Thursday, September 25, 2014

A thing I did not know until recently

The word 'se'nnight'. It's an archaic word for 'week', being a contraction of 'seven night(s)'. The most interesting thing is that it makes it immediately clear where 'fortnight' comes from, being a similar contraction of 'fourteen night(s)'. The more you know.

Via the inimitable Mark Steyn.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the dissolving of political bands and the causes impelling separation

Well, Scottish independence has come and gone, thank God. The list of grievances being cited was pathetic enough to make even the complaints of the American colonists (already laughably overblown) seem like the accounts of survivors from North Korean prison camps.

But one thing this whole debacle really illustrated is the following: very few people these days think in a principled way about secession. When, if ever, do a group of people have a right to secede from a country? Do they even need legitimate grievances? How many of them need to agree, and by what margin?

This is certainly true in America. What are the two historical events that most people in this country agree on? Firstly, that the American revolution was a jolly good thing and entirely appropriate. And secondly, that the civil war was fortunately won by the North, whose cause was ultimately just (this is probably still somewhat disputed in the South today, but I think it's probably broadly agreed on overall).

Ponder, however, the surprising difficulty in reconciling those two positions in a principled manner. For some thoughts on the justification for the Cofederacy, meet Raphael Semmes, a Captain of the Confederate States Navy. Have a read of how an actual member of the Confederacy justifies the South's position. It's all in the first couple of chapters of his book, 'Memoirs of Service Afloat', which Gutenberg has for free here.

If you're too lazy to read the original, his argument is quite simple. Firstly, he argues that the same rights that gave the states the ability to join the union gave them the right to leave - they were separate political entities capable of their own decisions, a status that predated the union. Second, he argues that the people of the North and the people of the South are fundamentally dissimilar in attitude and culture. And finally, that the North had been oppressing the South. over the years, and the South simply wanted out.

Now, you may consider these arguments persuasive or unpersuasive. But before you decide, it is worth comparing them to the arguments that the American Colonists claimed as their justification for seceding from Britain. Semmes' argument, if you boil it down, essentially says that we claim the same right to secede from the Union as the thirteen colonies claimed as their right to secede from Britain.

Perhaps slavery is the trump card, the elimination of which (presuming for a moment that this was the sole rationale for the war from the Northern perspective, a far from obvious point) had such moral force that it overwhelmed all the other arguments. But without this logical Deus Ex Machina, it is quite challenging to come up with a consistent set of principles under which the colonies independence was was justified but the South's was not. It's not impossible, but it's not straightforward either. And when you're done with that, be sure to reconcile it with your thoughts on independence in Kosovo, Catalonia, Chechnya, the Kurds in Turkey, ISIS in northern Iraq and other modern examples.

Or put it this way - hypothetically, had the South agreed to abolish slavery, and then done so in a way that meant reinstating it was impossible, but afterwards still insisted on secession, would their cause have been justified then?

I really don't know what most Americans would say to that one.

I don't think Americans are alone in this unthinking attitude to the question.

You saw this exactly on display in the Scottish fiasco. Most political unions don't contain explicit descriptions of how they can be dissolved. This goes doubly so for countries like Britain, which don't have a formal constitution at all.

What this means is that it's entirely unclear when or which bits of it can break off. Scotland at least had the virtue of being a polity with its own history, own accent, own traditions and so forth. People know who 'The Scots' are, so you don't need to explain why they should be considered their own entity. But what if Glasgow decided that, notwithstanding the opinion of the rest of Scotland, they wanted to secede from the UK themselves. Could they do it? Population-wise, there's as many people living in Glasgow (596,000) as Montenegro (625,000)or Luxembourg (549,000). And if Glasgow, what about Inverness (72,000)?

And not only that, but the lack of formality was on display by the method of deciding the question. A single referendum, with the Scots as the only people being consulted. Moreover, for a decision this momentous, you might assume that you need some kind of supermajority or something. But since we can't specify that kind of thing ahead of time, the default assumption is that a simple majority will do, one time. If 50.01% of Scots want to leave, then out they go. Bad luck for the remaining 49.99%. Bad luck for any Scots yet to come who might have preferred the union. I suspect that if Cameron had thought he might lose, he might have asked for a higher standard. But a) how would he justify that higher number, and b) if he did, would he then be bound by the outcome?

For a lot of major political decisions, the public never gets consulted at all. It's not clear if the British will get a vote on whether to stay in the EU. They did get a referendum in 1975 to decide whether to join the European Economic Community (which later became the EU) but you'd be a bold man to claim that that signing up to the EEC meant a full knowledge of the leviathan that the EU would later become. In November 2012, support for leaving the EU was 56%. Under the one-time, one-vote rule, that could have been enough to get them out. One might say that holding this vote would force exclusion from the EU for future Brits, who might not be able to change their minds. Then again, one could equally say that the vote in 1975 forced inclusion on lots of modern Brits who now also can't change their mind.

I don't pretend there's easy answers to any of these questions. The libertarians would say every individual has the right to secede from any group, which is a consistent, if difficult to implement position.

But the whole Scotland thing has shown is that avoiding thinking about these kinds of questions doesn't make them go away. They're going to come up periodically, and you just get incoherent answers by not having any contingency plans.

Everyone goes into marriages thinking they'll last forever. And yet we still think it prudent to have divorce procedures well known in advance.

Since I'm mostly a fan of formalism, I think countries would benefit from the same arrangements.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Of Behavioural Red Flags and Unfunded Campaign Promises

One of the key meta-points of the rationality crowd is that one needs to explicitly think about problem-solving, because one's intuitions will frequently be wrong. In general, sophistication about biases is crucially important - awareness of the possibility that one might be wrong, and being able to spot when this might be occurring. If you don't have that, you'll keep making the same mistakes over and over, because you won't consider that you might have screwed up last time. Instead, the world will just seem confusing or unfair, as unexpected (to you) things keep happening over and over.

For me, there are a number of red flags I have that indicate that I might be screwing something up. They're not ironclad indications of mistakes, but they're nearly always cause to consider problems more carefully.

The first red flag is time-inconsistent preferences (see here and here). When you find yourself repeatedly switching back and forth between preferring X and preferring Not X, this is usually a sign that you're screwing something up. If you go back and forth once or twice, maybe you can write that off as learning  due to new information. But if you keep changing your mind over and over, that's harder to explain. At least in my case, it's typically been due to some form of the hot-cold empathy gap - you make different decisions in cold, rational, calculating states versus hot, emotionally charged states, but in both types of state you fail to forecast how your views will predictably change when you revert back to the previous state. I struggle to think of examples of when repeatedly changing your mind back and forth over something is not in fact an indication of faulty reasoning of some form.

The second red flag is wishing for less information. This isn't always irrational - if you've only got one week to live, it might be entirely sensible to prefer to not find out that your husband or wife cheated on you 40 years ago, and just enjoy the last week in peace. (People tempted to make confessions to those on their deathbed might bear in mind that this is probably actually a selfish act, compounding what was likely an earlier selfish act). But for the most part, wishing to not find something out seems suspicious. Burying one's head in the sand is rarely the best strategy for anything, and the desire to do so seems to be connected to a form of cognitive dissonance - the ego wanting to protect the self-image, rather than admit to the possibility of a mistake. Better advice is to embrace Eugene Gendlin
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
The third red flag is persistent deviations between stated and revealed preference (see, for instance, here and here). This is what happens when you say you want X and are willing to pay for it at the current price, and X is within your budget set, and you keep not purchasing X. The stated preference for liking X is belied by the revealed preference to not actually buy it. Being in the budget set is key - if one has a stated preference for sleeping with Scarlett Johannson but is not doing so, this is unlikely to be violating any axioms of expected utility theory, whatever else it may reveal.

Conflicts between stated and revealed preference may be resolved in one of two ways. As I've discussed before, for a long time I had a persistent conflict when it came to learning Spanish. I kept saying I wanted to learn it, and would try half-heartedly with teach yourself Spanish MP3s, but would pretty soon drift off and stop doing it.

This inconsistency can be resolved one of two ways. Firstly, the stated preference could be correct, and I have a self-control problem: Spanish would actually be fun to learn, but due to laziness and procrastination I kept putting it off for more instantly gratifying things. Secondly, the revealed preference could be correct: learning Spanish isn't actually fun for me, which is why I don't persist in it, and the stated preference just means that I like the idea of learning Spanish, probably out of misguided romantic notions of what it will comprise.

Having tried and failed at least twice (see: time-inconsistent preferences), I decided that the second one was true - I actually didn't want to learn Spanish. Of course, time-inconsistency being what it is, every few years it seems like a good idea to do it, and I have to remind myself of why I gave up last time.

Being in the middle of one such bout of mental backsliding recently, I was pondering why the idea of learning another language kept holding appeal to me, even after thinking about the problem as long as I had. I think it comes from the subtle aspect of what revealed preference is, this time repeated with emphasis on the appropriate section:
when you say you want X and are willing to pay for it at the current price, and X is within your budget set, and you keep not purchasing X
Nearly everything comes down to actual willingness to pay. Sure, it would be great to know Spanish. Does that mean it is great to learn Spanish? Probably not. One thinks only of the final end state of knowledge, not of the process of sitting in the car trying to think of the appropriate Spanish phrase for whatever the nice-sounding American man is saying, and worrying if the mental distraction is increasing one's risk of accidents.

Of course, it's in the nature of human beings to resist acknowledging opportunity cost. There's got to be a way to make it work!

And it occurred to me that straight expressions of a desire to do something have a lot in common with unfunded campaign promises. I'll learn the piano! I'll start a blog! I'll read more Russian literature!

These things all take time. If your life has lots of idle hours in it, such as if you've recently been laid off, then great, you can take up new hobbies with gay abandon.

But if your week is more or less filled with stuff already, saying you want to start some new ongoing task is pointless and unwise unless you're willing to specify what you're going to give up to make it happen. There are only so many hours in the week. If you want to spend four of them learning piano, which current activities that you enjoy are you willing to forego? Two dinners with friends? Spending Saturday morning with your kid? Half a week's worth of watching TV on the couch with your boyfriend? What?

If you don't specify exactly what you're willing to give up, you're in the exact same position as politicians promising grand new spending schemes without specifying how they're going to pay for them. And this goes doubly so for ongoing commitments. Starting to listen to the first teach-yourself-Spanish MP3, without figuring out how you're going to make time for the remaining 89 in the series, is just the same as deciding you want to build a high speed rail from LA to San Francisco, and constructing a 144 mile section between Madera and Bakersfield without figuring out how, or if, you're going to be able to build the whole thing.

And like those politicians you scorn, you'll find yourself tempted to offer the same two siren-song mental justifications that get trotted out for irresponsible programs everywhere.

The first of the sirens is that you'll pay for the program by eliminating waste and duplication elsewhere. Doubt not that your life, much like the wretched DMV, is full of plenty of waste and duplication. But doubt it not as well that this waste and duplication will prove considerably harder to get rid of than you might have bargained for. If your plan for learning Spanish is 'I'll just stop wasting any time on the internet each day'... yeah, you're not going to get very far. Your system 2 desire to learn piano is like Arnie, and your desire to click on that blog is like the California Public Sector Unions - I know who my money's on. The amount of waste you can get rid of is probably not enough to fund very much activity at all. Just like in government.

The second siren is the desire to just run at a budget deficit. The area of deficit that almost always comes up is sleep. I'll just get up and hour earlier and practice the piano! Great - so are you planning to go to bed an hour earlier too? If so, we're back at square one, because something in the night's activities has to be cut. If not, do you really think that your glorious plan to switch from 8 hours a night to 7 hours a night, in perpetuity, is likely to prove feasible (absent long-term chemical assistance) or enjoyable (even with such assistance)? Every time I've tried, the answer has been a resounding 'no'. I say 'every time' advisedly, as this awful proposal manages to seem appealing again and again. You can in fact live on less sleep for extended periods - just ask parents with newborn children. It's also incredibly unpleasant to do so - just ask parents with newborn children. They'll do it because millions of years of evolutionary forces have caused them to feel such overwhelming attachment to their children that the sacrifice is worth it. And you propose to repeat the feat to learn the piano? That may seem like a great idea when you start out for the first night, fresh from a month of good sleeping. It seems like less of a good idea the next morning when your alarm goes off an hour earlier than usual. And I can assure you it almost certainly will not seem like a good idea after a month of being underslept, should you in fact get that far. Iterate forward, and don't start.

The real lesson is to only undertake things that you're actually willing to pay for. If you don't know what you're willing to give up, you don't actually know if you demand something, as opposed to merely want it. Confuse the two at your peril.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The limits of expected utility

It is probably not a surprise to most readers of this august periodical to find out that I yield to few people in my appreciation for economic reasoning. Mostly, the alternative to economic reasoning is shonky, shoddy intuitions about the world that make people worse off. Shut up and multiply is nearly always good advice - work out the optimal answer, not what makes you feel good. The alternative is, disturbingly often, more people dying or suffering just so you can feel good about a policy.

But perhaps it may be a surprise to find that I not infrequently end up in arguments with economists about the limits of economic reasoning in personal and ethical situations. There is often a tendency to confuse the 'is' and the 'ought'. We model people as maximising expected utility, usually over simple things like consumption or wealth, because these are powerful tools to help us predict what people will do on a large scale. But for the question of what one ought to do, it is particularly useless to do what some economists do and say, 'Well, I do whatever maximises my utility'. No kidding! So how does that help you decide what's in your utility function? Does it include altruism? If so, to whom and how much? Do you even know? A lot of ethical dilemmas in life come from not knowing how to act, which (if you want to reduce everything to utility terms) you could say is equivalent to not knowing how much utility or disutility something will give you. There's ways to find that out, of course, but those ways mostly aren't economics.

More importantly, this argument tends to sneak in a couple of assumptions that, when brought to the fore, are not nearly as obvious as the economics advice makes them.

Firstly, it's not clear that utility functions are fixed and immutable. This is perhaps less pressing when modeling monopolistic competition among firms, but is probably more first order in one's own life. Could you change your preferences over time so that you eventually got more joy out of helping other people, versus only helping yourself? And if so, should you? It's hard to say. You could think about having a meta-utility function - utility over different forms of utility. For the same amount of pleasure, I'd rather get pleasure from virtue than vice. This isn't in most models, although it probably could be included in some behavioral version of stuff (I suspect it may all just simplify to another utility function in the end). But even to do this requires a set of ethics about what you ought to be doing - you need to specify what behavior is utility-generating behaviour is admirable and what isn't. Philosophers have debated what those ethics should be for a long time, but you'll need to look outside economics to find what they are.

Mostly, people just assume that whatever they like now is good enough. Of course, they're assuming their desires don't raise any particular ethical dilemmas. You can always think about extreme cases, like if someone gains utility over torturing people. Most die-hard economists would probably still not give the torturer the advice to just do what gives them utility. They'd try to find wiggle ways out by saying that they'd get caught, but that just punts the question further down the road - if they won't get caught, does that mean they should do it? You'd probably say either a) try to learn to get a different utility function that gets joy from other things (but what if they can't?), or if they're more honest b) your utility isn't everything - some form of deontology applies, and you just shouldn't torture people for fun simply because you find it enjoyable.

Of course, if you admit that deontology applies, some things are just wrong. It doesn't matter if the total disutility from 3^^^3 dust specks getting in people's eyes is greater, you'd still rather avoid torture. Eliezer Yudkowsky implies that the answer to that question is obvious. How many economists would agree? Fewer than you'd think. I'm probably not among them either, although I don't trust my intuitions here.

But fine, let's leave the hypotheticals to one side, and consider something very simple - should you call your parents more often than you do? For most young people, I'd say the answer is yes, even if you don't enjoy it that much. Partly, it's something you should endeavour to learn to enjoy. Even if this doesn't include enjoying all of the conversation, at least try to enjoy the part of being generous with one's time. Though the bigger argument is ultimately deontological - children have enormous moral obligations to their parents, and the duties of a child in the modern age include continuing to be a support for one's parents, even if you might rather be playing X-Box. If you ask me to reason this from more basic first principles, I will admit there aren't many to offer. Either one accepts the concept of duties or one doesn't.

In the end, one does one's duty not always because one enjoys it, but simply because it is duty. Finding ways to make duty pleasurable for all concerned is enormously important, and will make you more likely to carry it out, but in the end this isn't the only thing at stake. There is more to human life than your own utility, even your utility including preferences for altruism. It would be wonderful if you can do good as a part of maximising your expected utility. Failing that, it would be good to learn to get utility from doing good, perhaps by habit, even if that's not currently in your utility function. Failing that, do good anyway, simply because you ought to.