Category Archives: Regulation

Dumb Deplaning

So I just traveled to Portsmouth, VA for an experimental conference – in the sense that I don’t expect conferences of this type to prove productive, but maybe I should try at least once – in the unlikely event that there are any local Overcoming Bias readers who want to drive out to Portsmouth for a meeting on say the evening of the 20th, email me – anyway, I am struck, for the Nth time, how uncooperative people are in getting off planes.

Most people, as soon as they have a chance to make for the exit, do so – even if they need to take down luggage first.  At any given time after the initial rush to the aisles, usually a single person is taking down luggage, while the whole line behind them waits.  Then the line moves forward a little and the next person starts taking down their luggage.

In programming we call this a "greedy local algorithm".  But since everyone does it, no one seems to feel "greedy".

How would I do it?  Off the top of my head:

"Left aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage.  (Pause.)  Left aisle seats, please retrieve your luggage.  (Pause.)  Left aisle seats, please deplane.  (Pause.)  Right aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage…"

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Now I’m Scared

Bruce Ivins was suspected of being the anthrax killer and recently committed suicide.  Ivins was a Ph.D. MICROBIOLOGIST who worked for the U.S. military and according to his therapist was a SOCIOPATH and HOMICIDAL KILLER.

Just how much damage could a sociopathic, homicidal killing microbiologist do?  If the blind idiot God of evolution can develop microorganisms that kill millions, what could an observant, intelligent microbiologist accomplish? 

Should governments perhaps force all microbiologists to be evaluated to determine if they are sociopaths?  After all, if employees of the Department of Commerce have to undergo background checks before they can see classified commerce related information, shouldn’t microbiologists be subject to some kind of governmental screening process?

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Overconfidence & Paternalism

Paul Graham tries to explain paternalism: 

Parents know they’ve concealed the facts about sex, and many at some point sit their kids down and explain more. But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world.

Don’t all 18 year olds think they know how to run the world? Actually this seems to be a recent innovation, no more than about 100 years old. In preindustrial times teenage kids were junior members of the adult world and comparatively well aware of their shortcomings. They could see they weren’t as strong or skillful as the village smith. In past times people lied to kids about some things more than we do now, but the lies implicit in an artificial, protected environment are a recent invention. Like a lot of new inventions, the rich got this first. Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings in that respect.  …

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Paternalism Parable

My newly published parable, saying we should be clearer on what justifies our paternalism, or be less paternalistic:

Imagine finding yourself near someone about to walk off a cliff. If he seems distracted enough to not notice a crucial bend in the cliff edge, you might feel quite justified in grabbing his arm, to stop him from falling. You might even expect his gratitude.

But what if he seems well aware of the cliff before him? Well, if he seems crazy, either permanently insane or temporarily drugged, you might still grab him. You might also grab him if you knew his family would miss him terribly. In such cases you might at least expect gratitude from his family, his caretaker, or his future sober self. And if you were morally outraged enough by the very idea of walking off a cliff, you might grab him no matter who was grateful or offended.

But what if, aside from the whole cliff thing, he seems no crazier or immoral than most? What if his action mainly affected only him? What if the cliff was only five feet tall, or 20 feet tall over deep water, or if he walked near the cliff at what he considered a close but safe distance? You might still think of grabbing his arm, if you thought you understood something important that he did not. Perhaps you know the wind is unusually gusty, or the ground is unusually slippery. Perhaps there is no time to explain, or he doesn’t understand your language.

But what if he does understand you, and there is time enough to say "Watch out! That cliff is dangerous." If he dismisses your concern and does not back away, would that justify your intervention? Well we can’t very well allow anyone to intervene in anyone else’s life anytime they feel like it. So if you persist in grabbing we might let him sue you for assault.

But what if you were not alone? What if a great many of you also thought him careless? What if you lived in a democracy and could get enough voters to pass a law banning cliff-walking? Perhaps your law requires tall fences, or threatens to jail those who approach cliffs. Are you justified now?  Even in this situation, you are arrogant if you do not at least consider the possibility the cliff-walker knows what he is doing. …

Read the whole thing here.

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Wilkinson on Paternalism

Memo to self: check Will Wilkinson more often.  From last week:

I say, again and again, that it is an embarrassing non-sequitur to argue that people are "irrational" and then leap to the conclusion that they need benevolent paternal guidance from the state. After all, if people are irrational then voters are irrational, politicians are irrational, bureaucrats are irrational, etc. … There is no way to wriggle out of the fact that people who win elections are just like the rest of us. … I don’t doubt that non-terrible policies are sometimes successfully enacted. To doubt that would be a bit like a market skeptic doubting that anyone ever succeeds in buying a candy bar. That would be terrifically dense. What I doubt, very strongly, is that the discovery of "irrationalities" undermines the authority of market institutions more than it undermines the authority of government institutions.

Similar words have often escaped my lips.  Let me put it this way.  We each realize, to varying degrees, that we have various "irrational" tendencies, and there are many possible advisors, mechanisms, and institutions that we could rely on to help us mitigate these tendencies.  We can think twice about decisions, we can ask for advice, we can empower advisors to veto our decisions, we can join groups that make decisions together, we can seek out contexts where such problems are minimized, or we can endorse politicians who empower regulators to create and enforce rules.  It is not enough to show that we seem to have a certain problem and that a certain regulation might plausibly mitigate it.  The question is the relative value of this last option, government regulation, compared to all the other ways we might deal with our "irrationalities."

Added 7Mar: George McGovern, ’72 Demo Pres Candidate, is now against paternalism. HT: Arnold Kling

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Pod People Paternalism

The fourth film adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this time with Nicole Kidman, is now out on dvd.  It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite, but it does re-raise an interesting thought experiment in paternalism.  After all, in this movie "pod people" retain their memories and their new "culture" makes them happy, serene, cooperative, and peaceful.  Their main crimes are:

  • a flatter emotional tone,
  • a foreign origin, and
  • converting others by force

But similar complaints apply to giving kids Ritalin, pushing upper class culture in the inner city, or pushing western culture in the third world.  Now hard-line libertarians can consistently oppose using government power to purse such policies, even if they really benefit people.  But what about the rest of you?  Are happy people with the emotional range, peace, and productivity of a typical engineer really such a horror?  From the view of non-libertarian pod people, doesn’t it make sense to force everyone else to convert? 

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How To Fix Wage Bias

It seems reasonably well documented that tall, slim, pretty people get higher wages.  A 2005 review:

Hamermesh and Biddle found that the "plainness penalty" is 9 percent and that the "beauty premium" is 5 percent after controlling for other variables, such as education and experience. In other words, a person with below-average looks tended to earn 9 percent less per hour, and an above-average person tended to earn 5 percent more per hour than an average-looking person. For the median male in 1996 working fulltime, the respective penalty and premium amounted to approximately $2,600 and $1,400 annually. The corresponding penalty and premium for the median female worker are $2,000 and $1,100. … In a separate paper . …They found evidence of a beauty premium for attorneys that increases with age, at least for the 1971-78 classes. Five years after graduating, a male lawyer from these classes with a beauty rating of one rank above average had approximately 10 percent higher earnings than his counterpart with a rating of one rank below average. Fifteen years after graduation, the beauty premium increased to 12 percent.

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I Dare You Bunzl

In yesterday’s Post, philosopher Martin Bunzl says:

I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet my behavior seems to march to a different drummer. I need to get the best deal. For me, not the world. When it comes to what counts as the best deal, my values don’t get incorporated into the calculation. I am attuned only to price. And I don’t think I am alone in this.

Fine, you say. Big deal. The solution is obvious: We adjust the price to make the "right thing" priced right for me. But here is another problem — when it comes to pricing I am totally irrational. Offer me two washing machines, one that is more expensive now but more efficient over its lifetime, and hence cheaper in the long run, and I’ll choose the one that is cheaper now. … 

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Honest Teen Paternalism

Worried about teens taking risks tonight, on New Year’s Eve?  Most people think teens take too many risks, and so we should limit the risks teens can take, for their own good.  And from the usual lectures we give teens, it seems we think teens underestimate the rate and severity of bad events.  But in fact, a recent NYT says teens overestimate drug and sex risks:

Scientific studies have shown that adolescents are very well aware of their vulnerability and that they actually overestimate their risk of suffering negative effects from activities like drinking and unprotected sex.

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Guardians of the Gene Pool

Followup toGuardians of the Truth

Like any educated denizen of the 21st century, you may have heard of World War II.  You may remember that Hitler and the Nazis planned to carry forward a romanticized process of evolution, to breed a new master race, supermen, stronger and smarter than anything that had existed before.

Actually this is a common misconception.  Hitler believed that the Aryan superman had previously existed – the Nordic stereotype, the blond blue-eyed beast of prey – but had been polluted by mingling with impure races.  There had been a racial Fall from Grace.

It says something about the degree to which the concept of progress permeates Western civilization, that the one is told about Nazi eugenics and hears "They tried to breed a superhuman."  You, dear reader – if you failed hard enough to endorse coercive eugenics, you would try to create a superhuman.  Because you locate your ideals in your future, not in your past.  Because you are creative.  The thought of breeding back to some Nordic archetype from a thousand years earlier would not even occur to you as a possibility – what, just the Vikings?  That’s all?  If you failed hard enough to kill, you would damn well try to reach heights never before reached, or what a waste it would all be, eh?  Well, that’s one reason you’re not a Nazi, dear reader.

It says something about how difficult it is for the relatively healthy to envision themselves in the shoes of the relatively sick, that we are told of the Nazis, and distort the tale to make them defective transhumanists.

It’s the Communists who were the defective transhumanists.  "New Soviet Man" and all that.  The Nazis were quite definitely the bioconservatives of the tale.

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