Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Devil is in the Pumpkin Spice

Starbucks just launched it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte and I’m very excited about it. As a Starbucks Barista, I dump Pumpkin Spice into just about every drink I consume at work. So it’s a shame when I see a meme like this making the rounds:

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This kind of thing doesn’t pass the sniff test for me. but I’m happy to see other people actively disproving these hyped up health scare stories. Compound Interest is one of them:

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You might notice that Compound Interest didn’t respond to several accusations that FoodBabe made. Being non-organic, non-vegan, containing pesticide residues, and made from GMOs are not criticisms when it comes to actual science. So these criticisms only appeal to people who are already sold on weirdo health pseudo-science.

The one biggest criticism of the Pumpkin Spice is the one that everybody already knows. It is packed with sugar. Maybe it’s not a toxic level, but you’d probably be doing your body a favor by going easy on the autumn drink. On the other hand, we trade-off health for pleasure all the time, and that’s okay. Just be aware of the tradeoffs.

Total Peace Requires Anarchy. As much Peace as we can get Requires Minarchy

Libertarians have correctly pointed out that we can’t have peace without anarchy. Government is inherently violent, and uses violence to enforce its rules. A non-violent government would not fit our intuitions about what a government is at all. Rather it would be some sort of club. To take away violence is to make government lame and unable to continue. When we dream of world peace, or even domestic peace, we are dreaming of anarchy, necessarily.

Non-libertarians can properly rebut, “but we can’t have anarchy without peace!” If we had peace we wouldn’t need government. Peace must come first, then anarchy, because government violence against the violent is society’s mechanism for keeping violence from becoming out of hand. Once murder and rape rates drop to 0%, and we have assurance that it stays there because the heart of man has changed, then we can talk about anarchy.

Let me first say that I’m an anarchist, and I challenge the assumption that the only reason why society is not one great big riot is because of government. But lets leave that aside for a second.

What is interesting to me is how close to anarchy the non-libertarian rebuttal implies. It is basically what minarchists have been saying for a long time. Maybe violence against the violent is necessary, but how does that justify minimum wage laws? Or taxes spent on education? Or the legal drinking age? These are all situations where government is utilizing violence, not to prevent more violence, but to promote other values. If it were true that if we had peace we wouldn’t need government, then they would support government action only to the extent that it promotes peace, but no further.

Non-minarchists should come to terms with the reality that they do not want world peace. Violence is here to stay. Even if private sector violence ends, the public sector should still continue using guns and fists to promote certain values. Furthermore, if you really listen to what people believe would happen without so many non-peace promoting laws, they should admit that the wish for world peace would send the world spiraling into disarray. After all, if we had peace, who would build the roads?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Short Argument against the Ice Bucket Challenge

Awareness is a scarce resource. We can’t spend our attention on every single thing that matters. So we must allocate our attention to things that matter more, and less attention to things that matter less. ALS is so far down on the list of social ills that it really does not deserve our attention.

Other things far down on the list: school shootings and domestic terrorism.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Does an Altruistic Model of Charity Predict Crowding Out?

From, “Does Welfare Spending Crowd Out Charitable Activity? Evidence from Historical England under the Poor Laws”

The theoretical foundation of crowding out is based on the traditional public good model of
charitable giving. Agents derive utility from a public good, in this case welfare provision or
the well-being of others, and regard their own and other agents' contributions to the public
good as perfect substitutes. This means the agent is purely altruistic, in that he is only
concerned with the total amount of welfare provided, such that the model predicts perfect
(i.e. dollar-for-dollar) crowding out between government provision of welfare and private
charity (see for example Warr 1982 or Bergstrom, Roberts and Varian 1986). However, since
the prediction of perfect crowding out is not empirically supported and the predicted level
of giving is unrealistically low, the model has been extended in several directions. One of
these extensions is the impure altruist model developed by Andreoni (1989 and 1990).2 Here,
agents are said to be impurely altruistic as they derive utility from their own contribution to
charity as well as the total level of welfare. One explanation could be that agents not only
care about the well-being of others but also wish to donate to charities `to do the right thing'
or `to do good'. This leads to a situation where crowding out is less than perfect, i.e. less
than one-for-one. Another explanation for less than perfect crowding out is, for example, a
signaling e ect of wealth from charitable giving, as in Glazer and Konrad (1996). However,
the predicted relation is still negative.

Friday, August 22, 2014

VOX and I on the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS

For a serious thinking take on the trending ice bucket challenge, see this Vox article. What really impresses me is the gentleness with which they deliver their party pooper message.

Sometimes our decisions about donating don't even seem to be driven by values or potential impact — but by celebrities and the entertainment value of the fundraising campaigns they endorse. Look no further than the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge…

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and its virality, raise some interesting questions about which charities and health causes we choose to give to. It seems to add further evidence to the fact that celebrities and gimmicks often drive our charitable donating more than, perhaps, they should…

ALS kills about 6,000 people in the United States a year. For context’s sake, understand that heart disease kills about 600,000, trips and falls within the home is about 6,000, and shark attacks is about 5. Both awareness and money are a scarce resources, should we really employ them on something so ultimately trivial?

William MacAskill, founder 80,000 Hours, suggests that people simply need to think a little more before giving. In particular, he draws a distinction between honoring a cause that matters to you and trying to do the maximum good with your dollars. "Showing respect or affection toward a loved one who passed away, for example, is an admirable way to donate." But it's not the same as thinking about the impact of your investment.

After being challenged, I looked into ALS. I really wanted it to be something important that properly deserves our limited awareness. It is not. I don’t think I will be accepting the challenge. It is not altruistic to give into a game that makes people feel like they’ve done something good when they haven’t. I think the amount of charity people want to engage in is largely fixed, and engaging in trivial charity crowds out the amount of engagement people want to have with other kinds. We have a cognitive and financial budget we’re willing to direct toward charitable causes. The budget is a little more than the point at which we feel the most good about ourselves (what looks like charity is mostly selfish but partly altruistic). The ALS ice bucket challenge is a waste of that budget.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy on Progress

This is taken from chapter III of Tolstoy’s A Confession,

“That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word, “progress.” It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every live man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, “live in conformity with progress,” I was replying as a man in a boat would do if when carried along by wind and waves he replied to what for him was the chief and only question. “whither to steer,” by saying, “we are being carried somewhere.”

I’ve been interrupted by this word, “progress” over my life. People would ask me, “don’t you want something better with your life?” And I always wondered, what do you mean by better? Better assumes good, can you tell me what is the good? The effective definition of progress is a product of the cultural ethos, and it changed between places and generations. People should more often stop to think and realize that this unexamined definition of progress carries their lives somewhere, and though it may seem to be a good place, that’s the ethos speaking and it doesn’t always tell the truth. The ethos informs our moral intuitions all the time, and in a world that is absolutely convinced that moral intuitions are authoritative the people will continue to mindlessly follow the ethos.

Tolstoy seems to realize that the fleeting satisfaction from progress and the universality of it. Intrinsic suffering isn’t a psychological disorder called depression, it is the inherent consequence of not seeking what is good. We seek things, they make us feel nice, and then it goes away because it is realized that they were meaningless. So we are not filled. Progress is a convention which doesn’t bare fruit. We all suffer because we are unwilling to seriously seek an answer to what the purpose of life is. Instead of engaging with this uncritically held assumption, we fall back on progress. It is the death of meaning and of us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Suicide of Robin Williams

Robin Williams passed away yesterday by act of suicide. He was a man who brought a lot of people a lot of happiness through the art of acting. I’ll always remember him particularly as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin and as Mrs. Doubtfire.

One should wonder what makes a human being want to take his own life. How does one get put in a place where when given the choice between living and not living, he chooses not living? What causes one to see not living as a superior state to living?

It seems to me that for not living to be preferable one must be in a state of suffering. We all have things that we like in life – values – but for death to be preferable the suffering or disvalue of life has to overwhelm the values. But what kind of suffering might be great enough to overwhelm our values and make us want to quit altogether?

One answer is by extrinsic suffering. We see this in the world, where as an alternative to pain one takes his own life. Perhaps you have a disease that eats you from the inside. Or perhaps you’re on Death Row in the middle ages, and the method of execution is especially agonizing. It seems to me that most of us have a point of physical suffering beyond which death is preferable – that eventually we want to be put out of our misery.

This doesn’t account for the high rates of modern day developed world suicides, and it certainly can’t be understood in light of Robin Williams’ wealth. There must be another kind of suffering.

Intrinsic suffering is internal torture. It is suffering in the mind. It is the mind split against itself in contradiction of its being. When our minds are fragmented, experience becomes empty of meaning. What used to bring us joy dissipates into the emptiness. To escape meaninglessness, the act of suicide is undertaken.

 

Regarding suicide as the result of meaninglessness, I’m always reminded of David Foster Wallace’s famous, “this is water” speech. The gist: power of interpretation exists prior to experience, so choose how to look at things.

The only thing that is Capital T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it… You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

This is postmodernism in a nutshell, and he heralds it as the deep truth of a liberal arts education – it’s all a matter of interpretation. What he misses is that recognizing interpretation is not the end of philosophy, but the beginning. The next question is the doorway into epistemology – How do I know? Is there any absolute that transcends personal interpretation?

David Foster Wallace of course committed suicide back in 2008.