Author Archives: Robert Wiblin

Is US gun control an important issue?

After the shocking massacre in Connecticut it looks like gun control is going to draw a lot of attention from Obama and Congress this year. This got me thinking about how important gun control might be as a political cause. The potential good achieved by focussing on this policy is in large part determined by the damage done by guns in the first place. In that light, does it deserve it?

A natural measure of the importance of the problem is the number of years of healthy life lost due to gun violence. At  the moment there are a bit over 8,000 murders with firearms each year in the US, some two thirds of the total. If we guess that the typical age of death from gun violence is 30, then the average survivor would have enjoyed another 50 years or so of healthy life. Firearm homicides would than lead to the loss of 400,000 years of healthy life each year. We would then have to add health problems among survivors of gun violence. To confirm that these figures are sensible I looked up the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease, which suggest ‘intentional violence’ as a whole cost the US and Canada about 1,100,000 years of healthy life each year. Two thirds of this would be 650,000 years, a figure which amounts to about 0.8% of the total burden of disease and injury in the US.

Another even larger problem than murder – at least as far as years of healthy life lost – is suicide. Easy access to guns makes suicide attempts more likely to succeed. The US suicide rate is 12 per 100,000; tragically high, though sadly unexceptional by international standards. If the typical suicide victim would have lived another 45 healthy years, this amounts to an annual burden of 1,600,000 each year, roughly the WHO’s figure. [1]  Firearms are used for about half of these suicides, so we’ll say they have a burden of 800,000 years of healthy life, or about 1% of the total burden of disease and injury.

How much could the US hope to reduce these figures? Of course the relationship between the number of guns and violence is contested, and I don’t really want to get drawn into that debate. I will just assume, for the sake of argument, that gun control policies could indeed help reduce violence. For that purpose, let’s imagine it could get firearm violence and suicide down to the average of other OECD countries. [1] Doing so would reduce the gun death rate (and I will assume injuries too) by 80% from ~10 to ~2 per 100,000. This is wildly optimistic given the other drivers of violence and suicide in the US, and the timidity of any likely gun control laws under the Second Amendment. Even if guns did become hard to access, we would expect to see substitution to other weapons. Nonetheless, it offers a useful upper bound.

An 80% drop in firearm deaths and injuries would prevent the loss of 1.15 million years of healthy life each year, or around 1.4 per cent of all the damage done by disease and injury in the US. This falls inconveniently between ‘very little’ and ‘quite a bit’. How can we put this figure in perspective? One option would be to consider how much people claim to value their lives, while another would be to compare it to other available options for saving lives. Here I will use the latter to give some idea of how focussing on gun control compares to other policies or causes that might improve the health of Americans.

How much does it cost to save a life in the US?  The NHS in Britain conveniently uses £30,000 (around $US50,000) for each year of healthy life as the highest price at which a treatment is worth funding. The US has no central body for making these decisions, so no generic ‘marginal cost’ exists. A conclusion of the classic paper, Five-hundred life-saving interventions and their cost-effectiveness, is that the cost of extending lives varies across several orders of magnitude depending on the approach you take. Nonetheless, many interventions in medicine and general safety fell between $5-50,000 for a year of life, at least in the mid-90s. A quick search turns up vaccination of US girls against HPV, which buys a year of healthy life for about $44,000, total knee arthroplasty for $18,300, HIV screening for under $25,000 and flu vaccination at $8,000-52,000. The availability of all of these could be expanded. At a rounded $50,000 figure, the equivalent of 1.15 million years of healthy life could be saved for $57 billion, or 0.38% of US GDP – a significant sum, though under a fifth of long run annual growth. By comparison, the US Federal Government already spends about 24% of US GDP, and all healthcare spending accounts for some 15%. Based on Robin’s work on the inefficacy of much US healthcare spending, redirecting some of that enormous budget to truly life-saving activities would go a long way.

If American activists or voters currently preoccupied with gun control were willing to look farther afield in their desire to prevent unnecessary death, directing government spending to provide bed nets to protect children in developing countries against malaria could save 30,000 kids for a meagre $70 million, or 0.00000046% of GDP. Sadly, the effectiveness and size of US foreign aid is barely discussed.

Of course this health story is not the full picture of the damage done by gun violence. We ought also consider the:

  • Costs incurred in trying to stay safe
  • Costs of caring for the injured
  • Loss of human capital from adults dying
  • Resulting distress and fear
  • Reduced urbanisation as a result of crime (which lowers productivity, among other things).

I would appreciate attempts to quantify these costs but don’t have time to pursue them myself right now. I would note in passing that many other interventions that improve health and safety would also reduce these harms to some extent.

My interpretation of the above is that gun violence is a serious issue in the US. It is not being blown out of proportion like shark attacks or terrorism. At the same time, the impact of guns on US health-span is modest, and lower than many common and avoidable diseases or accidents which fail to inspire a national conversation. Guns have become a hot issue because of their grisly and visible results, as well as fierce identity politics, rather than the absolute scale of the damage they do. If the main goal of gun control advocates were to save lives, their cause would not stand out as low-hanging fruit, especially if they cared about foreigners as well as Americans. Given the host of major problems facing the US, the limited attention of Congress and the White House, and the improbability of achieving a significant reduction in the number of dangerous weapons available, it is not a cause I would jump on.

[1] Some would say that a death by suicide isn’t as bad as a murder, because someone who is preventing from committing suicide probably has a low quality of life. There is some truth to this but I will ignore it, consistent with my desire to define an upper bound.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , , ,

US laissez-faire serves a greater global good

Liberals across the developed world are very concerned by inequality within the United States, as demonstrated by global interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is peculiar because poverty within the United States is less common, and less severe, than it is in most countries around the world. The US does have a high level of inequality for a developed country, but it is not extreme by global standards Unfortunately, this disproportionate concern for Americans leads to attempts to narrow income inequality that may increase poverty and inequality worldwide. [1] I’ll explain how.

The US has long been one of the most innovative countries in the world, and exports the technologies it develops everywhere it can. This is, at least in part, due to its relatively cut-throat culture and laissez-faire economic system. Low taxes and ungenerous welfare mean the benefits of working hard, taking risks and making it big, are higher in the US than most other developed countries. More importantly, weaker regulation in the US means incumbents are less protected from competition, and talented people can more easily start new firms and overturn the status quo. Conversely, daring entrepreneurs are less rewarded in countries which redistribute a great deal of wealth to the poor, or build thickets of regulation that unintentionally (or intentionally) slow down disruptive businesses and technologies. While tempering the ravages of the market may on balance improve the welfare of current Americans, doing so is likely to lead to less experimentation in science, equipment, software, art, business models and so on.

Such innovation generates enormous and enduring positive externalities because the successes are copied at low cost across the world and enrich everyone’s lives. Economic theory would predict that coordinating to stimulate more of these costly but invaluable innovations would be a major concern in international diplomacy. But for some reason it is not, and so it is up to individual countries and the people within them to take these risks on behalf of us all.

Miserly social security and weak regulation in America at most harm 0.3 billion people as long as such policies persist; any resulting innovation spillovers help the remaining, poorer 6.7 billion for centuries to come because improvements in technology persist and compound over time. We all continue to benefit from the hard work of those who developed the telephone and prompted the development of an ever-growing number of related products.

This is not to say that the Occupy movement does not have some important points; it is crucial to oppose the US’s many ‘crony capitalist’ policies which enrich the wealthy while also stifling competition and creative destruction. [2] Nor would the ideal necessarily be a minimal government; there is a prima facie case that government investment in education, R&D, natural-monopoly infrastructure, and so on, can spur technological change. Unfortunately, a higher and higher share of US government spending is going to the opposite: the military, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and pensions. These programs are not investments in the future, and generate few if any positive spillovers for future Americans and the rest of the world. And because these programs are funded by taxes on the hard-working and successful, they blunt the incentives to invent things that help the whole of humanity.

Anyone who cares about lowering poverty and inequality, and doesn’t believe that American citizens are dramatically more important than everyone else, should think carefully before encouraging the US to follow the European economic model. If the US were go even further and slip into the sclerotic ‘extractive‘ economic model found in most of the developing world and some of southern Europe, it would be a global catastrophe. Resisting any movement in this direction is one way that heartless US conservatives are inadvertently more compassionate than they look.

Update: Turn out I’m I’m not the first person to notice this problem!

Update 2: Many people below doubt whether the US is more laissez-faire, and whether a laissez-faire model does as a general rule foster innovation. If you doubt these things, at least take away the point that whichever policies you think do stifle innovation, whichever countries they are found in, are much more harmful than they first seem. I will research and write up more on the topic of which broad economic settings lead to the most innovation in the future.

[1] The effect on wealth inequality is unclear, but the effect on ‘welfare inequality’ is likely to be negative.

[2] Though perversely, lousy healthcare policies have led to very high prices for medicine in the US, which has driven investments in new procedures and drugs, which have been borrowed by other countries. My guess is that effort probably would have been better directed at other industries.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

Life on farms may be worse than death

Robin has long had a possible moral defence for meat consumption on his personal site. The basic idea is this:

  • If everyone switched to vegetarianism/veganism, we would convert land that currently supports farm animals into land that supports plants.
  • This would result in fewer living animals, or at the limit, no animals at all.
  • Though the lives of farm animals aren’t great, they would still prefer to exist than not. [1]
  • Therefore we are actually doing farm animals a favour by consuming meat and in so doing funding their, albeit brief, existence.

This general argument is called the ‘logic of the larder‘. It is a clever defence of meat eating, though perhaps it is more a rationalisation, coming most often from people who have previously shown little concern for farm animals.

Personally, I am glad I was created, even though I will suffer at times, am enslaved (by physics and my biology, if not by a conscious agent) and will eventually be murdered (by ageing, if not a butcher), so am willing to go along with the argument in principle. But in practice, it is not a compelling defence of meat consumption today.

It is far from obvious that “most farm animals prefer living to dying; they do not want to commit suicide.” How do we know they do not want to commit suicide?

  • Most farm animals do not have the mental faculties to weigh up the choice of whether to commit suicide or not, and make a reasoned decision based on their quality of life.
  • Even if they did, evolution should strongly bias animals against deciding to kill themselves, because doing so could never serve the interest of their genes. In addition, committing suicide is itself unpleasant, so your experiences could be worse than nothing and you might still prefer to stay alive.
  • Further, even if farm animals could think through such a decision, and were not too biased, they do not have the knowledge or tools necessary to commit suicide.

Unfortunately then, we have no choice but to make our own judgements about their welfare. Surprisingly, Robin doesn’t cite any evidence on this point, instead suggesting those in doubt visit a farm.

It is quite hard to visit a farm, or find an impartial account of animal lifestyles, because commercial farms and slaughterhouses, especially factory farms, do not want consumers to know about the living conditions of the animals they eat. This itself seems fairly damning. As a result, advocates end up doing most of the reporting. Nonetheless, such reports are still informative and paint a dim picture of quality of life in a typical farm. Many animal lives, particularly those of caged chickens, pigs and farmed fish feature little freedom of movement, high rates of stress, discomfort and disease, and from videos appear worse than nothing to me. Certainly, we would regard someone who treated their pets this way as contemptible. More impartial accounts are apparently to be found in the book Compassion by the Pound (buy), which I have bought but not yet read. Given what I currently know, I would rather stop existing than become an enclosed chicken, fish or pig, and so do not eat those products, in particular caged chickens.

It is a harder call for dairy and meat cows. Their quality of life looks better than that of most other farmed species. They also raise a significant complication Robin also briefly mentions. On the margin, farming animals requires many more grain crops, because farm animals must consume many calories of feed to produce a single calorie of meat. As such, farm animals displace wild animals through the conversation of wilderness to cropland. This effect is especially dramatic for cows, because their conversion rate of feed to meat is less than one in ten. If feedlot cows enjoy better lives than the numerous wild animals they displace –  many of them small creatures with tiny life expectancies – this could be an argument in favor of consuming beef or milk. However, such products have other drawbacks,

  • they are probably bad for health (though it pays to be skeptical about the reliability of such research)
  • feeding grain to animals raises food prices (good for poor farmers, but bad for poor non-farmers)
  • livestock farming alone contributes some 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses.

I would appreciate someone trying to weigh up these harms to see which are most worth worrying about. Working out the true effects of our actions is sometimes challenging, but we should make a collective effort, and so I would be keen to learn from your comments.

[1] I have even heard people claim that all creatures would necessarily rather live than die. I trust such people have never weighed death against a lifetime of torture.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Morality as though it really mattered

A large share of the public, and even an outright majority of professional philosophers, claim to be ‘moral realists‘. Presumably, if this means anything, it means that there are objective rules out there that any being ought to follow and doing the ‘right thing’ is about more than just doing what you want.

Whatever surveys say, my impression is that almost nobody acts as though they were actually realists. If you really believed that there were objective rules that we should follow, that would make it crucial to work out what those rules actually were. If you failed to pick the right rules, you could spend your life doing things that were worthless, or maybe even evil. And if those are the rules that everyone necessarily ought to be following, nothing could be worse than failing to follow them. If most acts or consequences are not the best, as seems likely, then the chances of you stumbling on the right ones by chance are very low.

Does this imply that you should spend your entire life studying morality? Not exactly. If you became sufficiently confident about what was good, it would then be more valuable to go out and do that thing, rather than continue studying. On the other hand, it does imply a lot more effort than most people put into this question today. The number of ethicists with a public profile could be counted on one hand. Research on ethics, let alone meta-ethics, is largely ignored by the public and considered of ‘academic interest’, if that. To a realist, nothing could be further from the truth. It is impossible to go about forming other life plans confidently until you have worked out what is morally right!

Simple probing using questions well known to philosophers usually reveals a great deal of apparent inconsistency in people’s positions on moral issues. This has been known for thousands of years, but we are scarcely more consistent now than in the past. If we assume that any of the rules we ought to follow will be consistent with one another, this is a disaster and calls for us to down tools until right and wrong can be clarified. In other cases, popular intutive positions simply do not make sense.

A moral realist should also be trying to spread their bets to account for ‘moral uncertainty‘. Even if you think you have the right moral code, there is always the possibility you are mistaken and in fact a different set of rules are correct. Unless you are extremely confident that the rules you consider most likely, this ought to affect your behaviour. This is easily explained through an example which occurred to me recently concerning the debate over the ‘person-affecting view‘ of morality. According to this view, it would only be good to prevent a catastrophe that caused the extinction of humanity because such a catastrophe would affect people alive now, not because it ensures countless future generations never get to live. People who could exist in the future but don’t are not well-defined, and so do not quality for moral consideration. The case for putting enormous resources into ensuring humanity does not collapse is weaker if future people do not count. But how much weaker? Let’s say the number of (post-)humans we expect to live in the future, in the absence of any collapse, is a modest 1 trillion. The real number is probably much larger. If you thought there were just a 10% chance that people who weren’t alive now did in fact deserve moral consideration, that would still mean collapse prevented the existence of 100 billion future people in ‘expected value’ terms. This still dwarfs the importance of the 7 billion people alive today, and makes the case for focussing on such threats many times more compelling than otherwise. Note that incorporating moral uncertainty is unlikely to make someone stop focussing on collapse risk, because the consequences of being wrong in the other direction aren’t so bad.

This demonstrates that a moral realist with some doubt they have picked the right rules will want to a) hedge their bets b) focus disproportionate attention on plausible rules under which their choices have a bigger potential impact on the desirability of outcomes. This is just the same as uncertainty around matters of fact: we take precautions in case our model of how the world works is wrong, especially those errors under which our preferred choice could lead to a relative disaster. Despite this being a natural and important consideration for all moral realists, moral uncertainty is only talked about by a handful of moral philosophers.

Uncertainty about moral issues is scarcely a fringe concern because the quality of available evidence is so poor. Most moral reasoning, when we dig down, relies on nothing more than the competing intuitions of different people. The vast majority of people I know think the moral intuitions of the billions of people who lived in the past on matters such as racism, gender, sex, torture, slavery, the divine right of monarchs, animal cruelty and so on, were totally wrong. Furthermore, intuitive disagreement on moral questions remains vast today. Without a compelling reason to think our intuitions are better than those of others – and I don’t see one – the chances that we have all the right intuitions is frighteningly low.

I would go further and say there is no obvious reason for our moral intuitions to be tethered to what is really right and wrong full stop. It is almost certain that humans came about through the process of evolution. Evolution will give us the ability to sense the physical world in order to be able to respond to it, survive and reproduce. It will also give us good intuitions about mathematics, insofar as that helps us make predictions about the world around us, survive and reproduce. But why should natural selection provide us with instinctive knowledge of objective moral rules? There is no necessary reason for such knowledge to help a creature survive – indeed, most popular moral theories are likely to do the opposite. For this reason our intuitions, even where they agree, are probably uninformative.

I think this shows that most people who profess moral realism are in fact not. This is yet another obvious example of human hypocrisy. Professing objective morality is instrumentally useful for individuals and societies, and our minds can be easily shielded from what this implies. For anyone who actually does want to follow through on a realist position, I can see two options,

  • Hit the books and put more work into doing the right thing.
  • Concede that you have almost no chance of working out what is right and wrong, and could not gain much by trying. Moral skepticism would get you off the hook.

Personally, I would like to think I take doing the right thing seriously, so I am willing to offer a monetary prize of £300 for anyone who can change my mind on a) whether I ought to place a significant probability on moral realism being correct, or b) help me see that I seriously misunderstand what I subjectively value. Such insights would be a bargain!

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

Which supplements should a healthy person take?

I have recently been looking into which, if any, nutritional supplements I should start taking. I am in good general health so am looking for supplements that are likely to maintain or improve that health, not cure any particular condition. I have been using three excellent sources for this project, which I can recommend checking out: [1]

For those who want to save time, I will outline my key conclusions here in the hope that doing so will help you. I have decided to start taking:

  • Vitamin D3 (10µg or so a day)
  • Creatine (5g a day)
  • Zinc (30-160mg and Vitamin C (>1g)  each day for the duration of colds.

Tyrosine and potassium are also both cheap and so I will trial them to see if they improve my concentration. I don’t consider them likely to work, but they are at least worth testing. Fluoride mouthwashes also seem a cheap way to reduce the risk of cavities.

Vitamin D has a large evidence base suggesting it significantly lowers ‘all-cause mortality’ and improves both general and bone health. It is especially important now that I am living in the UK, where it is much harder to get Vitamin D from sun exposure.  It is also inexpensive. [2] Basically, it is a no-brainer. The 10µg is twice the daily recommended dietary dose in the UK. For some reason, Gwern is taking a very large 125µg each day. Personally I am tempted to err on the low side due to recent research suggesting too much Vitamin D can raise mortality.

Creatine is best known as a supplement for body-builders, but I am taking it primarily because I hope it will improve my cognition. The evidence to back this is thin, and only finds a significant effect among subgroups like vegetarians, perhaps because they get less creatine from meat consumption. However, the effect size identified was very large, it is cheap and largely safe. I am an almost-vegetarian and lift weights so it is more likely to be worthwhile for me. I will also be able test whether it improves my energy and concentration and stop using it if it doesn’t. This review also finds a range of other worthwhile positive impacts on health.

There is compelling evidence that zinc helps reduce the intensity and duration of colds. As summarised by Cochrane:

Zinc inhibits rhinoviral replication and has been tested in trials for treatment of the common cold. This review identified 15 randomized controlled trials, enrolling 1360 participants of all age groups, comparing zinc with placebo (no zinc). We found that zinc (lozenges or syrup) is beneficial in reducing the duration and severity of the common cold in healthy people, when taken within 24 hours of onset of symptoms.

There are some concerns about side effects, but they do not seem significant in the scheme of things. The tablets can also be obtained cheaply and easily. The appropriate dose is unclear, but studies included in the meta-analysis used between 30-160mg. I will probably choose a figure in the middle of that, and keep some tablets at work and home so I can always take them immediately at the onset of symptoms.

Despite a large number of studies, evidence to back an effect of Vitamin C on colds in the general population is mixed, with positive effects only reliably found on those engaging in extreme exercise. I worry that positive results on such sub-populations could just be the result of data mining, publication bias or other chicanery. Nonetheless, there are no side effects and the tablets are cheap. I consider it worth taking at the onset of colds, even if the probability of any real effect is under a third. Furthermore, effervescent vitamin C tablets are tasty and comforting to drink, and being as conspicuous as they are, may produce a larger than usual placebo effect.

Incidentally, most infection by common colds is caused by surface to surface contact. Using an ethanol handwash after touching shared surfaces, and reducing how often you touch your face with your hands, is likely to significantly reduce their occurrence. If you didn’t already have one, the desire not to get colds is a good selfish reason to wash your hands after using the bathroom. Poor general health is not the problem, as even healthy people who are exposed to the virus are highly likely to become infected.

If I were particularly worried about my blood pressure or cardiovascular health I would start

However, I am young, and consider heart disease to be a problem for the future.

I am keen to hear if I am making mistakes in the above, or missing out on other valuable chances to improve my life. Thanks to Seb Farquhar and Will Crouch for help with this research.

[1] Cochrane’s ‘house effect’ is to frequently find that there is insufficient evidence to draw any conclusion. Where they do make a recommendation, the evidence backing it is likely to be compelling. Gwern’s advice extends to unusual supplements about which there is little other information. Unfortunately, is in based in significant part on personal experiences. While he has tried to do blind and controlled trials  on himself with sufficient sample sizes, I don’t consider one individual’s experiences to be compelling evidence relative to large trials and meta-analyses. He often doesn’t have a statistically significant effect, in part due to small samples. Nonetheless, if the cost of a supplement is low, and it is safe, it can be worth taking even with a low probability of an effect. Snake-Oil Supplements falls somewhere in the middle.

[2] Reasonably cheap sources of: creatine, Vitamin D, Vitamin C and Zinc, tyrosine and potassium. Mouthwashes with over >200ppm of fluoride are widely available, but you should check the label.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Why don’t futurists try harder to stay alive?

A significant share of the broader ‘singularitarian’ community believes that they have a chance to live for hundreds of years, if they can survive until the arrival of an AI singularity, whole brain emulation, or just the point at which medical technology is advancing fast enough to keep extending our health-span by at least a year each year (meaning we hit ‘escape velocity‘ and can live indefinitely). Some are sufficiently hopeful about this to have invested in cryonics plans, hoping to be revived in the future, including Robin Hanson. Many others plan to do this, or think they should. (For what it’s worth, I am not yet convinced cryonics is worth the money – for reasons I am writing up – but I do think it warrants serious consideration.)

But there are much more mundane ways of increasing the chance of making it to this glorious future: exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet low in refined carbohydrates, don’t smoke or hang around those who do, drink in moderation, avoid some illegal drugs, develop strong social supports to lower suicide and other mental health threats, have a secure high-status job, don’t live in an urban area, don’t ride a motorbike, get married (probably), and so on. While the futurist community isn’t full of seriously unhealthy or reckless people, nor does it seem much better in these regards than non-futurists with the same education and social class. A minority enjoy nutritional number crunching, but I haven’t observed diets being much better overall. None of the other behaviours are noticeably better.

I am fairly confident that the lowest hanging fruit would be raising fitness levels, which may even be lower among us than the general population. In addition to the immediate benefits regular and strenuous exercise has on confidence, happiness and productivity, it makes you live quite a bit longer. One study suggests that just 15 minutes of moderate exercise per day adds three years to your life expectancy (HT XKCD).

Now, maybe you are skeptical that those few years will allow you to live long enough to reach the end of involuntary death. Probably they won’t, but the whole life extension approach is to bank on a low chance of a giant payoff (living for hundreds or thousands of years). Furthermore, as the Singularity Institute has compellingly argued, we should not think we can confidently predict when AGI will be invented, if at all. The same is true to a lesser extent of progress towards whole brain emulation, or ending ageing. Furthermore, cryonics preservation procedures, and the selection of organisations that offer cryonics are gradually improving. Extending your life by five to ten years by doing all the ordinary things right could really make the difference; at least anyone considering gambling on cryonics should surely also find regular jogging worth their time.

I have even heard smart people claim that there is no need to worry about staying healthy because new technology will cure any diseases you get by the time you get them. But uncertainty about how soon such technologies will appear, combined with the high potential reward of living a little longer, would suggest exactly the opposite.

If I had to provide a cynical explanation for this apparently conflicting behaviour, I would suggest people are signing up for cryonics, or engaging in nutritional geekery, to signal their rationality and membership of a particular social clique. Going to the gym, even if it is a better bet for extending your life, doesn’t currently have the same effect. If you fear you’re stuck in that or some similar trap, consider using Stickk or Beeminder to make sure you do the rational thing.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

A King is fine, so long as he’s one of us

Living today in longstanding democracies, it can be hard to comprehend why so many people living in the past, or other countries, would permit or even enthusiastically support the unchecked power of their monarchs and dictators. Wasn’t it obvious to them how dangerous and corrupting the accumulation of power by individuals could be?

When someone we don’t like is in power, all of the intellectual arguments for separation of powers jump to mind to justify our fears. But sadly our tribal minds go looking for totally different rationalisations as soon as ‘one of us’ is in charge. This is nicely demonstrated by the acquiescence of US progressives to the further expansion of Presidential powers that supposedly horrified them during the Bush administration:

For the last four years, Barack Obama has not only asserted, but aggressively exercised, the power to target for execution anyone he wants, including US citizens, anywhere in the world. He has vigorously resisted not only legal limits on this assassination power, but even efforts to bring some minimal transparency to the execution orders he issues.

This claimed power has resulted in four straight years of air bombings in multiple Muslim countries in which no war has been declared – using dronescruise missiles and cluster bombs – ending the lives of more than 2,500 people, almost always far away from any actual battlefield. They are typically targeted while riding in cars, at work, at home, and while even rescuing or attending funerals for others whom Obama has targeted. A substantial portion of those whom he has killed – at the very least – have been civilians, including dozens of children.

Worse still, his administration has worked to ensure that this power is subject to the fewest constraints possible

President Obama was recently convinced that some limits and a real legal framework might be needed to govern the exercise of this assassination power. What was it that prompted Obama finally to reach this conclusion? It was the fear that he might lose the election, which meant that a Big, Bad Republican would wield these powers, rather than a benevolent, trustworthy, noble Democrat – i.e., himself.

This is a nice example of human hypocrisy, as if we needed another. So long as a member of the other political tribe was in control, progressives would convince themselves that such a power grab was Wrong On Principle. But now that their man is in control, we can all relax and just trust him to be a Nice Guy:

… the primary reason for this fundamental change in posture [among progressives] is that they genuinely share the self-glorifying worldview driving Obama here. The core premise is that the political world is shaped by a clean battle of Good v. Evil. The side of Good is the Democratic Party; the side of Evil is the GOP. All political truths are ascertainable through this Manichean prism.

The result is that, for so many, it is genuinely inconceivable that a leader as noble, kind and wise as Barack Obama would abuse his assassination and detention powers. It isn’t just rank partisan opportunism or privilege that leads them not to object to Obama’s embrace of these radical powers and the dangerous theories that shield those powers from checks or scrutiny. It’s that they sincerely admire him as a leader and a man so much that they believe in their heart (like Obama himself obviously believes) that due process, checks and transparency are not necessary when he wields these powers. Unlike when a GOP villain is empowered, Obama’s Goodness and his wisdom are the only safeguards we need.

Thus, when Obama orders someone killed, no due process is necessary and we don’t need to see any evidence of their guilt; we can (and do) just assume that the targeted person is a Terrorist and deserves death because Obama has decreed this to be so. When Obama orders a person to remain indefinitely in a cage without any charges or any opportunity to contest the validity of the imprisonment, that’s unobjectionable because the person must be a Terrorist or otherwise dangerous – or else Obama wouldn’t order him imprisoned. We don’t need proof, or disclosed evidence, or due process to determine the validity of these accusations; that it is Obama making these decisions is all the assurance we need because we trust him.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, this blind trust in wise and just rulers is the antithesis of how the American system, designed in reaction to a foreign ruler who wasn’t ‘one of us’, was supposed to work: “in questions of power…let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Unfortunately the constitution isn’t doing much of a job of binding down the President, and the public never managed to bind themselves to the mast to keep caring.

It is especially reckless to allow this precedent to be set for a new technology for surveillance and assassination that will become gradually more accessible to both state and non-state actors. If it had its eyes on the long term, the US would be trying to develop laws and international norms to make sure that this technology is not used in a way that backfires on them in the future. This issue appears not to have been considered much at all.

If you ever find yourself mystified by the tolerance people across history or the world have for giving their rulers great discretion, just because they are charismatic or part of the same cultural group, just look around and you’ll see the same instinct remains all around us today.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Invent yourself and think through your impact – graduation ceremony speech

I was lucky enough to be chosen to be the student speaker for my graduation ceremony. Unsurprisingly, I decided to talk about some key ideas emerging from the effective altruist movement, in which I have recently started working.

It was a challenging event to write for, because I am too cynical to be sentimental or outright wrong, but nor did I think it would be productive to spurn the social norms surrounding this kind of tradition altogether. I’ll let you judge whether I did a good job of riding the line.

The speech is below the fold. The personal content comes first; if you would like to skip that, click here.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Continue reading "Invent yourself and think through your impact – graduation ceremony speech" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , , ,

Was Intrade being manipulated over the last month?

Intrade’s betting odds on the 2012 presidential election have differed significantly from those available elsewhere. For the 48 hours preceding the election, the difference in the implied probability of Obama winning on Intrade relative to other betting agencies like Betfair, was 8 to 15 percentage points. This persisted until a large share of Ohio votes had been counted and Colorado and New Mexico were starting to count, at which point the difference quickly evaporated. Over the previous 3 weeks or so, the difference had moved in the range of 5 to 10 percentage points.  The same distortion was observed in favour of McCain during the election in 2008, though to a lesser extent.

This provided an opportunity to make substantial money by betting on Obama on Intrade and Romney elsewhere – a so called dutch book, or ‘arbitrage‘. I joined some colleagues at 80,000 Hours doing this yesterday to earn money for our favourite cost effective charities. We each walked away with about $500 after all of the associated fees. Eyeballing it, a dutch book is profitable, ignoring the cost to your time, if the probability gap is larger than 3 percentage points; below that, the fees involved will eat up your winnings.

Why was this possible? I don’t have a good answer, but I can suggest one possibility. Some noteworthy aspects of the situation are:

  • Americans can’t deposit money into Intrade using credit and debit cards – they have to use bank transfers.
  • Bank transfers take at least two days to arrive and cost over $20.
  • Everyone else can choose between cards and bank transfers.
  • Cards are instantaneous and free (if denominated in US dollars anyway) but have a $2,000 deposit limit in the first month, and $5,000 thereafter.
  • It takes at least a day, probably two, to open a new Intrade account and have it approved.
  • There are other significant barriers to entry – knowing about the issue, learning about the fees, opening an account with another betting agency and finally having the time and confidence to correctly place the hedge.
  • Intrade seems very widely covered by the US media.

A single person with a huge amount in their account from a wire transfer could manipulate the market by selling Obama’s shares down, or buying Romney’s up. This appeared to be happening in the 67-72% likelihood range in which Obama was stuck for a long period of time, while other larger agencies were placing him around 82%. Several people on Intrade’s forum spotted what they thought were abnormally large bids for Romney’s stock.

Once someone started doing this, it would take at least two days, probably three, for a wealthy or ambitious person to respond by wiring in enough money to bet against them. They would have to hope that the manipulation persisted long enough for them to profit from it. Until then, people outside the USA would be limited to putting at most $2000 or $5000 into their accounts, which is barely worth the effort for someone with the required skill. Someone could plan to do this over the last few days of the election without generating much resistance.

The volume yesterday on Obama’s Intrade shares was about 600,000. If all of those trades involved one person, who was losing 10 percentage points on each share, they would have blown $600,000 to keep Obama’s odds down. The volume over the previous three weeks is hard to read from Intrade’s graphs, but looks to be about the same again. So a single cunning person willing to lose $1 million could have singlehandedly driven the price difference, if they wanted to influence perceptions of the race and encourage voter turnout. Out of the $6 billion spent on the election so far, that’s not a big investment. Intrade will face the risk of this until they make it easier for wolves to fund their accounts and go out hunting sheep.

Weaknesses of this theory are:

  • Why didn’t manipulation over the previous three weeks prompt someone to move a large sum onto Intrade in anticipation?
  • Why haven’t wealthy Obama supporters attempted the same trick?

Nonetheless, I think this is more likely than a broad pool of Intrade participants being enthusiastic about Romney against all the evidence, and unaware that they could get better odds elsewhere.

If I were a Democrat supporter with a lot of money, I would plan to profit from similar situations in the future while simultaneously improving Intrade’s performance.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Does complexity bias biotechnology towards doing damage?

A few months ago I attended the Singularity Summit in Australia. One of the presenters was Randal Koene (videos here), who spoke about technological progress towards whole brain emulation, and some of the impacts this advance would have.

Many enthusiasts – including Robin Hanson on this blog – hope to use mind uploading to extend their own lives. Mind uploading is an alternative to more standard ‘biological’ methods for preventing ageing proposed by others such as Aubrey de Gray of the Methuselah Foundation. Randal believes that proponents of using medicine to extend lives underestimate the difficulty of what they are attempting to do. The reason is that evolution has led to a large number of complex and interconnected molecular pathways which cause our bodies to age and decay. Stopping one pathway won’t extend your life by much, because another will simply cause your death soon after. Controlling contagious diseases extended our lives, but not for very long, because we ran up against cancer and heart disease. Unless some ‘master ageing switch’ turns up, suspending ageing will require discovering, unpacking and intervening in dozens of things that the body does. Throwing out the body, and taking the brain onto a computer, though extremely difficult, might still be the easier option.

This got me thinking about whether biotechnology can be expected to help or hurt us overall. My impression is that the practical impact of biotechnology on our lives has been much less than most enthusiasts expected. I was drawn into a genetics major at university out of enthusiasm for ideas like ‘golden rice’ and ‘designer babies’, but progress towards actually implementing these technologies is remarkably slow. Pulling apart the many kludges evolution has thrown into existing organisms is difficult. Manipulating them to reliably get the change you want, without screwing up something else you need, even more so.

Unfortunately, while making organisms work better is enormously challenging, damaging them is pretty easy. For a human to work, a lot needs to go right. For a human to fail, not much needs to go wrong. As a rule, fiddling with a complex system is a lot more likely to ruin it than improve it. As a result, a simple organism like the influenza virus can totally screw us up, even though killing its host offers it no particular evolutionary advantage:

Few pathogens known to man are as dangerous as the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Of the 600 reported cases of people infected, almost 60 per cent have died. The virus is considered so dangerous in the UK and Canada that research can only be performed in the highest biosafety level laboratory, a so-called BSL-4 lab. If the virus were to become readily transmissible from one person to another (it is readily transmissible between birds but not humans) it could cause a catastrophic global pandemic that would substantially reduce the world’s population.

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was caused by a virus that killed less than 2 per cent of its victims, yet went on to kill 50m worldwide. A highly pathogenic H5N1 virus that was as easily transmitted between humans could kill hundreds of millions more.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,