Monthly Archives: December 2011

Excess Loyalty Signals

We tend to think of coalitions and conspiracies failing via betrayal. But in fact, I’d guess, they usually fail by excess loyalty signaling: members prefer to do what other members think is good for the group, rather than what private info could suggest is actually good for their group. Even in business. Karl Smith:

I see the back rooms of opposing lobbyists all the time. Here at the state level I can safely say that virtually no one has any idea what they are doing. That is, for the most part the lobbyist do not know and indeed are not particularly interested in what is in the best interest of their clients.

Further, this seems to stem from the fact that the clients are not particularly interested in what is in their best interests. What they are very interested in is whether legislation is pro them or anti them. However, if you begin to talk about the economy as a complex system full of unintended consequences where anti legislation could be in their best interests their eyes glaze over.

Moreover, a very large number of business lobbyists are not even that interested in efforts that are pro or anti their business. They are more interested in legislation that is pro-business in general and that they perceive as being fair. (more; HT Tyler)

A business group that used decision markets to estimate what would actually help them most might profit greatly thereby. But suggesting this change might signal disloyalty, at it suggests mismanagement by current group leaders.

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Overconfidence Explained

We seem close to a good account of overconfidence:

We study a large sample of 656 undergraduate students, tracking the evolution of their beliefs about their own relative performance on an IQ test as they receive noisy feedback. … Subjects (1) place approximately full weight on their priors, but (2) are asymmetric, over-weighting positive feedback relative to negative, and (3) conservative, updating too little in response to both positive and negative signals. These biases are substantially less pronounced in a placebo experiment where ego is not at stake. We also find that (4) a substantial portion of subjects are averse to receiving information about their ability, and that (5) less confident subjects are more likely to be averse. We unify these phenomena by showing that they all arise naturally in a simple model of optimally biased Bayesian information processing … [of] agents who derive utility directly from their beliefs (for example, ego or anticipatory utility). (more; HT Dan Houser)

They also have results on how overconfidence relates to IQ and gender:

We show that agents who are of high ability according to our IQ quiz, and hence arguably cognitively more able, are just as conservative and asymmetric as those who score in the bottom half of the IQ quiz. … In our data women differ significantly in their priors, are significantly more conservative updaters than men while not significantly more asymmetric, and significantly more likely to be averse to feedback. These gender differences are consistent with our theoretical framework if a larger proportion of women than men value belief utility.

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Seeking What-Work-Cuts Stories

To better imagine the lives of future ems, I want to learn more about the lives of people who work near eighty or more hours per week today. Since I haven’t found much academic work, I thought I might ask readers here directly.

If you, or someone you know well, has spent a year or more doing “work” (including commuting, school, and childcare) in the ballpark of eighty or more hours per week, I’d like to hear (in the comments below) about how your/their non-work priorities change as a result. Compared to similar folks who work only forty hours a week, high-work folks must spend less time sleeping, eating, socializing, watching TV, etc. But which of these activities take the biggest hit?

One clue might be the ratio of time spent on activities on weekdays vs. weekends. On weekdays we spend about as much time as on weekends on grooming, phone/email, eating, and sleeping. But we cut way back on art, religion, social events, and home maintenance. Here are the stats: a 2010 breakdown of weekday and weekend hours per activity, for US civilians age 15+, from the American Time Use Survey:

Continue reading "Seeking What-Work-Cuts Stories" »

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Desires Surveyed

I’ve seen surveys on what people are doing at random times. Here’s one on what people desire at random times:

208 participants (66% female) … indicated at least one current desire on half (49.9%) of the occasions at which they were beeped and responded (N=10,558), reported at least one recent desire on 26.7% of occasions, and reported neither a current nor recent desire on 27.6% of occasions. The most frequent desires among the total of 7,827 desire reports were those rooted in basic bodily needs: desires to eat (28.1%), sleep (10.3%), and drink (8.6%); followed by desires for media use (8.1%), leisure (7.2%), social contact (7.1%), hygiene-related activities (5.9%), tobacco use (4.8%), sex (4.6%), work (3.0%), coffee (2.9%), alcohol (2.7%), engagement in sports (2.6%), and spending (2.2%; category “other”: 1.9%). …

53.2% of desires [were] rated as not conflicting at all, 14.7% as mildly conflicting, 12.4% as somewhat conflicting, 10.9% asquite conflicting, and 8.8% as highly conflicting. On average,desires were actively resisted on 42% of occasions and enacted on 48% of occasions. (more)

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Why Boom Times Kill

It seems that the puzzle of why death rates rise in good economic times is nearly solved. There’s an effect of increased driving deaths from increased driving, but the main effect is that in good times nursing homes have to compete more for minimum wage nursing assistants. Apparently a one percentage point cut in the unemployment rate leads to three percent fewer nursing assistants, which increases the national death rate by a half percent (which cuts about three weeks of life per person):

We find that most of the additional deaths that occur during times of economic growth are among the elderly, particularly elderly women. … Cyclicality is especially strong for deaths occurring in nursing homes, and is stronger in states where a higher fraction of the elderly reside in nursing homes. … Staffing in skilled nursing facilities moves counter-cyclically.

A typical estimate suggests that a one-percentage point increase in a state’s unemployment rate leads to a 0.54% reduction in that state’s mortality rate. … Deaths by motor vehicle accidents are associated with the largest coefficient estimate. … It is likely that motor vehicle deaths fluctuate because people drive more during strong economic times. …

Approximately 80 percent of the averted respiratory deaths are among those over age 60. … Virtually all of the additional cardiovascular deaths are among those over age 65. … The correlation between changes in hospital employment and changes in aggregate employment is strongly negative (-0.90). … Nursing homes experience especially severe shortages of nursing aides when the economy is strong. … Between 70 to 90% of home health care agencies and nursing homes indicate shortages of direct care workers. …
Nursing home deaths are associated with an estimated [unemployment rate] coefficient that is an order of magnitude larger than the coefficient that is estimated among deaths taking place elsewhere. …

A one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate raises total full-time employment at skilled nursing facilities by approximately three percent. There is no statistically significant increase in the number of physicians, but there are significant increases in nurses, certified aides, and other occupations. (more)

A quick calculation says the US paid ~$13 billion for nursing assistant salaries in 2004, less than one percent of US medical spending (source). By cutting nursing assistants 3% when unemployment falls by 1% (and cutting three weeks off US lifespan), we save ~$400 million a year, or one part in 5000 of US medical spending.

Given how cheap they are, it seems inexcusable that we don’t raise wages on nursing assistants in boom times, to keep nursing homes fully staffed. Might this be due to a fixed government price that refuses to adapt to the business cycle?

Added 23Dec: See the comment here suggesting that med understaffing is chronic and makes a big difference.

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Hurry Or Delay Ems?

My best guess for the next big enormous thing, on the scale of the arrival of humans, farming, or industry, is the arrival of whole brain emulations, or “ems.” This raises the obvious question of whether we should try to hurry or delay the techs that would enable this change.

I see seven relevant considerations:

  1. Some think subsistence-wage ems an abomination, and so prefer to delay or prevent them. Conversely, others think that vast em numbers times lives worth living makes the em world a good well worth hurrying.
  2. Some want to delay the em transition, to give more time for its serious consideration. Others want visible em efforts to start sooner, fearing that serious consideration won’t start before then, and expect an earlier start to give a better total discussion. Still others think that, as with nanotech, early public anticipation of such events tends to make them go worse.
  3. The richer and more capable our civilization gets, the lower seem its chance of being extinguished by most disasters. Ems would make us richer faster, and ems survive biological disaster especially well.
  4. During the em transition our civilization is especially vulnerable to collapse, or to a central power grab. This transition is less disruptive when the last tech to mature is computing power, and most disruptive when that last tech is cell-modeling. This argues for hurrying scan and cell-model tech, relative to computing tech.
  5. Many fear that a single self-improving AI will suddenly grow vastly in power and take over the world. Some want to delay this event until they see how to pre-provably control such an AI. So such folks want to delay most other AI tech advances, including ems.
  6. Assuming pre-provable control is infeasible, on-the-fly control seems better when the people controlling are many and fast relative to the controlled AI. Since ems can be much faster and numerous than humans, this argues for hurrying ems.
  7. Great filter and anthropic selection considerations greatly raise our estimates of existential risks that could leave the universe empty. These do not much raise AI risk estimates, however.

On #1, I confidently estimate em lives to be numerous and worth living. On #2, I weakly estimate little benefit from delay or early publicity. Points #3,4 are the strongest I think, especially #4, and both argue for speedup. Since I think a single machine suddenly taking over the world is pretty unlikely, I give #5,6 less weight, especially when taking #7 into account. So on net I favor hurrying em cell-modeling tech most, em scan tech less, and weakly favor delaying em computing tech.

Added 11a: More considerations from the comments:

  1. Future people may evolve to differ from us via competition and changed circumstances. Some hope Earth will soon collectively organize to regulate to prevent such change, and so want to minimize change and competition before then. Since ems give more faster change, they prefer to delay ems.
  2. It seems humans can live on as ems, and non-poor ems need never die. Not dying is good, suggesting we hurry ems. Conversely, if uploading really kills humans, perhaps we should delay ems.
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Misers Are Too Fair

Steven Landsburg is exactly right:

Here’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him. Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. …

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser *spreads his largess far and wide. …

Put a dollar in the bank and you’ll bid down the interest rate by just enough so someone somewhere can afford an extra dollar’s worth of vacation or home improvement. Put a dollar in your mattress and you’ll drive down prices by just enough so someone somewhere can have an extra dollar’s worth of coffee with his dinner. (more; HT Adrian Kent)

Why are misers so widely criticized, if their gift is distributed unusually equitably, with little chance to receive praise or gratitude in return? Some might suggest this is caused by economic ignorance, but it seems far more likely that misers are criticized exactly because their gifts are equitable.

Humans have had literally millions of years experience begging from one other. Many primates do it, as do foragers. A supplicant appeals to common feelings that one should help associates in need when one is doing well, in the expectation of getting help later when you are in need, and also of sending good signals about your loyalty and ability.

Associates who hint that you should be less miserly and make more overt gifts are not at all hoping that you will spread your gift equitably across the world. They are instead hoping that you will unequally focus most of your gift on them. By criticizing a miserly associate, you are working to take the gift away from those distant recipients. Ask yourself: are you really more deserving than they? Do you care?

Added 1:30p: Karl Smith says:

The miser is not as generous as the dedicated philanthropist. … [He] is withholding his assessment of the most utility maximizing uses of his money. (HT TGGP)

True, but I’d still guess that the miser does more good than the average rich-nation philanthropist.

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On School’s Function

Is school more for helping students learn about the world, or more for showing and encouraging good behavior? This NYT oped by Yoram Bauman gives a hint:

When students went online to register for classes each quarter, they were asked if they wanted to donate $3 to support WashPIRG, a left-leaning activist group. Students were also asked if they wanted to donate $3 to Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for “sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding.” …

About 5 percent of economics majors donated to WashPIRG in a given quarter, compared with 8 percent for other arts and sciences majors. A similar divide — 10 percent versus almost 15 percent — occurred with respect to donations to ATN. … Taking economics classes [had] a significant negative effect on later giving by students who did not become economics majors. …

Our research suggests that economics education could do a better job of providing balance. Learning about the shortcomings as well as the successes of free markets is at the heart of any good economics education, and students — especially those who are not destined to major in the field — deserve to hear both sides of the story. (more)

So econ teaching should be changed because after taking econ classes students donate less to leftist political groups? Bauman does not bother to argue that econ classes teach falsehoods. He probably accepts the usual econ analysis suggesting that selfish folks might rather keep their money and hope others donate to worthy causes. No, apparently Bauman thinks it sufficient that he disapproves of the net effect of teaching truths — fewer donations go to political groups he favors. That must be stopped!

(Free market shortcomings are beside the point here. Most econ classes talk plenty about those, and they aren’t very relevant to the private vs. social value of donations.)

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Consider Exile

Today we mainly punish criminals via prison, which is very expensive. I have previously favored torture (= corporal punishment) and fines paid by competitive debtor prisons. But today, I’d like to sing the praises of exile.

To punish criminals, we could kick them out of the country to whatever other place they choose, among those that will take them. To give them an incentive to get some place to take them, we might offer a modest subsidy, and reserve an especially big punishment if no one will take them.

People worry that fines give governments too strong an incentive to find the innocent guilty (though fines paid to bounty hunters avoid that problem). People worry that torture doesn’t keep criminals off the street, and that it makes us seem cruel. Exile doesn’t have any of these problems! On cruelty, we already prevent most of the world from living here, so how can it be too cruel to prevent a few more?

Some think exile can’t impose small punishments. But you can exile someone for a year, a month, or a week. Some worry that exile can’t impose extreme punishments. But exile doesn’t have to be the whole solution, just part of a solution. For example, to impose punishments bigger than lifetime exile, beat them a bit first.

Some worry about variation in how much people dislike exile. But there is also variation in how much people dislike fines, prison, torture, and public humiliation. The best way to reduce punishment variation is probably to bundle together many kinds of punishment. Maybe fine them some, beat them a little, humiliate them a bit, and then exile them for a while.

In 2006 the US spent $69 billion on corrections, and 2.3 million adults were incarcerated at year-end 2009. A state prisoner cost an average of $24,000 per year in 2005 (source). Why waste all that money?!

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Talk Rules Are Classist

Our society claims to be concerned about less-favored races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, etc. But our most visible and well-enforced policies for showing such concern are rules about what folks may not say. And these rules are heavily classist, imposing much larger burdens on lower classes. Let me explain.

Humans have complex coalition politics, wherein we jockey for allies, test potential allies for weaknesses, and try to undermine rivals. We often communicate at several levels at once, with overt talk that better withstands outside scrutiny, and covert talk that is more free.

Lower “working” class cultures tend to talk more overtly. Insults are more direct and cutting, friends and co-workers often tease each other about their weaknesses. Nicknames often express weakness – a fat man might be nicknamed “slim.”

Upper class culture, in contrast, tends more to emphasize politeness and indirect communication. This helps to signal intelligence and social awareness, and distinguishes upper from lower classes. Upper class folks can be just as cruel, but their words have more plausible deniability.

The enforcement of laws against racist, sexist, etc. expressions is limited by the ability of courts and related observers to agree on the intent of what was said. Observers will not have access to all the local context and history that local folks use to interpret each others’ words. Now since official observers like judges tend to be upper class, they do tend to be better able to interpret the intent of upper class words. But this advantage seems insufficient compensate for the much greater indirection and politeness of upper class talk.

So when an upper and a lower class person both express disfavor with a certain race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc., the lower class expression is more likely to be legally and socially verifiable as racist, sexist, etc. If we add in the general reluctance of legal and social systems to punish upper class folks relative to lower class folks, we see that the burden of such policies mostly falls on the lower classes.

Could it be that advantaged folks are especially eager to support policies to help the disadvantaged when the cost of such policies are mainly borne by someone else?

(Idea stolen from a conversation with Katja Grace.)

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