Monthly Archives: April 2009

NYC Meetup Friday 7pm

As I'll be in New York City for a conference, let's have a meetup there this Friday.  We'll start 7pm at Georgia's Cafe & Bake Shop, 2418 Broadway.  When that closes at 9:30pm, we'll head somewhere else mutually agreeable.

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Telephone Game With Functions

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In the old telephone game each person would pass on a phrase to the next person in the chain; the final phrase might little resemble the first.  An interesting variation appeared in the Phil. Trans. Royal Society last November:

Inductivebias

Here each row is a chain of people passing along a function relating X to Y.  Each person first guesses and is corrected on 50 (X,Y) cases, then just guesses on 100 more cases.  The final guesses of the last person become data for the next person.  The final relations are all basically lines, 7/8 with a positive slope, 1/8 with a negative slope.

The lesson?  When we are mainly rewarded for predicting what others will say on a topic, rather than predicting a more basic reality, our answers become dominated by typical prior expectations; reality has little influence.  HT to Jef Allbright. More from that paper:

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Future Incompetence

The book Human Enhancement is finally out.  My chapter is second to last, just after a thoughtful one by Daniel Wikler:

It is often observed that mildly or even moderately retarded people do not seem dull to themselves as long as they stay on the farm (rather: certain farms), but become so immediately when they move to the city.  Here the relative difference between a dull or not-very-bright minority and the majority who are just below average, or better, becomes important, and as that majority arranges society to suit themselves, their less-bright peers become incompetent. …

Those who are rendered incompetent in this manner need supervision, and in order to protect them in that now-dangerous environment, their rights are taken away.  Humane regimes strive to protect as uch of their range of free choice as possible, consistent with the need to protect them from serious or irremediable harm (and to protect others), but there is no supposition that everyone has a natural, inalienable right to self-determination  that would rule out all configurations of the social and physical environment that are disadvantageous to the less-talented. …

What, then, would be the effect of selective enhancement of intellectual capacity – that is, enhancement of some, but not all – for the social and political world that we "normals" would inhabit?  Would it erode the foundations of egalitarianism, undermining the claims of many who now hold title ans citizens to that equal status?  Would those made or engineered to be born smart be within their rights to deprive the rest of our rights, presumably with a humanitarian intent?  In a word: yes. … 

Should we be eternally vigilant and suspicious of people who appoint themselves "guardians", profess humanitarian motives, and then take over our lives?  Or do the shoes just hurt because they would be on our feet?

This is a great test case for paternalists; if you feel that your superior minds justify ruling the lives of others, would do you accept having your life ruled by future folk with greatly enhanced minds?

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Ignorance About Intuitions

In common usage, intuitions lead us to believe things without being able to articulate evidence or reasons for those beliefs. Wikipedia.

I’m not offering you a phony seventeen-step “proof that murder is normally wrong.”  Instead, I begin with concrete, specific cases where morality is obvious, and reason from there.  Bryan Caplan.

My debate with Bryan Caplan made me reflect again on our differing attitudes toward intuition.  While we still differ, Bryan has greatly influenced my thinking.

For each of our beliefs, we can ask our mind to give our "reasons" for that belief.  Our minds usually then offer reasons, though we usually don't know how much those reasons have to do with the actual causes of our belief.  We can often test those reasons through criticism, increasing confidence when criticism is less effective than expected, and decreasing confidence when criticism is more effective than expected.

For some of our beliefs, our minds don't offer much in the way of reasons.  We say these beliefs are more "intuitive."  In a hostile debating context this response can seem suspicious; you might expect one side in a debate to refuse to offer reasons just when they had already tested those reasons against criticism, and found them wanting.  That is, we might expect a debater to pretend he didn't have any reasons when he knew his reasons were bad. 

But this doesn't obviously support much distrust of our own intuitive beliefs.  Not only is our internal mind not obviously like a hostile debating context, but we must admit that our minds are built so that the vast majority of our thinking is unconscious.  It is unreasonable to expect our minds to be able to tell us much in the way of reasons for most of our beliefs. 

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Rarity Anomalies Remain

Our choices apparently under-weigh rare events when we experience track records, even though we accurately estimate the frequencies of those events.  We over-weigh rare events, however, when we are told their probabilities.  Simple explanations of these anomalies are shot down in a recent Psychological Science:

When making decisions involving risky outcomes on the basis of verbal descriptions of the outcomes and their associated probabilities, people behave as if they overweight small probabilities. In contrast, when the same outcomes are instead experienced in a series of samples, people behave as if they underweight small probabilities. We present two experiments showing that the existing explanations of the underweighting observed in decisions from experience are not sufficient to account for the effect. Underweighting was observed when participants experienced representative samples of events, so it cannot be attributed to undersampling of the small probabilities. In addition, earlier samples predicted decisions just as well as later samples did, so underweighting cannot be attributed to recency weighting. Finally, frequency judgments were accurate, so underweighting cannot be attributed to judgment error. Furthermore, we show that the underweighting of small probabilities is also reflected in the best-fitting parameter values obtained when prospect theory, the dominant model of risky choice, is applied to the data.
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Morals From Stories?

Scott Sumner suggests utilitarian stories drive our moral intuitions:

One of the most common strategies of the anti-utilitarian position is to assume some societal set-up which shocks our sensibilities, and then assume that it would satisfy the utilitarian criterion of maximizing aggregate happiness.  Thus we might be asked to imagine a scenario where the total pleasures of the slave-owner exceed the suffering of the slaves … Bryan has an even more shocking example where the benefits to Nazi’s from the Holocaust exceeded the suffering to the Jews. …  At the end of these thought experiments we are told that unless we are willing to embrace the society envisioned in the thought experiment, we must, on logical grounds, give up on utilitarianism.

I have several interrelated objections to this style of philosophical inquiry.  I’d like to start with Richard Rorty’s assertion that the narrative arts (novels and film) produce liberal values. … So if Rorty is correct, how do we know that slavery was so awful?  Because we have been exposed to accounts of slavery in the arts which vividly showed how the suffering of slaves was immeasurably greater that the frivolous pleasures of the slave-owner.  Can we then turn around and use an imaginary slave-owning society that passes the utilitarian test as an argument against utilitarianism?  I’m not sure that we can, unless one can show that our initial visceral reaction against slavery is based on non-utilitarian grounds, i.e. based on some abstract philosophical principle.  And that’s much harder than many people might imagine.

This seems to me a powerful argument.  What data could test it?

Added 9pm:  As I understand it, the argument isn't that we can't now imagine compelling stories of, e.g., non-utilitarian-maxing slavery.  The argument, I think, is more that we overgeneralize from the stories where we first picked up our morals.  For example, we first hear stories where slave owners gain less than slaves lose, and then come to see all slavery as bad. 

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Efficient Economist’s Pledge

Tuesday’s debate with Bryan Caplan was great fun; thanks Bryan for being such a gentlemanly and compatible discussion partner!  I don’t know when an official vid will be posted, but my amateur audio is here.  In before and after audience polls, Liberty vs. Efficiency got 42-10 before, and 25-20 after.  My argument and Bryan’s many responses inspired me to compose this pledge:

The Efficient Economist’s Pledge

I pledge to be an efficient economist, who helps clients find win-win deals to resolve social conflicts.

I need not accept all clients, but for the clients I do accept, my suggested deals should, if accepted straight or as a starting point for negotiation, get them more of what they want, relative to no deal.  I resist temptations to slant my advice to give hidden benefits to myself or my associates.  I accept my client’s situation and wants as they are, and unless asked do not preach to them on what they should want.  When actions conflict with words, I mostly infer wants from actions, and avoid needlessly exposing contradictions.

For individual clients, I suggest actions that try to best get them what they want. When I advise groups of clients together, I seek win-win deals for them all together.  That is, I seek ways to suggest deals with a high chance of putting each client in a situation where, given their limited info, they should expect to benefit from the resulting deals. And I seek the best deals; it should not be easy to find other deals which all should expect to get them even more.  When trading client expected gains against the chance each expects to gain, I consider how many are needed to clinch a deal.

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Fake Grammar Experts

A favorite question here at OB is: who are the real experts? 

Most people think of grammar as an area where expertise is especially respected and organized; experts coordinate to decide the right answers and then tell the rest of us what to think.  That is certainly the impression most English teachers give us.  But in fact the "expert" grammar they most often teach was determined mainly by popularity among English teachers, not by what is most expert according to actual grammar experts.

Geoffrey Pullum says the classic Elements of Style is grammatically incompetent:

April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. …  The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it. …

Both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

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Home-Based Group Insurance

Today U.S. employees are not taxed for medical insurance obtained through their employer.  Imagine instead that medical insurance only got a tax break if it was obtained through neighborhoods, i.e., groups of contiguous neighbors banding together to deal with medical insurance plans. 

Disadvantages of this proposal include a substantial cost of change from current arrangements, higher costs of changing homes, and that neighborhood groups formed for this purpose would probably have less expertise than firms in dealing with insurance plans.  Plans would probably offer simpler contracts and wider reputations to compensate for reduced customer expertise.

Advantages of this proposal include keeping medical insurance when you lose your job, better job-employee matching because job change gets easier, better matching of plan features to more-likely-to-be-similar customer preferences, and that neighbor social pressure might be more effective than coworker pressure in encouraging healthy behavior. 

Problems with administrative overhead, adverse selection, or a lack of long term insurance wouldn't be obviously any better or worse under this proposal. 

OK, this doesn't seem a huge win, but it is an interesting alternate, to remind us that things do not have to be as they are.

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On Liberty vs. Efficiency

To "win" a debate you aren't supposed to tip your opponent to the arguments you'll use.  But to promote a more productive conversation, that is exactly what you might do.  So in this post I'll lay out my basic (rather technical) argument for tonight's debate.  I've said:

The topic, as I see it, is the relative value/importance for economists of pushing "liberty," i.e., a policy of minimal government interference, and "efficiency," a standard policy evaluation metric that attempts to neutrally weigh policy consequences for different people.

Humans often find themselves in conflicts where they might make (and enforce) "deals" instead of "fighting" (or doing "nothing").  Such conflicts are often complex enough for many parties to be uncertain how they would fare, relative to fighting, under various possible deals.  In such situations, I see a noble and important role for expert arbiters who are "neutral," i.e., who develop deserved reputations for suggesting "win-win" deals where most or all parties should expect to benefit, relative to fighting.  Given access to such neutral expert advisers, conflicting parties can make better deals, to their mutual benefit. 

One reason I'm proud to be an economist is that we often fill this neutral expert arbiter role to varying degrees, and could do so even more if we tried.  And "efficiency," also known as "cost-benefit analysis," helps make this possible.  To estimate the efficiency of a deal, relative to a status quo, one adds up estimates for each person of the dollar value that person would place on this deal. 

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