How much should we give?

Nov 4 JDN 2458427

How much should we give of ourselves to others?

I’ve previously struggled with this basic question when it comes to donating money; I have written multiple posts on it now, some philosophical, some empirical, and some purely mathematical.

But the question is broader than this: We don’t simply give money. We also give effort. We also give emotion. Above all, we also give time. How much should we be volunteering? How many protest marches should we join? How many Senators should we call?

It’s easy to convince yourself that you aren’t doing enough. You can always point to some hour when you weren’t doing anything particularly important, and think about all the millions of lives that hang in the balance on issues like poverty and climate change, and then feel a wave of guilt for spending that hour watching Netflix or playing video games instead of doing one more march. This, however, is clearly unhealthy: You won’t actually make yourself into a more effective activist, you’ll just destroy yourself psychologically and become no use to anybody.

I previously argued for a sort of Kantian notion that we should commit to giving our fair share, defined as the amount we would have to give if everyone gave that amount. This is quite appealing, and if I can indeed get anyone to donate 1% of their income as a result, I will be quite glad. (If I can get 100 people to do so, that’s better than I could ever have done myself—a good example of highly cost-effective slacktivism.)

Lately I have come to believe that this is probably inadequate. We know that not everyone will take this advice, which means that by construction it won’t be good enough to actually solve global problems.

This means I must make a slightly greater demand: Define your fair share as the amount you would have to give if everyone among people who are likely to give gave that amount.

Unfortunately, this question is considerably harder. It may not even have a unique answer. The number of people willing to give an amount n is obviously dependent upon the amount x itself, and we are nowhere close to knowing what that function n(x) looks like.

So let me instead put some mathematical constraints on it, by choosing an elasticity. Instead of an elasticity of demand or elasticity of supply, we could call this an elasticity of contribution.

Presumably the elasticity is negative: The more you ask of people, the fewer people you’ll get to contribute.

Suppose that the elasticity is something like -0.5, where contribution is relatively inelastic. This means that if you increase the amount you ask for by 2%, you’ll only decrease the number of contributors by 1%. In that case, you should be like Peter Singer and ask for everything. At that point, you’re basically counting on Bill Gates to save us, because nobody else is giving anything. The total amount contributed n(x) * x is increasing in x.

On the other hand, suppose that elasticity is something like 2, where contribution is relatively elastic. This means that if you increase the amount you ask for by 2%, you will decrease the number of contributors by 4%. In that case, you should ask for very little. You’re asking everyone in the world to give 1% of their income, as I did earlier. The total amount contributed n(x) * x is now decreasing in x.

But there is also a third option: What if the elasticity is exactly -1, unit elastic? Then if you increase the amount you ask for by 2%, you’ll decrease the number of contributors by 2%. Then it doesn’t matter how much you ask for: The total amount contributed n(x) * x is constant.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the elasticity is constant over all possible choices of x—indeed, it would be quite surprising if it were. A quite likely scenario is that contribution is inelastic for small amounts, then passes through a regime where it is nearly unit elastic, and finally it becomes elastic as you start asking for really large amounts of money.

The simplest way to model that is to just assume that n(x) is linear in x, something like n = N – k x.

There is a parameter N that sets the maximum number of people who will ever donate, and a parameter k that sets how rapidly the number of contributors drops off as the amount asked for increases.

The first-order condition for maximizing n(x) * x is then quite simple: x = N/(2k)

This actually turns out to be the precisely the point at which the elasticity of contribution is -1.

The total amount you can get under that condition is N2/(4k)

Of course, I have no idea what N and k are in real life, so this isn’t terribly helpful. But what I really want to know is whether we should be asking for more money from each person, or asking for less money and trying to get more people on board.

In real life we can sometimes do both: Ask each person to give more than they are presently giving, whatever they are presently giving. (Just be sure to run your slogans by a diverse committee, so you don’t end up with “I’ve upped my standards. Now, up yours!”) But since we’re trying to find a benchmark level to demand of ourselves, let’s ignore that for now.

About 25% of American adults volunteer some of their time, averaging 140 hours of volunteer work per year. This is about 1.6% of all the hours in a year, or 2.4% of all waking hours. Total monetary contributions in the US reached $400 billion for the first time this year; this is about 2.0% of GDP. So the balance between volunteer hours and donations is actually pretty even. It would probably be better to tilt it a bit more toward donations, but it’s really not bad. About 60% of US households made some sort of charitable contribution, though only half of these received the charitable tax deduction.

This suggests to me that the quantity of people who give is probably about as high as it’s going to get—and therefore we need to start talking more about the amount of money. We may be in the inelastic regime, where the way to increase total contributions is to demand more from each individual.

Our goal is to increase the total contribution to poverty eradication by about 1% of GDP in both the US and Europe. So if 60% of people give, and currently total contributions are about 2.0% of GDP, this means that the average contribution is about 3.3% of the contributor’s gross income. Therefore I should tell them to donate 4.3%, right? Not quite; some of them might drop out entirely, and the rest will have to give more to compensate.
Without knowing the exact form of the function n(x), I can’t say precisely what the optimal value is. But it is most likely somewhat larger than 4.3%; 5% would be a nice round number in the right general range. This would raise contributions in the US to 2.6% of GDP, or about $500 billion. That’s a 20% increase over the current level, which is large, but feasible.

Accomplishing a similar increase in Europe would then give us a total of $200 billion per year in additional funds to fight global poverty; this might not quite be enough to end world hunger (depending on which estimate you use), but it would definitely have a large impact.

I asked you before to give 1%. I am afraid I must now ask for more. Set a target of 5%. You don’t have to reach it this year; you can gradually increase your donations each year for several years (I call this “Save More Lives Tomorrow”, after Thaler’s highly successful program “Save More Tomorrow”). This is in some sense more than your fair share; I’m relying on the assumption that half the population won’t actually give anything. But ultimately this isn’t about what’s fair to us. It’s about solving global problems.

What really works against bigotry

Sep 30 JDN 2458392

With Donald Trump in office, I think we all need to be thinking carefully about what got us to this point, how we have apparently failed in our response to bigotry. It’s good to see that Kavanaugh’s nomination vote has been delayed pending investigations, but we can’t hope to rely on individual criminal accusations to derail every potentially catastrophic candidate. The damage that someone like Kavanaugh would do to the rights of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people is too severe to risk. We need to attack this problem at its roots: Why are there so many bigoted leaders, and so many bigoted voters willing to vote for them?

The problem is hardly limited to the United States; we are witnessing a global crisis of far-right ideology, as even the UN has publicly recognized.

I think the left made a very dangerous wrong turn with the notion of “call-out culture”. There is now empirical data to support me on this. Publicly calling people racist doesn’t make them less racist—in fact, it usually makes them more racist. Angrily denouncing people doesn’t change their minds—it just makes you feel righteous. Our own accusatory, divisive rhetoric is part of the problem: By accusing anyone who even slightly deviates from our party line (say, by opposing abortion in some circumstances, as 75% of Americans do?) of being a fascist, we slowly but surely push more people toward actual fascism.

Call-out culture encourages a black-and-white view of the world, where there are “good guys” (us) and “bad guys” (them), and our only job is to fight as hard as possible against the “bad guys”. It frees us from the pain of nuance, complexity, and self-reflection—at only the cost of giving up any hope of actually understanding the real causes or solving the problem. Bigotry is not something that “other” people have, which you, fine upstanding individual, could never suffer from. We are all Judy Hopps.

This is not to say we should do nothing—indeed, that would be just as bad if not worse. The rise of neofascism has been possible largely because so many people did nothing. Knowing that there is bigotry in all of us shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that some people are far worse than others, or paralyze us against constructively improving ourselves and our society. See the shades of gray without succumbing to the Fallacy of Gray.

The most effective interventions at reducing bigotry are done in early childhood; obviously, it’s far too late for that when it comes to people like Trump and Kavanaugh.

But there are interventions that can work at reducing bigotry among adults. We need to first understand where the bigotry comes from—and it doesn’t always come from the same source. We need to be willing to look carefully—yes, even sympathetically—at people with bigoted views so that we can understand them.

There are deep, innate systems in the human brain that make bigotry come naturally to us. Even people on the left who devote their lives to combating discrimination against women, racial minorities and LGBT people can still harbor bigoted attitudes toward other groups—such as rural people or Republicans. If you think that all Republicans are necessarily racist, that’s not a serious understanding of what motivates Republicans—that’s just bigotry on your part. Trump is racist. Pence is racist. One could argue that voting for them constitutes, in itself, a racist act. But that does not mean that every single Republican voter is fundamentally and irredeemably racist.

It’s also important to have conversations face-to-face. I must admit that I am personally terrible at this; despite training myself extensively in etiquette and public speaking to the point where most people perceive me as charismatic, even charming, deep down I am still a strong introvert. I dislike talking in person, and dread talking over the phone. I would much prefer to communicate entirely in written electronic communication—but the data is quite clear on this: Face-to-face conversations work better at changing people’s minds. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but by being there in person, you limit their ability to ignore you or dismiss you; you aren’t a tweet from the void, but an actual person, sitting there in front of them.

Speak with friends and family members. This, I know, can be especially awkward and painful. In the last few years I have lost connections with friends who were once quite close to me as a result of difficult political conversations. But we must speak up, for silence becomes complicity. And speaking up really can work.

Don’t expect people to change their entire worldview overnight. Focus on small, concrete policy ideas. Don’t ask them to change who they are; ask them to change what they believe. Ask them to justify and explain their beliefs—and really listen to them when they do. Be open to the possibility that you, too might be wrong about something.

If they say “We should deport all illegal immigrants!”, point out that whenever we try this, a lot of fields go unharvested for lack of workers, and ask them why they are so concerned about illegal immigrants. If they say “Illegal immigrants come here and commit crimes!” point them to the statistical data showing that illegal immigrants actually commit fewer crimes on average than native-born citizens (probably because they are more afraid of what happens if they get caught).

If they are concerned about Muslim immigrants influencing our culture in harmful ways, first, acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about Islamic cultural values (particularly toward women and LGBT people)but then point out that over 90% of Muslim-Americans are proud to be American, and that welcoming people is much more effective at getting them to assimilate into our culture than keeping them out and treating them as outsiders.

If they are concerned about “White people getting outnumbered”, first point out that White people are still over 70% of the US population, and in most rural areas there are only a tiny fraction of non-White people. Point out that Census projections showing the US will be majority non-White by 2045 are based on naively extrapolating current trends, and we really have no idea what the world will look like almost 30 years from now. Next, ask them why they worry about being “outnumbered”; get them to consider that perhaps racial demographics don’t have to be a matter of zero-sum conflict.

After you’ve done this, you will feel frustrated and exhausted, and the relationship between you and the person you’re trying to convince will be strained. You will probably feel like you have accomplished absolutely nothing to change their mind—but you are wrong. Even if they don’t acknowledge any change in their beliefs, the mere fact that you sat down and asked them to justify what they believe, and presented calm, reasonable, cogent arguments against those beliefs will have an effect. It will be a small effect, difficult for you to observe in that moment. But it will still be an effect.

Think about the last time you changed your mind about something important. (I hope you can remember such a time; none of us were born being right about everything!) Did it happen all at once? Was there just one, single knock-down argument that convinced you? Probably not. (On some mathematical and scientific questions I’ve had that experience: Oh, wow, yeah, that proof totally demolishes what I believed. Well, I guess I was wrong. But most beliefs aren’t susceptible to such direct proof.) More likely, you were presented with arguments from a variety of sources over a long span of time, gradually chipping away at what you thought you knew. In the moment, you might not even have admitted that you thought any differently—even to yourself. But as the months or years went by, you believed something quite different at the end than you had at the beginning.

Your goal should be to catalyze that process in other people. Don’t take someone who is currently a frothing neo-Nazi and expect them to start marching with Black Lives Matter. Take someone who is currently a little bit uncomfortable about immigration, and calm their fears. Don’t take someone who thinks all poor people are subhuman filth and try to get them to support a basic income. Take someone who is worried about food stamps adding to our national debt, and show them how it is a small portion of our budget. Don’t take someone who thinks global warming was made up by the Chinese and try to get them to support a ban on fossil fuels. Take someone who is worried about gas prices going up as a result of carbon taxes and show them that carbon offsets would add only about $100 per person per year while saving millions of lives.

And if you’re ever on the other side, and someone has just changed your mind, even a little bit—say so. Thank them for opening your eyes. I think a big part of why we don’t spend more time trying to honestly persuade people is that so few people acknowledge us when we do.

We must stop Kavanaugh now!

Post 257: Sep 16 JDN 2458378

I realized that this post can’t afford to wait a week. It’s too urgent.

It’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time: Paul Manafort has pled guilty and is cooperating with the investigation. This is a good day for Mueller, a bad day for Trump—and a great day for America.

Manafort himself has been involved in international corruption for decades. It’s a shame that he will now be getting off light on some of his crimes. But prosecutors would only do that if he had information to share with them that was of commensurate value—and I’m willing to bet that means he has information to implicate the Donald himself. Trump is right to be afraid.

Of course, we are still a long way from impeaching Trump, let alone removing him from office, much less actually restoring normalcy and legitimacy to our executive branch. We are still in a long, dark tunnel—but perhaps at last we are beginning to glimpse the light at the other end.

We should let Mueller and the federal prosecutors do their jobs; so far, they’ve done them quite well. In the meantime, instead of speculating about just how deep this rabbit hole of corruption goes (come on, we know Trump is corrupt; the only question is how much and with whom), it would be better to focus our attention on ensuring that Trump cannot leave a lasting legacy of destruction in his wake.

Priority number one is stopping Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh may seem like just another right-wing justice (after Scalia, how much worse can it get, really?), but no, he really is worse than that. He barely even pretends to respect the Constitution or past jurisprudence, and has done an astonishingly poor job of hiding his political agenda or his personal devotion to Trump. The most fundamental flaw of the US Supreme Court is the near-impossibility of removing a justice once appointed; that makes it absolutely vital that we stop his appointment from being confirmed.

It isn’t just Roe v. Wade that will be overturned if he gets on the court (that, at least, I can understand why a substantial proportion of Americans would approve—abortion is a much more complicated issue than either pro-life or pro-choice demagogues would have you believe, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy agrees). Kavanaugh looks poised to tear apart a wide variety of protections for civil rights, environmental sustainability, and labor protections. Sadly, our current Republican Party has become so craven, so beholden to party above country and all else, that they will most likely vote to advance, and ultimately, confirm, his nomination. And America, and all the world, will suffer for it, for decades to come.

If this happens, whom should we blame? Well, first of all, Trump and Kavanaugh themselves, of course. Second, the Republicans who confirmed Kavanaugh. Third, everyone who voted for Trump. But fourth? Everyone who didn’t vote for Clinton. Everyone who said, “She’s just as bad”, or “The two parties are the same”, or “He can’t possibly win”, or “We need real change”, and either sat home or voted for a third party—every one of those people has a little bit of blood on their hands. If the US Supreme Court spends the next 30 years tearing away the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and the working class, it will be at least a little bit their fault. When the asbestos returns to our buildings, the ozone layer resumes its decay, and all the world’s coastlines flood ever higher, they will bear at least some responsibility. All their claimed devotion to a morally purer “true” left wing will mean absolutely nothing—for it was only our “cynical” “corrupt” “neoliberal” pragmatism that even tried to hold the line. It is not enough to deserve to win—you must actually win.

But it’s not too late. Not yet. We can still make our voices heard. If you have any doubt about whether your Senator will vote against Kavanaugh (living in California, I frankly don’t—say what you will about Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, they have made their opposition to Kavanaugh abundantly clear at every opportunity), write or call that Senator and tell them why they must.

The confirmation vote is this Thursday, September 20. Make your voice heard by then, or it may be too late.

The inherent atrocity of “border security”

Jun 24 JDN 2458294

By now you are probably aware of the fact that a new “zero tolerance” border security policy under the Trump administration has resulted in 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents by US government agents. If you weren’t, here are a variety of different sources all telling the same basic story of large-scale state violence and terror.

Make no mistake: This is an atrocity. The United Nations has explicitly condemned this human rights violation—to which Trump responded by making an unprecedented threat of withdrawing unilaterally from the UN Human Rights Council.

#ThisIsNotNormal, and Trump was everything we feared—everything we warned—he would be: Corrupt, incompetent, cruel, and authoritarian.

Yet Trump’s border policy differs mainly in degree, not kind, from existing US border policy. There is much more continuity here than most of us would like to admit.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased “interior removals”, the most obviously cruel acts, where ICE agents break into the houses of people living in the US and take them away. Don’t let the cold language fool you; this is literally people with guns breaking into your home and kidnapping members of your family. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments, not liberal democracies.

And yet, the Obama administration actually holds the record for most deportations (though only because they included “at-border deportations” which other administrations did not). A major policy change by George W. Bush started this whole process of detaining people at the border instead of releasing them and requiring them to return for later court dates.

I could keep going back; US border enforcement has gotten more and more aggressive as time goes on. US border security staffing has quintupled since just 1990. There was a time when the United States was a land of opportunity that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”; but that time is long past.

And this, in itself, is a human rights violation. Indeed, I am convinced that border security itself is inherently a human rights violation, always and everywhere; future generations will not praise us for being more restrained than Trump’s abject and intentional cruelty, but condemn us for acting under the same basic moral framework that justified it.

There is an imaginary line in the sand just a hundred miles south of where I sit now. On one side of the line, a typical family makes $66,000 per year. On the other side, a typical family makes only $20,000. On one side of the line, life expectancy is 81 years; on the other, 77. This means that over their lifetime, someone on this side of the line can expect to make over one million dollars more than they would if they had lived on the other side. Step across this line, get a million dollars; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s an empirical fact.

This would be bizarre enough by itself; but now consider that on that line there are fences, guard towers, and soldiers who will keep you from crossing it. If you have appropriate papers, you can cross; but if you don’t, they will arrest and detain you, potentially for months. This is not how we treat you if you are carrying contraband or have a criminal record. This is how we treat you if you don’t have a passport.

How can we possibly reconcile this with the principles of liberal democracy? Philosophers have tried, to be sure. Yet they invariably rely upon some notion that the people who want to cross our border are coming from another country where they were already granted basic human rights and democratic representation—which is almost never the case. People who come here from the UK or the Netherlands or generally have the proper visas. Even people who come here from China usually have visas—though China is by no means a liberal democracy. It’s people who come here from Haiti and Nicaragua who don’t—and these are some of the most corrupt and impoverished nations in the world.

As I said in an earlier post, I was not offended that Trump characterized countries like Haiti and Syria as “shitholes”. By any objective standard, that is accurate; these countries are terrible, terrible places to live. No, what offends me is that he thinks this gives us a right to turn these people away, as though the horrible conditions of their country somehow “rub off” on them and make them less worthy as human beings. On the contrary, we have a word for people who come from “shithole” countries seeking help, and that word is “refugee”.

Under international law, “refugee” has a very specific legal meaning, under which most immigrants do not qualify. But in a broader moral sense, almost every immigrant is a refugee. People don’t uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles on a whim. They are coming here because conditions in their home country are so bad that they simply cannot tolerate them anymore, and they come to us desperately seeking our help. They aren’t asking for handouts of free money—illegal immigrants are a net gain for our fiscal system, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are looking for jobs, and willing to accept much lower wages than the workers already here—because those wages are still dramatically higher than what they had where they came from.

Of course, that does potentially mean they are competing with local low-wage workers, doesn’t it? Yes—but not as much as you might think. There is only a very weak relationship between higher immigration and lower wages (some studies find none at all!), even at the largest plausible estimates, the gain in welfare for the immigrants is dramatically higher than the loss in welfare for the low-wage workers who are already here. It’s not even a question of valuing them equally; as long as you value an immigrant at least one tenth as much as a native-born citizen, the equation comes out favoring more immigration.

This is for two reasons: One, most native-born workers already are unwilling to do the jobs that most immigrants do, such as picking fruit and laying masonry; and two, increased spending by immigrants boosts the local economy enough to compensate for any job losses.

 

But even aside from the economic impacts, what is the moral case for border security?

I have heard many people argue that “It’s our home, we should be able to decide who lives here.” First of all, there are some major differences between letting someone live in your home and letting someone come into your country. I’m not saying we should allow immigrants to force themselves into people’s homes, only that we shouldn’t arrest them when they try cross the border.

But even if I were to accept the analogy, if someone were fleeing oppression by an authoritarian government and asked to live in my home, I would let them. I would help hide them from the government if they were trying to escape persecution. I would even be willing to house people simply trying to escape poverty, as long as it were part of a well-organized program designed to ensure that everyone actually gets helped and the burden on homeowners and renters was not too great. I wouldn’t simply let homeless people come live here, because that creates all sorts of coordination problems (I can only fit so many, and how do I prioritize which ones?); but I’d absolutely participate in a program that coordinates placement of homeless families in apartments provided by volunteers. (In fact, maybe I should try to petition for such a program, as Southern California has a huge homelessness rate due to our ridiculous housing prices.)

Many people seem to fear that immigrants will bring crime, but actually they reduce crime rates. It’s really kind of astonishing how much less crime immigrants commit than locals. My hypothesis is that immigrants are a self-selected sample; the kind of person willing to move thousands of miles isn’t the kind of person who commits a lot of crimes.
I understand wanting to keep out terrorists and drug smugglers, but there are already plenty of terrorists and drug smugglers here in the US; if we are unwilling to set up border security between California and Nevada, I don’t see why we should be setting it up between California and Baja California. But okay, fine, we can keep the customs agents who inspect your belongings when you cross the border. If someone doesn’t have proper documentation, we can even detain and interrogate them—for a few hours, not a few months. The goal should be to detect dangerous criminals and nothing else. Once we are confident that you have not committed any felonies, we should let you through—frankly, we should give you a green card. We should only be willing to detain someone at the border for the same reasons we would be willing to detain a citizen who already lives here—that is, probable cause for an actual crime. (And no, you don’t get to count “illegal border crossing” as a crime, because that’s begging the question. By the same logic I could justify detaining people for jaywalking.)

A lot of people argue that restricting immigration is necessary to “preserve local culture”; but I’m not even sure that this is a goal sufficiently important to justify arresting and detaining people, and in any case, that’s really not how culture works. Culture is not advanced by purism and stagnation, but by openness and cross-pollination. From anime to pizza, many of our most valued cultural traditions would not exist without interaction across cultural boundaries. Introducing more Spanish speakers into the US may make us start saying no problemo and vamonos, but it’s not going to destroy liberal democracy. If you value culture, you should value interactions across different societies.

Most importantly, think about what you are trying to justify. Even if we stop doing Trump’s most extreme acts of cruelty, we are still talking about using military force to stop people from crossing an imaginary line. ICE basically treats people the same way the SS did. “Papers, please” isn’t something we associate with free societies—it’s characteristic of totalitarianism. We are so accustomed to border security (or so ignorant of its details) that we don’t see it for the atrocity it so obviously is.

National borders function something very much like feudal privilege. We have our “birthright”, which grants us all sorts of benefits and special privileges—literally tripling our incomes and extending our lives. We did nothing to earn this privilege. If anything, we show ourselves to be less deserving (e.g. by committing more crimes). And we use the government to defend our privilege by force.

Are people born on the other side of the line less human? Are they less morally worthy? On what grounds do we point guns at them and lock them away for the “crime” of wanting to live here?

What Trump is doing right now is horrific. But it is not that much more horrific than what we were already doing. My hope is that this will finally open our eyes to the horrors that we had been participating in all along.

The evolution of human cooperation

Jun 17 JDN 2458287

If alien lifeforms were observing humans (assuming they didn’t turn out the same way—which they actually might, for reasons I’ll get to shortly), the thing that would probably baffle them the most about us is how we organize ourselves into groups. Each individual may be part of several groups at once, and some groups are closer-knit than others; but the most tightly-knit groups exhibit extremely high levels of cooperation, coordination, and self-sacrifice.

They might think at first that we are eusocial, like ants or bees; but upon closer study they would see that our groups are not very strongly correlated with genetic relatedness. We are somewhat more closely related to those in our groups than to those outsides, usually; but it’s a remarkably weak effect, especially compared to the extremely high relatedness of worker bees in a hive. No, to a first approximation, these groups are of unrelated humans; yet their level of cooperation is equal to if not greater than that exhibited by the worker bees.

However, the alien anthropologists would find that it is not that humans are simply predisposed toward extremely high altruism and cooperation in general; when two humans groups come into conflict, they are capable of the most extreme forms of violence imaginable. Human history is full of atrocities that combine the indifferent brutality of nature red in tooth and claw with the boundless ingenuity of a technologically advanced species. Yet except for a small proportion perpetrated by individual humans with some sort of mental pathology, these atrocities are invariably committed by one unified group against another. Even in genocide there is cooperation.

Humans are not entirely selfish. But nor are they paragons of universal altruism (though some of them aspire to be). Humans engage in a highly selective form of altruism—virtually boundless for the in-group, almost negligible for the out-group. Humans are tribal.

Being a human yourself, this probably doesn’t strike you as particularly strange. Indeed, I’ve mentioned it many times previously on this blog. But it is actually quite strange, from an evolutionary perspective; most organisms are not like this.

As I said earlier, there is actually reason to think that our alien anthropologist would come from a species with similar traits, simply because such cooperation may be necessary to achieve a full-scale technological civilization, let alone the capacity for interstellar travel. But there might be other possibilities; perhaps they come from a eusocial species, and their large-scale cooperation is within an extremely large hive.

It’s true that most organisms are not entirely selfish. There are various forms of cooperation within and even across species. But these usually involve only close kin, and otherwise involve highly stable arrangements of mutual benefit. There is nothing like the large-scale cooperation between anonymous unrelated individuals that is exhibited by all human societies.

How would such an unusual trait evolve? It must require a very particular set of circumstances, since it only seems to have evolved in a single species (or at most a handful of species, since other primates and cetaceans display some of the same characteristics).

Once evolved, this trait is clearly advantageous; indeed it turned a local apex predator into a species so successful that it can actually intentionally control the evolution of other species. Humans have become a hegemon over the entire global ecology, for better or for worse. Cooperation gave us a level of efficiency in producing the necessities of survival so great that at this point most of us spend our time working on completely different tasks. If you are not a farmer or a hunter or a carpenter (and frankly, even if you are a farmer with a tractor, a hunter with a rifle, or a carpenter with a table saw), you are doing work that would simply not have been possible without very large-scale human cooperation.

This extremely high fitness benefit only makes the matter more puzzling, however: If the benefits are so great, why don’t more species do this? There must be some other requirements that other species were unable to meet.

One clear requirement is high intelligence. As frustrating as it may be to be a human and watch other humans kill each other over foolish grievances, this is actually evidence of how smart humans are, biologically speaking. We might wish we were even smarter still—but most species don’t have the intelligence to make it even as far as we have.

But high intelligence is likely not sufficient. We can’t be sure of that, since we haven’t encountered any other species with equal intelligence; but what we do know is that even Homo sapiens didn’t coordinate on anything like our current scale for tens of thousands of years. We may have had tribal instincts, but if so they were largely confined to a very small scale. Something happened, about 50,000 years ago or so—not very long ago in evolutionary time—that allowed us to increase that scale dramatically.

Was this a genetic change? It’s difficult to say. There could have been some subtle genetic mutation, something that wouldn’t show up in the fossil record. But more recent expansions in human cooperation to the level of the nation-state and beyond clearly can’t be genetic; they were much too fast for that. They must be a form of cultural evolution: The replicators being spread are ideas and norms—memes—rather than genes.

So perhaps the very early shift toward tribal cooperation was also a cultural one. Perhaps it began not as a genetic mutation but as an idea—perhaps a metaphor of “universal brotherhood” as we often still hear today. The tribes that believed this ideas prospered; the tribes that didn’t were outcompeted or even directly destroyed.

This would explain why it had to be an intelligent species. We needed brains big enough to comprehend metaphors and generalize concepts. We needed enough social cognition to keep track of who was in the in-group and who was in the out-group.

If it was indeed a cultural shift, this should encourage us. (And since the most recent changes definitely were cultural, that is already quite encouraging.) We are not limited by our DNA to only care about a small group of close kin; we are capable of expanding our scale of unity and cooperation far beyond.
The real question is whether we can expand it to everyone. Unfortunately, there is some reason to think that this may not be possible. If our concept of tribal identity inherently requires both an in-group and an out-group, then we may never be able to include everyone. If we are only unified against an enemy, never simply for our own prosperity, world peace may forever remain a dream.

But I do have a work-around that I think is worth considering. Can we expand our concept of the out-group to include abstract concepts? With phrases like “The War on Poverty” and “The War on Terror”, it would seem in fact that we can. It feels awkward; it is somewhat imprecise—but then, so was the original metaphor of “universal brotherhood”. Our brains are flexible enough that they don’t actually seem to need the enemy to be a person; it can also be an idea. If this is right, then we can actually include everyone in our in-group, as long as we define the right abstract out-group. We can choose enemies like poverty, violence, cruelty, and despair instead of other nations or ethnic groups. If we must continue to fight a battle, let it be a battle against the pitiless indifference of the universe, rather than our fellow human beings.

Of course, the real challenge will be getting people to change their existing tribal identities. In the moment, these identities seem fundamentally intractable. But that can’t really be the case—for these identities have changed over historical time. Once-important categories have disappeared; new ones have arisen in their place. Someone in 4th century Constantinople would find the conflict between Democrats and Republicans as baffling as we would find the conflict between Trinitarians and Arians. The ongoing oppression of Native American people by White people would be unfathomable to someone of the 11th century Onondaga, who could scarcely imagine an enemy more different than the Seneca west of them. Even the conflict between Russia and NATO would probably seem strange to someone living in France in 1943, for whom Germany was the enemy and Russia was at least the enemy of the enemy—and many of those people are still alive.

I don’t know exactly how these tribal identities change (I’m working on it). It clearly isn’t as simple as convincing people with rational arguments. In fact, part of how it seems to work is that someone will shift their identity slowly enough that they can’t perceive the shift themselves. People rarely seem to appreciate, much less admit, how much their own minds have changed over time. So don’t ever expect to change someone’s identity in one sitting. Don’t even expect to do it in one year. But never forget that identities do change, even within an individual’s lifetime.

False equivalence is not centrism

False equivalence is not centrism

Feb 4 JDN 2458154

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming


Centrism is not very popular these days, but I believe this is because neither its alleged adherents nor its alleged opponents actually have a clear understanding of what centrism is supposed to be. Most of what is called “centrism” in this polarized era (the US is now more politically polarized than it has been in decades) is actually false equivalence.

Most people who express pride in their “centrism” adopt a heuristic which basically amounts to taking the two positions that are most loudly proclaimed in public and averaging them. One side says “Kill all puppies”, the other side says “Don’t kill puppies”, and they proudly and self-righteously declare that the only sensible policy is to kill precisely 50% of the puppies. Anyone who says “the two parties are the same” or “liberals deny science too” is guilty of this false equivalence—and it’s all too common.

But this is not what centrism is supposed to be. A good centrist isn’t someone who looks at their existing Overton Window and chooses the mean value. A good centrist is someone who understands and appreciates Horseshoe Theory. Horseshoe Theory says that the political spectrum is not actually a straight line from left to right; it’s more of a horseshoe shape, where the far-left and the far-right curl down and toward one another. A good centrist is someone who values the top of the horseshoe, more strongly than they value whatever particular policies might move you toward the left or the right edge.

What does the top of the horseshoe represent? Democracy.

A good centrist is someone who really, truly believes in defending democracy.

What the far-left and the far-right have in common is authoritarianism:

For those on either edge of the horseshoe, people who disagree with (the collectivization of all wealth/the superiority of my master race) aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. Persuading them to vote my way is a waste of time. Freedom of speech is dangerous, because it allows them to spread their evil ideas. It would be better to suppress freedom of speech, so that only people who know the truth (read: agree with me) are allowed to speak.

Along similar lines, Slate Star Codex recently published an excellent blog post on how people seem to separate into two very broad political worldviews: There are Mistake Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to honest ignorance and error; and there are Conflict Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to the malign influence of evil enemy factions. The far-left and the far-right are overwhelmingly composed of Conflict Theorists. A good centrist is a Mistake Theorist through and through.

Being a good centrist means fighting to defend the institutions that make freedom possible. Here is a whole list of policies that neither the far-left nor the far-right particularly values that we as centrists must:

  1. Voting rights: We must fight against voter suppression and disenfranchisement wherever it occurs. We must stand up to defend the principle “one person, one vote” wherever necessary.
  2. Equality under the law: We must protect the rights of everyone to have equal representation and equal standing as citizens—including, but by no means limited to, women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

  3. Election reform: We must find ways to undermine gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and the campaign finance system that allows corporations and wealthy individuals to exert disproportionate influence.

  4. Freedom of speech: We must protect the right of everyone to speak, including those whose views we find abhorrent. Our efforts should be focused most on those who have the least representation in our discourse.

  5. Individual privacy: We must fight against the creeping rise of the surveillance state and the use of extra-legal means of intelligence gathering, particularly in domestic spying. We should be outraged that the House of Representatives voted to extend the NSA’s warrantless wiretap authority after what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA.

  6. Demilitarization and deincarceration: We must fight to contain or reverse the expansion of military and penal force that has given the United States not only a military larger than the next ten countries combined, but also the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

On some of these issues we might find agreement with the left or (less likely) the right—but even when we don’t, we must press forward. In particular, the goal of equality under the law often aligns with the goal of left-wing social justice—but there are cases where it doesn’t, cases where hatred of White straight men or a craving for vengeance against past injustice drives the left to demand things that would violate this principle. And the atavistic joy of punching Nazis in the face must never overwhelm our sacred commitment to the principles of free speech.

This doesn’t mean we can’t also adopt detailed policy views that align with the left or the right (or both). I for one support single-payer healthcare (left), progressive taxation (left), renewable energy (left), open borders (left), zoning reform (right), reductions in corporate taxes (right), free trade (right, or so I thought?), and a basic income (both—yet strangely we can’t seem to make it happen).

But being a good centrist means that these detailed policy prescriptions are always less important to you than the core principles of democracy itself. When they find out that the rest of the country is against them on something, a leftist or a rightist starts looking for ways to undermine the public will and get the policy they want. A centrist accepts that they have been outvoted and starts looking for ways to persuade the majority that they are mistaken.

Centrism is about defending the guardrails of democracy. False equivalence is not centrism; it is an obstacle to centrism. It prevents us from seeing when one side has clearly damaged those guardrails much more than the other. So let me come out and say it: At this historical juncture, in the United States, the right wing is a far greater threat to the core principles of democracy than the left. This is not to say that the left is inherently incapable of threatening democracy, or never will do so in the future; but it is to say that right here, right now, it’s the right wing we should be worried about. Punching Nazis will never be as threatening to the core of freedom as warrantless wiretaps or the discrediting of the mainstream press.

“DSGE or GTFO”: Macroeconomics took a wrong turn somewhere

Dec 31, JDN 2458119

The state of macro is good,” wrote Oliver Blanchard—in August 2008. This is rather like the turkey who is so pleased with how the farmer has been feeding him lately, the day before Thanksgiving.

It’s not easy to say exactly where macroeconomics went wrong, but I think Paul Romer is right when he makes the analogy between DSGE (dynamic stochastic general equilbrium) models and string theory. They are mathematically complex and difficult to understand, and people can make their careers by being the only ones who grasp them; therefore they must be right! Nevermind if they have no empirical support whatsoever.

To be fair, DSGE models are at least a little better than string theory; they can at least be fit to real-world data, which is better than string theory can say. But being fit to data and actually predicting data are fundamentally different things, and DSGE models typically forecast no better than far simpler models without their bold assumptions. You don’t need to assume all this stuff about a “representative agent” maximizing a well-defined utility function, or an Euler equation (that doesn’t even fit the data), or this ever-proliferating list of “random shocks” that end up taking up all the degrees of freedom your model was supposed to explain. Just regressing the variables on a few years of previous values of each other (a “vector autoregression” or VAR) generally gives you an equally-good forecast. The fact that these models can be made to fit the data well if you add enough degrees of freedom doesn’t actually make them good models. As Von Neumann warned us, with enough free parameters, you can fit an elephant.

But really what bothers me is not the DSGE but the GTFO (“get the [expletive] out”); it’s not that DSGE models are used, but that it’s almost impossible to get published as a macroeconomic theorist using anything else. Defenders of DSGE typically don’t even argue anymore that it is good; they argue that there are no credible alternatives. They characterize their opponents as “dilettantes” who aren’t opposing DSGE because we disagree with it; no, it must be because we don’t understand it. (Also, regarding that post, I’d just like to note that I now officially satisfy the Athreya Axiom of Absolute Arrogance: I have passed my qualifying exams in a top-50 economics PhD program. Yet my enmity toward DSGE has, if anything, only intensified.)

Of course, that argument only makes sense if you haven’t been actively suppressing all attempts to formulate an alternative, which is precisely what DSGE macroeconomists have been doing for the last two or three decades. And yet despite this suppression, there are alternatives emerging, particularly from the empirical side. There are now empirical approaches to macroeconomics that don’t use DSGE models. Regression discontinuity methods and other “natural experiment” designs—not to mention actual experiments—are quickly rising in popularity as economists realize that these methods allow us to actually empirically test our models instead of just adding more and more mathematical complexity to them.

But there still seems to be a lingering attitude that there is no other way to do macro theory. This is very frustrating for me personally, because deep down I think what I would like to do as a career is macro theory: By temperament I have always viewed the world through a very abstract, theoretical lens, and the issues I care most about—particularly inequality, development, and unemployment—are all fundamentally “macro” issues. I left physics when I realized I would be expected to do string theory. I don’t want to leave economics now that I’m expected to do DSGE. But I also definitely don’t want to do DSGE.

Fortunately with economics I have a backup plan: I can always be an “applied micreconomist” (rather the opposite of a theoretical macroeconomist I suppose), directly attached to the data in the form of empirical analyses or even direct, randomized controlled experiments. And there certainly is plenty of work to be done along the lines of Akerlof and Roth and Shiller and Kahneman and Thaler in cognitive and behavioral economics, which is also generally considered applied micro. I was never going to be an experimental physicist, but I can be an experimental economist. And I do get to use at least some theory: In particular, there’s an awful lot of game theory in experimental economics these days. Some of the most exciting stuff is actually in showing how human beings don’t behave the way classical game theory predicts (particularly in the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma), and trying to extend game theory into something that would fit our actual behavior. Cognitive science suggests that the result is going to end up looking quite different from game theory as we know it, and with my cognitive science background I may be particularly well-positioned to lead that charge.

Still, I don’t think I’ll be entirely satisfied if I can’t somehow bring my career back around to macroeconomic issues, and particularly the great elephant in the room of all economics, which is inequality. Underlying everything from Marxism to Trumpism, from the surging rents in Silicon Valley and the crushing poverty of Burkina Faso, to the Great Recession itself, is inequality. It is, in my view, the central question of economics: Who gets what, and why?

That is a fundamentally macro question, but you can’t even talk about that issue in DSGE as we know it; a “representative agent” inherently smooths over all inequality in the economy as though total GDP were all that mattered. A fundamentally new approach to macroeconomics is needed. Hopefully I can be part of that, but from my current position I don’t feel much empowered to fight this status quo. Maybe I need to spend at least a few more years doing something else, making a name for myself, and then I’ll be able to come back to this fight with a stronger position.

In the meantime, I guess there’s plenty of work to be done on cognitive biases and deviations from game theory.