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    Kling on Open Minds

    Arnold Kling writes:

    Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can

    (a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author

    (b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author

    (c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

    So, think about it. Wouldn’t you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn’t that sort of pathetic?

    If you think that the purpose of most political advocacy is to demonstrate group affiliation, this is not so surprising. If you do anything else, you risk signalling the weakness of your group affiliation.

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    Positive Sum Status?

    Here is Katja Grace on fragmented status.

    Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that.

    This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

    That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

    The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

    The post is good throughout. I actually think the self-assessment issue is more interesting. As Grace also says, “status is about what other people think your status is.” Otherwise, what would be the point? Maybe people all do think themselves to be above average, but they really do care about their relative ranking in the eyes of other people, who will not be so biased. So they will act in ways that reflect a concern for their purely relative ranking in the eyes of others despite their apparent ability to promote themselves in personal assessments. In other words, probably not many positive sum status bargains are possible, and people are primarily concerned with zero sum adjustments to their status.

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    What is Happening at UVA?

    I am just getting up to speed. On June 10, 2012, the Board of Visitors (the corporate board of the University of Virginia) announced the forced resignation of UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan, two years into her tenure as president. The decision has surprised and upset the university community, and events appear to be on a fast track toward the “reinstatement” of President Sullivan and the exit of Rector Helen Dragas from the BOV.

    The UVA Alumni Association is maintaining a timeline of major statements by various university stakeholders. These can be read here and here.

    Below is my own timeline of major developments as I understand them. I may update this as I learn new information and further developments occur.

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    Hanson on Status

    I’ve been thinking about status a lot lately. Status is to life what popularity was to high school. Everyone wants to be high status and to have high-status friends, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding. But what is status? Here is a nice explanation from Robin Hanson:

    Imagine that status in a firm was a proxy for one’s usefulness as an ally within that firm, summarizing the threats one could credibly make, the people one could fire, the favors one could plausibly call in, etc. And imagine that the current equilibrium was that opponents of change together held more of these useful resources – they successfully blocked change.

    Now imagine that the CEO hires an outside consultant who writes a report recommending change. It should be clear to everyone that this outside firm has no direct power within the firm. It cannot fire anyone, go slow on a project, etc. So if status was just a proxy for relevant local abilities, then this consultant should have little status. Thus if a consultant actually does help the CEO by lending status to the CEO’s side, status must be something else.

    So I’m led to consider a sticky-feature concept of status. Long ago coalition politics was important, and foragers had to estimate how useful each person would be if they joined a coalition. So our distant ancestors considered a standard set of features, such as strength, intelligence, charisma, etc., that tended then to indicate that someone would be a useful ally. Humans evolved specialized mental modules for making such estimates, and for estimating common perceptions of such estimates.

    Today we have inherited such mental modules, and often use them to estimate which side will win a contest of coalitions. And even though relevant abilities have changed somewhat, our inherited expectations about who will win a coalition contest are somewhat self-reinforcing. For example, if we expect that coalitions of taller people tend to win, then we will be reluctant to cross such a coalition, which will tend to make them win. This can be a self-reinforcing focal equilibrium of the coordination game that is coalition politics.

    This doesn’t tell us what features are actually relevant, but it is a potentially useful framework for thinking about status.

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    Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter

    I finally picked up Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. Caplan has a crisp writing style, and as I expected, the book was a quick, pleasant read.

    Caplan’s basic thesis is that standard economic assumptions lead to a pessimistic view of democracy. Because elections are rarely determined by a single vote, the cost to a voter of his own “incorrect” opinions approaches nil. Introspection and empirical evidence tells us that people naturally prefer some opinions to others. In other words, people have a natural demand for irrational – as opposed to unbiased – opinions. Voters costlessly cater to their appetite for irrational opinions at the ballot box, but society pays for it in the aggregate.

    Voters are not merely irrational; they are systematically irrational. If the demand for opinions were distributed randomly, then irrationality might cancel out. Then, elections would be decided by residual “rational” voters, the small number of voters who had formed opinions for reasons other than their natural appetite for those opinions.  But Caplan argues that evidence shows voters to be systematically biased. In particular, he argues that voters suffer from anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias.

    The argument that I most wanted Caplan to make, was that society creates incentives for individual voters to adopt specific types of irrational opinions, such as incentives to adopt seemingly altruistic opinions. Caplan touches on this point, but it is mostly beyond the scope of the book.

    Caplan views the market, or individual decision-making, as the natural alternative to democracy, or collective decision-making. He suggests that most people are comfortable with theories of market failure, but that they assume that democracy works well. His libertarian punch-line is that, confronted with his argument that democracy should work poorly, people should be incrementally more likely to prefer decisions made by market processes.

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    The Anti Self-Help Book

    If I were forced at gunpoint to write a self-help book, I would probably focus on two points.

    1) Suspect advice from other people.

    People who give you advice have very different incentives than you do. They receive little or no benefits for giving good advice, and they usually don’t pay the costs of bad advice. This ought to affect how they think about giving advice, and here is some evidence that it does.

    The main effect I expect this has is that advice-givers make an effort to give advice that feels good, instead of making an effort to give good advice. What sort of advice feels good to give? Probably, the advice that an altruistic and idealistic person would give. By giving this sort of advice, we affiliate with altruistic and idealistic people and improve our standing in the eyes of the advice-seeker.

    Some people will object that I employ, here as elsewhere, a reductively self-interested view of human nature. Indeed, it’s true that people don’t walk about scheming of ways to eke out an extra increment of utility from every last encounter. But their unconscious motivation to do so is quite enough. It is reasonable to assume that, most of the time, people are naturally inclined, even without a conscious ulterior motive, to present themselves at their most agreeable and attractive.

    This creates a difficult interaction between selfishness and altruism. Advice givers really are trying to be altruistic, but by doing so, they adopt the viewpoint of an altruistic person, and give bad advice. They give the advice that an altruistic, idealistic person would want to follow, rather than advice suited to the advice seeker, who is probably just looking for good, pragmatic advice. Instead of altruistically tarnishing their image by giving hard-nosed, pragmatic advice, they selfishly imitate altruistic people.

    Of course, not all advice is created equal. Your mother really does care about the results of the advice she gives, and she probably is less concerned with how it makes her look. Your university’s career advisor does have some incentives to make sure the students she advises get placed in jobs. Commencement speakers, on the other hand, have no good incentives whatsoever, and they give the worst, most idealistic advice of all.

    Perhaps the fact that this is my main piece of advice should not inspire confidence in my advice.

    2) Trust your instincts.

    Every human being is the product of a billion years or more of natural selection. This means that not just our bodies, but also our minds, have been molded to best serve our interests. Every one of us is born with a package of appetites, instincts, and intuitions that are well-suited to guide us through life.

    Hold on, you might say, evolution serves the interests of our offspring, not our own interests. People have conscious goals besides maximizing their number of offspring. This is true enough. Serendipitously though, most of the things that humans strive for, success, status, wealth, friendship, family, and love, are generally consistent with our “evolutionary” interest in maximizing our offspring, and it’s no accident. Natural selection gave humans these goals, because they were compatible with natural selection. For the most part, natural selection ought to have also given people instincts as well suited to these goals as possible.

    It’s easy to overstate this point. Obviously, our instincts operate at a certain level of generality. It may be impossible for our minds to evolve to successfully confront every specific problem, so evolution may emphasize certain heuristic devices. There does seem to be no end to the number of situations for which behavioralists have shown the human mind to be very poorly equipped. Furthermore, humans’ current environment may be quite a bit different from the ones in which our intuitions evolved. As decisions become more specific and more technical, people will be more likely to need advice, or at least expert information, to make good decisions.

    For larger questions, however, I suspect that most people, most of the time, can trust their instincts. Should I quit my secure but boring job and try to become an entrepreneur? Should I dump Tom for Eric? Should I go to college, or should I get a job straight from high-school? Should I study more, or worry about my social life? Is it all right for me to drink all my earnings, or do I need to start saving for retirement? Should I settle down and start a family, or focus on my career? Our instincts may be fairly well-equipped to guide us through these decisions. At the very least, they are more trustworthy than advice-givers operating under a very different set of instincts.

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    The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility

    Dan Klein has published a retraction of his earlier claim that progressives are more susceptible to economic ignorance than conservatives and libertarians. Along the way, he makes a mistake that is one of my pet peeves.

    More than 30 percent of my libertarian compatriots (and more than 40 percent of conservatives), for instance, disagreed with the statement “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person”—c’mon, people!—versus just 4 percent among progressives.

    “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person” is Klein’s misstatement of the law of diminishing marginal utility. A proper statement might be “a dollar would be worth more to a man if he were poor than if he were rich, other things equal.” The law of diminishing marginal utility does not give you the ability to make interpersonal comparisons of utility.

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    President Obama’s Student Loans Op-Ed

    My sister forwards me the President’s rather tepid call to action on student loans, in the Harvard Crimson. My reactions:

    One subtext seems to be that he wants to continue putting pressure on the small minority of student loans that are still made by private lenders. (“We’re also going to take steps to help you consolidate your loans so that instead of making multiple payments to multiple lenders every month, you only have to make one payment a month at a better interest rate.”) But it’s a little unclear.

    He also wants to “give about 1.6 million students the ability to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income starting next year.” These numbers could mean a lot of different things. Likely it works out as a subsidized loan to people with low incomes, and an implicit tax on loan repayments of people with high incomes. Or just an explicit tax, to subsidize student loans in general.

    The only other proposal I see is to give more information (“we want to start giving students a simple fact sheet called ‘Know Before You Owe’ so you can have all the information you need to make your own decision about paying for college.”). This is a pretty typical feature of garden variety progressive initiatives. If you give people more information, people will supposedly make more rational decisions.

    Of course people don’t actually act like rational economic calculators. At best, most people just imitate what other successful people around them seem to be doing. Students will stop taking out such large student loans only if they believe taking out loans tends to lead to bad consequences. To that extent, the pain of repaying student loans is not the problem – it is the solution. Taking away that pain by artificially lowering interest rates or passing the costs to taxpayers only encourages people to make the lousy educational investments that they may be making today.

    Mostly Obama just wants you to know how much he (and Michelle) cares about students. I wish he cared less. Nobody made students take out those loans.