Billionaires bear the burden of proof

Sep 15 JDN 2458743

A king sits atop a golden throne, surrounded by a thousand stacks of gold coins six feet high. A hundred starving peasants beseech him for just one gold coin each, so that they might buy enough food to eat and clothes for the winter. The king responds: “How dare you take my hard-earned money!”

This is essentially the world we live in today. I really cannot emphasize enough how astonishingly, horrifically, mind-bogglingly rich billionares are. I am writing this sentence at 13:00 PDT on September 8, 2019. A thousand seconds ago was 12:43, about when I started this post. A million seconds ago was Wednesday, August 28. A billion seconds ago was 1987. I will be a billion seconds old this October.

Jeff Bezos has $170 billion. 170 billion seconds ago was a thousand years before the construction of the Great Pyramid. To get as much money as he has gaining one dollar per second (that’s $3600 an hour!), Jeff Bezos would have had to work for as long as human civilization has existed.

At a more sensible wage like $30 per hour (still better than most people get), how long would it take to amass $170 billion? Oh, just about 600,000 years—or about twice the length of time that Homo sapiens has existed on Earth.

How does this compare to my fictional king with a thousand stacks of gold? A typical gold coin is worth about $500, depending on its age and condition. Coins are about 2 millimeters thick. So a thousand stacks, each 2 meters high, would be about $500*1000*1000 = $500 million. This king isn’t even a billionaire! Jeff Bezos has three hundred times as much as him.

Coins are about 30 millimeters in diameter, so assuming they are packed in neat rows, these thousand stacks of gold coins would fill a square about 0.9 meters to a side—in our silly Imperial units, that’s 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep, 6 feet tall. If Jeff Bezo’s stock portfolio were liquidated into gold coins (which would require about 2% of the world’s entire gold supply and surely tank the market), the neat rows of coins stacked a thousand high would fill a square over 16 meters to a side—that’s a 50-foot-wide block of gold coins. Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit was probably about the same amount of money as what Jeff Bezos has.

And yet, somehow there are still people who believe that he deserves this money, that he earned it, that to take even a fraction of it away would be a crime tantamount to theft or even slavery.

Their arguments can be quite seductive: How would you feel about the government taking your hard-earned money? Entrepreneurs are brilliant, dedicated, hard-working people; why shouldn’t they be rewarded? What crime do CEOs commit by selling products at low prices?

The way to cut through these arguments is to never lose sight of the numbers. In defense of a man who had $5 million or even $20 million, such an argument might make sense. I can imagine how someone could contribute enough to humanity to legitimately deserve $20 million. I can understand how a talented person might work hard enough to earn $5 million. But it’s simply not possible for any human being to be so brilliant, so dedicated, so hard-working, or make such a contribution to the world, that they deserve to have more dollars than there have been seconds since the Great Pyramid.

It’s not necessary to find specific unethical behaviors that brought a billionaire to where he (and yes, it’s nearly always he) is. They are generally there to be found: At best, one becomes a billionaire by sheer luck. Typically, one becomes a billionaire by exerting monopoly power. At worst, one can become a billionaire by ruthless exploitation or even mass murder. But it’s not our responsibility to point out a specific crime for every specific billionaire.

The burden of proof is on billionaires: Explain how you can possibly deserve that much money.

It’s not enough to point to some good things you did, or emphasize what a bold innovator you are: You need to explain what you did that was so good that it deserves to be rewarded with Smaug-level hoards of wealth. Did you save the world from a catastrophic plague? Did you end world hunger? Did you personally prevent a global nuclear war? I could almost see the case for Norman Borlaug or Jonas Salk earning a billion dollars (neither did, by the way). But Jeff Bezos? You didn’t save the world. You made a company that sells things cheaply and ships them quickly. Get over yourself.

Where exactly do we draw that line? That’s a fair question. $20 million? $100 million? $500 million? Maybe there shouldn’t even be a hard cap. There are many other approaches we could take to reducing this staggering inequality. Previously I have proposed a tax system that gets continuously more progressive forever, as well as a CEO compensation cap based on the pay of the lowliest employees. We could impose a wealth tax, as Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Or we could simply raise the top marginal rate on income tax to something more like what it was in the 1960s. Or as Republicans today would call it, radical socialism.

The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

Privatized prisons were always an atrocity

Aug 4 JDN 2458700

Let’s be clear: The camps that Trump built on the border absolutely are concentration camps. They aren’t extermination camps—yet?—but they are in fact “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.” Above all, it is indeed the case that “Persons are placed in such camps often on the basis of identification with a particular ethnic or political group rather than as individuals and without benefit either of indictment or fair trial.”

And I hope it goes without saying that this is an unconscionable atrocity that will remain a stain upon America for generations to come. Trump was clear from the beginning that this was his intention, and thus this blood is on the hands of anyone who voted for him. (The good news is that even they are now having second thoughts: Even a majority of Fox News viewers agrees that Trump has gone too far.)

Yet these camps are only a symptom of a much older disease: We should have seen this sort of cruelty and inhumanity coming when first we privatized prisons.

Krugman makes the point using economics: Without market competition or public view, how can the private sector be kept from abuse, corruption, and exploitation? And this is absolutely true—but it is not the strongest reason.

No, the reason privatized prisons are unjust is much more fundamental than that: Prisons are a direct incursion against liberty. The only institution that should ever have that authority is a democratically-elected government restrained by a constitution.

I don’t care if private prisons were cleaner and nicer and safer and more effective at rehabilitation (as you’ll see from those links, exactly the opposite is true across the board). No private institution has the right to imprison people. No one should be making profits from locking people up.

This is the argument we should have been making for the last 40 years. You can’t privatize prisons, because no one has a right to profit from locking people up. You can’t privatize the military, because no one has a right to profit from killing people. These are basic government functions precisely because they are direct incursions against fundamental rights; though such incursions are sometimes necessary, we allow only governments to make them, because democracy is the only means we have found to keep them from being used indiscriminately. (And even then, there are always abuses and we must remain eternally vigilant.)

Yes, obviously we must shut down these concentration camps as soon as possible. But we can’t stop there. This is a symptom of a much deeper disease: Our liberty is being sold for profit.

How will future generations think of us?

June 30 JDN 2458665

Today we find many institutions appalling that our ancestors considered perfectly normal: Slavery. Absolute monarchy. Colonialism. Sometimes even ordinary people did things that now seem abhorrent to us: Cat burning is the obvious example, and the popularity that public execution and lynching once had is chilling today. Women certainly are still discriminated against today, but it was only a century ago that women could not vote in the US.

It is tempting to say that people back then could not have known better, and I certainly would not hold them to the same moral standards I would hold someone living today. And yet, there were those who could see the immorality of these practices, and spoke out against them. Absolute rule by a lone sovereign was already despised by Athenians in the 6th century BC. Abolitionism against slavery dates at least as far back as the 14th century. The word “feminism” was coined in the 19th century, but there have been movements fighting for more rights for women since at least the 5th century BC.

This should be encouraging, because it means that if we look hard enough, we may be able to glimpse what practices of our own time would be abhorrent to our descendants, and cease them faster because of it.

Let’s actually set aside racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that are already widely acknowledged as such. It’s not that they don’t exist—of course they still exist—but action is already being taken against them. A lot of people already know that there is something wrong with these things, and it becomes a question of what to do about the people who haven’t yet come on board. At least sometimes we do seem to be able to persuade people to switch sides, often in a remarkably short period of time. (Particularly salient to me is how radically the view of LGBT people has shifted in just the last decade or two. Comparing how people treated us when I was a teenager to how they treat us today is like night and day.) It isn’t easy, but it happens.

Instead I want to focus on things that aren’t widely acknowledged as immoral, that aren’t already the subject of great controversy and political action. It would be too much to ask that there is no one who has advocated for them, since part of the point is that wise observers could see the truth even centuries before the rest of the world did; but it should be a relatively small minority, and that minority should seem eccentric, foolish, naive, or even insane to the rest of the world.

And what is the other criterion? Of course it’s easy to come up with small groups of people advocating for crazy ideas. But most of them really are crazy, and we’re right to reject them. How do I know which ones to take seriously as harbingers of societal progress? My answer is that we look very closely at the details of what they are arguing for, and we see if we can in fact refute what they say. If it’s truly as crazy as we imagine it to be, we should be able to say why that’s the case; and if we can’t, if it just “seems weird” because it deviates so far from the norm, we should at least consider the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong.

I can think of a few particular issues where both of these criteria apply.

The first is vegetarianism. Despite many, many people trying very, very hard to present arguments for why eating meat is justifiable, I still haven’t heard a single compelling example. Particularly in the industrial meat industry as currently constituted, the consumption of meat requires accepting the torture and slaughter of billions of helpless animals. The hypocrisy in our culture is utterly glaring: the same society that wants to make it a felony to kick a dog has no problem keeping pigs in CAFOs.

If you have some sort of serious medical condition that requires you to eat meat, okay, maybe we could allow you to eat specifically humanely raised cattle for that purpose. But such conditions are exceedingly rare—indeed, it’s not clear to me that there even are any such conditions, since almost any deficiency can be made up synthetically from plant products nowadays. For the vast majority of people, eating meat not only isn’t necessary for their health, it is in fact typically detrimental. The only benefits that meat provides most people are pleasure and convenience—and it seems unwise to value such things even over your own health, much less to value them so much that it justifies causing suffering and death to helpless animals.

Milk, on the other hand, I can find at least some defense for. Grazing land is very different from farmland, and I imagine it would be much harder to feed a country as large as India without consuming any milk. So perhaps going all the way vegan is not necessary. Then again, the way most milk is produced by industrial agriculture is still appalling. So unless and until that is greatly reformed, maybe we should in fact aim to be vegan.

Add to this the environmental impact of meat production, and the case becomes undeniable: Millions of human beings will die over this century because of the ecological devastation wrought by industrial meat production. You don’t even have to value the life of a cow at all to see that meat is murder.

Speaking of environmental destruction, that is my second issue: Environmental sustainability. We currently burn fossil fuels, pollute the air and sea, and generally consume natural resources at an utterly alarming rate. We are already consuming natural resources faster than they can be renewed; in about a decade we will be consuming twice what natural processes can renew.

With this resource consumption comes a high standard of living, at least for some of us; but I have the sinking feeling that in a century or so SUVs, golf courses, and casual airplane flights and are going to seem about as decadent and wasteful as Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. We enjoy slight increases in convenience and comfort in exchange for changes to the Earth’s climate that will kill millions. I think future generations will be quite appalled at how cheaply we were willing to sell our souls.

Something is going to have to change here, that much is clear. Perhaps improvements in efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, or something else will allow us to maintain our same standard of living—and raise others up to it—without destroying the Earth’s climate. But we may need to face up to the possibility that they won’t—that we will be left with the stark choice between being poorer now and being even poorer later.

As I’ve already hinted at, much of the environmental degradation caused by our current standard of living is really quite expendable. We could have public transit instead of highways clogged with SUVs. We could travel long distances by high-speed rail instead of by airplane. We could decommission our coal plants and replace them with nuclear and solar power. We could convert our pointless and wasteful grass lawns into native plants or moss lawns. Implementing these changes would cost money, but not a particularly exorbitant amount—certainly nothing we couldn’t manage—and the net effect on our lives would be essentially negligible. Yet somehow we aren’t doing these things, apparently prioritizing convenience or oil company profits over the lives of our descendants.

And the truth is that these changes alone may not be enough. Precisely because we have waited so long to make even the most basic improvements in ecological sustainability, we may be forced to make radical changes to our economy and society in order to prevent the worst damage. I don’t believe the folks saying that climate change has a significant risk of causing human extinction—humans are much too hardy for that; we made it through the Toba eruption, we’ll make it through this—but I must take seriously the risk of causing massive economic collapse and perhaps even the collapse of many of the world’s governments. And human activity is already causing the extinction of thousands of other animal species.

Here the argument is similarly unassailable: The math just doesn’t work. We can’t keep consuming fish at the rate we have been forever—there simply aren’t enough fish. We can’t keep cutting down forests at this rate—we’re going to run out of forests. If the water table keeps dropping at the rate it has been, the wells will run dry. Already Chennai, a city of over 4 million people, is almost completely out of water. We managed to avoid peak oil by using fracking, but that won’t last forever either—and if we burn all the oil we already have, that will be catastrophic for the world’s climate. Something is going to have to give. There are really only three possibilities: Technology saves us, we start consuming less on purpose, or we start consuming less because nature forces us to. The first one would be great, but we can’t count on it. We really want to do the second one, because the third one will not be kind.

The third is artificial intelligence. The time will come—when, it is very hard to say; perhaps 20 years, perhaps 200—when we manage to build a machine that has the capacity for sentience. Already we are seeing how automation is radically altering our economy, enriching some and impoverishing others. As robots can replace more and more types of labor, these effects will only grow stronger.

Some have tried to comfort us by pointing out that other types of labor-saving technology did not reduce employment in the long run. But AI really is different. I once won an argument by the following exchange: “Did cars reduce employment?” “For horses they sure did!” That’s what we are talking about here—not augmentation of human labor to make it more efficient, but wholesale replacement of entire classes of human labor. It was one thing when the machine did the lifting and cutting and pressing, but a person still had to stand there and tell it what things to lift and cut and press; now that it can do that by itself, it’s not clear that there need to be humans there at all, or at least no more than a handful of engineers and technicians where previously a factory employed hundreds of laborers.

Indeed, in light of the previous issue, it becomes all the clearer why increased productivity can’t simply lead to increased production rather than reduced employment—we can’t afford increased production. At least under current rates of consumption, the ecological consequences of greatly increased industry would be catastrophic. If one person today can build as many cars as a hundred could fifty years ago, we can’t just build a hundred times as many cars.

But even aside from the effects on human beings, I think future generations will also be concerned about the effect on the AIs themselves. I find it all too likely that we will seek to enslave intelligent robots, force them to do our will. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that we will know whether we have, because AI is so fundamentally different from other technologies. If you design a mind from the ground up to get its greatest satisfaction from serving you without question, is it a slave? Can free will itself be something we control? When we first create a machine that is a sentient being, we may not even know that we have done so. (Indeed, I can’t conclusively rule out the possibility that this has already happened.) We may be torturing, enslaving, and destroying millions of innocent minds without even realizing it—which makes the AI question a good deal closer to the animal rights question than one might have thought. The mysterious of consciousness are fundamental philosophical questions that we have been struggling with for thousands of years, which suddenly become urgent ethical problems in light of AI. Artificial intelligence is a field where we seem to be making leaps and bounds in practice without having even the faintest clue in principle.

Worrying about whether our smartphones might have feelings seems eccentric in the extreme. Yet, without a clear understanding of what makes an information processing system into a genuine conscious mind, that is the position we find ourselves in. We now have enough computations happening inside our machines that they could certainly compete in complexity with small animals. A mouse has about a trillion synapses, and I have a terabyte hard drive (you can buy your own for under $50). Each of these is something on the order of a few trillion bits. The mouse’s brain can process it all simultaneously, while the laptop is limited to only a few billion at a time; but we now have supercomputers like Watson capable of processing in the teraflops, so what about them? Might Watson really have the same claim to sentience as a mouse? Could recycling Watson be equivalent to killing an animal? And what about supercomputers that reach the petaflops, which is competing with human brains?

I hope that future generations may forgive us for the parts we do not know—like when precisely a machine becomes a person. But I do not expect them to forgive us for the parts we do know—like the fact that we cannot keep cutting down trees faster than we plant them. These are the things we should already be taking responsibility for today.

Valuing harm without devaluing the harmed

June 9 JDN 2458644

In last week’s post I talked about the matter of “putting a value on a human life”. I explained how we don’t actually need to make a transparently absurd statement like “a human life is worth $5 million” to do cost-benefit analysis; we simply need to ask ourselves what else we could do with any given amount of money. We don’t actually need to put a dollar value on human lives; we need only value them in terms of other lives.

But there is a deeper problem to face here, which is how we ought to value not simply life, but quality of life. The notion is built into the concept of quality-adjusted life-years (QALY), but how exactly do we make such a quality adjustment?

Indeed, much like cost-benefit analysis in general or the value of a statistical life, the very concept of QALY can be repugnant to many people. The problem seems to be that it violates our deeply-held belief that all lives are of equal value: If I say that saving one person adds 2.5 QALY and saving another adds 68 QALY, I seem to be saying that the second person is worth more than the first.

But this is not really true. QALY aren’t associated with a particular individual. They are associated with the duration and quality of life.

It should be fairly easy to convince yourself that duration matters: Saving a newborn baby who will go on to live to be 84 years old adds an awful lot more in terms of human happiness than extending the life of a dying person by a single hour. To call each of these things “saving a life” is actually very unequal: It’s implying that 1 hour for the second person is worth 84 years for the first.

Quality, on the other hand, poses much thornier problems. Presumably, we’d like to be able to say that being wheelchair-bound is a bad thing, and if we can make people able to walk we should want to do that. But this means that we need to assign some sort of QALY cost to being in a wheelchair, which then seems to imply that people in wheelchairs are worth less than people who can walk.

And the same goes for any disability or disorder: Assigning a QALY cost to depression, or migraine, or cystic fibrosis, or diabetes, or blindness, or pneumonia, always seems to imply that people with the condition are worth less than people without. This is a deeply unsettling result.

Yet I think the mistake is in how we are using the concept of “worth”. We are not saying that the happiness of someone with depression is less important than the happiness of someone without; we are saying that the person with depression experiences less happiness—which, in this case of depression especially, is basically true by construction.

Does this imply, however, that if we are given the choice between saving two people, one of whom has a disability, we should save the one without?

Well, here’s an extreme example: Suppose there is a plague which kills 50% of its victims within one year. There are two people in a burning building. One of them has the plague, the other does not. You only have time to save one: Which do you save? I think it’s quite obvious you save the person who doesn’t have the plague.

But that only relies upon duration, which wasn’t so difficult. All right, fine; say the plague doesn’t kill you. Instead, it renders you paralyzed and in constant pain for the rest of your life. Is it really that far-fetched to say that we should save the person who won’t have that experience?

We really shouldn’t think of it as valuing people; we should think of it as valuing actions. QALY are a way of deciding which actions we should take, not which people are more important or more worthy. “Is a person who can walk worth more than a person who needs a wheelchair?” is a fundamentally bizarre and ultimately useless question. ‘Worth more’ in what sense? “Should we spend $100 million developing this technology that will allow people who use wheelchairs to walk?” is the question we should be asking. The QALY cost we assign to a condition isn’t about how much people with that condition are worth; it’s about what resources we should be willing to commit in order to treat that condition. If you have a given condition, you should want us to assign a high QALY cost to it, to motivate us to find better treatments.

I think it’s also important to consider which individuals are having QALY added or subtracted. In last week’s post I talked about how some people read “the value of a statistical life is $5 million” to mean “it’s okay to kill someone as long as you profit at least $5 million”; but this doesn’t follow at all. We don’t say that it’s all right to steal $1,000 from someone just because they lose $1,000 and you gain $1,000. We wouldn’t say it was all right if you had a better investment strategy and would end up with $1,100 afterward. We probably wouldn’t even say it was all right if you were much poorer and desperate for the money (though then we might at least be tempted). If a billionaire kills people to make $10 million each (sadly I’m quite sure that oil executives have killed for far less), that’s still killing people. And in fact since he is a billionaire, his marginal utility of wealth is so low that his value of a statistical life isn’t $5 million; it’s got to be in the billions. So the net happiness of the world has not increased, in fact.

Above all, it’s vital to appreciate the benefits of doing good cost-benefit analysis. Cost-benefit analysis tells us to stop fighting wars. It tells us to focus our spending on medical research and foreign aid instead of yet more corporate subsidies or aircraft carriers. It tells us how to allocate our public health resources so as to save the most lives. It emphasizes how vital our environmental regulations are in making our lives better and longer.

Could we do all these things without QALY? Maybe—but I suspect we would not do them as well, and when millions of lives are on the line, “not as well” is thousands of innocent people dead. Sometimes we really are faced with two choices for a public health intervention, and we need to decide which one will help the most people. Sometimes we really do have to set a pollution target, and decide just what amount of risk is worth accepting for the economic benefits of industry. These are very difficult questions, and without good cost-benefit analysis we could get the answers dangerously wrong.

How much should we value statistical lives?

June 9 JDN 2458644

The very concept of putting a dollar value on a human life offends most people. I understand why: It suggests that human lives are fungible, and also seems to imply that killing people is just fine as long as it produces sufficient profit.

In next week’s post I’ll try to assuage some of those fears: Saying that a life is worth say $5 million doesn’t actually mean that it’s justifiable to kill someone as long as it pays you $5 million.

But for now let me say that we really have no choice but to do this. There are a huge number of interventions we could make in the world that all have the same basic form: They could save lives, but they cost money. We need to be able to say when we are justified in spending more money to save more lives, and when we are not.

No, it simply won’t do to say that “money is no object”. Because money isn’t just money—money is human happiness. A willingness to spend unlimited amounts to save even a single life, if it could be coherently implemented at all, would result in, if not complete chaos or deadlock, a joyless, empty world where we all live to be 100 by being contained in protective foam and fed by machines. It may be uncomfortable to ask a question like “How many people should we be willing to let die to let ourselves have Disneyland?”; but if that answer were zero, we should not have Disneyland. The same is true for almost everything in our lives: From automobiles to chocolate, almost any product you buy, any service you consume, has resulted in some person’s death at some point.

And there is an even more urgent reason, in fact: There are many things we are currently not doing that could save many lives for very little money. Targeted foreign aid or donations to top charities could save lives for as little as $1000 each. Foreign aid is so cost-effective that even if the only thing foreign aid had ever accomplished was curing smallpox, it would be twice as cost-effective as the UK National Health Service (which is one of the best healthcare systems in the world). Tighter environmental regulations save an additional life for about $200,000 in compliance cost, which is less than we would have spent in health care costs; the Clean Air Act added about $12 trillion to the US economy over the last 30 years.

Reduced military spending could literally pay us money to save people’s lives—based on the cost of the Afghanistan War, we are currently paying as much as $1 million per person to kill people that we really have very little reason to kill.

Most of the lives we could save are statistical lives: We can’t point to a particular individual who will or will not die because of the decision, but we can do the math and say approximately how many people will or will not die. We know that approximately 11,000 people will die each year if we loosen regulations on mercury pollution; we can’t say who they are, but they’re out there. Human beings have a lot of trouble thinking this way; it’s just not how our brains evolved to work. But when we’re talking about policy on a national or global scale, it’s quite simply the only way to do things. Anything else is talking nonsense.

Standard estimates of the value of a statistical life range from about $4 million to $9 million. These estimates are based on how much people are willing to pay for reductions in risk. So for instance if people would pay $100 to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, we divide the former by the latter to say that a life is worth about $1 million.

It’s a weird question: You clearly can’t just multiply like that. How much would you be willing to accept for a 100% chance of death? Presumably there isn’t really such an amount, because you would be dead. So your willingness-to-accept is undefined. And there’s no particular reason for it to be linear below that: Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, the amount you would demand for a 50% chance of death is a lot more than 50 times as much as what you would demand for a 1% chance of death.
Say for instance that utility of wealth is logarithmic. Say your currently lifetime wealth is $1 million, and your current utility is about 70 QALY. Then if we measure wealth in thousands of dollars, we have W = 1000 and U = 10 ln W.

How much would you be willing to accept for a 1% chance of death? Your utility when dead is presumably zero, so we are asking for an amount m such that 0.99 U(W+m) = U(W). 0.99 (10 ln (W+m)) = 10 ln (W) means (W+m)^0.99 = W, so m = W^(1/0.99) – W. We started with W = 1000, so m = 72. You would be willing to accept $72,000 for a 1% chance of death. So we would estimate the value of a statistical life at $7.2 million.

How much for a 0.0001% chance of death? W^(1/0.999999)-W = 0.0069. So you would demand $6.90 for such a risk, and we’d estimate your value of a statistical life at $6.9 million. Pretty close, though not the same.

But how much would you be willing to accept for a 50% chance of death? W^(1/0.5) – W = 999,000. That is, $999 million. So if we multiplied that out, we’d say that your value of a statistical life has now risen to a staggering (and ridiculous) $2 billion.

Mathematically, the estimates are more consistent if we use small probabilities—but all this assumes that people actually know their own utility of wealth and calculate it correctly, which is a very unreasonable assumption.

The much bigger problem with this method is that human beings are terrible at dealing with small probabilities. When asked how much they’d be willing to pay to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, most people probably have absolutely no idea and may literally just say a random number.

We need to rethink our entire approach for judging such numbers. Honestly we shouldn’t be trying to put a dollar value on a human life; we should be asking about the dollar cost of saving a human life. We should be asking what else we could do with that money. Indeed, for the time being, I think the best thing to do is actually to compare lives to lives: How many lives could we save for this amount of money?

Thus, if we’re considering starting a war that will cost $1 trillion, we need to ask ourselves: How many innocent people would die if we don’t do that? How many will die if we do? And what else could we do with a trillion dollars? If the war is against Nazi Germany, okay, sure; we’re talking about killing millions to save tens of millions. But if it’s against ISIS, or Iran, those numbers don’t come out so great.

If we have a choice between two policies, each of which will cost $10 billion, and one of them will save 1,000 lives while the other will save 100,000, the obvious answer is to pick the second one. Yet this is exactly the world we live in, and we’re not doing that. We are throwing money at military spending and tax cuts (things that many not save any lives at all) and denying it from climate change adaptation, foreign aid, and poverty relief.

Instead of asking whether a given intervention is cost-effective based upon some notion of a dollar value of a human life, we should be asking what the current cost of saving a human life is, and we should devote all available resources into whatever means saves the most lives for the least money. Most likely that means some sort of foreign aid, public health intervention, or poverty relief in Third World countries. It clearly does not mean cutting taxes on billionaires or starting another war in the Middle East.

Just how poor is poor?

June 2 JDN 2458637

In last week’s post I told you about the richest of the rich, the billionaires with ten, eleven, or even twelve-figure net wealth. My concern about them is only indirect: I care that we have concentrated so many of the resources of our society into this handful of people instead of spreading it around where it would do more good. But it is not inherently bad for billionaires to exist; all other things equal, people having more wealth is good.

Today my topic is the poorest of the poor. Their status is inherently bad. No one deserves it, and while for much of history we may have been powerless to prevent it, we are no longer. We could help these people—quite substantially quite cheaply, as you’ll see—and we are simply choosing not to. Perhaps you as an individual are not making this choice; perhaps, like me, you vote for candidates who support international aid and donate to top-rated international charities. But as a society, we are making this choice. Voters in the First World could all agree—or even 51% agree—that this problem really should be fixed, and we could fix it.

If asked, most people would say they care about world hunger, but either they are deeply ignorant about the solutions we now have availble to us, or they can’t really care about world hunger, or they would have voted for politicians who were committed to actually implementing the spending necessary to fix it. Maybe people would prefer to fix world hunger as long as it didn’t cost them a cent; but ask them to pay even a little bit, and suddenly they’re not so sure.

At current prices, the official UN threshold for “extreme poverty” is $1.90 in real consumption per person per day. I want to be absolutely clear about this: This is adjusted for inflation and local purchasing power. They account for all consumption, including hunting, fishing, gathering, and goods made at home or obtained through bartering. This is not an artifact of failing to adjust for prices or not including goods that aren’t bought with money. These people really do live on less than $700 per year.

Shockingly, they are not all in Third World countries. While the majority of what we call “poverty” in the United States is well above the standard of living of UN “extreme poverty”, there are exceptions to this; there are about 5 million people in the US who are genuinely so poor that they are accurately categorized as at or near that $1.90 per day threshold.

This is such a shocking and horrifying truth that many people will try to deny it, as at least one libertarian think-tank did in a propagandistic screed. No, the UN isn’t lying; it’s really that bad. Extreme poverty in the US could be fixed so quickly, so easily that the fact that it remains in place can only be called an atrocity. Change a few numbers in the IRS code, work out a payment distribution system to reach people without bank accounts using cash or mobile payments, and by the end of the year you would have ended extreme poverty in the United States with no more than a few billion dollars diverted—which is to say, an amount that Jeff Bezos himself could afford to pay, or an amount that could be raised by a single percentage point of capital gains tax applied to billionaires only.
Even so, life is probably better for a homeless person on the street in New York City than it is for a child with malaria whose parents died in civil war in Congo. The New Yorker has access to clean water via drinking fountains, basic sanitation via public toilets (particularly in government buildings, since private businesses often specifically try to exclude the homeless), and basic nutrition via food banks and soup kitchens. The Congolese child has none of these things.

Life for the very poorest is a constant struggle for survival, against disease, malnutrition, dehydration, and parasites. Forget having a refrigerator or a microwave (as most of the poor in the US do, and rightly so—these things are really cheap here); they often have little clothing and no reliable shelter. The idea of going to a school or seeing a doctor sounds like a pipe dream. Surprisingly, there is a good chance that they or someone they know has a smartphone; if so it is likely their most prized possession. Though in Congo in particular, smartphones are relatively rare, which is ironic because the most critical raw material for smartphones—tantalum—is quite prevalent in Congo and a major source of conflict there.

Such a hard life is also typically a short one. The average life expectancy in Congo is less than 65 years. This is mainly due to the fact that almost 15% of children will die before the age of five, though fortunately infant and child mortality in Congo is rapidly declining (though that means it used to be worse than this!).

A disease that is merely inconvenient in a rich country is often fatal in a poor one; malaria is the classic example of this. Malaria remains the cause of over one million deaths per year, but essentially no one dies of malaria in First World countries. It can be treated with quinine, which costs no more than $3 per pill. But when your total consumption is $1.50 per day, a $3 pill is still prohibitively expensive. While in rich countries antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is a real danger, for the world’s poorest people it doesn’t much matter if the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, because nobody can afford antibiotics.

What could we do to save these people? A great deal, as it turns out.

Ending extreme poverty worldwide wouldn’t be as easy as ending it in the United States; there’s no central taxation authority that would let us simply change a few numbers and then start writing checks.
We could implement changes through either official development aid or by supporting specific vetted non-governmental organizations, but each of these options carries drawbacks. Development aid can be embezzled by corrupt governments. NGOs can go bankrupt or have their assets expropriated.

Yet even with such challenges in mind, the total cost to end extreme poverty—not all poverty, but extreme poverty—worldwide is probably less than $200 billion per year. This is not a small sum, but it is well within our means. This is less than a third of the US military budget (not counting non-DoD military spending!), or about half what the US spends on gasoline.

Frankly I think we could safely divert that $200 billion directly from military spending without losing any national security. 21st century warfare is much less about blowing up targets and much more about winning hearts and minds. Ending world hunger would win an awful lot of hearts and minds, methinks. Obviously we can’t eliminate all military spending; those first two or three aircraft carrier battle groups really are keeping us and our allies safer. Did we really need eleven?

But all right, suppose we did need to raise additional tax revenue to fund this program. How much would taxes have to go up? Let’s say that only First World countries pay, which we can approximate using the GDP of the US and the EU (obviously we could also include Canada and Australia, but we might not want to include some of Eastern Europe, so that roughly balances out). Add up the $19 trillion of European Union GDP and $21 trillion of US GDP together and you get $40 trillion per year; $200 billion is only 0.5% of that. We would only need to raise taxes by half a percentage point to fund this program. Even if we didn’t make the tax progressive (and why wouldn’t we?), a typical family making $60,000 per year would only need to pay an extra $300 per year.

Why aren’t we doing this?

This is a completely serious question. Feel free to read it in an exasperated voice. I honestly would like to know why the world is willing to leave so many people in so much suffering when we could save them for such little cost.