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Assorted Links

November 20, 2015

1. Cheap cataract surgery

2. A couple articles on ISIS:

3. On Tolerance

4. Tyler Cowen’s macro framework. I agree with basically all of it.

Good Faith and Trustworthiness

November 20, 2015

A response to:

So obviously high-trust societies are better to live in than low-trust societies, but trust isn’t just some exogenous thing dropped in by God. It’s the emergent outcome of the millions of interactions that make up a societies’ culture.

A society becomes high trust because its people are trustworthy. You can leave your doors unlocked, but after getting burglarized a few times, you’re going to start locking them again. It doesn’t take very much betrayal for trust to fade away. People are losing faith in our government because our government is untrustworthy.

Our intelligence agencies lie even to the Senate oversight committees, and aren’t even punished. People see politicians getting away with crime and corruption and just simple bad governance without any consequences. What about those hospitals the Air Force bombed last week? Do you honestly think a single American will be tried for war crimes? American police literally get away with murder on a daily basis, not to mention the host of other problems with the legal system. Laws are passed against fierce opposition, having only garnered the barest minimum of support though the use of deception.

It’s looking at the issue backwards to say “How can we get people to trust more?”. The real question is “How can we create trustworthy institutions?”. Hold people accountable. Create legislation that harmonizes with societal norms instead of trying to use legislation to browbeat people into having different norms. Don’t pass laws that are unpopular using duplicity. Stuff like that. In the modern age of internet and cynicism, extolling the benefits of a high trust society without having a foundation of trustworthiness is futile.

Neocons and Pseudoimperialism

November 17, 2015

Traditional imperialism is effective and easy to understand. The imperial country kills/enslaves/conquers the weaker country and takes their stuff. It’s been a common practice of human societies since there have been human societies. New Imperialism adds civilizing the barbarians to the list of imperial activities. Teach them English, build railroads, and bring the light of civilization to them. While it’s better than old style imperialism, New Imperialists have their fair share of atrocities.

There’s a new breed of imperialism, American style. After WW2, America had military bases in Germany and Japan, and continually expanded its military presence throughout the world during the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, America had by far the largest sphere of influence in the world, but no enemies to fight, at least until 9/11.

What are the goals of America’s attacks on various Middle Eastern countries?

Reduce terrorist attacks
Kill Al-Qaeda because they attacked us. This was a sufficient justification for invading Afghanistan, at least on a limited scale. However, Al-Qaeda is no the threat they once were, especially now that Osama bin Laden is dead. Also the scale of the attacks don’t make sense to counter the stated threat. Why kill hundreds of thousands of people on the off chance that some of them are terrorists? And while American politicians who are gung-ho about bombing the Middle East don’t seem at all interested in increasing domestic security. The TSA, for example, has a 5% success rate at stopping fake bombs. The NSA focuses its spying not on terrorist suspects, but on normal American citizens.

If someone were really worried about security, they would advocate replacing our incompetent security theater with real security procedures. They would enact better information management between intelligence agencies. They would focus their efforts on likely terrorists instead of hovering up every phone call and every email ever sent and hoping that somehow that firehose of data will turn into something useful. America ignored warnings from the Russians about the Boston bomber, and France ignored warnings from Turkey about the Paris gunmen. Not only is the treat of terrorism completely overblown, but the policies we have enacted as a society in the West do not at all address actual security. They are just a bunch of ineffective nonsense designed to spy on normal people and control our lives rather than making us safer.

Weapons of Mass Destruction
Maybe Bush honestly thought there were WMDs, maybe not. To me it seems like it was always a flimsy excuse to do something he wanted to do anyway. We showed up, killed Saddam Hussein, looked around for WMDs, but once we realized there weren’t any, there’s really no reason to stick around.

The counter-terrorist response to the biggest WMD of all, nuclear bombs, has been completely counterproductive. Pakistan is a nuclear armed country. It does not make any sense at all to destabilize and antagonize them. If a nuke falls into terrorist hands, it will come from the Pakistanis and Americans will have only ourselves to blame. Random drone bombings of Pakistanis makes the U.S. very unpopular there, which produces democratic pressure to do polices the U.S. doesn’t like. Because we absolutely need to have a U.S. friendly Pakistani government, that means we must bully, bribe, and kill our way to having one, which means supporting a more authoritarian government. The authoritarian government, in turn, causes even more resentment of the Americans and underlying political instability.

Bring freedom

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AFPN) -- Munitions on display show the full capabilities of the B-52 Stratofortress. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman)

B-52 shown with its payload of 70,000 pounds of freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman)

Underpants gnomes iraq

So, you show up, kill a bunch of people, evict all current government workers from Saddam himself all the way down the local mailman from the government, hold a gun to people’s heads and say vote on something, and poof functional democracy. You know, we libertarians are always saying that politicians don’t think things through before doing them but holy crap, a first year poli-sci undergrad could have come up with a better plan than that. Voting doesn’t make you a democracy anymore than eating an apple one time makes you a vegetarian.

Democracy requires a set of cultural values which legitimate the process of popular support for policies. People must believe that the system is fair and just, and that it represents popular will. If it’s just a bunch of sects that hate and want to kill one another fighting for control and whoever seizes control just tries to exterminate everyone else, it will never work. A democracy only works when voting is more than a means to seize control over the government and use that power to oppress the losers of the vote. It should be about steering society in a way for the benefit of all, but that only works when your polity sees itself as all one ingroup.

What is to be done?
If the U.S. just killed Middle-easterners and took their oil, I would say it was morally wrong, but at least it would be understandable. It would be what humans have done since the dawn of time – the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must. To some degree a New Imperialist approach would not have been as bad as the current approach either. At least then America would have recognized the need to set up a structure of power to replace the one they destroyed.

I don’t think there is any recognition by the Bush or Obama administrations that the reason Iraq is dysfunctional as a country is because their culture is dysfunctional. I don’t buy the leftist nonsense of “no culture is better, only different”. There are civilized peoples, and there are barbarians. You don’t need me to tell you which is which. That’s not to say that being a barbarian is a permanent state. Cultures can and do become civilized. There was even a time when Iraq was the most civilized country in the world.

Inglehart Values Map2 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.
Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)
Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.
Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.
World Values Survey

The further bottom-left you are, the less likely it will be to have a functioning democracy. “Survival” and “Traditional” values are not conducive to having a peaceful liberal democracy like what the U.S. tried to set up in Iraq. Freedom is not something that can be forced on someone. It is something you decide for yourself. And the emergent order of millions of people deciding to pick freedom, or not, is what determines the institutions a country runs itself by.

What are the conditions under which societies move to having values in the upper right (Self Expression, Secular, Rational)? People chose survivalist values because they are struggling to survive. They chose “Traditional” values because life seems random and chaotic. They don’t chose to support Self Expression because every single person needs to work together to survive in their harsh society. Rational values took the West centuries of uninhibited investigation, careful thought, rhetoric, and experimentation to develop. Every single day new people enter society that do not believe these values – they are called children. Thinking as a scientist is hard work which does not come naturally.

The values a society chooses is an emergent phenomenon. It can’t be forced from the outside, but the flower of Enlightenment can be destroyed from the outside. By filling the Middle East with violence and empowering dictators and other violent groups, America makes terrorism and barbarism more likely, not less. We need to realize that institutions require cultural support and that the cultural values required to support a Western society cannot be implanted by dropping 2,000 lbs bombs from 40,000 feet.

Update: One more point I forgot to add. The fact that you have neocons running the occupation makes it even less likely that the restructured government will work because the values that neocons hold are the Traditionalist/Survival values rather than the Rational/Self Expressive Enlightenment values values which are the foundation of functional democracies.

Additional Links:
Pew Survey on Support for Democracy and Sharia Law

My Moral Foundations

November 5, 2015

Adam Gurri‘s got me thinking about morality, especially with the one child policy stuff going on lately. I’ve been feeling isolated in my sympathies lately, as policies which I consider evil have gotten widespread popular support. I don’t expect people to agree with me necessarily, but I would like to record how I think about morality.

Humans are born, experience, think, and then die. Each person has a unique perspective and their perceptions define a personal universe for them. We’re all alone on this rock spinning through the universe, striving to find meaning in our lives, pulled forward by our dreams, and held back by our fears. Each person must decides how they want to live their life and what kind of person they want to be. Sometimes, we are able to fulfill our goals, sometimes not. Sometimes life is pleasurable, sometimes it is full of suffering. While I believe that a life with pleasure and achievement is superior to a life of suffering and defeat, both sorts of lives are valuable and worth living.

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
— Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

We are not alive long enough to make sense of our own existence, not even with the help of others. Reality is only semieffable. A major part of what gives life meaning is the search for meaning itself. The fact that there is no right answer, only endless questions. If there were an answer, you could just tell people and be done with it, but since there is no answer, the meaning of life is pluralist. There is much value in having each person discover for themselves their purpose. Individual freedom has much to recommend it, but most important is the ability of people to pick how they live their own life. What goals do you set for yourself? How do you achieve them? What do you spend your time doing? How do you treat others? Answering these questions through our actions constitute a life well lived.

The Nature of Evil
When someone kills someone else, they are destroying all the moments that could have been, all the thoughts and memories. Suffering is bad and inflicting it on others is wrong, but for me, lost opportunities are even more tragic. The saddest part of Schindler’s List for me was the part where the Nazis destroyed the photos of the Jews going to the concentration camps. It focused the viewer’s attention on the memories destroyed, but also the fact that the lives that would have been led had been destroyed. The friends, the families, their life’s work, everything.

Communism was equally tragic, since people who could otherwise have lived lives as they saw fit were forced into whatever the central planners chose for them. Everything that could have been was destroyed, replaced by untold suffering and conformity. Time is what life is made of. If you force someone to act a certain way, you are killing the life they could otherwise have led. Imposing suffering on others destroys the other experiences they could have had instead. It’s the opportunity cost theory of evil.

I believe in God, but don’t think it is meaningful to make statements about God. I believe in the soul, but only one soul, which is a part of God. The soul experiences each and every lifetime of all of humanity and perhaps of all living things. To harm another is to harm yourself since we are all one. Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think any religion makes sense.

Other Philosophies
Humans have been thinking about how to act since the dawn of time. I’m not going to spend a long time going through the background of these, just a few thoughts.

Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics seems like a very natural way to talk about morality. Rather than talking about actions, ask what sort of person you should be. “What would a virtuous person do?” is easier to answer than trying to deduce some abstract theory of morality in real time. It’s kind of handwavy though, since how do you determine which virtues are the most important? How do you decide when faced with a trade-off between two virtues? Just saying “use wisdom” isn’t very satisfying, but neither is anything else.

Rules are nice. People use heuristics in all areas of life, why not morality? They can be inflexible and sometimes don’t make sense at all, and anyway, if you’re just following a cookbook, that’s not really doing your moral duty to figure out what your moral duty is. Actual deontological rules that I hear people say seem pretty shallow. I’m not a moral absolutist. It’s about the impact of your actions on others, not the actions themselves that is important, and in order to determine the impact on others, you need to know context.

The greatest good for the greatest number only works if you already know what good is, and that’s the whole point of moral philosophy to determine. It’s circular reasoning, but the good part of utilitarianism is its universality. While you can talk about utility monsters, a) that’s silly and b) utilitarians mostly weigh each person equally. Peter Singer, who has become a modern poster boy for utilitarianism is emphatically not an equal-weight utilitarian, but I think historically, the biggest moral gain from utilitarianism stemmed from its egalitarian viewpoint.

Consequentialism seems obviously true to me. If you don’t evaluate actions based on their consequences, how do you evaluate them? In practice, you can only create non-consequentialist rules by examining the pattern of consequences of past actions, at least a little bit. The only issue is when people start defining consequences too narrowly and/or start ignoring certain consequences.

For example, from Wikipedia:
“a pure consequentialist would see no moral difference between allowing a patient to die by, for example, withholding food; switching off their life-support machine; or actively killing them with harmful drugs.”

Well, no, since pain and suffering are part of the consequences. A lot of the time, I feel like I just have to roll my eyes at much of what gets said about moral philosophy. Anyone can construct a silly thought experiment or a “gotcha” example, but real people have to make choices about how to live their lives. That’s what it’s all fundamentally about.

Emotional response foundation of morality
Not a very philosophically sophisticated perspective, perhaps, but the main one most people use: The “When I experience something, if I feel bad, it’s wrong, and if I feel good, it’s right.” school of thought. Now, since I think the morality of an action is determined by its impact on others, if you do something that makes others upset, that is wrong, but there’s a big difference between you feeling uneasy about something and you doing something that makes others uneasy. This comes down to being able to set aside your own emotions, look at them in a detached way, and thinking about how a choice impacts the lives of others.

Telescopic vs. Local morality
I’ve written a bit about this before. The advantages of telescopic morality is the scope of what you can achieve and the ability to exploit the bottom end of decreasing returns to the marginal value of money. That is, if you can find super poor people to give money to, you can increase overall happiness more because poor people value marginal money more than rich people. The advantages of local morality is it is more natural and “feels right”, and you have local knowledge, so you are much less likely to do harm. I don’t think it’s a case of “one is better”, but rather both approaches are sometimes appropriate. As always, my fundamental view is that each person must decide for themselves what they think is morally right and the quest itself for moral value is much of what gives life meaning.

Freedom as pluralism
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Freedom is important because to chose one’s way of life is perhaps the most important thing about being human. I feel really strongly about the importance of self expression. I don’t think you have the right to tell someone else how to live, except in the most extreme circumstances. Having said that, there are rules that societies need to function at all. There also need to be rules to allocate resources between people and between various collective goals people have. I don’t get excited about tax levels, for example. If a country taxes people at 25% or 50%, citizens of that country can still, for the most part, determine their own lifestyles. Yes, less money does constrain them, but at least theoretically, public spending gives them more options.

I like Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Like all human actions, I think policies should strive to allow people to develop their lives as they see fit.

Think for yourself about morality. Others can guide you, but only you can decide for yourself what is right or wrong. Think of others. Think of yourself. Think of what could be. Look at evidence. But above all, act with mindfulness, since every moment has consequences; every moment of existence is the consequence of past actions.

Music and Welfare

October 26, 2015

The best part about Twitter is you can annoy people you otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to. On a related note, I replied to dozen or so of David Graeber and Robin Hanson’s tweets today and got a fair number of responses.


Graeber argues that if we had more welfare, we’d get more good music. That’s probably right. A basic income would mean more people choosing to leave the labor force, especially at a young age when music productivity is at its highest and normal workforce productivity is at its lowest.

Hanson comes in with “Really? We should subsidize able young men to not work cause some of them might create good rock bands?!” Which to me seems like a fair criticism. Should people really pay teenagers to sit around on the off chance that they write good music? Seems kind of roundabout, although as Graeber points out there’s really no better way for the government to subsidize music. Hanson countered by saying that just because we will get more music doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

Wow, that took me by surprise. If you’re going to tell someone who disagrees with you they have “strong ideological bias” and that they think “historical facts are irrelevant”, you should have at least some evidence for your claim, but when I asked Graeber about it, he said “most people I talk to consider my actual argument (about the UK) self-evidently true“. Ok then. You talked to some people and they thought it was true. Better get that published. Good thing Graeber is an anthropologist and not an economist or he’d be laughed out of the room for making an argument like that.

I like the idea of a basic income, honestly, and having marginally more music is a plausible, albeit small, benefit. Still, I’m eternally surprised by the poor quality of arguments by people who are taken seriously. I’m glad I went to GMU.

On Telescopic Morality

October 26, 2015

A response to this article:

I posted this as a comment, but got some error, so I’m reposting it here as well. Maybe it will eventually show up there, maybe not.

I’m really ambivalent about this whole approach. I think that every child is a local moralist. Your instincts are attuned to it, Dunbar’s number, xenophobia, all that jazz. To some degree social scientists should recognize that local morality is the default state of humanity and any policy recommendation or comment on morality should take into effect what humans are actually capable of. It’s like war plans. If your war plan requires two trains be in the same space at the same time, or that troops march 60 miles a day, it’s not a real plan, it’s a fantasy. If your system of morality requires that humans don’t act like humans, it’s not going to work. So, from that perspective, local morality is what people are designed to do, it’s what we do naturally. It’s Kahneman’s “System 1” of morality.

The advantage of local morality is local knowledge and harmony with human nature, but the advantage of telescopic morality is its potential for greatness. It’s the big risk big reward side of altruism. And a lot of great things have been achieved by universalists – the green revolution, numerous medical advancements, the international humanitarian aid movement, for all its flaws. Yeah, most people are motivated by doing a favor for their neighbor Bob down the street whose kids are on your kid’s little league team, but you can’t deny the appeal of yearning to do great things for all of humanity. To be a part of something much greater than themselves, to solve a problem which is huge in both magnitude and scope. I still remember when I was a baby economist and I dreamt of working at the World Bank and solving all poverty forever by thinking of some great theory or whatever. And the rush that brought. Oh man, good times.

Welfare is super lumpy geograpically. If the world was spread out between Hong Kong and Greece, I’d say “fine, local morality is good enough”, but it’s not at all. The level of poverty in some countries is staggering and hard to even imagine. I’m not saying I donate every last dollar to starving children, but given the diminishing returns that people in the 1st world face, it’s really counter productive to try to discourage them from sending a hundred bucks every now and then to GiveWell’s recommendation du jour.

Part of being a social scientist is learning the foibles of humanity and trying to overcome them. If we can’t say you should give some money to super-poor people because it’s against human nature to care about those outside our immediate vicinity, should doctors tell their patients to eat donuts because it’s human nature to eat high fat high sugar foods?

As in any movement, I think proponents of telescopic morality do get carried away, but I still see it as fundamentally a good thing.

Upon rereading the article, it’s really reasonable. Look at this:
“All I ask is that the calls for generosity respect our ideal of living an ordinary life, rather than demanding that it be sacrificed on behalf of a great cause. Ideally, our generosity should help serve to spread flourishing to people in difficult situations, rather than simply serving as an instrument for puritans to guilt us over our own flourishing.”
RRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH how can anyone disagree with this crap? But when you write an article against telescopic morality, you are making value judgement that it’s a bad thing that people should do less of. That’s the point, otherwise you’d write on a different topic. We can infer Adam’s preferences by what he chooses to spend time writing about (although it could just be this is a fun topic, which it is). Effective altruism is a tiny tiny percent of overall charity. When I listened to this Econtalk, I thought this guy goes a bit far, and I think the same of Peter Singer, for example. But on the margin, I would like more people to be more telescopic.

Assorted Links

October 26, 2015

1. The end of extreme poverty

2. The assassination complex

3. On Racial bias in police killings

4. Boettke on Katrina. If you can stop him from name dropping, he’s a really interesting speaker.


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