On Stossel Tonight

I should be on tonight’s (9pm EST) episode of Stossel, on Fox Business TV, talking about biases.

Added 8Dec: I was wrong; the show should air Thursday Dec. 11

Added 28 Dec: Here is a video of the episode

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One In A Billion?

At CATO Unbound this month, David Brin’s lead essay makes two points:

  1. We probably shouldn’t send messages out to aliens now on purpose, and more surely we shouldn’t let each group decide for themselves if to send.
  2. The lack of visible aliens may be explained in part via a strong tendency of all societies to become “feudal”, with elites “suppressing merit competition and mobility, ensuring that status would be inherited” and resulting in “scientific stagnation.”

In my official response at CATO Unbound, I focus on the first issue, agreeing with Brin, and responding to a common counter-argument, namely that we now yell to aliens far more by accident than on purpose. I ask if we should cut back on accidental yelling, which we now do most loudly via the Arecibo planetary radar. Using the amount we spend on Arecibo yelling to estimate the value we get there, I conclude:

We should cut way back on accidental yelling to aliens, such as via Arecibo radar sending, if continuing at current rates would over the long run bring even a one in a billion chance of alerting aliens to come destroy us. And even if this chance is now below one in a billion, it will rise with time and eventually force us to cut back. So let’s start now to estimate such risks, and adapt our behavior accordingly. (more)

As an aside, I also note:

I’m disturbed to see that a consensus apparently arose among many in this area that aliens must be overwhelmingly friendly. Most conventional social scientists I know would find this view quite implausible; they see most conflict as deeply intractable. Why is this kind-aliens view then so common?

My guess: non-social-scientists have believed modern cultural propaganda claims that our dominant cultures today have a vast moral superiority over most other cultures through history. Our media have long suggested that conflictual behaviors like greed, theft, aggression, revenge, violence, war, destruction of nature, and population growth pressures all result from “backward” mindsets from “backward” cultures.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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Yes, Compare Nations

I called for more empirical work on the effects of liberty:

Libertarians focus too much on trying to argue abstractly that liberty would be better, and not enough on just concretely describing how liberty would be different. … From [our] vast literature we should be able to identify many concrete patterns and “stylized facts” about how government-provision and heavy-regulation tends to change products and services. (more)

David Henderson agrees:

The reality is that after Stigler’s speech, many economists did look more at the data and the data tended to show that the free market and economic freedom work better than government control. But Robin is not satisfied. There is more to be done, he says, and he’s right.  (more)

But he does have a criticism:

I do have one main criticism of Robin’s post. … It’s the West/East Germany and the South/North Korea comparisons that I want to defend. With all the variables that could affect economic growth, think about how hard it is to know what some of the most important factors are. … The stark contrast between those two pairs of countries and what that said about some economic freedom versus harsh totalitarianism.

I very much agree that those nation pairs make useful comparisons; sorry that what I wrote could mislead on that point. These comparisons do indeed suggest that “some freedom” is better than “harsh totalitarianism”, and they are good data-points on which to base stylized facts on the general effects of more liberty. Their main limitations are that they don’t say much directly about the effects of a lot more liberty than is found in West Germany or South Korea. To imagine even more liberty, we need those stylized facts.

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Authentic =? Accepted

We usually hear that being “authentic” is to “be yourself”, as opposed to “pretending”. But consider some clues about authenticity:

People who believe they’re behaving authentically are less distressed and have higher self-esteem. … Feeling inauthentic in one’s dealings with other people correlates with symptoms of depression. … Women … report much greater feelings of personal authenticity in their romantic relationships than men do, and as teens, they’re more likely than boys to say that they can be themselves with their best friends. On the other hand, teen boys report feeling more authentic with their dads than teen girls do—and young men say they feel more authentic around professors than their female classmates do. … When adults … were asked how authentic they felt in the presence of various people, work colleagues came in dead last. (more)

This clue seems especially telling:

Subjects sometimes reported feeling more authentic when they acted “out of character” during activities in the lab, such as playing Twister or debating medical ethics. Introverts felt “truer to themselves” when they were acting like extroverts; ditto disagreeable people who were acting agreeable, and careless people who were acting conscientiously. (more)

Note that people felt the most “authentic” here when they were less like their usual self! This tempts me to guess that the feeling of authenticity is actually a feeling of being accepted and respected, with an absence of stress about if one is so accepted. So when a personality spectrum has a more respected end, we all feel more authentic when we feel that we look like that end of the spectrum.

This fits the other correlates above; people feel more authentic when they feel more accepted and respected in their role, regardless of if that role is who they “really” are.

Maybe there is no real you. There are just the yous that you can construct, and the you that you can make that seems the most accepted and respected, that is who you prefer to see as the “real” you.

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Policy vs. Meta-Policy

What is our main problem, bad policy or bad meta-policy? That is, do our collective choices go wrong mainly because we make a few key mistakes in choosing particular policies? Or do they go wrong mainly because we use the wrong institutions to choose these policies?

I would have thought meta-policy was the obvious answer. But CATO asked 51 scholars/pundits this question:

If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?

And out of the 29 answers now visible, only four (or 14%) of us picked meta-policy changes:

Michael Strain says to increase fed data agency budgets:

BLS data on gross labor market flows … are not available at the state and MSA level, they do not have detailed industry breakdowns, and they do not break down by occupation or by job task. … We also need better “longitudinal” data — data that track individuals every year (or even more frequently) for a long period of time. … The major federal statistical agencies need larger budgets to collect the data we need to design policies to increase workforce participation and to strength future growth. … My second policy suggestion is to expand the … EITC.

Lee Drutman says to increase Congress staff policy budgets:

I would triple the amount the Congress spends on staff (keeping it still at just under 0.1% of the total federal budget). I’d also concentrate that spending in the policy committees. I’d give those committees the resources to be leading institutions for expertise on the issues on which they deal. I’d also give these committees the resources to hire their own experts — economists, lawyers, consultants, etc. But I’d also make sure that these committees were not explicitly partisan.

Eli Dourado says to pay Congress a bonus if the economy does well:

A performance bonus would help to overcome some of Congress’s complacency and division in the face of decades-long economic stagnation. … One good performance metric would be total factor productivity (TFP). … Fernald adjusts his TFP estimate for cyclical labor and capital utilization changes, making his series a better measure. … Members of Congress would earn a $200,000 bonus if the two-year period in which they serve averages 2 percent TFP growth. (more)

Robin Hanson says to use decisions markets to choose policies:

First, I propose that our national legislatures pass bills to define national welfare, and fund and authorize an agency to collect statistics to measure this numerical quantity after the fact. … Second, … create an open bounty system for proposing policies to increase national welfare. … Third, … create two open speculative decision markets for each official proposal, to estimate national welfare given that we do or do not adopt this proposal. … If over the decision day the average if-adopted price is higher than the average if-not-adopt price (plus average bid-ask spread), then the proposal … becomes a new law of the land.

It seems to me that Michael, Lee, and Eli feel wave pretty weak wands. Surely if they thought their wands strong enough to cast any policy or meta-policy spell, wouldn’t they pick meta-policy spells a bit stronger than these? (And why is it always more spending, not less?)

By focusing on policy instead of meta-policy, it seems to me that the other 25 writers show either an unjustified faith in existing policy institutions, or a lack of imagination on possible alternatives. Both of which are somewhat surprising for 51 scholars chosen by CATO.

Added Dec3:  3 of the 25 remaining proposals were in the meta-policy direction:

Susan Dudley:

[Regulatory] agencies should be required to present evidence that they have identified a material failure of competitive markets or public institutions that requires a federal regulatory solution, and provide an objective evaluation of alternatives.

Michael Mandel:

The Regulatory Improvement Commission … would have a limited period of time to come up with a package of regulations to be eliminated or fixed, drawing on public suggestions. The package would then be sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote, and then onto the President for signing.

Megan McArdle:

Instead of analyzing whether the [cost-benefit] calculations in a regulatory ledger sum to a positive or a negative number, we need to set a level of [regulatory] complexity that we’re willing to live with, and then decide which positive sum regulations we’re willing to discard in order to stay within that budget. … Crude rules which might well serve, like capping the number of laws and regulations, allowing a new one to be implemented only if an older one is repealed.

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Hanson Loves Moose Caca

Warning: this post touches on sensitive topics.

In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” when Toula was a little girl, she sat alone in the school cafeteria, frizzy haired, big nosed, and unpopular. The blonde girls at the next table asked her what she was eating, and Toula quietly said “moussaka.” The popular girls laughed cruelly, saying “Ewwww, ”moose caca!”” (more)

Imagine that those cruel girls had gone on to tell other kids “Toula says she loves to eat moose caca!” That is how I feel when Noah Smith says:

Why is it that the sciences look like a feminist nirvana compared with the economics profession, which seems to have a built-in bias that prevents women from advancing?

Consider this 2011 blog post by George Mason University economist Robin Hanson. Hanson writes that “gentle, silent rape” of a woman by a man causes less harm than a wife cuckolding her husband:

I [am puzzled] over why our law punishes rape far more than cuckoldry…[M]ost men would rather be raped than cuckolded…Imagine a woman was drugged into unconsciousness and then gently raped, so that she suffered no noticeable physical harm nor any memory of the event, and the rapist tried to keep the event secret…Now compare the two cases, cuckoldry and gentle silent rape.

There was no outcry whatsoever over these remarks, nor any retraction that I could find. (more)

Now I’ve admitted as far back as 2006 that academia, economics included, is biased against women. (Having been in both physics and computer science before, I doubt the situation is much worse in econ.) This one post of mine that Smith points to did induce many negative responses in comments and elsewhere, and of my thousands of blog posts I’d be surprised if much more than a dozen had induced any blog responses by economists whatsoever. And I suggested that we consider that the harms of rape and cuckoldry might be similar; I didn’t claim I knew one to be definitely larger.

But more fundamentally, Noah Smith is plenty smart enough to understand that I was not at all minimizing the harm of rape when I used rape as a reference to ask if other harms might be even bigger. Just as people who accuse others of being like Hitler do not usually intend to praise Hitler, people who compare other harms to rape usually intend to emphasize how big are those other harms, not how small is rape.

But I’m pretty sure Smith knows that. Yet, like the girls who taunted Toula, Smith finds it suits him better to pretend to misunderstand.

Added noon: Steve Sailer weighs in.

Added 2p: Noah Smith and I have been having a twitter conversation on this.

Added 4p: My topic was the relative harm of cuckoldry & rape. Noah Smith says that this topic itself is innately offensive to most women, who think cuckoldry to be of such low harm that comparing it with rape suggests rape to be low harm. He is further offended that I would talk on a topic if I knew it might offend in this way. I said his presuming cuckoldry is of very low harm offends the many men who think it very high harm. He disagrees that there are many such men, and would bet on a poll on the subject, but thinks it offensive to make such a poll, and won’t help with that.

Added 10a Sunday: Heartiste has a poll with over 3700 respondents so far on preferring rape or cuckoldry. Express your opinion there, or start a new poll somewhere.

Added Tuesday: Now Noah Smith wonders out loud if I’m a fake nerd, who pretends not to understand political correctness so I can have an excuse to offend people. Cause people so admire nerds that of course everyone wants to look like one …

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Imagine Libertopia

In this post I’ll talk primarily to people who, like me, lean libertarian. The rest of you can take a break.

Libertarians want to move more products and services from being provided directly by government, to being provided privately. And for those that are provided privately, libertarians want to weaken regulations. These changes would increase liberty.

Libertarians tend to offer arguments that are relatively abstract and theory-based. That is, they focus more on why more liberty is more moral, or why it should in theory give better outcomes. They focus less on showing that liberty has in practice worked out better. When libertarians do focus on data, they tend to be very broad, or randomly specific. That is, they talk about how West Germany is better than East Germany, or South Korea better than North Korea. Or they pick on very specific examples, like regulations limiting eyeglass ads, and leave audiences wondering how cherry-picked are such examples.

It seems to me that libertarians focus too much on trying to argue abstractly that liberty would be better, and not enough on just concretely describing how liberty would be different. Yes for you the abstract arguments seem best; they persuade you plenty, and they bring the most prestige in your circle. But typical libertarians today are a distinct personality type; most people are not like you. Most people just cannot be comfortable with a proposal for change if they cannot imagine it in some detail, and imagine that they’d like that detail. Such people don’t need more abstract arguments and examples; they instead credible concrete descriptions.

True, people have sometimes written fiction set in libertarian settings. But such fiction doesn’t usually come with a careful analysis of why one should believe in its many details. Yes, part of the attraction of liberty is that it frees up people to innovate in ways that one can’t anticipate in advance. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t go a long way to better describe a world of more liberty.

On reflection, I realize that when I try to imagine more liberty, I mostly draw on a limited set of iconic comparisons, such as comparing airlines, trucks, and phones before and after US deregulation, or comparing public to private schools and mail in the US. Alas, we and our audiences should worry that we cherry-pick such examples to support conclusions we like.

We should be able to do much better than this. By now there are vast literatures discussing many industries in many places before and after regulation or deregulation, and describing specific times and places where certain products and services provided directly by governments, or provided privately. From this vast literature we should be able to identify many concrete patterns and “stylized facts” about how government-provision and heavy-regulation tends to change products and services.

I recall these suggestions for typical features of industries with more liberty:

  1. Less “gold-plating” in materials and methods
  2. More product variety, including more low quality versions
  3. Faster innovation and product cycles
  4. Fewer guarantees to workers or customers
  5. Price, features vary more with customer features
  6. Workers have less school and seniority
  7. Less overhead spend on paperwork
  8. more?

Some people should work to extract patterns like these from our vast related literatures – I’ve looked, and there just aren’t many such summaries today. With such patterns in hand, we would be in a much better position to credibly describe how familiar products and services would concretely change if we were to provide them privately, or to regulate them less. And such credible concrete descriptions might allow many more people to become comfortable with endorsing such expansions of liberty.

This sort of project seems well within the abilities of the median grad student. It doesn’t require great creativity or technical skills. Instead, it just requires methodically surveying and summarizing related literatures. Perhaps some libertarian students should shy away from it in hopes of impressing via more difficult methods. But surely there must be other students for which this sort of project is a good match.

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Conservative vs. Liberal Jobs

My last post got me thinking about the liberal vs. conservative slant of different jobs. Here are two sources of data.

Consider some jobs that lean conservative: soldier, police, doctor, religious worker, insurance broker. These seem to be jobs where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. That explanation can also makes some sense of these other conservative jobs: grader & sorter, electrical contractor, car dealer, trucker, coal miner, construction worker, gas service station worker, non-professor scientist. Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them.

Now consider some jobs that lean liberal: professor, journalist, artist, musician, author. Here you might see these jobs as having rare but big upsides. Maybe the focus is on small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success. This is plausibly the opposite of a conservative focus on rare big losses.

But consider these other liberal jobs: psychiatrist, lawyer, teacher. Here the focus may just be on people who talk well. And that can also make sense of many of the previous list of liberal jobs. It might also makes sense of another big liberal job: civil servant.

I’m not suggesting these are the only factors that influence which jobs are liberal vs. conservative, but they do seem worth exploring.

Added 20Nov: This post was quoted in full at Marginal Revolution, and commenters pointed to two related data sources.

Added 3Dec: A new article with data.

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Relishing Inequality

As we’ve become richer, we have moved from farmer toward forager values. This has made us more egalitarian – we are more averse to inequality and domination, and more uncomfortable when people brag, give orders, or act overtly as if some people are much better than others.

On the surface, our stories tend to affirm our social norms. Villains are often greedy disagreeable unstable illicit dominators, while the heroes who oppose them are often modest, agreeable, and capable, but not assertive or aggressive.

However, not all is as it seems on the surface. For example, we are far more interested in seeing drama or action shows centering on theses kinds of jobs: police, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, chefs, actors, athletes, and musicians. These are jobs where extreme outcomes are more possible, either because big harms can be avoided, or because great status or honor might be gained.

In jobs with more extreme possible outcomes, we are more comfortable with overt inequality and domination. We are more ok with the capable doc getting explicit deference, and berating the incompetent doc. Or with junior chefs saluting “yes chef” like soldiers. Or with the super musicians not giving much consideration to the grips and groupies who serve them.

We are not only more ok with such overt inequality and domination for these jobs in real life, we are also more ok with it in fiction. In fact, you might well say we relish it. Just as little girls fantasize about being a princess, or little boys fantasize about being action heroes, we all like to imagine we are the more able workers shown in these stories. We like to imagine getting the status and deference that these fictional characters are shown to be justified in getting.

Of course we prefer to paper this over with a villain who is far worse, making our heroes look great by contrast. So we can pretend that what we really want is to bring down the arrogant. This is somewhat like how we like stories that titillate with sexual or other indulgence, but then pretend to endorse a morality tale where such behavior is punished in the end. In both cases we can enjoy a fantasy of vicariously experiencing pleasures, while officially pretending to disapprove of them.

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