Saturday, February 17, 2018

People should stop paying so much attention to mass shootings

Bringing more attention to a problem can lead to a reduction of it. There is a lot of preventable death and suffering, and there is finite attention. If we want to bring attention to problems with the goal of reducing death+suffering, then ideally, attention would be rationed out to each problem in proportion to 1: "how bad that problem is relative to other problems" and 2: "how much it will reduce that problem".

NOTE: For simplicity's sake, I'm only talking about the U.S.

Mass shootings are clearly given more attention, relative to other problems, than the harm they cause. They are certainly not one of the leading causes of preventable death, and they are only a tiny share of all gun violence. Is it worse for a number of people to die in one shooting than it is for the same number to die in separate shootings? No, but the former will get way way more attention. You would save far more lives if you were able to decrease the number of deaths caused by cigarettes by 1% than if you ended all mass shootings. The amount of attention the media gives to a problem does not represent how big it is.

We can expect bringing more societal attention to a problem to cause a reduction in that problem, on average. But there are good reasons to suspect mass killings are an exception to that rule. Many experts believe that the media attention brought to these killings is one of the main incentives for future mass killers. And you can't just blame the media for that: our demand is what drives their coverage.

To do my small part in reducing mass shootings, I choose not to click on news articles about them, which gives the media less incentive to make such a huge deal about them.

Relevant links:

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

But The Stock Market

2008. I hadn't ever investigated politics/economics much. I had recently graduated college and started my career. Then the Great Recession hit, and there was a presidential election. That freaked me out and suddenly increased my interested in the topic. I decided I should probably put a little effort into figuring out how the economy works and vote accordingly.

I was really unsure how to evaluate the various theories and arguments for explaining the problem + solution on all the different sides. Then I remember coming across this, which was a big turning point in how I approached it.

It dawned on me: why not just look at the evidence of how the economy has done under the presidents of different parties? As shown above, the stock market did much better, on average, under Democratic presidents. When I looked at any other economic indicator - inflation, unemployment, GDP - the same pattern held up. So I decided, despite having considered myself a conservative all my life up to that point, I would support Obama. And sure enough, in keeping with the historical trends I had noticed, during his presidency the stock market grew more than under the average presidency.

I continued learning about politics/economics though, and at some point I decided the stock-market-performance-per-president was not a good way to judge which side is better on economics. The stock market is a mysterious beast, the president is just one of so many variables, correlation is not causation, etc. I no longer reached to that data to support my opinions on politics/economics.


Fast forward to now. Trump has been president for a year, and the stock market has been doing very well. And some people are pointing at that as evidence that Trump has been good for the economy. That is strange, obviously. If the stock market 1 year into Trump's presidency shows that Trump/Trumpism is good for the economy, don't you have to be consistent with your logic? Shouldn't you then believe that, on average, Democrats are better presidents? Shouldn't you believe that Obama was a good president?

You also have to consider this:

Stock markets globally have been doing very well the past year. In fact, we are underperforming compared to other countries. So Trump is doing great things, to cause stocks across the world to go up, and causing our own stock market to grow slower than the others?

Monday, January 15, 2018

The hard problem of ... matter?

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery...

I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is... It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour...

Many make ... the Very Large Mistake ... of thinking that we know enough about the nature of physical stuff to know that conscious experience can’t be physical. We don’t. We don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff, except ... insofar as we know it simply through having a conscious experience.

We find this idea extremely difficult because we’re so very deeply committed to the belief that we know more about the physical than we do, and (in particular) know enough to know that consciousness can’t be physical. We don’t see that the hard problem is not what consciousness is, it’s what matter is.

We may think that physics is sorting this out, and it’s true that physics is magnificent. It tells us a great many facts about the mathematically describable structure of physical reality, facts that it expresses with numbers and equations (e = mc2, the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, the periodic table and so on) and that we can use to build amazing devices. True, but it doesn’t tell us anything at all about the intrinsic nature of the stuff that fleshes out this structure.

-- link

Saturday, April 8, 2017

How to not be a jerk: local politics and allowing people to build what they want


If you try to learn about ethical decision-making, likely one of the first thought experiments you'll hear is the trolley problem. This gets at one of the most basic difficulties of working out morality: should you do whatever produces the greatest good, or should you instead focus on not infringing on others' rights/well-being? Or something in between, and if so, where is the line?

Likewise, in politics, perhaps the most basic dividing issue between "right versus left" is similar to the trolley problem. Should the government mainly protect liberty/property and otherwise leave people alone? Or regulate/redistribute wherever it thinks it can improve the outcome? IMO you should always have a good deal of uncertainty on how to balance those conflicting principles.

But what if the government was intervening in the free market to redistribute resources from the poor to the rich and making people as a whole worse off? We should feel extremely confident in opposing that no matter where we are on the political spectrum, right? These should be the issues we are the most confident in, and therefore opposing policies like that should be among our highest priorities. There's no difficult conflict between opposing moral intuitions to resolve. You just have to not be a jerk.


Wealthier people tend to prefer not to live around a bunch of poorer people. And city governments also prefer to have wealthier over poorer people. When your city is wealthier, there will likely be less crime, more tax revenue for schools, etc. You can't really fault people/cities for that preference. But you can fault people for trying to pass laws to enforce their personal preferences at the cost of the greater good and basic freedoms, right?

What if a city prohibited people under a certain income from moving there? I assume everyone can agree that'd be a very bad law.

What if a city passed a law redistributing money from the poor to the rich in that city, so that less poor people would choose to live there? Wrong for the same reason. Obvious, right?

What if a city just had a very high tax rate purely for the purpose of pricing out non-wealthy people? Also clearly wrong.

What if a city heavily intervened in the free market with regulations to artificially raise the cost of living as a way to price out poorer people, and even admitted that was the goal of the regulations? If they did this by, say, putting a bunch of regulations on grocery stores and restaurants to drastically raise the cost of food, surely everyone would agree that'd be an indefensible law.

What if a city did the above, but with the housing market instead of with food?


Plano will hold a mayoral election soon. Our current mayor, Harry LaRosiliere, is running for re-election. He has two opponents that were at least serious enough to make a campaign website, and both of them seem to primarily be running on the issue of opposing apartments. Douglas Reeves has signs throughout the city that literally say "NO MORE APARTMENTS". Lily Bao, in her website's first part on what she would do as mayor, says "Maintain Our Suburban Way of Life! People move to Plano because they appreciate a suburban lifestyle. That is, single-family houses...".

It's not like people are currently being forced to build or rent apartments against their will. People are freely choosing to build apartments on their own land, and renting them out at a price agreed upon by the owner and renter. That is just the free market supplying what people demand. Those who "oppose apartments" are wanting Big Government to stop people from doing what they want with their own money/property because they want to artificially create sprawl and increase housing costs. Ask them why, and you are bound to hear a version of what I said in the previous section. And just between you and me, I bet a secret motive is sometimes a desire for more racial segregation.

And this basic issue is a big part of local politics all over the country. A co-worker told me that his city used to require an acre lot for every house. Later there was a proposal to simply allow people to build houses with "only" a half-acre lot, and this was controversial. Variations of this happen everywhere, which in effect means there's not much of a free market in housing, but rather a whole bunch of laws everywhere with the government artificially increasing the cost of housing and effectively redistributing from the poor to the rich. Supposedly our country is split between two political ideologies of "free markets" versus "help the poor", but if very many people really cared about either of those, this wouldn't be happening.


This is obviously a negative sum game and a good example of an iterated Prisoner's dilemma.

Suppose city X forcibly raises its cost of living more than nearby city Y, and as a side-effect, causes some criminals who would have lived in city X to instead live and commit crimes in city Y. Yay! Of course, overall crime has not been reduced, just moved. And if society sees this as an acceptable thing for a city government to do, then city Y will also want to raise their cost of living to move those people back to city X. Cost of living continually increases everywhere, meaning more people fall into desperate financial situations, and more people will end up becoming criminals overall. So the end result for America is everyone is poorer and crime is higher.

Clearly, we'd be much better off if this was not viewed as an acceptable way to use government power. So... please stop viewing it that way?

Mind your own business.

PS. If you're interested in this topic, I suggest the book "The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think".

Friday, October 28, 2016

Not voting for Trump should be the most obvious political choice of your life

The majority of voters have devoted no time toward educating themselves in the relevant fields for determining what presidential policies are best. Nor do they seem to care much about the opinions of the experts in those fields. This is probably not much of a problem when you have to pick a side on an issue where experts are divided. But if your goal is to use the best information to form correct political opinions, the consensus of experts, when it exists, should be given a whole lot of weight. And to an extent that I didn't think would ever happen in a presidential election, experts across the political spectrum agree that Trump must not win.

On economics, not a single member of the Council of Economic Advisers supports Trump. Greg Mankiw, perhaps the most distinguished Republican economist and former CEA chair, said "I don't know any mainstream economist--right, left, or center--who has good things to say about the economic policy views of Donald Trump". Or just look for a survey of economists on any of the main ideas Trump has been pushing. For instance, a survey by the IGM Forum had 100% response of "disagree" or "strongly disagree" that his desire to raise tariffs would be a good idea.

On foreign policy, a survey of IR scholars found only 4% favored Trump in the general election. This is not a reflection of liberal bias - far more than 4% of those surveyed were Republican. And a similar survey just about the GOP candidates in the primary got only 1.66% favoring Trump. Here is an open letter from 50 GOP senior foreign policy officials against Trump. Not a single Republican Secretary of State supports Trump, and one of them has endorsed Clinton. When I wanted to learn more about how very conservative Republicans (the wonky type, not the culture warrior type) view foreign policy a while back, I read Bret Stephens. In this election he's supporting Clinton because, in his words, "it's important that Donald Trump ... be so decisively rebuked that ... the Republican voters learn their lesson that they cannot nominate a man so manifestly unqualified to be president in any way, shape, or form."

In politics and political commentary in general, no GOP President endorses Trump. The 2 most recent GOP presidential nominees publicly oppose him. Bush Sr is reportedly voting for Clinton. Of the 31 GOP governors in our country, 9 are publicly opposing Trump. Of the 54 GOP senators, 13 are officially opposing him. 3 former RNC chairmen are publicly against him. If you look up any conservative commentator who is more on the intellectual/wonky side, there's a good chance they are against Trump. David Frum. William Kristol. Josh Barro. Krauthammer. The National Review - "the Bible of American conservatism" - even devoted an issue to "Against Trump". George Will has gone so far as to even leave the Republican Party. Read how sad Avik Roy is about his party nominating Trump.

This clean break of the-people-who-actually-know-shit from the candidate of their own party is really staggering. Has it ever happened before? Will it ever happen again? If you actually care about reality, this should be a huge deal to you in how you decide to vote. If you're a Republican and this doesn't indicate to you that this time, your party's candidate isn't worth voting for, what ever will? What do you know that all the people who are actually knowledgeable in your own party do not?

There are so many things about Trump that I thought could never be true about a major party's nominee:
  • His rise in his party started with an absurd, racism-motivated conspiracy theory: birtherism. And he has a habit of promoting all sorts of conspiracy theories: that vaccines cause autism, global warming was invented by the Chinese, Ted Cruz's father was involved in killing JFK, Scalia was murdered, the BLS is lying about the unemployment rate, falls for and promotes hoax videos about a protester at his rally being a member of ISIS because "all I know is what's on the internet", etc. Imagine if the Democrats nominated someone whose main rise in their party came from being at the forefront of the 9/11 truther movement.
  • Lying is unfortunately par for the course with politicians. But with Trump it's at another level. What's worse, he seems like he truly believes the majority of his lies, which ties in very much with his knack for conspiracy theories.
  • In addition to being prone to conspiracy theories, believing in lies, and knowing nothing about the issues a President needs to act on, he doesn't even acknowledge that this is a problem and seek help from those who are knowledgeable. For instance, he says he knows more than the generals about ISIS. At the RNC convention he said "only I" can fix America. Who says that?
  • He encourages, and even promises to subsidize, violence from his supporters. When removing protesters from his crowd, he lamented that "nobody wants to hurt each other anymore." Then he tells his crowd that if they rough up a protester, he'll pay their legal fees. Later someone at his rally did punch a protester, told the media that "the next time we see him we may have to kill him", and when speaking of this later Trump said he was looking into paying that guy's legal fees. When a couple of Trump supporters attacked a Mexican homeless man because, in their words, "Trump is right", Trump wouldn't condemn them but instead would only say that his followers are "passionate" and "want this country to be great again". I never thought this could be the sort of thing that a presidential candidate says/does in an American election. Did you? And not only that, this is from the guy who went on to win his party's nomination.
  • He is bizarrely vindictive. He habitually sues people who say things about him he doesn't like. He stays up until 3 in the morning tweeting insults about people he believes have wronged him. What was his weird feud with Megyn Kelly about? And some of his actions have been scary with regard to how this plays out with freedom of the press. He didn't like his coverage by the Washington Post so he barred their reporters from his events. And then he said that, as retaliation, he would use his presidential power to go after Amazon (because it's owned by the same person as Washington Post). How is this something that a presidential candidate openly said?
  • He wants to be the "law and order" candidate, and the way that works with his lack of rationality/skepticism and inability to admit he was wrong could be very scary. For instance, when some teenagers, the "Central Park Five", were arrested as suspects for a rape, he bought full page ads in the papers demanding that they be put to death. Problem is, they turned out to be innocent. And despite proof to the contrary, Trump still maintains that they are guilty.
  • Some Republicans defend torturing terror suspects because they believe it will lead to valuable intel. Trump said that regardless of that, we should torture them simply because they deserve it.
  • While on the topic of war crimes, he has repeatedly said we should kill innocent people if they are family members of terrorists.
  • War crimes part 3: he has repeatedly said that he wants to invade countries to take their oil. Basically, what was a left-wing conspiracy theory about Bush's reason for the Iraqi War is Trump's publicly espoused position.
  • He has openly asked Russia to hack Clinton. Nixon had to resign because he tried to get others to illegally access information as oppo research on his political opponents. Trump publicly asks a foreign government to do this for him.
  • He has talked repeatedly about wanting to use nukes and that more countries should have them.
  • He wants to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Imagine how much harm that would do to a single one of those people, many of whom have been here for a long time. Consider also children who are legal citizens but their parents are undocumented. Then, accounting for scope neglect, multiply that harm by 11 million. That's an unimaginable amount of harm. And it would additionally harm the rest of us. Economists across the spectrum agree that immigration is good for our economy. Imagine all the businesses suddenly losing 11 million employees and customers. Why should we commit all this harm against ourselves and others? Because they broke a law that harms nobody? What if Trump wanted to jail everyone who broke the law by not buying health insurance? Or take away driver's licenses from anyone who speeds? If those examples sound like stupidly extreme punishments for such harmless law-breaking, then you understand why deporting 11 million people is awful.
  • He wants to ban people from entering the U.S. based on their religion.
  • He thinks a judge should be disqualified from presiding over a case of his if the judge's parents are Mexican.
  • He suggests that he'll reject the results of the election if he loses and jail his opponent if he wins. I thought candidates like that only existed in third world countries.
  • Small hands.
A lot of these go straight against what I always thought were unshakeable shared foundations of how our democracy works. How, after all this, could Trump have won his party's nomination and continue to have the support of most of his party's voters? And even within conservative tribalism, he has said many things that would be considered heresy for other GOP politicians. For instance, he criticized McCain for being captured, and it wasn't long ago that he said Clinton was a good senator, secretary of state, and would make a good president. Meanwhile, if another GOP politician so much as hugs Obama, that goes very badly for them with their voters. Why do all the usual rules that apply to all other politicians seem to just not apply to him?

During most of the GOP primaries, I thought there was no chance Trump would win. When someone like Paul Krugman suggested he would, I considered that a result of having a liberal-fantasy-land's strawman idea of what Republican voters are really like. I had more faith in the rationality and decency of the average conservative than that. But Trump won his party's nomination, and the majority of Republican voters still seem to support him. What am I supposed to think about the average Republican voter now?

The most important thing is for the sane Republicans to make sure Trump goes down in history as just a strange fluke, and that they go back to electing respectable candidates that don't threaten the basic norms of our democracy. But my big fear is that Trump making it this far, even if he loses big, has lowered the bar and created a new normal going forward, and the reason he gets away with so much of this stuff is because this is actually what a large portion of Republican voters prefer in a candidate. My optimistic side hopes that this is mainly just a symptom of some celebrity-worship blind spot in American culture that others won't be able to replicate in the future.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Trump and the 2nd amendment

If a politician says they want to expand criminal background checks for gun purchases, they will typically be fiercely opposed by the NRA and a strong segment of voters, who will accuse that person of wanting to "take our guns".

But... the NRA supports Trump, and Trump said the following about his version of stop-and-frisk which he wants to implement nation-wide:

"if (the police) see a person possibly with a gun or they think may have a gun, they will see the person and they’ll look and they’ll take the gun away"

Did he just misspeak? No, because not long after that, at the first debate, he re-iterated this. Why is this OK with the NRA and like-minded people, but expanded background checks are not? How would such a policy work with open carry laws?

One thing to note is that, when Trump says something like this, in the context of the conversation he is talking about black and Mexican people. Is that what makes it OK? Sometimes people try too hard to make things like this about race, but I honestly can't see what other difference there is. What am I missing?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Radical Islam"

Why doesn't Obama blame terrorism on "radical Islam"? The same reason Bush didn't: the recommendation of the CIA. Here's an explanation on Vox from a retired CIA officer.

I wonder why some people think it's so important to say that despite the advice of the CIA? What do people think it will accomplish?