The what-pisses-you-off heuristic

This post by Robin, in which he is annoyed that an organization of interior designers has persuaded state legislatures to license their profession (such as it is), and which he is also annoyed that his fellow economists don’t make more of a fuss about such regulations, reminds me of a principle that I heard once (I don’t remember where) that you can really understand someone’s deeper ideology by looking at what pisses him or her off.

As Robin himself notes, the licensing of florists, funeral directors, and interior designers is not a big deal–certainly nothing on the order of the problems caused by overfishing, say, or by various trade and migration restrictions, or even the (arguably) large problems caused by policies such as the mortgage tax deduction which reduce people’s ability to move.

Nonetheless, Robin writes of economists’ disinclination to fight the licensing battle that it “saddens me more than I can say.” I don’t doubt his sincerity. but what’s most interesting to me here is to think about why this bothers him so much.

P.S. I certainly don’t mean this to be a personal criticism of Robin in any way. I certainly have my own things that piss me off for no particular reason, ranging from socks lying around on the floor–they’re not a practical obstacle so why does the messiness bother me so much–to misinterpretations (as I see them) of Bayesian statistics–things that are probably lower on the scale of importance than the net welfare loss caused by economists not fighting the licensing of florists.

There are so many things to be pissed off about, that the choice of what we decide to let bother us can perhaps be revealing.

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    I really do think that this is a big issue. Sure interior decorators by themselves are not a large industry, but when you add up all the industries with overly restrictive licensing it adds up to a lot.

  • http://diogenes42.blogspot.com Diogenes

    I think this is definitely true — we get very emotional about our pet peeves — and probably suppress what little effort we make in trying to stay “rational”. I would also guess that beliefs/things we we get emotional about are probably waaaaay more likely to bias our judgments. In the same vein, I think seeing how people act when they get irritated (by someone else, or something else) also provides a good heuristic into peoples temperament.

  • Stephen

    Entering an industry then setting up artificial barriers to entry is a step away from the meritocratic ideal. I think that’s pretty sad wherever it happens. So do you fight the epidemic or the local outbreak?

    I think we react with such malaise to the endemic event because every little arbitrary license constitutes a separate, tedious legal battle that you will fight alone. This is like the dilemma of the evangelical atheist: she can’t talk about atheism in polite company without being seen as boorish for negating a quaint, established idea and not adding something novel to replace it. It isn’t that there’s nothing to her ideas, it’s just that, who cares enough to raise a stink?

    I suppose we just do not like a vacancy where once was content, even if the old content was slightly parasitic.

    focus: Hippies piss me off. I don’t think they’re pissed off enough.

  • http://ssmag.wordpress.com ac

    It may well be that a great deal of good can be done by a relatively small collective social effort, and the loss of this opportunity is particularly galling.

  • http://pancrit.org Chris Hibbert

    I think one indication that this is a larger issue than most people would say is that the Institute for Justice (ij.org) has it as one of the three issues they are trying to address. They are the public interest law firm that fought the Kelo vs. New London case and lost in the Supreme Court, but turned it into a rebound victory in many of the state legislatures. Their three areas of focus are eminent domain, school choice, and economic liberty. For them “economic liberty” is all about restrictive licensing.

    It’s a big issue that’s not getting enough academic attention, but given IJ’s history and approach, I suspect we’re going to see movement in the courts and in public opinion anyway.

  • http://blog.efnx.com Schell

    What pisses me off is that after work, grocery shopping and eating dinner, all I have time for is writing this comment before going to bed and doing it all over again tomorrow. Shouldn’t we have robots to take care of all that stuff so we can dedicate ourselves to our passions – or vices? Ridiculous.

  • sk

    “This is like the dilemma of the evangelical atheist: she can’t talk about atheism in polite company without being seen as boorish for negating a quaint, established idea and not adding something novel to replace it. It isn’t that there’s nothing to her ideas, it’s just that, who cares enough to raise a stink?”

    Or why people would refer to a female atheist instead of the more common male atheist as a reference, knowing that they are to the most part just making the sentence harder to read. Is that just another example of someone advancing one of their pet peeves?

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I respect Robin for getting upset as a function of low-hangingness, consensus on wrongness, and expected payoff, rather than more standard and mediagenic cues of arousal.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    But this isn’t low-hanging, precisely because it’s not mediagenic. The only way that this sort of thing could change would be if it became a vote-loser, and a democracy in which this sort of thing was a serious vote-loser would be a very different one to the one in which you or I live.

  • Julian Morrison

    Isn’t this one of those economics things where the focused pushiness of the single-issue cartel is larger than the unfocused disapproval of the whole public?

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    Andrew, you say that Robin’s post is incredibly revealing about his ideology. Would you care to tell us what it reveals?

  • http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/blog/ Andrew Gelman

    Robin: I agree with you on the substance of the issue, of course, and I suppose there is a net welfare loss from people who hire inferior interior decorators or pay more than they should, people who overpay for caskets, and so forth.

    One reason for the lack of outrage here, I think, is that there are other more directly observable outrages nearby. For example, the journalist Jessica Mitford wrote a famous book in the 1960s called The American Way of Death on the abuses of funeral directors, conning the bereaved into buying expensive caskets and all that. At the time, I doubt that licensing was the key issue; rather, it was just the way things were done.

    In the larger economy, it seems to me (without any particular evidence at hand) that there’s a lot more standardization out there in the service economy–a lot more Jiffy Lube and McDonalds and Starbucks–so maybe it’s not so much of a social cost to retain a few pockets of inefficiency.

    That said, if I were a prospective interior desingner locked out of competition–or a customer of one of these industries–I’m sure it would irritate me a lot. As a frequent flyer, I’m already irritated by ways in which airlines don’t compete with each other.

    Peter: I didn’t actually say that Robin’s post was “incredibly revealing.” That said, I think it indicates that Robin is more interested in the roles of institutions (as we would put it in political science) than in the actions of individual “bad guys.” This is something that was already clear from his many other posts here, but, again, I wasn’t claiming that this one post is adding a huge amount of information to my existing impressions of Robin.

  • http://www.shaesplace.com/blog Shae

    Hello — new reader to the blog and big fan. I had tried to comment on Robin’s article but my comment went into the ether.

    To me, this is a big deal because it’s a violation of free speech. There’s a vast difference between someone unlicensed pretending to be a doctor and advising you to have surgery and someone unlicensed “pretending” to be an interior designer and giving you (maybe, maybe not) less-than optimal advice on where to put a throw pillow. What’s next, not being allowed to share a recipe with my Mom without a chef’s license?

    As I had said in the lost comment, if I ran a furniture store I’d organize with others to flout this law by screaming throw-pillow advice from the rooftops and daring anyone to arrest me for it.

    This may or may not influence Robin’s problem with the law, since his post is from an economic point of view.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    Creeping interest-serving bureaucratic burdens such as licensing laws represent serious erosions of liberty and contribute to calcification of our economies, retardation of progress, and may in fact cause our civilization to become stuck in mediocrity and stagnation. The only way this doesn’t happen is if enough people are outraged enough to prevent it.

    So, yeah, the outrage is justified, a lot.

  • steven

    I think the opposite is true: rational people can all get pissed off at different things, and yet end up at the same consciously-held ideology.

  • David

    I think there is some kind of fallacy here. This is the most recent thing to piss Hanson off (It pisses me off too, btw). That doesn’t mean it ranks high on his list or that he doesn’t have better things to be pissed about.

    Also, if you generalize it away from interior decorating, you have a long list of outrages: cosmetologists vs. hair braiders, bus driver unions vs. jitneys, etc.

  • jaysim

    Licensing of florists and interior decorators may not be a big issue, but when you factor in all the industries and professions with unnecessary licensing requirements, it’s economic death by a thousand cuts.

  • http://lpetr.org/blog/ Leo Petr

    @Shae,

    I suspect that things done at no charge, like sharing recipes with mom, are unlikely to be regulated. Selling recipes for money, conversely, is likely to get restricted in the near future to people trained to measure caloric content and to distinguish between gluten and peanuts.

  • Stephen

    “Or why people would refer to a female atheist instead of the more common male atheist as a reference, knowing that they are to the most part just making the sentence harder to read. Is that just another example of someone advancing one of their pet peeves?”

    I thought people would sympathize more with an atheist if I could get them to imagine a pretty one.

  • An Atheist

    Why would this crowd find it hard to sympathize with an atheist? Aren’t most of us Atheists?

  • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

    Leo, unfortunately that doesn’t hold. I think it was in Virginia Postrel’s “The Future and Its Enemies”, but wherever, the was a report that hair cutters in Nebraska (?) sued to prevent two ladies from giving free hair cuts to prison inmates. This was years ago hence my uncertainty as to specifics.

  • http://www.shaesplace.com/blog Shae

    Leo,

    True, the Mom-example was an intentional exaggeration, but I don’t know if it was that far off.

    It seems to me that a furniture store owner might in fact be prevented from saying, “You know what would look great with the olive sofa you just bought? These yellow and gray throw pillows.” This furniture store owner isn’t getting paid for the advice itself, especially if the sofa-buyer who has already paid says, “nah”. But if the law isn’t aimed at this guy, I don’t know who it’s aimed at.

  • conchis

    “Or why people would refer to a female atheist instead of the more common male atheist as a reference, knowing that they are to the most part just making the sentence harder to read”

    OK, I’ll bite. Why are sentences with women in them harder to read?

  • frelkins

    A surprisingly low-quality post by OB standards.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    “A person is best defined by the nature of his evil.”
    — Piers Anthony, On a Pale Horse

  • mjgeddes

    “Those who think they know everything are very annoying to those who do”
    -SAI_2100

  • Patri Friedman

    Yeah, I try a bit to move my pissed-off-edness heuristic towards utilitarianism, but…part of being human is that we get pissed off by a fairly arbitrary set of things, depending on both preferences and life experience. It would be pretty hard for anger to be rational, it’s emotional reaction triggered in the amygdala which uses crude association heuristics.

    Huge parts of my life, like my current profession, are based on what pisses me off.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/logicnazi TruePath

    I think Robin’s reasons for being pissed off are completely typical and standard. At the very least it’s the same reasons that things piss me off.

    For starters we tend to only really get angry at those we view as reasonable enough to regard as peers. Religions tend to spend more time denouncing their own heretics than members of other faiths, middle class suburbia is more outraged by murders committed by people like them, and economists are going to get more peeved at unacceptable behavior by economists. Each person thinks so many people are so gloriously wrong that we could never interact successfully with our peers if we didn’t behave in this fashion.

    Secondly, we tend to get most angry when an issue seems extremely clear to us and yet others still don’t act as we think is appropriate. And finally if the issue only comes up infrequently then you aren’t likely to build up sufficent irritation.

    These types of legislative protection rackets are a perfect storm for irritation in this regard. There can’t be any reasonable debate about the merits of these rules and unlike the big problems where there are already plenty of economic voices heard by the public and policy makers it seems pretty clear that speaking up would get something done. So to Robin the issue seems black and white (and perhaps is). Unlike other issues where most of the impediments are politicians or the public here Robin thinks his peers are at fault. Finally, these kind of laws are seen commonly enough to nurture great irritation.

  • http://get-over-it-beacon.blogspot.com/ Get Over It

    There are so many things to be pissed off about, that the choice of what we decide to let bother us can perhaps be revealing.
    Andrew, you say that Robin’s post is incredibly revealing about his ideology. Would you care to tell us what it reveals?

    I am also interested in your views of what this reveals..