Colorful Characters

Novelists often use characters to voice controversial views they are reluctant to say publicly themselves.  In Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week, I seem to be similarly featured as a colorful character who can voice views Tyler is reluctant to embrace directly in a popular book:

Nowhere is signaling more important that in the family.  Whereas direct cash incentives work only so well in families, signals are crucial in building family trust and cooperation.  …  If I do not want to buy a warranty, my wife considers it irresponsible.  …

My colleague, economist Robin Hanson, argues that many protective activities are really about "showing that you care."  What would we think of the parent who did not do "everything possible" to protect his or her children?  What kind of man would tell his wife that he weighted costs and benefits before spending on an additional biopsy for her cancer?  …

The more our families feel we are violating our commitments to care, the harder the reception that economic advice will receive.  … Think of "the economics of the family" as The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name.  If you are the economically informed member of your family, or perhaps even an economist, don’t flaunt it.  …

And anyone who studies signaling behavior for long enough will be repulsed by social hypocrisy and will be tempted to become some kind of intellectual radical, maybe a revolutionary, maybe a more peaceful eccentric, and this has happened to Robin.  When it comes to showing that he cares, Robin wonders why it isn’t enough that he cares.

Actually, I’m pretty sure Tyler wonders all these things as well.  Now I’m a big Tyler fan, and I’ve been painted as a colorful character before, for example at Fortune and The Register, and it does beat obscurity. 

But I will grump about a pattern I’ve noticed: people don’t seem very interested in getting the details right about colorful characters; they’d rather exaggerate.  People don’t mind saying Fred wore a purple suit to the meeting, even if it was really closer to a light pink violet, if the point was just that Fred’s suit was weird. 

I don’t just have strange opinions just to be strange, however; the details matter to me.  So I feel the need to make more (long) corrections.  I doubt Tyler will consider these will be news; for his purposes these details weren’t worth walking down the hall to clarify.

Added: See Tyler on Robin on Tyler on Robin.

Robin has strange ideas.  He pays $200 a year for the privilege of having his head frozen when he dies, if indeed that turns out to be possible.  He looks forward to life in the very distant future and believes that he will be thawed out just for the heck of it, or perhaps because a future rich man just wants to have an interesting conversation about mankind’s past.

Freezing is very feasible; it is quality preservation and revival that is questionable.  I focus on a whole brain emulation revival scenario, not thawing.  I’m guessing there’s at least a 5% chance of this, but 5% is well below "believes that."  And I’m not very particular about why the future would thaw me.   

Robin believes that betting markets should be used to rule many human affairs, including government policy.  We should bet on which policies will maximize national income, and governments should institute the policies what the betting markets show as most likely to succeed.

I have papers describing such concepts, and think they are well worth exploring, but "believes that … should be" is a bit strong.  Instead of national income, I’d prefer to maximize a legislature-chosen measure of national welfare. 

Robin claims the money we spend on health care is a waste.  Since doctors kill as many people as they save, we would live just as long without them.  That sounds crazy, but the data show no correlation, either internationally or domestically, between health-care expenditures and life expectancy. 

I’ve claimed marginal medical spending doesn’t seem to buy much, and I’ve expressed doubts about non-marginal medical spending, but I don’t endorse cutting medical spending to zero, and I favor lots of non-medical "health care" such as exercise and clean air/water.

Robin believes that we are headed toward a "robot economy" with rates of exponential growth exceeding 300 percent a year.  Yet the wages of labor may fall below subsistence, leading to widespread poverty for those who do not own capital.

Well "headed toward" sometime in the next century, but basically Tyler gets this one right.   

Robin believes that signaling is virtually everywhere.  Indeed he comes close to a "single cause" theory for human behavior.  In his reductionist view  … The crude prediction is for only two kinds of activities: reproducing and trying to reproduce.  Of course humans spend only a few hours a month, on average, having sex.  So, in Robin’s view, the rest of our activities must be devoted to furthering our genetic fitness.  This usually means signaling, or in other words taking costly actions to show that we are fit mates.

Animals and humans signal not only to potential mates, but also to potential allies, enemies, predators, and prey.  We signal not only our fitness as mates, but also our abilities and intentions to fight, evade, assist, and reciprocate.

If only feels like we love the arts for the arts’ sake; in fact the charade is part of the point.  If our love for the arts is to attract others – that is to fool them – we have to feel our passions as sincere.

Self-deception is often but hardly always important to signaling.  Flattery, for example, seems to signal well even when it is transparently insincere.  I’m not sure how important sincerity is in arts signaling.

Technology has changed society more rapidly than our biology and our instincts can adapt.  …  Behind his scientific exterior lies the heart of a preacher, who wishes to thunder against social hypocrisy and dishonesty.  …  He even imagines a futures world where we are all "computer uploads" and no one has to signal any more.  Just read the other person’s program. 

No more signaling is an exaggeration, but otherwise Tyler gets these basically right. 

The other downside of being painted as a colorful character, besides inattention to detail, is the lack of contrary opinions or arguments. Other that the fact that Tyler labels my opinions "strange" overall, Tyler doesn’t tell readers which of my opinions he disagrees with or why.  As David Lewis famously said "I cannot refute an incredulous stare." 

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  • michael vassar

    Strange, I though that you had backed off from the transhumanist positions over the years, though without actively rejecting them, but here I see unequivocal endorsement of the expectation of uploading this century.

    I’m somewhat curious as to how you can conclude anything about the next century with high certainty. You seem to think that the world of 100 years hence is much more predictable than that of 30 years hence (due to the law of large numbers), while I think the opposite (due to historical and logical contingencies). Would you agree with that assessment?

    Also, how would uploads benefit from looking at one another’s programs. It’s not as if the adaptive benefit of a routine would be marked as “signaling”. It seems to me that the source code for an upload would be completely inscrutable from outside, and probably from inside.

  • Michael, no more signaling is an exaggeration of my position, but surely we could see more by looking inside others’ brains. I don’t claim 100 years is more predictable than 30 years in general.

  • Vassar, I’d be a lot more confident in predicting catastrophe or smarter-than-human intelligence 100 years out than 30 – I don’t see a paradox in this, you’re giving society more time to wander into an attractor.

  • Aaron Davies

    I’d think Turing (and possibly Gödel) would have something to say regarding the utility of reading another mind’s source code. It would probably help a little, but could hardly be expected to grant complete transparency.

  • Discover Your Inner Literalist

    Perhaps the most amazing thing about Robin Hanson is his determined literalism. He listens to your exact words, and evaluates…

  • Tyler Cowen

    On the specifics, a few responses: There are many ways to die where your head cannot be frozen, or not frozen in a useful way. Or your heirs might simply allow the instructions to be ignored. This is indeed very much up for grabs. You’ve repeatedly argued to me that a contractarian approach to policy would imply wealth maximization, not what a legislature produces. Some of your claims — “Animals and humans signal not only to potential mates, but also to potential allies, enemies, predators, and prey. We signal not only our fitness as mates, but also our abilities and intentions to fight, evade, assist, and reciprocate” — are perfectly consistent with what I wrote; it is still signaling to favor genetic fitness even if potential mates are not the ones watching the signal. In your own writings I think there is a great deal of ambiguity about what is the marginal unit; strictly speaking the marginal unit is a very small amount and does not imply a radical critique of the medical establishment. Read for instance Robin’s paper on “Showing That You Care,” on his home page. That you cite clean air and exercise as a defense of medicine I think only reflects just how skeptical you are. I can see that I’ve overestimated your estimate of the chances of being thawed out (though with uploads and exponential growth your chance is more than five percent), but overall I think my portrait of you was right on the mark!

  • Tyler Cowen

    I should make one further note about bias: I’ve had several reporters tell me that subjects of “portraits” are rarely happy with what is written about them, especially if it makes them sound interesting.

  • michael vassar

    Eliezer: I strongly agree with respect to 30 vs. 100 years and increased intelligence or catastrophe. Even with respect to movement towards attractors however I would be reluctant to assign much difference to, say 75 vs. 250 years or any difference between 200 and 600 years (given our ages, extrapolated linear gains in life expectancy, and the known life expectancy IQ correlation we can expect to talk it over then even without radical tech changes. even mild CR would clinch it). If we make it another 75 years without reaching an attractor I will consider our current models to be substantially falsified. 200 years would constitute more-or-less total falsification, but without greater than human intelligence our odds of seeing the results may be substantially lower in that case. No, probably not really. We probably gain more chance of making it to 228 via eliminating catastrophic risk than we loose via eliminating increased intelligence as a possibility. Not that we have a choice in the matter.

  • Tyler, I’m not unhappy with your portrait overall, really – I just wanted to make some corrections.

    • You are right that freezing might not be feasible in specific cases; I misunderstood you there.
    • Yes I would personally prefer to maximize total world wealth, broadly understood, but the phrase “national income” usually connotes a narrower accounting measure, and my proposal is to have a legislature manage the details of defining a national, not world, welfare.
    • On signaling, I was complaining about the phrase “to show we are fit mates,” not the phrase “to furthering our genetic fitness.”
    • I agree that I am overall relatively skeptical about medicine, and that I typically refer to a wide margin in medicine, corresponding to the roughly 30% margin examined in the RAND health insurance experiment. And I have expressed doubts about the other 70%. But the phrase “the money we spend … is a waste” suggests a stronger claim about a 100% margin. My reference to clean air and exercise was to distinguish “health care” from “medicine.”
  • Tyler Cowen

    You do link to it, but it is worth noting that the whole discussion is framed by the following very strong and very prominent statement:

    “My other friend and colleague Bryan Caplan put it best: “When the typical economist tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is `Eh, maybe.’ Then I forget about it. When Robin Hanson tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is `No way! Impossible!’ Then I think about it for years.””

    In other words, I am telling the reader that even if some of this sounds crazy, there is a lot to it.

  • Patri Friedman

    Tyler’s responses still do not address the question of where, if anywhere, he disagrees with you. It is frustrating to be painted as eccentric without any meaty arguments to strike back at (or acknowledge).

    If only there were betting markets, you could publicize your portfolio of predictions and ask Tyler which, if any, he has taken the other side on. That would refute, or at least reflect, the incredulous stare.

  • Tyler Cowen

    It’s also worth checking my claims against Robin’s own web site: There he definitely says he favors futarchy, says that in 2100 a head *will* be thawed out, and writes the phrase “Medicine Useless.” Now it’s fair enough for him to say he is exaggerating for effect, but I am just (as Bryan Caplan suggests) taking him literally and in this sense it is hard for me to see why he is complaining that I exaggerate his words.

  • Tyler, my wild ideas page says clearly at the top that my claim is that five of the fourteen are true, not that all are true. And if you only had the two word header “Medicine Useless” to go on, the misunderstanding would be understandable. But that two word header links directly to a short sentence where I explain my claim to be about a 50% cut in medical spending.

  • Nick Tarleton

    If only feels like we love the arts for the arts’ sake; in fact the charade is part of the point. If our love for the arts is to attract others – that is to fool them – we have to feel our passions as sincere.

    (I’m assuming this is a fair statement of Robin’s view.)

    Individuals are adaptation-executers, not fitness-maximizers. Thus, even though propensities to things like art may have evolved because they signaled fitness, claiming that signaling fitness is the ‘real motivation’ for art isn’t exactly accurate. The individual does love art for art’s sake; the individual does not have ‘signal to increase reproductive fitness’ represented anywhere in their brain. Love of art can be sincere without any self-deception being involved, as the signaling motivation can’t be discovered by any amount of introspection, only by doing science.

    Do you place less value on art now that you’re aware of the evolutionary reason for appreciating it?

  • “Robin believes that we are headed toward a “robot economy” with rates of exponential growth exceeding 300 percent a year. Yet the wages of labor may fall below subsistence, leading to widespread poverty for those who do not own capital.”

    Hasn’t this claim been made before? Didn’t Linus Pauling sign a petition to LBJ predicting that computers would create massive unemployment? If so, doesn’t the current “internet economy” make the future “robot economy” much less scary?

  • Pick a Topic: What Should a Cowen-Hanson Debate Be About?

    Who wouldn’t want to see Tyler Cowen publicly debate Robin Hanson? Well, aside from the masses? I think they’d both…

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