Monthly Archives: September 2009

Allowed Lies

The law should be our servant, not our master; we can and should use law to get what we jointly want.  We now empower the legal system to punish folks for “fraud” in misrepresenting themselves in contracts, and for certain other sorts of lies known as “slander” and “libel.”  Which makes sense because we think such lies hurt us overall. But beyond these cases the legal system isn’t much empowered to punish lies.  Why?

Now I’m well aware there are many areas in which it is not very clear what exactly is a lie; for such topics legal costs and error rates would just be too high to tolerate.  And there are also many other areas, such as in flattery, where we are well aware that most folks lie most of the time; apparently we like it that way.  But there are other areas where people seem to insist quite firmly that they do not want to hear lies, where the consequences of believing lies are substantial, where the costs to reliably determine if a lie happened could be low, and yet where lies are legal.

For example, consider the case where a married man lies about whether he is married when trying to attract a single woman into a relationship.  Single women typically insist they do not want such lies, and it would be easy to determine if the man is in fact married.  So why do we not use the legal system to discourage such lies?

The puzzle goes even deeper than current law, since we could voluntarily choose to bond ourselves to a private agency that would keep some deposited cash if we were ever caught in a lie.  Folks who bonded themselves in this way should be more believable, but almost no one does this.

Perhaps if just a few folks bonded themselves they’d seem too weird, and perhaps public law is just too slow and stupid to find this opportunity to help us.  But I can’t help but suspect that quite a few folks just don’t think it is that bad if married men lie to seduce single women.

What other easy-to-punish consequential lies do we tolerate, and why?

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For Doc Liability

From Obama’s big med speech:

Many .., particularly on the Republican side … have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care. … I don’t believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I’ve talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs.  So I’m proposing that we move forward on a range of ideas about how to put patient safety first and let doctors focus on practicing medicine.

But only a small percentage of actual malpractice ever leads to a suit, and a new NBER analysis says:

Growth in malpractice payments over the last decade and a half contributed at most 5.0% to the total real growth in medical expenditures, which topped 33% over this period.  On the other side of the ledger, malpractice liability leads to modest reductions in patient mortality; the value of these more than likely exceeds the cost impacts of malpractice liability.

A Vladimir Shklovsky emailed a few weeks ago saying that under current US liability law the fact that some practice is standard in an industry is a defense against a liability suit, but it is not an absolute defense.  Except in medicine; you simply can’t be legally liable for anything you did if most other docs do it too.

I recall reading in Paul Starr’s classic The Social Transformation of American Medicine that what first gave US docs power was that at the time, local med practice was an absolute defense.  So if you didn’t play ball with the local docs, they’d refuse to defend you in such suits, leaving you open to devastating liability.

Amazingly, we are so terrified of the idea that our docs might not do everything possible to save us that we simply will not allow anyone else to question their judgment.  Not insurance companies, not academics, not legal judges or juries.  And so it seems, not even other docs.

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This is the Dream Time

Aboriginals believe in … [a] “dreamtime”, more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. … [It] is also often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. … It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. Wikipedia.

We will soon enter an era where most anyone can at any time talk directly with most anyone else who can talk.  Cheap global talk and travel continue to tie our global economy and culture more closely together.  But in the distant future, our descendants will probably have spread out across space, and redesigned their minds and bodies to explode Cambrian-style into a vast space of possible creatures. If they are free enough to choose where to go and what to become, our distant descendants will fragment into diverse local economies and cultures.

Given a similar freedom of fertility, most of our distant descendants will also live near a subsistence level.  Per-capita wealth has only been rising lately because income has grown faster than population.  But if income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.  Yes we have seen a remarkable demographic transition, wherein richer nations have fewer kids, but we already see contrarian subgroups like Hutterites, Hmongs, or Mormons that grow much faster.  So unless strong central controls prevent it, over the long run such groups will easily grow faster than the economy, making per person income drop to near subsistence levels.  Even so, they will be basically happy in such a world.

Our distant descendants will also likely have hit diminishing returns to discovery; by then most everything worth knowing will be known by many; truly new and important discoveries will be quite rare. Complete introspection will be feasible, and immortality will be available to the few who can afford it.  Wild nature will be mostly gone, and universal coordination and destruction will both be far harder than today.

So what will these distant descendants think of their ancestors?  They will find much in common with our distant hunting ancestors, who also continued for ages at near subsistence level in a vast fragmented world with slow growth amid rare slow contact with strange distant cultures.  While those ancestors were quite ignorant about their world, and immersed in a vast wild nature instead of a vast space of people, their behavior was still pretty well adapted to the world they lived in.  While they suffered many misconceptions, those illusions rarely made them much worse off; their behavior was usually adaptive.

When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger.  Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature.  But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them.  Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.  While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history.  In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history.  Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Why is our era so delusory? Continue reading "This is the Dream Time" »

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You Dislike Most Folks

You might love humanity in the abstract, but given greater exposure to any one person, the odds are pretty good that you’d soon dislike them, often intensely.  JPSP ’07:

Although people believe that learning more about others leads to greater liking, more information about others leads, on average, to less liking. Thus, ambiguity—lacking information about another—leads to liking, whereas familiarity—acquiring more information— can breed contempt. This “less is more” effect is due to the cascading nature of dissimilarity: Once evidence of dissimilarity is encountered, subsequent information is more likely to be interpreted as further evidence of dissimilarity, leading to decreased liking. …

We do not argue that increased information leads to less liking in every case, but rather that this is the case on average. Individuals may feel overly positively toward their significant others, but these are the rare exceptions who were liked enough to stimulate efforts to acquire more information.

Why do we so consistently misjudge here?  The paper suggests:

Given the ultimate goal of finding a mate, it might be adaptive to start with a positive bias to generate many new options from which to choose; given limited capacity, however, in both available time and cognitive capacity, it may be adaptive to switch to a negativity bias while screening to eliminate poor options quickly. In fact, the robustness of optimism prior to first dates may be essential in motivating people to persevere in a long and arduous screening process.

This doesn’t make much sense to me.  Instead, let me suggest that “nice” people, who tend like more others, also tend to be more liked by others.  So we are built to try to appear nicer by appearing to like others more.  Our initial attitude toward strangers is more visible to most folks than our later dislike for the few we come to know better. Hat tip to Rob Wiblin.

More evidence that people just aren’t as nice they seem:

We introduce the joy-of-destruction game. Two players each receive an endowment and simultaneously decide on how much of the other player’s endowment to destroy. In a treatment without fear of retaliation, money is destroyed in almost 40% of all decisions.

In the hidden treatment … on average, 39.4% of all decisions involve the destruction of at least some of the partner’s endowment. … in the hidden treatment substantial amounts are burned (in total 20.4% of the maximum allowed).

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Explaining Unequal Inequality Aversion

My post Thursday on Men’s Rights has spawned 119 comments so far, suggesting I could be clearer on my position.  So here goes.

My interests starts mainly from being puzzled by what kinds of inequality bother people, and what kinds do not.  In much of social science, gender, race/ethnicity, and class are such overwhelming issues that someone like the political scientist blogger Paul Gowder states his positions on his about page.  And most discussion of these “sensitive” categories is about various associated unequal and presumed unfair outcomes.  Policy discussions are often overwhelmed by concern for how policies may differentially effect sensitive categories.  And intellectuals face enormous social retribution should they ever be seen as speaking generally and negatively about a presumed unfairly maligned sensitive group.

Yet other “insensitive” categories are associated with huge inequalities, which few folks seem interested in talking about, much less considering how policy might influence.  There is no social pressure whatsoever against maligning these groups.  Especially striking are inequalities in attractiveness as a friend, lover, etc. not mediated by sensitive categories.  These factors include physical appearance, vigor, charisma, personality, height, etc.  Folks are well aware such inequalities exist, but have little concern about them, and no interest in policies to reduce them.

An especially striking example is inequality among men in their ability to attract women as lovers.  If you don’t like “alpha/beta” labels, then call it what you will, but there are consistent correlations among men in this regard, which are consistently correlated with insensitive categories.  While this inequality has large consequences for utility and happiness, there is no interest in reducing it, and people feel quite comfortable insulting these type of “losers”.

This is the phenomena I was struggling with in my post on Thursday.  I suggested a partial explanation:

By sympathizing with creatures who suffer in ways that kids might suffer, people signal their parental nurturing instincts.  And beta men look better by acting altruistic toward creatures that women feel sympathy for. .. But women who sympathized with sex-deprived beta males actually might give them sex, which would not exactly impress the men these women prefer.  So since women are built to have little sympathy for sex-starved betas, betas don’t gain by showing sympathy to other betas.  And since alphas gain little from showing altruism, literally no one cares.

But I’m way way open to other theories.  Got any?

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Poor Folks Do Smile

Responding to my saying:

As long as enough people are free to choose their fertility … income per capital must fall over the long run, a fall whose only fundamental limit is subsistence.

Peter McCluskey:

Robin Hanson’s Malthusian-sounding posts prompted me to wonder how we can create a future that is better than the repugnant conclusion. … A mind that barely has enough resources to live could be designed so that it is very happy with the cpu cycles or negentropy it gets even if those are negligible compared to other minds. … what I find repugnant … is … the cruelty of evolution which produces suffering in beings with fewer resources than they were evolved to use.

Bryan Caplan:

Robin’s sounding strangely like a doom-sayer* lately. … For flesh-and-blood lives, as opposed to vivid simulations, I actually agree with Robin.  But there are important – and heartening – caveats that I think (?) he accepts, but isn’t pushing: …

  1. “It has to stop sometime” was as true when our population was 10,000 as it is today.  As far as we can tell … “sometime” is a long way off. …
  2. If you don’t like your family’s per-capita income, you can unilaterally raise it by having fewer kids … and set up a trust on their behalf. …
  3. This “subsistence” regime could still have awesome entertainment, art, science, blogs, virtual reality …

Robin’s claim isn’t that our descendants will be “forced” to slave day and night to feed hungry mouths.  Rather, it’s that our descendants will care a lot more about kids than we do. …

* Robin cares about aggregate, not per-capita welfare.  So he would deny that he’s being a doom-sayer.

Bryan and Peter are both mostly right.  Bryan is even right that there is no population externality in the economist’s sense; free fertility choice and contract is usually economically efficient.

I don’t see our far future as a repugnant doom.  Yes, I doubt we can maintain current growth rates to have 103000 descendants in a million years, since only 1070 atoms are available by then.  But 1070 descendants is still is a grand and glorious future, far far beyond our current 1010. Continue reading "Poor Folks Do Smile" »

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The First Tech Bubble: 1720

The first global financial bubble in stock prices occurred 1720 …  Using newly collected stock prices for British and Dutch firms in 1720, we find evidence against indiscriminate irrational exuberance and evidence in favor of speculation about two factors:  the Atlantic trade and the incorporation of insurance companies. The fundamentals of both sectors may have led to high expectations of future growth.  Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that financial bubbles require a plausible story to justify investor optimism. …

Although 1720 is not generally viewed as a period of technological novelty, we argue in this paper that there were at least three critical innovations that took place in a very short span of time; two of which were financial innovations, the other was a major potential shift in the configuration of global trade.  The first innovation was financial engineering at a national scale. The Mississippi Company and the South Sea Company issued equity shares in exchange for government debt; in effect converting the national debt into corporate stock. …

The second innovation was an incipient shift in global trade. Both of the companies were set up to exploit trade in the Americas. … The third innovation was also financial. The first publicly traded insurance corporations were chartered in Great Britain 1720, as a result of the Act. As such, they represented a new model of capital formation for maritime insurance firms – in a nation built on maritime trade.

More here.  These sure do seem like big innovations, which eventually did have large implications.  The general lesson: it is easy to over-estimate the profits to be gained by first-movers exploiting even very large innovations.

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Thursday on Men’s Rights

The Man Who is Thursday has Roissy’s insight, but without the swagger.  Read Thursday on who won the sex revolution, how to find a virgin, how social conservatives got it wrong, and why church guys do fine. Here is Thursday on men’s rights:

Men’s rights will never take off for the following reasons:

  1. It is hard for men to play the victim card without looking weak and therefore loserish. Most men would rather just suffer in silence than admit their weakness. … (You just can’t admit that, while your future wife was out shagging a couple alphas, you yourself could barely get laid.)
  2. There are all sorts of men who will chivalrously jump to a women’s defense. …
  3. Alpha males run everything … hence feminists … [can] point out how “men” are the big winners in our society. …
  4. The most talented and articulate men have little incentive to speak out … lends a further loserish cast to the proceedings.
  5. Most beta males are actually pretty happy … a lot … really do prefer XBox 360 to sex. …

Nothing will happen to reform our truly corrupt Western societies until something goes seriously, overwhelmingly wrong. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better, if it ever does.

He’s largely on target, but I think Thursday misses the main factor: no one gains by showing they care about sex-deprived beta males. By sympathizing with creatures who suffer in ways that kids might suffer, people signal their parental nurturing instincts.  And beta men look better by acting altruistic toward creatures that women feel sympathy for:

Men reported to indulge in selfless behaviours were found more attractive to women as both potential long-term partners and, to a lesser extent, for “flings”.  “Selflessness makes men of otherwise low to moderate attractiveness sexier, but not men who were already considered very attractive,” she said.

But women who sympathized with sex-deprived beta males actually might give them sex, which would not exactly impress the men these women prefer.  So since women are built to have little sympathy for sex-starved betas, betas don’t gain by showing sympathy to other betas.  And since alphas gain little from showing altruism, literally no one cares.

Hat tip to Rob Wiblin.  And for the record, I will make the hard admission of Thursday’s point 1.

Added 5:30p: I don’t really believe in “rights”; I take rights talk to really be complaints by a group about their roles and how they are treated.  Many other groups have complained successfully, gaining revised treatment.  Father complaints about custody treatment, beta male complains about sex-starvation, and many other male complaints all seem to me legitimate candidates for group complaints.  This isn’t to say that such complaints will succeed, however, nor that they should.

Added 27Sept: Today’s post elaborates my position.

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Future Fertility

Many a young women has looked inside herself, decided that she just doesn’t want kids, and went on to live her life under that assumption.  But a decade or so later, her biological clock suddenly went off and she found herself very much wanting kids.  I’ve seen this happen several times.  None of us should be very confident about what introspection tells us we will later want.  Evolution has designed us to express different genes at different ages; we just can’t know what future genes we have been designed to express.

This caution should apply all the more to humanity and its descendants as a whole; we just can’t look inside ourselves to discern our future fertility.  Since the industrial revolution made us rich, we’ve seen the remarkable phenomena of the demographic transition, whereby after nations get rich population growth rates eventually fall dramatically, often below replacement levels.  This is not the sort of adaptive behavior that would have evolved had our ancestors repeatedly encountered such extended boom times; clearly we could now leave more descendants by using this opportunity to breed like crazy.

Our evolved instincts must be framing our novel situation as similar to some ancient situations where having fewer kids actually did make sense.  We still don’t understand this well, but we can see that those evolved instincts are mistaken.  At the moment contrarian subgroups who choose more kids (e.g. Hutterites, Hmongs, or Mormons) are slowly increasing as fraction of the population.  The more heritable, either genetically or culturally, is this fertility behavior, the more these groups will come to dominate future global population and fertility.

Of course we can’t say much with confidence about any one group; they may well fragment or become assimilated by larger groups.  But what we can say with more confidence is that if our society continues to be competitive, without strong central coordination, selection will be a powerful force influencing fertility over the long run, e.g. a thousand to a million years.

Yes it can take a long time for selection to favor behavior that starts out in only a small minority, and yes our descendants may have very different bodies whose designs are encoded not in DNA but in computer files.  And yes, for a time individual regions or nations may forcibly limit the fertility allowed there.

But as long as enough people are free to choose their fertility, at near enough to the real cost of fertility, with anything near the current range of genes, cultures, and other heritable influences on fertility, then in the long run we should expect to see a substantial fraction of population with an heritable inclination to double their population at least every century.  So if overall economic growth doubles less than every century, as I’ve argued it simply must in the long run, income per capital must fall over the long run, a fall whose only fundamental limit is subsistence; we can’t have kids if we can’t afford them.

Added 8p: Does anyone doubt that the main reason humans stayed near subsistence level for a million years until about 1800 was selection for behavior giving maximum sustainable population levels?   What exactly is going to be so different over the next million years?

Added 24Sept: Bryan responds here.

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Income is Healthy, Not Earning, Spending It

Getting money is good for your health, but working hard for your money, in the way people work harder in boom times, and spending it with gusto, in the way people spend more after payday, is bad for your health.  Here is the evidence.

First, higher income seems consistently correlated with better health.  There have been arguments about the direction of causation, but this ’05 paper suggests much of the relation is due to higher income causing better health:

This paper studies the effects of income on health and mortality, using only the part of income variation due to a truly exogenous factor: monetary lottery prizes of individuals. The findings are that higher income causally generates good health and that this effect is of a similar magnitude as when traditional estimation techniques are used. A 10 percent income increase improves health by about 4–5 percent of a standard deviation

However, we also consistently find that folks are less healthy in economic boom times.  For example:

There is a counter-cyclical variation in physical health that is especially pronounced for individuals of prime-working age, employed persons, and males. The negative health effects of economic expansions persist or accumulate over time, are larger for acute than chronic ailments, and occur despite a protective effect of income and a possible increase in the use of medical care.

Two new papers similarly find lower health after we get expected income payments,

Many studies find that households increase their consumption after the receipt of expected income payments, a result inconsistent with the life-cycle/permanent income hypothesis. Consumption can increase adverse health events, such as traffic accidents, heart attacks and strokes. In this paper, we examine the short-term mortality consequences of income receipt. We find that mortality increases following the arrival of monthly Social Security payments, regular wage payments for military personnel, the 2001 tax rebates, and Alaska Permanent Fund dividend payments. The increase in short-run mortality is large, potentially eliminating some of the protective benefits of additional income.

such as paychecks at the first of the month:

We document a within-month mortality cycle where deaths decline before the 1st day of the month and then spike after the 1st. This cycle is present across a wide variety of causes and demographic groups. A similar cycle exists for a range of activities, suggesting the mortality cycle may be due to short-term variation in levels of activity. We provide evidence that the within-month activity cycle is generated by liquidity. Our results suggest a causal pathway whereby liquidity problems reduce activity, which in turn reduces mortality. These relationships help explain the pro-cyclic nature of mortality.

Health can be so so complicated!

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