Category Archives: Ramblings

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.

Donald Trump Redux: Evil, Stupid, or Crazy?

It seems I’ve managed to strike a chord. Over the last few weeks, my post Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid? has been receiving a steady stream of visitors, which has basically never happened before. Additionally (based on referring search terms), a lot of people who end up on that article are also wondering whether or not Trump is crazy, a question my original post did not address. Since this is something people are interested in, and since the original was fairly specific to the time it was written, here’s an update.

Let’s start with the possibility that Trump is crazy. That depends heavily on what we mean by “crazy”, which tends to be a pretty broad term. If we take it to mean anything clinical or medically formalized then he’s pretty unambiguously not crazy. He may not be the most well-adjusted person in the world, but he’s a far far cry from that kind of crazy.

Another more colloquial definition of crazy that might fit is that he believes some things which are not true. While he certainly has some weird beliefs, I would tend to be lenient on this point as well. After all, 260 million people believe in god – and if you don’t think that’s a crazy belief, 28 million do not. One of those groups must be wrong. Maybe on this definition he is crazy, but if so he’s hardly alone.

A third definition of crazy that tends to come up a lot is simply as a synonym for “foolish” or “stupid”. So let’s revisit my previous post. This was my effective conclusion in that piece, however uncertain I was:

Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

I like to think that the last month or so has borne me out on this point. While the Trump administration has still had more than its share of bumps and weird decisions, there has not been nearly as much of the breakdown of order that seemed so plausibly like the intentional dismantling of the United States.

So, again, I encourage you to take heart from the most likely explanation: Trump is a lucky moron. The US will in all probability remain a democratic republic and will head into the 2020 election scarred, but alive and kicking.

In the mean-time, liberals have a lot of work to do.

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.

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.

Edit: I wrote a follow-up post here.