Status update 5/25/2016
Do rich people deserve their riches? Do poor people deserve their poverty or criminals their punishment? Is inequality a problem that needs to be solved? Inequality of what, exactly?
For the past few weeks I’ve been obsessed with the idea that we’re thinking about these things in an entirely wrong fashion. Not just that the judgments and solutions proposed by your Facebook newsfeed and your favorite presidential candidate are wrong, but that the entire way we think of these issues leads us away from being able to make them better.
For example, “is fatness a disease?” is the wrong question to ask if our goal is to help people who want to lose weight to be healthier and slimmer. Whether it’s a disease is a red herring, we should be asking things like “will shaming fat people make them eat less?” or “what if we had an ‘exercise pill’ that made everyone fit?”. This idea is so simple that it’s absolutely brilliant, it’s the top post with 100% approval rating on LessWrong. I want to dissolve desert and inequality like Scott dissolved disease in the link above. I’ve been cramming my head with economics from the left and the right, the top and the bottom, hoping that the picture in my head resolves into something that’s both utterly obvious to me and utterly different from most discourse on these subjects. I don’t know if it’s even within my ability to write, but I would rather take a month and try to write something good than force myself into the self imposed 4-a-month blog timeline and write something embarrassing.
(Needless to say, please comment below with your own best ideas on the subject so I can shamelessly steal them.)
I’ve (coincidentally or not) also decided to learn touch typing, aka changing the unconscious way I perform the mechanical act of blogging. If you’ve gone through it, you know that the four paragraphs so far have taken me approximately 27 hours to type. Basically, I’m trying to change how my brain thinks about equality of opportunity and also change which finger my brain sends to type the letter “c”. In the same week. It’s frustrating, confusing and difficult; I think that’s how rationality is supposed to feel like. In a couple of weeks I will either be spitting sharp truths at 60 words per minute or crying in frustration in the corner of my room, a beaten down shell of my former self.
Thank you for your patience.
18 thoughts on “Brain Rewiring in Process”
This is broadly consistent with Richard Rorty’s neopragmatist writing. There are probably better examples but for instance “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of god,” and “A pragmatist view of contemporary analytic philosophy” hav the same ideas applied to different topics. Here: http://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/thought_and_writing/philosophy/Rorty-Philosophy%20as%20Cultural%20Politics.pdf
For what is worth, my goal with reguards to wealth inequality isn’t to eliminate it (which I think is a futile goal) but make it not matter: to live in a society in which anyone, no matter how much wealth they have, will have access to housing, clothing, and food generally considered adequate (by social standards), have access to heathcare a doctor would agree is necessary, have access to any and all education without restriction based on ability to pay, and a reasonable (once again by social standards) access to luxuries: in short that nobody is denied a comfortable life because they can’t afford one. I don’t know if this appeals to you or not but it appeals to me.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I agree that it would be a good thing if everyone had those things, but that would not solve the fundamental problem, which is that envy feels bad.
The correct solution to envy is humility. We do not currently know a way to get everyone to practice that virtue, but that would be the correct solution. the one that would actually solve the problem.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I agree completely but I will make an additional point:
Creating a problem free society is impossible. Just considering human differences, a perfect society for one person (if such a thing can exist) will not be perfect for another person. If people weren’t envious, inequality itself might not be a problem anymore (though some of its effects might still be) but there will always be envious people as long as unmodified homo sapiens are around. Just as the society I live in (USA) encourages arrogance but still has some humble people in it, I highly suspect that a society that encourages humility would have some arrogant people in it.
I think a society that makes wealth inequality not matter (as I’ve defined such) would be better then a society that hasn’t all other things being equal, a society that encourages humility would be better then a society that encourages arrogance all other things being equal, and a society that does both will be better then a society that does neither all other things being equal. My goal considering wealth inequality is to work towards a society in which it doesn’t matter not because it eliminates all problems but that the problems of such a society are preferable to the one I’m in right now. If your goal for the same is to advocate for humility then I think that will also lead to a better society. I also think that our goals are compatible. I wish you the very best of success.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think you make some very good points. About education in particular, even without envy, people are still going to want to get into elite schools, which are pretty much defined by not letting most people in. Is there a workaround that doesn’t involve sorting people in some way?
This is a good point. In addressing it I will first ask and then answer a question, is somebody who gets a physics doctorate from Podunk University less of an expert/less skilled in/less educated then someone who gets a physics doctorate for California Institute of Technology? The best chances are yes but there is a realistic chance that the answer is no. I think that having some adequate path to a physics doctorate would satisfy the definition that I proposed for wealth inequality not mattering. Perhaps I could chose my words better maybe something like “wealth inequality not mattering enough to prevent a person from living a comfortable life,” or I can chose to shorten such a phrase if I try and explain what I mean. I don’t mean to eliminate wealth inequality much less other types of inequality but to eliminate several of the negative effects. Lessening the inherent suffering caused by noticing inequality (such as having society put more value on humility) can also help. I believe that there are several types of inequality that cannot be eliminated without killing literally everybody (a proposal I would oppose) and that wealth inequality and status inequality are two of those. In short I do not think there is a walk around that avoids sorting people in some way. I think this is a matter of physics and not of how a society can be structured, what programs can be put in place, et cetera.
I also want to be clear how I defined “have access to any and all education without restriction based on ability to pay.” I don’t want to prevent people from going to Cal Tech because of the financial abilities and choices of their parents but I am okay with people not being able to go to Cal Tech because of not being able to meet Cal Tech standards. I think if you can demonstrate that you can be a reasonable Ph.D. candidate then you should have a Ph.D. program available to you even if it’s not the best Ph.D. program in existence. There can be problems if there happens to be times when there are more reasonable would be Ph.D. candidates then there are Ph.D. candidate positions available or vice versa but this is constant with my belief that societies will always have ways in which then can change for the better. I tried to chose my definition of “wealth inequality not mattering,” carefully.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It’s much easier to scream about “inequality” and “deserve” (or “desert,” but probably “deserve.”)
Some quick thoughts from a guy who went to undergraduate business school and has some interest in the field:
1. The Austrian School people are awful. They explicitly say that they operate on the general principle of general principles and no empirical data is relevant to their feelings about how things should work. (Really.) Do not engage.
2. That’s not to say extreme free market types are wrong. The fundamental problem with free market tampering isn’t that such tampering can’t be a societal good (it clearly can) but whether the errors and abuses make up for the good regulations.
3. Empirically, inequality creates unhappiness. OTOH, working for the joy of the people Che-style didn’t work out super-well.
4. Bouncing off number three, it may maximize happiness short-term to make more equality even if this stifles some technical innovation. But there’s a long-term loss there.
5. 93% of all economics talk on the internet (whether on the side of Krugman or Rothbard or apparent sanity) is terrible nonsense. There’s no particular reason to bias toward my brief rant as outside the 93%.
I look forward to any tentative conclusions you might form.
About point 3, it seems to me that it’s the perception of inequality that causes unhappiness.
So do you think it’s possible, justifiable, or a good idea to restrict media and advertising in such a way that we know less about how the 1% live (in an ignorance is bliss kind of way)?
For what it’s worth, I find I tpe faster and produce more words if I use a smaller text size
You mean you’ve written all these thousands of words without touch-typing?!
Take your time. I’m happy to wait.
I think my biggest problem with the dialogue on inequality is that looking at whatever metric (wealth/income etc) at one point in time in terms of percentiles turns the economy into a fixed pie. This overly simplistic depiction reinforces the notion of being able to alter the distribution at the next time instance. It leads to absurd statements like:
1.) “Oh to get insert desired outcome here:[space colonies] all we need to do is transfer insert percent:[~15%] of our GDP into insert solution:[space engineering].”
If we want to expect the same or nearly the same “pie” our solutions cannot be so disruptive or distortive. Solutions are not always proportional to the magnitude of the problem or the perception of said problem. We shouldn’t want the same level of pie either. We should want a larger piece of pie the next time.
2.) Ridiculous justifications for redistribution of wealth like people not deserving it in the first place. Even if person A doesn’t deserve the wealth associated with them how can person B deserve it more? Don’t the arguments levied at A also apply to B?
If we need to do brain gymnastics or introduce “hypothetical consent” maybe we should consider simpler arguments to cover our envy of the rich.
Given there will always be poor people until we can develop a replicator or other mechanism which will propel humanity into a post scarcity economy the variables which deserve more attention are social mobility and consumption smoothing. If I’m poor I care about having incentive to becoming not poor and what to do if an emergency happens and I need money I don’t have and I need it fast.
Anyway rant over.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m only commenting here on one single point of your comment: “Given there will always be poor people until we can develop a replicator or other mechanism which will propel humanity into a post scarcity economy…” In a lot of ways, the United States is already in a post scarcity economy and yet we still act like we are in a scarcity economy. As one example, at any given time there are more vacant housing units in the United States then there are homeless people with about 17 million vacant housing units compared with 500 thousand homeless at any given time. The United States has the industrial capability at present to provide everybody a home yet there are still homeless people. This is without the need for science fiction magic such as replicators.
Now, there are caveats. This is only looking at the domestic economic capability of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t know what one would get if one asks the same question (vacant housing units vs. homeless population) globally or even if the question makes sense as different societies have different housing standards. There are also reasons why there are vacant housing units and they have to do with the rules of our economy. My only point is that, in terms of industrial capacity, we (in the US) act like there is a lot more scarcity then there is for reasons of organization. The reason why this problem persists shows that problems of organization are both difficult to solve and important.
As a society (this sentence is from an American perspective) we could ask a few questions: “if we have the industrial capacity to provide everybody adequate housing should we, as a society, have that as a goal?” “if the answer is yes, how do we do so?” and “should we prioritize implementing a post scarcity society in our own society or in developing the industrial capacity to implement a post scarcity society globally?” My answer to these questions are “yes,” “I don’t know,” and “prioritizing a global post scarcity society.” My answers may not be consistent…
I also want to emphasize that one need not postulate science fiction magic to consider a post scarcity society.
I’ve read all your posts, and am also a reader of SlateStarCodex and the LessWrong sequences. I love your writing and really enjoy the way you lay out problems and explanations, and I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.
I have also had similar thoughts about the ‘issue’ of income inequality, and government regulation of the economy. I’ve enjoyed Charles Stross’s imaginings of what post-scarcity human societies might look like, and what different motivations might drive human behavior when food/shelter/healthcare aren’t dominating our concerns.
I agree with what Benjamin A.S. said about “making income equality not matter”. Focusing on reducing harms and increasing utilons for humanity by figuring out good ways to shape our government and its regulation of the economy.
A few brief mentions of thoughts I’ve had on this:
There are various historical examples of the economy being horribly mismanaged by outwardly good-intentioned governments, so a light touch seems to be called for.
It seems helpful to frame the issue as, “How can we reduce the harms of being poor?” rather than even worrying about “income inequality”. Afterall, all things being equal, it would be better to decrease the harms of being poor (increase their utilons) without decreasing the utilons of being rich.
I find it helpful to avoid assigning blame to issues unessecarily. For instance, it’s pretty well documented that crime perpetration and victimization rates are higher among poor communities in the US. If we want to increase utilons for poor people at risk of having crimes perpetrated against them, but also for those at risk (through whatever factors of culture/economic desperation/ drug use/ genetic high impulsivity/social influence/etc) of commiting crimes, it would seem worth finding ways to improve crime prevention. If a potential criminal is stopped from committing a crime before they do, without negative repercussion to them, they are better off for not having the risk of being jailed.
People seem to place a lot of value in the psychological sense of being “free”, not having a lot of unnecessary restrictions on their choices or unnecessary observation of their activities. So, there is some balance point between observation/restriction and crime, which could be addressed perhaps by addressing factors more temporally distant like teaching elementary school kids better impulse control or something.
Libertarians talk about the “nanny state” taxing the productive members of society to help the needy. I agree that this is done kinda wastefully and weirdly in our society, but I do think there is a real need for a system of taxes to help us use our money wisely to prevent harms and traps which we would otherwise fall into. Reducing existential risk, enforcing building codes and fire safety codes, documenting potentially hazardous pollution, clean water and sanitary sewage. Stuff that people are bad at paying for if allowed to do so on a daily basis, or if done on a “pay just for my house’s worth and ignore my neighbor’s plight” basis have really bad repercussions for even those who dealt with their own responsibilities (e.g. fire safety violations endangering whole neighborhoods). Some things maybe just need to be subsidized and promoted to get used more (e.g. condoms for preventing STI transmission).
So, given that there is some level of these sorts of these which are good, and some various costs (social, psychological, and material) which are associated, the question then is: Can we put a number on how much to spend on which of these, such that benefits are efficiently maximised and harms minimized? I feel like the optimal answer is probably at neither extreme of heavily-regulated-welfare-state nor at hands-off-libertarian-free-for-all.
I like your comment, neurno, but I do ask you to put a space in between your paragraphs to make it easier to read. I also have a few comments. None of them (I think) don’t contradict what you said but might merely make explicit some points that you didn’t make explicit.
“If we want to increase utilons for poor people at risk of having crimes perpetrated against them, but also for those at risk (through whatever factors of culture/economic desperation/ drug use/ genetic high impulsivity/social influence/etc) of commiting crimes, it would seem worth finding ways to improve crime prevention.”
If the factor of “economic desperation” (and I would claim most of the others as well) contribute to crime then increasing the utilions of those at risk of committing crimes would also lesson crime. I don’t think this would be the only thing that should be done but it would help in and of itself.
“they are better off for not having the risk of being jailed.”
Not only is the would be criminal better off but society as a whole is better off. Prisons are expensive both in terms of direct costs, opportunity costs of lost productivity, and the externalities of prisons.
“I feel like the optimal answer is probably at neither extreme of heavily-regulated-welfare-state nor at hands-off-libertarian-free-for-all.”
I completely agree with this point. I have my own ideological loyalty but I try to talk with intelligent respectful people with different ideological loyalties in order to correct myself. If I only talked (politics) with people of the same mind then I would have less ability to be aware of the problems with the extreme solutions suggested by my ideology. Not only do I moderate my own views and I hope moderate the views of others by doing this but this is how good, practical, and implementable solutions are arrived at.
Not only would respectful discussion and compromise between people with differing political ideas, and proposals lead to better solutions, it is necessary for preventing a democracy from becoming an ochlocracy.
Thanks Benjamin. You did indeed do a better job of explaining what I was trying to get at with the costs of crime to both perpetrators and victims.
More thoughts on income inequality and poverty:
On a population level, it makes sense to frame problems as risks when they aren’t happening all the time to all the people.
Also, the risks seem to be usefully dividable into external physical risks versus internal psychological/social risks. Generally the solutions to the external risks are more well known and reliable.
Risks of poverty, from more physical to more psychological:
Lack of clean water
Lack of sanitary sewer
Civilian casualty of war
Malnourishment (lack of adequate food)
Lack of decent jobs
Malnourishment (poor food choices)
There are more we could add to the list, but that’s a start.
The question then is, which of these can and should the government address. Should the government tax the wealthy to pay for ameliorating these problems? Would the most efficient fix be a direct redistribution like a basic income guarantee?
I don’t know the objectively correct answers to these questions, if indeed such exist, but I think this is what I’ve would need to answer to address the wealth/income inequality situation.
Have you considered dvorak? It is a layout that was designed taking into account empirical observations of what kinds of movements typist do more easily, and while I don’t know about the claims of improved speed it is far more comfortable than qwerty in my experience.