Monthly Archives: July 2011

Group Moral Licensing

We are more willing to do bad if we have recently done good. We also think we get more excuses to do bad if our group is good:

Five studies supported the hypothesis that people are more willing to express prejudiced attitudes when their group members’ past behavior has established nonprejudiced credentials. Study 1a showed that participants who were told that their group was more moral than similar other groups were more willing to describe a job as better suited for Whites than for African Americans. In Study 1b, when given information on group members’ prior nondiscriminatory behavior (selecting a Hispanic applicant in a prior task), participants subsequently gave more discriminatory ratings to the Hispanic applicant for a position stereotypically suited for majority members (Whites). In Study 2, moral self-concept mediated the effect of others’ prior nonprejudiced actions on a participant’s subsequent prejudiced behavior such that others’ past nonprejudiced actions enhanced the participant’s moral self-concept, and this inflated moral self-concept subsequently drove the participant’s prejudiced ratings of a Hispanic applicant. In Study 3, the moderating role of identification with the credentialing group was tested. Results showed that participants expressed more prejudiced attitudes toward a Hispanic applicant when they highly identified with the group members behaving in nonprejudiced manner. In Study 4, the credentialing task was dissociated from the participants’ own judgmental task, and, in addition, identification with the credentialing group was manipulated rather than measured. Consistent with prior studies, the results showed that participants who first had the opportunity to view an in-group member’s nonprejudiced hiring decision were more likely to reject an African American man for a job stereotypically suited for majority members. These studies suggest a vicarious moral licensing effect. (more)

Citizens of the United States are especially proud of a history of (supposedly) doing good. The US sees itself as having saved the world from Nazism and Communism, of creating and sustaining modern medicine, of educating the world via the best universities, of being the main innovators in computer tech, of upholding the highest standards of civil and gender rights, of being unusually devoted to religion, etc.

All this self-respect, deserved or not, probably makes US citizens more willing to do bad, both individually and collectively. Dear US citizens: please ask yourself how sure you can be that your actions on the world stage are actually for good.

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Will We Ban Tone Readers?

Humans communicate through many channels, including words, tone of voice, body position, facial expressions, etc. An “innocent” view is that these channels say similar compatible things; added channels mainly help us to say more things faster. A “hypocrisy” view, however, is that we say more socially-acceptable things via words, which can be more easily quoted, and via other channels we more say things we’d rather were not quoted, things often in conflict with our words.

These contrasting views suggest differing predictions about how we will react to new rapidly-improving techs for reading face/body/voice tones. Such techs watch and listen to the people around us, and tell us explicitly what their face/body/voice tones are saying. (Quotes from an article on such tech below.)

The innocent view suggests that we will welcome such techs as ways to help us read each other more clearly, helping especially those handicapped in reading such signals. The hypocrisy view, in contrast, suggests that we will resist and regulate such tech, to preserve familiar capacities for and habits of hypocrisy.

Many familiar regulations can be seen as attempts to preserve our habits of hypocrisy. For example, audio recording techs threatened to make our words reliably quotable, and our tone of voice as well, making it harder to say different things in private than we say in public. So we prohibited recording people’s voice without their permission. Similarly, new techs allowing cheap video recording of police activities threaten to expose deviations between how police often behave and how we say they are supposed to behave. So we are starting to ban them .(We may have police internal affairs groups report to police chiefs for similar reasons.)

Older examples are laws against blackmail and gambling, and our reluctance to enforce most long term promises. Blackmail threatens to punish and thus discourage activities we like, even though we denounce them, and challenges to bet show that we like to say things we don’t believe enough to support with a bet. Most long term promises are based on ideals we espouse but don’t actually want to act on.

I lean toward the hypocrisy view of human communication. Thus I suspect expression readers will be widely banned, especially recording or publishing their outputs, as an “invasion of privacy.” Though we may make sure the wording and/or enforcement of such laws is weak enough to allow their common use on ordinary people by firms and governments.

Anyone disagree? What odds will you give?

That article on expression reader tech: Continue reading "Will We Ban Tone Readers?" »

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IP+ Like Barbed Wire?

“Without barbed wire the Plains homestead could never have been protected from the grazing herds and therefore could not have been possible as an agricultural unit.” (1931) …

English common law made livestock owners responsible for damages by roaming livestock, assigning the responsibility to fence in livestock. In contrast, the American colonies adopted legal codes that required farmers to fence out others’ livestock. Without a “lawful fence,” farmers had no formal entitlement to compensation for damages by others’ livestock. …

From 1880 to 1900, the introduction and near-universal adoption of barbed wire [in the US west] greatly reduced the cost of fences, relative to the predominant wooden fences, especially in counties with the least woodland. Over that period, … average crop productivity increased relatively by 23% in counties with the least woodland, controlling for crop-specific differences among counties and crop-specific statewide shocks. The increased productivity was entirely among crops more susceptible to damage from roaming livestock. … This increase in agricultural development appears partly to reflect farmers’ increased ability to protect their land from encroachment. (more)

Before the invention of barbed wire, it just didn’t make sense to build fences around farms in areas with little wood. Thus, it didn’t make as much sense to farm, near where others raised livestock. If you farmed, nearby livestock might just come and eat or trample your crops. In such times and places, many ranchers probably thought that “natural law” favored ranching, not farming, and favored property in animals more than property in land.

But the kinds of property and activity that makes sense depends on the available institutions and technology. Before barbed wire, it make less sense to farm, or to enforce property rights in land against roaming animals. But after barbed wire, farming and land property rights made a lot more sense.

Similarly, the kinds of innovation activities and intellectual property rights that make sense depend on available institutions and technologies. I’m happy to admit that today intellectual property (IP) is not obviously a good idea. Such property can create large “anti-commons” transaction and enforcement costs that greatly raise the cost of combining old ideas into valuable new ideas. Such costs often outweigh the social benefits of the incentives to create IP, in order to sell it. Today, it is often better to rely on other social incentives to innovate, incentives that don’t require such expensive support.

But if true, this is a sad fact about our limited abilities, not a fundamental natural law or right. You have no fundamental right to enjoy the innovations produced by others without compensating them. You owe them, at least your gratitude. Yes for now it may be best to let you take innovations freely without paying, since the alternative seems too expensive. But you have no right to expect that situation to last forever, any more than ranchers had a right to expect they could forever let their animals trample nearby farms.

Just as farmers developed barbed-wire, someday I expect IP advocates will develop better forms of intellectual property, and better technologies for marking, sharing, and enforcing such property. Using such innovations, I expect we will allow more and stronger intellectual property, and more of the world economy will focus on developing such property. Which, like barbed-wire, will mostly be a good thing.

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Tests For Hedgehogs?

Philip Tetlock famously showed that hedgehogs, who focus on one main analytical tool, are less accurate than foxes, who used a wide assortment of analytical tools, on simple long-term forecasts in political economy.

Over at Cato Unbound, two famous hedgehogs recently replied to Tetlock. John Cochrane argued that no one can do well at the unconditional forecasts that Tetlock studied, but that hedgehogs shine at conditional forecasts, such as GDP change given a big stimulus. Bruce Bueno De Mesquita noted that his hedgehoggy use of game theory is liked by the CIA and by peer review.

Today at Cato Unbound, I note that since Tetlock’s data is hardly universal, that leaves room for counter-claims that he missed important ways in which hedgehogs are more accurate. But I find it disappointing, and also a bit suspicious, that neither Cochrane nor De Mesquita express interest in helping to design better studies, much less in participating in such studies. I note that “it is certainly possible to collect and score accuracy on conditional forecasts”, and conclude:

Research patrons eager to fund hedgehoggy research by folks like Cochrane and De Mesquita show little interest in funding forecasting competitions at the scale required to get public participation by such prestigious folks. So hedgehogs like Cochrane and De Mesquita can continue to claim superior accuracy, with little fear of being proven wrong anytime soon. All of which brings us back to our puzzling disinterest in forecast accuracy, which was the subject of my response.

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The Oregon Health Insurance Experiment

Two weeks ago the first paper was released reporting results from a new important medical study, the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment. Many are comparing it favorably to the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, which I call our best medical data ever. These new results are officially here, ungated here, and commentary is here, here, and here. I’ve now had time to read the new paper, talk to one of its authors, and ponder.

This new data is possible because for a short time Oregon assigned a limited number of available Medicaid slots by lottery. 89,824 people signed up for the lottery, about 70,000 of whom were plausible eligible. 35,169 of these folks won the lottery, and of those 8,704 (~30%) were enrolled in Medicaid medical insurance.

As Oregon ended the lottery within two years, we will at most see two years worth of data. This is probably too little data to see anything but implausibly large mortality effects, but they have been collecting many direct health measures like blood pressure. In this first paper, however, all we have are the results of surveys, which include self-reported health.

The big news is that lottery winners had substantially and significantly better self-reported health. The overall health difference is significant at a 10-4 level. Lottery winners reported, for example, being healthy (= unimpaired) an average of a half day more per month. If one assumes that being a lottery winner influences health mainly via giving health insurance, then health insurance gives people 1.6 more healthy days per month.

Sounds like solid proof that medicine is healthy, right? Not so fast. First, over two thirds of the health gains that appeared on the one-year-later survey also appeared on the very first survey, done before lottery winners got additional medical treatment. So clearly at least two thirds of the health gains here are due to the comfort of knowing one has insurance. (And since they’ll only directly measure health once per person, we may never get the timing data to see if any gains in direct measures also appeared right from the start.)

Second, the folks in this study aren’t remotely comparable to the folks in the RAND experiment. The RAND experiment was mainly on random people, though it over-sampled from people with the lowest 20% of income. The Oregon experiment, in contrast, is on very sick and poor folks. For example, “healthy days per month” above refers to to how people answered a survey question on the number of days in the last 30 that poor physical or mental health impaired their usual activity. On average people in this study were impaired for ten days per month! 28% of them have asthma, 30% high blood pressure, and 56% depression.

They are also very poor, with an average yearly income of $11,790. 67% have a high school education or less, and 55% are unemployed. While only 13-17% of Americans spend less that the federal poverty income level, 70% of these folks spend below that level, and 40% of them spend less than half that level. Just how poor, sick, and just plain dysfunctional these folks are is shown by the fact that only 30% of lottery winners actually managed to get insurance. For example, “only about 60 percent of those selected sent back applications.”

But if medicine is good for the poor and sick, can’t we presume it is good for everyone? No, because the most significant overall health result found in the RAND experiment was that medicine hurt the poor and healthy! The main pre-determined health measure in the RAND experiment was a “general health index” and they reported on how getting free medical insurance influenced four different groups: people were split by income, low (= lowest 20%) vs high, and by initial health, low (= lowest 20%) vs. high. At about a 6% significance level the RAND experiment found that poor but initially-well people got sicker when given free insurance (see Table 6.12, Page 210 of Free for All?).

My interpretation: such folks went wild getting stuff checked out that they’d been ignoring, and all that extra treatment of symptoms they could have ignored for longer led to lots of false positives on tests and over-treatment, making them worse on average.

Bottom line: So far, the new Oregon Health Insurance Experiment shows that for very poor and sick folks who go out of their way to request medical insurance, giving them such insurance makes them report feeling healthier. Two-thirds of this effect appears immediately on granting their request, and before they actually got more medical treatment. It remains to be seen if these healthy feelings will be reflected in more direct health measures, though that seems plausible, and we’ll probably never see mortality effects. The main results of the RAND experiment, which looked at all sorts of people, suggests doubts about presuming that if medicine helps the very poor and sick, it on average helps everyone.

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Why Hate Anti-Star Trek?

A comment at my recent post on how innovation might be >50% of future GDP points us to a Thursday post by Matt Yglesias, favorably citing a December post by sociologist Peter Frase, who imagines an “Anti-Star Trek” society. Frase says that Star Trek society is:

A communist society. There is no money, everyone has access to whatever resources they need, and no-one is required to work. Liberated from the need to engage in wage labor for survival, people are free to get in spaceships and go flying around the galaxy for edification and adventure.

Frase says an Anti-Star Trek society shares the same access to replicators and “unlimited” energy, but is instead a hellish “system based on money, profit, and class power” because it enforces intellectual property in the designs replicators use. So, horrors, people who want to use the latest designs, rather than old or donated designs, need some sort of income, which Frase says they might get by creating and selling new designs, marketing and advertising them, or making and enforcing lawsuits.

Now it should be noted that Star Trek fiction has many cases of people using money and trading. Even setting that aside, replicators need both matter and energy as input, and neither could ever be in infinite supply. So even an ideal “communist” Star Trek must enforce limited budgets of access to such things. Lawyers and guardians would need to adjudicate and enforce such limits.

In both the Star Trek and Anti-Star Trek societies, the main source of long term value seems to be the accumulation of better designs. Yet Frase (and apparently Yglesias) is horrified to imagine that the people who contribute this main value might get paid for their contributions. After all, this might lead to unequal “classes,” where some own more than others. This even though Star Fleet displays lots of hierarchy and inequality, and spends large budgets that must come at the expense of private budgets.

The far future seems to have put Frase in full flaming far mode, declaring his undying allegience to a core ideal: he prefers the inequality that comes from a government hierarchy, over inequality that comes from voluntary trade. Sigh.

Frase also greatly underestimates how much we can spend on innovation:

People to come up with new things to replicate, or new variations on old things, … is never going to be a very large source of jobs, because the labor required to create a pattern that can be infinitely replicated is orders of magnitude less than the labor required in a physical production process in which the same object is made over and over again.

Yes the labor to create any one design might be small, but to find good designs we must search a vast space of possible designs. To search for good designs, we create candidates, try them out, diagnoses their failings, and then seek better variations. This can use up practically unlimited labor.

Quotes from the Frase post: Continue reading "Why Hate Anti-Star Trek?" »

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Regulating Gossip

Did you know that people gossip about you? You don’t know who they are, or what they say, and sometimes they say things that (you think) are not true. Important decisions, like whether you get invited to parties, recommended for jobs, or even married, hang on such gossip. Yet there is almost no regulation of it! Government officials don’t track it, or check it for accuracy. There are no standards for what sources people can use in gossip, or how they state their opinions. You aren’t even notified when people gossip about you. Gossip is a virtually impenetrable system in which people, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their welfare. We must have reform!

Sound over the top? Consider:

Information … comes from thousands of everyday transactions that many people do not realize are being tracked: auto warranties, cellphone bills and magazine subscriptions. It includes purchases of prepaid cards and visits to payday lenders and rent-to-own furniture stores. It knows whether your checks have cleared and scours public records for mentions of your name. Pulled together, the data follow the life of your wallet far beyond what exists in the country’s three main credit bureaus. [Firms sell] that information for a profit to lenders, landlords and even health-care providers. …

Who is worthy of credit? The answer increasingly lies in the “fourth bureau” — companies such as L2C that deal in personal data once deemed unreliable. … Federal regulations do not always require companies to disclose when they share your financial history or with whom, and there is no way to opt out when they do. No standard exists for what types of data should be included in the fourth bureau or how it should be used. No one is even tracking the accuracy of these reports. That has created a virtually impenetrable system in which consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their financial futures. (more)

The consequences of ordinary gossip are just as big as with firm gossip on customer finance. And it would be possible to have stronger regulations on ordinary gossip. Yes such regulations couldn’t be perfectly enforced, but then neither can regulations on firm finance gossip. The main reason we don’t have such regulations is that people dislike them. The same people who may well support more regulation on firm gossip on your finances. Why?

It seems to come down to the usual: we are more willing to regulate firms than individuals, and to regulate activity where money is involved than other activity.

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Why Magic + Nostalgia?

I don’t usually care for fantasy, though I like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Rewatching the first Harry Potter movie, I was reminded of the puzzling correlation in fiction between magic and traditional social orders. Even though the wizards in Harry Potter live among modern folks, they still prefer Victorian era garb and interior decoration. More generally, stories with magic tend to be nostalgic – containing and accepting older social orders. Why?

I went looking for clues and found:

The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated… the social order stays the same. It may be the natural genre … but should we be proud of that? Science fiction, in sharp contrast, considers the possibility of learning and change. (more) Continue reading "Why Magic + Nostalgia?" »

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Innovation >50% GDP?

What will be the biggest future economic sectors? Medicine is many folks bet – we want few things more than health, and the med spending % of GDP has grown for many decades. But while I agree that medicine will continue to grow for decades, on longer timescales my bet and hope is: innovation.

We are richer than our ancestors mostly because of innovation. But most of the innovation benefits we receive are externalities – we only pay our ancestors (or those to whom they transferred their property rights) for a small fraction of that benefit. If we instead had better property rights for innovation, we’d pay a large fraction of our income as compensation for past innovation. That would increase incentives to innovate, the rate of innovation, and the fraction of the economy devoted to innovation. With good institutions, I could imagine more that half of all income being paid to the innovation industry.

Alas, it is devilishly hard to design good innovation property rights. Patents are supposedly the best we have now, and they are often terrible. But over the next few centuries, we might just create better institutions (e.g., futarchy) to better encourage institution design, and within those institutions, folks may well come up with better designs for institutions to encourage innovation. Optimist that I am, my best guess is that we will succeed at this.

Of course in the long run innovation must run out, and then we’ll have a long stable future with little innovation. But I expect the innovation era to last a few more centuries at least, with the best innovation yet to come.

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Upload Skepticism

David Linden in Boing Boing:

Kurzweil predicts that by the late 2030s, we will be able to routinely scan an individual’s brain with such molecular precision and with such a complete understanding of the rules underlying neuronal function and plasticity that we will be able to “upload” our mental life into a vastly powerful and capacious future computer. … I am a neurobiologist and I have spent the past 28 years engaged in studies of the cellular and molecular basis of memory and cognition. I am an optimist and a technophile, but I believe that I speak for the vast majority of brain researchers when I express serious doubts about Kurweil’s timetable. …

Kurzweil then argues that our understanding of biology—and of neurobiology in particular—is also on an exponential trajectory, driven by enabling technologies. … At some point in the 2020s, a miracle will occur: If we keep accumulating data about the brain at an exponential rate (its connection maps, its activity patterns, etc.), then the long-standing mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action will necessarily be revealed. … That’s where I get off the bus.

Our understanding of biological processes remains on a stubbornly linear trajectory. … There have been a number of genuine paradigm-shifting insights in genetics in recent years. … But these discoveries, and most of the other key conceptual breakthroughs in this field, have come slowly, the result of stubbornly linear small science, and not of the huge technology-driven data sets that Kurzweil describes. … This linear progress also holds true for the growth in our knowledge of brain function. … The ploddingly linear increase in our understanding of neural function means that an idea like mind-uploading to machines being usefully deployed by the 2020s or even the 2030s seems overly optimistic. (more; HT Tyler)

I’m happy to defer to Linden’s brain science expertise. But I wish he’d get clear on two key points:

  1. All this talk of linear vs. exponential progress, with linear progress unable to finish by 2040, suggests Linden has in mind a rough estimate of how far along are we now, and how fast we have been proceeding. It would be very helpful if Linden would tell us his best guess. For example, are we now 20% of the way along, and progressing 5% per decade, suggesting we need 160 more years of linear progress?
  2. Linden talks about “mysteries of development, consciousness, perception, decision, and action.” But all we need for brain “uploads” (= emulations) are good enough models of individual cell input/output/state relations (i.e., how a brain cell’s output signals and internal states change as a function of its input signals). We don’t need to understand how that huge mess of connected cells actually produces high level brain functions. If we just focus on this more limited goal, then how far along are we, and how fast are we moving?

Yes Kurzweil seems too optimistic, but rather than criticizing Kurzweil it seem far more useful for Linden to offer his own best expert estimates. Brain emulations would have such enormous social implications that even if they will take a century or so to arrive, it is still very important to let people know, so we can start to prepare. I fear my economist colleagues will continue to ignore this possibility until top brain scientists like Linden tell them it really is coming.

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