A Year of Putting a Numonit

Happy birthday to Putanumonit!

Come celebrate with me next Friday (10/28) at Zach Weinersmith’s BAH Fest West. If you move fast you can grab one of the few remaining $10 tickets. I’m giving a talk on the dumbest idea ever to solve the global food crisis. For a taste, here’s my performance from last year’s BAH Fest in MIT where I talked about sleepwalking and made fun of Max Tegmark. If I win, drinks on me.

My initial plan for the blog was to quietly practice writing for a few years until I feel I can produce something that deserves to be read. Instead, Scott Alexander linked to the third post I ever wrote and brought 5,000 readers along. In late December I decided that making Scott’s blogroll would be my goal for 2016. It happened on 12/29/2015. In May, “Shopping for Happiness” was the post of the day on The Browser, one spot ahead of Scott.

Thank you Scott! And thanks to everyone who shared, reddited, tweeted, The Browsered, Metafiltered and to everyone who told their mom. Thanks to everyone who commented, emailed me, and a huge thanks to wonderful people who joined me in donating to GiveDirectly.

Whenever a post of mine is shared there are discussions of it happening in 5 places at once (Reddit, LW, Facebook..) I do my best to engage with all of them, but I would love to consolidate most of the conversation here in the comments so it’s visible next to the post.

Two things to encourage this: first, I would like to remind everyone of my $5 reward policy for comments correcting major errors in my posts, like this one.

Second, here’s a rundown of the best comments of the year, with apologies to those I missed: scholar on male porn actors, blastmeister101 on national soccer success, my greatest fan on baby hatches, StrivingForConsistency on patterns in lottery tickets, Benjamin Arthur Schwab wrote an article on the game theory of dating in response to my article on the game theory of dating, Maggie taking first steps in LessWrongianism, BAS, entirelyuseless and JulianR on inequality, Chebky on thaumatology, Alexander Stanislaw pushing back on the GDA, Peter Gerdes disbelieves beliefs, best gamer mouse on the best gaming mouse.

One thing y’all aren’t helping me with is achieving my goal for this blog: becoming a better writer. You critique my ideas six ways to Sunday but never a grammar mistake, a poor turn of phrase, a post with a confusing structure, an incoherent explanation, or a badly constructed argument. I want my writing to be first – fun to read, second – educational, third – convincing, ultimately – inspiring. Most of the time I don’t achieve that, and I need your feedback to get better.

Please share (by comment or email) which parts of my posts worked or didn’t for you as a written essay, arguments aside. The more specific the better: it’s easier to learn from a bad paragraph than from a bad post, even easier to improve on a single bad sentence or logical argument. Rewrite a section of the post with better language and flow to demonstrate your skills, I may even include it in the post. I’m still committed to ensuring that Putanumonit is a money-losing venture. I pay to keep this ad-free and I am willing to pay for a writing coach that impresses me enough. Or, you can make this effort as a kindness to me.

My next post will the revisit the best articles I wrote this year and my follow up thoughts on them, the better to start year 2 with fresh writing and fresh ideas. My folder of draft ideas is bursting at the seams, but you are very much encouraged to post topic suggestions here or on the Full Archive page (finally updated). Feel free to also post shorter questions, I’d love to have enough to do a mailbag Q&A.

At the start of year 2 I am more committed than ever to keep writing, keep improving, and keep engaging with my readers. Thank you for sticking around.

Theory of an Immoral Sentiment

When economics became impersonal, humanity rose from ragged tribes to a prosperous civilization. It’s time for a similar revolution in our morals.


Hey, did you hear the news about the descolada virus outbreak in Tajikistan?

“No,” you say, “is it bad?”

I confirm that it is bad indeed. 15,000 people have succumbed to the illness, many more cases unconfirmed, doctors are scrambling for a cure. Fortunately, the disease is localized and there’s practically no risk of anyone in this part of the world catching the virus.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” you sigh, “I wish we could do something for the poor souls.”

Your conversational duties fulfilled, you are now free to revert your attention to whatever you were doing before and not give another thought to the poor Tajiks. What was that virus called? You already forgot. It’s not that you’re indifferent to the Tajik plight, it’s just… it’s just that descolada in Tajikistan doesn’t really make a difference to you.

Now imagine instead that you get a call from your doctor: a test came back showing that your appendix is about to get inflamed, you’re scheduled for an appendectomy tomorrow afternoon. Someone’s going to cut open your abdomen with sharp instruments. You really shouldn’t worry though, it’s a routine procedure and most appendectomy patients are out of the hospital by the second day.

But you do worry, and probably have trouble sleeping tonight. It’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking of anything at all for the next day other than your imminent surgery.


Adam Smith is most known for his Wealth of Nations being quoted out of context in 57% of dumb Facebook debates about economics. But that’s only half of his bibliography, Smith also wrote a remarkable book on virtue, wisdom and the life worth living in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If you want the same ideas in modern English and with a snazzy cover, Russ Roberts of EconTalk fame covers TToMS in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

The original, published in 1759, remarks on the fact that people are more preoccupied with the smallest inconvenience to themselves than with the greatest tragedies occurring half the world away:

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

People are self-interested, is that all Adam Smith want to tell us?

Back to your looming appendectomy. Your phone suddenly rings, it’s the famous Dr. Wiggin. He can drop by tomorrow with a marvelous new pill he developed, it will placate your appendix forever with no need for surgery and no discomfort. Of course, if he comes to visit you he won’t be able to make his trip to Tajikistan where he was planning to administer the descolada cure that only he is in possession of. Will you sacrifice the suffering Tajiks to avoid an unpleasant surgery?

Adam Smith thinks that not a single person on Earth will make that trade-off:

To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.

But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?

Smith credits our selflessness to pity, compassion and sympathy; he combines all three under the category of “fellow-feeling”. Today we would more specifically refer to it as empathy, the capacity to share the feelings of others, particularly their sorrow.

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it…

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.

Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.

250 years later, most people agree that empathy is at the root of altruism. Barack Obama sees empathy as the opposite of selfishness:

There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit.  But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.

Not only that – we live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.  A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

Psychologists researching altruism and morality agree with the president, and break empathy into two components:

The ability to respond with emotional and cognitive empathy is necessary for attachment and caregiving, a fundamental mammalian behavior and cornerstone of altruism.

Roughly, emotional empathy is feeling with the suffering of others, cognitive empathy is feeling for others’ pain without mirroring it. Here are two more psychology researchers, explaining that both are equally critical:

The cognitive and affective components of empathy cannot be cleanly separated.

Indeed, an emerging body of research finds that neural systems for affective and cognitive empathy heavily influence each other. In our work, for example, we have shown that the brain systems involved in affective empathy correlate with those at work in a pro-social decision-making task. The cognitive, in short, is not sealed off from the affective.

Breaking news! Scientists say that emotional empathy makes you a good person! Next they will publish a paper on the discovery that water is wet. Isn’t the value of empathy plainly obvious, even to psychologists?

Well, it’s not obvious to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. In fact, the latter two excerpts are from written responses to his essay that he titled: Against Empathy. Why would someone be against the cornerstone of moral sentiment, in contradiction of Adam Smith, Obama and his fellow scientists?

One reason is: he’s got a point.


Let’s define exactly what we’re talking about: emotional empathy refers to the ability and the inclination of humans to feel the emotions that others are feeling. These others may be human or animal, present or distant, real or fictional. To clarify: feeling angry that Cecil the Lion was killed is not emotional empathy, because Cecil is not feeling anger, he’s in lion heaven sharing drinks with Mufasa. However, joining the anger of a Twitter mob is empathy, insofar as your anger reflects the predominant emotion of the crowd. Even if every single Twitterer is feigning their outrage, if you imagine the crowd to be angry and feel angry in response, that is empathy.

So what’s wrong with emotional empathy? The fact that it’s self-serving, biased, tribal, and concerned with what’s immediately adjacent. Conversely, we have the power to do good when we are altruistic, objective, think globally and aid those who are most distant. I’ll argue that emotional empathy is separable from cognitive empathy (to a point), and that we have a moral imperative to do so.

Don’t worry, in the end it will turn out that Adam Smith was right about everything all along.


Let’s go back to the 15,000 sick Tajiks. Was it emotional empathy that made you willing to help them, even at the cost of undergoing surgery yourself? Since blogging is a one-way medium of communication, instead of hearing your reply I’ll have to look at the scientific evidence on emotional empathy instead.

First, emotional empathy is innumerate. People are subject to the identifiable victim effectwilling to give more to a single familiar victim than to many. This is true even if the original victim is included in the many, telling people about additional victims can reduce their willingness to help. Our brains simply cannot share the emotion of more than one or two people at a time, let alone 15,000. If both Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on something then it must be true: innumeracy is a feature (or a bug) of emotional empathy.

Second, emotional empathy is biased. We empathize with the attractive, the famous, and with those who are like us. The Tajiks are certainly none of these things: most of my readers will not be able to name a single one of the 8.2 million citizens of Tajikistan. Few of my readers look like they could be from Tajikistan, and we empathize more with those who look like us. Emotional empathy is racist.

Third, empathy is founded on shared experiences. The descolada virus unglues the victim’s DNA and scrambles the proteins, preventing cell repair. Do you know what that feels like? I’d be quite shocked if you do, given that the disease is entirely fictional.

Descolada in Tajikistan is a made up example, but it’s illustrative of the insignificant role emotional empathy really plays in our response to tragedies that befall others. There isn’t a lot more empathy to be found in real life disasters.

One of the best known researchers of the psychology of empathy is Simon Baron-Cohen (not to be confused with famous researcher of American cultural learnings Sasha Baron Cohen). In his reply to Paul Bloom, this is the best example of empathy-driven altruism he managed to come up with:

When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, for example, charitable donations flooded in from countries from around the world, fuelled by empathy for victims, not based on how attractive they were, and not just for those from the same ethnic or national groups.

Talking about donations “flooding” the tsunami victims is not just an unfortunate choice of words, it’s also grossly inaccurate. Reacting to the worst natural disaster in decades “other ethnic or national groups”, both public and private, contributed a tiny amount compared to what they spend on themselves. There’s scant evidence that the little that was given was driven by emotional empathy. The US government originally pledged a measly $15 million. A week later, this amount was increased to $350 and finally $950. Did the increase happen because president Bush spent a week imagining how it feels like to be swept away by giant waves? I bet it’s because he spent a week facing harsh criticism from other world leader on his “stinginess”.


If not emotional empathy for the victims, what drives our responses, such as they are, to the suffering of others? Instead of psychology, we can ask economists: I think that both Adam Smith and Robin Hanson will say that our responses are driven by something like a culturally learned sense of propriety.

You know, without thinking about it explicitly, that tying underwear around your head to keep your ears warm is improper. You may still choose to do it, but you’re aware that it’s transgressive. You know that “four delicious tiny round brown glazed Italian chocolate cookies” is the only proper way to order these adjectives.

The society you live in taught you to feel bad for the tsunami victims and maybe donate a few dollars, but it doesn’t expect you to give your life’s savings to the Red Cross. Yet with your appendectomy weighed against a thousand Tajiks, you know that letting a thousand people die for the sake of your own comfort is improper, and that sense of propriety is strong enough to override every person’s natural selfish inclinations.

As for empathy, it doesn’t override your selfish inclinations, it is one. At least by the evolutionary definitions of selfishness.

The desire for our emotions to be in harmony with those around us has been bred into us by eons of evolution in small tribes. When the difference between life and death every day is the ability to trust, predict and depend on the few members of your hunter-gatherer band, the skill of harmonizing emotions with them is indispensable. I was going to quote an evolutionary psychologist here, but I’ll go with Adam Smith again simply because his writing is delightful:

The person [who suffers] is sensible of this [that others don’t share his full experience], and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy. He longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation.

But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him.

Even when we grieve, we will “tone down” our grief, whatever it takes to be in sync with how those around us feel.


People differ in their capability for emotional empathy. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul Bloom admitted on Julia Galef’s podcast that he doesn’t feel emotional empathy as strongly as others (or as strongly as others claim to, reminds the little Robin Hanson on my shoulder). From hearing a dozen people weigh in on the empathy debate it seems that one’s capacity for emotional empathy correlates strongly with one’s inclination to defend empathy on moral grounds. For what it’s worth, I’m in Paul Bloom’s boat.

I have several female friends. The upshot of this is that I hear a lot of complaints about painful menstrual cramps. I lack both the emotional capacity and the necessary anatomy to properly empathize with my friend’s pain. What I feel instead is a sense of “the world is wrong” and a compulsion to make it better. I can help my friend by inviting her for ice cream, or sending her links to mystical artifacts of great power, or by hanging around and letting her empathy improve her mood by aligning with my generally upbeat emotional baseline.

Is that more valuable to my friend than “to see the emotions of my heart beat time to her own”? Perhaps it is and perhaps not, I will not argue against the importance of empathy in personal relationship. However, I get the same “world is wrong and I should help” feeling when I read about Kenyans suffering in poverty, and I am moved to research their plight and raise donations on my blog. I doubt that if instead I fully empathized with being a hungry subsistence farmer I would have done more for them than $8,000. When a man can’t afford food, I bet he desires food money more than “a complete sympathy”.

And yet, I love the feeling of emotional empathy. I enjoy losing myself in a work of fiction that makes me share every tilt and shift of the protagonist’s passions. I wrote about staring into the eyes of someone experiencing strong emotions, it’s a breathtaking and wonderful experience. I go to live sports events whenever I can for the exhilaration of knowing I share every emotion with 20,000 fans around me.

But I don’t fool myself: empathy feels good because it’s good for me, it has little to do with doing good and making the world better.


In the best part of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life Russ Roberts addresses the seeming paradox of Smith’s career: his life was dedicated to the writing of two books, yet the books have seemingly nothing to do with each other.

In Wealth of Nations Smith talks about societies becoming prosperous through trade and specialization. When two people can trade with each other, each is incentivized to focus on what they do best and barter for what they cannot produce. The more people specialize, the more wealth they create, the more they seek trading partners, the more they need to specialize, and so on and so on until our species went from roaming a patch of savanna to roaming the solar system.

Our wealth is generated by countless strangers – even a simple pencil is delivered by an immensely complex, globe-spanning supply chain. These pencil-making strangers have no concern for us, they are operating solely from their own self-interest. Yet they are responsible for everything from the food we eat to the blogs we read. (Little known fact: Putanumonit is produced in a sweatshop outside Kuala Lumpur by middle-school dropouts).

In contrast, the endlessly quotable Theory of Moral Sentiments makes no mention of trade and commerce, except to remark that the pursuit of riches leads neither to virtue nor to happiness. But when considered as a whole body of work, it becomes clear that the two books aren’t contradictory: they are complementary. Our happiness depends on our relationships with those closest to us, and our character is measured by how we treat them. In these relationships, empathy is paramount. On the other hand, the prosperity of our societies lies in the trade we conduct with faraway strangers, an interaction in which empathy plays no role. A person who keeps these worlds separate and navigates both adroitly will be both successful and loved. A person who mixes in one world with the other will find the mixture noxious and combustible.

The governance of a nation clearly belongs to the world of economic interactions between strangers, not to the world of empathy and intimate relationships. In his essay and in podcasts, Paul Bloom gives many examples of the perils and perversities caused by empathy-driven public policy, I won’t elaborate on that. Instead, I’ll consider a more personal question:

Should a person who seeks to make the world a better place follow empathy or discard it?


If you’re reading this blog, you are probably very prosperous by global and historical standards. A single person making minimum wage in the United States is in the top 5% of earners in the world in 2016. For all the fun we make of it, 2016 is the most advanced, peaceful, healthy and rich year in human history so far and there’s no reason to think that 2017 won’t be ever better. You live in the very best of times, in the very best of places. Almost certainly, the people closest to you are also among the luckiest and richest in the history of the world. These are the people you empathize with.

Empathy will push you to aid those like you, but whatever problems those like you face are neither neglected, nor easily tractable, nor particularly acute. Conversely, those who are strangest to you need your help the most: the third-world poor, the factory farmed animals, and the people who are not yet born. Perhaps others who are even farther from us, whom we haven’t thought of in our empathic provinciality. Those you can empathize the least with, you can do the most to help.

People talk about expanding the “circle of empathy”, and it seems to me that the only way to do it is with cognitive empathy. Your heart will not harmonize with faraway strangers, but your mind can learn to include them in your circle of concern.


In conclusion let me say this: emotional empathy is a wonderful human capacity. It expands our emotional universe and makes us enjoy caring for others. So why do I argue against it? Because of a fundamental asymmetry: emotional empathy feels too good, we are ever likelier to overdo it rather than neglect it.

No one can or should turn off their empathy switch completely. Rationality consists of learning about the biases that distort your thinking, and correcting for them little bit by little bit when making important decisions. When choosing a course of action that will make the world a better place, the strength of your empathy for victims is more likely to lead you astray that to lead you truly.

A prehistoric hunter-gatherer couldn’t fathom the mere concept of getting things from strangers. Every morsel she owned was either self-procured or given by a friend or relative with whom she has built trust over years and decades. Once humans let go of the need for personal confidence and familiarity in barter, humanity flourished and grew in power a million times.

With our newfound power we face newfound challenges: from malaria to global warming to spreading freedom and controlling artificial intelligence. Like our economy, these challenges are no longer in the domain of interpersonal relationship. These challenges are global, and the solutions to them must be global, and it is our imperative as the richest and most powerful humans who have ever lived to solved them. And to do that, we need to let go of one more innate and tribal emotion: empathy.


Zero Agents and Plastic Men

Can you judge what people believe in based on the tribes they belong to? What if they explicitly tell you? And what does this have to do with the fact that only 2% of blacks support Trump?

[Note: this post is mainly anecdata and speculation, so don’t expect academic citations and regression models. My epistemic status on this is, accordingly, speculative. I’m sure that many people discussed similar themes, but I arrived at these conclusions independently. Also, since the anecdotes are personal, the names and identifying details of all people in this post have been changed. ]

This post is about sociology. I never actually studied sociology.

The closest I got was a sociology book I once received as a birthday gift from Maya, my Israeli ex-girlfriend who majored in sociology. She told me the book was about patience. I read the first three pages: the book turned out to be about gift-giving. Coincidentally, the two words are spelled the same in Hebrew (המתנה). Maya admitted that she never actually read it, but it was recommended by her sociology professor. And besides, she hinted, I could use to learn about patience anyway. I wasn’t sure how to learn patience from a book about gifts, so I never opened it again.

As for Maya, after we broke up I introduced her to a very patient friend of mine. They recently got married after eight years of patient dating.

So what do I know of sociology? All I know comes mainly from three sources. The first is the video of Stanley Milgram’s experiments on authority and obedience. The second is Scott’s post about the outgroup. And the third is Scott’s post about the ingroup.

The ingroup post is titled “The Ideology Is not the Movement”. It explains that extant tribes of people rarely stay concerned for long with the official reason for the tribe’s formation. Whatever else Sunni and Shia Muslims are killing each other over in 2016, the choice of rightful caliph to succeed Muhammad in 632 AD ain’t it. “Gamergate” isn’t the movement of people who think that “Depression Quest” is a crappy game that got unfairly positive reviews. Ali Ibn Abi Talib and Depression Quest were just rallying flags, the nuclei around which people with preexisting similarities coalesced. Once a tribe is established, the ideological rallying flag can be discarded or even controverted. Did you know that the US Democratic Party started as the small-government opposition to federalism, and drew its support from Southern planters?

Sometimes, a movement does have an obvious uniting ideology. For example, the Hasidic Jews who live in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights and attend the Hasidic synagogues there would seem, if nothing else, to be united by the ideology of Hasidic Judaism.

An old colleague of mine, Shmuel, lives in Crown Heights around the corner from establishments with names plucked from a shtetl like “Raskin’s Fish Market” and “Getzel’s Shul”. He wears a black coat and black kippa. Shmuel’s four kids go to Jewish schools.

I ran into Shmuel a couple of weeks ago, he told me that he enjoys reading Putanumonit. He particularly enjoyed reading A Conversation With GoD. I asked him what he thought of my 1:1,000,000 credence for the existence of God as described in the Old Testament. He said that number seemed a bit low. When he worked through the numbers himself some years ago, he arrived at 1:10,000.

I remarked that 0.01% is a rather low God-credence for a religious man, perhaps Shmuel took the divine bet with Pascal’s wager? No, Shmuel said, he did some math on Pascal’s Wager too and decided to reject it. He showed me a comprehensive document of arguments and calculation in support of atheism and rejection of Pascal’s wager. The document reads like a Putanumonit post, except less arrogant and better researched.


So why does Shmuel appear outwardly to live a pious Hasidic life? Crown Heights is close to Manhattan but the rent is still cheap, the schools are fine and the streets are safe. His wife is happy with the lifestyle and his parents are happy with their social standing. The price to pay for this comfort is a limited choice of wardrobe and having to show up in synagogue for prayer, 45 minutes during which Shmuel zones out and thinks about math.

“It sound like a great bargain”, I said. “I wonder how many men praying in the seats alongside you zone out as well.”

“Probably a lot of them”, Shmuel replied. “But unlike most of these guys, I don’t have to feel guilty about it.”

According to Scott, the rallying flag of the rationalist community was the belief that Eliezer Yudkowsky is the rightful caliph. As the Muslim caliphs stood against the infidels, so does Eliezer stand against the fidels. It’s not even that LessWrong spends that much time arguing for atheism, atheism is almost assumed as a precursor to studying rationality the same way arithmetics is required for calculus.

With that in mind, it’s a bit of a surprise that over 11% of LessWrongers are theist, up from 8% in 2014. And when these 11% show up at Solstice, or a CFAR workshop, or any rationalist hangout, you mostly wouldn’t be able to tell who it is.

So: forget about the ideology not being the movement. Even when the movement has a clear ideology, a bunch of people will reject that ideology outright while happily hanging out with the movement and broadcasting their movement loyalty for all to see. These aren’t saboteurs looking to undermine the tribe, they love the tribe. They’re not double agents either, they’re zero agents. I would bet that at least 10% of every tribe is made up of zero agents who reject the tribe’s stated beliefs but enjoy the company and the snacks too much to say anything.

The man taking his family to Sunday mass? I’d give a 10% chance that he isn’t Catholic but just thinks it’s a good experience for the kids. The woman in the Cowboys (Barcelona) jersey? I’d give 10% she can’t name a single football player but has friends that do and she thinks the jersey fits her hair color. You really can’t be sure what people believe in until they say it.

And even when they say what they believe, don’t be so quick to believe them.

At first, I thought that Hadia hates the Israelis. I didn’t think so just because she’s Syrian. I thought so because when we met at a mutual friend’s party in North Carolina, she said “I hate the Israelis”. After we bacame Facebook friends (I don’t entirely remember what happened at that party and how much we drank), Hadia shared a “news” story claiming that Bashar Assad was revealed as a Mossad agent sent to kill Syrian children. Hadia’s comment on the link was “Ugh, I hate the Israelis”.

As an Israeli, my curiosty was piqued.

Not everyone can handle a cleanse

Surely, I inquired of Hadia, she didn’t really believe that Assad is literally a Mossad spy. She didn’t, Hadia admitted, she just thought it was a good article detailing all the atrocities commited by Assad against the Syrian people. Why then muddle the issue with Mossad conspiracy theories and comments about Israelis? “Mossad” is more of a literary device, Hadia replied, like saying that something is “from the Devil” but it sounds hip to Arab ears. And mentioning how much she hates Israelis always gets more “likes” on Facebook, so why not? Any more than an American hates some distant bogeymen like North Korea, Hadia doesn’t hate hate Israelis. Mostly, she likes “likes”.

I came to two realizations. First, that I have no idea what Hadia’s social group is like, what signals and codes they share, how loyalty is measured and status is regulated. Perhaps, as a Syrian living in the US, Hadia is facing extra pressure to prove her loyalty to the Syrian people by constantly mentioning the Mossad and her hatred of Israelis in casual conversation. If Hadia had heard my friends and I discussing paperclip-maximizing computers she would likewise conclude that we are insane.

My second realization was that this isn’t a unique case, and that a lot of arguments that I hear that sound crazy can only be understood in the context of signalling within groups that I’m blind to. For any tribe whose “secret language” we don’t speak we can’t presume anything about their actual beliefs with certainty.

In Rationality, to steel man an argument is to come up with the most sensible version of it, the interpretation that could reasonably be held by an intelligent arguer. Steel manning is achieved only rarely, by the wise Bayesian sages in their secret mountain dojo. Steel manning stands in opposition to straw manning, taking a weak and distorted version of your opponent’s argument that is fun to be outraged about. That is achieved by 99% of media and your Facebook wall.

To these two I would add: plastic-manning. A plastic man isn’t genuine. It stands for something, but you’re not sure what. It’s a mannequin, advertising something to someone, but not to everyone. A plastic argument isn’t there to be dealt with on literal terms, strengthened or weakened. It’s signalling, you either get it or shrug and move on.

Example: people involved in Social Justice talk a lot about oppressors and the oppressed, and there’s a case that SJ people and liberals in general see every social issue as a conflict on the oppression axis.

The strawman version of the “oppression axis” is that “oppression” is a vacuous slogan used to attack white men and grasp at political power. The steelman version is that “oppression” means structural imbalances of power that let some groups profit at the expense of others, and that fighting oppression is the best (although not unique) way to achieve equality.

I’ll let my friend, much deeper steeped in SJ discourse than I am, explain the plastic man version of talking about oppression:



Basically, the plastic-man version of most arguments is “I said it for the likes”.

It’s hard to know if an argument is plastic or not, but you can look for hints in how the intended audience react to it. If my SJ friend has posted something contrarian that his SJ friends disagreed with, that could be a true belief. But no one did, they reacted as they would to an applause light, which is itself a narrower category of plastic man arguments.

Why is noticing a plastic argument important? Because it will never make sense to you. There’s no way to logically steelman “Assad is an Israeli spy”. Any engagement with such an argument makes you stupider by the minute, and inoculates you against respecting better arguments from the same people via the cowpox of doubt.

The existence of plastic men doesn’t mean that you should never take people at their word when they say weird shit. It just means that you need to keep the plastic possibility in mind, especially when the argument may involve layers of group signalling you’re unaware of.

A social group whose layers of signalling I’m really unaware of are Trump supporters. But I think I can plastic man one of Trump’s main arguments, namely his argument that immigrants, particulary those from Mexico, are a danger to America.

Mexican immigrants, Trump says, are criminals. And when they’re not commiting crimes, they’re lazily idling on welfare instead of building American business. And when they’re not being lazy, they’re destroying conservative American culture. And when they take breaks from subverting America culturally they go to the polls to vote Democrat, which is why Democrats keep hauling them in by the truckload over the Rio Grande.

Coincidentally, every single part of it is factually wrong.

Immigrants, including Hispanics, are less likely than natives to commit violent crimes or be in jail. Hispanics have 4% higher labor participation rate than non Hispanics. Immigrants are more likely to start a business. Latinos are more religious and socially conservative that the average American. Finally, the rate of net immigration from Mexico has nearly halted under Barack Obama after exploding under George W Bush.

Even without researching statistics, are Trump supporters so clueless that they don’t notice any of the above?

Yes, 71% of Hispanics did vote for Obama over Romney but Asians and blacks voted for Obama at higher rates than that. In places like the Bronx, Obama won by a 92%-8% margin. Speaking of the Bronx, did you know that it suffers from remarkably high crime rates and that a large portion of Bronx residents receive government welfare? It seems quite remarkable that Trump never mentions the Bronx, his contempt is almost exclusively reserved for immigrants and foreigners.


Strawman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who spews malicious slander regarding immigrants. Steelman Trump is a nationalistic bigot who raises legitimate concerns regarding immigrants. Plasticman Trump isn’t talking about immigrants at all: he’s talking about blacks in the Bronx. After all, Trump had undocumented immigrants building his towers, but none of these towers were built north of the Harlem River. His mouth says “immigrants” because in the US media it’s more acceptable to be racist towards immigrants than towards African Americans.

If it’s true that Trump riles against blacks and doesn’t mind immigrants, I suspect that most of his supporters are aware of this while most big city-based liberal media is ignorant. A glance at the New York Times confirms that, although to be fair the New York Times is ignorant of most things.

One group that clearly isn’t fooled are blacks, a mere 2% of whom support Trump compared to 20%-30% of Hispanics. 2% is unprecedented. It’s unfathomable. Trump is polling fourth among blacks, behind not just Hillary but also Johnson and Stein. If someone had added “shape-shifting reptilian people” to the list of candidates, Trump would be polling fifth, behind the lizardmen’s 4%.

You can never be confident when plasticmanning an argument, it requires guessing the secret signals of a group you’re not a part of and that’s hard. But you have to admit, Trump’s talk about immigrants makes much more sense if he isn’t actually talking about immigrants at all.


Finding common ground on EpiPens, and establishing the Good Drug Administration.

9/2 Epistemic Status Note

Whenever I write about economics and policy proposals I face a particular dilemma. If I present a one-sided case, readers call me a clueless ideologue. If I present all the caveats and counterarguments I can possibly think of, the posts would be 15,000 words each and come out twice a year. I prefer to err in favor of shorter and more concise posts. I try to present original ideas, so whatever I propose will have hundreds of ready-made counterarguments available at a quick Google to readers who want a balanced account.

This means that when I present my case for the GDA below, I want to say “here’s a rough outline of a cool option not many have considered”. I don’t mean “the GDA is the perfect solution and if you disagree you’re an idiot”. Many people do in fact disagree with me, either in the comments or on the SSC Reddit, and I’m very happy to have the conversation there and keep the posts short. From Chinese soccer to tax policy, I almost always get comments from readers who are wiser than me on the subject and I’m very happy to learn from them.

I’ll never write something I don’t believe in “just to start a conversation”, but I almost never imply that what I write is dogma.]

0 – Escaping the mind kill

My political-economic philosophy is best described as Bowmanite-Neoliberalism, but the word “neoliberal” is too loaded. Most people will call me a consequentialist-libertarian instead. Also, it’s no secret that Slate Star Codex is my favorite blog. So of course, when SSC published a sharp consequentialist-libertarian rant about the EpiPen price controversy, I had a lot of fun reading it.

Too much fun, in fact. The kind of fun you have when you’re landing a cracking punch on the enemy, not when you’re mindfully thinking about complex policy.

So much fun that I neglected to actually read the original Vox piece that Scott railed against. It turns out that the original piece (and the follow-up) was penned by Sarah Kliff. She’s no idiot and no socialist, a couple weeks ago I gave high praise to her article on the gender wage gap. So what’s going on?

In particular:

  1. Who’s right, Scott or Sarah?
  2. What’s wrong with the FDA?

1 – Buyer, seller or regulator?

Scott is talking about the US Government making EpiPens expensive by blocking the entry of competitors, thus ensuring that “the pharmaceutical industry is part of a highly-regulated cronyist system that works completely differently from chairs and mugs”. Sarah blames the US Government for not making Mylan charge a lower price for EpiPens. But “the US Government” isn’t really a single actor in this case. It’s a terrifying hydra with many heads, and each head has its own deal with EpiPens.

In a normal world, there are two types of actors in each market. There are sellers, who set the prices. There are buyers, who decide whether to take the price or not. When left to themselves, buyers and sellers have a remarkable tendency to converge on a price that makes everyone happy. That tendency is the main reason why we get to have good stuff.

Occasionally, there’s a third type of actor: regulators. They sometimes do useful things, like protecting third parties harmed by buyers and sellers. They sometimes do appalling things, like arbitrarily constraining prices and causing terrible tragedies.

It’s important not to confuse sellers (who make the prices), buyers (who take the prices) and regulators (who fuck with the prices).

Back to Sarah and Scott. Scott says that in the case of EpiPens, regulation is causing massive harm. Here’s the quote from Sarah that makes it seems like she’s saying regulation is good and we need more of it:

The story of Mylan’s giant EpiPen price increase is, more fundamentally, a story about America’s unique drug pricing policies. We are the only developed nation that lets drugmakers set their own prices, maximizing profits the same way sellers of chairs, mugs, shoes, or any other manufactured goods would.

This paragraph is so maddening (oh no, God save us from profits!) that I wonder if Scott just threw something heavy at his monitor before he had the chance to read past it. The most unfortunate thing about this paragraph is that it has nothing to do with the rest of Sarah’s article, which doesn’t actually talk about drug pricing but about drug buying, and the harms caused by the regulation thereof.

America doesn’t have a problem with drug pricing policies because America doesn’t price EpiPens, Mylan does. America runs Medicare, which is a buyer of EpiPens. And if it were a buyer free like all buyers to take prices or leave them, it would tell Mylan that at any price above $100 it would switch to Adrenaclicks and that’s that. The next day EpiPens would cost $99.99.

In countries like the UK, there is just one allowed buyer of medicine (aka “single payer”) so the sole buyer is de facto the regulator. But the US Government has been clever enough to create a regulator (FDA), a separate buyer (Medicare) and, astoundingly, a separate federal regulation of Medicare itself. From Sarah again:

In the United States, there’s no such negotiation process to speak of. Federal law bars Medicare, the country’s largest insurance plan, from even trying to negotiate bulk discounts with drugmakers. Once a pharmaceutical company sets its price, the government-run plan that insures 49 million seniors is required to accept it.

Negotiating discounts isn’t “regulation”, and it’s not “pricing policy”. It’s what consumers do. The problem is with the ludicrous law that prevents Medicare from being a free buyer and drags all other smaller consumers along with it. If Mylan can charge $500 to Medicare and they have to charge everyone the same price, they’ll charge $500 even if they lose some other customers to cheaper alternatives.

I’m honestly dumbfounded how that law could even exist. It’s opposed by 83% of Americans, including both Trump and Hillary. Even that 83% surprisingly low: I didn’t know that a whole 17% of Americans were employed by pharmaceutical lobbying companies, and I can’t think of any other reason to think it’s a good idea.


The Medicare non-negotiation policy is like if I walked into the only bar in town and announced that I will buy all their whiskey at whatever price they charge. The bartender quickly raises the price of Jack from $20 per glass to $20,000, and the other customers in the bar are forced to leave in disgust, cursing my name. I spend half a million dollars getting drunk on overpriced whiskey and fall under the table, shitfaced and broke. Just before I pass out, I call the cops to complain angrily about the evil, price gauging, bartender.

2 – The Good Drug Administration

Q: You didn’t really talk about the FDA in the previous section, is Scott wrong to blame them?

A: No. If anything, Scott is underselling the harm done by the FDA.

Q: But the FDA saves people from bad drugs!

A: It does, on occasion. Compared to other developed countries, the FDA saves about 1,000 people per year by preventing them from getting bad drugs. In the two centuries of US history before the FDA got expanded powers in 1962, the worst drug-related disaster killed a mere 107 people. Every death is a tragedy, but 107 people is a small enough number to be on the same scale as casualties due to under-regulation of chairs.

In contrast to the 1,000 saved, the FDA kills 10,000 people each year by delaying their access to good drugs. These numbers are from a large scale collaborative academic report, and the 1:10 estimate is from 1985. It has gotten much worse since 1985. Today it takes a new generic drug four years just to get to the review stage due to back-log.

Q: That’s horrible! So everyone in the FDA is an evil murderous villain?

A: NO! I’m pretty sure that not a single one of the FDA’s 14,824 employees is there trying to kill people. The reason why the FDA is a tragedy is simply: bad incentives plus the power to coerce. In fact, I think that “bad incentives plus the power to coerce” explain the majority of historical tragedies, from the slave trade to Stalin. The FDA is punished when they approve a bad drug, but not when they delay a life saving one, so their incentives are screwed. And since they have the coercive power to prohibit the sale of any drug in the country, their bad incentives kill people.

Q: I get it, we need to reform the FDA! We’ll align their policies with Europe, give them enough budget to clear the back-blog…

A: The problem with the FDA isn’t the back-log or the policies, these are mere symptoms. The only problem with the FDA is that it has the power to coerce the market and block people from buying and selling drugs. All the other problems stem from that.

Q: So what should we do with the FDA?

A: Burn it to the ground.


Q: But you just said that the FDA’s employees aren’t bad people!

A: That’s right, they’re excellent people. I’ll make sure they stand at a safe distance while the FDA burns and I’ll give them marshmallow to roast on the embers. Then, I’ll hire them to work for my new start up: the Good Drug Administration, or GDA.

Q: So you’re saying that if the FDA didn’t exist, we would need to invent it? How Voltairean!

A: The GDA will not have the power to coerce, that’s the difference. And be thankful that I didn’t name it Good Overseer of Drugs.

Here’s how the GDA will work:

I’ll go to all the pharma companies and tell them that I charge 2% of the price of each drug to put the GDA stamp of approval on the package. I employ the experts who know how to test drugs, so consumers will prefer to buy drugs with the GDA seal of approval. Pharma companies want to sell more drugs, so they’ll happily pay the 2% if they know their drug is safe and effective enough to pass my test.  If even half of them agree, the 2% charge will earn the FDA’s old budget of $4 billion in revenue.

Some manufacturers will sell drugs without the GDA stamp, but consumers will be wary of those and the manufacturers will have to lower their prices. The only people buying non-GDA drugs will be the poor (those who can’t afford alternatives) and the desperate (those who don’t have alternatives). But these people weren’t buying FDA drugs anyway since there weren’t FDA drugs that could help them at a price they could afford!

Everybody who was buying FDA approved drugs before will now be buying GDA approved drugs. Pharma innovation will skyrocket, since manufacturers know that even if their new drug doesn’t get GDA approval right away (or at all) they can still make some money of it. And since the GDA only makes money when the drugs are sold, it has every incentive to test the drugs quickly. Can you imagine a private company with a four year back-log on innovation review?

The GDA’s main asset is its reputation among consumers. Its reputation will suffer both if it approves a bad drug, and if people buy non-GDA drugs that turn out to be safe and helpful. Without the power of coercion, the GDA would have to find the perfect balance between scrutiny and approval just to maximize its profits, its only incentive is to do what the FDA is supposed to do today, but better. If it doesn’t, someone will create the Better Drug Administration and will eat my lunch.

That’s literally what we do for every great product we have, from chairs to mugs to t-shirts. Usually it’s retailers who are the approving intermediary. Bloomingdales checks the clothes they sell for quality, because the reputation hit to Bloomingdales from selling a single bad shirt is much bigger than their profit from a shirt. Clothing chains that have lower standards of quality control sell to people who want cheaper stuff that isn’t tested as rigorously.

Somebody can create the Strict Drug Administration that will adhere to the FDA’s old standard and only sell and high-end retailers, and the Loose DA that will do minimal testing on cheap drugs. Customers will decide.

Here’s a similar proposal to my GDA idea, with some more detail.

Q: But if the GDA makes money on every drug sold, they have the incentive to sell Americans too many drugs!

A: Well, it is called the good drug administration, administering drugs is what it’s about.

Jokes aside, the job of the GDA (or FDA) isn’t to control the quantity of medicine Americans use, it’s to control the quality. Asking someone to do both is as silly as asking your central bank to manage both inflation and employment at the same time.

Look, Apple puts its stamp on approval on every app in its App Store. They control the quality. Of course, they also want you to buy a lot of iPhone apps, but you’re not forced to buy them. You know that Apple’s incentives are selling apps, so even when they advertise to you, you don’t spend all your money on iPhone apps. The GDA’s job is providing Americans with a way to acquire great, safe medicine at a mere 2% price increase. The job of preventing Americans from using all this medicine to live long and healthy lives falls to the homeopaths.

Q: Who is against your system?

A: All people who suck at their jobs.

The good FDA employees will be happy to get a pay raise to work for the GDA, and the GDA will have to pay them because it competes with all the other DAs. The employees who suck at their job (of testing drugs) will not be. The good pharmaceutical companies who know they can invent profitable drugs will be happy with the GDA, but the ones who suck at their job (of making new drugs) will lose the existing profits from their FDA-protected market capture. Seriously, the only ones benefitting under the current system are the incompetent.

Q: So why are we stuck with the FDA instead of switching to the much better GDA?

A: Because unfortunately, the set of people who suck at their jobs includes 99% of American politicians.


A Conversation with GoD

Can Putanumonit put a number on the divine itself?

The following is an inexact transcript of a conversation that happened exactly like this. The scene: a wine bar in Manhattan, on my second (and final) date with a Jewish girl. We’ll call her “Jewish Girl on Date”, or J-GoD for short.

J-GoD: You’ve changed your OKCupid religion status from “Jewish” to “atheist” since last week. What happened this weekend that proved to you that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob’s inner voice: Actually, I switched it to optimize my dating profile and avoid Jewish girls that give me grief about not being as Jewish as their moms expect me to be.

Jacob’s mouth: I don’t think that anything can really prove that God doesn’t exist. That’s partly because the definition of God will usually shift to accommodate any evidence.

J-GoD: So why do you call yourself an atheist if you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob: I give the existence of any specific god a low enough probability that I functionally behave as if I was sure no god existed.

J-GoD: Probability?!

Jacob: I give about a 1 in 10 chance for the existence of any popularly conceived supernatural beings, including humanity’s descendants simulating our reality. For some specific religion’s god, like the Old Testament Jewish God (we’ll call him J-God for short), something like 1 in 1,000,000.

J-GoD: How can you put a number on the existence of J-God?

Jacob: Umm, I have this blog about how you can put a number on almost anything… Anyway, probability numbers are how I represent how confident I am that something is true or not.

J-GoD: How the hell can you be exactly one in a million confident that God exists?

Jacob: I wish I could say that I calculated the prior of the Kolmogorov complexity implied by the description of J-God and updated on all available evidence. In reality, I just picked a really low number that matches how confident I allow myself to be on complex metaphysical questions.

J-GoD: So you’re just making up a number to say that you think that God doesn’t exist?

Jacob: No, no, the exact number is important. For example, if I was walking down the street and suddenly saw a bush burst in flames, and the bush burned but wasn’t consumed, and I heard a voice from the sky saying: “I am the God of your father, God of Abraham of Isaac and of Jacob“, I would definitely update my belief.

It’s possible that I could see a divine bush in a godless world as the result of hallucinogenic drugs or a convoluted prank involving VR, but I’m much more likely to see it in a universe in which J-God exists. In J-God’s universe pranksters and drugs still exist, but so does a divinity that is known for using burning bushes to impress people. Let’s say that a burning bush is one hundred times more likely in a J-God universe. So, I would update my belief in J-God by a factor of one hundred, from 1 in 1,000,000 to 1 in 10,000. That’s a high enough probability of J-God watching over me that I would at least make sure to never again boil a goat in its mother’s milk.

A second miracle would bring my posterior belief in J-God from 1/10,000 to 1/100, far above any other single supernatural being and high enough to give some real bite to Pascal’s wager. At three independently observed miracles, I will switch to living a life of humble devotion to J-God.

J-GoD: You think that people should only believe in a God after they see him perform exactly three miracles? That’s a perverse notion of belief! Belief in God has nothing to do with seeing miracles!

Jacob: Actually, the great medieval rationalist rabbi Moses Maimonides discusses in great detail the question of miracle-based belief in God. In Guide for the Perplexed, chapter LXIII he says:

You know how widespread were in those days the opinions of the Sabeans: all men, except a few individuals, were idolaters, that is to say, they believed in spirits, in man’s power to direct the influences of the heavenly bodies, and in the effect of talismans. Any one who in those days laid claim to authority, based it either [on reasoning and proof] or that some spiritual power was conferred upon him by a star, by an angel, or by a similar agency.

He basically says that for people who see magic in every charlatan and miracles every other Tuesday, a miracle should not constitute strong evidence. This is sound Bayesian reasoning. However, we are no longer “in those days”. As an educated rationalist in 2016, I don’t believe that supernatural wonders are common at all. Seeing a true miracle with my own eyes would provide solid grounds for changing my belief.

In Mishne Torah, Maimonides agrees that the performance of miracles should at least make you consider that you’re dealing with a genuine, Twitter-verified, message from the divine, i.e. a prophet:

Just as we are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a mitzvah to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

By “magic and sorcery” Maimonides means illusions and tricks, as opposed to true divine intervention. For example, hallucinogenic drugs and VR count as “magic and sorcery”. Now of course, Maimonides knows that 0 and 1 aren’t probabilities, so Bayesian updating on evidence cannot bring a man to absolute and total belief. As long as drugs or VR are a possibility, they cannot be completely discounted as the source of the observed miracle.

From Mishne Torah again:

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, the commitment of his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

Here’s a great (atheist) Jew explaining how a great (deeply religious) Jew proved that two smart Jews shouldn’t disagree on their picture of reality. Maimonides and I don’t have the shared knowledge required to reach consensus, but we are in complete agreement regarding the proper epistemology of miracle-based belief in J-God.

We differ in our moral value judgment on less-than-absolute belief: I believe that it is a virtue, Maimonides that it is a shortcoming. However, I am a moral anti-realist: I believe that moral value judgments are a fact about (my and Maimonides’) minds, not about external reality. Thus, our moral disagreement isn’t cause for concern for me that I am irrational on the subject.

J-GoD: What kind of atheist are you that you analyze in minute detail the biblical commentary of medieval rabbis?

Jacob: What kind of Jew would I be if I didn’t?

Welcome to Put A Num On It!

What’s Putanumonit?

People see some things as quantifiable, e.g. tax rates, and unquantifiable, e.g. love, charity, happiness, feminism and Chinese soccer. Personally, I have no idea how the American tax system works, but everything else seems quite easy to put a number on if you try.

For example, a simple mathematical fact can explain why the Chinese soccer team sucks  despite China’s huge population. I write often about other sports as well. Love and dating is also a popular subject, from guides on leveraging or “hacking” OkCupid to musings on feminism and Nice Guys. My best received post is Shopping for Happiness, one of my essays on the best ways to use money to make yourself happier and to improve the worldI call out people who use bullshit numbers, whether by mistake or with intent to mislead. Those include bad scientists, good scientists, and even FiveThirtyEightI fully encourage you to call me out in turn when I get something wrong. I occasionally dive into economics and public policy, I wrote about voting (bad idea), basic income (good idea, maybe) and inequality (complicated idea). My writing, in fact my entire life, is informed by the rationality community and the writings on LessWrong.com. A few of my posts address the study of rationality explicitly.

I also wrote a post about Pokémon. I hope that doesn’t become a category.

Putanumonit is a personal labor of love, free of ads and affiliations. The chronological archive is here, new posts arrive 3-4 times a month on a schedule unknown even to me. Please subscribe on the right sidebar, leave comments on any old or new post and write putanumonit at gmail dot com with personal missives, datasets you want me to analyze and invitations to beer.



What this overpaid man has to say about the gender wage gap is shocking!

How come women make 79 cents on the dollar? Here are two prominent explanations that are clearly wrong, and two uncommon explanations that are possibly true.

A couple months ago, Vox tried to explain economic inequality using cartoons. That article was so deficient and misleading that it inspired me to write a whole rant on how reporting about inequality is often deficient and misleading. The income gap between the rich and the poor struck me as a subject that is actually amenable to an intelligent and balanced analysis. That’s in contrast, just to throw a random example, to the income gap between men and women.

So of course, this week Vox decided to explain the gender wage gap using cartoons. And guess what? It’s excellent. It’s well researched (by Claudia Goldin, a woman economist), well written (by Sarah Kliff, a woman editor), and describes an interesting explanation of the gender wage gap – the differing value of specific work hours.

Actually, I should say “factor that plays into” instead of “explanation of” the wage gap – it’s a complex effect that is driven by many causes that also interact with each other. The best we can do is identify several such factors and see if they fit data to build a better understanding of what’s going on. So, emboldened by Vox, I will offer two more possible developments contributing to the wage gap that neither invoke nor employ sexism. Also, unlike Mesdames Goldin and Kliff, I will not make a single penny from writing this. Thus I will be counteracting the gender wage gap through personal effort and example.

What’s wrong with arguments from sexism?

The two “arguments from sexism” regarding the gender wage come from the two ends of the gender-politics horseshoe,  and are thus pleasingly symmetrical and equally wrong. The argument from the RadFem-left side of the horseshoe is that women are paid less because oppressive men conspire to pay them less. The argument from the MRA-right is that women are just naturally less talented then men, with some allusion to evolutionary psychology accounting for the talent gap. Prior to collecting any data, we should notice the first argument contradicts basic economic math and the second argument contradicts… evolutionary psychology.

Economics tells us that if a wage gap existed, smart companies would profit by hiring women, driving the sexist companies out of business. People often dismiss this argument because of its simplicity, but it’s much more powerful than they realize. The average profit margins for businesses in the US are a mere 9%, while wages and benefits make up more than 60% of employer costs. If the wage gap of 79 cents on the dollar was for equal labor, employers hiring women would save 21% on labor costs, or more than 12% on total costs. This would more than double their profits ,while employers hiring men would go bankrupt. Overpaying for equal labor even by 5% increases your costs by 3%, that’s one third of an average company’s profits. In a competitive economy with high costs of labor, any sexist discrimination in wages large enough to be noticeable is also too costly to survive.

60 Playmate Bunnies Celebrate Playboy's 60th Anniversary
Hugh only hires women for the labor savings. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Playboy)

The evo psych talent argument seems to me like a classic fake explanation: it fails to predict the very effect it purports to explain. Consider this story:

Lacking the ability to resolve conflicts in their favor using brute strength, women have evolved to manage conflicts through interpersonal skills. Thus, women are less aggressive but better at persuasion, empathy and cooperation. These talents lead women to dominate occupations that require talking people over to your side, such as: politics, education, sales, entertainment, humanities academia, marketing, law, and all managerial positions in large corporations. This list of occupations covers every single highly paid career except for STEM and medicine. As a result, we see few women wasting their time trying to become doctors but otherwise most women earning higher incomes than men.

– Falkovich et al. Why men make 79 cents on a woman’s dollar (2016)

Now compare that, backed by the fact that women outpace men in educational attainment, to whichever just-so evo-psych story you heard about how women make less because evolved to be less assertive/analytical/hardworking. Which story sounds more reasonable?. Of course,  the plausibility of explanations should matter little if we have data. So what does the data say? It says that apparently you can find bias against women, bias against men or no bias at all depending on chance, researcher attitudes and whether Mercury is in retrograde.

If these arguments are supported by neither theory nor practice, why do so many people tout them passionately? (Just trust me, you don’t want to see links for this claim, they’re all horrible). I think that these are “beliefs as attire“, they are used mainly to signal loyalty to the RadFem/MRA political group that unifies around blaming the patriarchy/feminism for all its problems.

It’s important to remember that reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence: the explanations from sexism aren’t wrong because people believe them for dumb political reasons, they’re independently wrong. 5,000 years ago in Egypt someone proclaimed the crazy idea that the sun is larger than the earth just to curry political favor with the priests of Ra, and was correct by accident.

So, here are my two stories, and the data that backs them up:

It’s not all about the money

Jobs offer many different things besides compensation, Vox mentions only the obvious one that women trade-off for money: flexible hours needed to raise children. But a job isn’t just the hours and the wages.

Plumbers make almost 50% more than teachers, because the latter job is rewarding, high status and lets you work with children, while the former is boring, low status, and lets you work with sewage. This is also true at the higher end of the pay scale: MBA graduate women are likelier to work for non-profits, men likelier to work in corporate finance. Corporate finance isn’t cool, but it pays.

Also among MBAs, women are much likelier to work in marketing for big corporations like Coca Cola or Kraft: a very stable job but one with lower wage growth. Men are much likelier to work for hedge funds, where the salary is higher on average but also very volatile, as is the survival of entire company. Remember, when a hedge fund blows up and its male employees find themselves on the street, they immediately drop out of the wage-gap calculation which only includes the fully employed.

In happy-nomics terms, women are making the much smarter trade off. The effects on happiness of job security and finding purpose and meaning at work far outweigh the effects of salary increases beyond a certain point. So why do men value money more than flexibility, fun, coolness and stability?

There are likely many reasons, one of them is that 72% of women think that men should pay for the first date, and 82% of men agree. More broadly, men’s income correlates very strongly with being married, while women’s income barely does (raw data here). The fact is, both men and women care much more about a man’s salary than a woman’s, and that can be both a cause and an effect of men trading off other benefits for money.

It’s hard for men to earn little

Let’s imagine a simple economy consisting of three kinds of jobs. Half the men in our fantasy economy are fighters and make $20,000 a year. Half the women are rogues and also make $20,000. Finally, half of all men and women are wizards, and wizards make $100,000. The average wages for full time employees are $60,000, the same for men and women.

Art credit: tensen01, awesomeness credit: OOTS

Now let’s imagine that the economy outsources all the fighter jobs to orcs/skeletons/China and the fighter men are fired. These men drop out of the employment statistics, and the average wage for employed men shoots to $100,000 since only male wizards have jobs. “Fie the gender wage gap, women make 60 cents on the dollar!” cry the newspapers, even as men face a much worse economic employment situation than the women.

There’s some evidence that this is actually happening in our world (the male employment shift, not the orcs).

Here’s a gender-composition breakdown of various job categories, and here are the occupations with the largest employment changes. The occupations doing the worst are carpenters, laborers, freight movers and construction workers. These sectors are losing hundreds of thousands of (mostly male) jobs a year. It’s becoming harder and harder for men to find year round, low-paying jobs that would count against the average male wage in the statistics. Some of the men who are laid off from low paying jobs count as unemployed, but many give up on working full-time again and drop out of the labor force entirely. From 1994 to 2014, women’s labor force participation fell by 1.8%, while men’s dropped by a whopping 5.9%.

The fastest growing occupations are nurses and personal care aides (and also nursing aides and medical assistants, which is apparently a completely different occupation). These latter jobs also have a constant year-round demand. If you’re a “personal aide to a home nursing assistant” you definitely count in the fully employed statistics.

Basically, if you’re doing any sort of assisting or aiding in a medical or home setting, you have no trouble finding stable employment and your wages are slowly rising but still low. Also, you’re probably a woman, which means that you’re contributing to the gender wage gap. Shame on you.

So, is there sexist discrimination or not?

If that’s the question you’re still asking, you haven’t paid attention. Asking “is there discrimination or not?” is only important for recruiting soldier-arguments in support of your political position. The useful question is: “what should we do to allow men and women thrive in their jobs?” and the answer is: “it’s hard”.

My two proposals, that women choose different trade-offs and that the stats are skewed by there being less low-paying jobs for men, are just two of the myriad ways in which the desires, opportunities and paths to employment are different for each gender. The policy takeaway isn’t that there’s no discrimination so we shouldn’t do anything. The takeaway is that we should be careful about proposing solutions to issues that result from a dozen complex developments happening in parallel, until we really understand what’s going on.

Understanding this complexity and working to untangle it one piece of data at a time is the fox approach. Unfortunately, the more politically polarizing a subject is, the less patience people have for complexity, and the foxes (and Voxes) are rarely heard over the din. But we can’t make progress on a fox issue with hedgehog answers, we have to keep untangling. But it’s worth it: just look how cute these foxes are!