Monthly Archives: September 2011

Let Us Give To Future

18 months ago I wondered:

Franklin … [left] £1000 each to Philadelphia and Boston in his will to be invested for 200 years. … by 1990 the funds had grown to 2.3, 5M$. … Why has Franklin’s example inspired no copy-cats?

Thanks to Gwern, I now know of several copy-cats, mostly failures (quotes below). This confirms that many are willing to donate to distant future folks, but are prevented by law, largely from fears that donor funds will eventually dominate the economy. Alas, as these are the likely consequences of allowing donations to the distant future:

1) The fraction of world income saved would increase, relative to consuming not-donated resources immediately. This effect starts small but increases with time, until savings become a large fraction of world income, after which diminishing returns kicks in.

2) While funds are in saving mode, world consumption would be smaller at first, relative to immediately consuming donor resources, but then after a while it would be higher, though it might eventually fall to zero difference. When such funds switch from saving to paying out, or when thieves steal from them, the consumption of thieves and specified beneficiaries would rise.

3) As investment became a large fraction of world income, interest rates would fall, and the market would take a longer term view of the future consequences of current actions.

4) Some would change their behavior in order to qualify for benefits, according to the conditions specified by the original donors and the agents they authorize to later interpret them.

These changes seem good overall, especially if, as I estimate, the future will have many folks in need. Not only would donors actually get to do what they want with their resources, but policy-makers usually lament that savings rates are too low, and interest rates too high, leading us to neglect distant future consequences of our actions. The added consumption given to future folk is mostly stuff that would not exist if not for their donations, so it is hard to begrudge them giving to whom they wish. Our evolved instincts to resist domination makes less sense here, as “dominating” donors are long dead, influencing the world only via largely-altruistic explicit visible instructions.

Note that once physical, if not economic, immortality is feasible (i.e., paying enough lets you survive indefinitely), then original donors can stay around to manage their growing funds. Those promised quotes:

Continue reading "Let Us Give To Future" »

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Beware Mind Drugs

One in eight Americans take prescribed mind drugs, which probably hurt on average (vs. talking cures):

I first took a close look at treatments for mental illness 15 years ago while researching an article for Scientific American. At the time, sales of a new class of antidepressants, … SSRI’s, were booming. … Clinical trials told a different story. SSRI’s are no more effective than two older classes of antidepressants. … Antidepressants as a whole were not more effective than so-called talking cures. … According to some investigators, treatments for depression and other common ailments work—if they do work—by harnessing the placebo effect. …

In retrospect, my critique of modern psychiatry was probably too mild. According to Anatomy of an Epidemic … by … Robert Whitaker, psychiatry has not only failed to progress but may now be harming many of those it purports to help. …

As recently as the 1950s, Whitaker contends, the four major mental disorders—depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—often manifested as episodic and “self limiting”; that is, most people simply got better over time. Severe, chronic mental illness was viewed as relatively rare. But over the past few decades the proportion of Americans diagnosed with mental illness has skyrocketed. … One in eight Americans, including children and even toddlers, is now taking a psychotropic medication. …

Whitaker compiles anecdotal and clinical evidence that when patients stop taking SSRI’s, they often experience depression more severe than what drove them to seek treatment. A multination report by the World Health Organization in 1998 associated long-term antidepressant usage with a higher rather than a lower risk of long-term depression. …

Before the introduction of Thorazine in the 1950s, Whitaker asserts, almost two-thirds of the patients hospitalized for an initial episode of schizophrenia were released within a year, and most of this group did not require subsequent hospitalization. Over the past half-century, the rate of schizophrenia-related disability has grown by a factor of four, and schizophrenia has come to be seen as a largely chronic, degenerative disease. A decades-long study by the World Health Organization found that schizophrenic patients fared better in poor nations, such as Nigeria and India, where antipsychotics are sparingly prescribed. …

Beginning in the 1970s, Harrow tracked a group of 64 newly diagnosed schizophrenics. Forty percent of the nonmedicated patients recovered—meaning that they could become self-supporting—versus 5 percent of those who were medicated. … Electroconvulsive therapy … fell out of favor in the 1970s, in part because of its negative portrayal in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and yet about 100,000 Americans a year still receive ECT. … virtually everyone who receives electroconvulsive therapy relapses within a year without further treatment. (more)

Added 1p: I’ve blogged before on antidepressants as placebos.

Added 21Sept: Yvian has convinced me to doubt the claim above I had found most interesting, that schizophrenia changed from a temporary to a chronic condition. So now I doubt this author in general as a source.

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Is Confidence Social?

Consider some uses of the word “confident“:

Tom is confident the bus will arrive soon.

This is often interpreted as Tom assigning a high probability to the bus arriving soon. But then what about:

The CDC is confident this diseases poses only a moderate risk.

Is there a high probability that moderate risk is the correct risk assessment? But what can it mean for an estimate to be “correct”? Is this about the robustness of estimate to analysis variations? Now consider:

Sam took me into his confidence.

Perhaps this means Sam assigned a high probability that I would not betray him. But then what about:

Bill’s manner is more confident these days.

Perhaps this means Bill assigns a high probability to his having a high ability.  But this last usage seems to me better interpreted as Bill acting higher status, and expecting his bid for higher status to be accepted by others. Bill does not expect to be challenged in this bid, and beaten down.

If you think about it, this status move interpretation can also make sense of all the other uses above. Sam taking me into his confidence might mean that Sam didn’t expect me to use his trust to reduce his status. And the CDC might expect that its risk estimation could not be successfully challenged by other parties, perhaps in part because this estimate was robust to analysis variations. Similarly, Tom might expect that his status won’t be reduced by the bus failing to show up as he predicted.

Yes, sometimes confidence can be in part about assigning a high probability, or about the robustness of an analysis. But more fundamentally, confidence may be about status moves. It is just that in some circumstances we makes status bids via asserting that some event is high probability, or asserting that variations of an analysis tend to lead to similar results.

If you ever offer advice, to someone who asks you how confident you are in your advice, try to remember that this may at root not be a question about probabilities. It may instead be a question what can happen socially if your advisee follows your advice. How easily might others might challenge that advice, perhaps then lowering your advisee’s status? To figure that out, you may need to look beyond probabilities and analysis robustness, and consider who might want to challenge this advice, what might make them want to launch such a challenge, and what resources they might bring to such a fight.

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Info Cuts Confidence

An interesting tendency:

By the time Project Blue Book folded in 1969, it had evaluated 12,618 reports of sightings. … Special Report Number 14 [is] a vast statistical analysis of 3,201 UFO cases, with hundreds of graphs, tables, charts, and maps. … According to the report, about 22 percent of sightings were declared “unknown.” That means their origin couldn’t be determined even after all the evidence was in—these were objects that didn’t look like airplanes or balloons or any other discernible vessel. They maneuvered in strange ways, hovering or changing speed and direction suddenly. Sometimes witnesses, many of them Air Force pilots, described seeing actual saucer- or cigar-shaped objects. Unknowns tended to be cases with better information: 35 percent of “excellent” sightings—those with more reliable witnesses and, sometimes, corresponding physical evidence—defied explanation; only 19 percent of poor ones did. And the longer a sighting lasted, Friedman says, the more likely it was to remain unexplained: 36 percent of unknowns were seen for more than five minutes. (more)

Since things with fewer details are seen more in far mode, and since in far mode we are more confident in our theories, we should expect people to be more confident in their classifications of things that have fewer details, and so have a smaller fraction of things left as hard to explain. I’d like to see this tested elsewhere, such as planes seen near or far, or crimes known in little or much detail.


In 1997 a CNN poll found that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding information about UFOs, and 64 percent believe that extraterrestrials have contacted humans. In a 2007 Associated Press poll, 14 percent said they’d seen a UFO. … At the end of his lectures, [Friedman] often asks the audience how many of them have seen a flying saucer. … Usually ten percent of the audience have their hands raised. … “But then I ask, ‘How many of you reported what you saw?'” Nearly every hand drops.

Thats a whole lot of skeptics of the usual official UFO story. (I’m not a skeptic.)

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Downturn Cuts Exercise

It turns out that death rates fall during recessions. I posted in January on how some had speculated that people eat better during recessions, but in fact people seem to eat worse food. Now I can report that people also get less exercise during recessions:

Recreational exercise tends to increase as employment decreases. In addition, we also find that individuals substitute into television watching, sleeping, childcare, and housework. However, this increase in exercise as well as other activities does not compensate for the decrease in work-related exertion due to job-loss. Thus total physical exertion, which prior studies have not analyzed, declines. These behavioral effects are strongest among low-educated males. (more)

The healthy-recession puzzle deepens.

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Are Nations Tribes?

Ezra Klein:

During Monday’s debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether an uninsured 30-year-old who had chosen to go without insurance should be left to die if he falls unexpectedly ill. Ron Paul dodged the question. … If you collapse on a street, an ambulance will rush you to a hospital. If you get into a car accident, you’ll wake up in intensive care. … Whether you get billed or your family gets billed or society gets billed, someone will pay the bill. … Even the hardest of libertarians has always understood that there are places where your person ends and mine begins. Generally, we think of this in terms of violent intrusion or property transgressions. But in health care, it has to do with compassion. We are a decent society, and we do not want to look in people’s pockets for an insurance card when they fall to the floor with chest pains.

But a great many ill, collapsed, etc. folks in the world are largely left to die, at least if curing them costs anything like a US hospital stay. Ezra argues above for “decent” national care, not global care. And even libertarians wouldn’t leave family members to die. So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category.

I see key similarities between this and many responses to my recent posts, such as on 9/11, alien elites, or immigration. Such as: How can I not see that 9/11 deaths matter far more than most deaths, because this was them attacking our way of life? Or that alien elites secretly running our society, even running it well, must be exterminated though that would be unreasonable for human elites? Or that the richest big US county, Fairfax County, shouldn’t restrict immigration from poorer counties because we US folks are similar enough to each other?

Humans clearly evolved quite different mental modes for thinking about how to treat folks with our our local tribe, vs. how to treat distant strangers. Libertarians largely accept the usual ideas about how to treat both groups. Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger.

Libertarians limit “my tribe” to close family and small chosen communities, much as did our forager ancestors, who were free to change bands at any time. Farmer culture taught farmers to think of distant strangers as “my tribe”, as long as “our elites” said so, or if “we” fought wars together. And nation-states have worked hard over the last few centuries to transfer this feeling to nations. Libertarians mostly just don’t accept this. And though I’m not strictly libertarian, on this I agree – it is far from obvious that nations must be our tribes.

Now people usually try to be nicer to their tribe than to distant strangers. From this one might conclude that libertarians, who see more folks as strangers, are not as nice people. But not only are folks who see their tribe as smaller usually nicer to such insiders, libertarians also tend to be more accepting of mutually beneficial interactions with strangers. And economists make a pretty strong case that libertarian policies such as free immigration would greatly improve overall welfare.

As with Ezra’s comments above, most critiques of libertarian policy seem to miss this central point, by invoking standard ways to classify folks into “us” and “them.” To criticize libertarians effectively, you need to make clear why exactly “we” are a nation, rather than the entire world, or close family and friends. Alas, few critics even try to argue this point.

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Physics vs. Economics

At my prodding, Sean Carrol considered the differing public treatment of physicists and economists:

In the public imagination, natural scientists have figured out a lot more reliable and non-obvious things about the world, compared to what non-experts would guess, than social scientists have. The insights of quantum mechanics and relativity are not things that most of us can even think sensibly about without quite a bit of background study. Social scientists, meanwhile, talk about things most people are relatively familiar with.

Hey, economists can talk obscure technical jargon just as easily as physicists. We don’t actually do that so much in public, because the public respects us less. Talking more technically wouldn’t make the public respect us more. Continue reading "Physics vs. Economics" »

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Hail Temple, Buck

Two recent movies, Temple Grandin and Buck, depict the most inspirational real heroes I can recall. Temple Grandin and Buck Brannaman both pioneered ways to improve animal lives, by getting deep enough in animal heads to see how to avoid terrorizing them. Temple deals with cattle, Buck with horses. Terrorizing animals less also helps humans who deal with them.

Some lessons:

1) Neither is a purist. Both accept that animals often suffer, and are slaves of humans. Both work within the current system to make animals lives better, even if the result falls short of their ideals. Compromising with bad is often essential to doing good.

2) Though are similarly insightful, Grandin has a far bigger impact, as her innovations are embodied in physical capital, e.g., the layout of large plants, chosen by large firms. She has revolutionized an industry. In contrast, Brannaman’s innovations are embodied in human capital chosen by small organizations. While Brannaman is personally impressive, it is far from clear how much practice people like him have really changed. Capital intensity does indeed promote innovation.

3) Many doubt that we should feel bad about animal suffering, because they doubt animal minds react like human minds to force, pain, etc. The impressive abilities of Grandin and Brannaman to predict animal behavior by imagining themselves in animal situations supports their claim that cattle and horse fear and suffering is recognizably similar to human fear and suffering. I tentatively accept that such animals are afraid and suffer in similar ways to humans, with similar types of emotions and feelings, even if they cannot think or talk as abstractly about their suffering.

4) The fact that animals are slaves does not imply that animal lives have no value, or that nothing can effect that value. Slavery need not be worse than death, and usually isn’t. A future where the vast majority of our descendants are slaves could still be a glorious future, even if not as glorious as a future where they are not slaves.

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Firms Fight Risk

To increase efforts to dealt with catastrophic risks, shift responsibility from individuals to firms:

Corporate demand for catastrophe coverage is actually more price inelastic than the demand for non-catastrophe coverage. … A 10% increase in price will reduce quantity of terrorism coverage by only 2.42% whereas it will reduce the quantity of property coverage by 2.91%. This result is in contrast to the findings with respect to individual insurance choices in laboratory experiments and empirical studies on homeowners insurance. …

The majority of homeowners do not purchase catastrophic coverage voluntarily and those cases that do obtain some coverage, exhibit a very elastic demand. … Typically, individuals either ignore those low-probability risks (optimism) or over-estimate them by focusing on possible outcomes without paying much attention to the likelihood of them happening (availability bias). Such bimodal distributions of behavior were also shown experimentally … analyzing actual long-term care insurance decisions by individuals. … Individuals tend to largely neglect risks with a very low probability. However, once a low-probability event takes place, the risk is back in their attention and individuals tend to overinsure against this risk. …

Even when the cost of insurance is subsidized, many people located in high risk areas
still do not purchase coverage. … Even those homeowners who purchased insurance against catastrophe risks (hurricane) exhibited a more price elastic demand for catastrophic risks than for non-catastrophe risks (fire). A related finding is that many individuals are willing to pay significantly more for non-catastrophe insurance than for catastrophe insurance. (more)

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Forget 9/11

Opening my Sunday comics this morning I see half are not-funny 9/11 memorials. Half of media commentary also seems on 9/11, and is largely uninformative.

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Added: Similar views here.

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