Tag Archives: Kids

Why Erase Childhood?

In our society, adults must live with their records. We collect records on sport, contests, web-forums, marriage, school, jobs, crimes, debt, taxes, etc. Such records help others who want to interact with those adults, by helping them guess the consequences of such choices. Such records also help those who have good-looking records.

Of course, such records also hurt those with bad-looking records. Sometimes that hurt is unfair, as when a record looks bad due to a random event outside their control. But overall we judge it good to let people see records; we expect observers to usually take reasonable account of the possibility of noisy record signals.

For many kinds of records, we give the person who is the subject of the records the option to not reveal them. But we also let others draw inferences from such a lack of visible records. If a job applicant doesn’t show you a record of having graduated from college, you are allowed to infer that they probably didn’t go to college.

For children, however, we tend to go out of our way to prevent the collection and sharing of records. We often expunge childhood criminal records, and we make sure public schools don’t save or share records of grades and misconduct. Even though childhood behavior is often quite predictive of adult behavior. For example a larger literature (e.g., here, here) finds childhood misbehavior to be one of our best predictors of adult criminal behavior.

I don’t see an obvious rationale for this. The usual rationale for restricting kid behaviors is that the kids are irrational. But here we have a restriction on adults reacting to this person as an adult. The sorts of irrationalities someone displays as a kid are quite plausibly predictive of the irrationalities they might display as an adult. And I see no reason why adults should be especially irrational in interpreting such signs. We were all kids once, after all.

Yes kids who behave badly as kids will look worse as adults, and have worse life options and outcomes as a result. But we are mostly fine with this happening to adults due to their adult actions. What is so differently problematic about such things resulting from childhood actions?

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Why Not Egg Futures?

Older women often find themselves too old to have kids, and regretting it. Such women would have gained by freezing some eggs when they were younger. But when younger, they didn’t think they’d ever want kids, or thought the issue could wait.

Such women might be helped by an egg futures business, paid to take on this risk for them. Such a business could buy eggs from women when young, freeze them, and sell them back to these same women when old.

Of course, to compensate for the wait and risk that the women wouldn’t want eggs later, this business would have to sell eggs back a high price. But still, if the women bought the egg later, that would show they expected to gain from the deal.

Also, not all women would make equally good prospects. So such a business would focus on women likely to wait too long, be well off, and want kids later. So this business would “discriminate” by class in its purchases, paying more to upper class women. A lot like we now discriminate when we pay more for used clothes, cars, or houses from richer people.

Several people have told me that, while they were not personally offended, they expect others to be offended by such a business. Especially if men were involved in the business – a female only business would offend less. I’m somewhat mystified, which is partly why I’m writing this post. Maybe others can help me understand the objection.

Interestingly, we could add some personal prediction markets, which would probably be legal. For each possible young woman, there could be a market where one buys and sells conditional shares in an egg from that customer. If you owned a conditional share, you’d own a share of the profit from later selling that customer her egg. And you’d owe a share of the cost to buy her egg from her, freeze it, and store it. Imagine the fun buying and selling conditional shares regarding the young women that you know. And the fact that this is a share of a real physical object should make it legal.

Ok, I can see how people might be offended at this last suggestion. After all, there’s a risk that people might have fun on something that is supposed to be serious! ;)

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Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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Teaching Ignorance

It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings

Economics is important. So the world could use more of it. In the same sense, ignorance of economics is even more important. That is, the world could even more use a better understanding of how ignorant it is about economics. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve had a chance to see how folks like computer scientists, philosophers, futurists, and novelists think (in separate situations) when their work overlaps with areas where economists have great expertise. And what usually happens is that such folks just apply their ordinary intuitions on social behavior, without even noticing that they could ask or read economists to get more expert views. Which often leads them to make big avoidable mistakes, as these intuitions are often badly mistaken.

Yes, even folks who do realize that economists know more may not have the time to ask about or learn economics. But it seems that usually most people don’t even notice that they don’t know. Their subconscious quickly and naturally supplies them with subtly varying expectations on a wide range of social behaviors, and they don’t even notice that these intuitions might be wrong or incomplete. Which leads me to wonder: how do people ever realize that they don’t know physics, or accounting, or medicine?

Most people throw and move objects often, and have strong intuitions about such things. And if physics was only about such mechanics, I’d guess most people also wouldn’t realize that they don’t know physics. So it seems that a key is that “physics” is also associated with a bunch of big words and strange complex objects with which people don’t feel familiar. People hear words like “voltage” or “momentum”, or see inside cars or refrigerators, and they realize they don’t know what these words mean, or what how those devices work.

Similarly for accounting and medicine, I’d guess that it is a wide use and awareness of strange and complex accounting terms and calculations, and strange and complex medical devices and treatments, that suggest to people that there must be experts in those fields. And even in economics, when people realize that they don’t know where money comes from, or which of many possible auction designs is better, they do turn to economists to learn more.

Kids often learn early on of the existence of specialized knowledge, from the existence of specialized language and complex devices. Kids like to show off by finding excuses to use specialized words, and showing that they can do unusual things with complex devices. And then other kids learn to see the related areas as those with specialized expertise.

So I’d guess that what the world most needs on economics is to get more kids to show off by using specialized concepts like “diminishing returns” and complex devices like auctions. And then they need to hear that this same “economics” can be used to work out good way to do lots of social things, from buying and selling to voting to law to marriage. It is not so much that the world actually needs more kids using these concepts and devices. The important thing is to create a general impression that there are specialists for these topics.

The biggest obstacle to this plan, I’d guess, is that naive social science infuses too much of the rest of what kids are taught. Various history and “social studies” classes use naive social intuitions to explain major world events, and novels are read and discussed as if the naive social science they use is reasonable. Those who like using these things to push social agendas would object strongly to teaching instead that, e.g., you usually can’t figure out who are the bad guys in key historical events without complex economic analysis.

So the bottom line is that people don’t use enough econ because econ tends to conflict with the things people want to believe about the social world. Even teaching people that they are ignorant of econ conflicts, alas.

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On Disowning Descendants

Parents sometimes disown their children, on the grounds that those children have betrayed key parental values. And if parents have the sort of values that kids could deeply betray, then it does make sense for parents to watch out for such betrayal, ready to go to extremes like disowning in response.

But surely parents who feel inclined to disown their kids should be encouraged to study their kids carefully before making such a choice. For example, parents considering whether to disown their child for refusing to fight a war for their nation, or for working for a cigarette manufacturer, should wonder to what extend national patriotism or anti-smoking really are core values, as opposed to being mere revisable opinions they collected at one point in support of other more-core values. Such parents would be wise to study the lives and opinions of their children in some detail before choosing to disown them.

I’d like people to think similarly about my attempts to analyze likely futures. The lives of our descendants in the next great era after this our industry era may be as different from ours’ as ours’ are from farmers’, or farmers’ are from foragers’. When they have lived as neighbors, foragers have often strongly criticized farmer culture, as farmers have often strongly criticized industry culture. Surely many have been tempted to disown any descendants who adopted such despised new ways. And while such disowning might hold them true to core values, if asked we would advise them to consider the lives and views of such descendants carefully, in some detail, before choosing to disown.

Similarly, many who live industry era lives and share industry era values, may be disturbed to see forecasts of descendants with life styles that appear to reject many values they hold dear. Such people may be tempted to reject such outcomes, and to fight to prevent them, perhaps preferring a continuation of our industry era to the arrival of such a very different era, even if that era would contain far more creatures who consider their lives worth living, and be far better able to prevent the extinction of Earth civilization. And such people may be correct that such a rejection and battle holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such people to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. I hope that my future analysis can assist such soul-searching examination. If after studying such detail, you still feel compelled to disown your likely descendants, I cannot confidently say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, is to help you see them clearly.

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Why Is Death Bad?

Shelly Kagan considers: why is death bad?:

Maybe … death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. … Yet if death is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I’m not dead now. What about when I’m dead? But then, I won’t exist. … Isn’t it true that something can be bad for you only if you exist? Call this idea the existence requirement. …

Rejecting the existence requirement has some implications that are hard to swallow. For if nonexistence can be bad for somebody even though that person doesn’t exist, then nonexistence could be bad for somebody who never exists. … Let’s call him Larry. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably nobody. But if we give up on the existence requirement, we no longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry. I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. But Larry’s got it worse: He never gets any life at all.

Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? … You end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born. If we are not prepared to say that that’s a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. …

If I accept the existence requirement, death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I’ve got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable. (more)

Imagine a couple had been looking forward to raising a child with their combined genetic features, but then discovered that one of them was infertile. In this case they might mourn the loss of a hoped-for child who would in fact never exist. Not just the loss to themselves, but the loss to the child itself. And their friends might mourn with them.

But since this is a pretty unusual situation, we humans have not evolved much in the way of emotional habits and capacities to deal specifically with it. Our emotional habits are focused on the kinds of losses which people around us more commonly suffer and complain. So naturally we aren’t in the habit of taking time out to mourn the loss of a specific Larry. But there are lots of people far from us whose losses we don’t mourn. That hardly means such losses don’t exist.

It seems to me Kagan’s attitude above amounts to insisting that is impossible to imagine a vastly better state (of the universe) than our own. After all, if a vastly better state that ours is “possible”, then the fact that our actual state is not that possible state is a terrible “tragedy”, which he will just not allow.

But if possible states can vary greatly in the amount of good they would embody, then it is almost certain that the good of our actual state holds far less than the maximum good state. This only seems to me a “tragedy”, however, if we could have done something specific to achieve that much better state.

If we can’t see what we could do to allow substantially more creatures to exist, then it isn’t a tragedy that they don’t exist. It is a loss relative to an ideal world where they could exist, but it isn’t a tragedy not to know to create implausibly ideal worlds.

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Morality Should Be Adaptive

Yesterday I said:

Morality should exist; … there should exist creatures who know what is moral, and who act on that.

Many commenters disagreed, yet today I will go further:

Morality should be adaptive; it should help groups survive.

Humans evolved moral feelings as an adaptive response to difficult coordination problems in forager communal living. Culture tweaked those feelings to better fit farming life. Related feelings in other animals evolved for related reasons. So morality evolved to help us survive, and it has been intricately but not infinitely matched to that purpose. If, after a sudden unexpected change in our environment, we apply that morality in such a way as to make ourselves go extinct, that seems a rather dysfunctional broken application of such morality!

Our moral feelings are crude and imprecise – they can have error. Given how complex is our world and crude our minds, and given how weird is our modern world relative to our evolved expectations, we should expect a lot of error. We should not blindly follow our moral intuitions, but should instead correct them as best we can whenever we can estimate a non-zero net error. And if your intuitions suggest that people like you should go extinct, well seems like  a pretty damn big clue of error. Of a BIG error. Correct!

Added 4p: The evolutionary context of our moral intuitions gives a rich detailed framework for defining and estimating moral error. If you reject that framework, the question is what other framework will you substitute? How do you otherwise define and estimate the error in your specific moral intuitions?

Added 21Apr: Richard Chappell comments here.

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Morality Should Exist

In the New Yorker and on NPR, Bryan Caplan’s views on kids have recently been contrasted with ethical arguments against having kids – that the possibility kids might suffer outweighs all their likely joys and benefit to others. Now while I could understand some obscure academics or oddball activists taking this position, I find it bizarre to see it taken seriously in the mainstream media.

I mean, really, the whole human race should go extinct to avoid the risk that some future kid might suffer at some point?! And since the same argument applies to non-humans, all life should go extinct?! How could that ever be a remotely acceptable mainstream position? Cryonics is silly, and that is not?!

Yes I know I cannot refute this claim with just an incredulous stare, so let me suggest a moral axiom with apparently very strong intuitive support, no matter what your concept of morality: morality should exist. That is, there should exist creatures who know what is moral, and who act on that. So if your moral theory implies that in ordinary circumstances moral creatures should exterminate themselves, leaving only immoral creatures, or no creatures at all, well that seems a sufficient reductio to solidly reject your moral theory. I’m not saying I can’t imagine any possible circumstances where moral creatures shouldn’t die off, but I am saying that those are not ordinary circumstances.

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Why Not Let Kids Vote?

[US] Federal Aviation Association guidelines stipulate that nobody over the age of 65 can hold a pilot’s licence, even if any such individual over that age is competent to fly a plane. For public policy reasons, it is better to impose a blanket restriction on possibly competent pilots than to risk errors that could result in serious harms. (more; also)

I’ve posted before on how ignorant voters hurt election outcomes. One obvious solution is to restrict voting to folks who know more, such as via education, tests of knowledge, etc. But most folks are pretty hostile to this idea – many even oppose requiring voters to show up with a valid photo ID. Such folks point out that any harm is limited by the fact that elections can average out a lot of random noise, and that apparently ignorant folks can still vote their interests effectively by copying trusted associates. All of which is true.

But oddly these same folks usually oppose lowering the minimum voting age to say ten. Even though they’d strongly oppose a maximum voting age of say ninety, the age where only 10% of folks can answer a simple math question. In the latest Political Studies, Joanne Lau says we should let kids vote if we let similarly impaired old folks vote:

The right to vote is fundamental to democratic citizenship; it is one of the most important badges of political and legal equality. However, we deny it to children, generally without discussion. … Whatever level of capacity we use for the disenfranchisement of children should be used in symmetrical fashion to disenfranchise the elderly. … If we attribute responsibility to children in the legal domain, we should also attribute it to them in the political domain. (more)

Surely the typical ten year old is as able to vote their interest as the typical ninety year old or the typical voter who can’t manage to show up to vote with a photo ID. Yes, many ten year olds would be influenced by their parents, though some would vote opposite, just to spite their parents. On average this would give the fertile more political influence. But this seems to me a cheap way to encourage fertility, which we should want to do anyway.

So why the opposition to kid voting? Well clearly some is those who see fertile folk as their political opponents. But there must also be a wider distaste, which I interpret as adults again wanting to affirm their high status over kids. As I said before:

We have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it. This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition. … Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers. (more)

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Who Wants Kid $ Insure?

Financial inequality seems to be shaping up as a central issue in the US presidential campaign. (Other sorts of inequality, not so much.) Many note that such inequality has increased in recent decades. But let me repeat my anti-trend-tracking matra: if what matters is the efficiency of our institutions, trends are irrelevant unless they reveal such inefficiencies. So are the institutions that influence our financial inequality inefficient?

Probably the simplest and strongest argument is insurance market failure: being risk-averse, we want to insure against variations in our distant future income, but since this insurance is not available privately, governments must provide it. Why exactly this is not available privately if customers want it isn’t usually clarified. And it could be that the incentive costs of the insurance outweigh its risk-reduction benefits. But this is at least in the ballpark of a plausible institutional argument.

However, it seems to me that as a parent I wouldn’t have wanted to insure against any but the very low tail of possibilities of for my kids future income. I like the idea that one of my kids might someday be very successful or famous. And asking this of my undergrads consistently gets the same answer – very few want such insurance for their own or their kids’ future. Furthermore, parents do not much use the one clear insurance option they have – to teach their kids to share their future income with each other. Most societies used to do this, and our culture evolved away from that. So while teaching kids to share income is both personally and culturally possible, we just don’t do it.

Now you might argue that this is a signaling failure – that we would each in fact like such insurance, but dislike what our willingness to take it would say about us. But you could also tell your kids to keep this income-sharing policy a family secret, only to tell potential spouses. And once such sharing became a long family tradition then continuing it would say much less about personal features. But it seems to me that even if given the option to legally commit all their descendants to such a policy, to prevent all future signaling about it, most folks would still reject such insurance.

Thus it seems to me that most folks think the incentives costs outweigh the risk-reduction gains for such insurance, and do not want it. Thus the insurance market failure rationale for taxing the rich extra just fails.

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