Small Change Good, Big Change Bad?

Recently I posted on how many seek spiritual insight via cutting the tendency of their minds to wander, yet some like Scott Alexandar fear ems with a reduced tendency to mind wandering because they’d have less moral value. On twitter Scott clarified that he doesn’t mind modest cuts in mind wandering; what he fears is extreme cuts. And on reflection it occurs to me that this is actually THE standard debate about change: some see small changes and either like them or aren’t bothered enough to advocate what it would take to reverse them, while others imagine such trends continuing long enough to result in very large and disturbing changes, and then suggest stronger responses.

For example, on increased immigration some point to the many concrete benefits immigrants now provide. Others imagine that large cumulative immigration eventually results in big changes in culture and political equilibria. On fertility, some wonder if civilization can survive in the long run with declining population, while others point out that population should rise for many decades, and few endorse the policies needed to greatly increase fertility. On genetic modification of humans, some ask why not let doctors correct obvious defects, while others imagine parents eventually editing kid genes mainly to max kid career potential. On oil some say that we should start preparing for the fact that we will eventually run out, while others say that we keep finding new reserves to replace the ones we use.

On nature preserves, some fear eventually losing all of wild nature, but when arguing for any particular development others say we need new things and we still have plenty of nature. On military spending, some say the world is peaceful and we have many things we’d rather spend money on, while others say that societies who do not remain militarily vigilant are eventually conquered. On increasing inequality some say that high enough inequality must eventually result in inadequate human capital investments and destructive revolutions, while others say there’s little prospect of revolution now and inequality has historically only fallen much in big disasters such as famine, war, and state collapse. On value drift, some say it seems right to let each new generation choose its values, while others say a random walk in values across generations must eventually drift very far from current values.

If we consider any parameter, such as typical degree of mind wandering, we are unlikely to see the current value as exactly optimal. So if we give people the benefit of the doubt to make local changes in their interest, we may accept that this may result in a recent net total change we don’t like. We may figure this is the price we pay to get other things we value more, and we we know that it can be very expensive to limit choices severely.

But even though we don’t see the current value as optimal, we also usually see the optimal value as not terribly far from the current value. So if we can imagine current changes as part of a long term trend that eventually produces very large changes, we can become more alarmed and willing to restrict current changes. The key question is: when is that a reasonable response?

First, big concerns about big long term changes only make sense if one actually cares a lot about the long run. Given the usual high rates of return on investment, it is cheap to buy influence on the long term, compared to influence on the short term. Yet few actually devote much of their income to long term investments. This raises doubts about the sincerity of expressed long term concerns.

Second, in our simplest models of the world good local choices also produce good long term choices. So if we presume good local choices, bad long term outcomes require non-simple elements, such as coordination, commitment, or myopia problems. Of course many such problems do exist. Even so, someone who claims to see a long term problem should be expected to identify specifically which such complexities they see at play. It shouldn’t be sufficient to just point to the possibility of such problems.

Third, our ability to foresee the future rapidly declines with time. The more other things that may happen between today and some future date, the harder it is to foresee what may happen at that future date. We should be increasingly careful about the inferences we draw about longer terms.

Fourth, many more processes and factors limit big changes, compared to small changes. For example, in software small changes are often trivial, while larger changes are nearly impossible, at least without starting again from scratch. Similarly, modest changes in mind wandering can be accomplished with minor attitude and habit changes, while extreme changes may require big brain restructuring, which is much harder because brains are complex and opaque. Recent changes in market structure may reduce the number of firms in each industry, but that doesn’t make it remotely plausible that one firm will eventually take over the entire economy. Projections of small changes into large changes need to consider the possibility of many such factors limiting large changes.

Fifth, while it can be reasonably safe to identify short term changes empirically, the longer term a forecast the more one needs to rely on theory, and the more different areas of expertise one must consider when constructing a relevant model of the situation. Beware a mere empirical projection into the long run, or a theory-based projection that relies on theories in only one area.

We should very much be open to the possibility of big bad long term changes, even in areas where we are okay with short term changes, or at least reluctant to sufficiently resist them. But we should also try to hold those who argue for the existence of such problems to relatively high standards. Their analysis should be about future times that we actually care about, and can at least roughly foresee. It should be based on our best theories of relevant subjects, and it should consider the possibility of factors that limit larger changes.

And instead of suggesting big ways to counter short term changes that might lead to long term problems, it is often better to identify markers to warn of larger problems. Then instead of acting in big ways now, we can make sure to track these warning markers, and ready ourselves to act more strongly if they appear.

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How Human Are Meditators?

Someday we may be able to create brain emulations (ems), and someday later we may understand them sufficiently to allow substantial modifications to them. Many have expressed concern that competition for efficient em workers might then turn ems into inhuman creatures of little moral worth. This might happen via reductions of brain systems, features, and activities that are distinctly human but that contribute less to work effectiveness. For example Scott Alexander fears loss of moral value due to “a very powerful ability to focus the brain on the task at hand” and ems “neurologically incapable of having their minds drift off while on the job”.

A plausible candidate for em brain reduction to reduce mind drift is the default mode network:

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future.… becomes activated within an order of a fraction of a second after participants finish a task. … deactivate during external goal-oriented tasks such as visual attention or cognitive working memory tasks. … The brain’s energy consumption is increased by less than 5% of its baseline energy consumption while performing a focused mental task. … The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, we say that key tasks for our distant ancestors were tracking how others saw them, watching for ways others might accuse them of norm violations, and managing stories of their motives and plans to help them defend against such accusations. The difficulty of this task was a big reason humans had such big brains. So it made sense to design our brains to work on such tasks in spare moments. However, if ems could be productive workers even with a reduced capacity for managing their social image, it might make sense to design ems to spend a lot less time and energy ruminating on their image.

Interestingly, many who seek personal insight and spiritual enlightenment try hard to reduce the influence of this key default mode network. Here is Sam Harris from his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Psychologists and neuroscientist now acknowledge that the human mind tends to wander. .. Subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. .. People are consistently less happy when their minds wander, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. … The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the … “default mode” or “resting state” network (DMN). .. Activity in the DMN decreases when subjects concentrate on tasks of the sort employed in most neuroimaging experiments.

The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for “self-representation.” … [it] is more engaged when we make such judgements of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first person point of view. … Generally speaking, to pay attention outwardly reduces activity in the [DMN], while thinking about oneself increases it. …

Mindfulness and loving-kindness mediation also decrease activity in the DMN – and the effect is most pronounced among experienced meditators. … Expert meditators … judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced activity in regions associated with anxiety while anticipanting the onsite of pain. … Mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli. …

There is an enormous difference between being hostage to one’s thoughts and being freely and nonjudgmentally aware of life in the present. To make this shift is to interrupt the process of rumination and reactivity that often keep us so desperately at odds with ourselves and with other people. … Meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. … The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self. (pp.119-123)

I see a big conflict here. On the one hand, many are concerned that competition could destroy moral value by cutting away distinctively human features of em brains, and the default net seems a prime candidate for cutting. On the other hand, many see meditation as a key to spiritual insight, one of the highest human callings, and a key task in meditation is cutting the influence of the default net. Ems with a reduced default net could more easily focus, be mindful, see the illusion of the self, and feel more at peace and less anxious about their social image. So which is it, do such ems achieve our highest spiritual ideals, or are they empty shells mostly devoid of human value? Can’t be both, right?

By the way, I was reading Harris because he and I will record a podcast Feb 21 in Denver.

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A Salute To Median Calm

It is a standard trope of fiction that people often get angry when they suffer life outcomes well below what they see as their justified expectations. Such sore losers are tempted to retaliate against the individuals and institutions they blame for their loss, causing increasing damage until others agree to fix the unfairness.

Most outcomes, like income or fame, are distributed with mean outcomes well above median outcomes. As a result, well over half of everyone gets an outcome below what that they could have reasonably expected. So if this sore loser trope were true, there’d be a whole lot of angry folks causing damage. Maybe even most people would be this angry. Hard to see how civilization could function here. This scenario is often hoped-for by those who seek dramatic revolutions to fix large scale social injustices.

Actually, however, even though most people might plausibly see themselves as unfairly assigned to be losers, few become angry enough to cause much damage. Oh most people will have resentments and complaints, and this may lead on occasion to mild destruction, but most people are mostly peacefully. In the words of the old song, while they may not get what they want, they mostly get what they need.

Not only do most people achieve much less than the average outcomes, they achieve far less than the average outcomes that they see in media and fiction. Furthermore, most people eventually realize that the world is often quite hypocritical about the qualities it rewards. That is, early in life people are told that certain admired types of efforts and qualities are the ones with the best chance to lead to high outcomes. But later people learn that in fact that other less cooperative or fair strategies are often rewarded more. They may thus reasonably conclude that the game was rigged, and that they failed in part because they were fooled for too long.

Given all this, we should be somewhat surprised, and quite grateful, to live in such a calm world. Most people fall below the standard of success set by average outcomes, and far below that set by typical media-visible outcomes. And they learn that their losses are caused in part by winners taking illicit strategies and lying to them about the rewards to admired strategies. Yet contrary to the common fictional trope, this does not induce them to angrily try to burn down our shared house of civilization.

So dear mostly-calm near-median person, I respectfully salute you. Without you and your stoic acceptance, civilization would not be possible. Perhaps I should salute men a bit more, as they are more prone to violent anger, and suffer higher variance and thus higher mean to median outcome ratios. And perhaps the old a bit more too, as they see more of the world’s hypocrisy, and can hope much less for success via big future reversals. But mostly, I salute you all. Humans are indeed amazing creatures.

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The Ems of Altered Carbon

People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. But I figure should illustrate my claim with concrete examples from time to time. Which brings us to Altered Carbon, a ten episode sf series just out on Netflix, based on a 2002 novel. I’ve watched the series, and read the novel and its two sequels.

Altered Carbon’s key tech premise is a small “stack” which can sit next to a human brain collecting and continually updating a digital representation of that brain’s full mental state. This state can also be transferred into the rest of that brain, copied to other stacks, or placed and run in an android body or a virtual reality. Thus stacks allow something much like ems who can move between bodies.

But the universe of Altered Carbon looks very different from my description of the Age of Em. Set many centuries in future, our descendants have colonized many star systems. Technological change then is very slow; someone revived after sleeping for centuries is familiar with almost all the tech they see, and they remain state-of-the-art at their job. While everyone is given a stack as a baby, almost all jobs are done by ordinary humans, most of whom are rather poor and still in their original body, the only body they’ll ever have. Few have any interest in living in virtual reality, which is shown as cheap, comfortable, and realistic; they’d rather die. There’s also little interest in noticeably-non-human android bodies, which could plausibly be pretty cheap.

Regarding getting new very-human-like physical bodies, some have religious objections, many are disinterested, but most are just too poor. So most stacks are actually never used. Stacks can insure against accidents that kill a body but don’t hurt the stack. Yet while it should be cheap and easy to backup stack data periodically, inexplicibly only rich folks do that.

It is very illegal for one person to have more than one stack running at a time. Crime is often punished by taking away the criminal’s body, which creates a limited supply of bodies for others to rent. Very human-like clone and android bodies are also available, but are very expensive. Over the centuries some have become very rich and long-lived “meths”, paying for new bodies as needed. Meths run everything, and are shown as inhumanly immoral, often entertaining themselves by killing poor people, often via sex acts. Our hero was once part of a failed revolution to stop meths via a virus that kills anyone with a century of subjective experience.

Oh, and there have long been fully human level AIs who are mainly side characters that hardly matter to this world. I’ll ignore them, as criticizing the scenario on these grounds is way too easy.

Now my analysis says that there’d be an enormous economic demand for copies of ems, who can do most all jobs via virtual reality or android bodies. If very human-like physical bodies are too expensive, the economy would just skip them. If allowed, ems would quickly take over all work, most activity would be crammed in a few dense cities, and the economy could double monthly. Yet while war is common in the universe of Altered Carbon, and spread across many star systems, no place ever adopts the huge winning strategy of unleashing such an em economy and its associated military power. While we see characters who seek minor local advantages get away for long times with violating the rule against copying, no one ever tries to do this to get vastly rich, or to win a war. No one even seems aware of the possibility.

Even ignoring the AI bit, I see no minor modification to make this into a realistic future scenario. It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous indignation at those damn rich folks who think they can just live forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries. If there are ever poor humans who can’t afford to live forever in very human-like bodies, even if they could easily afford android or virtual immortality, well then both the rich and the long-lived should all burn! So you can feel morally virtuous watching hour after hour of graphic sex and violence toward that end. As it so happens that hand-to-hand combat, typically producing big spurts of blood, and often among nudes, is how most conflicts get handled in this universe. Enjoy!

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Toward Better Signals

While we tend to say and think otherwise, in fact much of what we do is oriented toward helping us to show off. (Our new book argues for this at length.) Assuming this is true, what does a better world look like?

In simple signaling models, people tend to do too much of the activities they use to signal. This suggests that a better world is one that taxes or limits such activities. Say by taxing or limiting school, hospitals, or sporting contests. However, this is hard to arrange because signaling via political systems tends to create the opposite: subsidies and minimum required levels of such widely admired activities. (Though socializing such activities under limited government budgets is often effective.) Also, if we put most all of our life energy into signaling, then limits or taxes on just signaling activities will mainly result in us diverting our efforts to other signals.

If some signaling activities have larger positive externalities, then it seems an obvious win to use taxes, subsidies, etc. to divert our efforts into those activities. This is plausibly why we try to praise people more for showing off via charity, innovation, or whistleblowing. Similarly, we tend to criticize activities like war and other violence with large negative externalities. We should continue to do these things, and also look for other such activities worthy of extra praise or criticism.

However, on reflection I think the biggest problem with signals today is the quality of our audience. When the audience that we want to impress knows little about how our visible actions connect to larger consequences, then we also need not attend much to such connections. For example, to show an audience that we care enough about someone via helping them to get medicine, we need only push the sort of medicine that our audience thinks is effective. Similarly for using charity to convince an audience we care about the poor, politics to convince an audience we care about our nation, or using creative activities to convince an audience we promote innovation.

What if our audiences knew more about which medicines helped health, which charities helped the poor, which national policies help the nation, or which creative activities promoted innovation? That would push us to also know more, and lead us to choose more effective medicines, charities, policies, and innovations. All to the world’s benefit. So what could make the audiences that we seek to impress know more about how our activities connect to these larger consequences?

One approach is make our audiences more elite. Today our efforts to gain more likes on social media have us pandering to a pretty broad and ignorant audience. In contrast, in many old-world rags-to-riches stories, a low person rose in rank via a series of encounters with higher persons, each of whom was suitably impressed. The more that we expect to gain via impressing better-informed elites, the better informed will our show-off actions be.

But this isn’t just about who we seek to impress. It is also about whether we impress them via many small encounters, or via a few big ones. In larger encounters, our audience can take more time to judge how much we really understand about what we are doing. Yes risk and randomness could dominate if the main encounters that mattered to us were too small in number. But we seem pretty far away from that limit at the moment. For now, we’d have a better world of signals if we tried more to impress via a smaller number of more intense encounters with better informed elites.

Of course to fill this role of a better informed audience, it isn’t enough for “elites” to merely be richer, prettier, or more popular. They need to actually know more about how signaling actions connect to larger consequences. So there can be outsized gains from better educating elites on such things, and from selecting our elites more from those who are better educated on them. And anything that distracts elites from performing well in this this crucial role can have outsized costs.

Of course there’s a lot more to figure out here; I’ve just scratched the surface. But still, I thought I should plant a flag now, and show that it is possible to think more carefully about how to make a better world, when that world is chock full of signaling.

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On Unsolved Problems

Imagine a book review:

The authors present convincing evidence that since 1947 aliens from beyond Earth are here on Earth, can pass as humans, have been living among us, and increasingly influence human affairs. The authors plausibly identify the industries, professions, and geographic regions where aliens have the most influence, and the primary methods of alien influence. Furthermore the authors have made their evidence analysis accessible to a wide audience in a readable and entertaining book, and have published it via a respectable academic press to enable its conclusions to be believed by a wide audience.

Unfortunately, the authors only offer vague and general plans for dealing with these meddling aliens. They offer no cheap and reliable way to detect individual aliens, nor to overpower and neutralize them once detected. What good is it to know about aliens without a detailed response plan? Save your money and buy another book.

Or imagine deleting that last paragraph, and adding this instead:

The authors go further and offer plausible physical mechanisms by which we might detect individual aliens and neutralize their influence. The authors also offer a ten point plan and outline a rough budget for a project to implement this plan.

Unfortunately, they give no detailed schematics for physical devices to detect and neutralize aliens, nor do they offer a specific manufacturing process plan. In addition, they don’t say much about how to fund or staff their proposed project. This project would be international in scope and probably continue for decades. Yet the authors don’t bother to address how to guarantee gender, racial, and national equity when choosing personnel, nor how to achieve national and generational equity in funding. They don’t even give a detailed plan for managing the disruption should a war break out.

What good is it to know about aliens, physical mechanisms to detect and neutralize them, and a ten point plan for managing this, if we lack a detailed device schematics, manufacturing processes, plans to ensure equitable hiring and funding, and war contingencies?  Save your money and buy another book.

I could go on, but you get the idea. You should want to learn about problems you face, even if you don’t yet know how to solve them. The above snark was inspired by this review by Samuel Hammond of Elephant in the Brain. He starts with kind praise:

An entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors. …

And then he details this criticism:

The book is largely an exercise in simply convincing the reader of the elephant’s existence by hammering away with example after example. As a result of that hammering, The Elephant in the Brain ends up being light on public policy upshots — far more Theory of Moral Sentiments than Wealth of Nations. That’s unfortunate, since the ideas in the book are bursting with potential applications. Worse, however, is the scant attention paid to helping the reader pick up the pieces of their shattered psyche. Instead, Simler and Hanson simply highlight the need to better align public institutions with our hidden motives, leaving the all-important “how” question relatively untouched. …

It at least seems possible to tame the social aspects of our adaptive unconscious with the right self-help techniques, from classroom exercises to mindfulness meditation. This was essentially the strategy developed by the Cynics of ancient Greece. Through rigorous training, the Cynics managed to forgo the pursuit of wealth, sex, and fame in favor of mental clarity and rational ethics.

This is the direction I had hoped The Elephant in the Brain would lead. After all, the elephant in the brain is located squarely in what psychologists call our brain’s “System 1,” or the automatic, noncognitive, and fast mode of thinking. That still leaves our “System 2,” or analytical, cognitive, and slow mode of thinking, as a potential tool for transcending our lowly origins. By failing to give our System 2 mode a balanced consideration, The Elephant in the Brain inadvertently falls into the expanding genre of pop-psych books that simply recapitulate David Hume’s famous assertion that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” …

Haidt’s more recent book, The Righteous Mind, helps to illustrate the pragmatic problem. … Without denying Haidt’s empirical findings, an inviolable application of this theory raises an obvious question: How does one could ever hope to hold to a rational political philosophy at all? …

It seems like Simler was ultimately able to transcend the Silicon Valley rat-race with the employ of his System Two, or cognitive, mode of thinking. That is, he was rationally persuaded to pull the elephant by the reins and steer his life towards truth-seeking.

Our book mainly identifies hidden motives via explaining patterns of behavior that are poorly explained by our usual claimed motives. These patterns result from the usual mix of automatic and reasoned thinking, of impulse and self-control. I’ve seen no evidence that these patterns are weaker for people or places where reason or self-control matters more. This includes the example of my coauthor’s choice to write this book.

Without any concrete evidence suggesting that hidden motives matter more or less when there is more reason or self-control, I don’t see why discussing reason and self-control was a priority for our book. And I doubt that merely promoting reason or self-control is sufficient to reduce the influence of hidden motives.

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Caplan Critiques Our Religion Chapter

Bryan Caplan likes our book:

My blurb calls it, “Deeply important, wide-ranging, beautifully written, and fundamentally right” – and I mean every word.

But he also has many complaints on our religion chapter. He summarizes:

[They] could have done even better. They’re so excited about their own theory that they occasionally forget to be curious about the facts. And they’re so eager to show that strange behavior could be functional that they frequently forget to ask, “Functional when?” and “Functional for whom?”

Alas his specific complaints seem to me more like attempts to misread us to find things to criticize. But you be the judge. Bryan starts (he’s indented once, our book twice):

And yet, as we’ll see, there’s a self-serving logic to even the most humble and earnest of religious activities.

The last sentence seems like a clear case of overstatement. What about hidden religiosity? Persecuted religiosity?

If we had said “kitchen tools have practical household uses”, would Bryan say “But a burglar could stab you with a kitchen knife”? Is is really hard to find group-conflict functions of religious persecution, or of hiding your religiosity from likely persecutors?

We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.

While this story is plausible, [they] don’t really grapple with the strongest counter-arguments. Most obviously, arcane doctrinal disputes seem to be the sparks behind several major historical events. Take the Protestant Reformation. Yes, there’s plenty of realpolitik under the surface. But it’s hard to deny that Luther, Calvin, and other key figures did put beliefs in the driver’s seat.

“The dog ate my homework” only works as an excuse because sometimes dogs do eat homework. Similarly, we say while we give too much credit to a usual motive, and too little to a more hidden one, the usual motive is part of the mix. That’s why the usual motive can be an an excuse for the hidden one.

We say religious beliefs are more the excuse, and often function as sacrifices and badges to identify groups. Assuming this, I don’t see how it is at all surprising that, when one religious group splits away from another, their leaders point to particular arcane doctrinal disagreements. How is this at all evidence against such beliefs serving in large part as group badges?

[W]e engage in a wide variety of activities that have a religious or even cult-like feel to them, but which are entirely devoid of supernatural beliefs. … The fact that these behavioral patterns are so consistent, and thrive even in the absence of supernatural beliefs, strongly suggests that the beliefs are a secondary factor.

I struggle to see the logic here. Yes, the world’s leading religions have much in common with secular movements. But how does that suggest that what distinguishes these religions from secular movements is “secondary”? Indeed, doesn’t it suggest precisely the opposite conclusion – that supernatural beliefs are what makes leading religions special?

Common features suggest common structures and functions. We don’t say the differences are unimportant.

We think people can generally intuit what’s good for them. …

This seems like a rash overstatement. For starters, if the religious order is stable and powerful, doubts are dangerous. [Their] own model suggests that the oppressed would develop pronounced Stockholm Syndrome. Why? To avoid social sanctions. The best way to convince your oppressor that you love him is to love him sincerely.

We mean “good for them” in an individual, not collective, sense. Acting religious can give a personal gain even when it is a social loss.

To lock in the benefits of cooperation, then, a community also needs robust mechanisms to keep cheaters at bay.

Strangely, though, many of the leading religions loudly proclaim that they welcome everyone. And they live up to this rather naive promise to an amazing degree. I was raised Catholic for my first sixteen years, and can’t recall any anti-cheating mechanism more “robust” than collective scolding.

But the key question is: was that scolding enough? Religious groups vary in their strength of bonding, and thus in their severity of punishment. Instead of a young Caplan guessing that he could have cheated, it would have been more persuasive to hear an example of someone actually cheating and gaining without giving enough back. Yet even then we have to expect a few successful cheaters.

People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. …

I’ve often heard economists make claims like this. But when you look at the real world, it’s far from clear that disobedience and belief in divine punishment are even negatively correlated. Luther and Calvin, the fathers of modern Protestantism, preached … our salvation is absolutely beyond your control. Nevertheless, fundamentalist Protestants have long been known for strict adherence to the rules.

As I used to be a fundamentalist Protestant myself, it seems clear to me that most practicing fundamentalist Protestants today see a connection between their behavior and divine punishment, no matter what doctrines Luther and Calvin once endorsed.

There’s also a peculiar omission in this chapter. HS barely acknowledge the massive gap between how religious people say they are and how religious they actually are.

Our chapter is short, and religion is vast. That topic is interesting, but not essential to our main point.

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A LONG review of Elephant in the Brain

Artir Kel has posted a 21K word review of our book, over 1/6 as long as the book itself! He has a few nice things to say:

What the book does is to offer deeper (ultimate) explanations for the reasons (proximate) behind behaviours that shine new light on everyday life. … It is a good book in that it offers a run through lots of theories and ways of looking at things, some of which I have noted down for further investigation. It is because of this thought-provokingness and summarisation of dozens of books into a single one that I ultimately recommend the book for purchase.

And he claims to agree with this (his) book summary:

There exist evolutionary explanations for many commonplace behaviours, and that most people are not aware of these reasons. … We suffer from all sorts self-serving biases. Some of these biases are behind large scale social problems like the inflated costs of education and healthcare, and the inefficiencies of scientific research and charity.

But Kel also says:

Isn’t it true that education is – to a large degree – about signaling? Isn’t it true that politics is not just about making policy? Isn’t it true that charity is not just about helping others in the most efficient way? Yes, those things are true, but that’s not my point. The object-level claims of the book, the claims about how things are are largely correct. It is the interpretation I take issue with.

If you recall, our book mainly considers behavior in ten big areas of life. In each area, people usually give a particular explanation for the main purposes they achieve there, especially went they talk very publicly. For each area, our book identifies several puzzles not well explained by this main purpose, and offers another main purpose that we suggest better explains these puzzles.

In brief, Kel’s “interpretation” issues are:

  1. Other explanations can account for each of puzzling patterns we consider.
  2. We shouldn’t call hidden purposes “motives”, nor purposeful ignorance of them “self-deception”.

Continue reading "A LONG review of Elephant in the Brain" »

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Read The Case Against Education

Yesterday was the Kindle publication date for my colleague Bryan Caplan’s new book The Case Against Education. The hardcover publication date is in nine days. It is an excellent book, on an important topic. Beyond such cheap talk, I offer the costly signal of having based an entire chapter of our new book on his book. That’s how good and important I think it is.

The most important contribution of Caplan’s book is to make very clear how inadequate “learn the material, then do a job better” is as an explanation for school. Yes, the world is complex enough that it must apply sometimes. Which is why it can work as an excuse for what’s really going on. After all, “the dog ate my homework” only works because sometimes dogs do eat homework.

So what is really going on? Caplan offers plausible evidence that school functions to let students show employers that they are smart, conscientious, and conformist. And surely this is in fact a big part of what is going on. I’ve blogged before one, and in our book we discuss, some other functions that schools may have served in history, including daycare, networking, consumption, state propaganda, domesticating students into modern workplace habits.

But I should be clear that students today don’t need nearly as much school as they get to serve these other functions; showing off to employers is likely the main reason kids get so much school today. Our world would be better off with less school, such as would happen if we cut school subsidies.

I see Caplan’s book as nicely complementing ours. As I said recently:

The key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims.

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Privately Enforced & Punished Crime

I’ve been teaching law & economics for many years now, and have slowly settled on the package legal reforms for which I most strongly want to argue. I have chosen a package that seems big enough to inspire excitement and encompass synergies, and yet small enough to allow a compelling analysis of its net benefits.

My proposal is regarding how to detect, prosecute, and punish criminal law. It is not about non-criminal law, and it is not a proposal to change how we decide what acts are crimes, when to be persuaded by a particular crime accusation, how hard to work to discourage each criminal act, nor how hard to work to catch each criminal act. To start, I hold constant how we do these other things. Continue reading "Privately Enforced & Punished Crime" »

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