Sunday, November 9, 2014

Political convenience vs changes in US poverty

When discussing government welfare programs, and specifically the "War on Poverty", you'll often see liberals and conservatives disagree over how effective it was at helping the poor. Sometimes you'll even see conservatives claim that poverty has not improved since then at all, by pointing to some poverty statistics while ignoring the distinction between relative/absolute poverty, cuts to those anti-poverty programs, increased immigration of poor people since those programs started, the fact that the benefits of many of these anti-poverty programs are not even counted against whether to count someone as poor in the cited statistics, the nuance between counting income or consumption, etc.

Then when discussing the plight of the US poor today, and especially when discussing the significance of increased inequality since around the 1970s, which is almost about the same time period as looking at America after the "War on Poverty" programs were put into place, the roles reverse. Liberals will sometimes try very hard to show that the poor have not had any improvement since then, and conservatives will sometimes try very hard to show the opposite, often by pointing out the same considerations they ignore when trying to show that the War on Poverty did not result in the poor being any better off.

I thought about this yesterday when reading a conservative book that seemed to make this contradictory switch within the very same book. People are funny.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Your life divided by the universe

Just thought this was interesting, on the latest Rationally Speaking podcast about nihilism:
There's a fair amount of psychological research showing that when we evaluate an act of charity, we don't judge it based on the absolute amount of good that it would accomplish, like the absolute number of lives. We judge it based on the amount of good it would accomplish relative to the size of the problem. For example, one study found that people cared more, and were willing to donate more money, to save 4500 refugees if they were told that was 4500 out of a camp of 11,000 refugees, as opposed to 4500 out of a camp of 250,000 refugees. In both cases the same number of lives were at stake, but in the latter case, saving those lives just seemed less worthwhile or meaningful because they seemed like a drop in the ocean. In fact, this effect even holds up in more extreme ways, in which people will save fewer lives if those lives are out of a smaller denominator, as opposed to saving more lives that are of a bigger denominator. So we're sort of focused on the ratio, which is a little depressing. But the reason that I bring this up is that, I think that the discovery of just how enormous the universe really is, is a big part of many people's sensation that life lacks meaning. So, whatever the stakes of our petty human lives ... you divide that by the size of the universe, and to our brains it just seems to lack all meaning or purpose. But I think that's just a feature of our brains. ... The way that I got past that point was to realize that our choice of denominator is arbitrary. ... Once I got to the point where the denominator feels arbitrary, then I can just pick whichever denominator allows me to continue on sensibly with my life.