Sunday, May 27, 2018

Illiberal Policy In Actual Practice

I think people have an intrinsic distaste for illiberal policies. I occasionally catch a glimpse of this distaste and it makes me extremely hopeful.

People are recoiling at President Trump's policy of separating the children of asylum seekers from their families. Jeff Sessions had some fiery, unapologetic rhetoric, but almost everyone else has balked. Sure, there are some "We-are-a-nation-of-laws-and-we-have-to-enforce-them-no-matter-how-deranged-the-implications" bullet-biters out there, but not many.

Another example of this I've noticed is that pro drug war folks will often go out of their way to point out that there aren't many drug users in prison. Those long sentences are saved for dealers. More to the point, low-level dealers aren't often given long sentences of the kind spelled out in minimum sentencing legislation. Now, maybe these drug warriors are simply pushing back against inaccurate claims made by careless drug legalizers and prison reformers; perhaps they are just trying to set the record straight that there are not hundreds of thousands of low-level offenders clogging our prisons. Sure, there are some, but a substantial majority of those people are in prison for something more serious.

By making a big stink about this, drug warriors are ceding an important point: that it would actually be terribly unjust if there were a lot of people in prison for non-violent offenses or low-level drug dealing. After arguing that "No, no, there just aren't a lot of non-violent offenders in prison..." they almost never add "...but there should be!" Some of these guys are fire-and-brimstone law-and-order types, and they sometimes talk a good talk when it comes to defending things like minimum sentencing guidelines. But when presented with the case of actual human beings facing these tough sentences and suffering the consequences, they show some basic human decency and demur.

Some of them might defend minimum sentencing guidelines with the following kind of argument: Perhaps the law should be overly punitive so that prosecutors have leverage over the accused. Getting people to sign a plea deal is easier if you can threaten with a multi-decade sentence, even if the prosecutor actually has little appetite for sending low-level offenders to prison for that long. Maybe the weight of the drugs never gets brought into play in the official charges, perhaps a gun found on the defendant goes away, and the accused gets a few months in jail and "time served." But force us to go to trial, and we will bring the hammer down on you. I think this is a cynical and hypocritical approach to the law and I find it totally despicable, but there's little doubt it gets people to sign more plea deals. And plea deals avoid the expense of a trial and the chance that a guilty person will escape justice. (This is a dangerous line of argument, because innocent people sign plea deals, too. That shouldn't be terribly surprising. Law-abiding folks are even more risk-averse than criminals.) Even someone making this kind of argument is implicitly admitting that it would be pretty terrible if those minimum sentences were actually served by all offenders. It's a pretty weak defense of a law to say, "We never actually enforce that law." This person is basically admitting that enforcing the law would have horrible consequences.

Another example is the pro-life crowd. Most of them don't believe that a woman who gets an abortion should be punished. Donald Trump painfully discovered this during his campaign. (Though I think the conservatives who bashed him for giving "the wrong answer" were being extremely hypocritical.) The "correct" position is that there are penalties for abortion providers but not for the women who get them (as if you can just punish the providers without harming or endangering the this case matrons...although that's probably a terrible choice of term, too). I recall a video made by a pro-choice group in which several pro-lifers were asked if there should be a penalty for women who get an abortion, and most were very uncomfortable with the question and said "No." It was presented in the tone of "Look at how stupid these pro-lifers are!" but my actual take-away was that the people in the video had some real nuance and tempered their heart-felt ideology with some equally heart-felt compassion.

Are there other examples? Prior to a supreme court decision in 2003, homosexual behavior was still illegal in some states and there were a lot of rear-guard conservatives (sorry again for the terrible choice of words) who wanted to keep it illegal. But I'll bet the number of people willing to actively prosecute gays was far smaller than the number of people who would tick the "Don't legalize" box on a survey. The thought of having police covertly infiltrate gay communities and conduct sting operations on gays is extremely distasteful, even to people who are nominally against legalizing homosexual behavior.

People are far too flippant about using government power to enforce their stupid culture-war posturing. Maybe you don't particularly like immigrants and you want to prevent large numbers of immigrants from "diluting" American culture (whatever that means). But immigration enforcement in actual practice means ripping children from their mothers' arms and throwing them into filthy holding facilities or (sometimes just as bad) foster homes. Drug law enforcement in actual practice means that those deranged minimum sentences will actually be applied to some people, particularly the ones who dare to inconvenience the prosecutor and demand their constitutional right to a trial. "We as a society" do not simply "decide" that some behaviors will no longer happen. There is no "we" here, and there is no hive-mind called "society" that collectively makes or ratifies these decisions. When a law is passed, it doesn't just sit out there in the ether and compel us to obey it. No, a law stipulates that if certain rules are broken, men with guns will use violence to stop the rule-breakers. There will always be some people who are not compliant, and we need to think a lot harder about whether we are justified in using violence to stop them. The answer might be "yes." It would be silly for me to posit that violence is always wrong, or that the prospect of using violence makes all laws morally suspect. Obviously I'm not saying that. I'm proposing a much lower bar: that there is a moral presumption against violence. Any law (proposed or existing) needs to overcome this moral presumption with some kind of convincing justification.

(By the way, Locked In by John Pfaff really drives home the point about prisons not being full of nonviolent offenders. See here, or better yet read the book. I was a bit puzzled with President Obama's clemency initiative near the end of his presidency, when he seemed to be having trouble finding a low-level, victimless offenders who had simply run afoul of minimum sentencing laws. It makes a lot more sense after reading Locked In. Usually people go to jail after having committed multiple offenses. There are usually aggravating circumstances, like the presence of a gun or the actual use of violence. That makes it easier to understand why he granted clemency to about two thousand people, not tens or hundreds of thousands. Even granting that there were probably a lot of non-violent offenders who were simply passed over by the clemency program's vetting process, truly sympathetic-looking, non-violent offenders were hard to find.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

People Are(n't) Morally Responsible: Two Extremes

I have small children who sometimes misbehave. When this happens, I need to lay down the law. They gradually learn that they won't get away with bad behavior. The problem never quite goes away. They have to learn the same lesson over and over again sometimes. But they gradually get the point and misbehave less often than they would if I never punished them.

My middle son is particularly strong-willed. I remember one recent instance when he was playing in the back yard. He was pulling on some leaves at the end of a tree limb. He had gripped the outermost twigs and leaves on that particular branch and was pulling so hard it bent the entire branch back. I said, "Let go of that, buddy." He didn't respond and kept pulling. I reiterated in a sterner tone, "Let go of that!" He ignored me. Sort of. What he actually did was, almost imperceptibly, looked toward me. I don't quite remember if he turned his head toward me or if just his eye darted to me, then back to what he was doing. But for a brief second he was looking right at me. He heard me alright and he understood what I was telling him to do. He decided to ignore me and pulled until he'd torn the end of the branch off. As punishment, I sent him inside. I explained to him that he had deliberately chosen to ignore me and that the consequences were the loss of a privilege (playing outside). This is a three-year-old I'm talking about. I have to treat him as if he's morally responsible for his behavior. If I fail to do so, he'll be a nasty little shit-head who tries to get away with everything (er...more so). The lesson was more about compliance than about the trivial damage to the tree, which I didn't actually care about. Learn to listen to dad and comply right away, because the next time I might be warning you about some kind of imminent danger. I don't think that's possible unless he has some concept of "culpability."

That is one extreme. In a sense we have to hold even small children morally accountable for their behavior as soon as they can grasp the concept of "consequences."

On the other hand, I'm thinking of someone I knew in college. He went for two years, then dropped out to live with his mother in a small rural town. Ten years of that, and he still wasn't doing anything with his life. Someone could have tried to explain to him that this was the destiny he chose for himself. Someone might have scolded him for being a "bum", or explained to him that he had so much more potential. Someone might have described the many other options available to him and pointed out that he'd decided to turn these down in favor of the "live with mom" option. It likely would have done no good at all. This concept of moral responsibility is kind of empty if it has almost no chance of affecting someone's behavior. Like I said in my previous post, why whip and curse a mule that is never going to move anyway?

These are the two extremes. One is that even small children should be held morally responsible for their actions. The other is that even a grown-ass adult isn't morally responsible in any meaningful sense. I feel like I'm capable of entertaining both concepts, though I lean toward the first. Maybe both are useful.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Scolding Laziness: Instrumental or Just Mean?

Consider two people.

Eric is intrinsically lazy, but susceptible to being externally motivated. He's not a go-getter. If you just put him in a job and fail to manage him, he'll find where "the line" is and try to get away with as little as possible. He'll play on the internet all day, drag his feet on projects, fail to follow up with colleagues, come in late, and leave early. But if you scold him for the occasional misdeed, he'll straighten up. Just tell him, "I notice what you're doing, so knock it off!" and he'll stop all those bad behaviors. In a world where we are completely non-judgmental, Eric will suffer long bouts of unemployment and underemployment by willfully neglecting his career. In a world where we judge that behavior as "slacking," he anticipates the social stigma, finds himself a job, and works hard at it.

Henry is lazy and is not susceptible to being externally motivated. He exhibits all the bad behaviors that come naturally to Eric, but unlike Eric he does not straighten up when we scold him and does not respond to society's judgment. Judging/stigmatizing "laziness" is just gratuitous. Scolding Henry about  his lifestyle is like whipping a mule that has already decided it isn't going to move; the whipping is just cruel if it has no chance of accomplishing anything. Henry will never find meaningful employment, or assuming he does find employment he will never dedicate himself to his career, no matter how much we try to shame him.

I feel like a lot of political/culture war arguments come down to whether the world is basically full of Erics or full of Henrys. Or maybe it's not even that. I think everyone secretly admits that the world has both kinds of people. Even the most left-wing die-hard socialist treats their own children like they are Erics. They teach their kids that if they behave certain ways, they will be successful, well-liked, etc. If they show some discipline at school, they will learn more. If they show some discipline toward a hobby or sport, they will grow skilled. If they are lazy or take shortcuts, they will not be as successful and not have as many friends. This same exact person, the one who teaches his own children that incentives matter and that hard work is rewarded, might throw a massive fit if you suggest that unsuccessful people had any hand in their own destiny.

Someone on the political/economic right might say, "No, no, the world is full of people like Eric. We need to properly motivate them. You can't just tell them that their problems are society's fault and give them a no-stings-attached income. We need to use all the tools in our tool-kit to motivate them. That includes concrete incentives, like retaining the coupling between work and monetary rewards. It also includes social incentives, like scolding people for laziness."

Someone on the political/economic left might say, "No, no, you can't say that! The world is full of people like Henry. Sure, some of them are just actively choosing not to contribute to society. (Don't ever tell anyone I admitted that to you, by the way.) But some just physically can't, because of a physical or mental disability of some sort. You're just gratuitously heaping scorn on these people and making them feel bad for no good reason."

I'm not quite sure exactly what's going on here. I don't know if I would pass an Ideological Turing Test (and that goes for both of the above paragraphs). I do suspect that the lefties privately admit that scolding and stigmatizing can motivate some kinds of people, but they want to preserve that particular carrot-and-stick for private use. ("Private" here meaning literally private in the colloquial sense: behind closed doors, out of the public eye, not meaning "as opposed to being part of public policy.") And the righties may have a "just deserts" mindset that completely overlooks the economic incentives argument. Maybe they don't particularly care about motivating people to work so much as they want to judge and punish the sin of laziness, incentives being a secondary consideration or not a consideration at all.

I think we have to be realistic and admit that both kinds of people exist. It would be irresponsible to throw away perfectly useful motivational tools when the world is full of under-performing-but-redeemable Erics. But we can do this without gratuitously scolding people who are inactive because they have genuine disabilities. I don't particularly have a soft spot for those people who deliberately opt for laziness when they could find meaningful employment (or something other than employment that's useful), but I acknowledge that heaping scorn on them doesn't help anyone. The problem is that sometimes you don't know who's an Eric and who's a Henry until you try. That's the thing about incentives. People have to feel them for them to work. If the rewards and punishments never actually materialize, they aren't really incentives. If nobody ever actually gets scolded or feels the negative consequences of laziness, nobody will see the need to avoid being lazy. Most people have a built-in anti-laziness scolding norm, but we should think hard about whether this norm is purely retributive or if it's actually instrumental.

There is a long discussion of crime and punishment in Steven Pinker's excellent book The Blank Slate. Pinker discusses a criminal who "can't help himself." Some people are born with less inherent ability to control their impulses. Pinker raises the question: Is it fair to punish these people because a roulette wheel inside their brains an extra green pocket (or perhaps an extra two or three or ten)? Abandoning the concept of personal culpability would bite a huge bullet, and Pinker wisely refuses to bite. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes in a hypothetical discussion with a man who is about to be hanged for some atrocity:
I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.
 (Re-reading it just now, Pinker does a much better job than this post of explaining these concepts on pages 177-184 of The Blank Slate.)

Yes, there are legitimate reasons for some people to be permanently out of the labor market. I explicitly mentioned some of them above. And people have important non-career goals in their lives, too. If you read this post as saying something like, "People who don't take a job and work it as hard as possible are lazy," then you missed some important qualifiers and hedges. And the point. Try again more carefully, perhaps? There is a real sense in which deliberate laziness exists and is harmful to the person who exhibits it and the people around him. Apologies to my more careful readers if these ending qualifiers are jarring, but bad-faith criticisms of other bloggers (like what's been happening to Robin Hanson recently) have made me slightly paranoid.

This excellent piece by Scott Alexander reminded me to write this post. No, I don't accept his argument in favor of a universal basic income. Bryan Caplan has argued quite persuasively that a UBI would be fiscally irresponsible, and that aside it's completely unnecessary for the vast majority of people. The failure of UBI advocates to include even a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the costs of such a program is an inexcusable omission. Still, Alexander's piece is very thoughtful. It is more an attack on a "guaranteed jobs" program than it is a defense of a UBI.

The names Eric and Henry were chosen at random. They are not a reference to anyone, real or fictional.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Bryan Caplan's Influence on Me

Two days ago, Bryan Caplan posted this.

It's quite similar to a post I wrote a couple of years ago.

I've known about Caplan's book The Case Against Education for years, and I knew his basic argument before I wrote my post. I can see the influence of his ideas on my own thinking, and I often anticipate how he will react to something. I typically know his argument based on the title of his post before I even read it. And I can guess with disturbing accuracy what he's linking to when he adds hypertext. I hover my cursor over the link and, yep, it's exactly the post I thought he would reference. I grok you, Bryan Caplan!

And yet he still manages to completely surprise me at times.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Drug Poisonings by Intent Over Time

I've stitched together a nice dataset of all drug poisonings for all years 1999-2016. The raw data files are here. Usually people who want mortality statistics over time can pull them from the CDC's Wonder database, but that is limited. If you want to do some complicated filtering and counting based on multiple criteria on the death record (like I'm trying to do), you need to go back to the raw data. I'll do a series of posts on what I find.

The ICD10 coding system has codes for drug overdoses and they vary by intent. There are separate codes for accidental poisonings, suicide, undetermined intent, and murder. Most media stories that report on the "opioid epidemic" lump them all together and report the total. I think this is misleading. If someone deliberately takes his own life using a bottle of painkillers, is that part of a drug epidemic? I don't think so. On the other hand, if recreational drug users are recklessly killing themselves by scarfing down too many Vicodin and chasing it with vodka, I think that counts. Intent matters.

Here is what I found. Accidental deaths have been rising dramatically. Suicides have increased, but by a much smaller factor. "Undetermined Intent" bounces around but has been roughly flat. Murder has always been small. "Other" means that it wasn't labeled as a drug poisoning but some kind of substance was mentioned on the death certificate (well, one of the ~dozen most common substances anyway). In this last category I see a spread of different underlying causes: vehicle accidents, drownings, various organ diseases, the effects of chronic drug use (these are not coded as drug poisonings but should plausible be counted as part of "the drug problem".) Mere mentions of drugs have been rising, but again not as dramatically as accidental poisonings.

I think the table is perfectly informative, but since I spent all morning toying with ggplot I might as well share the pretty graphs I made from this data.

A slightly different look at the same numbers is in the table below.

And the same numbers with a ggplot graph.

None of this is news to me, but this is the first time I've had the complete dataset to build this on.

One thing that makes me suspicious is the small fraction in the "other" category. I've written several previous posts suggesting that there might be a spurious trend in the death counts. I suspect many deaths from other causes are inappropriately labeled drug poisonings just because the decedent happened to have drugs in their system when they died. With the very large number of drug users in this country (tens of millions of illicit drug users and ~90 million prescription opioid users each year), I would expect to see a large number of death where opioids are mentioned on the death certificate but are incidental. A lot of people who happen to have drugs in their system die of totally unrelated causes. Are medical examiners scrupulously avoiding any mention of drugs when they aren't relevant to the cause of death? Or are those same medical examiners assuming that the presence of drugs contributed to the death, even in cases where it might be incidental? I'll follow up if I find anything that favors one story over the other. If the second thing is happening, that means the recent increase in drug poisonings is being overstated.


Ugh. The text on the graphs looks blurry in the main post, but if you click directly on it the text gets sharper.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Great Excerpt From Inadequate Equilibrium

Inadequate Equilibrium by Eliezer Yudkowski is a great book. It's a really fun read. A very long section of the book is a conversation between two earthlings (one named Cecie) and a Visitor from another dimension that never gets stuck in bad equilibria. The confused Visitor keeps reacting to descriptions of earth with responses like "Why would you all choose to live this way?" and Cecie calmly explains to Visitor the logic of a bad equilibrium. This passage just about made me laugh out loud:
VISITOR: Okay, suppose there had been a large enough study to satisfy your world’s take on “scientists.” What else would likely go wrong after that?
CECIE: Several things. For example, doctors wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the experimental results.
VISITOR: Hold on, I think my cultural translator is broken. You used that word “doctor” and my translator spit out a long sequence of words for Examiner plus Diagnostician plus Treatment Planner plus Surgeon plus Outcome Evaluator plus Student Trainer plus Business Manager. Maybe it’s stuck and spitting out the names of all the professions associated with medicine[?]
And what follows is a discussion of why in the hell would you mix all of these functions into one job performed by one person?

From Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography

 I read this book recently and the following passage jumped out at me:
It is perhaps worth pointing out that [the Ostroms'] approach to teaching stems from a particular philosophy of language, most prominently associated with John Searle and Michael Devitt. Vincent Ostrom was particularly fond of Searle’s Speech Acts. One of the key questions in the philosophy of language is “What is meaning?” To put it differently, when can we say that we truly understand something? Philosophers like Searle and Devitt argue that the meaning of a text (be it a single sentence or a larger text) is nothing but the set of empirical conditions that would have to hold in the real world for us to accept that what the text is saying is indeed true. In other words, to understand the meaning of a text, you have to be able to identify the ways in which the world would be different depending on whether the text were true or false.
Emphasis mine. I read this and thought, "Whoa, this is a theory of language?" I didn't think it was such a novel idea that people should mean something when they speak or write. I haven't read Searle's Speech Acts, but I feel like I've internalized this concept. When I write something, I interrogate each sentence, ask myself if supporting links are needed (if it's a factual claim), ask myself what implications there are (if it's a logical claim), etc. I think this is all just good hygiene.

For some added context, this is the immediately preceding paragraph:
We can see the success of the Bloomington School as emerging from this challenging approach to teaching that Vincent Ostrom employed, which was followed and expanded by Elinor Ostrom: “By early 1970s Lin’s courses applying the Workshop’s theoretical conceptions in rigorous fieldwork of police studies as well as in other modes of quantitative analysis and modeling, including game theory, had become part of the core curriculum, complementing Vincent’s ‘macro theoretic’ approach with empirical studies and ‘micro theory’” (Sabetti 2011). What made Vincent and Elinor Ostrom such successful intellectual and academic entrepreneurs, was not just that they had spotted neglected opportunities for research, but also that they developed their teaching curriculum and style to complement the research agenda.