Monthly Archives: January 2012

Sex Ratio Signaling

Nicholas Eberstadt on a “Global War Against Baby Girls“:

An ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination, … skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males, … sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls. … From a collision of three forces: first, local mores that uphold a truly merciless preference for sons; second, low or sub-replacement fertility trends, … and third, the availability of health services and technologies. … The total population of the regions beset by unnaturally high SRBs [= sex ratio at birth] amounted to 2.7 billion, or about 40 percent of the world’s total population.

Matt Ridley agrees, and is “pessimistic” about this “distortion.” But neither of them object to the lower fertility that is a contributing cause, nor to the morality of the act of abortion. So what exactly is the problem? A simple supply and demand analysis says that selective abortion both expresses a preference for boys and causes a reduction in that preference as wives become scarce. In South Korea this process is mostly complete, with excess boys down from 15% in the 1990s to 7% today (with ~5% as the biologically natural excess).

Eberstadt elaborates:

The consequences of medically abetted mass feticide are far-reaching and manifestly adverse. …[This] establishes a new social reality that inescapably colors the whole realm of human relationships, redefining the role of women as the disfavored sex in nakedly utilitarian terms, and indeed signaling that their very existence is now conditional and contingent.

What “new social reality”? A preference for boys was there and clear to all before selective abortion came on the scene.

Moreover, enduring and extreme SRB imbalances set the demographic stage for an incipient “marriage squeeze.” …  Unmarried men appear to suffer greater health risks than their married counterparts. …. A steep rise in the proportion of unmarried and involuntarily childless men begs the question of old-age support for that rising cohort.

But these are all about things getting worse for men, which is exactly how supply and demand solves such a “problem.” Finally, Eberstadt invokes some externalities:

The “rising value of women” can have perverse and unexpected consequences, including increased demand for prostitution and an upsurge in the kidnapping and trafficking of women. … Such trends could quite conceivably lead to increased crime, violence, and social tensions — or possibly even a greater proclivity for social instability. All in all, mass sex selection can be regarded as a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic, in which the aggregation of individual (parental) choices has the inadvertent result of degrading the quality of life for all.

Now more voluntary prostitution in such a context is not obviously a bad thing. Yes, kidnapping and crime are bad, but there is little mixed evidence such things are increasing due to having more males. There is, however, good evidence that males now compete more by increasing their savings rate, which is overall good for the world.

This topic offers a good example of a conflict between sending desired signals and getting desired outcomes. Since parents who selectively abort girls show favoritism toward boys, it can feel quite natural to signal your opinion that women have equal value by condemning such parents, and favoring policies to discourage their actions. Not doing so can make you seem anti-female. Yet since via supply and demand the abortions chosen by these parents directly increase the value of women, then all else equal discouraging their abortions reduces the value of women. So if you want women to have higher value, your signal is counter-productive.

Of course it is far from clear that the relative value of males and females should be the main consideration here. One might instead argue that if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have more lives that are more pleasant?

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Classical Music As Tax

Imagine that the government required people to wear a nice suit in public spaces like sidewalks, airports, and parks. Or required a precise haircut (e.g., within the last three days). Or imagine that signs had to be most easily read in latin. Or that Mormon sermons were loudly broadcast. Such policies would reduce the rate of crime and related complaints in public spaces, by imposing higher costs on the sorts of people who commit crimes (and on many others). Is that a good enough reason to implement such policies? Now consider that some public spaces play classical music to push away undesirables:

The Port Authority is one of many public spaces across the country that uses classical music to help control vagrancy: to drive the homeless away. … [In] the mid-1980s … a 7-Eleven began playing music in the parking lot as a deterrent to the crowds of teenagers congregating there. Plenty of stores continue to use the technique. … In 2001, police in West Palm Beach, Fla., blasted Mozart and Beethoven on a crime-ridden street corner and saw incidents dwindle dramatically. In 2010, the transit authority in Portland, Ore., began playing classical music at light-rail stops, and calls to police dropped. When the London Underground started piping classical music into its stations in 2005, physical and verbal abuse by young people declined by 33 percent. … Some sources report that Barry Manilow is as effective as Mozart in driving away unwanted groups of teens. (more)

The basic question: when is it ok for the government to impose costs on some subset of people in public, because that subset contains a higher fraction of those who commit crimes? Should there be any limits on the types of people a government can favor in public spaces?

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Religion Gets Bad Rap

Indonesian police say a civil servant who posted “God does not exist” on Facebook faces a maximum penalty of five years behind bars for blasphemy. … He was attacked by a mob on his way to work. (more)

I’m an atheist, and dislike mistreatment of atheists. But I also have to admit religion often gets a bad rap. For example, I’ve been reading more science fiction than usual lately, some old and some new. I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today. (And I don’t see it listed among other science fiction tropes.)

When religion helped turn foragers into farmers, it paid a lot of attention to sex. So religious folks still care a lot about sex, and have resisted sex-related techs, such as birth control, abortion, and IVF. But those techs are pretty old today, and only abortion remains strongly opposed. Yeah there are stem cell treatments, but that is a pretty tiny fraction of medicine.

A science fiction author from fifty years ago might have imagined strong religious oppositions to VCRs or the internet, because they aided porn. Or to cell phones with cameras because they allow sexting. Or to all sorts of “unnatural” medical techs. But overall, religious folks today seem just as pro-tech as others.

That doesn’t mean we don’t erect social barriers to new techs. But instead of being religious, most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based. As we have grown rich and eager to regulate each other, we have become more risk-averse and made it harder to introduce new disruptive techs. For example, computer-driven car tech is basically here and ready to go, but it will be a long time before we allow it. Same for automated flight and medical diagnosis,

Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain. Religion makes a safer target – most sf readers like regulation, but few are religious. Also, we tend to overestimate the importance of doctrine and dogma, relative to habits of behavior. Most religious dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usual intellectual standards. But it also doesn’t much influence behavior. In fact, religious folks tend to have exemplary behavior overall. They work hard, are married and healthy, avoid crime, deal fair, help associates, etc. While it may seem plausible that people with crazy beliefs would do crazy harmful things, the opposite seems to apply in this case.

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Silence Suggests Sim?

In 2010 I explained why I guess I’m not in a sim. In 2011 I explained why sims should be small, and focus on “interesting” folks. In 2001 I explained why it matters if you live in a sim.

Here is Tyler today:

If we are living in a simulation, does that resolve the Fermi paradox? I would think so. The “aliens” would be here, we just would not “see” them as such. … Should we expect to find alien civilizations in a simulation? The priors are not so clear. … For the time being, we are still in a “no aliens” do loop. … The Fermi paradox raises the likelihood that we are living in a simulation.

I don’t buy it. Let’s try two extreme cases. First, assume that the creatures who make your sim copy their own universe in the sim – if it has aliens, then you get aliens; if not, not. Here not seeing aliens says nothing about if you are in a sim.

Now assume the opposite, that whether the creatures running your sim give you aliens has no relation to whether or not they have aliens in their world. They decide whether to give you aliens based on the “story” (= useful sim) value of aliens, regardless of how realistic that seems to them. In this case if the scenario of your world seems to have especially high story value (relative to a real scenario), you should increase your suspicion that you are in a sim. And if your scenario seems to have an especially low story value, you should reduce your suspicion that you are in a sim.

It seems to me that if anything aliens would add to a story value. So not seeing aliens should lower your suspicion you are in a sim. And if you can’t tell if aliens help or hinder a sim story, then not seeing aliens gives no info about if you are in a sim.

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Hail John Watkins

In the 1900 Ladies Home Journal, railroad engineer John Watkins offered unusually insightful predictions for a hundred years hence. His example seems a great place to learn lessons on sources of insight, and systematic biases, in forecasting. Yet while many have commented recently on Watkin’s forecasts, I haven’t seen any drawing lessons.

I see these as Watkins main mistakes:

  1. Overestimating coordination capacities. Watkins said we’d cut underused letters like C,X,Q from our alphabet, eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds, put all city traffic below or above ground, and accept many American republics into the USA union. All of these require far more coordination than we seem capable of.
  2. Underestimating wealth indulgence and signaling. Watkins said we’d adopt an engineer’s efficiency attitude toward food preparation and personal fitness. People unable to walk ten miles at a stretch would be weaklings, and we’d use central cooking instead of personal kitchens. But rich folks don’t want to work that hard, and humans have long asserted wealth and autonomy via personalized vs. communal dining. Institutional communal food, such as in dorms, ships, military bases, boarding-house, etc., has long been avoided a sign of low status.

Added 10a: The institutional food that is cheapest, and lowest in status, makes you eat where they say, when they say, and what they say. Yes of course a restaurant is “institutional” in some ways, but it costs more because it offers customers more flexibility in time, location, and food.

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Imagine Being Wrong

I felt myself wince recently when I wrote “I imagine that if I were a racist.” I realized that I’m not supposed be able to imagine being a racist. Even though a most folks in history have believed, often reasonably given their evidence, that races differ substantially on important qualities. And even though historians, sociologists, etc. regularly study and understand racists.

Apparently one is supposed to believe that racists are so obviously and extremely crazy that it is impossible for a reasonable person to see things from their point of view. Pretending to believe this signals to your associates confidence in your shared anti-racist position, and so is a signal of group loyalty.

But it seems a bad habit to get into, if you want to believe the truth. No doubt many positions are hard to understand, at least without some practice and preparation. Being rational in disagreements is hard exactly because it is so much easier to see one’s own reasoning than to imagine the reasoning of others. And we have only a limited ability to overcome this barrier. But to go out of your way to make it hard to see things from another’s view, that suggests one is more interested in showing loyalty than in discerning truth.

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Why Hate Firms, Love Cities?

Families, clubs, professions, industries, firms, cities, and states are all important units of economic organization. That is, we coordinate to some extent via all of these units, to achieve mutual ends. But firms and cities make an especially interesting comparison.

First, firms and cities are similar in many ways. They both vary greatly in size, and can be costly for long-time associates to leave. Both tend to be “selfish” in avoiding and excluding those who do not benefit other associates, and thus tend to favor rich folks. People can relate to both kinds of units as investors, suppliers, leaders, and customers.

Second, people tend to like cities more than firms. For example, many movies are love songs to particular cities, yet few movies have cities as villains. Many movies have firms as villains, but few have firms as heroes. Sporting teams tied to cities play in huge stadiums, while teams tied to firms play in local parks.

While people tend to dislike bigger firms more than small ones, cities tend to be bigger than firms, and the biggest cities tend to be the most celebrated. People tend to resent firms more when it is more costly to leave them, yet it tends to be harder to leave cities than firms. So why are cities loved so much more?

One theory is that we related to cities less directly. If a city doesn’t hire you, you can say particular firms wouldn’t hire you. If a city won’t sell you a dress cheap, it is particular firms that wouldn’t sell it. So cities can more easily escape blame. However, a similar argument would suggest that we love shopping malls more than stores, or TV channels more than TV shows. Yet these seem weak effects, if they exist at all.

Another theory is that we often see firms as illicit dominators. We see the employer-employee relation as a dominance-submission relation, because firms give employees orders. Of course customers often give orders to firms, such as to waiters and cab drivers. But perhaps the joy of sometimes dominating does not outweigh the pain of at other times submitting. (And why are landlords seen as dominators, with renters submissives?)

Now cities do often seem to take a dominance relation to their citizens, such as via police, teachers, and rule-bound officials. But people seem to resent this dominance less. Is this because the major is democratically elected? CEOs are also usually elected, its just via one stock one vote, instead of one person one vote. Do people love cities less where local officials aren’t elected? Do people love non-profit firms as much as cities? Color me again confused.

Added 4p: Andrew Gelman says many firms are actually very popular. Alas he doesn’t have comparable data on cities.

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Brin Says Cryonics Selfish

Like Tyler, sf author David Brin says cryonics is selfish:

A majority of citizens today perceive cryonics enthusiasts as kooky. … I share some of this skepticism. … Wouldn’t any reasonable person — one worthy of revival — dedicate a lifetime’s accumulated resources to helping their children and posterity, instead of splurging it all on a chancy, self-important gamble for personal immortality?


“Median total [US Medicare] expenditures in the last 6 months of life [in '00 to '06] were $22,407.” (More)
“Out-of-pocket medical expenditures … for the years 1998-2006 … in the last year of life is estimated to be $11,618 on average.” (more)

Since US medical spending has more than doubled since then, we must now spend over $50K per person on the last six months of life. And this spending seems to, if anything, reduce lifespan. In contrast, a ~$40K (30 + 10) cryonics procedure gives a chance of a whole new life, and increases the chance of others gaining the same benefit at a lower cost. So why don’t Cowen or Brin first complain about selfish end-of-life care?

Brin continues:

Some people who sign up for storage believe their bank accounts alone — set up to earn dividends until some future era — will suffice to make them worthy of being thawed, repaired, and given full corporeal citizenship in a coming age of wonders. Somehow, I wouldn’t give that bet anything like sure odds, no matter how many technological barriers future people overcome.

Let me get this straight. People who suffer ridicule and fierce conformity pressures to pay to take a chance to avoid death and help others avoid death, who actually end up being right, and who in addition save money that gets invested in the world economy to help it to grow faster and larger, in order to generously pay future folks to revive them, do not deserve to be revived?! Even if they are quite willing to work to pay their way upon revival? Future folk should instead steal their money and refuse to revive them?! Why doesn’t Brin suggest that we today kill old folks a few weeks early to save thousands in medical costs? How exactly are they deserving yet cryonics patients not?

Btw, a second person has finally taken their cryonics hour. Any more takers?

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Why Silence Puzzles

Bryan Caplan:

[Recent planet] discoveries seriously undermine the Fermi Paradox. If we’ve only recently confirmed the existence of extrasolar planets, why on earth should we be surprised by the fact that we’ve failed to confirm the existence of extrasolar intelligent life? … Shouldn’t they already be here? Not if space travel (including the value of time) permanently remains extremely costly relative to the value of raw materials. It’s a lot easier to believe that space travel will forever remain a rare luxury for intelligent life than that intelligent life exists on Earth alone. ..

[Some] say, “Whatever intelligent life usually does, surely one species of intelligent life would be the exception that proves the rule.” Facile. When you multiply independent, rare events together, you quickly reach situations with zero examples. … Even if there are seven billion species of intelligent life in the galaxy, there could easily be zero species that entered our solar system during the last century, approached the earth, and stayed long enough for the scientific community to detect and confirm.

When a tree burns, what fraction of its leaves float to another tree still burning enough to ignite it? What fraction of the coconuts on an island float away to a barren island to grow a new tree there? What fraction of the virus copies in someone who is infected fly out in a sneeze to infect a new person? Why should we ever expect such fractions to be large enough to create forest fires, or coconuts on new islands, or viruses that spread to many people?

If we knew that one tree in our dense dry forrest was burned a few days ago, we should be surprised to see untouched trees near where we stand, even if we could not see that burned tree far away. We should also be surprised to see unburned coal near us if we knew a fire had started days ago far away, beyond our sight, in the same rich ventilated coal mine. And if we knew that one drop of spoiled milk was added days ago to a large room temperature vat of milk, we should be surprised to see unspoiled milk in any part of the vat we could see.

We should be surprised to think billions of technologically-advanced intelligent civilizations have existed in our galaxy for billions of years. This is because for a civ only a millennia more advanced than us, it should only take a tiny (i.e., a part in a billion or less) fraction of its resources to send out a self-reproducing seed that could colonize an empty galaxy densely (so that we’d see it everywhere we looked) within a billion years. It doesn’t matter if this venture is expensive and time-consuming relative to the typical hobby budget or time of a human today, or a bacterium on any day. What matters is that civs can be diverse, and contain great internal diversity. And it just takes one spark to start a fire.

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Future Wealth Inequity

My last two posts described inequality in firm and city sizes, and in individual wealth. Today, firms and cities are quite unequal, following a Zipf distribution, with a tail power near one (giving a very thick tail.) Individual wealth is a bit more equal, with a bigger power of ~1.4 (and hence a thinner tail).

This distribution of firms and cities seems to result from their being tolerably effective across a wide range of sizes, having long unequal lifetimes, having little net local growth, and holding a roughly fixed total number of people. In contrast, individuals have more equal lifespans, are psychologically inclined to spend more as they get richer, and have spending habits that correlate only weakly across generations. (“Rags to rags in three generations.”)

How might these change in the future? In the em era, I expect firm distributions to stay similar, but expect city and individual wealth distributions to change. I’ve talked before about how I suspect strong gains to em concentration, as they suffer less from travel congestion, leading perhaps to most being in a few dense cities. In this post, let me talk about em wealth.

Since em lifespans should be limited mainly by em wealth, em lifetimes can vary a lot more than human lifetimes, and ems can have more long-term spending consistency. While some ems will spend their wealth on more copies, others will hoard their wealth. Some may even manage to consistently reinvest most of their wealth via something like a Kelly criteria. This seems likely to make future em wealth evolution more akin to today’s firm and city evolution. I thus expect a near Zipf distribution for the high tail of em wealth.

This change in tail power should make em wealth distributions more unequal. Under a tail power of ~1.4, today’s richest person has about $75B, which is about 0.04% of the world’s $200T wealth. Under a power of ~1, the richest person might be about a hundred times richer, holding ~4% of the world’s wealth, or $7.5T.

Since a Zipf distribution has an unbounded expected value, its inequality also depends on the total population size (which follows it). The following table shows this dependence:

The “% of Richest” column says what fraction of the total wealth is held by the one richest person. The “MidW %” column shows the (smallest) fraction of the population that holds half of the total wealth. And the “MidW/ave” column shows how much richer is the mid-wealth person (for whom half of all wealth is held by richer folks) than the average person.

For a Zipf wealth distribution, as the population gets larger wealth gets more concentrated. Even so, the very richest person holds a smaller fraction of the total wealth. The same should apply to firms and cities if they retain a Zipf distribution — the firm and cities that hold most people will get larger, even though the largest firm or city would be a smaller fraction of the total.

In sum, as the population gets larger, I expect firms and cities to get larger.  And for “immortal” ems, I also expect a more unequal distribution of wealth. Even so, as population increases the very largest firms, cities, and rich folks should hold smaller fractions of their respective totals.

Added 11p 14Jan: This post has now been up for a whole day, with zero comments and one vote. Which has to be some sort of record for reader disinterest. This is especially noteworthy, given that I’m especially proud of this post, culminating several days work trying to understand something important about the future. Alas that I  sometimes bore readers, but I’m writing this blog mainly for me, so I’ll continue to write about what most interests me, even if past responses suggest readers won’t be as interested.

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