The Dark Side Of Bryan Caplan's Betting Norm

Bryan Caplan is promoting his "Betting Norm" axe again at EconLog today. He writes:
Why are proponents of government action so prone to hyperbole? Because it's rhetorically effective, of course. You need wild claims and flowery words to whip up public enthusiasm for government action. Sober weighing of probability, cost, and benefit damns with faint praise - and fails to overcome public apathy. 
Now suppose my Betting Norm were universally accepted. Any public figure who refuses to bet large sums on his literal statements is an instant laughingstock, a figure of fun. What happens? Political hyperbole ends for politicians and pundits alike. Hysterical doom-saying and promises of utopia vanish from public discourse. No one serious can afford them! As a result, it becomes very rhetorically difficult to make the case for government to do anything - or at least anything new. Without an inspiring case for government action, government sits still.
I'm sympathetic to this point of view, because it appears prima facie to be an attractive and harmless way to reduce hyperbolic claims and improve the overall level of honesty out there.

But is it really harmless? Perusing one of Philip Zimbardo's websites yields this quick guide to "resisting influence" when it comes in the form of a manipulative demand for consistency.
The Basics
  • People desire to look consistent within their words, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds 
  • Good personal consistency is highly valued by society
  • Consistent conduct provides a beneficial approach to daily life
  • Affords a valuable shortcut through complex decision-making; being consistent with earlier decisions reduces need to process relevant information in future decisions
How It’s Exploited
  • Profiteers exploit the principle by inducing people to make an initial commitment, take a stand or position that is consistent with requests that they will later ask of them
  • Commitments are most effective when they are active, public, effortful, and are seen as not coerced and internally motivated – influence professionals will try to make it difficult to renege on your previous position
  • If they are successful, abiding by this rule may lead to stubborn commitment to an initial position and to actions contrary to one’s best interests
  • The rule may become self-perpetuating – people will seek to add new reasons and justifications for their behavior even after conditions have changed
At its best, Caplan's Betting Norm is a noble attempt to enforce honest dialogue. At its worst, however, it becomes a tool of manipulative influence designed to allow only one kind of dialogue, a Caplan-approved dialogue.

If this seems like a rather severe critique, here's an experiment you can do at home: Whenever you notice that you've said something hyperbolic or claimed something that you don't immediately have a stack of well-structured empirical research to support in great detail, write down the statement and the situation you were in. Then, at the end of the day, go back over your list of "transgressions," and imagine what your day would have been like had you limited yourself only to unexaggerated, evidence-based statements. Answer the following question: Would your day have been better or worse?

Naturally, I'm not suggesting that we lie or exaggerate as a matter of habit. Instead, I'm suggesting that a vitally important part of effective human communication involves rhetoric. If you see rhetoric as being universally bad, then good luck enjoying a Shakespearean sonnet, good luck writing a love letter, good luck proposing marriage to a future spouse, good luck raising imaginative children, etc.

Let me end by remarking that I have no problem taking politicians to task for using lies and unsupported rhetoric to promote dangerous policies. But this kind of social value-enforcement should never be used in a manipulative way, otherwise it will quickly result in political dialogue that is undesirable for entirely new reasons. For example, the "betting norm" might create a perverse incentive to manufacture empirical data even when cool-headed scientific reasoning would argue against it. Soon we'd all be "lying with statistics," and every argument would ultimately reduce to pedantic quibbling over the theoretical integrity of the model being used.

...Which, come to think of it, is more or less the substance of every major debate in Economics, ever. So what we have here is really just an economist arguing that all debates should follow the pattern with which he is most comfortable and in which he stands to have the most success.

Not such an unambiguously fine practice after all, is it?


Philip Zimbardo And Prison Recidivism

Source: www.prisonexp.org

By now, you must surely have read the recent Slate.com piece on the increasing prison population. In it, researcher John Pfaff provides data suggsesting that the major driver of this increase is a doubling of the rate at which district attorneys bring felony charges against inmates:
What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.
The remainder of the article is more speculative in nature, and since I'm not married to the theory expounded upon, I'll omit it here. Read the whole thing, if you're interested.

I came back to this Slate article, however, after reading something interesting today in Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect, about the impact of situational forces on social psychology, especially as it relates to systemic oppression. As a lead-in to a section on lessons that can be gleaned from Zimbardo's infamous experiment, he writes:
From one perspective, the [Stanford Prison Experiment] does not tell us anything about prisons that sociologists, criminologists, and the narratives of prisoners have not already revealed about the evils of prison life. Prisons can be brutalizing places that invoke what is worst in human nature. They breed more violence and crime than they foster constructive rehabilitation. Recidivism rates of 60 percent and higher indicate that prisons have become revolving doors for those sentenced for criminal felonies.
Zimbardo's position is that the "defects" present in both the prisoners themselves and especially the prison environment compound each other, having all the more deleterious effects on the prisoners.

His point about recidivism is an interesting one. If true, we would expect that yesterday's convicts would return to prison at ever-increasing rates, as the situational forces infect their psychology more and more. We already know that total prison populations are increasing in the United States, but what about recidivism rates?

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, the actual recidivism rate at the time Zimbardo wrote The Lucifer Effect was 71.6% over a 3-year time horizon (using rearrests as the measure of recidivism). So Zimbardo's "60 percent and higher" was actually a conservative estimate.

In 1994, according to the same study, the recidivism rate was 66.9%, and the authors indicate that the difference was, in fact, statistically significant. In other words, recidivism rates have increased independent of the overall prison population increase.

Thus, there is some evidence to suggest that there are situational forces impacting how district attorneys proceed against accused persons, which then leads to an increase in the total number of convicts. This, in turn, leads to an increase in the total population of people exposed to the nefarious social psychology of the prison system, which subsequently damages their psychology and sets them on a path toward a return-trip to prison after they've "paid their debts."

If this explanation is valid, then it means, once convicted, a person is unlikely ever to have paid his or her debt to society.



I had a small epiphany over the weekend.

There I was, holding my daughter in my arms and walking out across a hotel courtyard to breakfast. As she softly pointed out things that she found interesting and tried to mimic the names of each object as I told her what they were, I was suddenly overcome by an intense love for her and a desire to just hold her close to me.

Babies, of course, don't understand those feelings in others, only themselves. A nature walk is no time to go running into daddy's arms for comfort, so she was mostly oblivious to my feelings. She simply kept pointing out interesting objects and trying to name them. My fatherly emotions were flying right over her head.

This underscored for me the fact that this stage of her life - and of mine - is fleeting. In a few short months, she'll be walking around by herself. The opportunities to scoop her up in my arms and carry her around will be sparse...

For a brief moment, this felt so unfair to me. How could my time holding her so closely and loving her like this be so brief? How could it be so near to its end? How could I prolong it as much as possible? How could I hold on to her - and this feeling - for as long as humanly possible?

At that point, I reached the following conclusion, naive as it may be, as I am still only a new parent. I concluded that this wonderful time of holding her close, carrying her around with me, loving her like that must necessarily end, but that it will be replaced by a new stage. That new stage will require that I spend less time just cuddling her, and more time actively playing with her. I'll be teaching her games, taking her on hikes, answering her questions. I'll be allowing her to play a more active role in deciding what we do together next. I'll be including her in minor chores and helping her learn skills that she'll need for the rest of her life.

That stage, too, will end sooner than I want it to. That stage will likely be replaced by a stage in which she wants to spend less time with me. She'll push me away, roll her eyes at me, test my patience, learn the boundaries of her independence. I'll have to find a new way to love her, rather than showing her amazing things or cuddling her. I'll have to forge a new kind of bond with her, one that fosters our mutual trust of each other and sets the stage for the last round, in which my job of rearing her will be over and we'll both settle into an adult relationship.

I can't help but think about people I have known who resisted this evolution. Some chose to keep having babies rather than evolve beyond the cuddling. Some refused to treat their young children as anything other than babies, eventually losing interest in their own children just as the children were developing interests of their own.

Some made it to the second stage, but then resented their children for "growing up" into teenagers who wanted to be adults. If those teens wanted to play, then the parents were interested; if not, the parents became distant and receded into their own minds, unable to relate to their teenage children.

It must be difficult to watch your children turn into adults. I'm inches deep in that ocean of emotions, and already I feel the first pangs of loss. But a true, loving relationship between a parent and a child requires our embracing the fact that, from the moment a child is born she is slowly aging.

As my child ages, so must my relationship to her. That, at least, is my conclusion.


Sub-Sonic Charmer

Because it is relevant to the ancient history of Stationary Waves, I am compelled to point out that Sonic Charmer AKA The Crimson Reach AKA etc., etc. appears to have stopped blogging. I haven't been following his blog closely for at least a couple of years, but I had noticed that he was adding new posts as recently as five weeks ago. If anyone is aware of the story here, please feel free to leave a comment.

In the meantime, the search function provides a trip down memory lane...


Bryan Caplan On Homeschooling

Bryan Caplan has decided to home-school his children during their middle school years. In rationalizing his decision, Caplan anticipates possible criticisms based on his noteworthy views on behavioral genetics and the signalling model of education, and then responds to each. (Read the whole thing.)

Caplan does indeed seem to have thought through some valid criticisms, and I believe he answers them effectively. What's striking to me, however, is the list of criticisms he has not answered at all. In that spirit, here are a few angles Caplan may not yet have considered:

First, what if homeschooling proves to be such a pleasant experience for his children that they find it difficult to adjust to "normal school" when they are reintroduced to it in high school? This could plausibly set them back in the long run. A basis for my thinking here is the difficulty most college educated people have when they work for a few years and then attempt to go back to graduate school. Having enjoyed the full liberties of an adult life and an adult income, they often struggle to readjust to academic life, in which studying is seemingly the most important thing in the world, and every penny must be mercilessly pinched.

Second, I'm genuinely surprised that Caplan has not fused his views on workplace conformity with his views on education. In fact, in this most recent blog post, he calls himself a "strategic non-conformist" and links to a previous blog post on the topic. But Caplan has stated before that education is mostly a signal of conformity. Well, what could be more non-conformist in today's American society than home schooling? Caplan makes his own case against his decision as follows:
An interesting implication is that high-IQ people who don't go to college are actually signaling that they are unusually lazy and/or weird. It's easy for a high-IQ person to breeze through school. If one fails to do so, a sensible employer will naturally ask "What's wrong with him?" It's not surprising, then, that few employers will give an eighteen-year-old genius a responsible job. The very fact that you refuse to go to college suggests that you aren't going to be as good at your job as your test scores would normally indicate. 
I hasten to add that I don't mean to disparage my self-taught readers. I'd probably really enjoy meeting you. But I'd be lying if I said I'd be eager to hire you. No offense intended - if I were running a business, I wouldn't hire myself either!
I myself am an ardent critic of conformity-as-a-value, but Caplan seems not to be, hence I wonder about the cognitive dissonance here.

Third, and further to the conformity angle, kids need opportunities to learn to communicate with their fellow children. I don't think public schooling is the best or only way to achieve this, but other home-schoolers I know provide their children with a robust faith-based community in which to be socialized. Caplan is such a fan of his self-described "bubble" that I wonder if he is perhaps compromising his children's own ability to choose a "bubble" of their own.

That said, if I had the opportunity to include my child in a peer group that included Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Tyler Cowen, Garett Jones, and Nathaniel Bechhofer, I must admit that I would jump at it. I echo EconLog commentator "Ben's" hope that Caplan continues to blog about it.


Album Review: The Darkness - Last Of Our Kind

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org
Album reviews typically start with some basic biographical information about the band. But, I'm not going to do that with a band as well-known and written-about as The Darkness. Everything interesting that could possibly have been written about the history of the band has already been written. Besides, I did the biography thing when I reviewed Hotcakes.

I must remark, however, that Permission to Land was such a landmark album on so many levels that anything and everything the band has done since is inevitably compared to it. "Oh, The Darkness have a new album? How does it stack up to Permission to Land?" The answer is: It's different.

No artist wants to be pigeonholed, but when you wear catsuits, play Les Pauls through cranked Marshalls, and deliver the most earnest falsetto screams in the business, it's kind of hard to branch out. So, there will always be a contingent out there that just wants "all 'Stuck in a Rut,' all the time." If that's your bag, then The Darkness has plenty for you... on their other albums. On this one, you'll have to settle for "Hammer and Tongs," which, it must be emphasized, is classic Darkness to the bone.

The rest of the album seems to answer a question that I'm certain I asked, but that perhaps never would have occurred to anyone else, excepting the most rabid Darkness fans: What would it sound like if the band took the general concept of "Trojan Guitar," from the relatively obscure Hot Leg album, and fleshed it out to the length of a full album?
  • Medieval imagery - check.
  • Progressive song structures - check.
  • Soaring vocal melodies - check.
  • Irony and humor - check.
  • Great performances - check.
Last of Our Kind delivers the cargo, even as it allows the band to explore some (for them) uncharted waters. There are enough new additions to the Darkness' arsenal that each deserves a brief discussion.

First, guitar sounds. By now you must know that The Darkness has always been reliable for exploring the many great sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. Last of Our Kind finds the band exploring even heavier sounds, huge, chunky, absolutely gain-saturated modern Marshall grind. This isn't a Plexi cranked to 11, it's the most modern, bass-heavy grind available in contemporary hard rock. And it's gorgeous. Electric guitars layered on top of acoustic ones has always been a band staple, but here the band ups the ante, allowing either track to enjoy the "aural spotlight." And, of course, the mandolins.

Next, and possibly the most pleasant surprise for me, personally, is bassist Frankie Poullain's lead vocals on "Conquerors." This must have taken an admirable dose of courage, sort of on the order of sitting in with Eddie Van Halen and playing a guitar solo, or giving a physics lecture with Stephen Hawking in the audience. Gulp. But his vocals are great, soulful, rich, and - would you believe it? - he actually has an admirably broad vocal range. Now, typically, when "the other guy in the band" sings lead vocals on a track, it feels jarringly different. But Poullain is no Ringo, and the song feels great in the context of the rest of the album.

Finally, let's talk a bit about composition. After all, The Darkness isn't the only band that ever set its foundation in classic rock riffs and falsetto; so why did they ever hit it big, anyway? For my money, a lot of this has to do with Justin Hawkins' remarkable and inventive sense of melody. Somehow, he manages to pull surprising and resonant melodies out of even the simplest of guitar riffs. This just might be the secret to The Darkness' sound. Anyone can play a rock riff, but only a very gifted songwriter can continue to surprise the listener with pleasant melodies twelve years later. That's been the lifeblood of the band's previous albums, but on Last of Our Kind, it enables the band to explore some handedly Queen-inspired prog-rock structures without going full-kimono, 13/8-time-sig, enigmatic scale, etc. etc... While the riffs dance deftly from big, open, arena riffs to fast-and-tight metal lockstep, to soft-and-clean, it never feels complex or pretentious, only pure and earnest, like the best rock is expected to be. Meanwhile, Justin holds it all down with cohesive vocal melodies that take the edge off some of the more challenging changes.

So on their latest album, The Darkness manage to challenge themselves, push themselves into new territory, and deliver a decidedly different Darkness album. And it works. Never once will the listener feel that it's not the Darkness, or that the band has lost its soul, or (god forbid!) its sense of humor.

(Interesting side-note that I haven't seen noted elsewhere: Last of Our Kind is a concept album about medieval battles - why is there a spaceship on the cover? That's the band's classic sense of irony cranked to 11.)

Indeed, Last of Our Kind is something new and refreshing from a band that has always tested the music world's willingness to see them as anything other than a throwback. And every time, song after song, album after album, they prove why they are so much more than that. At least on that level, The Darkness has produced something true-to-form.


Utilitarianism And The Race To The Bottom

One way to troll the internet is to take the favorite moral framework of every intelligent and decent human being I know, and tear it apart. But the truth is that I myself have Utilitarian leanings, so this is as much a self-criticism as it is a criticism of others. That's what happens at Stationary Waves: Illusions are punctured and deflated, mercilessly and repeatedly, until only the truth remains.

How Much Do Warm-Fuzzies Matter?

The Washington Post published an article entitled "Traditional Charity Fosters Love. Effective Altruism Doesn't." Resorting to god-talk, the author writes in favor of the old kind of charity:
To Jews and Christians, doing good through works of mercy was how one became good, and thus worthy to stand in God’s presence. For those inspired by this theological vision, there was obviously nothing wasteful at all about such works, no matter their impact. The result of this new vision was the utter transformation of ancient society. The formerly marginalized became visible, even uniquely blessed actors in a great spiritual drama....
This kind of charity may not change the world in the most “logical” way, but it nevertheless has an important effect: It protects, preserves and grows local economies of love. Effective altruism leaves such economies wholly unaccounted for. And when followed to its logical conclusion, it is their enemy.
You already know I'm not here to defend religion, and I'm certainly not going to suggest that creating a loving, utopian community based on JuChrIslamism is a good idea. That's not the take-away from an article like this.

Instead, the take-away is that the personal perspective of the benefactor matters in a charitable transaction. This should be obvious enough, but the reason I became aware of this article in the first place is because an Effective Altruist on my Facebook feed happened to criticize the article because he felt the author was positing that "warm-fuzzies are more important than actually helping people."

At first, it seems like a fair criticism. Why be overly concerned about your internal constructs of a good society when there are people out there who need help?

But there are clearly limits to this. What if, for example, I decided that I despised my children, and so I cashed-out their college funds and put all that money into an Effective Altruism campaign just to spite them? Clearly, no one in their right mind would say that my children's "warm-fuzzies" weren't an important consideration in that case, and I'm sure almost everyone would agree that doing anything to spite someone, regardless of how many other people benefit, is a terrible source of motivation.

But Effective Altruism itself has no particular response here. As long as sufficiently many poor people benefit, my spiteful motivations or the misery of others are completely beside the point. This is not a conclusion that I think most Effective Altruists would be happy with. Thus, we are forced to acknowledge that the psychology of the giver - i.e., "warm-fuzzies" - do, in fact, matter on some level. The only question is to what extent they matter.

Spoiler alert: There is no right answer to that question. It's entirely subjective. Some of us will be happy donating to the local homeless vet, while others of us will be happier donating to something properly sanctioned as "Effective Altruism." It would be wrong to suggest that one kind of "warm-fuzzy" is more correct than the other, but unfortunately, that is precisely the claim advocates of Effective Altruism make.

Ayn Rand: Only Half Right

Ayn Rand, of all people, correctly identified that Utilitarianism was morally bankrupt. She wrote:
“The greatest good for the greatest number” is one of the most vicious slogans ever foisted on humanity. 
This slogan has no concrete, specific meaning. There is no way to interpret it benevolently, but a great many ways in which it can be used to justify the most vicious actions.
What is the definition of “the good” in this slogan? None, except: whatever is good for the greatest number. Who, in any particular issue, decides what is good for the greatest number? Why, the greatest number.
(Here I would add: Who gets to arrive at the final count? Including or excluding certain individuals from the accounting is the easiest way to manipulate Utilitarian's moral conclusions.) She continues:
If you consider this moral, you would have to approve of the following examples, which are exact applications of this slogan in practice: fifty-one percent of humanity enslaving the other forty-nine; nine hungry cannibals eating the tenth one; a lynching mob murdering a man whom they consider dangerous to the community.
Unfortunately, Rand's taste for polemics left this final paragraph with far less impact than it should have. (To up the moral ante, she resorted to an invocation of Godwin's Law. A little more attention to detail, and she would have hit a home run.) Note that each of her absurd counterexamples rely on the set of questions outlined before it. Utilitarianism's moral failure is that the ends are determined by the horde, even if in error, and the makeup of the horde is determined by the demographics of the moment.

Begging The Question Or Brainwashing Yourself - Part II

So Rand's critique is only half-right. Her problem with Utilitarianism is that it leaves moral decision-making up to pressure groups. The real problem with Utilitarianism is that, no matter how "Effective" or "rational" we try to make it, its rationalizations can always over-compensate for flawed decision-making. It's easy to talk yourself into something when one's ethical reputation is on the line; they even have a name for it: Motivated Reasoning.

What makes Utilitarianism a uniquely egregious scourge is that it is (in its current incarnation) put forth as a remedy to Motivated Reasoning, when it is in fact an example of it.

To see this, just consider the infinitely many ways to save a human life. You could pull someone out of a burning building, or you could give them a successful cycle of chemotherapy. You could give a child in the Malaria zone a mosquito net, or you could buy a war refugee a plane ticket to an immigration-friendly nation. You could clean up a city's water supply, or teach that same town how to properly dispense of fecal matter. You could throw yourself in front of a speeding bullet, or you could talk someone down off a ledge, or you could provide an addict with clean needles.

Those are the obvious ways to save lives. Now what about the less-obvious ways? You could abstain from driving in order to lessen the odds of a fatal traffic incident. You could become more diligent about sanitizing your hands and workspaces to prevent a potentially fatal infection from afflicting an immuno-compromised person. You could stop using anti-bacterial soaps to prevent super-bugs from evolving.

The funny thing is that these less obvious things, if widely promoted, would probably save far more lives than Bill Gates' latest initiative in Africa. But most of us won't accept the concept of hand-sanitization-as-an-act-of-altruism, and in fact most people have a hard time with something far simpler, like hand-sanitization-as-a-moral-imperative. The only apparent reason for our refusal to accept these things is that using hand sanitizer doesn't feel altruistic.

Once again, "warm-fuzzies" matter after all. But wasn't Utilitarianism supposed to save us from that?

That's the first sneaky layer of psychological dishonesty in Utilitarianism, the part where we choose the most Utilitarian policy from a list of things we are already prepared to call altruism. Mosquito nets - yes; defensive driving - no. If that were the only sneaky layer of psychological dishonesty in Utilitarianism, then it would be a pretty easy fix.

But it's not. There are many more, and they are all a little sneakier. For example, some Utilitarians will concede that defensive driving is, indeed, a moral imperative, but that this is beside the point; after all, no one chooses between funding a mosquito net and driving defensively. We can do both.

Except, we can't. If you were to invest the right amount of time minimizing your epidemiological impact on the rest of society, you wouldn't have any time left over for figuring out where to spend your marginal charity dollar. Thoughts, and analysis, and cogitation take time. It's easy for the ethicist to sit back and say, "Well, yes, drive defensively, minimize the amount of time spent driving, and only give to Effectively Altruistic causes." But saying that is about as useful as saying, "Be a millionaire and an amazing lover." We all agree that it would be nice to do it. Utilitarianism is about doing what yields the highest utility of all possible courses of action, not just what, in theory would yield the highest utility.

 Real Utilitarianism dictates that if $500,000 makes me, personally, far happier than extending a year's salary to 20 or 30 sourpusses in the Third World, then we must give the money to me, not to the traditional "needy." The experienced among you will note that this is just a version of the Utility Monster problem - except my version doesn't require that I be a monster and doesn't hinge on inflating moral premises to absurd extremes in order to prove a point. There are probably many people in America who could be made happier with a $500,000 lump-sum payment than a year of income could make dozens of poor Bangladeshis happy. (And vice-versa, for that matter, but let's ignore that for the time being.) These people aren't monsters or conceptual arguments, and their existence should pose a real problem for Utilitarian altruists.

Instead, the Utilitarian's Motivated Reasoning deftly dodges the issue by stubbornly proclaiming - without any kind of theory, data, or argument to back it up - that there is no possible way $500,000 could make anyone in America happier than a year's salary could make a poor person happy. The best argument for this notion is the concept of the diminishing marginal utility of money; but that has some problems that I suppose I ought to highlight in the next section.

Personal Utility Is Not A Continuous Function

At best, it's piecewise-continuous. Here's what I mean: Suppose the only luxury good you're interested in buying is a $7 million luxury home, and the only luxury good I'm interested in buying is a $300 pair of shoes. Suppose we both play a Utilitarian Lottery that promises to pay a grand prize of $1,000.

For a $1,000 grand prize, the only person who stands to experience a significant increase in utility is me: I get my $300 pair of shoes, and $700 leftover to basically mindlessly spend because I'm not interested in anything else. If you win, you don't get your luxury home, so you mindlessly spend the full $1,000. Sure, we both get a small increase in utility from some mindless consumption, but at $1,000, I'm the only one who gets to satisfy my wildest dream.

Now flip it around. Let's suppose that the grand prize is a $7 million luxury home. If you win, you get your dream home. If I win, I get something fancy that never mattered to me until I entered some dumb lottery. 

Dedicated Utilitarians will say, "But Ryan, you could always sell the $7 million luxury home, buy the shoes, and give the remainder to me, which gets me almost to achieving my dream home." True, but I don't know anyone who would actually do this, do you? "But they should do this!" Why? Because we should always be stuck to the set of priorities we have at the outset of thought experiments? Because we should never allow a large, unexpected windfall to change the way we achieve our own happiness?

I guess you forgot to update your prior.

Meanwhile, Scott Sumner - having never read the above argument, or having found it totally unpersuasive - insists that increasing consumption taxes on wealthy people is a great idea, because
Yes, poverty in the US is a modest problem (especially compared to other countries, and other periods of history) but it is still a problem. In contrast, forcing Larry Ellison to downshift from a 500-foot yacht to a 400-foot yacht is an utterly trivial problem. If we can solve a small problem by creating another utterly trivial problem—then do it!
The fatal flaw in all this is that Larry Ellison's utility may decrease more than expected by being forced to live in a world in which he can't even choose to have a 500-foot yacht, versus a world in which he voluntarily "downshifts" for altruistic reasons (or not).

Therefore, once again, psychology matters. Giving a homeless person $100 is a nice thing to do; forcing someone else to give a homeless person $100 is, well, weird. If you want to do a good thing, then just go ahead and do it. Why do you have to chop off the port end of some billionaire's yacht in order to feel like an altruist? Seems odd, no?

(Here's an interesting sidebar: According to at least one website, the price differential between 400- and 500-foot yachts is on the order of 33%. Do you know anyone, no matter how rich, who would consider being forced out of a $15-180 million dollar investment "utterly trivial?" Sometimes just spot-checking an economist's wild assumptions puts some important perspective on what he's actually talking about.)

But here's the coup de grace: Venturing an opinion about Larry Ellison's yacht purchases costs Scott Sumner zip, zilch, zero, nada, and many more values equivalent to nothing. Scott Sumner wrote a blog post articulating which issues are important to him, and among them is the moral imperative of forcing rich people to make different choices.

"And only in America do we want the system to force us to do the right thing so we can take the credit. #behavioraleconomics"

Of course the context of that quote was a discussion of narcissism, of fetishizing the image at the expense of the object itself. Wouldn't it be totally weird if Effective Altruists were only really motivated by the trappings of charity, rather than by a genuine interest in helping others?

That Guy, From University

When Jeremy Beer, the guy who wrote that Washington Post article, wants to engage in charity, he wants to help Pete. Pete is a real, living, breathing person with whom Mr. Beer has real-world, eye-contact conversations. It's easy to say that Beer is helping Pete because Beer knows Pete, talks to him, gives him money directly, and ultimately sees where the money goes. He also offers additional help to Pete, non-monetary help.

How many Effective Altruists know the names of the people who benefit from their altruism? How many Effective Altruists know the name of one of the beneficiaries? If Effective Altruism is really about helping people, then shouldn't the Altruists know a thing or two about the people who receive their funds? A first name seems like a reasonable thing to know. How about the exact number of people (not the average, per-dollar number of people) who benefited from the contribution, and in exactly what way they benefited? This all seems reasonable enough. 

You can argue that the names don't matter as long as the people get help. You can argue that there are other websites out there dedicated to keeping charities honest and tracking the benefits of charitable contributions. You can argue all these things, but think about what it means if you do.

It means the particular individuals you help don't matter as much to you as the pure number of people you help. You're not delivering the help, you're just a donor. You're not keeping track of the charity's effectiveness, you're just reading the website. You don't want to actually do any real work here, you just want to ensure that your money is helping the most people, as measured by quantity. Names, faces, details... who cares? The important thing is that your money was spent in the way you deem most efficient.

Does that sound like charity to you? Because it sounds like signalling to me. It sounds like you don't actually care about the people you're helping, you only really care about help, in the abstract. It doesn't sound like an evaluation of whose lives you wish to improve and how you wish to improve them; instead, it sounds like you're only really interested in the bottom-line number of the total number of lives you improved. It's everyone else's job to worry about the details, you just want to find out which hole to put your wad in.

It sounds like a group of people who have come up with a rationalization scheme that maximizes the signalling value of their charity... er, kind of. In fact, all it does is maximize the signalling value of charity in the eyes of people who think stuff like utilitarian calculus and economic theory are cool, e.g. the Less Wrong crowd, and a few other weirdos like yours truly. 

So, back to the top. I'm pretty sure we agreed that giving to charity to spite somebody was not a particularly moral thing to do. Is giving to charity in order to impress your Bayesian Rationalist friends any better?

Isn't it a race to the bottom to cook up clever rationale in service of your donation strategies in hopes of being That Guy, From University, Who Is So Clever With His Economic Theory That He Even Buys Mosquito Nets For Poor People Instead Of Donating Food To The Local Shelter?

I mean, I thought we were donating for the maximum utility of others, not just to look cool. Or was I wrong about what Utilitarianism was supposed to be about? 


Why Would We Be Less Sensitive To Interest Rates?

Tyler Cowen links to a paper out of the Kansas City Fed, and Scott Sumner discusses it in greater depth. The topic of the day is, has the U.S. economy become less sensitive to interest rates?

I'm not smart enough to say for certain. But, here's a wild conjecture...

Suppose that demand for "necessities" is inelastic; we buy them at almost any price, because we need them. Goods that go in this category are things like "housing" (including rent), "transportation" (including automobiles and bus passes), health insurance, and certain kinds of consumer goods that "everybody has," such as mattresses and large appliances.

Now suppose society made a gradual shift away from cash sales in all of these categories, toward an environment where these things were either leased, rented-to-own, or financed over a period of years. But suppose that, despite this shift, demand for these goods remained inelastic.

If that ever happened, I would expect consumers to be less responsive to changes in the interest rate. Or, more precisely, I would expect consumers to absorb the cost of rate increases as something like "inflation," because they're not going to cut back at virtually any price.

Am I talking crazy-talk? 


Cindy Crawford Is Beautiful... And Smart

Cindy Crawford asks an important question:
"Why would seeing a bad picture of me make other people feel good?" she wondered. "I know my body, and I know it's not perfect, but maybe I have a false body image; maybe I think I look better than I do. I think that most women are hard on themselves."
The facts of this particular case strike me as being somewhat unimportant, but just in case you didn't want to click through to read the whole article, here they are:

Crawford did a photo shoot for a magazine in 2013. Recently, a photo from that shoot was released, and it was purported to be an "untouched" photograph. This photograph (I have not seen it) apparently makes Crawford look like a less-perfect specimen of female beauty. As it turns out, the supposedly untouched photograph was, in fact, a phony. Someone had retouched it to make Crawford look imperfect. She probably is imperfect (what the heck is perfection, anyway?), but she is much more perfect than the phony photo attempts to project.

All of that is neither here nor there. Some of you may not be aware of the fact that Cindy Crawford was the valedictorian of her high school graduating class, and won a university scholarship to study chemical engineering before she decided to pursue modeling full time. In other words: Cindy Crawford is intelligent.

Like the intelligent person she is, she can't help wondering why society would be happy to see a picture that makes a beautiful women look less beautiful.

There are probably multiple explanations, but one of them is this: Maintaining the false belief (the illusion) that beautiful people aren't really beautiful implies that the only thing standing between you and a career as a supermodel is Photoshop. It's not that they're less attractive than Cindy Crawford, it's just that they don't have the benefit of Photoshop.

To be sure, professional photographs found in fashion magazines are digitally altered, This is knowledge that no one celebrates. What they do celebrate is a bad photograph of a beautiful woman.

How sad.

Album Review: The Aristocrats - Tres Caballeros

Image source: Wikipedia (fair use)
As my glowing review of their 2013 Dallas concert attests, The Aristocrats are one of the hottest live bands to come along in years. They're the kind of band teenage boys dream about: "What if you took the best guitarist, the best bassist, and the best drummer, and put them in a room and told them to make a band...?" It's no teenage dream, boys and girls, it is The Aristocrats.

The instrumental trio is now up to three (studio) albums and counting. As the band themselves mentioned at the concert I attended, the first two albums didn't really capture the essence of the band since, after all, The Aristocrats are first and foremost a live band. Any experienced recording artist will tell you what a struggle it is to capture live energy in a recording studio. So while the first two albums were certainly exciting, they lacked that live performance explosion that you'll get to enjoy, should you ever have the opportunity to see the band in-person.

The interesting thing about Tres Caballeros, released this past June, is that the band found a viable way to remedy the "it's not live when it's in the studio" problem: They became a studio band, multi-tracking instrument parts, adding special effects, and creating sonic textures without having to even attempt a "live performance" vibe.

The result is no less spectacular than Aristocrats fans could expect from three of the hottest musicians in the instrumental music world.

Take the elaborate "Jack's Back," for example. The song is a barrage of interesting guitar tones, which dance and weave their way through a song that is alternately soft-and-delicate and heavy-as-a-real-heavy-thing. The band has made a specialty of blending quiet passages with full-on-freight-train passages over the course of its previous albums, but on this tune the ability to leverage multi-tracking and studio effects makes the quiet parts quieter, the heavy parts, heavier, and the overall ambiance of the piece a true listening roller-coaster. At the same time, they maintain the classic Aristocrats personality and spirit that makes them who they are.

Of course, Tres Caballeros is a lot more than just "a normal Aristocrats album, plus studio tricks!" album. The compositions themselves have evolved, and to my ears, the evolution has been along two distinct lines.

First, it seems that guitarist Guthrie Govan has pushed the band toward more rockabilly influences. We hear this both directly, as in the case of true rockabilly tour de force "Smuggler's Corner," and indirectly, as in the case of, say, "Texas Crazypants." The title of this latter tune certainly evokes rockabilly imagery, but unless you're listening for it or paying close attention to track titles, you won't immediately hear the extent of its compositional "rockabilliness."

Meanwhile, in a song like "ZZ Top," we might expect a direct send-up of Texas blues or indeed the aforementioned rockabilly. Instead, what we get is a demonstration of the second way I think the band has evolved since their last effort.

This second strand of evolution is more obvious if you follow drummer Marco Minnemann's work outside of The Aristocrats, specifically the Levin Minnemann Rudess album (which I reviewed here). LMR is very much an old-school-prog, sonic textures album, which until now served as an interesting contrast to The Aristocrats' straight-ahead instrumental explosiveness. On Tres Caballeros, it seems this element of Minnemann's musical personality is in greater focus.

A major upshot of this second development is that it clears a wide sonic birth for bassist Bryan Beller to do his thing. As a fan of his since my mid-teens when he was playing in Dweezil Zappa's band, I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to hear Beller stretch himself and lay down his wonderful and elastic bass lines. Tres Caballeros happily delivers this in spades.

So what do we end up with?

Tres Caballeros is an exciting album that showcases the band's growth together as a band. While fans who prefer all solos, all the time might find fault in an album like this, I find the performances actually more stunning considering the music's compositional complexity. Those who expected more of the same from The Aristocrats will be surprised - and if you're like me, delighted - to discover how much more the band has on tap to offer us fans. The album courses through peaks and valleys of higher and lower energy, delivering something both fresh and classic Aristocrats.

The bottom line: The Aristocrats have crafted another must-own instrumental rock album while subtly evolving into a band that promises more varied, and equally classic future albums. My overall rating: A-.