Saints And Burdens

Let a person’s benefit ratio be the amount of benefit they give to others, divided by their cost to others. Then consider two classes of people:

  • Burdens – Those for whom the ratio is less than one. Such folks are a net burden on the rest of the world.
  • Saints – Those for whom the ratio is far greater than one, such as a thousand or a million. Such folks are fantastic altruists.

While these would seem to be opposite types of people, I think I see a correlation in the world: those who talk the most about trying to be saints also tend to have an unusually large chance of actually being burdens. Why this correlation?

One story is that variance is a good way to increase your chance of very good outcomes, but high variance altruism strategies tend to have more risk of both altruism extremes. So people who try hard to increase the thickness of their high tail of altruism must typically also accept a thicker low tail of being a burden.

A very different story is that people who feel guilty about their high risk of being a net burden compensate by talking more about wanting to be saints. They don’t have much of a chance of actually being saints, but by deluding themselves they can avoid guilt about being a burden.

What evidence would distinguish these theories?

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  • Dremora

    First things first: What evidence is there for the initial hypothesis that those who talk the most about trying to be saints also tend to have an usually large chance of actually being net burdens?

  • Robert Malthus

    Both ideas are plausible. However before proceeding to look further we need to have some way to measure cost and benefit to others. Defining and measuring such a quantity would be far more difficult than the puzzle presented.

  • Isn’t the appropriate way to analyze this benefit minus cost, not benefit divided by cost?

    • Neal

      They’re the same; to go back and forth, take exponentials or logs.

      • Poelmo

        Mathematically they can be converted but we all know the follwoing two newspaper headlines are very different (let’s assume for one moment we can measure benefit in money):

        “Rich man has a 10:1 benefit cost ratio!”

        “Man of $10 million scams medicaid into paying his $1 million bill!”

        One makes him look like a very succesful “producer”, the other (rightfully) makes him look like a crook.

      • Poelmo

        What I’m trying to say is that division does not show the absolute size of the difference: a $1000 man taking $100 would have the same 10:1 ratio as a $10 million man taking $1 million and that leads to flat tax thinking (you know, the idea that someone making 10 times more money “needs” to spent 10 times more on groceries and rent).

      • Owen CB

        This is wrong (there are some related notions you can equate in this way, but you have to change the underlying quantities being measured at the same time as you change the comparison method).

        For instance, consider adding one unit of value to both the the benefit and costs a person provides. This won’t change the additive version, but will change the ratio (unless the person were net zero before). Indeed particularly if it’s the same person who benefits and loses from the change, it’s not always obvious whether to count such items for both sides or not, so I agree with suntzuanime that the version where this is absorbed by the system is the more natural one to use here.

  • I second Dremora.

    suntzuanime, it’s mostly similar with negative numbers replacing numbers less than one. Your version has the benefit of avoiding divide-by-zero errors.

  • blink

    I think only murderers, vandals, hard-core criminals, etc. turn out to be net burdens, and these people are not the ones praising saints. Those whose talk about trying to be saints seem interested mainly in denying status to the true saints.

    • Dremora

      Why do you think disabled, old or unemployed people aren’t net burdens? Or ideologists who meddle with other people’s lives? It seems quite clear to me that I lose more from their existence than I gain. That’s not to say I would gain more than lose more from a legal way to dispose of them, just that they clearly subtract more well-being from my life than they add.

      • billswift

        The costs to society from the police, military, and other government “services” have gone far past what they are worth.

      • Poelmo

        Many old or disabled people may well have produced enough value when they were younger/non-handicapped to justify their current cost to society. In fact, they may still be doing it through things like baby-sitting their grandchildren.

  • creedofhubris

    Not sure I agree with your typologies here, but voluntarily increasing variance would lead to unconventional behavior, while guilt would not.

  • Adam M

    People get more conservative as they get older, or so I vaguely recall. If old folks are more likely to feel burdensome, that would seem to go against the latter theory.

  • Evan

    I third Dremora. Who are these people?

    Evidence for either theory would be measuring how often people implement the plans they talk about. If they try and fail a lot theory one seems more likely. If they don’t try a lot theory two seems more likely.

    Another way to collect evidence might be to find some very large survey of people that measures altruism, find out if any of those people have been debilitated by disease or accident lately, then survey those who have been and see if they express more altruistic views. Don’t know how feasible that is, especially with most surveys being anonymous.

    I also have a third story for you: Overconfidence. It causes people to overestimate their ability to positively impact the world, and it also causes them to screw up their lives by taking really bad chances. That theory could probably be easily tested by measuring correlations between those traits and positive self image.

  • Presumably you mean to measure only cost to, and benefit to, currently living people, so that everyone’s marginal cost/benefit sums to zero?

  • Though thinking about it, I can’t see any way of doing the measurement so that it will naturally sum to zero, given how many transactions are mutually beneficial.

    • It is easy, but it shouldn’t sum to zero. It isn’t supposed to sum to zero. It only sums to zero using the Conservative mindset that everything has to sum to zero because the only thing that Conservatives value does sum to zero, that is position on the social power hierarchy.

      Ideally people should leave the world a better place than it was when they arrived. Conservatives have a hard time doing that because the Conservative mindset is that everything is or should be a zero-sum. This Conservative mindset occurs because things like money are only of value when they can be used to trade for zero sum things such as status.

      Abundant resources are useless to Conservatives because they can’t be traded for zero-sum things. The Conservative mindset is to then artificially restrict abundant resources until they are rare so that they can be traded for zero-sum things.

      To a Conservative, a non-zero sum transaction means either they left money on the table, or they got cheated.

      You sum each person separately. Do the benefits that someone personally produces exceed the benefits that that person consumes. You don’t get to include benefits you got from someone else, so inherited money doesn’t count. Similarly investments made with inherited money don’t count.

      Pretty clearly stolen property can’t count as a positive, neither can investments made with stolen property.

      So what about increased earnings due to an education paid for with inherited money? Or how about an education paid for by a scholarship? Who gets credited for that? What about the benefits of a public education? Who gets credit for benefits generated only because they were generated in a society with good governance, a well educated population, freedom of speech, reasonable property rights, protection against violence, public highways?

  • goodorbad

    Are producers of condoms a burden?

  • > What evidence would distinguish these theories?

    Something related to guilt, I guess. If we artificially increase/decrease guilt of some group of people, will they more/less talk about wanting to be saints? It needs to be measured in short time after indoctrination, so the modified guilt has no time to actually modify their actions.

    So the experiment could be like this — invite a group of people into a seminar about something guilt-related (global warming, poverty, racism, sexism, etc). Divide them into three groups for three days. A control group will be told known facts. A “guilty” group will be told information optimized for increasing their guilt (“people like you are responsible for all the evil in the world”). A “non-guilty” group will be told information optimized for decreasing their guilt (“people like you cure the world, but the other people cause evil”). After three days all people will fill a questionaire about their plans in future.

  • I fully agree with the post, however, I would like to add that in times of welfare states, it’s no big deal being a saint, it doesn’t require altruism. All that’s needed is a state taxing away your income, so may be you should add another category, “net saints against will”. And, thinking about it, maybe a “rent seeker net burdens” category would do as well.

    • Poelmo

      Money is not but a piece of paper that’s only good as toilet paper or to start a fire. If money equated value then there would be no inflation, or speculation. The only thing we can say is that anyone who is building, mining resources for, designing or distributing goods, or providing services other people want to have for any purpose other than just making more money for money’s sake, are providing society with value. How much value that is (and if it’s balanced against their compensation) and whether or not there are some other groups who also provide value is incredibly hard to say.

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Karl Smith discussed the ideal “Citizen X” a while back. “He definitely smokes and definitely drinks, a lot. The heavy taxes on those goods pays lots of taxes into the system and the negative health effects shorten Citizen X’s life span, which as we see is crucial. He gambles in high tax Atlantic City and of course plays the lottery everyday.”

      • Dremora

        Cute. 🙂

        It’s funny how some basic economic arguments can turn moral stereotypes on their heads.

      • Poelmo

        They left out the part where Citizen X’s corpse is used to make soylent green…

      • Dremora

        Whenever people get a chance to say “Soylent Green”, “Big Brother” or “Brave New World”, they jump at it and think they’ve made a deep and wise point. I don’t know why that is the case, but it’s usually off the mark. What’s the positive externality of consenting to be eaten? In practical terms, none. Donating organs maybe.

  • coldequation

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about – who are the burdens who talk about being saints? Are you talking about people who work for NGOs and activists who work to get money redistributed from productive people to useless causes? If so, they’re burdens because they’re doing it wrong.

  • billswift

    Hypocrisy, of course. I’m surprised you missed the obvious possibility that “burdens” praising “saints” are simply doing it for their own self-interest, while attempting to hide that fact.

  • Poelmo

    How do you even measure the value a person adds to this world? We know money can be created and speculated with on the fly, or simply stolen, while prices for things like medical care are completely detached from any physical grounds because of all the middlemen, so money is not a good measuring stick.

    Setting that aside though, if we had a way to measure a person’s worth we might still find that “burdens” call themselves “saints”. I think there are two explanations for this: a) it’s all posture, the “burden” wants to justify his cost to society or b) the “burden” wants to justify his cost to his own conscience and thus his brain makes up a convenient lie to believe in.

  • Jeff

    Putting measurement concerns aside, I submit that there’s another plausible explanation that centers on people’s perceptions of themselves and the world. Take the following two hypothetical people:

    Person 1: A pretty conventional thinker, Person 1’s sees the world as more or less a fair place, certainly with much room and need for altruism, but no need for radical upending.

    Person 2: More radical than Person 1, Person 2 sees the world as a place severely lacking in moral/ethical/religious quality, and therefore sees a great need for those who behave in accordance with Person 2’s ideals, which Person 2 believes are in stark contrast with mainstream behavior and ideals.

    Now, even if Person 1 was on the high-end of philanthropic behavior (using the mainstream definition), she may not describe the benefits of her actions as proudly as Person 2 because she doesn’t perceive her (Person 1’s) actions as “changing the world.”

    On the other hand, Person 2’s views greatly diverge from mainstream understanding of philanthropy/beneficial behavior, so Person 2 may see any of his behavior that reflects this divergence as very beneficial to society. Thus, the (self-reported) “benefit” side of the equation would likely be stronger for Person 2.

    As for the “burden” side of the equation, the opposite is true: Person 2’s diverging beliefs (and behavior reflecting such) are more likely to be interpreted by others as burdensome because they conflict with the mainstream view(s). Person 1, on the other hand, will have a lower “burden” denominator because her actions are more acceptable to majority/mainstream understanding of behavior.

    Examples of Person 1: Average Joe, Joe Schmoe, etc.

    Examples of Person 2: Religious fanatic, abortion clinic bomber, Gandhi*

    *: Yes, Gandhi. Remember, we don’t necessarily know that Person 2’s views of the world are *wrong*, we just know that they are different.

  • It is very difficult to address this question. And it depends on whether you believe there is an afterlife with punishment and reward. That is, are we playing a finite ethical game or an infinite ethical game?

    A bad man may have utility as an example of what not to do, and may serve as a good negative example. A disabled individual may allow others to show their moral side by providing a good target for ethical behaviour. A ruthless businessman may nevertheless provide work for his less ruthless employees.

    I suspect there are few, if any, easy answers to this kind of question.