Monthly Archives: February 2011

Me On Stossel

I should appear briefly tomorrow on the John Stossel show, showing on Fox Business Thursday evenings at 9,12 EST, talking about prediction markets.

Added 18Feb: Video is here.  My segment starts about minute 13.

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Art Is Power

The movie Howl helped me to understand a role art can play in the politics of regulation. Art done well can have a very high status, a status which transfers to the actions used to create or express this art, as well as to the actions depicted by the art.  And by making some examples of an action high status, one reduces political support for regulations limiting such actions.

For example, since most folks are uncomfortable with explicit sexual conversation in public, obscenity laws limit such public conversation. But when artists create high quality and hence high status art with explicit sexual discussion, people are reluctant to let obscenity laws apply to it.  So they’ll either have to make an exception in obscenity law for high status art, which will lead to many disputes since art evaluation can be subjective, or they’ll have to just allow a lot more public obscenity. Similarly, having high status art depicting homosexuality, being created by them, reduces support for laws against homosexuality.

Of course this can also work the other way – high quality art that presents a low opinion of an example of some type of action can raise support for regulations limiting such actions. So the power of art isn’t only a libertarian power – it is a power of status, which can be directed toward many ends. But since art is an expression, it will more often conflict with laws forbidding expressions than with other sorts of laws, and so will tend to push for freer expression.

So does art tends to be a force for political good? Well if you favor freer expression, you’ll think so. But beyond that, it depends on the taste and judgment of the artists, relative to the many other forces pushing for more or less regulation. I suppose I’ll give artists the benefit of the doubt, and assume they helps a little, just as I’ll presume all other sources help a little on average. But it would sure be nice to get better data to make a more refined judgment.

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Manners Show Status

A Post article, “The Reasons For Good Manners“, targeted at kids:

Take your elbows off the table.
Don’t talk with your mouth full.
Look people in the eye when you speak to them.
Write your thank-you notes.

You’ve probably heard all or most of those orders from your parents. … Good manners are a way to show others that you care about them. Manners also make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable in social situations. … “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. … They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.” … Our distant ancestors developed behaviors to show others respect, fairness and kindness. …

Some manners are still used even though the original reason for them is largely gone. Have you ever wondered why you’re told to keep your elbows off the table? The rule dates from the Middle Ages, Forni said, when tables often were just a big board placed on a stump. Leaning on the table with your elbows could easily tip the table and make everyone lose his food! Today, it’s not good manners to text at the table, because it sends a message that you aren’t interested in the people around you.

This rationale for manners, “traffic lights of human interaction,” sure sounds good – who wants us smashing into each other willy-nilly?  But a moment’s reflection shows that explanation is bull.

If people ate with elbows on the table, there would be no physical crashes. Instead, what would go wrong is that others may think you don’t care about and aren’t interested in them. Why? Because they’ve been told to interpret your elbows that way.

So yes, no-elbows-shows-caring could be a self-consistent equilibrium.  Except, this is not the world we live in.  There really are plenty of people out there for whom table elbows say very little, relative to other ways of inferring care and interest.

Now the above can apply more to actions that high status folks do more, regarding people who are status conscious and who tend to strictly interpret status signals. Such especially and strictly status-conscious folk will put a high priority on your always acting high status, so that they can be “comfortable” gaining status via affiliation with you. If you ever act low status, they may feel you don’t appreciate the strength of their concern for status, and regardless of how you feel they may not want to associate with you.

In our world, people from higher status subcultures tend to keep their elbows off the table more than other folks. So telling you that “people” will be offended by your table elbows is really telling you to mainly care about especially and strictly status conscious folks. They are the “people” you should count. You shouldn’t count the other people, who care less whether you always act like high status subcultures, and look more at your overall behavior toward them and their associates.

Support for strict manners seems to have weakened with increasing wealth. This could be yet another way we revert to forager like ways with increasing wealth:

Signaling discourages norm violations best when, [as with farmers,] people that matter tend to hear about norm violations, but know little else about violators. At a smaller [forager-like] scale, one norm violation will add only a small amount to what observers know about that person, and at a larger [industry-style] scale observers will probably not have heard about the norm violation. … The fact that norms are enforced best at an intermediate social density helps explain why higher-density farmers had stronger social norms than lower-density foragers, and yet even higher-density modern folk have reverted back to a weaker forager-like level of norm enforcement. (more)

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CMU Talk Tuesday

Tomorrow at 3:30 I’ll speak on “The Potential of Prediction Markets” at the Carnegie Mellon computer science department. More here and here.

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The Big Failure

Scott Sumner:

Most of the really important public policy issues are not even part of the ongoing debate in the press. Here are some examples:

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

These 6 policy failures impose enormous damage on the country, far more than the issues typically discussed on the evening news. Why aren’t they discussed? I would argue that it is partly because the disagreements tend to break down on values, not ideology. Most idealistic intellectuals agree with me on all of these issues. They are not issues that divide the left and the right. It’s also true that most real world politicians agree on these issues. However their views are exactly the opposite of the views of intellectuals. Hence there is no “policy debate” in either the political or intellectual arenas, and hence no “fight” for the media to report.

Adam Ozimek:

The missing piece of this puzzle is that the intellectual agreement on these issues isn’t just the opposite of real world politician’s, but the opposite of the rest of the real world. At the average dinner table in this country, anyone advocating what Sumner might call the intellectual consensus on any of these issues would face a lot of disagreement, and would frequently be greeted by surprise that a reasonable person would ever dream of advocating for, say, for more immigration or less occupational licensing.

The key questions are, of course, why is it so hard to inform the public that intellectual elites disagree with them on such issues, and if being informed of this fact would be enough to change their minds.

If telling the public that elites disagree would be enough to change their minds, well then a public info campaign targeting this ignorance could yield huge rewards. Then we’d face the question of why no philanthropists care enough to fund such a campaign. Could it be that they also mainly care about taking ideological sides?

Talking to the public may not be enough, however, if the public just does not want to hear that elites disagree with them. It is hard to tell folks things they do not want to hear. It might also be that even if the public does hear it, they would not change their minds. In which case democracy just loses.

A variation on democracy, like futarchy, that relies more on expert judgement on what causes what, could do better. But to get from here to there, you’d have to convince the public to accept a form of governance that relies more on something other than on their personal opinions. Not impossible, but not easy either.

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Beware Knives

In the US, new drugs are not allowed until a randomized clinical trial suggests they are safe and effective. New surgical techniques, however, require no such tests. This isn’t the only bias favoring surgery over other treatments:

In the JAMA study, … researchers found that some women with early stage breast cancer gained no survival benefit from removal of the lymph nodes even though cancer had been found in the lymphatic system. This finding sparked a wave of publicity, including an insightful Room for Debate feature in the New York Times that included 7 authors’ perspectives on whether American surgeons promote unnecessary surgery.

I have no doubt that many of the issues raised by the New York Times commentators are important. Surgeons do have financial incentives, established practices, and natural responses to clinical uncertainty that lead them to suggest surgery in some cases where there is no clinical evidence to support such an action.

Yet, I think we also need to acknowledge that we, the public, also contribute to overuse of surgical procedures. … A few years ago, my colleagues Angela Fagerlin, Peter Ubel, and I published a simple paper titled “Cure me even if it kills me: preferences for invasive cancer treatment.” In it, we showed that people who were presented with hypothetical cancer treatment scenarios tended to choose surgical interventions even when those interventions increased the total risk of death. The effect was much reduced for medication therapies versus surgeries. (more; HT Tony Barrett)

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Forbidden Fertility

Human conscious minds seem unaware of many important functions of human behaviors. Humans don’t know how they breathe, digest food, or stand without falling. But conscious attention is expensive, and there seems little to be gained from conscious minds managing such processes. Also, large system changes would be required to add control and sensory neurons in order to enable such conscious management.

However, humans also seem unaware of other important behaviors where more can be gained from conscious management, and where brains already seem to have something close to the required control and sensory connections. People don’t seem to know why they laugh, why they like the folks they like, or why they go to school or the doctor. Humans are unaware of their constant status moves, and are largely unaware of their overconfidence.

Now some argue that there is also little to be gained by conscious awareness of such things; the unconscious mind manages such things just fine. But if so, the conscious mind begins to look irrelevant; what should we expect the conscious mind to be aware of, if not such things?

One story is that consciousness is the mind’s public relations department, charged with managing our words and the actions we most coordination with our words, in order to present a good face to others. Given this theory, we should be surprised to see conscious minds unaware of things close to the content of their words, and to the actions their words coordinate.

For example, we should be surprised to see people unaware of their overconfidence, status moves, or tendency to mimic others to be liked. People vigorously deny the existence of such things, and are eager to explain suggestive evidence in other ways. Such unawareness seems better explained via motivation – it seems to be in our interest to remain unaware of such things, in order to present a more convincing face to others. Our minds may be designed to prevent conscious awareness of many such things.

One of our most puzzling unawareness is of fertility. In most primate species, female bodies clearly advertize when they are fertile, and males seem quite aware of such clues, which influence male plans and activities in big ways. Human female bodies, in contrast, do not so advertize, and human males and females say they are unaware of but the most obvious clues (e.g., discharges). In fact, the standard theory until recently was that there were no other such clues, that human female fertility is hidden. But in fact we’ve learned that not only are there many strong clues, both men and women are unconsciously quite aware of such clues, which strongly influence their behavior!

For example, a recent study paired random men and women for a few minutes. Even though “neither objective coders nor the participants themselves perceived any changes in the [female] confederate’s overt behavior across the menstrual cycle,” men were four times more likely (63% vs 15%) to mimic the woman when she was fertile: Continue reading "Forbidden Fertility" »

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What Virtue Privacy?

[Warning: this post is LONG.]

On first glance the homo hypocritus hypothesis, that humans had huge heads to subtly evade social norms while pretending to enforce them, seems supported by our love of privacy.  The argument “Why oppose transparency unless you have something to hide?” suggests we are private to evade norm enforcement. To explore this issue, I pondered Thomas Nagel’s famous ’98 defense of privacy norms (HT Richard Chappell.)

First, consider some of Nagel’s concrete examples:

A and B meet at a cocktail party; A has recently published an unfavorable review of B’s latest book, but neither of them alludes to this fact, and they speak, perhaps a bit stiffly, about real estate. … Consider the alternative: B: You son of a bitch, I bet you didn’t even read my book. …

At the same party C and D meet. D is a candidate for a job in C’s department, and C is transfixed by D’s beautiful breasts. They exchange judicious opinions about a recent publication by someone else. Consider the alternative: … D: Take your eyes off me, you dandruff-covered creep. …

When Maggie in The Golden Bowl lets the Prince know that she knows everything, by letting him see the broken bowl, … they do not explicitly discuss the Prince’s affair. … If it were out there on the table between them, demanding some kind of joint response, the manifestation of their reactions would lead to a direct collision, filled with reproaches and counterreproaches, guilt and defiance, anger, pity, humiliation, and shame, which their intimacy would not survive. …

[Regarding] Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, … the challenge on the basis of his sexual victimization of Anita Hill was quite unjustified, even though I’m sure it was all true. … The only way to avoid damage to someone’s reputation by facts of this kind, in spite of their irrelevance to qualification for public office, is through a powerful convention of nonacknowledgment.

Nagel is perceptive in seeing our related social games: Continue reading "What Virtue Privacy?" »

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Privilege Marks Status

Crime is bad. So prosecuting criminals is good. Prosecution requires evidence, mainly testimony. So we force witnesses to testify in court, without compensation. Testifying in court might be quite inconvenient for a witness, might subject him or her to retaliation, and might damage her relationships. Yet still we require it. Except:

A privilege is … rules excluding evidence that would be adverse to a fundamental principle or relationship if it were disclosed. The most common form is … attorney-client privilege. … The rationale is that clients ought to be able to communicate freely with their lawyers, in order to facilitate the proper functioning of the legal system. Other common forms include privilege against self-incrimination, without prejudice privilege (protecting communications made in the course of negotiations to settle a legal dispute), public interest privilege (formerly Crown privilege, protecting documents for which secrecy is necessary for the proper functioning of government), marital privilege, medical professional privilege, and clergy-penitent privilege. (more)

Reporters’ privilege … is the … right many jurisdictions by statutory law or judicial decision have given to journalists in protecting their confidential sources from discovery. (more)

The right to remain silent is … the right of … the defendant to refuse to comment or provide an answer when questioned. … Adverse comments or inferences cannot be made by the judge or jury regarding the refusal by a defendant to answer questions before or during a … legal proceeding. (more)

OK, if we want plea bargaining, we must privilege what is said in negotiations – who would negotiate otherwise? And I could understand an “important secret” privilege, for when the social costs of revealing a secret outweigh a crime’s harm. But it is hard to believe social harm is that large in typical privilege applications, or much larger than for unprivileged relations. (And no harm calculations are given for us to examine.)

For example, students would surely feel more comfortable talking to teachers who could never testify against them. But that hardly seems reason to prevent teachers from testifying against students. Friends and lovers prevented from testifying against each another should also feel closer. In fact, most any relation could gain by eliminating the threat of future legal testimony. But surely this isn’t reason to stop such testimony.

Eliminating privileges should increase the cost of being a criminal, and discourage more crime.  So why don’t we do that?  If legal privilege isn’t about crime or social harm from secrets exposed, what is it about?

Many people are horrified to learn of how ancient societies formally divided folks into classes, and limited what classes could wear. But we aren’t so different. I suspect most legal priviledge serves the same function as the common requirement for folks to dress “respectfully” in court – it raises the status of some relative to others. To mark our respect for married folk, lawyers, doctors, priests, reporters, and citizens in general, we give them special privileges, even if that costs us more crime.

Added 11Feb:  There is also a research privilege!

Certificates of Confidentiality are issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). … They allow the investigator and others who have access to research records to refuse to disclose identifying information on research participants in any civil, criminal, administrative, legislative, or other proceeding, whether at the federal, state, or local level. (more; HT Alex T.)

Really? We make it harder to catch criminals because otherwise researchers might find it harder to recruit criminals into their studies?

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How Med Harms

Most people are quite skeptical when I tell them the standard estimate is near zero for the marginal effect of medicine on health. While they grant that much of medicine may be useless, they point to particular cases where medicine was helpful, and can’t imagine much of it being harmful. But as I posted in November:

In at least 0.4% of hospital stays, a medical mistake “caused or contributed to a patient’s death.” (more)

Also, even standard diagnostic tests can be quite harmful:

CT scans of the heart cause one cancer for every 270 [=0.37%] 40-year-old women who undergo the test, researchers estimate. Yet in a study of CT scans investigating abdominal, hip or pelvic pain, only 9 percent of emergency-room doctors knew that the scans increased cancer risk. (more)

29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans received in 2007, with the greatest number of cancers projected in the abdomen and pelvis. The cancer risk was greatest for young patients. (more)

A medical treatment really has to be quite clearly and strongly beneficial to overcome such harms. Just sort of maybe hoping that it might be useful, cause, heh, you haven’t heard anything specifically bad about it, just isn’t good enough.

Added 8p: Reasonable doubts have been raised about both the 1/270 and the 9% figures.

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