices are too high? No, you sell! That’s how you both make money and help drive down prices to some reasonable level. The simple theoretic solution is to found new universities. Unfortunately, the for-profit college idea has empirically been a failure so far.

I’m still hopeful for a better solution. Nonetheless, I’m glad I have already gone through college. My alma mater currently costs $67,613 a year.

Not-Often-Talked-About Sources of Income Inequality

My news feeds on Facebook and Twitter seem more political than before,  which is unsurprising given the proximity to the presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, there is much talk of economic inequality.

I roughly agree with this Paul Graham essay written a few months ago. It starts off the contradiction that startups seem to both help the world and increase inequality:

I’m interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I’ve been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn’t be helping founders. No one should be.

It then talks about how there are some good sources of inequality (startups, variation in productivity) and some bad ones (tax loopholes, high incarceration rates), and we should be focusing on the latter group, not on inequality categorically.

Besides startups and productive gaps, what are other good sources of inequality? The one that came to mind was assortative mating. Basically, if two rich people married each other and two poor people married each other, you have household inequality, but if they cross-married, you have household equality. The former is becoming more prevalent. Not only does this increase immediate inequality, but it also decreases economic mobility by denying poor people from marrying up.

Tyler Cowen thinks this is nontrivial [NYT]:

These matches are great for those individuals who can build prosperous and happy family alliances, but they also propagate inequality across the generations. Of all the causes behind growing income inequality, in the longer run this development may prove one of the most significant and also one of the hardest to counter.

And more sentences here:

As it becomes harder for many people to “marry up” as a path for income mobility for themselves or their children, families that are not well connected may feel disengaged, and the significant, family-based advantages for some children may discourage others from even trying. The numbers show that assortative mating really matters.

One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

Will the fight against economic inequality be so fervent that, in the future, startups and assortative marriages will be shunned? It would be a strange world to imagine.

Misc

I’m a space geek, but someone definitely spent too much effort making this Pluto and Charon video [Business Insider]. Also, when it states that Pluto and Charon are tidally locked, it is one of the times when the animation does not show them tidally locked.

2015 and What I’m Thinking About

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Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…

Markets

One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.

Are First World Problems Justified?

first-world-problems

One thing that often happens in debates I’ve seen is when someone points out a problem with the world, another answers that there is something worse.

Depending on its context, this is the fallacy of relative privation:

A well-known example of this fallacy is the response “but there are children starving in Africa,” with the implication that any issue less serious than that is not worthy of discussion; or the common saying “I used to lament having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

On one hand, you’re giving attention to a bigger problem, but on the other, you’re derailing the discussion from the current one. To one extreme, we should only be concerned with the absolute core problems of humanity such as poverty, and to the other, we could be perfectly content with giving significant attention to first world problems. How much moral obligation must you have to problems outside your circle?

I’m interested in what people’s opinions are on this problem.

Thinking Like an Economist

DismalScience

I recently read two things related to economics: some economics blogs (particularly Marginal Revolution), and a list of economics jokes.

For someone like myself who doesn’t see everything in economic terms, the world of those who do is very bizarre. For instance, when we think about wealth inequality and how to reduce it, we inevitably come up with familiar concepts like increasing tax rates for the rich, capping their income, regulating investments, and so on. But the first article I stumbled upon, “Two Surefire Solutions to Inequality,” provided two strange solutions: increasing the fertility rate among the rich, and decreasing the fertility rate among the rich.

The tl;dr arguments are as follows: Increasing the fertility rate among the rich means that large wealthy families will be forced to divide their wealth every generation, thus lowering individual wealth slowly over time (of course, assortative mating slows this down).

On the other hand, decreasing the fertility rate among the rich means that the rich class will slowly disappear over time.

This seems really strange. Neither solution obviously solves any problem, and they might make make things worse in the short term. In addition, any government mandate on this would be hard to define and would be met by resentment on both sides in either situation. In other words, these solutions are absurd.

But in another sense, they are not absurd at all. They both make perfect logical sense. Assumptions were made, but not much more so than any other economic model. So why are these solutions so strange? Is it just social norms holding us back? A fear of anything resembling eugenics? A desire to not mess with peoples’ rights?

For a change of pace, here are some funny economics jokes, from the link given at the beginning:

An economist is someone who has had a human being described to him, but has never actually seen one.

When doctors make mistakes, at least they kill their patients. When economists make mistakes, they merely ruin them.

One night a policeman saw a macroeconomist looking for something by a lightpole. He asked him if he had lost something there. The economist said, “I lost my keys over in the alley.” The policeman asked him why he was looking by the lightpole. The economist responded, “It’s a lot easier to look over here.”

Slavery, Sochi, and Steroids: When Does Competition Go Too Far?

winter

In the Olympics (and sporting in general), it is generally considered wrong for an athlete to take performance-enhancing drugs.

Let us take one step back and ask, Why?

Is there any a priori reason that substances like steroids should be banned? Is eating an athletic diet also “cheating”? What about genetic mutations—wouldn’t it unfair if I have a gene that, given all else equal, allows me to run 20% faster than you?

(These are the conversations I have on Friday nights.)

One main point of the Olympics is to test the limits of what humans can do. Someone ran 100 meters in 9.8 seconds? Awesome! Someone ran it in 9.6? Even better! I want to see that! But suppose someone ran 100 meters in 9.4, but was later tested positive for banned substances. Then who is the fastest person in the world at running 100 meters: athlete 9.6 or athlete 9.4?

It depends, of course, on how we frame the question. If we ask, “What is the fastest valid 100 meter dash in Olympic history?,” the answer is 9.6 seconds. But if we ask instead, “What is the fastest time ever for a 100 meter dash?,” the answer becomes 9.4. It would still be true that the fastest time in which a human ran 100 meters is 9.4 seconds.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that eating an athletic diet makes your time 0.2 seconds faster at the 100-meter dash, and taking illegal substances can also boost the time by 0.2 seconds. Then we might have the following 100-meter times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8 9.6
Doping 9.6 9.4

In this case, the fastest time is 9.6 because as a society, we agreed on the rules that eating a diet to enhance performance is good, but taking a drug to do so is bad. However, does this mean we are missing out on a possibly faster time, the 9.4?

It is unfair if only one athlete is allowed to use a certain tactic to enhance performance, so let us suppose that we are now looking at the top three finishers, off by 0.1 seconds each. Assume everyone is following the same rules. Here is a the same chart, now showing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd times:

Normal Diet Athletic Diet
No Doping 9.8, 9.9, 10.0 9.6, 9.7, 9.8
Doping 9.6, 9.7, 9.8 9.4, 9.5, 9.6

We can assume that the fastest person is the fastest in all four boxes, the second fastest is second, and so on. Now, we only consider doping to be cheating because it’s agreed upon that it is cheating. Eating an athletic diet, on the other hand, is not considered cheating, so we… don’t consider it to be cheating.

This raises the question, is there any point to these artificial rules? A competition is concerned with relative times and not absolute times (even then, the absolute times are only interesting because we compare them to the absolute times in years past, hence making them again relative times). Under the restrictions of diet or doping, the relative times are all the same. So are the rules simply arbitrary? Should we allow doping because it will reveal the full potential of human beings?

My intuition is no, and there are arguments for and against. One of the immediate objections is that doping is unnatural. But so is eating a diet specifically designed to optimize your athletic performance. So that argument doesn’t quite hold.

One of the more legitimate points is human health. We know that performance-enhancing drugs come with a range of side effects. Let’s say that a regular user of PED’s has their lifespan cut by 1 year. In addition, if PED’s are legalized, then everyone will start using them, because there would be no way to seriously compete without them (like it is futile to compete while on a diet of donuts and soda today). So is it worth shaving 1 year off of every athlete’s life to improve the absolute numbers, which don’t matter, by 0.2 seconds? Obviously not. (Is it obvious?)

However, what about a situation where the “absolute numbers” do matter? Let’s say that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and all the scientists and engineers with the relevant technical skills are working on how to deflect it. However, they are still working 8 hours a day. Should we be able to force them to go to 10 hours, or 12 hours, or even 16 hours? (Of course, given the gravity of the situation, no pun intended, these people are probably voluntarily willing to work harder anyways, but suppose they are not.) In this scenario, there might be 100 teams with 100 different solutions to deflect the asteroid. The best solution has a 47% chance of success. But if everyone were instead working 16 hours a day, the best solution might have a 70% chance of success. Do we force longer hours?

What about a doctor who is trying to cure cancer? Should this doctor be allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs so that he might have a slightly better shot at the big issue?

And what about capitalism? The free market provides the ultimate competition: your 100-meter speed is now your wealth and status. How far will you go to improve it? Should the government restrict your ability to create wealth?

The title of this post starts with “Slavery,” so what has that got to do with anything? Well, under an “anything goes” structure, allowing slavery might be the only way a country can support a certain level of economic production, perhaps in order to defend itself. This does not have to be an economic slavery—it could be political slavery, or totalitarian rule. Imagine we detect an alien fleet that is just blowing up planets of the solar system and is headed to Earth. Is martial law justified?

And here’s a more realistic issue: Should a country be allowed to do whatever it wants in order to develop? In response to climate change and environmental damage, the developed countries of the world are starting to decrease their pollution levels, particularly of greenhouse gases, by using more renewable energy and being more environmentally aware. Should a developing country be exempt from the rules and be allowed to power itself solely using cheap but environmentally harmful fossil fuels, because it can’t afford renewable energy?

If everybody is sitting in a crowded theater, and you have a really lousy view, should you be allowed to stand up (and take away the view from the person seated behind you)? See this post for similar issues.

In the end, the absolute numbers don’t matter most of the time—it’s the relative that matters.

Credit to Jesse Orshan for this discussion.

When Does Not Deciding Count as a Decision?

decisions-2

This week’s topic is whether not deciding is itself a decision. Let us start by escalating things quickly: consider the classic trolley problem.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

While there are many interesting aspects of the trolley problem, with many variants of the problem that may cause one to reconsider their views, this article is concerned with one particular question: Is actively choosing option (1), or doing nothing, equivalent to passively not making a decision? (It turns out this question has real-world consequences, as will be evident below.)

That is, is there is a difference between

  • A) Considering (1) and (2), and deciding that (1) is morally superior; and
  • B) Ignoring the decision, and thus passively allowing (1) to occur?

For one difference, consider the same trolley problem except that the trolley is initially headed for the 1 person, and you have to pull the lever to turn it to the 5 people. In such a case, someone using thought process (A) would STILL choose (1), to have the trolley hit 5 people, whereas someone using thought process (B) would now “choose” (2), allowing the 1 person to be killed.

In the original case, it is difficult to justify non-decision; however, one would most likely be viewed as innocent if one made no decision and allowed the trolley to kill 5. This is because the legal system generally can only punish decisions, not non-decisions. So the real question is, are the following equivalent?

  • I) The trolley is already headed towards the 5 people, and you allow it to continue on course.
  • II) The trolley is headed towards the 1 person, and you divert it to head towards the 5.

The outcome of both situations is the same, namely the 5 people die but the 1 person survives. However, it seems that if this were considered a wrong action, we would be able to legally punish (II), but not (I), since (I) could have been based on not deciding. However, should they be legally viewed the same? That is, should someone be accountable for not deciding?

Speed Chess

One of the interesting examples of decision vs non-decision in a non-legal, non-moral context is blitz chess. When you have only a few minutes for the whole game, you cannot afford to spend a sufficient amount of time thinking about every move. Instead, you must ration your time as a resource, and in some cases choose to not think on a particular move. Speed chess is indeed based primarily on intuition, less so on cold calculation.

Thus in speed chess, it is very feasible that not thinking about a move is itself a decision. Once you have a lot of experience, you gain the intuition of which types of positions require calculation and which do not. It becomes possible to say when it is “correct” to not decide. In this case, not deciding is clearly a decision.

Willful Ignorance

Decisions are based on available information, so a natural question relevant to whether one can be held accountable for not deciding is whether one can be held accountable for not knowing. Moreover, it is important whether someone can be held accountable for intentionally refusing to know. After all, no one would blame a child for thinking that Earth is flat. But when adults believe the world is flat, that is an entirely different issue, because most likely they have intentionally refused to hear the case of the round Earth.

The same goes for evolution, only there are significant national and state policy decisions made based on the refusal to learn about it. Of course, we wouldn’t hold a child responsible for their beliefs, but for an adult to use willful ignorance in decision making is inexcusable.

Whether willful ignorance is problematic in principle can be seen in a trolley variant. Suppose the person who has the power to pull the lever believes that the case is as in the original trolley problem. However, the side which supposedly has 1 person actually has 100.

The operator pulls the lever, diverting the trolley from the side of 5 people to the side of 100, killing all 100 people. Note that the operator cannot be blamed because of genuine ignorance.

Now consider an alternative scenario. The situation is the same as above: the operator believes that is a matter of 5 lives vs 1 life, but it is actually a matter of 5 vs 100. Before making the decision, someone else runs in, screaming that there are actually 100 people on the second track. It would be extremely easy to verify this, but instead, the operator refuses to listen to the new information and diverts the track to the 100 anyways, still clinging to the belief that there is only 1 person. In this case, the operator is being willfully ignorant.

(Can some lawyer explain if there are indeed differences in the previous situations?)

There are countless other examples where the intentional lack of information should not be a valid excuse for a bad decision. Suppose someone is about to receive the death penalty for a crime. A piece of evidence shows up that could provide reasonable doubt in the conviction. It would be absurd to refuse to see this evidence, especially because the refusal to see it would most likely be the result of the people really wanting this person to receive the death penalty, and that the extra information could disturb their beliefs.

A similar example is that some nation has borderline-quality intel justifying a war, and they decide to launch the war before they look at newer intel that could possibly negate the previous intel. Thus even if they are later found to be wrong, they would be able to use the ignorance argument by saying they didn’t know better at the time, even if they knew of the possibility of being wrong. There is a difference between genuinely believing the lack of contradictory information and the intentional refusal to look at (possibly) contradictory information.

It’s not a fine line that separates non-decision and the active decision that leads to the same result as in non-decision. Similarly, it’s not a fine line that separates genuine ignorance and willful ignorance. But even without a perfectly clear demarcation, the differences are real and these actions can and should be treated differently.