Friday, October 31, 2008

more moral complexity

One of the reasons my blogging has slowed recently is because I'm currently obsessed with ethics and when I type up posts they often look pretty stupid to me; or if not stupid, banal. Yesterday I decided to post anyway. I tried to link my point up with The Wire even though it's much more clearly evident in politics (as Greg mentioned). 


Reading the penultimate paragraph I think it could using a little extra something. 

The reason we have moral rules like "keep promises" is because things will go better for most people in the long run if we observe them. You could reply that you could do more to help people by refusing to keep promises sometimes, but this is really where these rules earn their keep. The world is complicated place and we're stupid beings with scarce attention and motivation. Nobody, no matter how clever or altruistic, can calculate the diffuse consequences of their actions. "Don't tell lies" sticks around because it has been tried and tried and tried and has more or less stood the test of time. We break this rule when an axe murderer asks us where the children are, because in this case the evidence really is overwhelming that the consequences of honesty will be bad. A journalist doesn't know who will read her articles or how they'll react and these are the situations where honesty is morally binding, regardless of your feelings or any reasons you happen to find compelling, to fudge the truth. 

It's the fact that we can't predict the consequences of our actions that makes deliberately violating moral rules so dangerous. If an institution is dysfunctional, I'm really not sure what you're supposed to do. 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's hard to be good

I've blogged about how what the creators of The Wire think they're showing isn't necessarily what they show. I don't think the series is an effective critique of capitalism but this sounds just right

It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how ... whether you're a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you've committed to.

Part of this is being convinced, as a viewer on the sofa, that in a different environment you might end up doing things you consider really immoral now. It’s not like The Wire is the only fiction that does this, but it does it really well, and it does help us to feel a little less smug.

But what I really like is the sense that, if you’ve part of a dysfunctional institution, what the hell are you supposed to do? The police department in The Wire does not function well. If a death looks like it could have been an accident, they look the other way on evidence to the contrary. People in prominent positions are there because they only care about advancement and pursue that goal by doing deals with people like them and being pretty ruthless. I don’t wanna overstate the diabolicalness of these people, but that’s the flavour.

A persistent problem is the trade off between arresting low level drug dealers now and patiently building towards catching the top guys (or the simple trade off between focusing on murders or drug violations). The few passionate people often defy their bosses by resisting the gimmicky and tend to get shipped off to dead end jobs. It’s not like the good cop in Batman who just gets made fun of. Principled detectives are effectively fired.

Are good guys supposed to refuse to compromise their integrity? But that means they can’t do anything to improve things. And you can do more higher up, so maybe it’s best to play the game for years before you jump into action to clean things up. I guess it’s pretty uncontroversial that some level of playing the game while doing what you can at the margins to improve things is what they should be doing, but if it involves being dishonest and deceit (which it would) you have been morally compromised! It involves disconnecting yourself from feedback on your own actions; if trying to undermine and change the institution you’re a part of is good, then it’s tempting to see any reaction as validation of your actions. And it’s really hard for an outsider to judge who the good people are because the rules of good conduct are not at all transparent.

Good institutions are ones where success and general moral rules line up well. Most institutions are not like this, so it’s difficult to be moral.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Who knew that Human Rights Watch was so evil

How evil? It depends on what country they're in

Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denounced us as CIA stooges, right-wing partisans, and, more commonly, "mercenaries of the empire." (By contrast, in neighboring Colombia, officials have repeatedly sought to discredit us with labels like Communist, guerrilla sympathizer, and even terrorist.)

Stories that have a particular hold on my imagination are ones that involve something along the lines of, "Well, he accused me of being violent so I cut his head off to avenge the slander."

On September 18, we released a report in Caracas that shows how President Hugo Ch├ívez has undermined human rights guarantees in Venezuela. That night, we returned to our hotel and found around twenty Venezuelan security agents, some armed and in military uniform, awaiting us outside our rooms. They were accompanied by a man who announced—with no apparent sense of irony—that he was a government "human rights" official and that we were being expelled from the country.

With government cameramen filming over his shoulder, the official did his best to act as if he were merely upholding the law. When we said we needed to gather our belongings, he calmly told us not to worry, his men had already entered our rooms and "packed" our bags.

But when we tried to use our cell phones to get word to our families, our colleagues, and the press, the veneer of protocol quickly gave way. Security agents surrounded us, pried the phones from our hands, and removed and pocketed the batteries. When we then insisted on contacting our embassies, they shoved us into a service elevator, took us to the basement, and forced us into the back seat of an SUV with tinted windows. When we asked where we were headed, they told us only that we were going to the airport.

Oh well, Chavez's means may be questionable, but at least his ends are noble...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

more from libertarian fantasy land

So, capitalism is collapsing and that's bad, we all know it's bad. It's bad because people are losing money right? And losing money is bad because it means not being able to buy things that people like, like houses.

If we accept that losing money is bad, doesn't that imply that having money in the first place is good, or better than not having it? So capitalism should be praised for enabling us to have money to lose. Funnily enough, the people celebrate the end of capitalism were never thrilled with capitalism's wealth creation capabilities to begin with. Back then they were hammering away on the finding that above a certain level, money doesn't make you happier. I'd think that those who were negative on capitalism before the crash should be more relaxed now. They should be writing op-ed after op-ed explaining that the crash doesn't really matter because of how few Americans will fall below the level where money really does matter.

Ah, but there are all sorts of subtleties to the happiness research we'd be told. For example, the endowment effect means people dislike losing money more than they like having it etc. Few people will realise though that the same subtleties also undermine the simplistic anti-economic growth conclusion that they'd been pushing in the first place and that despite money not making people happier, rich western countries are still the happiest in the world.

Unfortunately, though I think the important thing is that people will still be rich and free, I'd guess these crashes really are bad for happiness; much worse than slower, but steady growth ending up at the same point. Though my point stands, money does matter to people.

Some people are also suggesting that Ayn Rand played an important role in creating the current crisis, because of her influence on Alan Greenspan, who supposedly caused the crisis. I find it genuinely depressing that respected intellectuals think this but that's not my point here (I've been reading Leiter's Marx posts and he doesn't seem to blame Marx for anything that happened under communism). My point is that if you think (as these people do) that one person could have such a huge impact on the world economy, the real problem is the person having so much power, not that the person might make mistakes.

If one American general has sole discretion to launch a nuclear attack it'd be stupid to put all the blame on him if he does it, the system should not allow such discretion. The security of the world should never depend on imperfect individuals.

Alan Greenspan may deserve some blame for mistakes he made. But the Federal Reserve isn't exactly a libertarians dream institution, even if libertarians are running it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

the collapse of capitalism*

A few weeks ago Samuel Brittan wrote

What does the great credit crunch do to the case for competitive capitalism? It is surprising that this question is not more often asked.
I donno, I've heard triumphant told you soing. People have compared it to the collapse of communism 20 years ago and suggested that this is what Marx predicted all along. Back in the 1950's some famous intellectuals, disillusioned by the horrors of Stalinism, wrote essays in a volume entitled The God that Failed; an op-ed in the Washington post asks if prominent capitalists do something similar? (annoyingly he talks about the death of unregulated capitalism. I'm not a libertarian that denies anything bad would have happened if only governments had left well enough alone, but describing the financial markets as unregulated is crazy)

Since even in the best of times lots of people are explaining how capitalism has failed, maybe it's difficult to separate out people whose belief in capitalism was shaken specifically by the current crisis which is maybe closer to what Brittan means. I've been surprised by articles questioning capitalism by writers who I know as defenders of capitalism. They typically conclude that it isn't the end of capitalism, but still, that's more alarming than regular old doomsaying.

I haven’t read enough about the current crisis to count as well informed; I’m put off by titles like The Crisis Explained, I know I can’t evaluate the merits of various bailouts and I’ve been intimidated by how much stuff there is out there. Also, I’m just not that interested in the details. Having said all this I don’t think it’s clear that there’s much agreement on what the collapse (or failure) of capitalism would look like. I mean some criteria that would have seemed reasonable a year ago.

Does collapse require that living standards fall to more or what they were when capitalism “started”? Should capitalist states descend into violence? How about the standard of living of a large chunk of the population dropping by 30% and not recovering?

I’m not kidding. Communism’s failings involved slaughter and starvation on an epic scale. Even when people weren’t actively being killed, many were willing to risk being shot in an attempt to escape to the West.

Waterboarding may count as torture but it’s not the same as having your fingernails ripped out. Using the same word to describe different situations is apt to gloss over subtleties distinguishing them.

Even if everybody in America lost half their wealth they’d be about as rich as they were in the 80’s, which, fashion aside, isn’t remembered as a hellish nightmare.

Another thing that I don’t get is that capitalism has always been subject to boom and bust. I doubt any free market loving economists claimed that there’s never be another crash or another recession, even a bad one. So if we all expect crashes etc in the future why do people get so freaked out when something bad actually happens? This crisis may be different to previous ones, but so were all the other ones different! It may be worse than most but how bad does it need to be to invalidate the general trend of growth even taking things like the Great Depression into account?
* The post heading is the link to the Economist cartoon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Impressiveness and signaling

I've recently had a go at doctors and physicists. My gripe is intended to cover all situations where three things are present simultaneously.
  1. Very impressive people.
  2. Umm... questionable effectiveness in doing what is supposed to be done.
  3. High status bestowed on these people.

I think this also covers a very high percentage of professional academics (and some other groups), but I'll stick with doctors for a little while.

My impression is that doctors have high status because it's so difficult to become one and because they're doing something good. The puzzle is that their status is very unresponsive to evidence that they're not very effective at doing what it's their job to do, which is improve peoples health. The signal (impressive and good) remains potent. In fact, number crunchers suggesting institutional reform to improve outcomes often get bad press and very negative reactions from doctors (their lower status, I'd guess, because they set themselves up in opposition to people with high status).

I blogged about a similar effect to do with the minimum wage a while back. Supporting the minimum wage is an effective way of signaling that you want to help the poor even if the minimum wage is discredited as a way of actually helping the poor (many economist support the policy despite agreeing that other policies would be better). Arguing against the minimum wage because it hurts the poor is an effective signal that you want to wage class warfare. Claiming that it would be better to top up low wages to whatever level doesn't change the signal.

Loving books is an effective signal about intelligence and learning, but people are loyal to books even when other things become better at doing the things books do.

Giving to charity is a signal of altruism, but many people don't much care how a charity spends the money. Again, the signal remains effective.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize

Paul Krugman wins the Nobel Prize. I'm glad he won it because his book The Accidental Theorist probably had a bigger impact on how I think than anything else I've read.

Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen sometimes talk about "viewquakes" and I'd say I've had two in my life, one while reading Krugman's book and the other from reading some of Nick Bostrom's papers.

These days he's one of those writers I can't stand to read and that makes me a little sad, I listened to a bloggingheads he did a while ago and it's painful. I can just picture the glee with which those on the left will receive the news. . Of course this is the flip side to why I'm glad. I'm happy that I can cite a Nobel laureate in defence of my own views but he's so partisan now, most people know the new Krugman. I'm sure that many people would be horrified some of the columns he wrote in the mid 90's. He used to get lots of hate mail from the same type of person that loves him now .

I don't expect this to carry any weight with anyone, but he won the prize for work he did a long time ago, closer to when he wrote the stuff that influenced me and that's my answer to anyone who says, "but Paul Krugman wants to increase the minimum wage." he didn't always, though of course his old article isn't the only reason I'm against it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

the wire

I wrote about the wire a while back when I'd only seen the first season. I'm disappointed by how it reads now, but I stand by what I see as incredible tension between what the creator thinks he's saying and what the show actually shows. He says
.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.
I don't know how you get that by endlessly showing how corrupt policing, justice, politics and education are. These are are very important parts of society, but they are the least capitalist.

Anyway, I'm always thrilled when a hero of mine writes something with the same general idea (but better). Here's part of what Robin Hanson thinks
The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian. A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show's writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification. Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal. The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don't much care.
Robin points out that it's pretty disturbing that if even someone like David Simon doesn't see disconnect between his abstract theorising and the world he portrays what does it say about our beliefs? Am I just seeing what I want to see in the show and completely wrong about what I see as a fatal tension in his worldview? Are my concrete beliefs religious, stasist, racist etc and I don't even know it?

Oh my

The John Templeton Foundation asked a bunch of cool people to answer the question of whether the free market erodes moral character. I was just getting started on the essays when this bit from John Gray crashed onto my retina
The traits of character most rewarded by free markets are entrepreneurial boldness, the willingness to speculate and gamble, and the ability to seize or create new opportunities. It is worth noting that these are not the traits most praised by conservative moralists. Prudence, thrift, and the ability to press on patiently in a familiar pattern of life may be admirable qualities, but they do not usually lead to success in the free market.
This is so ridiculous that it caused me to wonder about my own sanity. Willingness to speculate and gamble is rewarded in a free market but it is also punished. Are people spending years studying and deferring consumption to become lawyers, engineers and doctors not showing prudence and thrift? Or are they not successful in the free market?? Or perhaps success just means the very most successful, incredibly high living standards just doesn't cut it. What?

Say that everybody in the world earned the same amount of money. Half spend it all on lottery tickets while the other buy food and clothes etc. The richest people will be lottery players but it's stupid to conclude that lottery ticket buyers in this world are more successful.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

blog stuff

There's a slightly different look around here. On balance I prefer it, though I don't prefer everything.

If you have any thoughts I'm all ears.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A waste of talent

The post below was initially going to be about what I see as people wasting their talent.

When I think of doctors not improving people's health I'm upset mainly by two things.
  • So many talented people are wasting their lives. In a way it's not as bad as that because we really want an impressive person looking after us when we're feeling vulnerable. In another way it's worse because they spend huge amounts of money becoming doctors and then start taking huge sums from other people.
  • When doctors resist institutional changes or better methods they are behaving immorally. The institution of promise keeping is a moral one because all our lives are improved if we keep promises. Rejecting promise keeping despite the evidence of it's beneficial effects is wrong. Keep rejecting rules that make us better off and we're on the way to just plain evil.

The first point has been bothering me recently with the moderate fuss made over the Large Hadron Collider finally becoming operational (it promptly broke). I'm as keen as anyone on being told what the fundamental nature of reality is, but bloody hell, is it really worth it? The thing costs billions of dollars! Given the number of people I know personally that spend their time on "that kind of thing" and even at CERN, I'd say there are a lot of super bright people devoting their careers to what purpose exactly? But my impression is that these people have pretty high status in society.

Which brings me to stuff like the future, life extension, transhumanism and other fine singularity related stuff. Respectable people often find this stuff silly. Fun to discuss at parties but not worth wasting time on. Here's an example where a science journalist telling Eliezer Yudkowsky what a shame it is that he's wasting his life on trying to build an AI. You can listen to the same guy discussing how awesome the LHC is and making fun of singularitarians in other podcasts (I don't mean to single him out, just a concrete, respectable example).

But wasting their lives compared to what? My instinct is to defend these assorted futurists by arguing why I'm on their side. But if (as it seems to me it is) that we build particle accelerators because of our (I suspect bogus) deep desire to know, it should be enough to note that futurists are motivated by similar desires, as well as the desire to actually improve the human condition. So why aren't we throwing billions of dollars at them?

Why oh why do we bestow such status on people who don't deserve it?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hello, would you like some healthcare? I have newfound healthcare claimant*

Healthcare reform is a big deal in America. It was more prominent in the Democratic primaries than it seems to be now, but everybody agrees; something must be done.

Most people also agree what what counts as good; more, high quality healthcare. High quality here is a little ambiguous but I take it to mean something like, "rich people have good healthcare so lets give that to everyone." I even listened to Obama and Clinton talk about it, for a little while anyway.

The problem with healthcare is that we consume far too much of it. It's too expensive rather than people not getting enough of it. I've already blogged about my newfound healthcare scepticism. Health outcomes correlate with just about everything under the sun, everything but healthcare that is. Doctors from top medical schools don't produce healthier patients.

Don't be fooled by how few links I'm including here, there's plenty to keep you busy.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the tag line to my blog (which I now realise should be attributed, I'll get right on that) refers to. When these claims are advanced, either by me or by someone online, people usually just laugh it off, often mocking the claims/claimer.

A common response is to point out all the ways in which modern medicine is obviously a net benefit (polio has been eradicated, TB is curable etc etc), as though this is being denied. This should actually make the claims more shocking, not obviously false; if you take the stuff that works out of the whole medical package, medicine makes us less healthy.

When I think of how many talented, dedicated and good people spend such enormous amounts of time, effort and money becoming doctors and that on net they don't make people healthier I get pretty emotional. The real tragedy is that different institutional structures could be in place that would almost certainly make medicine better, but these are overlooked or actively resisted. When I read about doctors refusing to wash their hands or use separate beepers for heart attacks (see Supercrunchers and this podcast) I start to look like a character in a Stanley Kubrick movie just before a killing spree.

My point in writing this post is not that I think all studies showing these results are perfect in every way, I just don't understand why people don't care more. Robin Hanson focuses on the effects of marginal healthcare rather than healthcare in general. Whatever. Reflexive dismissal of the studies earns a very severe frowny face from me >:(

Added: I changed something. Nothing substantive.

*In case you were wondering, blogger's spellchecker spat 'healthcare' and 'newfound' back at me and this was how I tested them in Word.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

what if big brother arrived and nobody noticed?

A recent post of Trevor's made me wonder. Privacy's a thing of the past? Cripes. Being a good little Pollyanna I'm more relaxed, especially about diaries. As for people taking stuff out of context, that's actually a battle I'm quite eager to engage in. People should grow up, and if more people were more honest more often then the Outrage Olympics would get pretty old before too long.

I probably have more to worry about than many people because I'm a teacher easily Googled, what poison am I feeding impressionable young minds?!

As a demonstration of my recklessness I have no problem at all accusing most countries of not being mature democracies, even countries that have been holding elections for a while now. Thing about South Africa though, is that we've only been democratic for fourteen years, which is is more than enough to disqualify us, but there are other things too.

Just because there wasn't much violence doesn't mean it wasn't implicit. I don't question Judge Nicholson's ruling, which would seem to be tick in favor of the rule of law, but the things that Zuma and co have been saying doesn't suggest much enthusiasm for dispassionate justice.

I think saying that people don't care about the "issues" when crime and poverty are prominent gets it almost exactly backwards. Crime and poverty are the issues. The first duty of government is to provide security (justice and defence), which in turn is just about the best thing for economic growth.

Good government isn't some luxury for people like me to discuss over lattes, it's what we should be better at demanding now.