Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘truthiness’ Category

Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world

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G.K. Chesterton was a mad genius, a bullet-biting Archimedes. From his What’s Wrong with the World, in response to doctors wanting poor childrens’ hair cut short to prevent lice:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

Written by James Bailey

January 20, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Against Talent

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Innate talent really does determine a huge portion of how good we are at various tasks. But for the most part we are better off ignoring this fact.

 

There is a large innate component to intelligence, but kids deciding it is cool to succeed in class effortlessly based off of smarts leads to big wastes of potential later on. The problem is that your innate ability, or talent, is unchangeable by definition. But the amount and type of effort you spend on something is under your control.

 

I’ve been thinking that if I want to become excellent at ultimate Frisbee, it would have to be as a handler rather than a cutter, because cutters can benefit enormously from the innate talent of height and high sprint speed*. But of course, in addition the innate components, a huge amount of being a good cutter is about deliberate practice. In fact, this dominates to such an extent that some of the very best deep threats have no height advantage at all. My wife can beat people deep all day, despite being 5 inches shorter than me and a bit slower. In the NFL, we have the examples of 5’6’’ wide receivers like Wes Welker becoming stars. When I say I can’t be a great cutter because I lack the height and sprint speed, it is just an excuse for my current mediocrity- one that holds me back from putting in the effort necessary to get better.

 

I just attended the American Economic Association’s conference on teaching. I have thought that I will never be a truly great teacher because I lack natural charisma and extroversion. But two people who seem to be truly great teachers, Dirk Mateer and Kenneth Elzinga, insisted at the conference that they are naturally introverted nerds too, and that they got to be as good as they are through practice and a constant focus on how they can become better. Elzinga said that his college speech professor told him to provide updates on how close he was to the end of the talk, “in order to give hope to the audience”; and that no one else received the same advice, implying he was the worst in the class. But despite a complete lack of natural speaking talent, he became a great teacher through outworking and out-thinking other professors. My favorite example of something no one else would think of, or put in the effort to do if they did think of it, is that he writes a personal letter to every student who fails his class- in his intro to economics classes of 1000 students. The fact that you lack talent- or have lots of talent- should not be used as an excuse for failing to put in the hard work and hard thinking needed to become the best you can be.

 

*(you can infer that sprint speed probably has a huge genetic component by the fact that of the 76 people who have ever run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, 72 were of West African descent)

Written by James Bailey

May 30, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Politics is the Mind-Killer. Are Dark Arts the Solution?

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Politics tends to make people much dumber, or at least much worse at discovering the truth.  There is a good reason for this, and Eliezer Yudkowsky said it well:

Politics is an extension of war by other means.  Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

This is one of the reasons that politics is not about policy.  I wish politics were really all about figuring out what policies are best for everyone and implementing them.  But in reality people are not strongly attached to policies.  It is fun to see everyone change positions on the merits of the filibuster when there is a new majority party in the Senate.  Recently we have been treated to the spectacle of the Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney disavowing the health reform that strongly resembles the policies they advocated and implemented, because this one was passed by Evil Democrats.  Similarly, all the Democrats who claimed to feel very strongly about the Wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Terror when the Big Bad Republicans were doing it forgot all about this once their guy was elected and continued the same policies.  Sociologist Fabio Rojas found that attendance by Democrats at anti-war demonstrations fell by more than half after Obama was elected; ironically, this is when the protests may have actually had a better chance at changing policy.

Glenn Greenwald (the currently-ignored conscience of the Democratic Party, or indeed the US) made some great points in this vein recently in a controversial (1700+ comments) article:

Then there’s the inability and/or refusal to recognize that a political discussion might exist independent of the Red v. Blue Cage Match. Thus, any critique of the President’s exercise of vast power (an adversarial check on which our political system depends) immediately prompts bafflement (I don’t understand the point: would Rick Perry be any better?) or grievance (you’re helping Mitt Romney by talking about this!!). The premise takes hold for a full 18 months — increasing each day in intensity until Election Day — that every discussion of the President’s actions must be driven solely by one’s preference for election outcomes (if you support the President’s re-election, then why criticize him?).

You should probably just read the whole Greenwald article, it is a better version of this post.  Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we start election season in the US.  How can we be involved in both truth-seeking and politics when they don’t naturally mix?

Two great public intellectuals, Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, have been openly discussing the merits of their very different rhetorical strategies.  Krugman has a more political style, implying and often outright saying that people who disagree with him must be idiots.  Cowen is more intellectual and abstract.  Cowen implies that Krugman’s style lacks virtue and integrity:

“The issue is not that Krugman changed his mind (I’ve done that plenty, Alex too).  The issue is that Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments….. There is a kind of hallelujah chorus for Krugman on some of the left-wing economics blogs.  The funny thing is, it’s hurting Krugman most of all”

This is a new chapter in an ancient debate; it reminds me of Socrates calling out the Sophists.  Socrates was a purist who thought we should seek truth and the good, while the Sophists realized that their rhetorical Dark Arts could win them money and influence.  Indeed, Krugman’s response is essentially that his style brings him influence, and you can’t argue with success:

I realized that I also wanted to say something in response to the concern trolling, the “if you were more moderate you’d have more influence” stuff. Again, this amounts to wishing that we lived in a different world. First, there is no such thing in modern America as a pundit respected by both sides. Second, there are people writing about economic issues who are a lot less confrontational than I am; how often do you hear about them? This is not a game, and it is also not a dinner party; you have to be clear and forceful to get heard at all.

Basically, Krugman is saying “If only you knew the Power of the Dark Side”.  But is this strategy really so powerful?  I may not be representative, but it certainly loses me.  I can help but notice how Krugman is trying to reframe the debate (and distort Cowen’s argument) in almost every sentence.  Cowen isn’t concern trolling because he practices what he is preaching; and he advocates a moderate tone, not moderate positions.  Krugman sets up false dichotmies: being civil means you aren’t clear and forceful, you can only be respected by one of two sides.  This last may be the most crucial: Krugman assumes that all discussion takes place where there are opposing sides (and only two of them!) and no respect across them.  This puts him squarely in the arguments-are-soldiers camp.

But is Krugman’s strategy effective in general?  He certainly has a large audience, which is valuable (in terms of income and status).  It is hard to say whether this results in much influence on policy though.  It is hard in general to determine the effect of individuals on policy, but I can’t think of a single issue where Krugman was a leader in getting a policy changed.  Cowen previously argued that most intellectuals, including Krugman (and himself), have little real influence.

Can we become more influential through the use of Dark Arts in general, and ridiculing the other side in particular?  I think the jury is still out here.  Milton Friedman was influential while being unfailingly civil and assuming the best of his opponents, and I think that this helps his work stand the test of time.  It is easier for people to adopt your position if this doesn’t mean they were being idiots before; as Brad Delong said (ironically, since he is guilty of the same vice) “No, Paul, No! You Don’t Slaughter the Returning Prodigal Son, You Slaughter the Fatted Calf!!”  The easiest way to convince people is not to change their mind, but to convince them they agreed with you all along; this is easier if you don’t call them names.

Even if the Dark Arts do confer the power to influence and persuade, it is likely that they erode the ability to find the truth.  In theory you could have a persuading public persona and a truth-seeking private persona with different beliefs.  But to reduce cognitive dissonance people must start believing their own propaganda.  Further, the best way to learn is often through open, honest debate that cuts to the heart of the issues; you don’t learn by beating up strawmen.  The power of the real Dark Arts, just as in so much literature and mythology, comes with a great cost.

Update: One big thing I missed in this post is the need to know your audience; there is no one form of argument that is most convincing to everyone.  My implicit assumption (and that of Kantoos, who made me realize this) is that you should target the median reader out there, just as politicians should target the median voter.  But of course, in primary season you do not target the median of the whole electorate.  Krugman is in a perpetual primary season.  He is not trying to convince the average reader that his “side” is better, but to educate, entertain and radicalize those already on his “side”, by noting that the other side is not even worth considering.  This should have been obvious since he named his book and blog “Conscience of a Liberal”, but I do catch on eventually.

Written by James Bailey

January 5, 2012 at 12:06 am

The Fed Can Commit

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Anna seems to trust Ben's commitment

I have heard otherwise-intelligent people insist that the Federal Reserve is incapable of making believable commitments to take certain actions in the future.  For instance, Angus keeps saying things like

“Please repeat after me:

THE FED HAS NO MECHANISM TO BIND ITSELF TO LIVE UP TO ANY ARBITRARY PROMISES IT MAY MAKE TODAY ABOUT THE FUTURE!!!

Promises to act against one’s preferences in the future that are made without any commitment mechanism are simply cheap talk and are extremely unlikely to shape agent’s expectations or actions.”

It is obviously wrong to say that the Fed has no commitment mechanism.  The Fed makes believable commitments every day.  It does not need to resort to Schelling-style special tricks like having its employees make contracts with 3rd-parties to lose lots of money if the inflation target is missed (though of course these tricks are available and potentially useful).  The real commitment mechanism is that your reputation is itself a valuable thing, and the Fed’s leaders know this and have less-than-infinite discount rates.  Ben Bernanke has carefully developed a reputation for keeping his word; he is not going to throw this durable good away in 2012, because he will still find it useful in 2013, and he values his 2013-utility a significant positive amount.  Because Bernanke knows the importance of the expectations channel, he knows his reputation is more important than just about any one-time action.  Ben will not sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.

We don’t even need to delve into the complexities of monetary policy to establish the obvious truth that the Fed can make commitments.  Just consider the fact that thousands of Fed employees feel almost certain that the Fed will give them their next paycheck as promised.  Surely the Fed would benefit in the short term by not paying them; it could get them to keep working for a few weeks at least by insisting there was some technical problem with the payroll system.  Why doesn’t the Fed try this?  Because the leaders of the Fed know that their reputation for doing what they say [eg paying people, even if they promised too high a salary] is far more valuable than any short-term savings.  Their employees know this too, making it much easier for the Fed to manage their own labor market; for instance, no one is demanding payment up front, because they trust they will be paid later.  Similarly, the FOMC announces their meeting dates months ahead of time.  Somehow they always manage to meet when they said they would, even if everyone attending realizes at the last minute it is not a great time; they value their reputation more than a one-time inconvenience.  That’s some magical stuff right there people!

Odysseus binds himself to the mast

Written by James Bailey

October 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Berkeley Students Are So Conservative

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They, like most people, are small-c Burkean conservatives about life in general.  They have a strong status quo bias, but rather than admit this like Edmund Burke, they feel compelled to invent reasons why status quo things are good.  Berkeley psychology prof Seth Roberts said “Most of my students, for better or worse, were very conformist. My conclusion…. is that the reasons we give for our beliefs have roughly zero correlation with the actual reasons and shouldn’t be taken seriously (e.g., argued with).”  Robin Hanson said the same about George Mason students:

  • Ask random colleges student random policy questions and they will feel compelled to come up with opinions.
  • Ask them for reasons for those opinions and they’ll feel compelled to come up with such reasons.
  • Such opinions strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.
I am thinking along similar lines today after discussing organ markets with my students.  Students say that legal markets in human organs would be bad mainly because it would lead to organ theft.  Even supposing there would be more organ thefts, it is hard to imagine there would be enough to outweigh the deaths of 9000 Americans every year caused by our current ban on organ sales.  If people were used to a functioning market in organs, I have to think they would be horrified by someone saying we should ban organ sales and consign thousands to death in order to reduce theft, just as it would seem crazy to ban day-laboring to protect laborers from employers who stiff them after a day’s work (stealing is already illegal!).  It is easier to think there must be a good reason for the status quo, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and aren’t doing something horrible.  Indeed, there is more right with the world than wrong with it; there is a reason status-quo-biased people continue to survive and thrive.  Further, it is dangerous to think that those who disagree with you must do so out of some ignorant bias; call this the “bias bias”.
In general though, if we are trying to figure out the truth, we have to fight pro-status-quo bias more often than its opposite.  The reason for this is wired into our brains: our dominant trait is to rationalize, not reason.  One part of our brain is dedicated to coming up with a reason for anything, whether it makes sense or not.  In extreme cases, paralyzed people can come up with all sorts of reasons to explain why they aren’t really paralyzed; their brain is acting as an apologist for what is done, not a reasoned truth-seeker (Seriously, check out that link- it is way more interesting than my post, even if you have heard of the phenomenon before).
I am optimistic about getting people who think of themselves as non-conformist or politically liberal to consider new ideas by telling them they are being conservative conformists.  Put name-calling to good use!

Written by James Bailey

October 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Placebos, Utilitarianism and Truth

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I finally got around to reading Predictably Irrational, and the chapter on placebos got me thinking.  The chapter describes how some surgeries were found to be no more effective than “placebo surgery”, when doctors told patients they would do the surgery, gave them anesthetics and made incisions but didn’t actually perform the part of the surgery that was supposed to be effective.  The usual response when a treatment is proven to be no more effective than a placebo is to stop doing it, or to claim the study was flawed.

But if a placebo is effective (and they are often quite effective), perhaps we should continue giving them.  If placebos require false belief on the part of the recipient, to what extent is it ok for the scientific and medical establishment to deceive people, or at least not expend effort discrediting placebos?

I know this isn’t exactly a novel question, but I haven’t put much thought into it and the answer is not obvious to me.  Like many other who think of themselves as “rationalists”, I am mostly a utilitarian but I put a value on truth that is likely out of proportion to that which can be justified on purely utilitarian grounds.  My modus operandi is to be truthful without even making utilitarian calculations, and even if I made them and they pointed to deception I would likely decide to be a single-issue deontologist.

This tension goes back to the beginning of both utilitarianism and classical liberal truthiness, since JS Mill helped come up with both ideas.  He tried to square the circle and argue that there was no conflict.  Today people acknowledge the conflict but I have not read a good solution to it.  I believe Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky have said something like “the conflict exists, I take the side of holding truthfulness as a value in itself but I cannot fully defend this position.” (except for mundane dishonesty)

I guess that’s where I am now too.  However, I do wonder if rationalists should spend so much effort trying to convince people that, say, homeopathy is quackery.  If people turn to homeopathic remedies in lieu of modern medicine when there is a real treatment available, that is certainly bad.  However, in the areas where modern medicine does little better than a placebo, homeopathy is likely to provide a much cheaper placebo.

This issue comes up in economics as well.  Some macroeconomic remedies may return the economy to prosperity by fooling people.  Rational expectations argues against this by saying that the government is incapable of fooling markets.  However, provided that they could, economists face a dilemma where telling people the truth about what government policy is doing could make the country poorer.

This conflict comes up in politics all the time.  Is it ok to use dishonest tactics to get better policies adopted?  Like end-justify-the-means problems generally, much of the problem is due to the fact that everyone considers their own ends to be worthy, but for many reasons their ends would not in fact increase total utility.

This is part of why I say err on the side of truth, but I cannot really defend this position.

Written by James Bailey

August 31, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Philosophy is Pointless

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There are three kinds of philosophy:

1) Natural Philosophy

2) Ethics

3) Answers to made-up questions like ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ that show the answerer is really clever.

If most philosophical questions were definitively resolved one way or another, should people act any differently as a result?  I think not, and if not, I submit that philosophy is pointless.

Except, of course, as a way of showing how clever you are.  That is to say, most philosophers are just in it for the chicks and the money.

So, philosophers, tell me why you do it and what would change if you got definite answers to non-scientific, non-ethical questions.

Written by James Bailey

February 18, 2010 at 11:24 am