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.

Pinker Propositions

May 19 2458623

What do the following statements have in common?

1. “Capitalist countries have less poverty than Communist countries.

2. “Black men in the US commit homicide at a higher rate than White men.

3. “On average, in the US, Asian people score highest on IQ tests, White and Hispanic people score near the middle, and Black people score the lowest.

4. “Men on average perform better at visual tasks, and women on average perform better on verbal tasks.

5. “In the United States, White men are no more likely to be mass shooters than other men.

6. “The genetic heritability of intelligence is about 60%.

7. “The plurality of recent terrorist attacks in the US have been committed by Muslims.

8. “The period of US military hegemony since 1945 has been the most peaceful period in human history.

These statements have two things in common:

1. All of these statements are objectively true facts that can be verified by rich and reliable empirical data which is publicly available and uncontroversially accepted by social scientists.

2. If spoken publicly among left-wing social justice activists, all of these statements will draw resistance, defensiveness, and often outright hostility. Anyone making these statements is likely to be accused of racism, sexism, imperialism, and so on.

I call such propositions Pinker Propositions, after an excellent talk by Steven Pinker illustrating several of the above statements (which was then taken wildly out of context by social justice activists on social media).

The usual reaction to these statements suggests that people think they imply harmful far-right policy conclusions. This inference is utterly wrong: A nuanced understanding of each of these propositions does not in any way lead to far-right policy conclusions—in fact, some rather strongly support left-wing policy conclusions.

1. Capitalist countries have less poverty than Communist countries, because Communist countries are nearly always corrupt and authoritarian. Social democratic countries have the lowest poverty and the highest overall happiness (#ScandinaviaIsBetter).

2. Black men commit more homicide than White men because of poverty, discrimination, mass incarceration, and gang violence. Black men are also greatly overrepresented among victims of homicide, as most homicide is intra-racial. Homicide rates often vary across ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and these rates vary over time as a result of cultural and political changes.

3. IQ tests are a highly imperfect measure of intelligence, and the genetics of intelligence cut across our socially-constructed concept of race. There is far more within-group variation in IQ than between-group variation. Intelligence is not fixed at birth but is affected by nutrition, upbringing, exposure to toxins, and education—all of which statistically put Black people at a disadvantage. Nor does intelligence remain constant within populations: The Flynn Effect is the well-documented increase in intelligence which has occurred in almost every country over the past century. Far from justifying discrimination, these provide very strong reasons to improve opportunities for Black children. The lead and mercury in Flint’s water suppressed the brain development of thousands of Black children—that’s going to lower average IQ scores. But that says nothing about supposed “inherent racial differences” and everything about the catastrophic damage of environmental racism.

4. To be quite honest, I never even understood why this one shocks—or even surprises—people. It’s not even saying that men are “smarter” than women—overall IQ is almost identical. It’s just saying that men are more visual and women are more verbal. And this, I think, is actually quite obvious. I think the clearest evidence of this—the “interocular trauma” that will convince you the effect is real and worth talking about—is pornography. Visual porn is overwhelmingly consumed by men, even when it was designed for women (e.g. Playgirla majority of its readers are gay men, even though there are ten times as many straight women in the world as there are gay men). Conversely, erotic novels are overwhelmingly consumed by women. I think a lot of anti-porn feminism can actually be explained by this effect: Feminists (who are usually women, for obvious reasons) can say they are against “porn” when what they are really against is visual porn, because visual porn is consumed by men; then the kind of porn that they like (erotic literature) doesn’t count as “real porn”. And honestly they’re mostly against the current structure of the live-action visual porn industry, which is totally reasonable—but it’s a far cry from being against porn in general. I have some serious issues with how our farming system is currently set up, but I’m not against farming.

5. This one is interesting, because it’s a lack of a race difference, which normally is what the left wing always wants to hear. The difference of course is that this alleged difference would make White men look bad, and that’s apparently seen as a desirable goal for social justice. But the data just doesn’t bear it out: While indeed most mass shooters are White men, that’s because most Americans are White, which is a totally uninteresting reason. There’s no clear evidence of any racial disparity in mass shootings—though the gender disparity is absolutely overwhelming: It’s almost always men.

6. Heritability is a subtle concept; it doesn’t mean what most people seem to think it means. It doesn’t mean that 60% of your intelligence is due to your your genes. Indeed, I’m not even sure what that sentence would actually mean; it’s like saying that 60% of the flavor of a cake is due to the eggs. What this heritability figure actually means that when you compare across individuals in a population, and carefully control for environmental influences, you find that about 60% of the variance in IQ scores is explained by genetic factors. But this is within a particular population—here, US adults—and is absolutely dependent on all sorts of other variables. The more flexible one’s environment becomes, the more people self-select into their preferred environment, and the more heritable traits become. As a result, IQ actually becomes more heritable as children become adults, called the Wilson Effect.

7. This one might actually have some contradiction with left-wing policy. The disproportionate participation of Muslims in terrorism—controlling for just about anything you like, income, education, age etc.—really does suggest that, at least at this point in history, there is some real ideological link between Islam and terrorism. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists and do not support terrorism, and antagonizing all the people of an entire religion is fundamentally unjust as well as likely to backfire in various ways. We should instead be trying to encourage the spread of more tolerant forms of Islam, and maintaining the strict boundaries of secularism to prevent the encroach of any religion on our system of government.

8. The fact that US military hegemony does seem to be a cause of global peace doesn’t imply that every single military intervention by the US is justified. In fact, it doesn’t even necessarily imply that any such interventions are justified—though I think one would be hard-pressed to say that the NATO intervention in the Kosovo War or the defense of Kuwait in the Gulf War was unjustified. It merely points out that having a hegemon is clearly preferable to having a multipolar world where many countries jockey for military supremacy. The Pax Romana was a time of peace but also authoritarianism; the Pax Americana is better, but that doesn’t prevent us from criticizing the real harms—including major war crimes—committed by the United States.

So it is entirely possible to know and understand these facts without adopting far-right political views.

Yet Pinker’s point—and mine—is that by suppressing these true facts, by responding with hostility or even ostracism to anyone who states them, we are actually adding fuel to the far-right fire. Instead of presenting the nuanced truth and explaining why it doesn’t imply such radical policies, we attack the messenger; and this leads people to conclude three things:

1. The left wing is willing to lie and suppress the truth in order to achieve political goals (they’re doing it right now).

2. These statements actually do imply right-wing conclusions (else why suppress them?).

3. Since these statements are true, that must mean the right-wing conclusions are actually correct.

Now (especially if you are someone who identifies unironically as “woke”), you might be thinking something like this: “Anyone who can be turned away from social justice so easily was never a real ally in the first place!”

This is a fundamentally and dangerously wrongheaded view. No one—not me, not you, not anyone—was born believing in social justice. You did not emerge from your mother’s womb ranting against colonalist imperialism. You had to learn what you now know. You came to believe what you now believe, after once believing something else that you now think is wrong. This is true of absolutely everyone everywhere. Indeed, the better you are, the more true it is; good people learn from their mistakes and grow in their knowledge.

This means that anyone who is now an ally of social justice once was not. And that, in turn, suggests that many people who are currently not allies could become so, under the right circumstances. They would probably not shift all at once—as I didn’t, and I doubt you did either—but if we are welcoming and open and honest with them, we can gradually tilt them toward greater and greater levels of support.

But if we reject them immediately for being impure, they never get the chance to learn, and we never get the chance to sway them. People who are currently uncertain of their political beliefs will become our enemies because we made them our enemies. We declared that if they would not immediately commit to everything we believe, then they may as well oppose us. They, quite reasonably unwilling to commit to a detailed political agenda they didn’t understand, decided that it would be easiest to simply oppose us.

And we don’t have to win over every person on every single issue. We merely need to win over a large enough critical mass on each issue to shift policies and cultural norms. Building a wider tent is not compromising on your principles; on the contrary, it’s how you actually win and make those principles a reality.

There will always be those we cannot convince, of course. And I admit, there is something deeply irrational about going from “those leftists attacked Charles Murray” to “I think I’ll start waving a swastika”. But humans aren’t always rational; we know this. You can lament this, complain about it, yell at people for being so irrational all you like—it won’t actually make people any more rational. Humans are tribal; we think in terms of teams. We need to make our team as large and welcoming as possible, and suppressing Pinker Propositions is not the way to do that.

Slides from my presentation at Worldcon

Whether you are a regular reader curious about my Worldcon talk, or a Worldcon visitor interested in seeing the slides, The slides from my presentation, “How do we get to the Federation from here?” can be found here.

Why risking nuclear war should be a war crime

Nov 19, JDN 2458078

“What is the value of a human life?” is a notoriously difficult question, probably because people keep trying to answer it in terms of dollars, and it rightfully offends our moral sensibilities to do so. We shouldn’t be valuing people in terms of dollars—we should be valuing dollars in terms of their benefits to people.

So let me ask a simpler question: Does the value of an individual human life increase, decrease, or stay the same, as we increase the number of people in the world?

A case can be made that it should stay the same: Why should my value as a person depend upon how many other people there are? Everything that I am, I still am, whether there are a billion other people or a thousand.

But in fact I think the correct answer is that it decreases. This is for two reasons: First, anything that I can do is less valuable if there are other people who can do it better. This is true whether we’re talking about writing blog posts or ending world hunger. Second, and most importantly, if the number of humans in the world gets small enough, we begin to face danger of total permanent extinction.

If the value of a human life is constant, then 1,000 deaths is equally bad whether it happens in a population of 10,000 or a population of 10 billion. That doesn’t seem right, does it? It seems more reasonable to say that losing ten percent should have a roughly constant effect; in that case losing 1,000 people in a population of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 billion in a population of 10 billion. If that seems too strong, we could choose some value in between, and say perhaps that losing 1,000 out of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 million out of 1 billion. This would mean that the value of 1 person’s life today is about 1/1,000 of what it was immediately after the Toba Event.

Of course, with such uncertainty, perhaps it’s safest to assume constant value. This seems the fairest, and it is certainly a reasonable approximation.

In any case, I think it should be obvious that the inherent value of a human life does not increase as you add more human lives. Losing 1,000 people out of a population of 7 billion is not worse than losing 1,000 people out of a population of 10,000. That way lies nonsense.

Yet if we agree that the value of a human life is not increasing, this has a very important counter-intuitive consequence: It means that increasing the risk of a global catastrophe is at least as bad as causing a proportional number of deaths. Specifically, it implies that a 1% risk of global nuclear war is worse than killing 10 million people outright.

The calculation is simple: If the value of a human life is a constant V, then the expected utility (admittedly, expected utility theory has its flaws) from killing 10 million people is -10 million V. But the expected utility from a 1% risk of global nuclear war is 1% times -V times the expected number of deaths from such a nuclear war—and I think even 2 billion is a conservative estimate. (0.01)(-2 billion) V = -20 million V.

This probably sounds too abstract, or even cold, so let me put it another way. Suppose we had the choice between two worlds, and these were the only worlds we could choose from. In world A, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in 10 million deaths. In world B, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in a 1% chance of nuclear war. Which world should we choose?

The choice is a terrible one, to be sure.

In world A, 1 billion people die.

Yet what happens in world B?

If the risks are independent, we can’t just multiply by 100 to get a guarantee of nuclear war. The actual probability is 1-(1-0.01)^100 = 63%. Yet even so, (0.63)(2 billion) = 1.26 billion. The expected number of deaths is higher in world B. Indeed, the most likely scenario is that 2 billion people die.

Yet this is probably too conservative. The risks are most likely positively correlated; two world leaders who each take a 1% chance of nuclear war probably do so in response to one another. Therefore maybe adding up the chances isn’t actually so unreasonable—for all practical intents and purposes, we may be best off considering nuclear war in world B as guaranteed to happen. In that case, world B is even worse.

And that is all assuming that the nuclear war is relatively contained. Major cities are hit, then a peace treaty is signed, and we manage to rebuild human civilization more or less as it was. This is what most experts on the issue believe would happen; but I for one am not so sure. The nuclear winter and total collapse of institutions and infrastructure could result in a global apocalypse that would result in human extinctionnot 2 billion deaths but 7 billion, and an end to all of humanity’s projects once and forever This is the kind of outcome we should be prepared to do almost anything to prevent.

What does this imply for global policy? It means that we should be far more aggressive in punishing any action that seems to bring the world closer to nuclear war. Even tiny increases in risk, of the sort that would ordinarily be considered negligible, are as bad as murder. A measurably large increase is as bad as genocide.

Of course, in practice, we have to be able to measure something in order to punish it. We can’t have politicians imprisoned over 0.000001% chances of nuclear war, because such a chance is so tiny that there would be no way to attain even reasonable certainty that such a change had even occurred, much less who was responsible.

Even for very large chances—and in this context, 1% is very large—it would be highly problematic to directly penalize increasing the probability, as we have no consistent, fair, objective measure of that probability.

Therefore in practice what I think we must do is severely and mercilessly penalize certain types of actions that would be reasonably expected to increase the probability of catastrophic nuclear war.

If we had the chance to start over from the Manhattan Project, maybe simply building a nuclear weapon should be considered a war crime. But at this point, nuclear proliferation has already proceeded far enough that this is no longer a viable option. At least the US and Russia for the time being seem poised to maintain their nuclear arsenals, and in fact it’s probably better for them to keep maintaining and updating them rather than leaving decades-old ICBMs to rot.

What can we do instead?

First, we probably need to penalize speech that would tend to incite war between nuclear powers. Normally I am fiercely opposed to restrictions on speech, but this is nuclear war we’re talking about. We can’t take any chances on this one. If there is even a slight chance that a leader’s rhetoric might trigger a nuclear conflict, they should be censored, punished, and probably even imprisoned. Making even a veiled threat of nuclear war is like pointing a gun at someone’s head and threatening to shoot them—only the gun is pointed at everyone’s head simultaneously. This isn’t just yelling “fire” in a crowded theater; it’s literally threatening to burn down every theater in the world at once.

Such a regulation must be designed to allow speech that is necessary for diplomatic negotiations, as conflicts will invariably arise between any two countries. We need to find a way to draw the line so that it’s possible for a US President to criticize Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine or for a Chinese President to challenge US trade policy, without being accused of inciting war between nuclear powers. But one thing is quite clear: Wherever we draw that line, President Trump’s statement about “fire and fury” definitely crosses it. This is a direct threat of nuclear war, and it should be considered a war crime. That reason by itself—let alone his web of Russian entanglements and violations of the Emoluments Clause—should be sufficient to not only have Trump removed from office, but to have him tried at the Hague. Impulsiveness and incompetence are no excuse when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

Second, any nuclear policy that would tend to increase first-strike capability rather than second-strike capability should be considered a violation of international law. In case you are unfamiliar with such terms: First-strike capability consists of weapons such as ICBMs that are only viable to use as the opening salvo of an attack, because their launch sites can be easily located and targeted. Second-strike capability consists of weapons such as submarines that are more concealable, so it’s much more likely that they could wait for an attack to happen, confirm who was responsible and how much damage was done, and then retaliate afterward.
Even that retaliation would be difficult to justify: It’s effectively answering genocide with genocide, the ultimate expression of “an eye for an eye” writ large upon humanity’s future. I’ve previously written about my Credible Targeted Conventional Response strategy that makes it both more ethical and more credible to respond to a nuclear attack with a non-nuclear retaliation. But at least second-strike weapons are not inherently only functional at starting a nuclear war. A first-strike weapon can theoretically be fired in response to a surprise attack, but only before the attack hits you—which gives you literally minutes to decide the fate of the world, most likely with only the sketchiest of information upon which to base your decision. Second-strike weapons allow deliberation. They give us a chance to think carefully for a moment before we unleash irrevocable devastation.

All the launch codes should of course be randomized onetime pads for utmost security. But in addition to the launch codes themselves, I believe that anyone who wants to launch a nuclear weapon should be required to type, letter by letter (no copy-pasting), and then have the machine read aloud, Oppenheimer’s line about Shiva, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Perhaps the passphrase should conclude with something like “I hereby sentence millions of innocent children to death by fire, and millions more to death by cancer.” I want it to be as salient as possible in the heads of every single soldier and technician just exactly how many innocent people they are killing. And if that means they won’t turn the key—so be it. (Indeed, I wouldn’t mind if every Hellfire missile required a passphrase of “By the authority vested in me by the United States of America, I hereby sentence you to death or dismemberment.” Somehow I think our drone strike numbers might go down. And don’t tell me they couldn’t; this isn’t like shooting a rifle in a firefight. These strikes are planned days in advance and specifically designed to be unpredictable by their targets.)

If everyone is going to have guns pointed at each other, at least in a second-strike world they’re wearing body armor and the first one to pull the trigger won’t automatically be the last one left standing.

Third, nuclear non-proliferation treaties need to be strengthened into disarmament treaties, with rapid but achievable timelines for disarmament of all nuclear weapons, starting with the nations that have the largest arsenals. Random inspections of the disarmament should be performed without warning on a frequent schedule. Any nation that is so much as a day late on their disarmament deadlines needs to have its leaders likewise hauled off to the Hague. If there is any doubt at all in your mind whether your government will meet its deadlines, you need to double your disarmament budget. And if your government is too corrupt or too bureaucratic to meet its deadlines even if they try, well, you’d better shape up fast. We’ll keep removing and imprisoning your leaders until you do. Once again, nothing can be left to chance.

We might want to maintain some small nuclear arsenal for the sole purpose of deflecting asteroids from colliding with the Earth. If so, that arsenal should be jointly owned and frequently inspected by both the United States and Russia—not just the nuclear superpowers, but also the only two nations with sufficient rocket launch capability in any case. The launch of the deflection missiles should require joint authorization from the presidents of both nations. But in fact nuclear weapons are probably not necessary for such a deflection; nuclear rockets would probably be a better option. Vaporizing the asteroid wouldn’t accomplish much, even if you could do it; what you actually want to do is impart as much sideways momentum as possible.

What I’m saying probably sounds extreme. It may even seem unjust or irrational. But look at those numbers again. Think carefully about the value of a human life. When we are talking about a risk of total human extinction, this is what rationality looks like. Zero tolerance for drug abuse or even terrorism is a ridiculous policy that does more harm than good. Zero tolerance for risk of nuclear war may be the only hope for humanity’s ongoing survival.

Throughout the vastness of the universe, there are probably billions of civilizations—I need only assume one civilization for every hundred galaxies. Of the civilizations that were unwilling to adopt zero tolerance policies on weapons of mass destruction and bear any cost, however unthinkable, to prevent their own extinction, there is almost boundless diversity, but they all have one thing in common: None of them will exist much longer. The only civilizations that last are the ones that refuse to tolerate weapons of mass destruction.

Think of this as a moral recession

August 27, JDN 2457993

The Great Depression was, without doubt, the worst macroeconomic event of the last 200 years. Over 30 million people became unemployed. Unemployment exceeded 20%. Standard of living fell by as much as a third in the United States. Political unrest spread across the world, and the collapsing government of Germany ultimately became the Third Reich and triggered the Second World War If we ignore the world war, however, the effect on mortality rates was surprisingly small. (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)

And yet, how long do you suppose it took for economic growth to repair the damage? 80 years? 50 years? 30 years? 20 years? Try ten to fifteen. By 1940, the US, US, Germany, and Japan all had a per-capita GDP at least as high as in 1930. By 1945, every country in Europe had a per-capita GDP at least as high as they did before the Great Depression.

The moral of this story is this: Recessions are bad, and can have far-reaching consequences; but ultimately what really matters in the long run is growth.

Assuming the same growth otherwise, a country that had a recession as large as the Great Depression would be about 70% as rich as one that didn’t.

But over 100 years, a country that experienced 3% growth instead of 2% growth would be over two and a half times richer.

Therefore, in terms of standard of living only, if you were given the choice between having a Great Depression but otherwise growing at 3%, and having no recessions but growing at 2%, your grandchildren will be better off if you chose the former. (Of course, given the possibility of political unrest or even war, the depression could very well end up worse.)

With that in mind, I want you to think of the last few years—and especially the last few months—as a moral recession. Donald Trump being President of the United States is clearly a step backward for human civilization, and it seems to have breathed new life into some of the worst ideologies our society has ever harbored, from extreme misogyny, homophobia, right-wing nationalism, and White supremacism to outright Neo-Nazism. When one of the central debates in our public discourse is what level of violence is justifiable against Nazis under what circumstances, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

But much as recessions are overwhelmed in the long run by economic growth, there is reason to be confident that this moral backslide is temporary and will be similarly overwhelmed by humanity’s long-run moral progress.

What moral progress, you ask? Let’s remind ourselves.

Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in the United States.

160 years ago, slavery was legal in 15 US states.

Just 3 years ago, same-sex marriage was illegal in 14 US states. Yes, you read that number correctly. I said three. There are gay couples graduating high school and getting married now who as freshmen didn’t think they would be allowed to get married.

That’s just the United States. What about the rest of the world?

100 years ago, almost all of the world’s countries were dictatorships. Today, half of the world’s countries are democracies. Indeed, thanks to India, the majority of the world’s population now lives under democracy.

35 years ago, the Soviet Union still ruled most of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia with an iron fist (or should I say “curtain”?).

30 years ago, the number of human beings in extreme poverty—note I said number, not just rate; the world population was two-thirds what it is today—was twice as large as it is today.

Over the last 65 years, the global death rate due to war has fallen from 250 per million to just 10 per million.

The global literacy rate has risen from 40% to 80% in just 50 years.

World life expectancy has increased by 6 years in just the last 20 years.

We are living in a golden age. Do not forget that.

Indeed, if there is anything that could destroy all these astonishing achievements, I think it would be our failure to appreciate them.

If you listen to what these Neo-Nazi White supremacists say about their grievances, they sound like the spoiled children of millionaires (I mean, they elected one President, after all). They are outraged because they only get 90% of what they want instead of 100%—or even outraged not because they didn’t get what they wanted but because someone else they don’t know also did.

If you listen to the far left, their complaints don’t make much more sense. If you didn’t actually know any statistics, you’d think that life is just as bad for Black people in America today as it was under Jim Crow or even slavery. Well, it’s not even close. I’m not saying racism is gone; it’s definitely still here. But the civil rights movement has made absolutely enormous strides, from banning school segregation and housing redlining to reforming prison sentences and instituting affirmative action programs. Simply the fact that “racist” is now widely considered a terrible thing to be is a major accomplishment in itself. A typical Black person today, despite having only about 60% of the income of a typical White person, is still richer than a typical White person was just 50 years ago. While the 71% high school completion rate Black people currently have may not sound great, it’s much higher than the 50% rate that the whole US population had as recently as 1950.

Yes, there are some things that aren’t going very well right now. The two that I think are most important are climate change and income inequality. As both the global mean temperature anomaly and the world top 1% income share continue to rise, millions of people will suffer and die needlessly from diseases of poverty and natural disasters.

And of course if Neo-Nazis manage to take hold of the US government and try to repeat the Third Reich, that could be literally the worst thing that ever happened. If it triggered a nuclear war, it unquestionably would be literally the worst thing that ever happened. Both these events are unlikely—but not nearly as unlikely as they should be. (Five Thirty Eight interviewed several nuclear experts who estimated a probability of imminent nuclear war at a horrifying five percent.) So I certainly don’t want to make anyone complacent about these very grave problems.

But I worry also that we go too far the other direction, and fail to celebrate the truly amazing progress humanity has made thus far. We hear so often that we are treading water, getting nowhere, or even falling backward, that we begin to feel as though the fight for moral progress is utterly hopeless. If all these centuries of fighting for justice really had gotten us nowhere, the only sensible thing to do at this point would be to give up. But on the contrary, we have made enormous progress in an incredibly short period of time. We are on the verge of finally winning this fight. The last thing we want to do now is give up.

Wrong answers are better than no answer

Nov 6, JDN 2457699

I’ve been hearing some disturbing sentiments from some surprising places lately, things like “Economics is not a science, it’s just an extension of politics” and “There’s no such thing as a true model”. I’ve now met multiple economists who speak this way, who seem to be some sort of “subjectivists” or “anti-realists” (those links are to explanations of moral subjectivism and anti-realism, which are also mistaken, but in a much less obvious way, and are far more common views to express). It is possible to read most of the individual statements in a non-subjectivist way, but in the context of all of them together, it really gives me the general impression that many of these economists… don’t believe in economics. (Nor do they even believe in believing it, or they’d put up a better show.)

I think what has happened is that in the wake of the Second Depression, economists have had a sort of “crisis of faith”. The models we thought were right were wrong, so we may as well give up; there’s no such thing as a true model. The science of economics failed, so maybe economics was never a science at all.

Never really thought I’d be in this position, but in such circumstances actually feel strongly inclined to defend neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics is wrong; but subjectivism is not even wrong.

If a model is wrong, you can fix it. You can make it right, or at least less wrong. But if you give up on modeling altogether, your theory avoids being disproven only by making itself totally detached from reality. I can’t prove you wrong, but only because you’ve given up on the whole idea of being right or wrong.

As Isaac Asimov wrote, “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

What we might call “folk economics”, what most people seem to believe about economics, is like thinking the Earth is flat—it’s fundamentally wrong, but not so obviously inaccurate on an individual scale that it can’t be a useful approximation for your daily life. Neoclassical economics is like thinking the Earth is spherical—it’s almost right, but still wrong in some subtle but important ways. Thinking that economics isn’t a science is wronger than both of them put together.

The sense in which “there’s no such thing as a true model” is true is a trivial one: There’s no such thing as a perfect model, because by the time you included everything you’d just get back the world itself. But there are better and worse models, and some of our very best models (quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution) are really good enough that I think it’s quite perverse not to call them simply true. Economics doesn’t have such models yet for more than a handful of phenomena—but we’re working on it (at least, I thought that’s what we were doing!).

Indeed, a key point I like to make about realism—in science, morality, or whatever—is that if you think something can be wrong, you must be a realist. In order for an idea to be wrong, there must be some objective reality to compare it to that it can fail to match. If everything is just subjective beliefs and sociopolitical pressures, there is no such thing as “wrong”, only “unpopular”. I’ve heard many people say things like “Well, that’s just your opinion; you could be wrong.” No, if it’s just my opinion, then I cannot possibly be wrong. So choose a lane! Either you think I’m wrong, or you think it’s just my opinion—but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it’s clearly true in the real world that there is a lot of very bad and unscientific economics going on. The worst is surely the stuff that comes out of right-wing think-tanks that are paid almost explicitly to come up with particular results that are convenient for their right-wing funders. (As Krugman puts it, “there are liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists.”) But there’s also a lot of really unscientific economics done without such direct and obvious financial incentives. Economists get blinded by their own ideology, they choose what topics to work on based on what will garner the most prestige, they use fundamentally defective statistical techniques because journals won’t publish them if they don’t.

But of course, the same is true of many other fields, particularly in social science. Sociologists also get blinded by their pet theories; psychologists also abuse statistics because the journals make them do it; political scientists are influenced by their funding sources; anthropologists also choose what to work on based on what’s prestigious in the field.

Moreover, natural sciences do this too. String theorists are (almost by definition) blinded by their favorite theory. Biochemists are manipulated by the financial pressures of the pharmaceutical industry. Neuroscientists publish all sorts of statistically nonsensical research. I’d be very surprised if even geologists were immune to the social norms of academia telling them to work on the most prestigious problems. If this is enough reason to abandon a field as a science, it is a reason to abandon science, full stop. That is what you are arguing for here.

And really, this should be fairly obvious, actually. Are workers and factories and televisions actual things that are actually here? Obviously they are. Therefore you can be right or wrong about how they interact. There is an obvious objective reality here that one can have more or less accurate beliefs about.

For socially-constructed phenomena like money, markets, and prices, this isn’t as obvious; if everyone stopped believing in the US Dollar, like Tinkerbell the US Dollar would cease to exist. But there does remain some objective reality (or if you like, intersubjective reality) here: I can be right or wrong about the price of a dishwasher or the exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

So, in order to abandon the possibility of scientifically accurate economics, you have to say that even though there is this obvious physical reality of workers and factories and televisions, we can’t actually study that scientifically, even when it sure looks like we’re studying it scientifically by performing careful observations, rigorous statistics, and even randomized controlled experiments. Even when I perform my detailed Bayesian analysis of my randomized controlled experiment, nope, that’s not science. It doesn’t count, for some reason.

The only at all principled way I can see you could justify such a thing is to say that once you start studying other humans you lose all possibility of scientific objectivity—but notice that by making such a claim you haven’t just thrown out psychology and economics, you’ve also thrown out anthropology and neuroscience. The statements “DNA evidence shows that all modern human beings descend from a common migration out of Africa” and “Human nerve conduction speed is approximately 300 meters per second” aren’t scientific? Then what in the world are they?

Or is it specifically behavioral sciences that bother you? Now perhaps you can leave out biological anthropology and basic neuroscience; there’s some cultural anthropology and behavioral neuroscience you have to still include, but maybe that’s a bullet you’re willing to bite. There is perhaps something intuitively appealing here: Since science is a human behavior, you can’t use science to study human behavior without an unresolvable infinite regress.

But there are still two very big problems with this idea.

First, you’ve got to explain how there can be this obvious objective reality of human behavior that is nonetheless somehow forever beyond our understanding. Even though people actually do things, and we can study those things using the usual tools of science, somehow we’re not really doing science, and we can never actually learn anything about how human beings behave.

Second, you’ve got to explain why we’ve done as well as we have. For some reason, people seem to have this impression that psychology and especially economics have been dismal failures, they’ve brought us nothing but nonsense and misery.

But where exactly do you think we got the lowest poverty rate in the history of the world? That just happened by magic, or by accident while we were doing other things? No, economists did that, on purpose—the UN Millennium Goals were designed, implemented, and evaluated by economists. Against staunch opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, we have managed to bring free trade to the world, and with it, some measure of prosperity.

The only other science I can think of that has been more successful at its core mission is biology; as XCKD pointed out, the biologists killed a Horseman of the Apocalypse while the physicists were busy making a new one. Congratulations on beating Pestilence, biologists; we economists think we finally have Famine on the ropes now. Hey political scientists, how is War going? Oh, not bad, actually? War deaths per capita are near their lowest levels in history? But clearly it would be foolhardy to think that economics and political science are actually sciences!

I can at least see why people might think psychology is a failure, because rates of diagnosis of mental illness keep rising higher and higher; but the key word there is diagnosis. People were already suffering from anxiety and depression across the globe; it’s just that nobody was giving them therapy or medication for it. Some people argue that all we’ve done is pathologize normal human experience—but this wildly underestimates the severity of many mental disorders. Wanting to end your own life for reasons you yourself cannot understand is not normal human experience being pathologized. (And the fact that 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year may make it common, but it does not make it normal. Is trying to keep people from dying of influenza “pathologizing normal human experience”? Well, suicide kills almost as many.) It’s possible there is some overdiagnosis; but there is also an awful lot of real mental illness that previously went untreated—and yes, meta-analysis shows that treatment can and does work.

Of course, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Many of our existing models are seriously flawed in very important ways, and many economists continue to use those models incautiously, blind to their defects. The Second Depression was largely the fault of economists, because it was economists who told everyone that markets are efficient, banks will regulate themselves, leave it alone, don’t worry about it.

But we can do better. We will do better. And we can only do that because economics is a science, it does reflect reality, and therefore we make ourselves less wrong.

Why are all our Presidents war criminals?

JDN 2457443

Today I take on a topic that we really don’t like to talk about. It creates grave cognitive dissonance in our minds, forcing us to deeply question the moral character of our entire nation.

Yet it is undeniably a fact:

Most US Presidents are war criminals.

There is a long tradition of war crimes by US Presidents which includes Obama, Bush, Nixon, and above all Johnson and Truman.

Barack Obama has ordered so-called “double-tap” drone strikes, which kill medics and first responders, in express violation of the Geneva Convention.

George W. Bush orchestrated a global program of torture and indefinite detention.

Bill Clinton ordered “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects were detained without trial and transferred to other countries for interrogation, where we knew they would most likely be tortured.

I actually had trouble finding any credible accusations of war crimes by George H.W. Bush (there are definitely accusations, but none of them are credible—seriously, people are listening to Manuel Noriega?), even as Director of the CIA. He might not be a war criminal.

Ronald Reagan supported a government in Guatemala that was engaged in genocide. He knew this was happening and did not seem to care. This was only one of many tyrannical, murderous regimes supported by Reagan’s administration. In fact, Ronald Reagan was successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Court of Justice. Chomsky isn’t wrong about this one. Ronald Reagan was a convicted war criminal.

Jimmy Carter is a major exception to the rule; not only are there no credible accusations of war crimes against him, he has actively fought to pursue war crimes investigations against Israel and even publicly discussed the war crimes of George W. Bush.

I also wasn’t able to find any credible accusations of war crimes by Gerald Ford, so he might be clean.

But then we get to Richard Nixon, who deployed chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. (Calling Agent Orange “herbicide” probably shouldn’t matter morally—but it might legally, as tactical “herbicides” are not always war crimes.) But Nixon does deserve some credit for banning biological weapons.

Indeed, most of the responsibility for war crimes in Vietnam falls upon Johnson. The US deployed something very close to a “total war” strategy involving carpet bombing—more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam than by all countries in WW2—as well as napalm and of course chemical weapons; basically it was everything short of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Johnson also substantially expanded the US biological weapons program.

Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, I’m not sure if it was actually illegal to expand the US nuclear arsenal as dramatically as Kennedy did, but it definitely should have been. Kennedy brought our nuclear arsenal up to its greatest peak, a horrifying 30,000 deployable warheads—more than enough to wipe out human civilization, and possibly enough to destroy the entire human race.

While Eisenhower was accused of the gravest war crime on this list, namely the genocide of over 1 million people in Germany, most historians do not consider this accusation credible. Rather, his war crimes were committed as Supreme Allied Commander, in the form of carpet bombing, especially of Tokyo, which killed as many as 200,000 people, and of Dresden, which had no apparent military significance and even held a number of Allied POWs.

But then we get to Truman, the coup de grace, the only man in history to order the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Truman gave the order to deploy nuclear weapons against civilians. He was the only person in the history of the world to ever give such an order. It wasn’t Hitler; it wasn’t Stalin. It was Harry S. Truman.

Then of course there’s Roosevelt’s internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. It really pales in comparison to Truman’s order to vaporize an equal number of Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye.

I think it will suffice to end the list here, though I could definitely go on. I think Truman is a really good one to focus on, for two reasons that pull quite strongly in opposite directions.

1. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians is among the gravest possible crimes. It may be second to genocide, but then again it may not, as genocide does not risk the destruction of the entire human race. If we only had the option of outlawing one thing in war, and had to allow everything else, we would have no choice but to ban the use of nuclear weapons against civilians.

2. Truman’s decision may have been justified. To this day is still hotly debated whether the atomic bombings were justifiable; mainstream historians have taken both sides. On Debate.org, the vote is almost exactly divided—51% yes, 49% no. Many historians believe that had Truman not deployed nuclear weapons, there would have been an additional 5 million deaths as a result of the continuation of the war.

Perhaps now you can see why this matter makes me so ambivalent.

There is a part of me that wants to take an absolute hard line against war crimes, and say that they must never be tolerated, that even otherwise good Presidents like Clinton and Obama deserve to be tried at the Hague for what they have done. (Truman and Eisenhower are dead, so it’s too late for them.)

But another part of me wonders what would happen if we did this. What if the world really is so dangerous that we have no choice but to allow our leaders to commit horrible atrocities in order to defend us?

There are easy cases—Bush’s torture program didn’t even result in very much useful intelligence, so it was simply a pointless degradation of our national character. The same amount of effort invested in more humane intelligence gathering would very likely have provided more reliable information. And in any case, terrorism is such a minor threat in the scheme of things that the effort would be better spent on improving environmental regulations or auto safety.

Similarly, there’s no reason to engage in “extraordinary rendition” to a country that tortures people when you could simply conduct a legitimate trial in absentia and then arrest the convicted terrorist with special forces and imprison him in a US maximum-security prison until his execution. (Or even carry out the execution directly by the special forces; as long as the trial is legitimate, I see no problem with that.) At that point, the atrocities are being committed simply to avoid inconvenience.

But especially when we come to the WW2 examples, where the United States—nay, the world—was facing a genuine threat of being conquered by genocidal tyrants, I do begin to wonder if “victory by any means necessary” is a legitimate choice.

There is a way to cut the Gordian knot here, and say that yes, these are crimes, and should be punished; but yes, they were morally justified. Then, the moral calculus any President must undergo when contemplating such an atrocity is that he himself will be tried and executed if he goes through with it. If your situation is truly so dire that you are willing to kill 100,000 civilians, perhaps you should be willing to go down with the ship. (Roger Fisher made a similar argument when he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes inside the body of a US military officer. If you’re not willing to tear one man apart with a knife, why are you willing to vaporize an entire city?)

But if your actions really were morally justified… what sense does it make to punish you for them? And if we hold up this threat of punishment, could it cause a President to flinch when we really need him to take such drastic action?

Another possibility to consider is that perhaps our standards for war crimes really are too strict, and some—not all, but some—of the actions I just listed are in fact morally justifiable and should be made legal under international law. Perhaps the US government is right to fight the UN convention against cluster munitions; maybe we need cluster bombs to successfully defend national security. Perhaps it should not be illegal to kill the combat medics who directly serve under the command of enemy military forces—as opposed to civilian first-responders or Medecins Sans Frontieres. Perhaps our tolerance for civilian casualties is unrealistically low, and it is impossible to fight a war in the real world without killing a large number of civilians.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we are too willing to engage in war in the first place, too accustomed to deploying military force as our primary response to international conflict. Perhaps the prospect of facing a war crimes tribunal in a couple of years should be an extra layer of deterrent against any President ordering yet another war—by some estimates we have been at war 93% of the time since our founding as a nation, and it is a well-documented fact that we have by far the highest military spending in the world. Why is it that so many Americans see diplomacy as foolish, see compromise as weakness?

Perhaps the most terrifying thing is not that so many US Presidents are war criminals; it is that so many Americans don’t seem to have any problem with that.