Sunday, July 5, 2020
Sunday, June 28, 2020
Person 1: Social phenomenon X is the cause of social phenomenon Y.
Person 2: Actually, X isn’t the cause of Y.
Person 1: What!? Are you saying X doesn’t exist?
Person 2: No! I’m just saying X isn’t the cause of Y. Do you see how that's a different claim? X can still exist, and it can even be the cause of *other* problems without specifically causing Y.
Person 1: Oh, yeah! It’s obvious now. Thank you for clarifying! (high-fives) But wait a minute, are you saying that Y isn’t a problem?
Person 2: No, certainly not. I’m saying that X doesn’t cause Y. Check the transcript (because this is a hypothetical conversation and exists only in text form). See?
Person 1: Oh, yeah, that’s very different from the thing I was accusing you of saying. I was about to regale you with examples of Y happening and insinuate that you don’t care. Given what you’re *actually* saying, I realize that would have been silly.
Person 2: Of course, I *do* care. Y is a serious problem. And if we misdiagnose the cause, we will apply the wrong solution and leave the problem tragically unsolved. Or, supposing Y is caused only 10% by X and 90% by other factors, addressing only X will leave 90% of the problem in place. We shouldn't fixate on one single cause of a social problem, just because it is the most emotionally salient of several contributing causes.Person 1: That is very thoughtful, actually. I *still* think X causes Y, but I see how you aren't the worst kind of person. I won't call you out on social media in a manner that will destroy your career and make you fear for your family's safety.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
The emphasis current reform efforts place on reducing punishments for people convicted of low-level nonviolent crimes is understandable, but it should be clear by now that the impact will be limited. Any significant reduction in the US prison population is going to require states and counties to rethink how they punish people convicted of violent crimes, where “rethink” means “think about how to punish less.”
A simple example makes this clear. Assume that in 2013 we released half of all people convicted of property and public order crimes, 100 percent of those in for drug possession, and 75 percent of those in for drug trafficking. Our prison population would have dropped from 1.3 million to 950,000. That’s no minor decline, but this sort of politically ambitious approach only gets us back to where we were in about 1994, and 950,000 prisoners is still more than three times the prison population we had when the boom began. Or consider that there are almost as many people in prison today just for murder and manslaughter as the total state prison population in 1974: about 188,000 for murder or manslaughter today, versus a total of 196,000 prisoners overall in 1974. If we are serious about wanting to scale back incarceration, we need to start cutting back on locking up people for violent crimes.
Monday, June 22, 2020
Friday, May 29, 2020
Salman began making ventures in travel, testing the walls of the prison that he had to cart, almost tortoise-like, around with him. Vaclav Havel agreed to receive him in Prague. President Mary Robinson of Ireland had him to Dublin. He continued pushing at the bars and restrictions, refusing to allow himself to be immured or obliterated.
Just a vague sense of “I've heard all this before.”Which was a reference to scare-stories about the "avian flu" and "swine flu." And I shared this link of an early and too-optimistic take by Ron Bailey. I'm not too embarrassed. I always entertained the possibility that this could be really bad (and still do), though it's possible I rated the probability too low. It's clearly turning out to be milder than the most dire predictions.
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
There are other examples of this. The air is a commons into which we dump pollution; it can be over-polluted. The ocean is a commons from which we extract fish; it can be over-fished. As I write this, person-to-person contact is a kind of commons. Doing too much of it tends to spread infectious disease. The individually rational choice might be to socialize with abandon. But we'd all like everyone else to socialize at least a bit less than they normally would. You might be an asymptomatic spreader of covid-19, so every contact you have with other people is a tiny externality (a cost imposed on other people). If you are actively infectious, you might be tempted to take a trip to the store rather than self-quarantine. After all, you're already sick. You incur no cost by going out, assuming you're physically well enough to manage an outing. If you don't care about the costs imposed on others, your personal cost-benefit computation might lead you to spread the disease, even though the social cost-benefit analysis would have you stay at home. That's the logic stated in simple terms, anyway. And that's the basic rationale for a state-imposed "lock-down."
But wait a minute. Say everyone's basically staying at home. Can I go out? Why have all these empty streets if nobody can travel them? Why not go to the totally empty store, where the chance of contracting covid-19 is now negligible? It's like saying, "We're overgrazing the land, so everybody has to stop grazing completely." Once the grass grows back, you might as well let someone graze. A more useful way of thinking about this is that there is an optimal level of usage for any commons. There is an optimum amount of lock-down, where people are allowed to do activities provided there is enough room to avoid other people. I'm thinking specifically of the guy who was arrested for surfing. Now, maybe the police had to set an example in this case. If one person gets to flout the law, then others will start to follow. But it would have made more sense to keep the beaches open so long as they didn't get too crowded. (Or to not shut them down at all. You can maintain your distance on a beach, for crying out loud.) Likewise, stores can be opened with the condition that they follow reasonable protocols. Say you allow in one patron at a time, the risk to other patrons is minimal. (The CDC has recently downgraded its estimate of the risk of transmission on surfaces. Direct person-to-person contact seems to be the dominant means of spreading.)
My great frustration with the government response to covid-19 is that it doesn't seem to have any clear goal or any end-game in mind. State governments aren't doing the basic cost-benefit analysis that they needs to be doing. (If they are doing this behind closed doors, they're not showing their work.) Keyboard warriors and Facebook-scolds are piling on in obnoxious ways. "Why can't we go out, since we're at such low risk of being harmed by the virus?" young people quite reasonably ask. They usually get some version of this totally inadequate answer: "Because if you go out, you could get sick and infect someone else." That is technically true, but completely useless as a framework for crafting policy. That answer has no sense of numeracy or magnitudes or relative costs. It shows no comprehension of what people actually want or how much they're willing to pay to get it. Maybe terms like "cost-benefit analysis" and "optimum rate of viral spreading" sound bloodless, like we're tolerating preventable deaths based on the outcome of a spreadsheet calculation. But what's truly inhuman is declining to inform policy with this kind of consideration. You can't avoid placing a dollar value on a human life, not if you're actually serious about treating people with the respect they deserve.
*In practice, these kinds of coordination problems get solved. See Elinor Ostrom's excellent book Governing the Commons. It has many examples of these kinds of common-pool resource problems getting solved. It turns out that people are capable of talking to each other. They don't just suffer in silence, they come up with mutually agreeable rules that fix the problem. We also all observe basic norms of fairness. Even if we are sociopaths who don't personally get the "warm fuzzies" when we think about fairness, the fair solution is a kind of focal point that can solve the coordination problem. ("Equal sharing" of a commons is a more obvious solution than "Jimmy gets first dibs on everything," even though everyone would like to impose the second rule and be Jimmy. It might also be the solution that generates optimal enforcement, with users of the commons reporting cheaters and adjudicating disputes because they all have buy-in.) Ostrom slays some left-wing tropes by showing that we don't need government to solve all externality problems. It's also fair to say she slays some right-wing tropes by showing "privatize everything" isn't always the best option. Some communal properties are best left communal, but the best solution to some particular problem might come from the individuals participating, not far-off bureaucrats or capitalist "owners".
Monday, May 25, 2020
It turns out there is a useful tool for thinking about this kind of problem. Obviously we shouldn't be picking whatever policy happens to favor ourselves, just because I'm me and I like things that benefit me. We need to pick the policy that's optimal from the point of view of society as a whole. You should answer the question about quarantining young people as if you didn't know whether you were young or old. You should try to disregard any knowledge of who you actually are. Imagine a cosmic roll of the dice will randomly reassign your identity after the policy decision has been made. This is a powerful tool to discipline your thinking. You can use it to actively root out any self-serving bias, whereby you back-fit an argument to the conclusion that suits you. This is the Rawlsian veil of ignorance.
I presented this as if it's a conflict between young people who want to be free, damn the consequences, and old people who are worried that crowds of mingling young people might spread the disease to them. But actually people are pretty altruistic. Young people are very much worried about their grandparents. I have personally heard many young and healthy people express concern for their elderly relatives. Some of them described to me their personal efforts to avoid contact with them, and some voice these concerns in defense of government imposed lock-downs. On the other side, I have heard older people saying essentially, "We don't want this from you, and we'd never ask it of you." Some of them would not have their children or grandchildren give up their livelihoods.
The veil of ignorance should lead you to think about what it is you actually want at various stages of your life. On the one hand, we do have our selfish wants and desires. I want to socialize. I want to attend public events and eat at restaurants and take my small children to filthy indoor play-places, which are surely hotbeds of transmissible pathogens. But we also want things for our loved ones. I certainly don't want my parents to get this virus. That's a selfish desire, too. But we can take that a step further and think about what we will want at later stages of our lives. I hope my kids grow up to be successful adults. That's a selfish desire, not an altruistic one. Everyone wants that for their own children, and they want it like they want a satisfying meal, not in the sense that they want to solve world hunger. They don't think of resources spent in pursuit of their children's well-being as charity. It's consumption. Money spent on your child's tuition is money spent trying to get something that you want. Most of us don't wouldn't selfishly sabotage our adult children's careers in return for trivial benefits to ourselves. The health benefits would have to be quite large before a typical parent would say, "Yes, I'll take that from the younger generation." Young people should be contemplating not just how much they want their older relatives to survive the pandemic, but what they would want for their adult children at a later stage of their life.
Imagine your elderly self sitting at the kitchen table, contemplating your adult children and perhaps young grandchildren losing their social lives and perhaps being unable to work (as many adults aren't). Another hundred-year pandemic has hit. There is some benefit to you of locking down the young, in that there are fewer people milling about and spreading the virus. Even though your relatives may be making heroic efforts to avoid getting you sick, more sick young people means a greater chance of any given elderly person getting sick. That's true because we can't create perfect separation between vulnerable and low-risk populations. But the benefit to you comes with a cost, and it's one you might not be willing to pay as a parent and grandparent. If this hypothetical makes you feel guilty, you should probably reassess the wisdom of locking down young people. "I don't want my elderly relatives to get sick" isn't much of an answer here. They might want something different for you, if it were up to them. You should be able to viscerally understand this with a little bit of introspection.
This whole post is side-stepping the possibility that it might be better for the elderly if the young simply get the pandemic "over with" from their point of view. I think there is some wisdom to this idea. I actually think these past two and a half months have been an enormous wasted opportunity. We could have been allowing children to go to school. They have a negligible rate of fatalities or serious complications. Immune-compromised children or children who live with elderly or sick parents could remain home if they don't feel safe, and we wouldn't demand that elderly teachers or support staff mix with them. We'd have had more covid outbreaks by now, but a large fraction of the population would come out of it with immunity. We wouldn't necessarily have "herd immunity", but we'd have these epidemiological fire-breaks interspersed through the population. Suppose the virus flares up again with things as they are now. If the virus gets into a school, a lot of people will get it, probably long before anyone realizes there's a problem if there is asymptomatic spread. One might then reasonably ask, "Why were schools shut down for so long, just for it to happen again? What was accomplished other than moving the inevitable forward in time?"
Robin Hanson has run some simulations that suggest exposing the young is a good idea. I don't know enough to certify that he's right, I just wanted to point to a more rigorous version of the "expose the young" argument. If quarantining the young is counter-productive from the point of view of the elderly, then obviously that changes the cost-benefit considerations I try to outline above.