Friday, September 29, 2017

The Proper Role of Legislature In Society

Most days I'm an anarchocapitalist. On my off days I'm an extreme minarchist. I've been thinking about what the proper role of a legislature is in society, including whether there is a place for such a thing in a world of zero or near-zero government. There probably is, but the role is a much smaller and more circumscribed role than the one played by the legislature in most modern democracies.

"But in anarchocapitalism," the naive response might begin, "don't you simply contract for everything? Isn't the argument that you don't need government because everything is spelled out in contractual agreements between individuals?" This is wrong, because there are bound to be disputes in any society under any conceivable system of government. Contractual language is bound to be ambiguous, leading to disputes between contracting parties. In a nation state, there are also disputes about what "the law" actually means, and citizens must occasionally sue their governments to assert (or at least clarify) their rights. So that's the first point: under any system of government, you need lawyers, arbitration, litigation, courts and judges to resolve disputes. You need someone who can bang a gavel and say, "Pay him back his $200, or you'll be marked a scoundrel." Anarchocapitalist writers, like David Friedman, Bruce Benson, and Peter Leeson, have quite a lot to say about dispute resolution in the absence of government. You might even say it's the focus of anarchocapitalist literature. Any boob can say, "This all works out fine, because there are prior agreements and the rules are spelled out plainly." But disputes are inevitable. The interesting stuff happens when there are disagreements about the rules and contracts that have been written.

Suppose you have commonly-occurring disputes that are resolved in different ways in different regions. But some firms operate across these different regions, so they need to be compliant with various inconsistent judicial rulings. This could end up being incredibly stifling, because the rule of law is not clear. It differs from one city to the next, because one judge zigs while the other zags. It might be desirable to impose some consistency such that people know the rules ahead of time and can plan accordingly. This is the proper role for a legislature. It should be to clarify the law and resolve opposing judicial decisions regarding similar cases, not to invent new law out of whole cloth. Some amount of pure policy-making might be unavoidable. Maybe your minarchy needs to go to war with a neighboring state, or maybe you face some internal crisis of the kind that was constantly plaguing the United States early in its history. Perhaps there are a few coordination problems too large to be solved privately. We need a canal dug or highway built, so we need an elegant way to secure easements across many thousands of properties. Or we need a unified system of intellectual property rights so that innovators with very high research costs can recoup their investments. I'm sympathetic to the idea that some projects are rendered incredibly difficult, even unfeasible, without a central government overseeing it. Mostly, the legislature should see its role as clarifying existing law, not changing the law to something that some central planner deems desirable. Inventing penalties for the use and sale of drugs, limiting immigration into the country, constraining the allowable range of labor contract provisions, and redistributing wealth are not the proper purview of the legislature. We need to be a lot more humble about our ability to reshape society to make the unpleasant things go away. Legislatures should get out of the business of banning things. But it's probably useful to have groups of representatives assemble and review the existing law to see if it makes sense.

(Great podcast on law versus legislation on Econtalk here, with Don Boudreaux as the guest. "The law" is the set of rules we all implicitly follow. "Legislation" is the set of dictated rules made by fiat. "The law" says you may speed up to about 5 over the speed limit, while "legislation" restricts you to the number posted on the sign. At least in Boudreaux' usage. At any rate this is a very useful concept.)

I'll take an example I've used before: a careless employee who can easily lose his employer a lot of money. The employee takes a call, mishears an order, and upon delivery the customer says, "That's not what I ordered." The employer, who can't tolerate money-losing misplaced orders, fills the correct order and makes the employee pay for the cost of the misplaced one. The employee says, "No fair! Occasional wrong orders are a cost of doing business. It doesn't say anything in my contract about having to pay for a misplaced order. This eats up an hour's worth of my five-hour shift!" The employer says, "This is your fourth misplaced order this week. You are costing me money, so you're going to have to pay for your mistakes." Here there is a legitimate dispute over who should pay. If the employer is wrong and withholds a misplaced-order's worth of wages, he is stealing from his employee. If the employee is wrong, he is insisting on the right to injure his employer with impunity. Someone will have to step in and resolve the conflict. You want to make sure similar cases are resolved in similar ways such that everybody knows the rules ahead of time.

The anarchocapitalist has an answer to this. Judicial decisions can set the default rules, but parties can contract around these rules by explicitly specifying the details. But even here, maybe a judge rules that some obscure provision was buried in the fine print of a simple low-skilled labor contract, and such a person can't be expected to read and understand such provisions. Maybe these kinds of contract provisions get thrown out, and to my point get thrown out inconsistently across regions. Such a society might want something that functions like a legislature, clarifying the law by fiat. Another anarchocapitalist answer is that the contracting parties can specify ahead of time which judge (or which dispute resolution firm) will solve any disputes. (David Friedman describes this kind of arrangement frequently in his talks and (I think) in his excellent book The Machinery of Freedom.) But then I can imagine a class-action suit in which a large number of employees cry foul. "No fair. You stacked the deck against us, so we're suing you in another court." Dispute resolution is hard. It's a little bit question-begging to say, "All potential disputes will be specified ahead of time in the contract," and it's just further question-begging to say, "Methods for resolving disputes will be determined ahead of time in the contract." There can be legitimate disputes over any of the details in a contract, including details about how disputes will be resolved. Once again, this kind of society might want a legislature that clarifies the rules.

Of course, legislation can also be confusing. An attempt to clarify can confuse. "Hmm...the law says: If X, then Y. It also says: If A, then B. Wait, does the condition X apply here? Or condition A? Judges?" So this needs to be done carefully. The inefficiencies of inconsistent judicial rulings might be too small to justify the drawbacks of having a legislature that rules by fiat. Don't mistake me as arguing that an initially anarchocapitalist society will inevitably institute some form of central government. I just want to modestly suggest that dispute resolution is really hard. It's going to suck. Even if anarchocapitalism is better than having a central government, these painful disputes over the rules of the game will arise now and then.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Cycling Caffeine

I wanted to share my experiences with caffeine because it might be helpful to someone with a similar problem.

For a while I was a daily coffee drinker. I would have a 16-ounce cup in the morning and another one at lunch. I love the taste of coffee and the mild buzz from a low dose of caffeine. (A high dose is extremely unpleasant.) But this started to cause problems. I was fine for the morning and after lunch, but after my lunchtime coffee I would be miserable. As my caffeine levels dropped, I would get pretty severe withdrawal symptoms. Tension headaches. Fatigue. An all-around miserable feeling. Even an irregular heartbeat, which can be incredibly jarring. I even wore a heart monitor once. My doctor reassured me it was nothing to worry about, but it was still an incredibly unpleasant sensation. I thought there was something really wrong with me.

I knew my heart was healthy enough. I do a pretty extreme martial arts/gymnastics workout every day. I essentially never get physically tired from this. Still, like I said, jarring.

Just over a year ago, I got my own coffee thermos and started brewing my own mix. It would always be some combination of regular grounds plus some decaf grounds. I love the taste of dark coffee but don’t always want all the caffeine. So one day I had only a single cup of low-caffeine coffee in my thermos. That was all I had that day. I got all the symptoms. Fatigue. Headaches. Heart palpitations. It was an “Ah ha!” moment for me. This was what was making me miserable. I suspected that too much caffeine might have caused my occasional irregular heartbeat (and drinking too much coffee definitely sometimes has this effect on me), but I never suspected that caffeine withdrawal was the culprit. I decided I would tough it out. Rather than “cure” myself by drinking some coffee, I decided I’d just take the discomfort. If this fixed my feeling awful every day, it would be worth it. So I went off coffee for a few weeks. (A week into my caffeine withdrawals, Scott Alexander posted this wonderful piece about drug tolerance. Good timing, Scott.)

Like I said, I love coffee. I didn’t want to give it up forever. I made the conscious decision to start drinking coffee again, but this time I’d be careful with it. No more day-long tension headaches and heart palpitations. I decided I’d drink it twice a week. This works well for me. On Saturdays and Wednesdays I’ll mix a strong brew of coffee. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays I mix a tiny volume of regular coffee with a lot of decaf (which actually does contain small amounts of caffeine, BTW). I’ll have a single caffeinated soda on Mondays and Fridays if I feel like I need it. I tried doing coffee every other day, but my withdrawal symptoms came back. Twice a week at most is apparently all this delicate snowflake can handle without acquiring a real physical dependence. Cycling on and off caffeine has been a lot better than having it every day. I pretty much never have withdrawal symptoms, unless I cheat and drink coffee several days in a row. (I have done this just a couple of times on weeks when I was traveling and out of my normal routine.)


Yes, I know it's dangerous to draw any conclusions based on anecdotes. Yes, I know the "treatment" and the outcome can be a coincidence. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Dark Text on Light Background Or Vice Versa?

Should I keep with the light text on a dark background? Switch to dark text on light background? No preference? I'm not seeing any convincing evidence that either one is inherently preferable to the other.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Prescription Opioid Abuse Is Declining

And the government failing to disclose it. I wrote about this in my previous post, but I think this is important enough to give it its own post.  The two graphs below are from page 7 and 26 of the SAMHSA's Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (here).

The top chart plainly shows that past month prescription opioid abuse is flat over the past decade or so, the era in which we supposedly saw an exploding opioid epidemic due to "over"-prescription of opioids (in some observers' estimations). The second chart shows that prescription opioid-related substance abuse disorders are also flat over the same period, even decreasing for some age demographics. 

In the 2016 version of this document, both of those charts go missing, even though the report shows similar graphics for all the other drug categories covered (cocaine, heroin, alcohol, marijuana, tobacco...). Why suddenly remove this information? I'd think the readers of this document would want to know that this trend is flat, particularly since they're hearing elsewhere that there's an "opioid epidemic" in this country. Like I say in my earlier piece, this is probably due to a methodology change in 2015 in which they started asking about "opioid misuse" and "any opioid use", which might make the numbers not directly comparable. But the question about "opioid misuse" is basically the same as the question from prior years, so I think they should have included it. It's not like adding the question about "any opioid use" dramatically changed the number of reported illicit opioid users. You can look at comparable sections of the text of both the 2014 and 2016 version. Here, once again, is my previous post:
[T]hat report says: "In 2016, an estimated 1.8 million people aged 12 or older had a pain reliever use disorder, which represents 0.7 percent of people aged 12 or older." That report, which I hadn't seen until just today, actually does not include the charts displaying the trend in prescription painkiller misuse and substance use disorders from 2002 to present (the charts shown above in this post). Why not? Why weren't those charts updated for the most recent report. Well, the 2014 version says, "The estimated 1.9 million people aged 12 or older in 2014 who had a pain reliever use disorder (Figure 31) represent 0.7 percent of the people aged 12 or older." The number of people with a substance abuse disorder regarding painkillers decreased by 100,000 people in the last two years. Is SAMHSA trying to disguise a decline in a widely publicized problem? Shame on them if they are.

I can find a similar duo of quotes about declining "past month use". The 2014 report says: "The estimated 4.3 million people aged 12 or older in 2014 who were current nonmedical users of pain relievers represent 1.6 percent of the population aged 12 or older." The 2016 report says: "An estimated 3.3 million people aged 12 or older in 2016 were current misusers of pain relievers, which represents 1.2 percent of the population aged 12 or older." Once again the chart is missing from the 2016 version of the report; if it were there it would show a sharp decline in past month painkiller misuse in 2016. Past month recreational use of prescription painkillers decreased by a million people, and the government is disguising this decline? My best non-cynical explanation for removing the charts is that 2015 was the first year that they started asking about "illicit painkiller use" and "any painkiller use" (previously they had just asked about illicit use). But then they should show the graph but have a footnote about the methodology change, like the Monitoring the Future report does.
And I include the following chart from the MTF report, showing what an appropriately-disclosed methodology change looks like:

I don't think there's some massive conspiracy to disguise a flat or declining trend here. In fact, I'd think the government would want to advertise its "success" in turning around a social problem. (Scare quotes around "success" because prescription opioid overdoses haven't declined, and any causal connection between the decline and some government policy would be suspect.) An editorial decision to remove that chart was made for some reason, though. This is pretty sloppy work, in my opinion.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Debunking the Standard Narrative on the "Opioid Epidemic": A Response to Vox

This post will be a response to the standard narrative on the "opioid epidemic" using this Vox piece by German Lopez as a foil. I should make very clear that I am not picking on Vox or Mr. Lopez here. They have a lot of company. I see a lot of irresponsible and inaccurate reporting on the so-called opioid epidemic. Details are wrong, important facts and details are omitted, wild speculation is indulged, and selective use of "experts" is made to tie everything into a standard narrative. Also, this isn't personal. I have tried not to add any gratuitous barbs or insults to this piece. If the Vox piece got something badly wrong, or if Mr. Lopez suggests some policy change that would have horrible consequences, I try to point these things out as matter-of-factly as I can. This can feel like a personal attack even if done carefully, so I've tried to be aware of this. I hope Mr. Lopez finds his way to my piece and it influences his reporting.

 The title of his piece is "The Opioid Epidemic Explained", the subtitle (tagline?) is "The opioid epidemic could kill as many as 650,000 people in the next decade. Here’s how it got so bad." Both the title and tagline are incredibly misleading.

Lopez opens with this:
If nothing is done, we can expect a lot of people to die: A forecast by STAT concluded that as many as 650,000 people will die over the next 10 years from opioid overdoses — more than the entire city of Baltimore. The US risks losing the equivalent of a whole American city in just one decade.
Link preserved. If you open that link, you will find an article with the title "STAT forecast: Opioids could kill nearly 500,000 Americans in the next decade." 650,000? 500,000? What's going on here? Read the STAT piece. There are ten different scenarios, and Lopez picked the worst case scenario to sensationalize his story. Lopez links to the piece, and does say "as many as 650,000 people will die" over the next ten years. But why lead with the highest plausible estimate, rather than a mid-range estimate? The middle scenarios give you numbers in the 350,000 - 400,000 range. Still scary, I suppose, but why exaggerate? A careless reader will anchor to the 650,000 figure and not remember that it's an extremely pessimistic and unlikely scenario. And why sum across an entire decade anyway? A more valuable piece of information might be something like "risk per legal prescription" or "risk per user." (We'll get to that later.) It is incredibly bad "public health" analysis to sum up a risk across a huge population to get a large number, then build your case on how big that number is. It's even worse to sum across multiple years. Why stop at 10 years, anyway? Why not sum up 20 or 30 years and make it a cool million? Why not sum up across an entire century? If America had three times the population, and thus three times the expected number of overdose deaths, would the problem be three times worse? If some hypothetical future society with one trillion people had the same rate of opioid overdose mortality, would it be three thousand times as big a problem? I don't think so. The relevant measure of risk is per user per year (or some other relevant time period). This piece is off to a bad start.

From the next paragraph:
In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in America — about two-thirds of which were linked to opioids. The toll is on its way up, with an analysis of preliminary data from the New York Times finding that 59,000 to 65,000 likely died from drug overdoses in 2016.
Once again, he anchors the reader to an irrelevant number: 52,000. A careful reader will pull out his calculator, multiply 52,000 by 2/3 and get the figure of 34,667. Then he immediately jumps back to a total number of drug overdoses for 2016, in a post that's supposedly about the opioid crisis. Why is he adding together cocaine, methamphetamine, and benzodiazepine-related deaths? Again, a careful reader will remember to multiply by 2/3, but why doesn't Lopez just say clearly what the relevant numbers are? It's as if I were writing a piece about vehicle-related fatalities by adding together auto fatalities and gun deaths, then said, "About half of these are auto-deaths."

The actual figure, by the way, is 33,204. That's adding together prescription opioids, methadone, synthetic opioids, and heroin, avoiding double-counting (most deaths involve multiple substances). And if you remove suicides and likely suicides, you get 29,490. Drug overdose data suffers from a similar problem to the one faced by "gun death" statistics, in that suicides are included in the total. This isn't the fault of the statistics, of course, but rather the fault of sloppy reporting that adds unlike things together to get an inflated total. Of the 52,623 drug overdose deaths in 2015, 5,215 were suicides and 2,979 were of "undetermined intent." Ninety-four were "murder." (Arguably some fraction of "undetermined intent" should be added in when tabulating "accidental deaths, but this number hasn't risen over the last 15 years so it's not really part of the trendline we're interested in.) I don't think it's fair to blame suicides on opioid over-prescription. You can argue that despondent addicts are giving up on life and killing themselves, but then you're speculating wildly about whether that person would have died if not for the causal factor we're interested in. See my thorough breakdown of the 2015 overdose deaths here.  I actually warn my readers near the beginning of the post:
"I suspect you will see a lot of news stories starting with “There were 52,600 drug overdoses in 2015…” If you see such a story, scan it to see if it gives a breakdown by “accidental vs intentional.” If it doesn’t, that’s a big warning sign that the author didn’t do their homework.
This warning certainly applies to the Vox piece. Anyone who is actually curious about this important topic can download the data from the CDC's website and dissect it however they like.

The Vox piece then gives the standard narrative explanation of how we got here:
Over the past couple of decades, the health care system, bolstered by pharmaceutical companies, flooded the US with painkillers. Then illicit drug traffickers followed suit, inundating the country with heroin and other illegally produced opioids that people could use once they ran out of painkillers or wanted something stronger. All of this made it very easy to obtain and misuse drugs.
The author should have told his readers that this is a wild guess. There is no convincing proof that the new heroin users are former prescription opioid addicts. Or, at any rate, there is no convincing evidence that prior prescription opioid use caused subsequent heroin use. The great fallacy in this "opioid epidemic" narrative is that the heroin users and prescription opioid users are the same population. In 2015, 85 million people used prescription opioids legally, and there were ~200 million legal prescriptions. By contrast, there were half a million heroin users. But there were comparable numbers of deaths in both categories (~13,000 from prescription opioids and 12,000 heroin deaths, or 18,500 heroin deaths if you add the "heroin" and "synthetic opioids" together to capture the fact that some dealers have been mixing fentanyl in with heroin). Some relevant numbers in my piece here, once again from the CDC's website. Deaths per legal opioid user are in the 0.015% range; deaths per heroin  user are probably somewhere in the 1% to 3.5% range. In other words, the prescription opioid deaths are a very small risk applied to a very large population. The heroin-related deaths are an extremely high risk applied to a relatively small population (about half a million users according to survey data, but see caveats in my piece about the size of the population of heroin users). These are very different issues with very different underlying social causes. It makes little sense to add them together just because the chemical mechanism is the same. The "opioid epidemic" isn't a thing. It's several things.

The Vox piece now weaves a narrative of irresponsible doctors prescribing way too many opioids. There are several drivers of this trend. There was a change in philosophy on how pain should be treated. Pharmaceutical companies developed new opioids and supposedly bamboozled impressionable doctors into over-prescribing them. There is no doubt that the sheer tonnage of opioids prescribed increased; the government tracks these figures and they are certainly rising. See the chart at the bottom of this page. But it's not at all clear that the expansion of opioid prescribing was inappropriate. Second-guessing doctors prescribing pain medicine is a very dangerous business. If Mr. Lopez is wrong, but the force of his argument nonetheless determines the course of US drug policy, he may be damning many people to unnecessary suffering. He says it himself in the Vox article:
On the patient side, there were serious medical issues that needed to be addressed. For one, the Institute of Medicine has estimated that about 100 million US adults suffer from chronic pain. Given that the evidence shows opioids pose more risks than benefits in the majority of these cases, patients likely should obtain other treatments for chronic pain, such as non-opioid medications, special physical exercises, alternative medicine approaches (such as acupuncture and meditation), and techniques for how to self-manage and mitigate pain.
I've seen the 100 million figure before. I don't know if it's right or not, but if it's even the right order of magnitude this is a huge problem. We should not be placing any restrictions on how doctors treat these patients, who according to the 100 million figure comprise almost a third of the US population. That's not to say 1/3 of us are constantly walking around in agonizing pain, but rather that a third of us have occasional flare-ups of intractable pain. It is downright cruel to take treatment options of the table.

It's a bit amusing that Lopez so cavalierly dismisses prescription opioids for chronic pain and then suggests acupuncture and meditation, which are basically placebo treatments.  Of course opioids work for pain management. People can feel the relief almost immediately. People have used opium for thousands of years. In Montana, where it's hard for chronic pain sufferers to get the treatment they need, many pain patients flee the state to get their necessary prescriptions. (From the link: “My pain, it’s all from my waist down,” he said. “It’s like being boiled in oil 24 hours a day.”) Many pain doctors are getting fed up with idiotic politically motivated restrictions on their practice, which condemns many of their patients to endless suffering. Some pain patients have committed suicide after being cut off from their only source of relief. Mr. Lopez is making it sound like it's so very easy, like if we'd just prescribed less opioids we wouldn't have these problems. Not so. You're always going to have this false positives/false negatives trade-off. There isn't a simple "make fewer mistakes" lever. There isn't a magic "accurately identify appropriate candidates for opioids" button. Greater accuracy isn't an option. The people making the call (doctors) have the highest possible level of education. They possess the most information they could plausibly obtain about the patient's medical history. They are constantly doing continuing education for new trends in medicine. (I dearly hope they aren't looking to Vox for their information.) We can't descriminate more accurately on a systematic basis, we can only change the discrimination threshold. You can prescribe opioids more freely, knowing that a few more people who don't need them will get them. Or you can prescribe opioids more restrictively, knowing that more people who actually need them won't get them. A false negative is way more costly than a false positive here. We should be willing to tolerate a lot of false positives. The "downside" of being too permissive is that some people who use opioids because they enjoy them get to indulge their vice. [Edit 9/26/2017: I should clarify, I am not knocking either acupuncture or meditation for pain sufferers who feel like these treatments work. I would expect placebo treatments to be pretty effective for pain management. It's possible that the effectiveness of opioids is partially a placebo effect, too. I believe pain is one of the more subjective symptoms in medicine, and we should default to believing people who say they suffer from it. We should also default to believing people who say they have found a solution to it.]

It reminds me of journalists and economists who complain about all the "unnecessary medicine" provided in the United States, as if we can just categorize all medicine as "necessary" and "unnecessary" and then stop doing the unnecessary stuff. The problem is that these things are never certain. Nothing is "100% necessary" or "100% unnecessary." Rather, the best we can do is have some confidence level: "I'm 10% sure this is necessary" or "I'm 95% sure this is necessary." And then establish some sort of threshold, as in "We'll do everything that's at least 50% necessary." (This threshold should vary with the relative costs of false positives and false negatives, of course.) Mr. Lopez can correctly say that there is a lot of unnecessary opioid prescription, but he hasn't really given us a better means of discriminating "necessary" from "unnecessary", nor has he made the case that the threshold should be made more restrictive.

The Vox piece says:
And in other cases, the doctors involved were outright malicious — establishing “pill mills” in which they gave away opioids with little scrutiny, often for hard cash.
How "malicious" it is to sell something to willing buyers. The downside is that people who want to get high get to.

Another section of the piece starts with the title "Heroin and Fentanyl made the crisis much worse." Again, referring to it as the crisis incorrectly collapses heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids into a single problem. Lopez tries to connect this to opioid prescriptions, but I think he fails. From the piece:
A 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found 75 percent of heroin users in treatment started with painkillers, and a 2015 analysis by the CDC found people who are addicted to painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.
If you read the study, it says nothing about the causal link between prescription painkillers and subsequent heroin use. Recall that there were 85 million prescription opioid users in 2015. If any of them subsequently become heroin users, they will be counted in the 75%. When I had some serious oral surgery done in 2001, I was prescribed some hydrocodone. If at any point in my life I become a heroin user, I will be counted in the 75%. [Edit 9/26/2017: This is incorrect; the 75% figure refers to past opioid abuse, not legal use. The first sentence of this paragraph holds up pretty well under this correction. According to the detailed tables of the SAMHSA survey from 2014, there were ~36 million prior non-medical users of prescription opioids. "Prior" meaning lifetime, not past year or month. Still a very large pool of people for the 75% figure to arise from.] This is much like the argument, popular among drug warriors, that marijuana is a gateway drug because most users of hard drugs start with marijuana. There are simply so many current and past prescription opioid users that most heroin users will probably have had past experience with these drugs, but that says nothing at all about a causal link. Indeed, the vast majority of prescription opioid users never go on to use heroin, so the causal link is dubious.
Although prescription opioid overdose deaths have really hit middle-aged and older Americans in their 40s and up, there’s evidence that heroin and fentanyl are much more likely to hit younger adults in their 20s and early 30s — creating a divide in the epidemic by age.
I'm not quite sure where he's going with this. For the record, the average age of someone who died of heroin in 2014 was 38. The average age of someone who died of prescription opioids in 2014 was 44. The users skew much younger than the average overdose death, implying that age is a huge risk factor in overdose deaths.

There are some good statistics in the Vox piece. Lopex points out that a huge fraction of opioid deaths (heroin and prescription painkillers) are really multi-drug interactions. I wish he'd have made a much bigger deal out of this. Take a look at my dissection of the 2015 overdose deaths (also linked to above). He refers to a couple of studies, but actually anyone can pull the data off the CDC website and do their own dissection. It's public information (although every death record is anonymous). If these deaths are multi-drug interactions, then the policy implications are much milder than "keep drugs away from people." Rather "let them have their drugs but remind them not to mix certain drugs" would suffice. "Get high, but do it this safe way..." is an easier sell than "don't get high." Only a small percentage of drug overdose deaths are single-substance overdoses (~14% of prescription opioid poisoning deaths, ~25% of heroin deaths, ~1% of benzodiazepine deaths). If we can get these people to stop mixing substances, we'd save a lot of lives. Lopez should have fixated his attention on this.

I'll step away from directly quoting and responding to the Vox piece and make a couple of observations.

Prescription Opioid Abuse Isn't Increasing!

There's all this talk about a prescription opioid epidemic. Gee, if only the government kept statistics on rates of drug use, broken down by drug category. Oh, wait, they do! Here is a figure from page 7 of the SAMHSA's Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (link).

It's basically flat. It's even decreasing for younger demographics. Opioid epidemic busted? Okay, so maybe "past month use" isn't indicative of overdose risk. Maybe it's just a subset of these who are really dangerous users who wind up killing themselves. If only they kept track of some other statistic indicating a more severe problem with prescription pain relievers. Oh, wait, they do that, too! Here is page 26 of the same document:

Once again, is't basically flat, and probably decreasing for the younger demographic. And just for good measure, here are some charts from the Monitoring the Future survey, which only covers 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. See page 31 of this document:

Admittedly this is a restricted age demographic, very different from the population of people who are actually dying from prescription opioids. But it confirms the notion from the SAMHSA survey that youth use rates are falling. And the "availability" question is telling. It appears to be falling, indicating that these substances are harder to get than a decade ago for this age demographic. (The discontinuity in the curve represents a methodology change where the survey question was re-worded, so interpret the charts with that in mind).

I have heard people dismiss the survey data. The argument goes something like, "If someone has a prescription, they're not going to count themselves as 'misusing.'" There's some kind of reporting error in the survey. People either don't even consider themselves to be "misusing" their opioids, or they know damn well they are misusing but are reluctant to say so on a government survey. I am sympathetic to this, but I find it really implausible that this would completely mask a trend of increasing painkiller abuse. Prescription opioid overdose deaths roughly tripled from 1999 to 2014, but the number of self-reported abusers is totally flat? Prescription opioid deaths basically flat-lined around 2010, presumably because of political responses to the so-called crisis. Wouldn't the "under-reporting" story imply that there should be an increase in self-reported painkiller misuse around this time? I could imagine under-reporting skewing the drug use statistics, but it's hard to swallow the idea that this reporting bias completely masks a trend, then also masks a flattening in that trend. I can buy that there's some reporting bias in these statistics, but it's hard to swallow the idea that the bias adjusts to hide any kind of movement in opioid use. Whatever kind of bias is being proposed by the people who dismiss the SAMHSA statistics, propose a mechanism for this bias and be consistent about how it works. And keep in mind Mr. Lopez actually cites and links to the SAMHSA summary. he somehow missed that the trendline for this statistic is flat, or he didn't see fit to share that with his readers.

Lopez points out that:
About 2.1 million people are estimated to have an opioid use disorder in America — and experts widely agree this is, if anything, an underestimate.
The link is to the 2016 SAMHSA survey summary report (my link above is to the 2014 version). Actually, that report says: "In 2016, an estimated 1.8 million people aged 12 or older had a pain reliever use disorder, which represents 0.7 percent of people aged 12 or older." That report, which I hadn't seen until just today, actually does not include the charts displaying the trend in prescription painkiller misuse and substance use disorders from 2002 to present (the charts shown above in this post). Why not? Why weren't those charts updated for the most recent report. Well, the 2014 version says, "The estimated 1.9 million people aged 12 or older in 2014 who had a pain reliever use disorder (Figure 31) represent 0.7 percent of the people aged 12 or older." The number of people with a substance abuse disorder regarding painkillers decreased by 100,000 people in the last two years. Is SAMHSA trying to disguise a decline in a widely publicized problem? Shame on them if they are.

I can find a similar duo of quotes about declining "past month use". The 2014 report says: "The estimated 4.3 million people aged 12 or older in 2014 who were current nonmedical users of pain relievers represent 1.6 percent of the population aged 12 or older." The 2016 report says: "An estimated 3.3 million people aged 12 or older in 2016 were current misusers of pain relievers, which represents 1.2 percent of the population aged 12 or older." Once again the chart is missing from the 2016 version of the report; if it were there it would show a sharp decline in past month painkiller misuse in 2016. Past month recreational use of prescription painkillers decreased by a million people, and the government is disguising this decline? My best non-cynical explanation for removing the charts is that 2015 was the first year that they started asking about "illicit painkiller use" and "any painkiller use" (previously they had just asked about illicit use). But then they should show the graph but have a footnote about the methodology change, like the Monitoring the Future report does. Failing to disclose this to the report's readers is just disgraceful.

By the way, the SAMHSA survey shows declining rates of cocaine use from 2006 to present, which is in line with declining numbers of cocaine overdose deaths. It also shows a probably real increase in heroin use, which once again corroborates the increase in heroin overdose deaths. So we can't just go dismissing the drug survey figures out of hand because "people lie about their drug use on government surveys." These surveys are apparently tracking some real trends.

Lopez might have taken this opportunity to at least remark on the statistics that contradict his narrative.

But, while were in the business of doubting government statistics...

Doubts About The Death Statistics 

There are many things that give me pause about the death statistics themselves. They could be overstated, or understated for all I know. Determining the cause of death is fundamentally a matter of opinion. If you read Karch's Pathology of Drug Abuse, the standard medical textbook on the topic, it's like every other sentence is a warning about assigning a drug-related cause of death. I urge Lopez and other curious readers to pick up a copy and read it thoroughly. See several excerpts from the chapter on opioids here and from the chapter on cocaine here. Also, see comments that  Steven Karch made for Radley Balko's great series in the Huffington Post on this topic here. From the textbook:
Not one single control study, even in animals, has ever shown that postmortem drug concentrations accurately reflect drug concentrations at the time of death, but a goodly number have shown quite the opposite to be true, chiefly because of the problem of postmortem redistribution (Pounder et al., 1996; Hilberg et al., 1999; Moriya and Hashimoto, 1999; Drummer and Gerostamoulos, 2002; Flanagan et al., 2003; Ferner, 2008). Postmortem redistribution is defined as the movement of a drug down a concentration gradient after death.
This is just one quote of many. It's like every other line he's reminding the reader, "Hey, it's really hard to determine the cause of death. You can't simply do it based on postmortem drug or metabolite concentrations, which unfortunately is standard practice." Seriously, read through it. Parts of it are feel like they are from a text on the philosophy of causal inference. I suspect that, with a lot of people on high-dosage opioids walking around, a few of them randomly drop dead from other causes and get labeled a "drug overdose" by an unwary medical examiner. The examiner might be ignorant or simply busy and has a handy explanation that allows him to move on. It's certainly the case that people who die of drug overdoses have a lot of other illnesses and medical problems, which end up on the death certificate. This indicates that some other causes of death contributed, or perhaps were actually the primary cause. (If an opioid user wouldn't have died but for their sleep apnea, which cause is "primary"? It's almost a philosophical question. But sheer navel-gazing aside, there are also implications for who should and shouldn't get opioids if these other illnesses are overdose risk factors.) The people who die of drug overdoses also tend to be older than the using population in general. It's likely that a lot of these people are sick or old and die for reasons other than their opioid prescription, but the handy explanation is too easy to pass up. And there is plenty of other evidence for a spurious trend in drug overdose deaths: categories that were empty in 1999 but populated in 2014, the ICD-9 to ICD-10 changeover in 1999, the promiscuous use of the generic drug overdose category (as in they couldn't actually blame the death on a particular substance), etc. I'm not suggesting that the entire trend is spurious, just that some proportion of it is not real.

This is one of my pet peeves about these opioid epidemic stories: taking the death totals at face value. A body is a body; there is  no doubt that these counts represent people who actually died. But the cause of death is always in question. If thousands of these deaths have the wrong cause of death assigned to them, then we will draw incorrect conclusions if we simply add them up and take them at face value. People like to have facts and numbers to support their story. That's understandable. Statistics feel a lot like facts, immutable nuggets of unimpeachable truth. But if the underlying data are bad, any summarizing, averaging, trendline-fitting, regression analysis, or other statistical magic will give you garbage. I wish people would be a lot more skeptical about these death figures.

Alternative Narrative

My simple story is this: there is some very low probability of overdosing on prescription opioids. The tonnage of opioids prescribed roughly tripled from 1999 to 2015, and so did the number of opioid overdose deaths. The risk per legal prescription did not change. Contrary to the standard narrative, we did not see an increase in illicit use of painkillers despite this massive expansion in their legal use. We have more people exposed to a particular risk, a risk whose magnitude did not change over the past decade and a half. It's as if we were doing a certain surgery, which always carries some trivial cause of death, three times as much as we were in 1999. Then somebody tabulated some statistics and showed that, OMG, death rates from that surgery have also tripled! The surgery needs to be evaluated by the following criterion: Is the risk worth the benefits for the individual undergoing surgery? Summing the deaths from surgery complications across 300 million people simply does not give you a statistic that is relevant for public health policy. If the surgery is deemed worthwhile, it doesn't matter if the "death total" is large, or if it's increasing or decreasing over time. The surgery is either worth doing at the individual level or it isn't. There were about 0.5 deaths per kilogram of opioid prescribed in 1999, and there were about 0.5 deaths per kilogram of opioid prescribed in 2014. This is an unchanging risk being applied to a larger population.  Lopez tries to make the case that the expansion of prescription opioids was unnecessary, but he ultimately fails to make this case. Plainly a lot of chronic and acute pain sufferers are better off with prescription opioids, and neither Vox nor anyone else has established a sorting mechanism better than doctor's judgment for deciding who does and does not get these drugs.

The recent spike in heroin deaths is related to very cheap "heroin". The price drop is due to drug dealers spiking their heroin with fentanyl and stronger synthetic opioids. These opioids are sometimes hundreds of times stronger than heroin and are poorly mixed into batches of drugs that get sold as heroin. So people take something far stronger than they intended and end up overdosing. The increase in heroin deaths showed up very late in the game. The increase in synthetic opioid deaths showed up even later. I would have expected to see heroin deaths increasing steadily since 1999 if prescription painkillers were turning people into heroin addicts, but it's flat from 1999 to 2007 (green line below). The causal link here is dubious. See the trends for different drugs in the chart below:

A much fuller exploration of alternative narratives here. My basic explanation is that the prescription opioid overdoses aren't mostly coming from addicts with serious drug problems (though clearly some of them are). They're mostly coming from normal people with legal prescriptions who occasionally do something incautious, like take painkillers with alcohol or benzodiazepines or imprudently take more than the recommended dosage. It's a boring story without a bad guy, and it denies the news-consuming public their craving for a good drug scare. But in my opinion it's the most likely explanation. Not every social problem is a moral panic with an identifiable villain.

I certainly don't disagree with everything in the Vox piece. Sure, make naloxone, the antidote for an opioid overdose, more available. Sure, spend some money on drug treatment programs. (I'm these drug treatment programs even work?) But the basic underlying narrative is simply mistaken.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cruel and Unusual Punishment Without a Trial

A judge reads a “Guilty” verdict. The defendant hangs his head.
“Of course,” the judge says, “you are free to go.”
The defendant raises his head hopefully, thinking he’s going to get “time served.”
“You may leave here today. However, at an undisclosed time, a S.W.A.T. van will arrive at your house. Men clad in military armor, holding military-grade rifles, will walk up to your door and break it down with a battering ram. Your dogs will be shot. Your wife and children will be terrorized, as will any guests who might be present. They will be handled roughly and held captive at gunpoint. A flash-bang grenade will be detonated in your living room. Your possessions will be destroyed. Your windows will be smashed from the outside, not for the sake of entry or even viewing inside, but deliberately to terrorize anyone inside. Based on legal precedent, the raiding officers are free to handle you, your family members, and your belongings as roughly as they like without any fear of significant legal consequences. As I said, you are now free to go.”

Anyone with half a conscience would view such a punishment as cruel. Such a sentence would certainly be unusual. And yet this kind of terror is inflicted on families all the time without a trial. S.W.A.T. raids matching the judge's description are done routinely to serve drug warrants, which are naturally served before the suspect (victim) has gone to trial. Often they hit the wrong house. Often the get the “right” house (as in, the address listed on the warrant) but there is no evidence of any crime or wrongdoing. Often they hit the right house and the suspect is indeed “guilty” of selling drugs, but his family is needlessly terrorized. Those same cops could have waited him our or picked him up while away from his house. Often times they don’t bother to check and see if there are children in the house, or they “check” but don’t do their due diligence and end up raiding a home with young children inside. Sometimes they injure or kill an innocent person. Sometimes the homeowners think they are being robbed and shoot at the cops. This is usually lethal for the homeowner, and sometimes for the raiding police officers. It is worth reiterating that this tactic is used against people who are merely suspected of non-violent drug offenses, not even convicted and not having the chance to cross-examine their accusers. This is cruel and unusual punishment, plain and simple, without the benefit of a trial as guaranteed in the constitution.

I’m sure some clever lawyer on the side of the drug warriors could offer a pedantic legal rationale for this atrocity. “Silly plebeian, not of the legal tribe. Let me explain how this works to you…” And then they could rattle off various legal rationales: exigent circumstances, statutes supposedly granting authority to violate the constitution, rulings by pliant judges using dubious legal reasoning. (Radley Balko of the Washington Post has described his frustration with such legal pedants reacting to his writings.) But the pedant is wrong. Constitutions are supposed to spell out our rights in plain language such that clever government lawyers can’t simply argue those rights away. If the constitution states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” I don’t need a law degree to understand that. I don’t require a detailed knowledge of hundreds of years of legal rulings and judicial decisions to know my rights, because they are stated plainly enough for everyone to understand. The government is bound by the plain language that the man on the street can understand. It can't make those plainly stated rights conditional, disappearing when one out of thousands of esoteric exceptions is triggered. Sure, there may be borderline cases, but the terror of a no-knock S.W.A.T. raid does not come close to being borderline. I have personally gotten the “Let me explain how this works to you…” lecture from both drug cops and prosecutors. (Not that I was in trouble, just arguing with them on social media.) I think they were all being incredibly obtuse. I think you really have to be deeply morally compromised to become an apologist for this kind of thing. They are so inured to the banal horrors of drug policing that the prospect of terrorizing an innocent family is no longer shocking to the conscience. 

I’ve recently been reading Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko for probably the fourth or fifth time. It is gripping and infuriating. The kind of police raid described by the hypothetical judge above is common, happening perhaps a hundred times a day (based on statistics about numbers of drug warrants served and S.W.A.T. team deployments). That number could basically fall to zero and the drug problem would not be any worse than it is today. It’s an absolutely pointless tactic, designed more to terrorize than to achieve anything tangible.

Yes, this is me baring my moral outrage. You’ll have to pardon me for indulging it. Completely gratuitous violence is one of my triggers, particularly when it’s aimed at non-violent offenders and completely innocent people. I'm still willing to put that aside and have a reasonable, rational discussion with anyone who's interested. But if I'm being totally honest, this kind of thing really disturbs me. 

Why People Aren't Joining Your Cause

Someone comes up to you on the street and hands you a flier.
“Hey, this is a really serious problem. You need to place your attention on it now.”
“Um, sorry, I’m headed to an appointment right now…”
“No, this is way more important than that. People are dying!”
“Look, you’re just some guy. I have no idea if what you’re telling me is actually true. You could be confused. Or lying even.”
“Just glance at the pamphlet,” he says, and indeed it lists some scary statistics.
“Okay, that looks bad. But I don’t know if it’s correct or not. I’ve seen a lot of really bad statistics. Particularly in support of social cause. The most dramatic statistics are usually wrong.”
“Well, yeah, but there are references!” Indeed, there are asterisks referencing authoritative sources. Published research, government statistics, CDC and FBI documents and reports.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean the flashy statistic means what your pamphlet says it means. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but I would have to sift through a lot of stuff to figure it out.”
“But for something this important, you have a duty to figure it out! You have a duty to put in the effort and fight this fight with me.”
“Actually, there are a thousand fights like that. In fact there’s a guy down the street who says you’re full of shit and that I should be fighting the opposite fight. I’m busy. I work a job 9 hours a day, and in my home life I spend my hours caring for my children and doing a few chores. What little free time I have I spend watching some TV and doing various hobbies. I could possibly sacrifice those indulgences and dedicate time to something more socially valuable. But even if I did, the odds are pretty small that I would pick your thing out of all the problems in the world. I’m not telling you I don’t care, or wouldn’t care if I looked into it more. It’s just that I’m already swamped. Sorry.” And he runs off to get on with his life.

Human attention is a scarce resource. That’s the basic problem here. The thing you’re worried about could be the worthiest cause in the world. But you aren’t just asking someone to care about a worthy cause. Everyone is willing to do that. You’re asking someone to read thousand-word articles, then fifty-page publications and white papers, then 300+ page books, then do a few statistical calculations and math problems, and then care about your thing. It’s not as obvious as you think. The problem could be much smaller than you think it is, or the solution you proposed might be the wrong one, or you could be absolutely backwards-wrong about the problem. You can't just shove a flier in someone's face or try to shame them into compliance on social media. It's not a simple matter of getting someone to glance at a few statistics. Rather you're asking someone to sit down with you and read a few chapters out of your calculus textbook and do some of the practice problems. Policy analysis is hard work. Quantifying social problems is hard work! Don't be fooled. Your raging sense of moral rectitude is lying to you.

I remember realizing that something was very terribly wrong with the world. It was some time in 2009. I had just finished reading Radley Balko’s Cato paper “Overkill.” (Do read the whole thing.) Here was a huge problem that I didn’t even realize existed. Fifty-thousand commando-style police raids every single year, most of which didn’t turn up enough evidence to even make an arrest (let alone convict the target of the raid). How could I have missed this? And how can people go on with their lives like this isn’t even happening? And how can American cops take part in such Gestapo tactics? How could so many of them betray the citizens they are sworn to protect? This is something right out of Nazi Germany taking place in present day America. I would post things on social media about this now and then. A few people seemed to care. Bless them. But most people didn’t seem to give a shit. It’s not that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. If it happened to them or to a loved one, they would instantly understand that a problem exists. But expecting someone to care is like shoving a pamphlet in their face and saying, “Not convinced? Well, here’s thousands of pages of literature to read…” Most people don’t have time to even figure out if the cause is a worthy one.

By the way, recently people have been using the term “woke” to describe awareness of the social injustice faced by African Americans. I think I viscerally understand what this means, even if I don’t exactly buy the standard social justice narrative on race issues. After reading about police militarization, wrongful raids, and the brutal treatment of drug crime suspects, I was in a very different mood for several months. I read “Overkill” one day, start to finish, and was shaking with indignation. It was like taking the red pill. I definitely woke up to a problem that I hadn’t realized existed. It was the sudden realization that I was living in a different world than the one I was used to. 

I don't regret shining a spotlight on what I considered an enormous problem. And honestly I don't regret most of the fights I got into over it. Having re-read some of those old threads, which I remember as being heated, I find I was mostly polite and patient with people who espoused a despicable ideology. Good riddance to any "friends" I lost over it. (Paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens, "I don't know that they were ever really 'friends', insofar as I lost them over a disagreement.") But I might have naively expected more converts than I got. I just want to caution any moral crusaders out there that it's harder than you think to get someone's attention focused on your pet cause. There are thousands of causes competing for the same scarce resource. Don't expect yours to trump all the others.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Libertarianism Is Mild-Mannered

Libertarian ideas seem strange and extreme to people who aren’t familiar with them. I’m going to argue in this post that they are not. Libertarianism is a mild-mannered ideology. From a few unimpeachable presumptions that no reasonable person would quarrel with, you can reach some extremely libertarian conclusions.

I often get the sense that libertarian policy proposals sound extreme-for-the-sake-of-being-extreme, at least to non-libertarians. It’s as if they think we’re courting controversy for its own sake, like we’re intentionally trying to be shock-jocks. “Hey, guys, watch me bite this bullet with a wolfish grin on my face!” And then I launch into an argument in favor of drug legalization or open borders or legalized organ markets. Some critics think these positions stem from an extreme deontology, a “Right must be done, or may the world burn” kind of ideology.

Not so. I’m much more of a utilitarian. If I hadn’t been convinced that economic freedom is actually good for society in some objective sense, I probably wouldn’t have become a libertarian. If some government policy demonstrates tremendous benefits, even if it significantly abridges freedom or costs a lot to implement, I would feel squeamish about ending it.

I favor legalizing heroin and cocaine because prohibiting these drugs causes enormous harm. Most of the heroin overdose deaths are due to prohibition, because in an illegal market you have to guess at the purity and even the identity of the substance you’re taking. Black market violence, which accounts for a substantial fraction of the murder committed every year, would basically disappear if we got rid of drug prohibition. We would have a lot fewer overdose deaths and murders if we legalized drugs. I’m not saying, “Legalize heroin, because freedom for its own sake trumps all other values.” This mild-mannered libertarian is saying, “Legalize heroin because it will save a lot of lives. I’m in favor of saving lives.”

I favor open borders because turning away an immigrant at the border potentially damns that person to a lifetime of third-world poverty. I’m against that. “That person” possibly means an innocent child who would make a fine American if given the chance. I don’t think we’d be flooded with hundreds of millions of new people. I think we’d increase the flow from a million or so immigrants a year to maybe two or three million. Housing prices and the existing job market (even the expanding job market) will attenuate any surge of immigrants, with or without any government border enforcement. I’m fine with screening for criminal backgrounds, so long as it isn’t too onerous. Once again, if the choice is “admit a questionable immigrant or damn him to third-world poverty for the rest of his life” we at least need to weigh these outcomes against each other. So, I admit “open the borders” sounds like shock-jock bullet-biting, but it’s not. It’s really a plea to allow willing landlords rent to willing tenants, to allow willing employers to hire willing workers, and to allow someone living in third-world misery to boost her family’s income by thirty-fold. And the majority of attempts to quantify the actual benefits of open immigration find that those benefits are truly enormous. Even the very most pessimistic estimates by the most anti-immigration economists (George Borjas) find that extremely liberalized immigration would only hurt high-school dropouts to the tune of ~10% of their income, while essentially everyone else benefits. Even if you think that's an unacceptable outcome, there is a potential deal to make everyone benefit with a tiny amount of redistribution. The ill-mannered shock-jock is the one who says, “My sense of national identity is more important than your family’s welfare, even after adding to that the welfare of my fellow countrymen who would rent, hire, and sell to you.”

I favor legalizing the sale of human organs because I don’t want thousands of people to die every year from preventable causes. Nobody is talking about selling the organs of unwilling donors here. I’m talking about allowing people to voluntarily sell their organs to desperate patients willing to buy them. I have an extra kidney, and you need an extra kidney. We can both benefit. I anticipate and appreciate all the “Yes, but”s. “Yes, but won’t some reckless individuals sell their kidneys for drugs and beer money?” “Yes, but if someone under economic duress is selling their kidney, isn’t that person being exploited?” “Yes, but the thought just gives me the heebie-jeebies.” (Frankly, I think this last “yes, but” is usually the real explanation, and the others are lame attempts to back-fit a rationalization to a visceral reaction.) All fine points well worth considering. But does it add up to thousands of lives saved each year? You can’t just blurt out a reason for not doing something. You have to somehow quantify it and weigh it against the alternative. I think the "moral" reservations are overblown. So what if someone uses their money on something you consider frivolous? Doesn’t someone else still get a kidney? So what if someone feels economically compelled to sell their kidney? Someone on the other side of that transaction gets to live (or at least gets to avoid the significant discomfort of dialysis). Mild-mannered libertarianism calmly deliberates on how to save the most lives and alleviate the greatest amount of human misery, even when the policy implications are uncomfortable and hard to swallow. It’s the shock-jock who blurts out the first answer that comes to mind and runs with every rationalization that sounds remotely plausible. Markets are the solution to waiting lists, so long as there is a usable supply of the thing being rationed. Raise the price and the shortage ends, whether you’re talking about wheat or kidneys.

There are dozens of other government programs with horrible consequences. Taxes on capital income. Underfunded pensions, which lead to fiscal catastrophes that completely paralyze the government. Underfunded long-term liabilities in general. Excessive regulation. Excessive control of medicine. Excessive control of pharmaceuticals. Misguided stimulus programs. "Anti-poverty" programs that expose poor working families to extremely high marginal tax rates. Mostly libertarians oppose these programs because they do tremendous harm, not because we’re willing to forgo an extremely beneficial program for the sake of freedom as an end unto itself.

I think most non-libertarians don't even realize that policy analysis is non-trivial. They just assume that their favorite government programs have all the benefits they imagine them to have, and anyone who opposes them does so because they don't want to pay (or they're just plain evil for the sake of being evil, or they are too stupid to know better). It's easy to think we've identified all the appropriate "fix the world" levers, and we're just arguing about how hard to pull on them. Really, we're arguing about whether that lever actually helps at all or does positive harm. Mild-mannered libertarianism is trying to remind populism, conservatism, and progressivism that they've identified the wrong levers, or that they're trying to pull them in the wrong direction. It's hard sometimes to get over the sense of "do something"-ism, the notion that doing anything is better than doing nothing. But sometimes "nothing" is better than something. Society's problems are anti-inductive, after all. They thwart our best attempts to "do something."

"That guy just looks like a creep."

Do you ever look at someone like Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, or Donald Sterling and think, “Man, that guy just looks like a creep.”

Oh, you do? Well, congratulations then, because you’ve screwed up in the worst possible way. This kind of reaction misses the point by the widest mark imaginable. Remember the reason for the opprobrium leveled at these men. Recall the thing that we’re upset at them about. If you were to summarize, it would be something like: “We’re not supposed to judge people based on their outward appearance.” That is, you’re not supposed to make assumptions about someone based on how they look. Appearance doesn’t tell you what you need to know about a person’s moral worth, or value as an employee, or inner-most thoughts and secrets. It’s not much good to say, “Oh, it’s okay. Because I know from another source of information that these guys are really creeps. I’m just building on that starting point.” Imagine someone remarking on what a horrible person Michael Vick is, or Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, or Kim Jong Un, and then spewing a racial epithet at them. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m judging them based on their actual actions, and just building on that starting point.” I don’t think so. 

I get daily e-mails from the Washington Post that list various stories about “bad people” along with photos that make them look as ugly and unsympathetic as possible. They can’t just show a random pic of Trump. They have to show him with the worst possible grimace, or the most sinister-looking sneer. Using a person’s appearance to reinforce the fact that you don’t like them strikes me as being gratuitous and incredibly self-indulgent. It’s almost cheating, appealing to people’s visceral disgust reflex rather than appealing to a rational argument. I’m not just picking on the Washington Post, either. Every major media outlet does this, and I see this kind of garbage on my Facebook feed daily. The problem isn’t with the media, but with the consumers of media who eat this kind of thing up. (As I open my e-mail just now, I just got my daily list of headlines from the Post. I see two more photos of Trump. One looks roughly neutral, the other looks like it was deliberately chosen to make him look despicable. It would be interesting if they did a story that randomly chose a picture of Trump from an unbiased sample of images, or one that cycled through various pictures every few seconds.)

To be clear, this post is written partially to myself. I once caught myself thinking, “Man, Sterling just looks like a creep” and then, “Wait a minute…doesn’t thinking that completely freaking miss the point!?” Judging someone based on their appearance is a natural human reaction, and such judgments aren’t always inaccurate. But we should certainly strive to suppress these judgments. We should augment them with relevant information. We should also strive to discard “information” that viscerally confirms things we already want to believe. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Coaching Someone On Their "Social Skills"

Imagine the following scenario, in which an introvert is trying to “coach” an extrovert on his life skills.
(Loud, bumpin’ party)
Introvert: Dude, you really need to head home, sit in a quiet room, and read a book.
Extrovert: What? But…I like hanging out here.
Introvert: (laughs) You think you do, but you need to take my advice on this. Just chilling out at home more often will make you so much happier.
Extrovert: I don’t know. I mean, I read stuff and sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s even gripping and I can't put the book down. But just randomly grabbing a book and reading it? Whenever I’ve tried to make myself do that, it’s super boring.
Introvert: No, no, no, you’re just not trying hard enough. It’s like, you sit there staring at the book and scanning the words, but are you really reading it? Are you really giving it a chance?
Extrovert: Um…I feel like I have. Maybe you’re right, but isn’t it more likely that you just have very different preferences than me? Like, if I tried to do your stuff and you tried to do my stuff, we’d both be more miserable?
Introvert: (laughs again) Sure, sure. I just don’t feel like you’re hearing me. Whatever. I tried to help.
I have seen the reverse of this a few times. I’ve even been on the receiving end of it once or twice, even though I’m not exactly a shut-in. It's funny how people just assume you need the same kinds of social stimuli, and that you must be unhappy if you aren't getting it. No. Some people just prefer a little more quiet time, and some people prefer more company. Both are usually fine. Neither preference is necessarily pathological to indulge in.

(All that said, the quiet kid probably appreciates the invitation to hang out, if perhaps resenting the pressure to seek or enjoy it more than he does. The invitation without the "I'm coaching you to be happier" element would be ideal.)

I have heard some brash, abrasive loud-mouths criticize quiet people for their lack of social skills. I wanted to tell one such person that he lacks social awareness, that he just blurts shit out, that he isn't introspective enough to realize when he's mistaken, and that people find his bluntness to be off-putting. The quiet kid he's criticizing, on the other hand, is deeply introspective, is incisively analyzing every word and gesture in every conversation, is sometimes paralyzed by his social caution because he doesn't want to offend anyone or give off a "weird" vibe. The loud-mouth would probably do better to shut his mouth now and then, and the quiet kid would probably do better to speak up a little more. But the framing of the issue as "The quiet kid lacks social skills, while the outspoken person doesn't" really misses the mark.

I should clarify that I don't buy the binary model of introvert versus extrovert. It's really a continuum with a bell-shaped distribution. It's not bi-modal, with a peak on the "extrovert" side of the chart, another peak on the "introvert" side, and a bare spot in the middle. Some of the recent writing on introversion is almost a call to arms, suggesting that we self-identify as I-tribe and take back control from those brash, poor-mannered E-tribers. This kind of categorical self-identification can be unhealthy. Most people don't fall neatly into I-tribe or E-tribe, and most people have many "introvert" and many "extrovert" traits. Extroverts aren't generally brash and obnoxious, and introverts aren't generally shy and awkward. Rather, the combination of extroversion with a blustery personality can be obnoxious, just as the combination of introversion with social awkwardness can be infuriating to deal with. Extreme examples of both behaviors certainly exist, but it's important to remember that "extreme" isn't always pathological. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Moral Outrage as a Deliberate Tactic

A while ago I wrote a post about moral outrage being a kind of commitment strategy. It's like staking out a position at the bargaining table and insisting that you won't budge.

This is surely a bi-partisan strategy, but I mostly see it as a tactic of the "social justice" leftists. I have no doubt that the people who bare their outrage are indeed displaying real anger. But most of the time when adults are dealing with other adults they have to attenuate their emotions. We all learn that we sometimes need to do this. So expressing outrage is a choice. People who do so are doing it deliberately.

I think it makes sense to point this out. It's perfectly fair to call people out when they are doing it. The result is usually that you become the target of the person's outrage. This reaction makes sense, even if the outrage is cultivated and deliberate. The person might sound like they are so unhinged that they can't think straight. But I imagine them saying, "Look, I have this super-weapon, and it's working for me. So if you attempt to disarm me, I'm going to use it on you." So when someone starts to denounce me for allegedly sympathizing with racists, or denounces me for allegedly being a sexist, I try to view it as an intentional, cynical debating tactic. When somebody starts cursing me out, not for taking a specific policy position but for insisting on an even-handed, thoughtful, outrage-free discussion (as happened to me on Facebook recently), it's simply hard to take such childish outbursts seriously. We need to look this in the eye and see it for what it really is. The response should be, "I see exactly what you are doing, and I'm simply not going to engage with such immature behavior."

(This old Slate Star Codex post is relevant. Scott responds to someone who argues that intentionally fighting dirty is justified. So at least in some cases the moral outrage we see is a carefully cultivated strategy.)

The "outrage as deliberate strategy" framing may be accurate even if the outraged party doesn't realize it. Evolution instilled emotions into us to serve specific purposes. Sadness to advertise to our community that we deeply regret a recent misfortune, as opposed to planning to opportunistically benefit from someone's untimely death. Happiness and merriment to bond with our allies and advertise that, indeed, they are our allies. Anger to warn our enemies that we will fight if slighted, even seek revenge (a costly endeavor in a one-off, forward-looking "cut-your-losses" sense) if attacked. Moral outrage warns the community that certain affronts will not be tolerated. Evolution gave us all this emotional baggage, but how we carry it is up to us to decide.

I said in my earlier post, linked to above, that baring your moral outrage is sometimes justified, and I still think that. If you're on the brink of some important policy change and you need to fight dirty just this one time to push it through and you're 100% confident that you're right about this one, fine. I understand. Just be careful that you don't get to used to doing this, so you think an angry outburst will win every argument. ("Hey, that was easy! That guy really shut his mouth. I'll remember this for next time.") Doing it too often invites blow-back, poisons your moral credibility, and backs you into a corner.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why It’s a Bad Idea To Discuss Salaries With Co-workers

Sometimes within a company there are large salary differences between individuals of similar job descriptions and seniority. Some commenters who have noticed this phenomenon take the most cynical possible view of it: Here is evidence that employers are screwing over their workers! If they’re willing to pay $100k a year for the more tenured engineer, how can they justify paying the similarly-qualified younger engineer only $50k?

Their solution to this perceived inequity is a pretty terrible one: Workers should supposedly be discussing salaries with each other and making comparisons with each other. The ones who think they are underpaid should demand raises.

I think this is a bad idea for lots of reasons. First off, how do you know that two employees are actually similar? People tend to be oblivious to their own flaws. Often times an incredibly smart and talented worker is completely unorganized. Often a lack of social skills makes an employee less valuable. We’re not all independent skilled craftsmen building widgets and selling them on the open market. Most of our jobs require some kind of coordination with other human beings. The inability to interact pleasantly with other people, to pick up on unspoken cues, to navigate bureaucracy, to be aware of power differentials, can really hurt you. I suspect there are a lot of extremely skilled programmers out there who are under-employed (even unemployed) because they can’t interact delicately with their customers (“customers” often being users of their software within the same company). As I like to say, “Computers do exactly what you tell them to do, with no appreciation of your actual intention. Some human beings have learned to adopt this nasty habit. We call them ‘computer programmers.’” The point is that some people are perfectly happy to take a specification from a customer, program it, and dust off their hands as if they were done.
Customer: “This isn’t working the way I expected. This software is useless.”
Programmer: “I did exactly what you told me. See the specs, bitch!”
Many of these kinds of disconnects can be fixed just by having people talk to each other, with the customer trying to understand what is technically feasible and the programmer trying to understand what the customer is actually trying to accomplish. I tried to explain my intention to one clueless programmer and he literally responded with, “Yeah, I don’t care what you’re trying to do.” To be fair, this guy was trying to be deliberately abrasive. He succeeded. I think some people literally take this attitude toward their work. To be perfectly clear, I am not just picking on computer programmers here. “I did exactly what you told me, so that should be a safe harbor.” versus “I took the time to understand your intention, and got you what you actually wanted.” This can be the difference between a low-value employee and a high-value employee, and it can differentiate two individuals who look the same on paper.

So that’s the first lesson. There are differences between employees that the employees themselves may not appreciate. There's another good reason to have a "don't talk about salary" norm or even an enforced rule.

Suppose two employees really are equally qualified, but one makes much more than the other. Should they be discussing this and demanding higher pay for the “underpaid” one? I still say “No.” If the junior engineer was willing to jump at his first job for $50k/yr, but that company needs to pay $100k/yr to keep its senior engineers from retiring or leaving, that’s none of your business. If you can find $100k/yr elsewhere, more power to you! Go for it! Find an offer and leverage it to get a pay raise, or pursue that other opportunity. That’s the real proof that you’re worth more as an employee: someone is actually willing to pay you more. Steven Landsburg makes this point especially well in this post. If someone is paid their fair market wage, they will either sit happily or calmly take another job elsewhere. However, if someone is currently working for their best possible employer, they will stay at their job and yell, kick, scream, and bite for higher pay and better perks. That company with a huge salary differential between similarly productive workers is probably paying appropriately. It would probably go out of business if it paid its young engineers $100k/yr, as it would if it tried to pay its older engineers $50k/year thus driving a mass exodus of firm-specific capital. Operating within a narrow set of constraints probably led this firm to a pay structure that looks inequitable to outside observers. This is similar to price discrimination, but in this case the buyer is paying different prices for indistinguishable goods. The important “keep your eyes on the prize” point here is that the company might not exist at all if it tried to pay everyone the same (even the same for employees with similar productivity).

Companies have damn good reasons for discouraging employees from discussing salaries with each other. It breeds resentment. One employee with an unrealistic sense of their ability starts comparing himself to someone who is actually a more productive worker. The unqualified worker resents the other person’s higher pay and status. The more qualified worker resents the comparison. Perhaps someone has to explain to the low qualified employee why his pay is as low as it is, and it sounds like a personal attack. How could it not? “Here is what’s wrong with you… And we use these items as reasons to pay you less.” The less qualified employee resents having their problems stated out loud. If lack of emotional maturity is one of their flaws, the whole thing escalates. Everyone is probably happier not making explicit salary comparisons. Otherwise you get these obnoxious relative-status conflicts all the time. That would make for a pretty hostile work environment, one that almost nobody wants to work in.

I have read that if you introduce a bunch of chickens into a new pen, their stress levels are very high until the “pecking order” is established. When the relative status of every chicken is implicitly understood, stress levels then fall. “Everyone talk about salaries and ask for a raise” is like the community of chickens suddenly all saying, “Wait a minute, I’m getting a raw deal. Let’s re-evaluate. Constantly!” The analogy fails, of course, because employees aren’t confined to a pen. They are free to pursue a different pen if the existing pecking order is giving them a bad deal. 

So don't just ask for a raise. Ask for more responsibility. Ask to be trained for a better-paid position, or seek that training on your own. Ask if you are in the running for a management position, and how you can be slated for such a position if one opens up. Do constant continuing education, constantly be learning new skills, and stay up-to-date on trends in the industry you work in. Try to do things that will make you deserve better pay. Asking for more money for the same work is very risky. Remember that one of the possible answers to the request is "No" and think about the awkwardness of getting that response. This awkward truth, that you and your boss have different estimates of your value, must suddenly be stated out loud. You'd better be damn confident it will pay off before you try it.


Obviously this argument won't apply to all workers. Government employees, for instance, aren't necessarily being hired on an open market. See the Landsburg post linked to above. If you're in far-and-away the best possible job for you and have nowhere else to go, it doesn't make sense to seek a better deal somewhere else. Someone in this position might be able to coax a higher pay out of the same employer for the same work, but like I said it's risky.

In my case, it would be almost incoherent for me to barge into my bosses office, balls blazing, and demand a raise. I'm an actuary. The salary structure is laid out very clearly for actuaries, based on a combination of exams passed and years of experience. During the annual performance review, when raises for the next year are determined, the bosses themselves compare the salaries of similarly situated workers and try to close the gaps whenever necessary. I'm not saying everyone is in this kind of job, but many employers are diligently eliminating pay differentials between similar employees. The mistake is to think that a pay differential is completely arbitrary or always exists for cynical reasons.

Some people may try to shoe-horn this post into a discussion about the gender pay-gap (the one that shrinks to a few percentage points when you actually start controlling for pay-relevant factors). Please don't. That's not what I'm talking about here.