Category Archives: Essays

Gender and Brainwashing

One of the most common and confusing exchanges I hear when discussing issues of gender and feminism goes something like this:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Those preferences are socially conditioned. Women grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to strict feminine gender roles and the associated preferences.

You’ll note that the above isn’t really an argument but more of an argument-fragment, as it depends pretty heavily on the context of what point A is trying to defend. I note this in particular because the two claims are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and reasonable to believe that both are true, for many values of X.

The problems happen because the context of the argument usually indicates some subtextual moral claims going on which can get rather confused. For example, my previous post on The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic got several responses from people who objected along these lines to my claim that many people prefer traditional, gendered relationships. In order to respond properly, I’m going to unpack some of this subtext.

The underlying ethical argument is usually around the question of whether or not it’s right for preferences to be the result of social conditioning. Can a preference be considered legitimate, if the only reason it’s present is because societal context has hammered it home at every opportunity? This is the point I think B is raising; if the preferences are somehow illegitimate, then the fact they exist at all (which is usually harder to dispute) is less relevant.

It’s a fairly intuitive and defensible argument. The wording calls to mind Pavlovian experiments and the destruction of our free will, both with negative associations. It’s also well-supported in the way people talk about other issues: Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of a case where people’s real, expressed preferences are widely considered illegitimate due to the nature of the situation. Nobody wants to be brain-washed.

This discussion lets us rephrase B’s objection in significantly stronger, clearer terms, hopefully without changing the nature of the argument:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Women are brainwashed by cultural gender roles which include those preferences. Therefore those preferences are illegitimate. Also, we should probably stop brainwashing women.

I consider this re-phrasing helpful, because it offers up a bullet I intend to bite: I agree that women (and everyone else too) are brainwashed by cultural gender roles. What I disagree with are the subsequent claims that those preferences are therefore illegitimate, and that we should necessarily stop.

One way to see this is to substitute any other culturally-shared value in place of “gender roles”. Women are brainwashed by our shared values against murder, therefore that preference is illegitimate? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Perhaps more tellingly, consider how we raise our children.

Children learn from their parents, both explicitly by using language to convey facts and opinions, and implicitly via observation and mimicry. This process of growth and learning indelibly shapes who the child will become and what preferences they will have. It is a natural part of childhood that your parents and your society impart their values and preferences to you, teaching you right from wrong and good from bad. Without this process, you don’t end up with some sort of tabula rasa child capable of pure and perfect free expression of their own preferences. You end up with the kids from Lord of the Flies.

There has been a recent trend of parents eschewing traditional gender roles for their kids. I have nothing against this practice. What I disagree with are the claims that it is imperative to give children “the freedom to develop their full potential without preconceptions about what girls or boys should do or how they should behave”. Children need to be taught, and whether you impart the values of traditional gender roles or the values of social-constructionist feminism, you are still teaching. You can argue that we should be teaching different preferences and values, but it is absurd to claim that we shouldn’t be teaching any at all.

In the end, I suppose what I’m arguing against is the idea that gender roles and gendered preferences are prima facie to be avoided just because they permeate our culture. I am open to arguments that we should replace them with a different set of values, and I grant that this is the argument a number of academic feminists are actually making. But as is usual, something has gotten lost in translation between academia and the Daily Mail.

An Incremental Solution to an Artificial Apocalypse

So smart/famous/rich people are publicly clashing over the dangers of Artificial Intelligence again. It’s happened before. Depending on who you talk to, there are several explanations of why that apocalypse might actually happen. However, as somebody with a degree in computer science and a bent for philosophy of mind, I’m not exactly worried.

The Setup

Loosely speaking, there are two different kinds of AI: “weak” and “strong”. Weak AI is the kind we have right now; if you have a modern smartphone you’re carrying around a weak AI in your pocket. This technology uses AI strategies like reinforcement learning and artificial neural networks to solve simple singular problems: speech recognition, or face recognition, or translation, or (hopefully soon) self-driving cars. Perhaps the most recent publicized success of this kind of AI was when IBM’s Watson managed to win the Jeopardy! game show.

Strong AI, on the other hand, is still strictly hypothetical. It’s the realm of sci-fi, where a robot or computer program “wakes up” one day and is suddenly conscious, probably capable of passing the Turing test. While weak AIs are clearly still machines, a strong AI would basically be a person instead, just one that happens to be really good at math.

While the routes to apocalypse tend to vary quite a bit, there are really only two end states depending on whether you worry about weak AI or strong AI.

Skynet

If you go in for strong AI, then your apocalypse of choice basically ends up looking like Skynet. In this scenario, a strong AI wakes up, decides that it’s better off without humanity for some reason (potentially related to its own self-preservation or desires), and proceeds to exterminate us. This one is pretty easy for most people to grasp.

Paperclips

If you worry more about weak AI then your apocalypse looks like paperclips, because that’s the canonical thought experiment for this case. In this scenario, a weak AI built for producing paperclips learns enough about the universe to understand that it can, in fact, produce more paperclips if it exterminates humanity and uses our corpses for raw materials.

In both scenarios, the threat is predicated upon the idea of an intelligence explosion. Because AIs (weak or strong) run on digital computers, they can do math really inconceivably fast, and thus can also work at speed in a host of other disciplines which boil down to math pretty easily: physics, electrical engineering, computer science, etc.

This means that once our apocalyptic AI gets started, it will be able to redesign its own software and hardware in order to better achieve its goals. Since this task is one to which it is ideally suited, it will quickly surpass anything a human could possibly design and achieve god-like intelligence. Game over humanity.

On Waking Up

Strong AI has been “just around the corner” since Alan Turing’s time, but in that time nobody has ever created anything remotely close to a real conscious computer. There are two potential explanations for this:

First, perhaps consciousness is magic. Whether you believe in a traditional soul or something weird like a quantum mind, maybe consciousness depends on something more than the arrangement of atoms. In this world, current AI research is barking up entirely the wrong tree and is never going to produce anything remotely like Skynet. The nature of consciousness is entirely unknown, so we can’t know if the idea of something like an intelligence explosion is even a coherent concept yet.

Alternatively, perhaps consciousness is complicated. If there’s no actual magic involved then the other reasonable alternative is that consciousness is incredibly complex. In this world, strong AI is almost certainly impossible with current hardware: even the best modern super-computer has only a tiny fraction of the power needed to run a simplistic rat brain let alone a human one. Even in a world where Moore’s law continues unabated, human-brain-level computer hardware is still centuries away, not decades. We may be only a decade away from having as many transistors as there are neurons, but they’re not comparable; neurons are massively more complex building blocks.

It’s also worth noting that if consciousness is hard because it’s complicated, our hypothetical strong AI would wake up very, very slowly. We’re not going to suddenly jump from current processors to AI-capable ones that are millions of times more powerful; there will be numerous incremental designs in between. As our processing power improves, our AI will get stronger and stronger but there will be no eureka moment where Skynet both suddenly decides humanity has to go and is smart enough to make it happen. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to study primitive artificial consciousnesses, learn about them in an environment we control, and iteratively incorporate our findings into subsequent generations.

Regardless of why we’ve never gotten anywhere with strong AI, we haven’t, and there is no indication that this time it really is “just around the corner”.

On Paperclips

While the idea of Skynet is common in popular culture, it’s the paperclip maximizer which tends to worry the people who actually seriously worry about this stuff. It’s already true that we don’t really understand how weak AI actually works: we understand the principles which drive something like Watson, but no human could describe the series of specific decisions it performs to arrive at a given answer.

It also seems a lot more plausible that weak AI (which we already have) will just keep getting smarter (which it has definitely done so far) than that we’ll have some weird magic breakthrough in strong AI, when nobody still even understands what that would look like. So, why couldn’t some future self-driving car learn just enough about the world to figure out that it would be able to drive much more efficiently if it could just get rid of all of those pesky pedestrians? As it turns out, I think something like this could actually happen; it’s just not the end of the world when it does.

As with the consciousness-is-complicated explanation for strong AI, our saving grace against paperclips and homicidal cars is the incremental nature of the technology. The first self-driving car smart enough to decide to murder pedestrians is not also going to be smart enough to redesign its own hardware, create biological weapons, and do all of this in secret without hinting to its owners that it “has plans”. No, the only thing it’s going to know how to do to achieve this goal is to try and intentionally run people over, which is obviously bad, but not exactly apocalyptic. It also has the benefit of being really freaking obvious.

Here’s a hint to future AI developers: maybe you should stop making it smarter when your cars start trying to run you over in the name of optimizing the number of pedestrians.

The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic

Much ink has been spilled on how what people actually seem to want out of their relationships doesn’t necessarily match what society tells them is right. For better or worse, many people are happiest in a traditional, heavily-gendered romantic relationship, despite the ongoing revolution in women’s rights. It’s true in the porn industry as well, even if you’re not convinced by normal scientific studies. There’s just something about traditional gender roles that men and women find attractive.

Modern feminism is an extraordinarily complicated thing, with a number of subtly different interpretations. For all that, it’s easy to see how the things it says about gender roles, power dynamics, and ethics could be at odds with this desire for a traditional relationship. To take just one example, is it possible for a relationship to be balanced or fair when one partner is wholly responsible for the finances? Money is a tangible form of power, so any relationship with unequal financial control is fundamentally one with unequal power. Is that ethical?

The typical response to this problem is to point out that feminism is really about freedom of choice and consent, and doesn’t actually prescribe a particular lifestyle or relationship format. You can do what you want, in this version, as long as it’s actually what you want. Do you enjoy bondage or dominance play? Go for it, as long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual. If you want something more traditional, that’s fine too. There’s no right answer, as long as everybody involved actually wants to be there.

I call bullshit.

It does sound nice, in theory. Everybody gets what they want, nobody gets hurt (unless that’s what they want!), and the ethical problems vanish in a puff of libertarian smoke. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the real world isn’t quite so tidy. The complexities of interpersonal power dynamics don’t just disappear because you waved a magic wand labelled “consent”; the act of consent is itself intimately tied up in the ways in which we use power with and on one another. To make matters worse, nobody really believes in this focus on consent in the first place. Lots of people say they believe, and that may actually be true of certain academics, but most people don’t behave as if consent were all that matters. Traditional romantic relationships are fundamentally incompatible with feminist ethics, and people treat them as such even when they’re not willing to admit it.

Welcome to Consentinople

Imagine a feminist city, fantastic as it may sound, in which everyone was honestly and completely committed to the idea of human rights, equal treatment, and freedom within the bounds of consent. I call this city Consentinople. In Consentinople, everyone lives life as a perfect feminist every day, able to follow their own sexual and other preferences. Even those whose sexual preferences include non-consent find willing partners with whom to act out their fantasies in a safe setting.

What would Consentinople actually look like? Since we’ve already seen that a surprising number of people prefer traditional, gendered romantic relationships, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Consentinople has lots of them. Many women work for a while, then step back from the workforce at least temporarily to raise their children. Some women don’t, of course, and they’re free not to, but many do (we’re also imagining that this is a realistic decision; Consentinople has a thriving economy in which one income can support a family).

Consentinople sounds great, a utopia where everyone has the freedom to express and live who they are without punishment, no matter their sexuality. Unfortunately, the city also resembles a modern real-world patriarchy. Its city councillors are mostly men, as were seven of its last ten mayors. Men own the majority of its businesses, and handle a disproportionate percentage of the money in its economy. Consentinople even has a wage gap: the average working women earns 90 cents to her male colleague’s dollar when controlling for industry and education.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Consentinople has given people the freedom to express their preferences and women have, on the whole, expressed a greater preference than men for childcare. This means that on average they will exit the workforce sooner than men. If they don’t exit the workforce, they may still spend more time with their children compared to a male colleague, who probably spends that time working. Neither preference is wrong, and no-one in Consentinople places any moral judgement on people for making these decisions. It is simply a fact that, in aggregate, two populations expressing different preferences will end up with different outcomes.

The good news is that in theory, if you control for all of these extra variables (children, length of time worked, etc.) then the wage gap in Consentinople disappears. A woman with no kids who has worked her entire life will do just as well, earn just as much, and get the same promotions as a similar man. The average outcome may be different, but the average opportunity is the same.

The Stereotype and the Individual

It is not sexist to believe that women are, on average, shorter than men. Neither is it sexist (or “heightist”, I suppose) to bar people under a certain height from riding carnival rides. However, it would be sexist to bar all women from riding carnival rides. This is obvious, because height is an easily observable value: for basically no cost we can get much more accurate information about a person’s height than we would be able to infer from their gender alone.

Things are a bit more ambiguous when the value we care about is not as easy to observe, and we have a beautiful natural experiment in this regard. I’ll let Scott Alexander explain:

It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.

The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”

Because the relevant value (criminal history) became harder to observe, employers were forced to fall back on the information they did have: race. As an imperfect proxy, this invariably led to some mistakes: black men being denied jobs for no good reason. However, from the employer’s perspective it was the best they could do to filter criminals out of their job pool. And lest we simply decide to ban any check like this with false positives, we should remember that the value these employers actually care about is future criminal behaviour, and even past criminal behaviour is not a perfect predictor of that.

Sexism, racism, and all of the other -isms are built around the concept of stereotyping. We have a belief about a group, and we allow that belief to influence how we treat the individuals within the group. When the original belief is false then this is clearly a problem. When the belief is true, we must morally fall back on treating individuals as individuals and not members of the group: we look at each person’s height individually instead of banning all women from carnival rides. Letting the stereotype trump the individual is where overt, first-class racism, sexism, etc. all come from. Fortunately, most people don’t behave like that.

Stereotypes are just a form of categorization, a layer of abstraction we build on top of the world. They are not intrinsically evil, nor are they merely a useful mental tool. Categorization is how our brains make sense of the world with the limited power at our disposal. Calling that process immoral would be absurd. Yet it’s difficult to shake the feeling that those employers who rejected black applicants for fear of criminality must have been racist somehow.

Employment Opportunities in Consentinople

In Consentinpole, we built a city where consent and freedom reigned. Outcomes by gender showed a difference which might have been concerning, but we decided that that was OK as long as opportunity by gender was equal. Unfortunately, the effects of stereotyping mean that opportunity is no longer equal there either. Employers are naturally concerned by women’s aggregate preference for child-rearing, and the related opportunity costs for the business around parental leave.

Now, lest you think the people of Consentinople are secretly sexist after all, they are quite aware of the risks of stereotyping and imperfect information. As such, the citizens of Consentinople agreed that employers will ask all potential employees (regardless of gender) about their future plans for children. This almost works; men and women who have no such plans are treated equally, and men who plan to take on child-rearing duties are penalized the same as similar women. However, it isn’t enough. Since women on aggregate express that preference more than men, it still ends up statistically hurting their employment opportunities.

A related issue in Consentinople is that people tend to weakly gender-segregate their social lives; men have a slight preference for hanging out with men, and women with women. In any given individual this is a perfectly legitimate preference that Consentinople respects, but in aggregate it gives success a kind of gendered momentum. The majority of hiring managers were already men in Consentinople even when opportunity was equalized, and when they look to fill a position they naturally look to their own social network first. Even though they give equal consideration to all candidates regardless of gender, the result is still a slight edge in the employment rate for working men.

The final outcome is that Consentinople isn’t really a whole lot better than our real world. Even when every individual follows their legitimate preferences and everyone has perfect information, we still end up with a society where women do not have the same employment opportunities as men. The silent majority of women, quietly expressing their individual preferences for child-rearing and traditional gender roles, still end up harming those whose preferences are different. By any feminist definition, this is ethically untenable.

Feminism in the Real World

The ethical problems with this vision of individual choice make it a questionable justification for any relationship. Perhaps fortunately, it hardly matters because it’s so controversial in the real world. Consider recently the blow-up around Emma Watson’s photo shoot, or the whole thing about the new Wonder Woman movie. Go back a little further and you’ll find feminists complaining about Beyoncé, or basically anybody else you can think of. If people actually believed in individual freedom, in choice and consent, then these would be non-issues. The whole premise of that position was that if somebody wants to shave or not-shave their armpit hair, it doesn’t matter. They should be free to do so.

Instead, modern society shames people for being insufficiently feminist. The world immediately piles on when somebody does so much as express a preference about the meaning of a word. Word definitions are something for which there really is no right answer, and is still completely unrelated to actually supporting the principles in question. Whereas a hundred years ago women were shamed for being too modern, now women are shamed for not being modern enough. We do not live in Consentinople.

Through an academic lens, feminism looks like a cultural norm against cultural norms: a global preference for individual preferences. In the real world, feminism looks like any other specific set of norms. Where before it was a positive norm to shave your pits, now it’s a negative. While historically there were norms against women managing money, now there are norms against women letting men take care of their finances. We can argue all we want about whether the new norms are better than the old, but that’s not the point. The point is that no matter what norms you choose, this looks nothing like the academic, consent-driven feminist doctrine that everybody preaches; in that world, there are no norms to begin with.

It isn’t really surprising, either. A “cultural norm against cultural norms” is at the very least confusing, and definitely leaves room to be interpreted as self-contradictory. It’s also just plain impractical. Everyone admits that cultural norms shift over time, but they do not simply disappear. People expressing preferences in aggregate are what build our cultural norms in the first place, and even Consentinople has that. Even if we wanted to remake the world in Consentinople’s image, human beings are not wired to live in a norm-free society.

Conclusion

As I implied in the title, modern romantics are in a hopeless bind. Our feminist ethics are fundamentally incompatible with our desire for a traditional relationship. The philosophical escape-hatch provided by freedom-of-choice academic feminism doesn’t actually resolve the ethical issues, and certainly doesn’t resolve the practical ones. We are stuck with two paths, neither of which are appealing.

In the first path, we decide that feminism as an ethical philosophy must naturally trump any simple personal preference. This leaves us with a further decision to make: should we simply declare celibacy, or try and make do with a relationship that is unfulfilling but at least potentially ethical? In the second path, we decide that our preferences are key, which again presents a follow-up choice. Do we ditch feminism as a philosophy, claiming it is impractical, or do we try and live with the shame and constant cognitive dissonance of being in a relationship we don’t really believe in?

At the end of the day, practicality prunes some of the choices for us. Abandoning feminism would be social suicide, however philosophically appealing it might be. Living with the cognitive dissonance is possible for some, but it takes a special mindset to be able to ignore that nagging feeling once you’re aware of it. This leaves us with celibacy and making do, and of the two, making do definitely feels less insane.

And still we wonder why people are so unhappy.

 

Our Need for Need

It is a trite, well-established truth that people like being useful. But there’s more to it than that, or rather, there’s also a stronger version of that claim. People do like being useful, but useful is a very broad term. Stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, in that it’s a thing with a use, which needs to be done. And it’s true that some people may in fact actively like a job stocking shelves at a Walmart. But on the whole, it’s not something most people would consider particularly enjoyable, and it’s certainly not something that is considered fulfilling.

Let us then upgrade the word “useful” to the word “needed”: people like to be needed. While stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, the person doing it is fundamentally replaceable. There are millions of others around the world perfectly capable of doing the same job, and there are probably thousands of them just within the immediate town or city. If our fictional stocker were to suddenly vanish one day, management would have no trouble hiring somebody else to fill their shoes. The world would go on. Walmart would survive.

Now this is all well and good, but I would argue that there is an even stronger version of this claim: people don’t just like to be needed, people actively need to be needed. Over a decade ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay called Why Nerds are Unpopular; it’s a long essay with a number of different points, but there is one thread running through it that in my opinion has gotten far too little attention: “[Teenagers’] craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere”.

The important thing to note about this (and Graham does so, in a roundabout sort of way) is that teenagers in a modern high school are not exactly idle. They have class, and homework, and soccer practice or band practice or chess club; they play games and listen to music and do all the sort of things that teenagers do. They just don’t have a purpose. They are literally unneeded, shut away in a brick building memorizing facts they’ll probably never use, mostly to get them out of the way of the adults doing real work.

This obviously sucks, and Graham stops there, making the assumption that the adult world at least, has enough purpose to go around. Teenagers, and in particular nerds, just have to wait until they’re allowed into the real world and voila, life will sort itself out. And it’s true that for some, this is the case. A scientist doing ground-breaking research doesn’t need to worry about their purpose; they know that the work they are doing is needed, and has the potential to change lives. Unfortunately, a Walmart stocker does not.

To anyone who has been following the broad path of the news over the last decade , this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems like every other day we are confronted by another article suggesting that people are becoming less happy and more depressed, and that modern technology is making people unhappy. Occasionally it is also noted that this is weird. We live in a world of wealth and plenty. The poorest among us are healthier, better-fed, and more secure than the richest of kings only a few centuries past. What is causing this malaise?

The simple answer is that we are making ourselves obsolete. People need to be needed, sure, but nobody wants to need. Independence is the American dream, chased and prized through the modern Western world. Needing someone else is seen as weakness, as vulnerability, and so we strive to be self-sufficient, to protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt. But in doing so, we hurt others. We take from them our need, and leave them more alone than ever before.

Of course, Western independence as a philosophy has been growing for near on three centuries now, and modern unhappiness is a much more recent phenomenon. There are two reasons for this, one obvious and the other a bit more subtle. To start with, our modern wealth does count for something. A small amount of social decohesion can trade off against an entire industrial revolution’s worth of progress and security with no alarm bells going off. But there is a deeper trick at play, and that is specialization.

In traditional hunter-gatherer bands, generally everybody was needed. The tribe could usually survive the loss of a few members of course – it had to – but not easily. Every member had a job, a purpose, a needed skill. That there were only a handful of needed skills really didn’t matter; there just weren’t that many people in any given tribe.

As civilization flourished, the number of people in a given community grew exponentially. Tribes of hundreds were replaced by cities of thousands, and for a time this was OK. Certainly, there was no room in a city of thousands for half the adult men to be hunters; it was both ecologically and sociologically unsustainable. But in a city of that size there was suddenly room for tailors and coopers and cobblers and masons and a million other specialized jobs that let humanity preserve this sense of being needed. If it was fine to be one of the handful of hunters providing food for your tribe, it was just as fine to be one of the handful of cobblers providing shoes for your town.

To a certain extent, specialization continued to scale right through the mid-twentieth century, just not as well. In addition to coopers and masons we also (or instead) got engineers and architects, chemists and botanists, marketers and economists. But somewhere in the late twentieth century, that process peaked. Specialization still adds the occasional occupation (e.g. software developer), but much more frequently modern technology takes them away instead. Automation lets one person do the work of thousands.

Even worse than this trend is the growth of the so-called “global village”. I, personally, am a software developer in a city of roughly one million people. Software development is highly specialized, and arguably the most modern profession in the world. At the end of the day however, I too am replaceable. Even if I were only one of the handful of developers in my city (I’m not), modern technology – both airplanes and the internet – has broadened the potential search pool for my replacement to nearly the entire world. My position is fundamentally no different from that of the Walmart stocker – I would not be missed.

At the end of the day, humanity is coming to the cross-roads of our need for need. Obsessed with individuality, we refuse to depend on anyone. Women’s liberation is slowly freeing nearly half of the world’s population from economic dependence. Technological progress, automation, and global travel are all nibbling away at the number of specialized occupations, and at the replacement cost of the ones that remain. The future is one where we all live like the teenagers in Paul Graham’s essay: neurotic lapdogs, striving to find meaning where fundamentally none exists. Teenagers, at least, just have to grow up so they can find meaning in the real world.

How is humanity going to grow up?

Pessimism and Emotional Hedging

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given a dual gift and curse: that she would accurately predict the future, but that nobody would believe her prophecies. She became a tragic figure when her prophecies of disaster went unheeded. In modern usage, a Cassandra is usually just a pessimist: somebody who predicts doom and gloom, whether people pay attention to them or not.

We know that people are generally rubbish at accurately predicting risk; they seem to constantly over-estimate just how often things will work out. This is usually due to either the planning fallacy or optimism bias (or both; they’re very closely related). However, while that is by far the most common mistake, and certainly the one that’s gotten all the attention, the opposite is also possible. Yesterday I caught myself doing just that.

I was considering an upcoming sports game and found myself instinctively betting against the team I typically cheer for (that is, I predicted they would lose the game). However when I took a step back I couldn’t immediately justify that prediction. The obvious prior probability was around 50/50 – both teams had been playing well, neither with strong advantage – and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough about that sport or about sports psychology in general to confidently move the needle far from that mark.

And yet, my brain was telling me that my team had only maybe a 25% chance of winning. After much contemplation, I realized that by lowering my prediction, I was actually hedging against my own emotions. By predicting a loss, I was guaranteed an emotional payout in either scenario: if my team won, then that was a happy occasion in itself, but if they lost then I could claim to have made an accurate prediction; it feels nice to be right.

With this new source of bias properly articulated I was able to pick out a few other past instances of it in my life. It’s obviously not applicable in every scenario, but in cases where you’re emotionally attached to a particular outcome (sports, politics, etc) it can definitely play a role, at least for me. I don’t know if it’s enough to cancel out the natural optimism bias in these scenarios, but it certainly helps.

The naming of biases is kind of confusing: I suppose it could just be lumped in with the existing pessimism bias, but I kind of like the idea of calling it the Cassandra bias.

Should Robots Pay Taxes?

I was going to use this as an “other opinions” link but then I started thinking about it and decided to turn it into a proper post instead (my sequence on atheism will resume next Wednesday as usual). Here’s the initial interview: https://qz.com/911968/bill-gates-the-robot-that-takes-your-job-should-pay-taxes/.

It’s an interesting proposal, but it has some weird flaws. For example, how do you define a robot vs. just a tool? Should we be taxing hammers because they let carpenters drive in nails more efficiently, therefore displacing other carpentry jobs? What about one of those fancy smart electric (but still manually controlled) saws? They still seem more like tools, but the line is getting blurry. When you add a CNC module to that saw, does it become a robot for tax purposes? Why? The marginal efficiency of the CNC module itself isn’t necessarily that high.

Another issue is that robots are already getting taxed, albeit indirectly. When a company automates away a job, they do so to save money. That money ends up going somewhere (usually the pockets of executives and shareholders) and tax is payed on it there, usually at fairly high marginal rates. You can argue various counter-points about how much tax those people should fairly pay, but at that point we’ve kind of lost the thread of the argument. It’s not at all obvious that “tax robots” is the right solution to the problem of “rich people are good at tax evasion”, and that wasn’t the original claim anyway.

Of course, if you combine the definitional problems with the tax evasion point then you run into another issue: any reasonable formulation of this tax is going to be trivial to circumvent. You’re going to end up with a single minimum-wage worker pressing a green button once an hour just so the machine at the other end doesn’t meet the definition of a “robot”. I mean sure, your tax has saved a job, so in some sense it’s had the intended effect, but not at the intended scale nor in any way that provides actual quality of life to the person in question.

It’s a neat idea, and it makes for some good headlines, but to me a robot tax just ends up seeming silly.

Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

With the recent Brexit vote, and with Trump the presumptive Republican nominee, there have been a number of comments and op-eds comparing the two and talking about the apparently inarticulate rage being expressed by the “unemployed working class” through this political process. The underlying assumption seems to be that sure, maybe these people have the right to be angry at the way they are being failed by the current economic/political system, but isolationism and nationalism are not the answer. It’s not like it actually kind of worked to pull the German economy out of the Great Depression.

But still, let’s take a closer look at why so many people are feeling disenfranchised; maybe by understanding the problem we could, for instance, come up with a damned workable solution. I dream small. This project, of course, takes us right into the arms of Thomas Piketty’s landmark economic work Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

I disagree with this thesis, at least in part. It did, however, make me think about the problem in a different way. So let’s take a look at capital again, but from a more micro-economic perspective, and with a more Bourdieu-ian twist.

Personal Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Personal Capital, as I will use it here (not a standard definition, I know), is all the inputs to the function defining an individual’s earnings expectations in the short and medium term. This includes mostly obvious things like labour, education, and money-in-the-bank. Also note that there is a “break-even” level for this capital (kind of a natural poverty line) at which point the individual becomes financially self-sustaining within the economy. Individuals above this line are in a positive feedback loop; they earn more than they need, and since money is a form of personal capital, that increases their expected earnings even more.

The first part of my thesis, such as it is, is that people in this state tend to be happy. Even if you’re not rich in any absolute or relative sense, if you’re above that break-even line growth occurs, and your life gradually improves. I argue that the current political unrest is due to the fact that more and more people are dropping below this line. The question becomes: why?

The Relative Value of Labour

Consider the different forms of personal capital as goods in a meta-market, trading against each other. From this perspective, what has changed over the last couple of generations since the second world war? The answer is pretty obvious: the value of unskilled labour has dropped precipitously. Technological automation and a glut of supply from third-world countries have conspired to drive the value of unskilled labour into the basement. Additionally, the value of a college degree has also dropped, though not as sharply and hardly at all in some fields.

This makes it pretty obvious why so many people today are dropping below the break-even line of personal capital; it’s not that they have less capital, but that the capital they have (labour potential and education) is simply less valuable.

The Boomer-Millennial Divide

It has become almost tautological on the internet that baby boomers will whine and complain about how kids today would be doing just fine if they were willing to put in an honest day’s work, and how it’s their own damned fault. Millennials of course put the blame on the boomers; they are working hard and would be doing just fine if the boomers hadn’t ruined politics/the environment/the economy/the world. This conflict is actually a fairly natural one.

In the age of the boomers, labour was quite valuable. A confluence of factors drove the value of labour up to the point where individuals could sit comfortably at or above the break-even point, just on the value of their natural labour. Boomers really could make a healthy, happy, constantly-improving life for themselves just by working hard. They see millennials not succeeding and assume that they can’t be working as hard.

Of course in today’s market, that assumption is no longer true. Labour is so much less valuable that without some extra booster shot of personal capital (maybe a trust fund, or an expensive education in certain fields like hard science), the value of an individual’s natural labour is not enough to let them break even. They kill themselves to make ends meet, but with no hope of their situation ever really improving (they don’t have the positive feedback loop of capital growth working for them) it is no wonder they become disenfranchised. Those presently losing their jobs to foreign labour are in the same boat.

Finding Solutions

It seems then, that the solution to this recent unrest would be to bring as many people as possible back above this break-even point, giving them something to work for and hope for the future. But what do potential solutions actually look like for increasing the level of Personal Capital? Well, to me the obvious ones fall into three categories:

  • Drive up the value of the capital that people already have (primarily labour).
  • Provide people with additional capital such as education.
  • Reduce the break-even point so that existing levels of personal capital are sufficient.

With all this as perspective, the isolationist/nationalist solution isn’t actually all that insane. By putting stringent limits on immigration and trade, that greatly reduces the supply of labour, thus driving up the value of labour once more. Labour is the one piece of capital that everybody already has, rich or poor. It’s not really clear to me if this would be sufficient on its own to return us to the boomers’ golden age, but it will certainly move the needle in the right direction. The “hidden” cost, of course, is all the other terrible side-effects which tend to come with isolationist/nationalist policies. Let’s try and avoid a third world war, shall we?

So what other solutions are there that are less likely to destroy the world? Providing people with a basic income is a pretty straight-forward way to provide people with additional capital. No long-term large-scale system has yet been implemented, but the pilots look promising. Reducing the cost of higher education is also an obvious way to distribute additional (educational) capital.

Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to me how to pay for many of these socialist solutions. Since tackling the second point (providing more capital) is expensive and politically infeasible, and tackling the first point (driving up the value of labour) tends to actually hurt the economy globally in the long run, what about the third point? How do we reduce the break-even point of personal capital?

I don’t know.

Inequality, Brexit, and Trump

Bringing this discussion back to the original topics, I want to make a couple of points.

My primary point of disagreement with Piketty and many modern Bernie-Sanders-esque leftists is that it is not unequal distribution of wealth that is driving the present social unrest. It is quite possible for vast inequality to exist in a system where the majority of people are still above the break-even point of personal capital. I predict that such a scenario would be peaceful, and that people would be generally happy.

It is also quite popular among these same modern leftists to look at the people voting for Brexit and Trump and assume they must be insane to be voting for policies which are not in their own best interests. I disagree again. The policies being presented here are legitimate solutions to the problem these voters face. You may disagree with the trade-offs they are willing to make, but until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, judge not.

Finally, what do I propose we do about it? What political and economic stance does this essay actually lead me to endorse? Again, I don’t know. There is no clear-cut winning answer that I have yet found.

I’m going  to keep looking.