Wednesday, February 27, 2013

TV News Sucks: Reason #4827

One of the things I said here was that the news can be a crappy place to actually learn something educational about a topic from the relevant experts. Here's one example I had in mind - a graph of guests on TV news shows from one month:

So often on those shows, they are talking about economic topics. And they always have political people offer their side's spin on the issue. But that doesn't help us become better informed/educated on the topic. We just become experts on political BS. I also saw this today:
In Four Years, Sunday Shows Have Not Quoted A Single Scientist On Climate Change. Of those who were asked about climate change on the Sunday shows, 54 percent were media figures, 31 percent were politicians and not one was a scientist or climate expert.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Is Another Recession Coming?

From here: "The federal deficit has never fallen as fast as it's falling now without a coincident recession."

Why would that be? Take the case of a bunch of government employees losing their job (which would be the main effect of the sequester). In the short run, that increases the unemployment rate, and the sudden decreased spending of those people who were laid off will also mean less income for the businesses where they would otherwise have spent their income. The economy will adjust, but not immediately, so a big enough shock of this type can cause a recession during that adjustment - especially when our economy is already suffering on the demand-side.

We also have the current example of Europe. The countries that have been trying to rapidly reduce their deficit are the ones that have suffered the worst from the recession. Britain, for example, is very close to entering a triple dip recession.

However, the European countries that have done so poorly have also had tighter monetary policy. So it may be that QE3 prevents our sudden belt-tightening from causing another recession. Or maybe our labor market is more flexible such that it can absorb this type of thing better. I don't know. But isn't this all so exciting? :/

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How To Be An Expert On Everything

It's not really possible anymore (unless you're a genius) to be a polymath, someone who is an expert on a wide variety of topics. There's just too much out there to learn. But it's useful to know the truth about things, and people are often strangely confident in their opinions on issues they don't know much about.

So try this instead: just agree with whatever the experts of a given topic agree on. And on issues where there's a lot of disagreement among the experts, don't have a strong opinion. This doesn't guarantee you will be right, but on average it will certainly be more accurate than an uninformed opinion. And if you do have the time to become an expert on a topic, wait until you gain some of that expertise before getting the confidence to believe something outside the mainstream of expert opinion. Also, for any given topic, the weight we should give to experts should really depend on the mechanisms that exist to verify their beliefs. For instance, we should really just agree with physicists on statements that can be, and are, repeatedly tested. But it's not as important to go with the experts on esoteric philosophical topics where there's no way to demonstrate what is wrong or right. Most issues fall somewhere between the two.

Unfortunately, the news can often be a crappy place to know the issues that have widespread consensus among the experts. For instance, if there's an issue where 99% of scientists agree with one side, when a cable news show covers the topic, they will simply have someone from each side on to argue their case which will leave the impression that there's a split on the topic. If many people (but not the scientists) still believed the earth may be flat, unfortunately much of the news would probably present the topic largely as "opinions differ". Also, when it comes to getting news from pundits, they are "experts" at being successful TV personalities, not at being "right" about whatever they are talking about. So it does take some looking around to find out if and when there is a consensus among the experts on the topic, but that takes far less effort than becoming an expert yourself.

Take a few examples of topics where people widely disagree, but the scientists of the relevant subject are much more in agreement. Virtually all biologists believe in evolution. Virtually all climate scientists believe in climate change. There are a ton of things I (and most people) don't understand about those topics, so why disagree with the people who do understand them?

On political issues, when deciding how we should vote, often the relevant field of expertise is economics. Economics is not as precise a science as say, physics, but we do learn more about it over time through looking at the actual results of policies across a variety of places. And there are views commonly held by the politicians and voters of all parties that almost all economists disagree with. So shouldn't we all strongly reconsider our opinions in those cases? For example:
- Corporate income taxes are bad (sorry Democrats).
- The stimulus did lower the unemployment rate (sorry Republicans).
- The gold standard is a bad idea (sorry Libertarians).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Torture vs. Dust Specks

I really like hypothetical moral dilemmas. One of my favorites is the "torture vs. dust specks" scenario from here. I'll try to give a simpler explanation:

We can agree that suffering is bad, and less suffering is preferable to more suffering. So think of the worst possible amount of suffering: torture. And think of the smallest possible amount of suffering: in this scenario it's a single dust speck getting into your eye. And then answer this question: should you prefer for one person to be tortured for 50 years, or a bazillion people get a single dust speck in their eye? If "bazillion" is not high enough, then just keep increasing the number. Should there be a point where one person's torture becomes preferable?

Almost everyone, myself included, intuitively prefer dust specks; most people in the comments of the blog I linked above did. But the author thinks it should be obvious that torture is better, and that anyone who disagrees just isn't being rational. After all, if we compare less extreme differences in pain, we usually would say there's a point where a smaller amount of pain on an extremely high number of people would be worse than higher pain on one person. So why would there be an arbitrary pain difference where that arithmetic no longer applies?

Because people are so uncomfortable with accepting this, I've seen this used as an argument against utilitarianism, but I think there's a utilitarian case to be made for choosing dust specks. If you are a hedonistic utilitarian, then there must be a point where torture is preferable because you simply "add up" the pain and choose the lesser value. But you can justify dust specks as a preference utilitarian, where what's best is what maximizes people's preferences. In that case, you don't have to assign a single value to all amounts of pain and add them up. You could think of it instead in terms of what one person would prefer: to be tortured for 50 years or have dust specks in your eye for a bazillion-or-more years. Human preferences are not necessarily "rational" or "mathematical". So if people would prefer a bazillion dust specks to 50 years of torture, then the dust specks are the right answer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The GOP and Federalism

Remember how Republicans always say they believe we should trust states to govern better than the federal government because they are closer to the people they represent? Remember how that was one of the repeated attacks against Obamacare - that the states should be in charge of those sorts of things?

Well one of the main pieces of "Obamacare" is the health insurance exchanges, which each state can set up for themselves. But a state can also choose to let the federal government do it. Surely all those Republican states would prefer to have those run by their state instead of the federal government, right?

Wrong. Here's the breakdown of which states decided to run these themselves, and which ones decided to let the federal government do it, by party lines (found this here):

Is there a reason why Republicans would mostly prefer the federal government to run their state exchanges, other than putting politics over their own supposed principles?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Science vs. Religion

I don't understand why people assume that natural laws must "exist", and this seems to be a philosophical mistake made by both atheists and theists. Think of how many atheists argue against theism by pointing out how well we can explain everything as a result of natural laws. And think of all the theists who believe they need to deny things like evolution. Even Christians who accept evolution usually find it important to believe only in "theistic evolution", where the laws of nature may be responsible for some of the development of life, but God must have intervened in the natural process. They believe there are 2 separate categories: the things God does directly, and the things that are a direct result of natural laws. So those theists argue for the existence of God based on the things they believe we cannot explain by natural laws. So underlying all this, both atheists and theists generally agree that natural laws explain why things happen rather than just how they happen. But why?

Here's a hypothetical situation to make it more clear what I mean. Suppose we have monkeys living in a walled area with a red button in it. Whenever the button is pressed, a human throws a banana over the wall. However, the monkeys never observe the humans; they just notice the correlation between pressing a button and receiving a banana. If one of the monkeys decided to use the scientific method, they would come up with the natural law of banana-button: pressing a button causes a banana to appear. Suppose then that the monkeys begin to debate whether or not humans exist outside their walls, and what effect those humans have on their life. Would it make sense for any of them, regardless of their belief about humans, to say "well clearly the humans couldn't be directly causing the bananas to appear, because the law of banana-button explains that"? No, because the "law of banana-button" is just a description of things that happen, not the actual cause of things that happen.

So how is this different from the natural laws that we have determined via science? Maybe our natural laws are actually the explanation for why things happen the way they do. Or maybe they are just a useful description of things that reliably occur. This is not a question that can be answered by science. The law of gravity is a reliable way to predict the interaction between two physical objects. But is the law of gravity the cause of what we are observing? Who knows? Why would a theist think that natural laws must operate "on their own", rather than just being our observation of the reliable direct actions of supernatural beings (God, angels, demons, etc.)? And with that in mind, why should the big bang, abiogenesis, or evolution be viewed as threats to the idea that God is the direct cause of the development of the universe and life?

I think this is just not a possibility people usually think of; we are for some reason conditioned to think of natural laws as literal things, like the code of a computer program. But regardless of your religious beliefs, it would be beneficial for people to drop this assumption. For scientifically-minded atheists who are concerned with religious attempts to oppose science, it would remove the underlying motivation for some theists to do that. And for theists, the benefits are that, regardless of how well we are able to explain things through scientific laws, it will not be a threat to theism at all. The current idea of a "God of the gaps", where God is just the explanation of what we cannot explain with science, has led to a concept of God that has consistently been shrinking as we scientifically advance. So why not just accept science as descriptively and usefully true, but not necessarily ultimately true?

Philosophies of Political Parties

I don't think people's political opinions can be completely reduced to a basic philosophical principle - our minds are far more complicated than that (in good ways and bad ways). But I do think it's helpful to have a simple-and-fairly-accurate way to categorize how people think differently. Instead of the usual two-sided "big govt vs. small govt" scale, I prefer to think of 4 basic groups, where each group is focused on a different value that they want the government to maximize.
Liberal DemocratsEquality
Moderate DemocratsWell-being

Libertarians believe freedom is the ultimate "good", and therefore the government should do whatever maximizes freedom, even if that means letting otherwise bad things happen. This is often how people describe the Republican party, but overall I don't think that "fits".

For a long time I've had a hard time understanding how to simplify the Republican party into a single idea, but I recently read someone say they are concerned mostly with "justice", which I think works very well. A sense that virtues should be rewarded and vices should be punished is a good way to understand what makes Republicans different from Libertarians. A large military budget will help us bring justice against evil in the world. The war on drugs, even though it limits freedom and well-being, is perceived as punishing a sin. Same with the opposition to illegal immigrants, gay marriage, etc. It can explain why they oppose redistribution in some cases and support it in others: capitalism is viewed as the way to distribute money according to who deserves it, but with Medicare, seniors are viewed as "deserving" of public help because they are assumed to have already devoted their life to their country.

The more liberal Democrats are focused mostly on maximizing equality (or fairness) over everything else. This is often how people portray all Democrats, but I don't believe that's right. An example of this thinking that I've seen many people cite is this bit from Obama during a Democratic primary debate in 2008, where at first he seems to support raising the capital gains tax even if it decreases revenue out of concern for "fairness" (in his elaboration though, he doesn't end up supporting that idea).

I think most progressives, including myself, want the government to maximize well-being. This is my understanding of what Obama meant when he said the role of government is to "do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more." Maximizing well-being justifies redistribution, because transferring a dollar from a rich person to a poor person benefits the poor person more than it harms the rich person. But it doesn't justify too much redistribution, because that harms economic growth. But diminishing marginal utility explains why those who value maximizing well-being and those who mainly value equality are natural allies in many cases.

An example of people thinking about political issues in different ways and not understanding each other is this question I've seen conservatives bring up many times: "If you want to help the poor, instead of taxing others to do it, why don't you just give your own money?". Well, take the example of social security. Before social security was passed, poverty rates were very high among the elderly. After social security was passed, poverty rates among the elderly shrunk to "normal" levels. That increased the well-being of many seniors. But if instead of passing social security, a much smaller fraction of our population just decided to "give their own money", that would not have led to nearly the same increase in well-being of the elderly that needed help once they couldn't work anymore. Therefore, as someone who judges government programs primarily by their effect on people's well-being, I just don't understand why conservatives even ask that question. But maybe the question makes sense if you're thinking primarily in terms of freedom or rewarding virtue and punishing vices; you don't get "credit" for a good deed if it's just done involuntarily via taxation.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Minimum Wage vs. EITC: Revisited

A while ago I posted this saying that the minimum wage and the EITC seem to be trying to solve the same problem, so we should end the less effective one (minimum wage) in favor of increasing the more effective one (EITC). But now I've come across a convincing reason to use a mix of the two here:
"The EITC partially subsidizes employers, and as such the minimum wage is an excellent way to combat this. So it complements, rather than substitutes, for an EITC."
Basically, if someone is willing to do a job for X dollars per hour, and then we start giving them a tax credit of Y dollars per hour, then they will now be willing to do that job for lower pay because of the benefit of the tax credit. So now the employer can pay the employee less (won't happen immediately, but that's how the market will adapt over time). In the most extreme case, their wages could be reduced to X-Y, which would lead to that tax credit, in effect, going entirely to the employer. So a minimum wage (by limiting how much wages can be reduced) lessens the amount that the EITC (intended to increase a worker's income) can get shifted to the employer.

This also has me wondering about how much the EITC can explain the rise in income inequality since the 70's. The EITC was started in 1975 and has been increased since then. Meanwhile, the minimum wage has mostly trended downward, adjusting for inflation, since 1970. Hmm...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Securing Our Border

With the talks of immigration reform, one of the pieces that appears will be part of the deal (if one happens) is increasing the number of border patrol agents. So how do those numbers look over the last few decades?

That's a pretty big increase. Meanwhile, the number of illegal immigrants in America is estimated to have risen from 3.5 million in 1990 to around 11 million now (link). So has increasing the number of agents really stopped illegal immigration at all? Border control agents cost money, and we have a Congress that is supposedly looking for ways to shrink our deficit. So yea... let's not spend more money on this.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

They Took Our Jobs!

People shouldn't have children, because if we keep adding more people to our economy, there won't be enough jobs for everyone! -- says no one, ever.

It was so tough on our economy when women started entering the workforce. There weren't enough jobs for the men anymore! -- says no one, ever.

Lots of people have been moving to Texas from other states. This is a problem because they'll take all the jobs from the real Texans! -- says no one, ever.

We should have strict immigration laws to keep people out of our country, because they'll take our jobs! -- says many people.


Saturday, February 2, 2013


People often act funny when you mix morality and food. I'm sure almost everyone knows people who have become vegans or vegetarians for a while and then given up on it. And I'm sure almost everyone has noticed how people can get weird when discussing the ethics of it (I've noticed many carnivorous folks seem to get mad just when thinking about it). My own views lead me to be a flexitarian (to varying degrees), which basically just means to go somewhere in between vegetarianism and the typical American diet of eating as much meat as we want.

I think almost anyone will agree that, to some extent, the suffering of animals matters. Most don't think the life of an ant is of any moral significance, but we do agree that it's horrible for someone to torture a dog. This is easy to justify: we believe suffering is bad, and we also believe that, when a dog is suffering, that sensation is similar to our sensation of suffering, so we can empathize with a dog. But we don't believe an ant really experiences "suffering" as we know it. However, people rarely come to a completely consistent moral view of animal suffering. I can't think of any good reason why we should care to reduce the suffering of a dog but not care at all about the suffering animals in factory farms.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of veganism/vegetarianism as a moral necessity:
  • In many times and places, people have no other choice but to eat animals.
  • There are potential health concerns with eating no animal products.
  • Nature is more cruel than people often realize, and death is inevitable. If we kill an animal quickly, that is likely better than their inevitable natural death (disease, starvation, eaten by a predator that won't care about ending their life quickly, etc.). That's why people euthanize their pets.
  • Even if you're a vegan, the very act of farming vegetables leads to a lot of animal suffering and deaths.
However, with the rise of factory farming, where animals sometimes live their whole life unable to even walk around, have to be pumped full of antibiotics everyday to stay alive, and are made so heavy that their legs can snap, there's plenty of reason to be concerned with the impact of our food choices even if you don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with eating meat.

But I think people have a strange tendency to take an all-or-none approach to moralizing our consumption of animal products. When they seriously think about what it must be like to be a pig in a factory farm, they feel bad for the pig. But they also have reasons to think not eating any animal products isn't necessary or practical, so they just give up on the entire idea of ethical eating. And some people just instantly reject the idea, and I think that's usually for reasons along the lines of something that 80000hours recently posted: "we mostly have a strong desire, arguably a need, to believe that we are good, moral people. This means that if you present someone with a piece of information which seems to contradict that belief, they’re not going to like it very much."

But defensiveness, and our strange tendency to think in an all-or-none way, are not good ways to base our decisions. Even if we don't think vegetarianism is necessary, people should at least be able to agree that we should make some effort to eat less animal products for one or more of the following reasons:
  • If animal suffering matters at all, then an act that leads to less suffering is morally preferable to an act that leads to more suffering.
  • Most medical institutions that study healthy eating recommend a plant-based diet along the lines of a flexitarian/Mediterranean diet.
  • Eating plants is a more efficient use of the world's resources than eating animals. We can use land/water/resources to grow plants and eat directly. But for eating animals, we do that plus more land/water/resources to raise the animals, feed them those plants, then eat the animals. The fact that we don't see this reflected more in the price of meat is largely due to weird policies and subsidies from our government.
  • Eating meat leads to more pollution than eating plants (largely for the reasons above). Ruminants in particular (like cows and goats) are basically methane factories.
So, combining everything above, maybe it'd be most helpful to think of our consumption of animals more along the lines that we think about giving to charity. Most agree that, if you are well-off, you should give some of your money to charity. We admire, not criticize for not doing more, someone who gives 10% of their money to charity. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be more admirable to give 20%. Similarly, we should admit that our choices of what to eat have a variety of effects on the well-being of others. We should try to make choices to reduce suffering rather than increase it, whether by just eating less animal products, choosing chicken over beef more often out of environmental concerns, or choosing to buy free-range meat more often than factory-farmed meat. And like varying degrees of giving to charity, we can view eating no meat as more admirable than eating some meat without implying that people who eat some meat are evil. We are instinctive meat eaters, and it's admirable to resist our impulses to any degree out of concern for the consequences of our actions.

However, also similar to charity, if I'm being honest I have to say the main reason I'm a flexitarian rather than a vegetarian is selfishness. Eating good food is my favorite thing ever, and I really like many types of meat and dairy products. But the fact is that all of our actions are a result of an awkward compromise between the extent of our concern for others and the extent of our selfishness. I'm too selfish to only make eating decisions based off concern for others, but it's not hard to usually order tofu instead of meat if I want Thai food, paneer if I want Indian, falafel if I want Greek, or black beans & guacamole when I go to Chipotle. When buying food to make at home, it's not hard to usually have PB&J over turkey sandwiches, or marinara sauce over meat sauce, or eggs from free-range chickens over factory-farmed chickens. And I think everyone can, and should, take those things into consideration.