Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Society's Problems are Anti-Inductive

Things that are anti-inductive confound our attempts to understand them. It's not just that these things are hard, like proving Fermat's Last Theorem or figuring out general relativity. At least those things, once solved, stay solved. If physics were anti-inductive, then the universe would adjust to us stoopid huminz figuring out general relativity by changing the rules as soon as they are discovered.

Social reality is anti-inductive. As soon as we figure out that the stock market goes up every Friday and dips every Monday, everyone rushes to sell Friday and then buy their shares back every Monday. This bids down the price of stocks on Friday and raises them again on Monday, defeating the theory that we just discovered. This pattern is generally true when the reality you're trying to theorize about is composed of intelligent creatures that can use the theory to plan their behavior (or who know that other intelligent creatures are planning on using that theory to predict their behavior).

People adjust their behavior to thwart superficially sensible government policies. Why don't we just find people who have low incomes and directly give them money? Well, because that creates a subsidy for being underpaid and underemployed. If we reward people for being "needy", we incentivize people to compete on needs rather than on productivity. People who go to college earn more than people who don't, so why not just send everyone to college for free? Well, because stamping "Graduate" on a bunch of people's foreheads degrades the value of existing college degrees without necessarily making the new graduates any more productive. If a college education will pay off for an individual student, that student will be able to finance the expense with their future earnings (by borrowing now and paying back the loan later). Money helps people buy things, so why not just print off a bunch and give it away? Well, because with more money chasing an unchanged amount of goods, producers and sellers will raise their prices. At best this will be a wash, and at worst you become Zimbabwe. Prices are rising, so why not just fix them in place to keep everything affordable? Well, because if prices are rising, that probably means the actual underlying costs of the inputs are rising, too. By preventing the price from rising, you are basically telling producers and sellers, "You must sell at a loss." Which is in effect telling them, "You may not sell at all."

Some of these are more controversial than others. I think nobody doubts that printing lots of money causes inflation, though some people nit-pick about whether price controls have the effects that economists predict. (They most certainly do, although the magnitudes may be difficult to measure.) But this post isn't just about bad government policy.

Should you bail out your alcoholic friend who just got a DUI and let him sleep on your couch for a week? For the third time? For the tenth? And maybe it's not for a week this time but a whole month? You may begin to suspect that such a person is using his friends to support a very bad habit and some tough love might be in order. Should you loan this person money for a needed liver transplant? Or should you think, "This person 'spent' his liver with his eyes wide open."

Should you loan your friend money because the utility company is going to shut her lights off? Maybe. But you might be thinking, "What brought us up to this point? Wasn't there something you could have done to avoid this? If you had asked me three months in advance, might I have said, 'Please take the following steps to avoid financial ruin, or I won't feel obligated to help you.'?"

It's really, really hard to help people. Some people know just how much of an "other people's help" budget they will get, and they spend the whole thing. Increase the budget, and they simply spend more.  Economists call this moral hazard, the tendency to behave recklessly when someone is promising to rescue you from a wreck. This is why most interventions don't work. You can try to get the incentives right. You can give away only boring stuff, like bunk beds in austere public housing and tasteless-but-nutritious food rather than cash, such that people don't try to exploit your generosity.  You can make giving conditional on some kind of buy-in by the recipient. Think of the sweat equity that Habitat for Humanity demands of its partner families. Some kinds of interventions work better than others, for sure. But if you put free stuff or free help out there, people will try to get it. It may mean deliberately earning less and being a less productive citizen in order to stay below some cutoff point. Or it may mean completely and deliberately crippling your life until someone takes pity on you and helps. We don't have a good theory telling us when people will give up in the "competing on needs" contest and return to self-help. Some will go all the way to the brink and even end up killing themselves; some will realize their bluff has been called and pick themselves up. Some perfectly deserving individuals will scoff at any offer of charity and insist entirely on self-help. Any intervention that promises to help people should count on a fair mix all these behaviors and try to minimize self-sabotaging "competing on needs."

These problems are anti-inductive because people are smart.  A government program or private charitable plan to give away $1 billion could easily induce more than $1 billion in social costs due to destructive competition. We don't just get "reality as it stands plus $1 billion worth of mitigation." We get "reality as it stands plus $1 billion worth of mitigation plus sympathy-inducing self-sabotage directed toward collecting the $1 billion bounty." We need to be far more careful than we have been. We need to stop having knee-jerk "Here's-a-huge-problem-OMG-throw-money-at-it!" responses to social problems.

False Moral Equivalences Are Indeed Obnoxious

The phrase “false moral equivalence” is getting plenty of mileage these days. Apparently people are suddenly making a lot of them. I agree that these are annoying.

For example, suppose someone compared Nazis to people who advocate extralegal mob violence against groups with unapproved political ideologies. That would be stupid, right? False equivalence! Those obviously aren’t the same at all because one of the groups advocating mob violence aren’t literally Nazis. How obtuse!

Or suppose someone were to simply call everyone who doesn’t hold the proper, approved viewpoints on race issues a “Nazi.” False equivalence! By crying wolf, these “Nazi” denouncers might not be believed when there are actual Nazis to worry about. A story about real-life, self-proclaimed Nazis might cause people to think, “Oh, I guess some people want to keep their old statues and someone is throwing a fit about it…wait, OMG! There are actual Nazis marching?! Forgive me, but I rarely see the word used literally.”

You’ll have to pardon my sarcasm. I am beyond fed up with the denounce-happy “antifa” folks and their complete inability to be self-critical. I have written some people off as being incapable of having an adult conversation because they speak entirely in outrage. It is a bit surreal to see them discover the term "false moral equivalence", a term that accurately describes about half of what they write.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Fact-Checking" Is Often Just Editorializing

Many of the "fact-checking" pieces I read are actually editorials trying to take up the mantle of immutable truth. This new trend annoys me.

Fact-checking as such should be very narrow in scope. A false claim about some material fact should be corrected. A number or statistic or historical claim that is easily evaluated to an unambiguous answer is corrected, with some minimal commentary on how the claimant's conclusion changes. If I say there are 200 million people in the United States, such that each person on average owes $100,000 of the $20 trillion federal debt, it is the proper place of a fact-checker to say that the true figure is 323 million people and that the per-person average is closer to $60,000. On the other hand, if I want to argue that the true figure is not $20 trillion (unpaid bills that we have covered through borrowing) but more like $200 trillion (total unfunded liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlements), that is not a piece of fact-checking. That is editorializing. It moves beyond the narrow scope of correcting a singular piece of information to telling an entirely new narrative. "The debt" is a fairly well-defined concept. "Total unfunded future liabilities" is another concept. It is arguably more relevant and less arbitrarily defined than "the debt." But changing the subject is very different from fact-checking. Media personalities need to be much more aware of when they are writing an opinion piece.

Editorializing is important, and I'm not knocking it. Some narratives really are better than others. We need journalists and academics to write opinion pieces sorting this out. But an entire narrative cannot be "fact-checked". A narrative can be wrong even though each material piece of data mustered in its defense proves correct. A narrative can be right even though transparent falsehoods are used to support it. Some things can be known with near certainty through sheer logic and introspection. It is impossible to fact-check a statement such as "demand curves slope downward." Getting at the truth requires more than assembling facts, because facts don't speak for themselves. Some assembly is required. Facts must be arranged into coherent stories, and this always requires a hefty dose of theory. There is a strong desire to have "the facts" on one's side. But facts themselves are neutral. They are often consistent with any of several competing, mutually exclusive hypotheses. We should stop pretending that if we simply collect enough of these crystallized nuggets of unassailable truth, we win the argument.

I should probably list a few example of bad fact-checking.

See this Slate story about motorists in China killing accident victims and this Snopes piece "debunking" the Slate piece, plus this China Insider story arguing that the original Slate piece is probably true.

See this story, in which the Washington Post "fact checks" a claim about declining union membership and union support by the labor force; Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard calls them out on their shenanigans. This is a great example of what I'm talking about. It is perfectly legitimate to discuss various pieces of evidence and argue about the implications of various historical facts and statistics, but that is emphatically not fact-checking. That is editorializing.

See this Marginal Revolutions piece about fact-checkers disagreeing with each other at an unacceptably high rate (with a link to the academic paper). And this Weekly Standard piece discussing it (also by Mark Hemingway).

Read a few of these posts from the WUWT blog about Wikipedia expelling contrary viewpoints on climate science. Wikipedia is often cited as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Plainly it's not if a few zealots are systematically deleting everything that casts doubt on their worldview. In a certain online forum that I frequent, people routinely fact-check by citing Wikipedia. That's often a good start, but it's never quite safe.

Econlog has some good pieces on political bias in fact-checking. See this one by Bryan Caplan and this one by David Henderson. I like the point Henderson makes in his piece. Sometimes fact-checking is not the journalist's job. For example "correcting" one of the candidates during a presidential debate, while hypocritically getting the facts wrong.

A correspondent on NPR's Morning Edition does this kind of thing all the time. He will instant-fact-check his conservative guests: "Hold on, I'm gonna have to fact-check you there..." And then he interjects with his opinion. His left-leaning guests don't get a similar treatment, even though they are just as likely to spew falsehoods. I want to say, "Buddy, it's not your job to fact-check based on your own fuzzy memory of what the 'facts' are." 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hypocrisy Denounced. Now Tell Us Which Thing They Were Right About.

There are plenty of accusations of hypocrisy floating around. They often take the form of: You took the position X in a previous case, but now you're taking the position "not X". Supposedly someone's opinion changes just when it's politically convenient, or someone evokes a principle when it favors them but repudiates the principle when it doesn't. I think most of these accusations miss the mark. The two things being contrasted aren't actually in conflict. A simple conversation with one of the "hypocrites" would reveal that there is no internal contradiction. The person accusing you of hypocrisy is imagining himself to have more insight than you do into your own mind. Arnold Kling calls this "asymmetric insight," and we should all be extremely careful about doing this. Adherents of an ideology usually understand that ideology better than its critics.

Still, I want to take some of these accusations of hypocrisy at face value. I want to note that the claims of hypocrisy are usually perfectly symmetrical. Usually if "the Right" believes "X" in one situation and "not X" in another, "the Left" believes "not X" in the first situation and "X" in the latter. If you're making a charge of hypocrisy, it might be useful to specify in which instance the hypocrite is correct.

Consider a few examples that I have seen.
  • Conservatives were once for the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, now they are against it.
  • Conservatives side with the police when young black males are shot, but are either silent or side with the agitators when they are white (like Cliven Bundy and his followers).
  • Conservatives are all in favor of the rights of the unborn, but don't seem to care about children once they are born.
For the first bullet point, you can turn this around and point out that liberals once opposed the individual mandate, until it became a feature of the ACA and they decided they liked it. In the case of the second bullet point, I wish people would state clearly whether police confrontations are an appropriate or inappropriate response to rowdy protesters. When Cliven Bundy's people were occupying government buildings, I remember seeing some left-wing chatter on Facebook wishing that American soldiers would descend on them and "split open their skulls." (citation needed) It's fine to say that different protests take on a different character and thus invite different kinds of police responses. But if anyone is going to insist on some kind of absolute consistency, let's first have them tell us which kind of response is appropriate.

For the third bullet point, this is once again reversible. If we're collapsing these issues down to, "Well, do you care about children or don't you?" then conservatives could turn this one around on their accusers. You could defend this by saying something like, "No, the question of whether an unborn fetus is a person is different from the question of how the welfare state protects living people from misfortune." But this concedes the point that we're talking about two very different policy questions, and we can't collapse it to a one-dimensional question like "How much do you care about children?" You can believe that an unborn fetus is a person with all the associated rights and legal protections, but that a government-run welfare state creates perverse incentives that causes more misery than it solves. You can likewise believe that an unborn fetus is definitely not a person, and that a welfare state definitely ameliorates poverty and saves lives of people who are materially underprivileged. Or you can mix and match. No combinations of these viewpoints is self-contradicting or internally inconsistent. But if you do insist on some foolish consistency, you commit yourself to that consistency, too.

My preferred approach to these alleged hypocrisies is to say there probably is none. You are probably just failing to understand someone's viewpoint. But beware the symmetry of these accusations, which usually ensnare the accuser along with the accused.


There is a very different kind of hypocrisy, where someone does something in their own life that is inconsistent with their stated moral beliefs. ("Al Gore uses a lot of fossil fuels while decrying the use of fossil fuels." "Bill Bennett preaches the dangers of addiction while indulging a gambling habit and a chain-smoking habit.")  I won't say much about this other kind. I will point out that sometimes the hypocrite has the right professed morals, even if they lack the character to live up to them. It would be unfair to do an ad hominem against, say, arguments in favor of temperance.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Old Crank Yankers Episode: An @$$ Slapping Contest

There was a show on Comedy Central in the early 2000s called Crank Yankers. The theme was that comedians would prank-call someone, usually a local business, and the phone call would later be enacted by puppets.

In one episode, an effete, high-society gentleman named Niles calls a professional calligrapher and asks her to draft up invitations to an "ass slapping contest." Of course, the intention is to be as obnoxious as possible and make the calligrapher feel as uncomfortable as possible. That's the point of a crank call. The calligrapher declines, saying that she's "just a southern house-wife." That's her way of saying that an ass-slapping contest offends her delicate, conservative sensibilities. (Using "conservative" in an apolitical, cultural sense here.) I have a serious question.

Should we find this house-wife and prosecute her? Suppose she'd instead been asked to bake a cake for an "ass slapping contest"?

I hope you see what I'm getting at. The calligrapher's conservative sensibilities meant the project was extremely uncomfortable for her, so she declined. I think that's perfectly reasonable, and nobody should be able to compel you to serve them if they don't feel comfortable doing so. But apparently some people don't agree with me on this point. Apparently it's not sufficient to say, "Sorry, I'm not feeling it. Ask someone else to do it." Instead, you have to give a reason for declining. If the reason given doesn't pass muster, you're the fair target of a lawsuit.

I think it's possible to stake out a territory between "you have to bake a cake for a gay wedding" and "you don't have to do calligraphy for invitations to an 'ass slapping contest.'" But what's difficult is to make this kind of carve-up conform to a principle that any sane person recognizes. To do this without making it sound incredibly ad hoc requires some serious rhetorical gymnastics.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Hitch 22 - A Memoir

I thought I'd collect a list of some of my favorite passages from Christopher Hitchens' autobiography Hitch 22: A Memoir. I've read this book probably a dozen times. Actually I have it on audiobook, and it's The Hitch himself narrating. Very enjoyable. You will experience the full range of human emotions from this book. Hitchens sounds like "The Most Interesting Man In the World."

He coins many reusable phrases. "The sheer balls-aching tedium." I don't even remember the context for this one. "Hammer-blow heart attack", describing the very sudden death of his father who had "never spent a day in bed in his life." Referring to adolescent self-discovery, so to speak, at an English boarding school he says, "Most boys decided quite early on that, since their penises would evidently give them no rest at all, they would repay the favor by giving their penises no respite in return."

Describing his disenchantment with conventional politics: "I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with 'conventional' politics. A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and felt it for yourself...I hope never to lose the access to the outrage that I felt then." Maybe this falls flat on the page, but hearing his voice rise in pitch as he says, "you should fucking well have been there" makes me almost feel like I had "been there."

Referring to Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: "I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me."

He recounts a hilarious story where his friend Martin Amis ropes him into going to a "massage parlor" with him. Martin Amis, himself a successful author, is doing research for a book (titled Money) and apparently clears his research with his wife. "I was later startled, not to say impressed, when I learned that he had "cleared" all this "research" with his then-wife, the fragrant and lofty Antonia. He telephoned her in London and, rather than temporize, informed her right away that: "I'm going to a hand-job parlor with the Hitch." Hitch didn't want anything to do with this expedition, but was unable to say "no":
He even had one all picked out: its front-name was the "Tahitia," a dire Polynesian-themed massage parlor, on lower Lexington Avenue. "And you," he informed me, "are fucking well coming with me." I wanted to say something girlish like, "Have I ever refused you anything?" but instead settled for something more masculine like "Do we know the form at this joint?" I could not possibly have felt less like any such expedition: I had a paint-stripping hangover and a sour-mouth, but he had that look of set purpose on his face that I well knew, and also knew could not be gainsaid. How bad could it be?...Pretty damn bad as it turned out.
I bust up laughing at "and you are fucking well coming with me" every time I get to this part. Every time. And "paint-stripping hangover" is one of those reusable phrases strewn throughout the book. (Apparently in the print edition he writes "paint-bubbling"; if "paint-stripping" is an improvisation for the audiobook it is absolutely brilliant.) I know exactly the feeling. He goes on:
Some of the working "hostesses" may have to simulate delight or even interest - itself a pretty cock-shriveling thought-but when these same ladies do the negotiating, they can shrug off the fake charm as a snake discards an unwanted skin.
The story is anti-climactic, by which I mean he doesn't have to go through with the sex (for all we know). He describes the bargaining process, in which "I wearily started to count out the ever-steepening fee, which was the only thing in the room that showed any sign of enlarging itself." It is the cash question that saves him, as he puts it.

With respect to "identity politics":
People began to intone the words "The Personal Is Political". At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was -cliche is arguably forgiven here-very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic "preference," to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: "Speaking as a..." Then could follow any self-loving description.
He is describing 1969 in the above passage, but he could be talking about today.

"The one thing that the racist cannot manage is discrimination. He is indiscriminate by definition."

From Martin Amis: "He once rebuked some pedantic antagonist by saying the man lacked any sense of humor, but added that by this accusation he really intended to impugn his want of seriousness."

Quoting another literary friend, who apparently had a gift for hyperbole, describing someone's halitosis: "At this point his breath was undoing my tie."

A poem from Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror:
The history of Soviet Russia in five verses. 
There was an old bastard named Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in,
That's a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That old bastard Stalin did ten in.
There is a long and sad section on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding as credible threats were made against his life.
It was about this time that he took the "Proust Questionnaire" for Vanity Fair. One of the regular questions is: "What do you most dislike about your appearance?" His response: "Its infrequency."
Rushdie is the one who supplies The Hitch with his book title while listing off book titles that never were meant to be: The Big Gatsby, A Farewell to Weapons, Hitch-22. Hitchens, who was looking for a title to his autobiography, says, "Aha, got it!"

He describes "hoofing it" through Belfast at night in the era of IRA activity and being thrown against the wall by British soldiers with blackened faces. "Getting my breath back and managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognized as nonthreatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked." I love the split infinitive on "fuck off."

Correcting a Churchillism that goes "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." The Hitch had been to several war zones himself and had a few near misses. He corrects, "Catching the plane out with the whole skin is the best part by far." Perhaps you need to hear him read it in his own voice with his emphasis on "by far."

The book is a wonderful mix of humor, sadness, outrage, pride, and gratitude. Pick up a copy.