Category Archives: Politics

Kid’s Rights

Scott Aaronson confesses:

Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now.  See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspbergerish. I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner. And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning.  For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.

There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything.  Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page. …

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On Not Having an Advance Abyssal Plan

"Even though he could foresee the problem then, we can see it equally well now.  Therefore, if he could foresee the solution then, we should be able to see it now.  After all, Seldon was not a magician.  There are no trick methods of escaping a dilemma that he can see and we can't."
        — Salvor Hardin

Years ago at the Singularity Institute, the Board was entertaining a proposal to expand somewhat.  I wasn't sure our funding was able to support the expansion, so I insisted that – if we started running out of money – we decide in advance who got fired and what got shut down, in what order.

Even over the electronic aether, you could hear the uncomfortable silence.

"Why can't we decide that at the time, if the worst happens?" they said, or something along those lines.

"For the same reason that when you're buying a stock you think will go up, you decide how far it has to decline before it means you were wrong," I said, or something along those lines; this being far back enough in time that I would still have used stock-trading in a rationality example.  "If we can make that decision during a crisis, we ought to be able to make it now.  And if I can't trust that we can make this decision in a crisis, I can't trust this to go forward."

People are really, really reluctant to plan in advance for the abyss.  But what good reason is there not to?  How can you be worse off from knowing in advance what you'll do in the worse cases?

I have been trying fairly hard to keep my mouth shut about the current economic crisis.  But still –

Why didn't various governments create and publish a plan for what they would do in the event of various forms of financial collapse, before it actually happened?

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An African Folktale

This is a folktale of the Hausa, a farming culture of around 30 million people, located primarily in Nigeria and Niger but with other communities scattered around Africa.  I find the different cultural assumptions revealed to be… attention-catching; you wouldn't find a tale like this in Aesop.  From Hausa Tales and Traditions by Frank Edgar and Neil Skinner; HT Robert Greene.

The Farmer, the Snake and the Heron

    There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it.  And the snake came up to the farmer.
    Says the snake "Farmer, please hide me."  "Where shall I hide you?" said the farmer, and the snake said "All I ask is that you save my life."  The farmer couldn't think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered.
    Presently the snake's pursuers arrived and said to the farmer "Hey, there!  Where's the snake we were chasing and intend to kill?  As we followed him, he came in your direction."  Says the farmer "I haven't seen him."  And the people went back again.
    Then the farmer said to the snake "Righto – come out now.  They've gone."  "Oh no" said the snake, "I've got me a home."  And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

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BHTV: Yudkowsky / Wilkinson

Eliezer Yudkowsky and Will Wilkinson.  Due to a technical mistake – I won't say which of us made it, except that it wasn't me – the video cuts out at 47:37, but the MP3 of the full dialogue is available here.  I recall there was some good stuff at the end, too.

We talked about Obama up to 23 minutes, then it's on to rationality.  Wilkinson introduces (invents?) the phrase "good cognitive citizenship" which is a great phrase that I am totally going to steal.

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Tribal Biases and the Inauguration

Regardless of your feelings about the election, inauguration, or national politics in general, they do make for great settings in which to explore the classic themes.  No, not Hope and Change and Unity and Freedom, those are themes for Presidents, not Overcoming Bias.  I mean the ways in which our monkey brains lead us into messes, and how sober reflection can lead us out.

First, IOZ nicely captures why Obama's economic program is counterproductive:

The central conceit of Obama's inauguration and the crisis-wracked program he began to lay out is that given our troubled times, we must put aside difference in favor of "unity" and seek common purpose in collective action. Subsumed beneath an overwrought paean to national character and responsibility is the notion that only through centralization can crises of such magnitude be met and bested. This is precisely the wrong lesson to draw. Each of our current crises, whether imperial overreach or economic calamities, are at root problems of scale. If you really wanted more a more flexible, resilient, and self-sustaining economy, you would seek means to increase regional and local enterprise at the expense of State-subsidized national and transnational corporations; you would notice, for instance, that most small banks are doing just fine, and you'd let Citigroup go belly-up.

It would be foolish to lay this at Obama's door – I think Hillary would do worse, and quite possibly McCain as well. The erroneous focus on scale and centralization and "pulling together in times of crisis" is a general human irrationality which politicians specialize in catering to.

Like many (?most?) irrationalities, it is likely a relic of our tribal past.  In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our "tribe", and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures.

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Set Obama’s Bar

We've heard a lot of hyperbole about how Bush was the "Worst. President. Ever." and Obama's inauguration is the most exciting in a half century.  So to avoid future bias, this is a good time to ask yourself: where do you set Obama's bar?  That is, what does Obama have to do for you to consider him a "good" president, or even better than Bush?  It is enough for you that he is (part) black and a Democrat?  Or does he actually have to do something?  Or are those already insurmountable barriers to you?

For most any president today, odds are that we'd:

  • be mostly out of our moderately deep recession in four years,
  • add some symbolic financial rules that mostly lets old games continue,
  • mostly watch as Israel, Russia, and China throw more weight around,
  • mismanage another Katrina because governments are just bad at that,
  • go deeper in debt "stimulating" and "bailing" because politicians love to spend,
  • not much relax homeland security or immigration because we're still scared of terrorists,
  • mildly pull out of Iraq since the war has been going well lately but we don't like to look weak,
  • do little on carbon emissions or the coming Medicare train wreck as those are very expensive, and
  • not reform medicine or education or welfare more than Bush's Medicare drug benefit and "no child left behind," or Clinton's welfare reform, as those were unusually big changes.

So will Obama be great (or terrible) if he just follows this least-resistence path and adds a few cheap symbolic moves on stem cell research funding, gay marriage, torture definitions, wiretap limitations, or foreign abortion funding?  And would that be enough for a non-black or non-Democrat? 

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Bad News Predictor Jailed

The Economist a month ago:

Back in September a message appeared on an online bulletin board owned by Daum, the most popular web host in a country, South Korea, with a huge internet culture. Written by someone called "Minerva," it predicted the imminent collapse of Lehman Brothers, a now-defunct investment bank.

Wild speculation is normally disregarded, but when it proved to be right just five days later, a prophet was born. Word raced through the "netizen" community, and when Minerva went on to predict that the Korean won would fall against the dollar by around 50 won a day in the first half of the week of October 6th, his followers began to watch the currency markets in anticipation. The won did indeed fall by about that much over the next three days.

Minerva became an internet phenomenon, with 40m-odd hits to date. Web-users combed through previous posts, looking for prognostications, and clues about his identity. Sharp comments on the state of the Korean economy and government policy only increased his standing. … It came as little surprise when the finance minister, Kang Man-soo, admitted that officials had attempted to uncover the blogger's identity.

Today's news:

South Korea set a rare and controversial example over the weekend by arresting a popular blogger who was accused of undermining the financial markets but worshipped by many Koreans as an online guru.

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Rationality of voting etc.

I was going to respond to this post by Philip Goetz (who writes that "voting kills") but I thought it would make more sense to summarize in a post of my own.  Even if you don’t care about voting, these issues–how to compute probabilities of extremely rare events–are relevant in other decision settings.

Goetz reports an estimate by Donald Redelmeier that there is an 18% increase in motor vehicle deaths on election day, corresponding to an average of 24 deaths per year and compares it to the 1 in 60 million probability of decisive vote estimated a few days before the election by Aaron Edlin, Nate Silver and myself.  (If anyone is interested in the details of our calculations, they are in this article.)

So the quick calculation goes like this:  24 out of 300 million is about five times 1 in 60 million.  So, according to these numbers, the chance of your vote making a difference is about five times, on average, as being killed in a car accident on the way to the polls.  On the other hand, people notoriously behave as to underestimate the risk of car crashes, so it’s not quite clear what to make of this.

Some other quick calculations might help make sense of this.  The probability that your vote will swing the election is essentially equal to 1/10,000 times the probability that a change of 10,000 votes will swing the outcome.  This has an average probability of about 1 in 6000, which is a little easier to grasp.

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Voting Kills

According to a recent study, on the day of a US presidential election there are, on average, an extra 24 auto-accident fatalities.  The study covered the past 32 years, not including this year.

The number of times that a single vote has affected the outcome of a US presidential election is, so far, zero.

In order for voting to be rational, the expected benefit to you from your vote having an effect on the outcome, must be greater than the expected cost of you dying in an auto accident on your way to vote.

The traffic accident study covers only 32 years; but we have over 200 years of data on individual votes not swinging an election.  Over time, it has become much less likely for one person’s vote to swing an election due to population increase.  I will approximate this effect by saying that 210 years of one vote not swinging an election is similar to 1000 years of one vote not swinging an election at current population levels.  That’s a sloppy off-the-cuff guess at how the population changes affect the probabilities.

So, the odds of your dying in a traffic accident on your way to vote would at first seem to be 24 * (1000/4) = 6000 times the odds of your vote changing the outcome of the election.  (Probably much higher. Those are the odds they would be if one person’s vote had swung the election once.)  The odds of your being disabled in a traffic accident on your way to vote would, similarly, seem to be 800*(1000/4) = 200,000 times higher than the odds of your vote swinging the election.

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Positive vs. Optimal

I’ve been thinking a little lately about the difference between doing something useful, and doing the most useful thing. The latter is a lot harder, yet a lot more productive. I wonder if this is a basic area of human irrationality. I think you can classify a lot of the bad arguments that get made for things like the bailout of banks, or of car companies, as people saying “Here is why this money would help these companies”, and missing out on “But it would help the rest of the world (like, companies that are profitable) even more”.

Normally I rail against zero-sum thinking, the belief that we’re just dividing up a fixed pie. But in the short-term, the inputs to producing happiness are constrained. I only have 24 hours in the day. The GDP of the US is only so much. We’re investing those resources to produce even more resources – but the inputs at this stage are fixed. We can’t invest in every positive-sum project. When you are figuring out what to do with these constrained inputs, you need to balance your use against *every other possible use* (or more specifically, the best alternative use). (This is nerve-wracking and tortuous, but you don’t actually have to do it that well – if you just do a decent job, you’ll be doing way better than someone who just does whatever positive projects happen to catch their attention.)

I think this connects to important topics at the micro and the macro level. Personal productivity techniques like Eat That Frog or Big Rocks are based on fighting our inclination to do what seems urgent, and instead doing what is optimal. I know I have a lot of trouble getting distracted by small urgent things, rather than doing the core, important work, and it seems to be a general problem. Our intuition is a terrible task prioritizer. And much of the erroneous analysis about the benefits of regulation has to do with ignoring the invisible (the best alternative use of the resources), as Henry Hazlitt so eloquently writes. Our intuition seizes on the visible consequences, and has trouble seeing the subtle, distributed, unrealized, un-proposed alternatives.

Which suggests a technique for overcoming this, at both the personal and professional levels. Try to always present alternatives. Reify the other options – or your mind will focus on whether your proposal does net good, rather than the most good with its limited resources.

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