Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Insider/Outsider Approach to Ideas

This is really just a pedestrian observation, one that ties together a few things I've written before.

The basic idea is this.  Facing a scarcity of resources, we have to make compromises.  One of those compromises is that intellectual approaches are more rigid and more "top-down" than they would ideally be, which in turn creates an "insider/outsider" dynamic reminiscent of Straussian "esoteric" writing.

I'll give an example that will hopefully illustrate my point.  Sometime just before the middle of the 20th century, economists developed the concept of national income and started to measure it rigorously.  I don't want to imply that people like Simon Kuznets, who played a central role, did a bad job.  Quite the contrary:  they did such a good job that I believe their concepts have been handed down with little modification to the present day, and their work ushered in the modern era of careful measurement of economic activity.

Of course the concept of national income involved a lot of careful tradeoffs, and one can (in theory) criticize those tradeoffs, or at least take them into account when using the concepts.  But here's the crucial point:  economics students are generally taught national income concepts as a kind of received wisdom, the same way students learn about electrons and species of animals:  GDP = C + I  + G + NX.

The instruction might include a few qualifications about how GDP isn't really the only thing we care about, with a few examples of how it can be misleading, but then the instruction continues as if GDP were a completely coherent and uncontested concept.  (By the way, I chose electrons and species because those, too, are conceptualizations that would, in a world with no scarcity, attract more scrutiny and a more nuanced approach.)

Now I want to emphasize, I think this is for the most part appropriate.  If anything I think undergraduate education often goes too far in the other direction.  Students are often asked, in introductory classes, to criticize the giants of the field.  (This is a complaint Tarun has leveled at undergraduate philosophy education.  Students are expected to come up with something original to say before they are equipped to understand the concepts, much less respond intelligently to them.)  It's a waste of time and inculcates an inappropriate arrogance, a lack of respect for deep reading.  Students actually think they've come up with a refutation of Kant or whatever...  and why wouldn't they?  Their instructor has given them every indication that this is an appropriate way to think about it.

Similarly it would probably be a waste of time to walk economics students through the intellectual history of national income statistics.  Most undergraduate economics students won't do any further work in the field.  And there is a sort of intellectual "division of labor" in which very smart people like Kuznets develop ideas that can then be used in an "off-the-rack" way within the field.  This is the essence of scarcity management:  Kuznets does the work once, and then the knowledge can be replicated millions of times without further effort.  It's mass production in the intellectual space.  The same approach is used in math, certainly, and probably in every area of study.

But there is a danger that a gap will develop between people who think they understand a concept and people who have a true appreciation of the history of the idea.  People who only understand ideas as received wisdom (which is most people) struggle to accommodate criticisms of the framework without really having the tools to do so.  When they identify weaknesses, they think they're treading new ground, or they think they've been sold a bill of goods.  Or, possibly, they remain ignorant of any weakness in their framework and they apply it robotically.

Just as an example, it was recently brought to my attention that the cutoff for "statistical significance" is arbitrary:

On some level, I knew this, but I wouldn't have been able to articulate it with any precision (I still can't, really, but now I know enough to invoke the concept and dig deeper if I need to).  In the statistics courses I've taken, statistical significance is exactly the kind of received wisdom that gives students enough to do most of what they need to do, but leaves them vulnerable to overconfidence and unable to critique their own field.

I don't have much more to say - I think these tradeoffs are pretty much unavoidable, and we can only hope that academics do a good job of picking the framework and providing at least some context so that students can, if they choose, learn more about the intellectual history of the concepts they are using.  "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."  And similarly, "When the conceptualization becomes fact, print the conceptualization."  But it still feels elitist and a little gross to proceed this way.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Taxi Regulation and "Dirty" Politics

A quick comment on politics and taxi regulation.  Catherine Rampell has a thoughtful column in the Washington Post about the politics of taxi regulation, pointing out that deregulation has not been successful in the past:

Alas, as legal scholars such as Paul Stephen Dempsey and others later documented, this Wild West approach proved disastrous. Taxi entry surged. But, unexpectedly, prices rose in every single deregulated market. This likely happened for several reasons: Government regulations, it turns out, had been capping prices below market value (especially in underserved neighborhoods); fares were relatively opaque and unpredictable; and consumers were reluctant to price-shop or interrogate drivers about their insurance and safety records. They just hopped into the first available cab.

Over time, traffic and pollution became bigger issues, incomes fell as individual drivers secured fewer rides, and service declined. By the early 1990s, nearly every city had re-regulated.
I think these conclusions will come as a surprise to people who think that Uber is by definition good because it increases competition and is innovative and blah blah blah.  I am not particularly surprised by the findings, particularly when it comes to price increases.  Uber's pricing is highly opaque and in general seems to be about double what you would pay for a taxi in New York.  It's a mystery to me why this is regarded as "consumer friendly," unless you are restricting your analysis to particularly well-heeled consumers.

But leave all that aside.  The point I want to make has to do with the politics of deregulation.  Rampell notes that "Nevada recently banned Uber — after the company reportedly failed to obey laws relating to licensing, vehicle inspections and insurance — in a move widely interpreted as being orchestrated by Big Taxi."

I think a lot of people are repulsed by the idea that public policy might be driven by interest groups such as taxi drivers or medallion owners.  The mere fact that taxi regulation benefits incumbents might seem like reason to oppose it (though of course almost every existing regulation, as opposed to new regulation, benefits incumbents, pretty much by definition).  But here is the key point:  there is a kind of physics of politics that essentially requires that interest groups will drive these sorts of discussions.

Occasionally politicians take the initiative and make good policy for the sake of good policy.  (I think William Gladstone was an exemplar of this brand of politics, though he wasn't above trying to buy off key constituencies).  But politicians aren't generally going to stand up to behemoths like Uber unless they have some concrete reason for doing so.  And even the best policy is not going to last long unless it enjoys broad popularity or has a strong constituency behind it.  Something like taxi regulation is far too nuanced and arcane for the general public to form strong opinions about, and so you are left looking for other sources of political support.

And here I think we have a way of thinking about what it means to be a good politician.  A good politician doesn't sacrifice his or her career in futile defense of, for instance, sensible taxi regulation.  But a good politician tries to find ways to mobilize a constituency in favor of good policy.  In other words, it doesn't have to be the case that if Uber spends 51x on lobbying, and the taxi industry spends 49x, that Uber will get what it wants.  51/49 is close enough for a politician to make the right decision.  But very few politicians can carry the banner of good policy if the ratio goes to something like 95/5.  If you believe that taxi regulation serves some public purpose, then you have to go out and find its natural allies and assemble them into a constituency that can sustain good policy.  (By the way, this doesn't have to be about money.  Quite often it's simply a matter of what opinions are voiced.  This is why it's so irritating that many people, particularly in the media, cast taxi regulation as a fight between innovative, high-tech Uber and the evil taxi cartel.)

And this goes into policy design at all stages.  If you want sustainable redistribution, you better find a way to build a lasting constituency that will support it (this is the logic behind the universality of Social Security and Medicare - see this old Sarang post).  If you want environmental regulation, you better make sure it is in someone's interest to keep the regulations strong.  In a lot of cases this is not a particularly difficult exercise, but it is an important aspect of the art of politics, and there is nothing whatsoever dirty about it.  Or at least, it is no dirtier than politics must be.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

More Light

Why is winter colder than summer?

Obviously the days in winter are shorter, thanks to the tilt of the earth.  But this is only part of it.  During the winter the sun is lower in the sky.  Partly, that weakens the sunlight because it has to pass through more atmosphere to get to the surface.  (Although query whether that would really make things colder, on average.  If the sunlight's energy is getting absorbed in the atmosphere, it's still making it warmer somewhere.)

 But part of it is simply that the sunlight is coming in at a low angle, so that each unit of sunlight is spread out over a larger area of land, reducing the energy falling onto each square meter of the earth's surface.

Now all of this might seem very obvious.  I point it out because, atmospheric absorption aside, the angle of the sunlight doesn't affect how much you get when you are walking around outside.  If anything, you probably get more sunlight when it is coming in horizontally than you do when it is coming down from nearly straight up, at least if you are standing upright.  I think the sunlight is meaningfully weaker because of atmospheric absorption (which is why, I assume, it is less likely to burn your skin), but two of the big factors that make it cold in winter (short days and less sunlight per square meter) are non-factors in terms of your own exposure to sunlight.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How We Know What We Know

Here's one way to think about knowledge, truth, etc.  It's an artificial thought experiment, but it's intended to focus attention on what I think are important issues.  It relies on two analogies, which are really variants of the same thought.

For the first analogy, imagine that we have dozens (or hundreds or thousands, doesn't really matter) of machines.  Each machine is like a slot machine:  you pull a lever, and a variable amount of money comes out.  However, these machines have a few unique features:

1.  Each machine has two levers.  You can pull either of these levers (but not both) once per hour (or whatever - assume we have the capacity to use each machine in such a way that they never "go to waste," that is, go unused when they could have given a payout).  It doesn't cost anything to play.

2.  The machines are completely opaque, in the sense that you can't tell what is going on inside by direct observation.  The only information you can obtain about each machine is a list of its historical payouts.  The list indicates which lever was pulled for each payout.  It is impossible to determine what the payout would have been if the other lever had been pulled.

Now let's assume that we always want to pull the lever that results in a higher payout.  At first, we will have no choice but to pull levers more or less at random.  (We have no basis for predicting which lever has a higher payout.)  As we gather data, we can consider how to use it.  For instance, one machine might always pay $1 if the left lever is pulled, but $2 if the right lever is pulled.  We should pull the lever on the right side, not the left.  Of course I am using "always" in a limited sense.  We can't rule out the possibility that in the next round this machine will pay $100 from the left or right lever.  "Always" is a backward-looking statement.

Now assume that everyone agrees on the state of affairs I've described, so there are no radical skeptics or anything when it comes to the basic situation.  (No one is saying things like, "How do we know there are really machines?")  However, people take different attitudes to what we can know about the machines' payouts.  Some people hypothesize an "underlying reality" that is built into the machines and that we can model using quantitative tools, giving us access to "the truth" about the function determining the payout stream.  Many of our theories may be wrong or imprecise, but there is a truth "out there" that we are capable of discovering through empirical investigation.  Other people think that any knowledge derived in this way is contingent at best and relies on unfounded assumptions about the degree to which the future will resemble the past.  To these people, "the truth" never comprises an absolute grasp of what is inside the machine (which is fundamentally inaccessible to us), but rather is a more complicated function of usefulness and "fit" with observational data.  Other people might think that there is no basis for any prediction, or for any knowledge about future payouts, because it is impossible to tell whether a machine will diverge from its historical pattern (as machines frequently do, even if they had previously been stable for years).  There is a good reason to pull a lever, but no good reason to pull any particular lever at any time.  We have no access to "the truth" and maybe it doesn't exist.  It is true that some machines seem to be utterly reliable.  But on the other hand, sometimes machines that seem utterly reliable start behaving weirdly, and we have no demonstrably effective way of sorting reliable machines from unreliable ones.

The second analogy is basically the same thing.  We are playing a video game.  We have access only to inputs and outputs, not the source code.  So in other words, we can make our characters jump across the screen, and we can propose a sort of theory of the physics underlying the video game world.  But the physics might change in ways that are unpredictable from level to level.  (Suddenly the coefficient of friction on the ground is much lower - it is an "ice" level.)  And the physics might even change on replaying a level.

You can imagine the same attitudes forming as in the previous example.  (Really the two examples are just about identical.)

Now I think one thing to note is that it seems respectable to deny that we have access to some kind of absolute "truth" and nevertheless to believe that we can do "better than random" when pulling the levers.  We can doubt whether we will ever reverse engineer the "one true source code," and yet we can navigate the video game world.  I don't think our only choices are at the extremes.  In fact, I think the extremes are more or less untenable, although there's room for disagreement.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Notes on the Famine

I recently read The Irish Famine:  A Documentary by Colm Tóibín and Diarmaid Ferriter.  It is a very good book, though a very hard one to read.  I'll have more to say about it.  Briefly, though, I think it's important to recognize a few things that should bear on our understanding of the famine:

1.  Ireland's demographic and economic structure was horribly dysfunctional well before the famine broke out.  (See my previous post on the book, and note that the passage I quote was written well before the potato blight ever reached Ireland.)

2.  Partly as a result of Ireland's preexisting problems, addressing the famine was an incredibly difficult task.

3.  The government of the United Kingdom took the famine very seriously and the officials who administered the relief programs were by no means incompetent or callous, on the whole.

4.  Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that the government took the famine remotely as seriously, or addressed it remotely as effectively, as it would have if the famine had taken place in Britain.

I'll have more to say later.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Reason I Am So Inefficient

Today's XKCD is a good illustration of my old point about bounded rationality:




Of course, if you already knew the time cost of A and B, then there would be no problem.  But if you have to spend some amount of processing power analyzing A and B, and if processing power is scarce, then you are faced with a higher-level optimization problem, which may itself demand processing power to solve (in this cartoon, much more processing power than is actually saved).

I'll write a more complete post about this soon.  I think it is actually a reasonably deep problem that should influence our conception of rationality.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

That's A Little Real for Me

Alec Wilkinson has a story in the New Yorker called "Read It and Reap," about Modern Farmer magazine.  As I'm writing this post, you can read it for free through that link, but I'm not really writing about it to recommend the story (it's about average for a New Yorker piece).  I mention it because there's a passage that I think gets at a funny dynamic in life.  The editor of Modern Farmer, Ann Marie Gardner, is putting on a dinner, and she needs to buy some chickens.  But the farm where she buys the chickens has only frozen ones—unless, that is, she can wait a few minutes so they can slaughter some more.  Gardner is conflicted:

A bird in the other room squawked, and Gardner flinched. “That’s fresh, that’s real,” she said. “That’s a little real for me. Let me think about this. We really need chicken.” 
She walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.
I sort of sympathize with Gardner, and I sort of don't.  That is, I think it's probably very natural to feel the way she does upon coming face to face with a live animal that you intend to consume.  Most of us spend our lives a long way away from the animals we eat (in my case, I try not to eat animals, but I eat plenty of eggs and milk that I'm sure are produced in squalid conditions).  It's a reality that is intentionally kept hidden away.

But then, part of me (the vegetarian/self-righteous part) thinks that it's awfully convenient to switch back and forth between concern and unconcern so easily.  I mean, that's a little unfair.  But the chickens don't stop getting killed when you drive away.  You just can't see them anymore.

And I think this is part of a broader dynamic, where there's a weird...  alliance is too strong a word, but a weird mutual understanding, a synchronicity, between people at opposite ends of the spectrum.  I get what this farmer is doing:  he's making a living rearing and slaughtering chickens.  He and I just disagree about whether that's the right thing to do.  (In fairness, his farm is probably vastly more humane than a standard factory farm, for instance the ones that provide the eggs I eat.)  But this magazine editor, even though her sentiments are superficially close to mine, occupies a sort of untenable middle ground.  She's a dilettante.  Unlike the farmer (who gets his hands bloody) and unlike me, she doesn't take the fact of chicken slaughter seriously, until it's thrust into her life.  And then she drives off, soon to forget about the whole thing (or forget about it enough, at any rate, to keep enjoying chicken).

In the same way, I think priests and (serious) sinners sometimes get each other in a way that casual churchgoers can't quite comprehend.  To a layperson, some things just seem beyond the pale.  But the priest has struggled with good and evil and understands how people can come to a place in their lives where even fairly terrible sins are understandable.

Anyway it's an interesting dynamic and I actually think it has good narrative potential.  I'm sure it's been exploited in literature but I'm not, at the moment, coming up with any examples.

Truth, Reality, and the Location of Properties

I've been thinking a bit about philosophy lately.  In everyday life, we draw sharp distinctions between ourselves and the world, and we judge the truth of our thoughts and statements by how closely they align with what is "out there."  But I don't know how well those distinctions hold up, and how well our theory of truth fares, when we really drill down.

I recognize that a lot of what I am about to say is not original, and I may very well be making a hash of it.  But here goes.

You might think that it's straightforward to say of an object that it has a property p, such as color, temperature, and so on.  But how do you attach property p to the object?  In general, you do so by observing the object and then drawing conclusions.  But this means that properties you attribute to the object are, at most, hybrid properties that are generated by an interaction between your mind and the object.  Of course that's inevitable; it's hard to think of a property that can be attributed to an object without being observed by a person.

So there's a very real sense in which the object's p-ness is in you, not in the object (or not only in the object).  Another way of thinking about it is that your p-ness is in the object, because you put it there.  (There was no p-ness in the object until you came along.)  Either way, the object's p-ness does not stand on its own, it requires some interaction with you before the p-ness emerges.

Now there are some properties that might seem to be more objective.  For instance, you could use a thermometer to take a measure of an object's temperature, and the reported temperature might seem to be a kind of p-ness that is in the object but isn't in you.  (It doesn't matter how the object feels to you, you are simply taking a reading off the thermometer's display.  In a way, instead of putting your p-ness in the object, you are putting a thermometer in it.)  But that's hard to swallow:  the whole concept of measured temperature had to be created and formalized by people before it could be used to measure an object's p-ness.  So once again it appears that the object's p-ness belongs at least partly to us.  Temperature as a concept is a kind of p-ness that belongs to us, and we collectively put this p-ness into the objects around us whenever it suits us.

I'll have a lot more to say about this.  Sometimes I have an idea that seems really insightful, and then later I realize it's all just word games.  That may be what is going on here.