Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Big companies versus small companies

Everyone loves small businesses, while big businesses generate more mixed feelings. This leads to people urging others to support small businesses simply because they are small. Or to claim that small businesses are the most important part of our economy. Or to claim that the rise of big businesses is the cause of stagnating incomes. Or to say small businesses are the source of real innovation. Or to only worry about laws that put extra burdens on businesses when they think about how it will affect small ones, which surely must get an exemption.

So here's a few interesting data points:

If you compare company sizes in various countries, innovation and economic strength are negatively correlated with the size of the small-business sector. And larger companies pay their employees more than smaller companies.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why vote 3rd party?

People often say that voting for a third party is throwing your vote away, because there is no way they will win. I find that strange... when you vote for one of the major parties, do you ever expect your vote to cause that candidate to win? No matter who you vote for, there's not much chance of your individual vote changing anything.

As part of a collective action, your vote does have an impact. And deciding who wins is not the only possible impact. One of the main motivations of politicians and their parties is to win and keep winning. If they notice voters moving to one particular side on one or more issues, it could lead them to change their stance or priorities over time to try to win those voters. For instance, if a lot of people started voting 3rd party because of wider opposition to something generally supported by both major parties, that would likely cause some politicians in the major parties to drift in that direction. They may not see that third party as a threat to their election, but they could view that issue as an opportunity to gain votes against their opponents from the other major party and/or from within their own party in the primary elections. In that way, voting for a third party can move the world toward its ideals even if nobody from that party is ever elected.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Republicans, Ideology, and Special Interests

The other day on Vox, there was an article about the fundamental difference between the Republican and Democratic parties:
"the Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests."
I just don't see how that works very well. Is it small-government ideology that leads the GOP to favor agricultural subsidies? Or increased military spending? Or Medicare expansions? Those increase the size of government and coincidentally help politically important groups that vote for and fund the GOP.

Or what should we make of this:
Here's my suggestion for the GOP. Say you'll support a carbon tax if it's used to do an equal reduction in taxes on capital. Even if there were no global warming, a carbon tax would be ten times more efficient than taxing capital income. Of course the Dems would say no. And then the GOP could taunt the Dems as follows:
"So Al Gore has convinced you guys that climate change will produce a catastrophe, and yet you'd rather engage in class warfare than solving the problem, Thanks for clarifying your priorities."
If the GOP weren't so timid on climate change they'd split the Dems right down the middle
That makes sense from the perspective of their (claimed) ideology. So why don't they do it?

Both major parties seek public policies that favor their interest groups. That's why they are the major parties.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Let's cut foreign aid to 25% of the federal budget

The latest poll ... finds that the average American thinks the United States spends 28 percent of the federal budget on (foreign aid) ... In reality, we spend only 1 percent on foreign aid.
... if Americans already think we give that much -- well, the least we could do is accommodate them!
We could even announce that we're obeying the American people's wishes and cutting aid to be only 25 percent of the federal budget.

...take the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as an example... One study estimated that PEPFAR spent $2,700 for each life it saved.
Let's compare that to a major social policy meant to improve welfare here in the United States. ... Health wonks like MIT's Jon Gruber have long argued that expanding Medicaid is the most cost-effective way to expand coverage, and numerous studies (this one being perhaps the most pertinent) have found that insuring more people saves lives. Friends-of-the-blog researchers Aaron Carroll and Harold Pollack estimate that expanding Medicaid costs $1 million per life saved.
I don't want to diss Medicaid expansion: $1 million per life is actually really good compared to a whole lot of government programs. I suspect you'd get a number many orders of magnitude higher if you tried to do the same calculation for, say, a fancy new spy plane. But that would be hundreds of times less effective than increasing aid to developing countries.
-- link

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Capital Punishment and Euthanasia

I wonder if the eventual cultural acceptance of euthanasia could go something like this:

  1. State budgets get really tight and some really unpopular cuts have to be made, such as reducing Medicaid or something.
  2. Health care continues to be expensive.
  3. A viral news story about how much we spend on the health care of prisoners gets people upset about how it's not fair for prisoners to get things non-criminals can't afford.
  4. A bigger push occurs for cutting spending on prisoners and/or more widely using the death penalty for convicted murderers.
  5. As a compromise, convicted murders start having the option of euthanasia as a means for applying the death penalty more often but in a way that feels more humane (and of course, cuts costs).
  6. Although initial support was somewhat driven by wanting to reduce the number of convicted murders we have to spend taxes supporting for life, eventually people need to defend the change to themselves by viewing euthanasia in general more favorably.
  7. Things come full circle. A viral news story about someone in terrible pain who is not allowed euthanasia complains that, if they were only a murderer, they would be allowed to die the way they wish. Now people think it's unfair that criminals have access to euthanasia but non-criminals don't.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Don't compare "household" data over time

Single Americans make up more than half of the adult population for the first time since the government began compiling such statistics in 1976.... In 1976, it was 37.4 percent and has been trending upward since.
-- link

This is why you should ignore any statistic that points at changes in -whateverper household over time; households are an ever-changing unit of measurement. One example where you often see this mistake is people pointing out the stagnating incomes of the median household over the past few decades. But when a household increasingly refers to one person rather than two people, that comparison just doesn't work.

Friday, September 5, 2014

You are weird.

Whenever I hear someone describe quantum physics as "weird" - whenever I hear someone bewailing the mysterious effects of observation on the observed, or the bizarre existence of nonlocal correlations, or the incredible impossibility of knowing position and momentum at the same time...

Reality has been around since long before you showed up. Don't go calling it nasty names like "bizarre" or "incredible". The universe was propagating complex amplitudes through configuration space for ten billion years before life ever emerged on Earth. Quantum physics is not "weird". You are weird.
-- Eliezer Yudkowsky, "Think Like Reality"

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cluster thinking and assuming you're always drunk

One thought experiment that I think illustrates some of the advantages of cluster thinking, and especially cluster thinking that incorporates regression to normality, is imagining that one is clearly and knowably impaired at the moment (for example, drunk), and contemplating a chain of reasoning that suggests high expected value for some unusual and extreme action (such as jumping from a height). A similar case is that of a young child contemplating such a chain of reasoning. In both cases, it seems that the person in question should recognize their own elevated fallibility and take special precautions to avoid deviating from “normal” behavior, in a way that cluster thinking seems much more easily able to accommodate (by setting an absolute limit to the weight carried by an uncertain argument, such that regression to normality can override it no matter what its content) than sequence thinking (in which any “adjustments” are guessed at using the same fallible thought process).
-- from a blog post "Sequence Thinking vs. Cluster Thinking"

I read that in June and for some reason I keep thinking about that part, probably because it helped reduce stress. I don't know how to deal with ethical and practical uncertainties that I don't know how to quantify, to the point of indecision. For instance, what if total utilitarianism and the repugnant conclusion are true/good and it's wrong to donate money toward reducing current poverty when instead I should be aiming to maximize the number of future lives? This is the type of thing that I worry about when trying to sleep at night.

So I thought the givewell post above helped a bit with not rat-holing on certain lines of reasoning that drill down into insanity. And it helped with feeling less uncertainty paralysis. And I also think it's a good way to explain the value of two-level utilitarianism over pure act utilitarianism. We all overestimate our rationality so it's good to make rules for ourselves as if we're slightly drunk.

However, if that's the right way to look at it, everyone else is drunk too, so I'm not sure how much that really justifies "regression to normality". Crap.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Overpopulation and Immigration

One reason people often give as to why we should be restrictive on the amount of immigration we allow to the U.S. is the concern of overpopulation.

What precisely is meant by "overpopulation"? Presumably, this refers to the point where population becomes so dense that it causes average living standards to decrease. How would we determine the population density at which this would occur? I doubt there's a good way to know for sure. But population and living standards, both within our country and globally, have been rising for quite some time. And since our living standards are not increasing by some act of nature, this means that for a good amount of time now, the average extra person added to both the world and our country has had an overall positive impact on society. Unless we just hit the peak, we clearly aren't overpopulated now.

And it must not be global overpopulation that comes to mind when people voice this concern. Because a person moving here does not increase global population. In fact, being in a society of greater wealth and freedom leads to people having less children on average. So if global overpopulation is a concern, allowing more immigration from poor/oppressed countries to rich/freer countries might be a good way to deter that. It seems the "overpopulation" concern over immigration is about the overpopulation just of our country.

So how populated can a nation get without it causing a necessary drop in living standards? What if we doubled our population? Tripled? What if it increased a hundred times? Our initial intuition probably tells us that surely we'd be overpopulated well before we multiplied our population by a hundred. But why would our intuition be good at determining that?

Population densities per country can be found here. The U.S. has 84 people per square mile. That's really low by global standards. Singapore, on the other hand, has 19,863 people per square mile. That is 236 times our population density. And their average living standards are even higher than ours (by a good amount actually).

On the list of things to worry about for the U.S., put overpopulation at the bottom.