Monthly Archives: January 2011

Can Kids Consent?

Back in 1983, at the young age of 18, my old friend Max More published an article saying he didn’t see what’s wrong with adults propositioning kids for sex.

It is difficult to comprehend how merely becoming friendly with a child, and then encouraging him or her to indulge in sexual activities, can be a violation of rights. … Many people will object that … individuals below the age of consent, do not know what they are doing, and therefore the compliance is not voluntary at all. I believe this argument is fallacious, and that it is invariably presented by a kind of mental reflex action, and not as a result of conscious deliberation. … Does it really matter whether a young child has experienced any form of sexual arousal before? Does it really matter whether the child has any understanding of sex? Sex is just another source of pleasure, a potentially potent source perhaps, but basically little different to any other. If there is nothing objectionable about an adult giving a child sweets or toys, why is giving sexual pleasure wrong? … If a child does not want to go to court, has not told the parents about his or her sexual activities, and has shown no signs of upset or fear, then there is no justification for assuming the use of coercion. (more)

Today, Max backpedals:

In my foolish arrogance, I wrote about a topic that I was then too naïve to properly understand. … I was right to defend the free speech rights of a highly unpopular group. I was right to question the validity of a universal law of consent that ignores the maturity or lack of maturity of each individual. … Where I was wrong is in basing a view of maximal freedom on an inadequate conception of consent. Defining fully the conditions for real consent is difficult, but clearly lack of resistance is insufficient to indicate consent. If someone lacks understanding of what they are getting into, they may have agreed but have not consented. Consent requires agreement after thoughtful consideration. (more)

But we almost never understand the full implications of our actions. Who really understands the implications of getting married, having kids, choosing a career, or choosing a national citizenship?  But we usually say adults consent to such things.  So what does it take to enable consent?

When someone makes you an offer, it is reasonable to expect them to reveal possible downsides, and even to help you to hear from folks who recommend against accepting their offer. If your choice has a big effect on a third party (i.e., parents who’d fund a pregnancy), it can be reasonable to seek their approval. And if your choice isn’t very time critical, it is also reasonable to have some time to think it over. “Many people have come to regret this; George knows more. Tell me your choice tomorrow.”

Yes kids can make mistakes and we might want to limit their ability to make mistakes.  But adults can make lots of mistakes too; why treat kids so differently? Yes people change over time, and so we may want to limit how much young folks can commit their older selves. And yes teen brains change more rapidly than adult brains. But if we let 20 year olds make huge commitments, like marriage or citizenship, that limit their quite different 60 year old selves, why shouldn’t we let 15 year olds make choices limiting their 25 year old selves. Do teen sex choices limit distant future choices anywhere near as much as do marriage, kids, careers, etc.?

Aside from the issues I’ve mentioned, my training in the social and human sciences doesn’t offer me any more analytical tools to distinguish thirteen year olds from adults regarding sexual consent. I’m not saying kids can resaonably consent; I’m just suggesting that standard theories offer little support for saying they can’t.

So why are we so reluctant to let kids make their own choices, and yet so adamant that similar adults choices should be free? One obvious explanation is status; we affirm our higher status as adults by limiting what kids can do. But I suspect there is more:

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why … we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

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No DVR Ad Effect

Digital video recorders don’t reduce the (possibly zero) effect of ads.

For years, digital video recorders like TiVo, which give viewers the option to skip commercials, have had television advertisers worried. But a study … rebuts the conventional wisdom that the recorders (DVRs) dampen sales. … Matching … each household’s shopping history one year before and two years after the TiVo’s arrival, the researchers found no effect on the purchase of advertised brands, even among those who used DVRs the most. (UofC Magazine Jan’11p25; the study)

Remember: the usual empirical result when people study “how does A influence B” is “no effect.”

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Non-Evil Firms

Are corporations intrinsically evil because they must by law only maximize profits? I don’t think so, but if you do, you might prefer to do business with a benefit corporation whose goals you respect. By law, a benefit firm must first try to achieve its declared goals:

Fifteen benefit corporations have been created in the three months since new [Maryland] legislation, signed into law in April, took effect. … At its core, benefit corporations blend the altruism of nonprofits with the business sensibilities of for-profit companies. These hybrid entities pay taxes and can have shareholders, without the risk of being sued for not maximizing profits. Companies can consider the needs of customers, workers, the community or environment and be well within their legal right.

A benefit corporation, for instance, could choose to buy from local vendors at a higher cost to reduce its carbon footprint, much as the Big Bad Woof does. The company, as a part of the incorporation, is required to file an annual report on contributions to the goals set forth in the charter and submit to an audit by an independent third party. … There are no tax breaks or procurement incentives for benefit corporations in Maryland, but the classification offers a competitive advantage … A 2010 Cone study … [found] 61 percent of consumers surveyed had purchased a product because of the company’s long-term commitment to a cause or issue. …

Shortly after Maryland passed the benefit corporation legislation last year, Vermont got in on the act. Several other states, including New York and California, are considering similar bills. New York is one of 31 states with a “corporate constituency statute,” which allows for the consideration of non-financial interests but lacks the full protection of the new law. (more)

As Mr. Burns would say, “Excellent.”

So if benefit firms became more common, would people still habitually think them evil?  Would it matter much?

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Is Culture Far?

Humans are culturally pliable – raise us different, and we become different. But we are not infinitely pliable; there seem to be many human universals. So what sets the limits of how culture can change humans? My guess today: culture mainly changes our far feelings, not our near feelings. Consider:

  1. While we hold laughter as one our highest ideals, our farmer ancestors held it in lower regard. They were not to laugh in public, while we like to hear public laughter. But I’ll bet their experience of laughing was pretty similar to ours.
  2. To our farmer ancestors, romantic love wasn’t required for marriage, but sexual fidelity was extremely important. To us, romance is needed for marriage, but we are much more forgiving about sexual promiscuity. Yet I’ll bet that what sex and love felt like to them was pretty similar to how they feel to us.
  3. Western culture looks down on conformity, and celebrates independence. But more Eastern cultures, and our farmer ancestors, thought well of conformity. Yet I’ll bet we get a similar raw feeling of comfort from knowing that others are doing the same thing we are.
  4. Our ancestors swore allegiance to lords and kings, while we are proud to live in a democracy without formal classes or rulers; we must bow to no one. Yet I’ll bet we feel a similar resentment at having to acknowledge the higher status of someone who was once our equal (such as an old college friend who is now a CEO), and feel a similar ease at showing our submission to someone with far higher status (like a president or movie star).

In all these cases our basic near feelings haven’t changed much, even though we have changed our far opinions on which feelings we respect or feel guilty about, which seem pure or dirty, which are to be public or private, etc.

If culture is far, then in near mode we become more like a common universal human, and in far mode we diverge to become the different “subspecies” according to our different cultures. Culture being mainly far might help explain why schools try hard to promote a far view, to make students more culturally pliable. It might also help explain why we are far more paternalistic toward kids than adults; perhaps we distrust kids as folks from other cultures, since kids have not yet fully diverged to join our subspecies.

Added 3p: In these terms near and far minds resemble Freud’s id and super-ego.

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Kids Too Specialized?

Heather Wilson notices a disturbing trend:

For most of the past 20 years I have served on selection committees for the Rhodes Scholarship. … one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on young scholars. … I have … become increasingly concerned in recent years. … Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why. …

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution. …

The trend is unmistakable. Our great universities … are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study. … Our universities fail [students] and the nation … [by not] teaching them to think about what problems are important and why. (more)

My personal skill set tends in the direction Heather wishes would be more emphasized. So my status would rise if such skills were more highly valued and celebrated. Thus I’d like to believe that we are in fact doing our students and the nation a disservice by marginalizing such skills.

Unfortunately, I simply have little evidence with which to support such a judgment. Since I have little idea of the optimal level for such skills, the fact that we emphasize them less doesn’t tell me if we have fallen far below the optimal level, if we were once way above the optimal level, or if the optimal level has fallen with our falling emphasis. Just how many people should be thinking about what problems are important and why?

Alas, just because a question is interesting doesn’t mean we know how to answer it.

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Best Decade Ever

Not only was the last decade the best of my life, it was best for the world:

A lot has changed in the past six years. The economies of the developing world have expanded 50 percent in real terms, despite the Great Recession. Moreover, growth has been particularly high in countries with large numbers of poor people. India and China, of course, but also Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Uganda, Mozambique and Uzbekistan – nine countries that were collectively home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s poor in 2005 – are all experiencing phenomenal economic advances. ..

We updated the World Bank’s official $1.25-a-day figures to reveal how the global poverty landscape has changed. … We estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world’s poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period. …. The emerging markets of Asia are recording the greatest successes; the two regional giants, China and India, are likely to account for three-quarters of the global reduction between 2005 and 2015. … With few exceptions, however, those who care about global development have been slow to catch on to this story. We hear far more about the 64 million people held back in poverty because of the Great Recession than we do about the hundreds of millions who escaped impoverishment over the past six years. (more)

The greatest surprise, however, is the one taking place in Sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1980 and 2005, the region’s poverty rate had consistently hovered above 50 percent. Given the continent’s high population growth, its number of poor rose steadily. The current period is different. For the first time, Sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty rate has fallen below 50 percent. The total number of poor people in the region is falling too. (more)

Doesn’t sound much like stagnation to me.

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How Good Are Laughs?

We often underestimate our different were our ancestors from us; we like to assume that even if they wore different costumes on the outside, they felt like us inside. Not true! Consider, for example, how our culture celebrates laughter. One of our worst sins is to lack a sense of humor, to be a fuddy-duddy unable to “take a joke.” But four centuries ago, it seems, attitudes were quite the opposite:

Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person. Continue reading "How Good Are Laughs?" »

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Nutrition Labels

Requiring food nutrition labels doesn’t get people to eat healthier:

A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains … tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.  It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.  But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008. (more)

A new study involving the Taco Time fast-food chain in Washington State.  Researchers found that adding calorie counts to restaurant menus had no impact on diners’ choices.  Similar studies in New York City have recently reported conflicting results; some surveys showed that menu labeling led to fewer calories purchased, but others found no difference in meal selection. Researchers are not discouraged by the results, however, noting that providing nutritional and calorie information on menus may still benefit consumers indirectly.  As more local authorities mandate such changes, food vendors are pre-emptively modifying their menus to both lighten existing options and add healthier foods.  (Time 1/31/11, p17)

So the reason to require food nutrition labels is to scare producers into offering healthier food, with the implicit threat that if producers don’t fall into line stricter regulations will soon follow? Really? Seems to me this is more driven by a public opinion unwilling to update on the evidence. Ordinary people think labels should help, so support label laws, and the rest of the policy and political process just falls into line.

Added 31Jan:  A new paper says calorie posting at Starbucks reduced average calories per transaction by 6%.

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Be A Charity Angel

I’ve overheard many folks lately discussing what sort of charity most deserves their money. They consider the plans of various charities, and try to analyze the chances that such plans will lead to good outcomes. Most folks I’ve heard have been favoring various intellectual charities, where the money goes mostly to pay intellectuals to develop and communicate ideas. And most of these folks also seem to spend lots of time consuming intellectual ideas. They read a lot, and have many opinions about what previous ideas were interesting and useful.

Such folks would do well to review the advantages of prizes over grants, and consider becoming charity angels. Let me explain.

Consider a donor who seeks to encourage or induce some sort of result in the world. With a grant, such a donor must decide ahead of time who seems to have a promising ability and approach. But with a prize, a donor need only decide after the fact who seems to have achieved a lot. Once potential awardees see a pattern of achievements being rewarded by prizes after the fact, they will gain an added incentive to achieve, an incentive roughly proportional to the prize amounts being offered. And the prize process avoids much of the added waste of grant proposals, review, search, etc. (Promising potential winners who are strapped for cash might obtain resources by selling their future prize rights in capital markets.)

Since it is much easier to evaluate what has worked than what will work, folks who read a lot of intellectual work and who are inclined to support future intellectual work via charity should consider making a habit of just giving money to those who have already accomplished something noteworthy. Most intellectuals have some resources at their disposal and look for promising future directions on which to spend such resources. Your awards for previous achievements should increase the incentive to all intellectuals to achieve similarly praiseworthy results in the future. This will better target your goals because you can better judge what past work has promoted your goals than which future people and approaches might do so.

Of course you may have other goals for your charity than encouraging a result in the world.  You may, for example, want to signal your personality and allegiance by donating to a familiar brand name that others will recognize.  You may want to affiliate with a high status organization and with high status others who donate to the same cause.  You may want to more directly affiliate with the doers who are the recipients of your donations, and to put yourself in a dominance role of control over them, and to take credit later for having believed in them when others did not. You may also prefer to affiliate with new and upcoming doers rather than old and past their prime doers. And you may want to signal your confidence in your judgements about promising people and approaches. For all of these other purposes, grants are probably your better bet today.  Which is of course why there are so few prizes.

But if you think yourself one of the rare exceptions, whose primary purpose is to actually encourage changes in the world, consider just finding a person who you think has already made a substantial contribution to your cause, and just writing them a check. (And maybe encourage him or her to periodically post summaries of donations received.) No further complication is required. (Should you think I deserve such an honor, a donate button is now available on this page. :) )

Added 11a: If you think risk-aversion creates diminishing returns in donations, i.e., that there’s less to gain by giving more to someone who’s already got a lot, then focus on neglected prior doers – those who have received too little attention and reward for their good accomplishments.

Added 12a: If you think some promising intellectuals lack resources, then buy shares in their future prize winnings.  If you think there are insufficient prizes in some area, then by all means create such prizes.  Just don’t confuse rewarding past intellectual accomplishments with investing to gain future financial returns.

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Passion Vs. Doubt

Michael Gerson has doubts on doubt:

Without a doubt, doubt is useful and needed at the margins of any ideology. The world is too complex to know completely. Many of our judgments are, by nature, provisional. Those who are immune to evidence, who claim infallibility on debatable matters, are known as bores – or maybe columnists.

Doubt becomes destructive as it reaches the center of a belief and becomes its substitute. A systematic skepticism may keep us from bothering our neighbor. It does not motivate a passion to fight for his or her dignity and rights. How do ambiguity and agnosticism result in dreams of justice, in altruism and honor, in sacrifices for the common good? What great reformers of American history can be explained by their elegant ambivalence? (more)

Ask yourself this simple question: how confident would you need to be on a moral or political conclusion in order to work passionately for it? 99%? 90%? 75%?  If you have such an action-threshold, and this threshold is high, well then yes, to let your passion flower, you may need to lie to yourself about your confidence. So that you might actually do something.

Would your overconfidence then lead you to do too many things too enthusiastically?  If so, perhaps you’d do better to also allow yourself some other more graded psychological reluctance to passion, to counter this bias.

But it would of course be even better if you could see the nobility and glory in doing your best as a limited but well-meaning creature. You shouldn’t need to be absolutely sure of a conclusion to work sincerely and passionately for it.

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