SESTA/FOSTA: oppression through moral panic

Mar 31 JDN 2458574

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

The “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act”. Who could disagree with that? Nobody wants to be on the side of sex traffickers.

Beware bills with such one-sided names; they are almost never what they seem. The “USA PATRIOT Act” was one of the most authoritarian and un-American pieces of legislation ever produced.

The bill was originally two bills, SESTA and FOSTA, which were then merged. For the rest of this post I’m just going to call it SESTA for short.

SESTA passed with overwhelming support; the vote totals were 388 to 25 in the House and 97 to 2 in the Senate. Apparently members of Congress fall for that sort of one-sided naming, because they also passed the USA PATRIOT Act 357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate. This is the easiest way to take away our freedoms: Make it sound like you are doing something obviously good that no sane person could disagree with. If fascism comes to America, it will be called the “Puppies Are Cute Act” and it will pass with overwhelming support.

Of course I’m against sex trafficking. Almost everyone is against sex trafficking. The problem is that SESTA doesn’t actually do much to fight sex trafficking, may in some cases make sex trafficking worse, and sets a precedent that could undermine fundamental civil liberties.

So, what does SESTA actually do? At its core, it changes the way the Internet is regulated. It has been a basic principle of Internet regulation from the beginning that websites aren’t responsible for the actions of their users; unless a site is actively designed for an illegal purpose, the fact that it is used for illegal purposes is not the website’s fault.

This is how we regulate other forms of communication. If a mob boss calls a hit man on the phone, we don’t sue the phone company. If banks exchange emails to collude on manipulating interest rates, we don’t put the email sysadmin in jail. If terrorists send messages through the mail, we don’t arrest the postal workers.

There may be some grey areas, but generally courts have leaned toward greater liberty: The Anarchist’s Cookbook sure looks an awful lot like a means for conducting acts of sabotage and terrorism, but we’re so loathe to ban books that we allow it to be sold.

That is, until now. Because it’s about sex crime, we went into moral panic mode and stopped thinking clearly about the real implications of the policy. We don’t react the same way to gun crime—if we did, we’d have re-instituted the assault weapons ban a decade ago. This is clearly part of our double standard between sex and violence. Sex trafficking is horrible, to be sure; but I think that gun homicides clearly worse. (Yes, it is horrible to be forced into sexual slavery; but would you rather be shot to death?) But we wildly overreact to the former and do basically nothing to stop the latter. And the scale of the two problems is not just comparable, it’s almost identical: About 18,000-20,000 people are trafficked into the US each year for sex, and there were precisely 19,362 homicides in the US last year, of which 14,415 were committed with firearms.
Indeed, why focus specifically on sex trafficking? The majority of forced labor trafficking is not sex. I suppose it seems worse to become a sex slave than to become a slave at a diamond mine or a tobacco plantation… but not that much worse. Not so much worse that the former merits an overwhelming response and the latter barely any response at all.

SESTA breaks the usual principles applied to regulating communication and instead allows the government to penalize websites that are used to facilitate any kind of sale of sexual services.

Note, first of all, that this suddenly changes the topic from sex trafficking to sex work; the vast majority of sex workers are not trafficking victims but voluntary participants. In countries where brothels are legal and regulated, job satisfaction of sex workers is not statistically different from median job satisfaction overall.

Second, the bill doesn’t really do anything to target sex trafficking. It was already illegal to use websites for sex trafficking and already illegal to advertise sex trafficking via the Web. In fact, there is reason to think that pushing sex trafficking further into the Dark Web will only make the job of law enforcement harder.

Part of the liability protections for websites which will now be stripped away included a “right to moderate”: using moderation tools to remove illegal content would not result in additional liability. Under SESTA, this has changed; sites will now want to avoid moderating illegal content, because in so doing they would be effectively admitting that they knew it existed. Since there can never be any guarantee of removing 100% of all illegal content without shutting the entire site down, sites may choose instead to not moderate, so they have more plausible deniability when illegal content is ultimately found.

Instead, the main effect of SESTA will be to put more sex workers in danger. Where previously they could use websites to screen clients, they now have to return to in-person contact that is much more dangerous. It pushes them from the relative security of working indoors and online to the extreme danger of walking the street or working for a pimp. SESTA also removes the opportunity for sex workers to communicate with each other, because now any content related to sex work is banned; and these kinds of communication networks can be literally a matter of life and death.

Make no mistake: People will die over this. Mostly women and queer men (because the vast majority of sex work clients are male). The homicide rate of female victims dropped an astonishing 17 percent when Craigslist iSmplemented its Erotic section that allowed sex workers to use the Internet to screen clients. SESTA is taking that away, so we can expect homicides of female victims to rise.

SESTA is also blatantly Unconstitutional. The original form of the bill included an ex post facto clause, which violates one of the most basic principles of the Constitution.

Even with that removed, SESTA is obviously in violation of the First Amendment; this is censorship. It has already been used to justify Tumblr’s purge of all sexual content, which caused a 20% drop in user base and an exodus of erotic artists and sex workers to other platforms, and will disproportionately harm queer youth because Tumblr had previously been one of the Internet’s safest spaces for exploring sexual identity.

And now that the precedent has been set to hold websites responsible for their users, expect to see more of this. We already see sites being held responsible for copyright infringement; but we could soon see similar laws passed punishing sites for “facilitating” illegal drug use, hacking, or hate speech. Operators of communication platforms will be forced to become arms of law enforcement or face prison themselves.

Of course we all want to stop sex trafficking. Everyone agrees on that. But a bill that targets bad things can still be a bad bill.

The double standard between violence and sex in US media

Mar 24 JDN 2458567

The video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion infamously had its ESRB rating upgraded from “Teen” to “Mature”, raising the minimum age to purchase it from 13 to 17. Why? Well, they gave two major reasons: One was that there was more blood and detailed depictions of death than in the original version submitted for review. The other was that a modder had made it possible to view the female characters with naked breasts.

These were considered comparable arguments—if anything, the latter seemed to carry more weight.

Yet first of all this was a mod: You can make a mod do just about anything. (Indeed, there has long since been a mod for Oblivion that shows full-frontal nudity; had this existed when the rating was upgraded, they might have gone all the way to “Adults Only”, ostensibly only raising the minimum age to 18, but in practice making stores unwilling to carry the game because they think of it as porn.)

But suppose in fact that the game had included female characters with naked breasts. Uh… so what? Why is that considered so inappropriate for teenagers? Men are allowed to walk around topless all the time, and male and female nipples really don’t look all that different!

Now, I actually think “Mature” is the right rating for Oblivion. But that’s because Oblivion is about a genocidal war against demons and involves mass slaughter and gruesome death at every turn—not because you can enable a mod to see boobs.

The game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas went through a similar rating upgrade, from “Mature” to “Adults Only”—resulting it being the only mass-market “Adults Only” game in the US. This was, again, because of a mod—though in this case it was more like re-enabling content that the original game had included but disabled. But let me remind you that this is a game where you play as a gangster whose job is to steal cars, and who routinely guns down police officers and massacres civilians—and the thing that really upset people was that you could enable a scene where your character has sex with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, games like Manhunt, where the object of the game is to brutally execute people, and the Call of Duty series graphically depicting the horrors of war (and in the Black Ops subseries, espionage, terrorism, and torture), all get to keep their “Mature” ratings.

And consider that a game like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, rated “Everyone 10+”, contains quite a lot of violence, and several scenes where, logically, it really seems like there should be nudity—bathing, emerging from a cryonic stasis chamber, a doctor examining your body for wounds—but there isn’t. Meanwhile, a key part of the game is killing goblin-like monsters to collect their organs and use them for making potions. It’s all tastefully depicted violence, with little blood and gore; okay, sure. But you can tastefully depict nudity as well. Why are we so uncomfortable with the possibility of seeing these young adult characters naked… while bathing? In this case, even a third-party mod that allowed nudity was itself censored, on the grounds that it would depict “underage characters”; but really, no indication is given that these characters are underage. Based on their role in society, I always read them as about 19 or 20. I guess they could conceivably be as young as 16… and as we all know, 16-year-olds do not have genitals, are never naked, and certainly never have sex.

We’re so accustomed to this that it may even feel uncomfortable to you when I suggest otherwise: “Why would you want to see Link’s penis as he emerges from the cryonic chamber?” Well, I guess, because… men have penises. (Well, cis men anyway; actually it would be really bold and interesting if they decided to make Link trans.) We should see that as normal, and not be so uncomfortable showing it. The emotional power of the scene comes in part from the innocence and vulnerability of nudity, which is undercut by you mysteriously coming with non-removable indestructible underwear. Part of what makes Breath of the Wild so, er, breathtaking is that you can often screenshot it and feel like you are looking at a painting—and I probably don’t need to mention that nudity has been a part of fine art since time immemorial. Letting you take off the protagonist’s underwear wouldn’t show anything you can’t see by looking at Michelangelo’s David.

And would it really be so traumatizing to the audience to see that? By the time you’re 10 years old, I hope you have seen at least one picture of a penis. If not, we’ve been doing sex ed very, very wrong. In fact, I’m quite confident that most of the children playing would not be disturbed at all; amused, perhaps, but what’s wrong with that? If looking at the protagonist’s cel-shaded genitals makes some of the players giggle, does that cause any harm? Some people play through Breath of the Wild without ever equipping clothing, both as a challenge (you get no armor protection that way), and simply for fun (some of the characters do actually react to you being “naked”, or as naked as the game will allow—and most of their reactions would make way more sense if you weren’t wearing magical underwear).

Of course, it’s not just video games. The United States has a bizarre double standard between sex and violence in all sorts of media.

On television, you can watch The Walking Dead on mainstream cable and see, as Andrew Boschert put it, a man’s skull being smashed with a hammer, people’s throats slit into a trough, a meat locker with people’s torsos and limbs hung by hooks and a man’s face being eaten off while he is still alive”; but show a single erect penis, and you have to go to premium channels.

Even children’s television is full of astonishing levels of violence. Watch Tom and Jerry sometime, and you’ll realize that the only difference between it and the Simpsons parody Itchy & Scratchy is that the Simpsons version is a bit more realistic in depicting how such violence would affect the body. In mainstream cartoons, characters can get shot, blown up, crushed by heavy objects, run over by trains, hit with baseball bats and frying pans—but God forbid you ever show a boob.

In film, the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated shows convincingly that not only are our standards for sexual content versus violent content wildly disproportionate, furthermore any depiction of queer sexual content is immediately considered pornographic while the equivalent heterosexual content is not. It’s really quite striking to watch: They show scenes with the exact same sex act, even from more or less the same camera angles, and when it’s a man and a woman, it gets R, but if it’s two men or two women, it gets NC-17.

The movie Thirteen is rated R for its depiction of drugs and sex, despite being based on a true story about actual thirteen-year-olds. Evan Rachel Wood was 15 at the time of filming and 16 at the time of release, meaning that she was two years older than the character she played, and yet a year later still not old enough to watch her own movie without parental permission. Granted, Thirteen is not a wholesome film; there’s a lot of disturbing stuff in it, including things done by (and to) teenagers that really shouldn’t be.

But it’s not as if violence, even against teenagers, is viewed as so dangerous for young minds. Look at the Hunger Games, for example; that is an absolutely horrific level of violence against teenagers—people get beheaded, blown up, burned, and mutilated—and it only received a PG-13 rating. The Dark Knight received only a PG-13 rating, despite being about a terrorist who murders hundreds and implants a bomb in one of his henchmen (and also implements the most literal and unethical Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment ever devised).

Novels are better about this sort of thing: You actually can have sex scenes in mainstream novels without everyone freaking out. Yet there’s still a subtler double standard: You can’t show too much detail in a sex scene, or you’ll be branded “erotica”. But there’s no special genre ghetto you get sent to for too graphically depicting torture or war. (I love the Culture novels, but honestly I think Use of Weapons should come with trigger warnings—it’s brutal.) And as I have personally struggled with, it’s very hard to write fiction honestly depicting queer characters without your whole book being labeled “queer fiction”.

Is it like this in other countries? Well, like most things, it depends on the country. In China and much of the Middle East, the government has control over almost every sort of content. Most countries have some things they censor and some things they don’t. The US is unusual: We censor very little. Content involvingviolence and political content are essentially unrestricted in the US. But sex is one of the few things that we do consistently censor.

Media in Europe especially is much more willing to depict sex, and a bit less willing to depict violence. This is particularly true in the Netherlands, where there are films rated R for sex in the US but 6 (that’s “minimum age of viewing, 6 years”) in the Netherlands, because we consider naked female breasts to be a deal-breaker and they consider them utterly harmless. Quite frankly, I’m much more inclined toward the latter assessment.

Japan has had a long tradition of sexuality in art and media, and only when the West came in did they start introducing censorship. But Japan is not known for its half-measures; in 1907 they instituted a ban on explicit depiction of genitals that applies to essentially all media—even media explicitly marketed as porn still fuzzes over keys parts of the images. Yet some are still resisting this censorship: A ban on sexual content in manga drew outrage from artists as recently as 2010.

Hinduism has always been more open to sexuality than Christianity, and it shows in Indian culture in various ways. The Kama Sutra is depicted in the West as a lurid sex manual, when it’s really more of a text on living a full life, finding love, and achieving spiritual transcendence (of which sex is often a major part). But like Japan, India began to censor sex as it began to adopt Western cultural influences, and now implements a very broad pornography ban.

What does this double standard do to our society?

Well, it’s very hard to separate causation from correlation. So I can’t really say that it is because of this double standard in media that we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and homicide in the First World. But it seems like it might be related, at least; perhaps they come from a common source, the same sexual repression and valorization of masculinity expressed through violence.

I do know some things that are direct negative consequences of the censorship of sex in US media. The most urgent example of this is the so-called “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (it does more or less the exact opposite, much like the “PATRIOT ACT” and George W. Bush’s “Clean Air Act”). That will have to wait until next week’s post.

Stop calling it “piracy”

Mar 17 JDN 2458560

It’s a bit of a pet peeve, but much like I insist people use “net wealth” instead of “net worth” (people are not worth more because they have more money!), I find it aggravating that the standard term for copyright infringement for personal use is “piracy”.

The word “piracy” is meant to describe some very severe crimes: Pirates on the high seas board ships to rape, enslave, and murder people. There are still actual pirates today, and they are murderous psychopaths. We glamorize pirates in much the same was as we glamorize organized crime; but the reality of actual piracy is horrific, monstrous violence. This is nothing like the “piracy” of copying songs and video games without permission.

If you need a word for copying songs and video games without permission, how about “unauthorized copying”? That’s what it is. You haven’t stolen anything. You’re not a pirate. You’ve copied something without authorization.

This can still be a harmful thing to do, and there are some cases where I think we rightfully make it illegal. But just from hearing the phrase “unauthorized copying” you can feel the difference: It already sounds like something that isn’t usually so bad and maybe shouldn’t always be against the law.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see exactly where the harm from most unauthorized copying is supposed to be. Even on the RIAA’s inflated estimates assuming that everyone who makes unauthorized copies would have otherwise purchased at retail price (which is clearly not true), total loss to the US music industry from unauthorized copying is less than $3 billion per year, while the total revenue of the music industry in the US is over $22 billion. So we’re talking about a roughly 12% reduction in revenue—and remember that this is an overestimate, because most of the people who make unauthorized copies would not have purchased the music at full price if they didn’t make the copies.

And most of those losses are to the very richest music producers, who are astonishingly rich indeed. The top 9 richest music producers in the US all have net wealth exceeding $100 million. It’s hard for me to see a 12% reduction in revenue for these nine-figure millionaires as a major loss to our society.

It might be a major loss to our society if weaker intellectual property enforcement had a chilling effect on the production of new content. And there is some reason to think that this could happen: Artists make their living selling content, and if that content can be copied for free it will be harder for them to make a living.

But it’s already really hard for most artists to make a living, and they make art anyway. There is no shortage of creative content in the world; indeed, there is an embarrassment of riches that makes it hard for new artists to break in and sometimes even hard for consumers to find the best content. If the goal is actually to support artists, there are obviously much better methods than granting Disney and Viacom totalitarian control over everything we read, hear, and see.

For instance, there are alternative modes of income support for artists that don’t require intellectual property enforcement, such as Patreon and Kickstarter. I make money on this very blog (not a lot mind you, but some extra spending cash) using Patreon without enforcing intellectual property. I’m not sure I could enforce intellectual property on my blog even if I tried.

A universal basic income is another option: Artists mostly create art because they want to, and only need to sell it because, like all humans, they have certain needs for food and shelter that must be met. With a sufficiently generous basic income, I think many artists would choose to share their work for free and live off the basic income, because it was never about making money but about creating art and spreading joy.

Or we could continue to enforce copyright, but in a much more limited manner: Say you get 30 years after publication, and whether or not your work has earned out by then, it goes to public domain and people can do whatever they want with it. Copy it, modify it, turn it into derivative works—yes, even make fanfiction and rule 34 porn, because that’s a form of artistic creation too.

I couldn’t find good data on this, but my suspicion is that most artistic works don’t turn a profit at all, and those that turn a profit generally do so within the first few years. Even if they paid out at a constant nominal rate, at any reasonable interest rate only about the first 30 years would really matter: At 7%, the net present value of $10,000 a year for 30 years is $124,000, while the net present value of $10,000 a year forever is only $143,000. This is because funds received in early years could be invested for that whole time (or used for something urgent and valuable), while funds received later can’t. There’s an old joke that may help you to remember that: “For $50, I’ll give you a million dollars! Such a deal! Oh, by the way, it’s $1 per year for the next million years.”

Extending copyright for decades simply doesn’t make sense if the goal is to support artists. (It makes perfect sense if the goal is to make Disney lobbyists happy.) Continuing to pay royalties for something you made 70 years ago may make you happy, but it wasn’t the incentive to produce that thing in the first place. I have trouble imagining an artist who would be willing to create a work if they received 70 years of royalties, but not if they only received 30 years of royalties.

In fact, economists studying copyright have estimated that the optimal duration of copyright to maximize creative innovation is even shorter than that: Only 15 years. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is that copyright can actually hinder some creativity, by making it harder to build off of the previous work of others. It’s one thing if all you have to do is re-name some characters in a novel and make a few other cosmetic changes (like Fifty Shades of Grey did; it was originally Twilight fanfiction); but that wouldn’t be so simple for a music remix or a video game mod. Depending on how the corporation that owns the original IP reacts, even a mod that looks and plays completely different could land you in court, because it was built on the same engine. There’s a great deal of ambiguity about just what constitutes a copyright violation in game modding.

And if we’re also thinking about patents as well as copyrights, intellectual property protection is the main cause of the high cost of brand-name drugs: People die because of that patent enforcement.

But there are complicated questions here about the proper way to balance the incentives. I think it would help to make the language clearer and less loaded: Don’t say “piracy”. Say “unauthorized copying”.

Defending yourself defends others

Mar 10 JDN 2458553

There’s a meme going around the feminist community that is very well-intentioned, but dangerously misguided. I first encountered it as a tweet, though it may have originated elsewhere:

If you’re promoting changes to women’s behaviour to “prevent” rape, you’re really saying “make sure he rapes the other girl”.

The good intention here is that we need to stop blaming victims. Victim-blaming is ubiquitous, and especially common and harmful in the case of sexual assault. If someone assaults you—or robs you, or abuses you—it is never your fault.

But I fear that there is a baby being thrown out with this bathwater: While failing to defend yourself doesn’t make it your fault, being able to defend yourself can still make you safer.

And, just as importantly, it can make others safer too. The game theory behind that is the subject of this post.

For purposes of the theory, it doesn’t matter what the crime is. So let’s set aside the intense emotional implications of sexual assault and suppose the crime is grand theft auto.

Some cars are defended—they have a LoJack system installed that will allow them to be recovered and the thieves to be prosecuted. (Don’t suppose it’s a car alarm; those don’t work.)

Other cars are not defended—once stolen, they may not be recovered.

There are two cases to consider: Defense that is visible, and defense that is invisible.

Let’s start by assuming that the defense is visible: When choosing which car to try to steal, the thieves can intentionally pick one that doesn’t have a LoJack installed. (This doesn’t work well for car theft, but it’s worth considering for the general question of self-defense. The kind of clothes you wear, the way you carry yourself, how many people are with you, and overall just how big and strong you look are visible signs of a capacity for self-defense.)

In that case, the game is one of perfect information: First each car owner chooses whether or not to install a LoJack at some cost L (in real life, about $700), and then thieves see which cars are equipped and then choose which car to steal.

Let’s say the probability of a car theft being recovered and prosecuted if it’s defended is p, and the probability of it being recovered if it’s not defended is q; p > q. In the real world, about half of stolen cars are recovered—but over 90% of LoJack-equipped vehicles are recovered, so p = 0.9 and q = 0.5.

Then let’s say the cost of being caught and prosecuted is C. This is presumably quite high: If you get convicted, you could spend time in prison. But maybe the car will be recovered and the thief won’t be convicted. Let’s ballpark that at about $30,000.

Finally, the value of successfully stealing a car is V. The average price of a used car in the US is about $20,000, so V is probably close to that.

If no cars are defended, what will the thieves choose? Assuming they are risk-neutral (car thieves don’t seem like very risk averse folks, in general), the expected benefit of stealing a car is V – q C. With the parameters above, that’s (20000)-(0.5)(30000) = $5,000. The thieves will choose a car at random and steal it.

If some cars are defended and some are not, what will the thieves choose? They will avoid the defended cars and steal one of the undefended cars.

But what if all cars are defended? Now the expected benefit is V – p C, which is (20000)-(0.9)(30000) = -$7,000. The thieves will not steal any cars at all. (This is actually the unique subgame-perfect equilibrium: Everyone installs a LoJack and no cars get stolen. Of course, that assumes perfect rationality.)

Yet that isn’t so impressive; everyone defending themselves results in everyone being defended? That sounds tautological. Expecting everyone to successfully defend themselves all the time sounds quite unreasonable. This might be what people have in mind when they say things like the quote above: It’s impossible for everyone to be defended always.

But it turns out that we don’t actually need that. Things get a lot more interesting when we assume that self-defense can be invisible. It would be very hard to know whether a car has a LoJack installed without actually opening it up, and there are many other ways to defend yourself that are not so visible—such as knowing techniques of martial arts or using a self-defense phone app.

Now the game has imperfect information. The thieves don’t know whether you have chosen to defend your car or not.

We need to add a couple more parameters. First is the number of cars per thief n. Then we need the proportion of cars that are defended. Let’s call it d. Then with probability d a given car is defended, and with probability 1-d it is not.

The expected value of stealing a car for the thieves is now this: V – p d C – q (1-d) C. If this is positive, they will steal a car; if it is negative, they will not.

Knowing this, should you install a LoJack? Remember that it costs you L to do so.

What’s the probability your car will be stolen? If they are stealing cars at all, the probability of your car being one stolen is 1/n. If that happens, you will have an expected loss of (1-p)V if you have a LoJack, or (1-q)V if you don’t. The difference between those is (p-q)V.

So your expected benefit of having a LoJack is (p-q)V/n – L. With the parameters above, that comes to: (0.9-0.5)(20000)/n – (700) = 8000/n – 700. So if there are no more than 11 cars per thief, this is positive and you should buy a LoJack. If there are 12 or more cars per thief, you’re better off taking your chances.

This only applies if the thieves are willing to steal at all. And then the interesting question is whether V – p d C – q (1-d) C is positive. For these parameters, that’s (20000) – (0.9)(30000)d – (0.5)(30000) + (0.5)(30000)d = 5000 – 12000 d. Notice that if we substitute in d=0 we get back $5,000, and at d=1 we get back -$7,000, just as before. There is a critical value of d at which the thieves aren’t sure whether to try or not: d* = 5/12 = 0.42.

Assuming that a given car is worth defending if it would be stolen (n <= 11), the equilibrium is actually when precisely d* of the cars are defended and 1-d* are not. Any less than this, and there is an undefended car that would be worth defending. Any more than this, and the thieves aren’t going to try to steal anything, so why bother defending?

Of course this is a very stylized model: In particular, we assumed that all cars are equally valuable and equally easy to steal, which is surely not true in real life.

Yet this model is still enough to make the most important point: Since presumably we do not value the welfare of the car thieves, it could happen that people choosing on their own would not defend their cars, but society as a whole would be better off if they did.

The net loss to society from a stolen car is (1-q)V if the car was not defended, or (1-p)V if it was. But if the thieves don’t steal any cars at all, the net loss to society is zero. The cost of defending a proportion d* of all cars is n d* L.

So if we are currently at d = 0, society is currently losing (1-q)V. We could eliminate this cost entirely by paying n d* L to defend a sufficient number of cars. Suppose n = 30. Then this total cost is (30)(5/12)(700) = $8,750. The loss from cars being stolen was (0.5)(20000) = $10,000. So it would be worth it, from society’s perspective, to randomly install LoJack systems in 42% of cars.

But for any given car owner, it would not be worth it; the expected benefit is 8000/30 – 700 = -$433. (I guess we could ask how much you’re willing to pay for “peace of mind”.)

Where does the extra benefit go? To all the other car owners. By defending your car, you are raising d and thereby lowering the expected payoff for a car thief. There is a positive externality; this is a public good. You get some of that benefit yourself, but others also share in that benefit.

This brings me at last to the core message of this post:

Self-defense is a public good.

The better each person defends themselves, the riskier it becomes for criminals to try to victimize anyone. Never feel guilty for trying to defend yourself; you are defending everyone else at the same time. In fact, you should consider taking actions to defend yourself even when you aren’t sure it’s worth it for you personally: That positive externality may be large enough to make your actions worthwhile for society as a whole.

Again, this does not mean we should blame victims when they are unable to defend themselves. Self-defense is easier for some people than others, and everyone is bound to slip up on occasion. (Also, eternal vigilance can quickly shade over into paranoia.) It is always the perpetrator’s fault.

How do you change a paradigm?

Mar 3 JDN 2458546

I recently attended the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) North American Regional Convening (what a mouthful!). I didn’t present, so I couldn’t get funding for a hotel, so I commuted to LA each day. That was miserable; if I ever go again, it will be with funding.

The highlight of the conference was George Akerlof‘s keynote, which I knew would be the case from the start. The swag bag labeled “Rebel Without a Paradigm” was also pretty great (though not as great as the “Totes Bi” totes at the Human Rights Council Time to THRIVE conference).

The rest of the conference was… a bit strange, to be honest. They had a lot of slightly cheesy interactive activities and exhibits; the conference was targeted at grad students, but some of these would have drawn groans from my more jaded undergrads (and “jaded grad student” is a redundancy). The poster session was pathetically small; I think there were literally only three posters. (Had I known in time for the deadline, I could surely have submitted a poster.)

The theme of the conference was challenging the neoclassical paradigm. This was really the only unifying principle. So we had quite an eclectic mix of presenters: There were a few behavioral economists (like Akerlof himself), and some econophysicists and complexity theorists, but mostly the conference was filled with a wide variety of heterodox theorists, ranging all the way from Austrian to Marxist. Also sprinkled in were a few outright cranks, whose ideas were just total nonsense; fortunately these were relatively rare.

And what really struck me about listening to the heterodox theorists was how mainstream it made me feel. I went to a session on development economics, expecting randomized controlled trials of basic income and maybe some political economy game theory, and instead saw several presentations of neo-Marxist postcolonial theory. At the AEA conference I felt like a radical firebrand; at the YSI conference I felt like a holdout of the ancien regime. Is this what it feels like to push the envelope without leaping outside it?

The whole atmosphere of the conference was one of “Why won’t they listen to us!?” and I couldn’t help but feel like I kind of knew why. All this heterodox theory isn’t testable. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t solve the problem. Even if you are entirely correct that Latin America is poor because of colonial and neocolonial exploitation by the West (and I’m fairly certain that you’re not; standard of living under the Mexica wasn’t so great you know), that doesn’t tell me how to feed starving children in Nicaragua.

Indeed, I think it’s notable that the one Nobel Laureate they could find to speak for us was a behavioral economist. Behavioral economics has actually managed to penetrate into the mainstream somewhat. Not enough, not nearly quickly enough, to be sure—but it’s happening. Why is it happening? Because behavioral economics is testable, it’s useful, and it solves problems.

Indeed, behavioral economics is more testable than most neoclassical economics: We run lab experiments while they’re adding yet another friction or shock to the never-ending DSGE quagmire.

And we’ve already managed to solve some real policy problems this way, like Alvin Roth’s kidney matching system and Richard Thaler’s “Save More Tomorrow” program.

The (limited) success of behavioral economics came not because we continued to batter at the gates of the old paradigm demanding to be let in, but because we tied ourselves to the methodology of hard science and gathered irrefutable empirical data. We didn’t get as far as we have by complaining that economics is too much like physics; we actually made it more like physics. Physicists do experiments. They make sharp, testable predictions. They refute their hypotheses. And now, so do we.

That said, Akerlof was right when he pointed out that the insistence upon empirical precision has limited the scope of questions we are able to ask, and kept us from addressing some of the really vital economic problems in the world. And neoclassical theory is too narrow; in particular, the ongoing insistence that behavior must be modeled as perfectly rational and completely selfish is infuriating. That model has clearly failed at this point, and it’s time for something new.

So I do think there is some space for heterodox theory in economics. But there actually seems to be no shortage of heterodox theory; it’s easy to come up with ideas that are different from the mainstream. What we actually need is more ways to constrain theory with empirical evidence. The goal must be to have theory that actually predicts and explains the world better than neoclassical theory does—and that’s a higher bar than you might imagine. Neoclassical theory isn’t an abject failure; in fact, if we’d just followed the standard Keynesian models in the Great Recession, we would have recovered much faster. Most of this neo-Marxist theory struck me as not even wrong: the ideas were flexible enough that almost any observed outcome could be fit into them.

Galileo and Einstein didn’t just come up with new ideas and complain that no one listened to them. They developed detailed, mathematically precise models that could be experimentally tested—and when they were tested, they worked better than the old theory. That is the way to change a paradigm: Replace it with one that you can prove is better.

Impostor Syndrome

Feb 24 JDN 2458539

You probably have experienced Impostor Syndrome, even if you didn’t know the word for it. (Studies estimate that over 70% of the general population, and virtually 100% of graduate students, have experienced it at least once.)

Impostor Syndrome feels like this:

All your life you’ve been building up accomplishments, and people kept praising you for them, but those things were easy, or you’ve just gotten lucky so far. Everyone seems to think you are highly competent, but you know better: Now that you are faced with something that’s actually hard, you can’t do it. You’re not sure you’ll ever be able to do it. You’re scared to try because you know you’ll fail. And now you fear that at any moment, your whole house of cards is going to come crashing down, and everyone will see what a fraud and a failure you truly are.

The magnitude of that feeling varies: For most people it can be a fleeting experience, quickly overcome. But for some it is chronic, overwhelming, and debilitating.

It may surprise you that I am in the latter category. A few years ago, I went to a seminar on Impostor Syndrome, and they played a “Bingo” game where you collect spaces by exhibiting symptoms: I won.

In a group of about two dozen students who were there specifically because they were worried about Impostor Syndrome, I exhibited the most symptoms. On the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, I score 90%. Anything above 60% is considered diagnostic, though there is no DSM disorder specifically for Impostor Syndrome.

Another major cause of Impostor Syndrome is being an underrepresented minority. Women, people of color, and queer people are at particularly high risk. While men are less likely to experience Impostor Syndrome, we tend to experience it more intensely when we do.

Aside from being a graduate student, which is basically coextensive with Impostor Syndrome, being a writer seems to be one of the strongest predictors of Impostor Syndrome. Megan McArdle of The Atlantic theorizes that it’s because we were too good in English class, or, more precisely, that English class was much too easy for us. We came to associate our feelings of competence and accomplishment with tasks simply coming so easily we barely even had to try.

But I think there’s a bigger reason, which is that writers face rejection letters. So many rejection letters. 90% of novels are rejected at the query stage; then a further 80% are rejected at the manuscript review stage; this means that a given query letter has about a 2% chance of acceptance. This means that even if you are doing everything right and will eventually get published, you can on average expected 50 rejection letters. I collected a little over 20 and ran out of steam, my will and self-confidence utterly crushed. But statistically I should have continued for at least 30 more. In fact, it’s worse than that; you should always expect to continue 50 more, up until you finally get accepted—this is a memoryless distribution. And if always having to expect to wait for 50 more rejection letters sounds utterly soul-crushing, that’s because it is.

And that’s something fiction writing has in common with academic research. Top journals in economics have acceptance rates between 3% and 8%. I’d say this means you need to submit between 13 and 34 times to get into a top journal, but that’s nonsense; there are only 5 top journals in economics. So it’s more accurate to say that with any given paper, no matter how many times you submit, you only have about a 30% chance of getting into a top journal. After that, your submissions will necessarily not be to top journals. There are enough good second-tier journals that you can probably get into one eventually—after submitting about a dozen times. And maybe a hiring or tenure committee will care about a second-tier publication. It might count for something. But it’s those top 5 journals that really matter. If for every paper you have in JEBO or JPubE, another candidate has a paper in AER or JPE, they’re going to hire the other candidate. Your paper could use better methodology on a more important question, and be better written—but if for whatever reason AER didn’t like it, that’s what will decide the direction of your career.

If I were trying to design a system that would inflict maximal Impostor Syndrome, I’m not sure I could do much better than this. I guess I’d probably have just one top journal instead of five, and I’d make the acceptance rate 1% instead of 3%. But this whole process of high-stakes checkpoints and low chances of getting on a tenure track that will by no means guarantee actually getting tenure? That’s already quite well-optimized. It’s really a brilliant design, if that’s the objective. You select a bunch of people who have experienced nothing but high achievement their whole lives. If they ever did have low achievement, for whatever reason (could be no fault of their own, you don’t care), you’d exclude them from the start. You give them a series of intensely difficult tasks—tasks literally no one else has ever done that may not even be possible—with minimal support and utterly irrelevant and useless “training”, and evaluate them constantly at extremely high stakes. And then at the end you give them an almost negligible chance of success, and force even those who do eventually succeed to go through multiple steps of failure and rejection beforehand. You really maximize the contrast between how long a streak of uninterrupted successes they must have had in order to be selected in the first place, and how many rejections they have to go through in order to make it to the next level.

(By the way, it’s not that there isn’t enough teaching and research for all these PhD graduates; that’s what universities want you to think. It’s that universities are refusing to open up tenure-track positions and instead relying upon adjuncts and lecturers. And the obvious reason for that is to save money.)

The real question is why we let them put us through this. I’m wondering that more and more every day.

I believe in science. I believe I could make a real contribution to human knowledge—at least, I think I still believe that. But I don’t know how much longer I can stand this gauntlet of constant evaluation and rejection.

I am going through a particularly severe episode of Impostor Syndrome at the moment. I am at an impasse in my third-year research paper, which is supposed to be done by the end of the summer. My dissertation committee wants me to revise my second-year paper to submit to journals, and I just… can’t do it. I have asked for help from multiple sources, and received conflicting opinions. At this point I can’t even bring myself to work on it.

I’ve been aiming for a career as an academic research scientist for as long as I can remember, and everyone tells me that this is what I should do and where I belong—but I don’t really feel like I belong anymore. I don’t know if I have a thick enough skin to get through all these layers of evaluation and rejection. Everyone tells me I’m good at this, but I don’t feel like I am. It doesn’t come easily the way I had come to expect things to come easily. And after I’ve done the research, written the paper—the stuff that I was told was the real work—there are all these extra steps that are actually so much harder, so much more painful—submitting to journals and being rejected over, and over, and over again, practically watching the graph of my career prospects plummet before my eyes.

I think that what really triggered my Impostor Syndrome was finally encountering things I’m not actually good at. It sounds arrogant when I say it, but the truth is, I had never had anything in my entire academic experience that felt genuinely difficult. There were things that were tedious, or time-consuming; there were other barriers I had to deal with, like migraines, depression, and the influenza pandemic. But there was never any actual educational content I had difficulty absorbing and understanding. Maybe if I had, I would be more prepared for this. But of course, if that were the case, they’d never let me into grad school at all. Just to be here, I had to have an uninterrupted streak of easy success after easy success—so now that it’s finally hard, I feel completely blindsided. I’m finally genuinely challenged by something academic, and I can’t handle it. There’s math I don’t know how to do; I’ve never felt this way before.

I know that part of the problem is internal: This is my own mental illness talking. But that isn’t much comfort. Knowing that the problem is me doesn’t exactly reduce the feeling of being a fraud and a failure. And even a problem that is 100% inside my own brain isn’t necessarily a problem I can fix. (I’ve had migraines in my brain for the last 18 years; I still haven’t fixed them.)

There is so much that the academic community could do so easily to make this problem better. Stop using the top 5 journals as a metric, and just look at overall publication rates. Referee publications double-blind, so that grad students know their papers will actually be read and taken seriously, rather than thrown out as soon as the referee sees they don’t already have tenure. Or stop obsessing over publications all together, and look at the detailed content of people’s work instead of maximizing the incentive to keep putting out papers that nobody will ever actually read. Open up more tenure-track faculty positions, and stop hiring lecturers and adjuncts. If you have to save money, do it by cutting salaries for administrators and athletic coaches. And stop evaluating constantly. Get rid of qualifying exams. Get rid of advancement exams. Start from the very beginning of grad school by assigning a mentor to each student and getting directly into working on a dissertation. Don’t make the applied econometrics researchers take exams in macro theory. Don’t make the empirical macroeconomists study game theory. Focus and customize coursework specifically on what grad students will actually need for the research they want to do, and don’t use grades at all. Remove the evaluative element completely. We should feel as though we are allowed to not know things. We should feel as though we are allowed to get things wrong. You are supposed to be teaching us, and you don’t seem to know how to do that; you just evaluate us constantly and expect us to learn on our own.

But none of those changes are going to happen. Certainly not in time for me, and probably not ever, because people like me who want the system to change are precisely the people the current system seems designed to weed out. It’s the ones who make it through the gauntlet, and convince themselves that it was their own brilliance and hard work that carried them through (not luck, not being a White straight upper-middle-class cis male, not even perseverance and resilience in the face of rejection), who end up making the policies for the next generation.

Because those who should be fixing the problem refuse to do so, that leaves the rest of us. What can we do to relieve Impostor Syndrome in ourselves or those around us?

You’d be right to take any advice I give now with a grain of salt; it’s obviously not working that well on me. But maybe it can help someone else. (And again I realize that “Don’t listen to me, I have no idea what I’m talking about” is exactly what someone with Impostor Syndrome would say.)

One of the standard techniques for dealing with Impostor Syndrome is called self-compassion. The idea is to be as forgiving to yourself as you would be to someone you love. I’ve never been good at this. I always hold myself to a much higher standard than I would hold anyone else—higher even than I would allow anyone to impose on someone else. After being told my whole life how brilliant and special I am, I internalized it in perhaps the most toxic way possible: I set my bar higher. Things that other people would count as great success I count as catastrophic failure. “Good enough” is never good enough.

Another good suggestion is to change your comparison set: Don’t compare yourself just to faculty or other grad students, compare yourself to the population as a whole. Others will tell you to stop comparing altogether, but I don’t know if that’s even possible in a capitalist labor market.

I’ve also had people encourage me to focus on my core motivations, remind myself what really matters and why I want to be a scientist in the first place. But it can be hard to keep my eye on that prize. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do the things I originally set out to do, or if it’s trying to fit other people’s molds and being rejected repeatedly over and over again for the rest of my life.

I think the best advice I’ve ever received on dealing with Impostor Syndrome was actually this: “Realize that nobody knows what they’re doing.” The people who are the very best at things… really aren’t all that good at them. If you look around carefully, the evidence of incompetence is everywhere. Look at all the books that get published that weren’t worth writing, all the songs that get recorded that weren’t worth singing. Think about the easily-broken electronic gadgets, the glitchy operating systems, the zero-day exploits, the data breaches, the traffic lights that are timed so badly they make the traffic jams worse. Remember that the leading cause of airplane crashes is pilot error, that medical mistakes are the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Think about every vending machine that ate your dollar, every time your cable went out in a storm. All those people around you who look like they are competent and successful? They aren’t. They are just as confused and ignorant and clumsy as you are. Most of them also feel like frauds, at least some of the time.

The “market for love” is a bad metaphor

Feb 14 JDN 2458529

Valentine’s Day was this past week, so let’s talk a bit about love.

Economists would never be accused of being excessively romantic. To most neoclassical economists, just about everything is a market transaction. Love is no exception.

There are all sorts of articles and books and an even larger number of research papers going back multiple decades and continuing all the way through until today using the metaphor of the “marriage market”.

In a few places, marriage does actually function something like a market: In China, there are places where your parents will hire brokers and matchmakers to select a spouse for you. But even this isn’t really a market for love or marriage. It’s a market for matchmaking services. The high-tech version of this is dating sites like OkCupid.
And of course sex work actually occurs on markets; there is buying and selling of services at monetary prices. There is of course a great deal worth saying on that subject, but it’s not my topic for today.

But in general, love is really nothing like a market. First of all, there is no price. This alone should be sufficient reason to say that we’re not actually dealing with a market. The whole mechanism that makes a market a market is the use of prices to achieve equilibrium between supply and demand.

A price doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary; you can barter apples for bananas, or trade in one used video game for another, and we can still legitimately call that a market transaction with a price.

But love isn’t like that either. If your relationship with someone is so transactional that you’re actually keeping a ledger of each thing they do for you and each thing you do for them so that you could compute a price for services, that isn’t love. It’s not even friendship. If you really care about someone, you set such calculations aside. You view their interests and yours as in some sense shared, aligned toward common goals. You stop thinking in terms of “me” and “you” and start thinking in terms of “us”. You don’t think “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” You think “We’re scratching each other’s backs today.”

This is of course not to say that love never involves conflict. On the contrary, love always involves conflict. Successful relationships aren’t those where conflict never happens, they are those where conflict is effectively and responsibly resolved. Your interests and your loved ones’ are never completely aligned; there will always be some residual disagreement. But the key is to realize that your interests are still mostly aligned; those small vectors of disagreement should be outweighed by the much larger vector of your relationship.

And of course, there can come a time when that is no longer the case. Obviously, there is domestic abuse, which should absolutely be a deal-breaker for anyone. But there are other reasons why you may find that a relationship ultimately isn’t working, that your interests just aren’t as aligned as you thought they were. Eventually those disagreement vectors just get too large to cancel out. This is painful, but unavoidable. But if you reach the point where you are keeping track of actions on a ledger, that relationship is already dead. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to pull the plug.

Very little of what I’ve said in the preceding paragraphs is likely to be controversial. Why, then, would economists think that it makes sense to treat love as a market?

I think this comes down to a motte and bailey doctrine. A more detailed explanation can be found at that link, but the basic idea of a motte and bailey is this: You have a core set of propositions that is highly defensible but not that interesting (the “motte”), and a broader set of propositions that are very interesting, but not as defensible (the “bailey”). The terms are related to a medieval defensive strategy, in which there was a small, heavily fortified tower called a motte, surrounded by fertile, useful land, the bailey. The bailey is where you actually want to live, but it’s hard to defend; so if the need arises, you can pull everyone back into the motte to fight off attacks. But nobody wants to live in the motte; it’s just a cramped stone tower. There’s nothing to eat or enjoy there.

The motte comprised of ideas that almost everyone agrees with. The bailey is the real point of contention, the thing you are trying to argue for—which, by construction, other people must not already agree with.

Here are some examples, which I have intentionally chosen from groups I agree with:

Feminism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “women are people”; the bailey is abortion rights, affirmative consent and equal pay legislation.

Rationalism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “rationality is good”; the bailey is atheism, transhumanism, and Bayesian statistics.

Anti-fascism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “fascists are bad”; the bailey is black bloc Antifa and punching Nazis.

Even democracy can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “people should vote for their leaders”; my personal bailey is abolition of the Electoral College, a younger voting age, and range voting.

Using a motte and bailey doctrine does not necessarily make you wrong. But it’s something to be careful about, because as a strategy it can be disingenuous. Even if you think that the propositions in the bailey all follow logically from the propositions in the motte, the people you’re talking to may not think so, and in fact you could simply be wrong. At the very least, you should be taking the time to explain how one follows from the other; and really, you should consider whether the connection is actually as tight as you thought, or if perhaps one can believe that rationality is good without being Bayesian or believe that women are people without supporting abortion rights.

I think when economists describe love or marriage as a “market”, they are applying a motte and bailey doctrine. They may actually be doing something even worse than that, by equivocating on the meaning of “market”. But even if any given economist uses the word “market” totally consistently, the fact that different economists of the same broad political alignment use the word differently adds up to a motte and bailey doctrine.

The doctrine is this: “There have always been markets.”

The motte is something like this: “Humans have always engaged in interaction for mutual benefit.”

This is undeniably true. In fact, it’s not even uninteresting. As mottes go, it’s a pretty nice one; it’s worth spending some time there. In the endless quest for an elusive “human nature”, I think you could do worse than to focus on our universal tendency to engage in interaction for mutual benefit. (Don’t other species do it too? Yes, but that’s just it—they are precisely the ones that seem most human.)

And if you want to define any mutually-beneficial interaction as a “market trade”, I guess it’s your right to do that. I think this is foolish and confusing, but legislating language has always been a fool’s errand.

But of course the more standard meaning of the word “market” implies buyers and sellers exchanging goods and services for monetary prices. You can extend it a little to include bartering, various forms of financial intermediation, and the like; but basically you’re still buying and selling.

That makes this the bailey: “Humans have always engaged in buying and selling of goods and services at prices.”

And that, dear readers, is ahistorical nonsense. We’ve only been using money for a few thousand years, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we actually started getting the majority of our goods and services via market trades. Economists like to tell a story where bartering preceded the invention of money, but there’s basically no evidence of that. Bartering seems to be what people do when they know how money works but don’t have any money to work with.

Before there was money, there were fundamentally different modes of interaction: Sharing, ritual, debts of honor, common property, and, yes, love.

These were not markets. They perhaps shared some very broad features of markets—such as the interaction for mutual benefit—but they lacked the defining attributes that make a market a market.

Why is this important? Because this doctrine is used to transform more and more of our lives into actual markets, on the grounds that they were already “markets”, and we’re just using “more efficient” kinds of markets. But in fact what’s happening is we are trading one fundamental mode of human interaction for another: Where we used to rely upon norms or trust or mutual affection, we instead rely upon buying and selling at prices.

In some cases, this actually is a good thing: Markets can be very powerful, and are often our best tool when we really need something done. In particular, it’s clear at this point that norms and trust are not sufficient to protect us against climate change. All the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” PSAs in the world won’t do as much as a carbon tax. When millions of lives are at stake, we can’t trust people to do the right thing; we need to twist their arms however we can.

But markets are in some sense a brute-force last-resort solution; they commodify and alienate (Marx wasn’t wrong about that), and despite our greatly elevated standard of living, the alienation and competitive pressure of markets seem to be keeping most of us from really achieving happiness.

This is why it’s extremely dangerous to talk about a “market for love”. Love is perhaps the last bastion of our lives that has not been commodified into a true market, and if it goes, we’ll have nothing left. If sexual relationships built on mutual affection were to disappear in favor of apps that will summon a prostitute or a sex robot at the push of a button, I would count that as a great loss for human civilization. (How we should regulate prostitution or sex robots are a different question, which I said I’d leave aside for this post.) A “market for love” is in fact a world with no love at all.