Monday, May 18, 2015

It seems to me…

that if you’re in a state of moral outrage over something you only found out existed 5 seconds ago, you shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Economists on US Median Income

Here are economist’s perspective on the 35 year slowdown in median wage growth. The political like to use the slowdown to “prove” that whatever they don’t like is causing economic harm. Experts don’t even agree on the premise that the US Median income is a good measure of change in economic standard of living.

A picture

Why isn’t US Median Income capturing the Median American Household’s economic progress? Some reasons:

“Over the 1980-2014 period CPI probably does not fully account for quality improvements or for the value of new goods”

“The rise in life expectancy alone is worth on the order of 1% per year.”

“Difficult question, but life expectancy is up from 74 to 79 years - seems like a substantial gain not reflected in real median income.”

“Due to measurement issues e.g. prices, family composition, measures of income, prob understates by >1% py. Add to that price quality bias.”

“Burkhauser et al. (2011) show faster growth in median post-tax, post-transfer size-adjusted household income including health ins. benefits.”

“CPI has improved but is imperfect. Capital income matters, especially for retirees. Mean household size has shrunk from around 3.3 to 2.6.”

“Define substantial. Agree that CPI overstates inflation.”

Common reasons: Changes in family composition – smaller household size, makes median household income smaller than per person measurement. CPI is an imperfect measure, particularly because it poorly accounts for fundamentally new goods and quality improvements. The rise in life expectancy is a phenomenal improvement. Employers are spending more on healthcare for their workers in lieu of higher wages.

Dissenters often invoked the truth that more people (especially women) are working more hours.

At the end of the day,

“No one I know would rather face the 1980 bundle of goods (at 1980 prices) than current bundle, at anywhere near the same incomes.”

From the comparisons I’ve seen, it is hard to disagree with that.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Conformity Explains Changing Views on Slavery, not Virtue

Sometimes people look down on past generations for being slave-owners or defenders of slave ownership. My own view is that there isn’t really much difference between people today and the people of yesterday in regard to slave ownership. The key quality that made the people of the past believe in slavery, and the people of the present not believe in slavery is the same and it’s not a virtue. It’s conformity.

People rarely divert from what their circles have deemed moral. So when broader society is in an equilibrium that says slavery is okay, they’re going to believe it’s okay. And when broader society is in an equilibrium that slavery is immoral, they’re going to believe it’s immoral. And in doing so they become part of and ferment this equilibrium.

Over time and with social disturbances that each individual doesn’t have much control of and social scientists don’t understand very well, things get shaken up and settle in on a new equilibrium. We settled in on non-slavery. This is a good thing, but it tells us very little about the virtue of the holders of this belief. In the words of Bryan Caplan,

So if you're a conformist who simply supports whatever is popular in your society, the key fact about your character is that you're a conformist, not what you conform to.

So if we transport someone from today and rebirth them 200 years ago, they will accept slavery. And if you transport someone from 200 years ago to today, they will likely reject slavery. Conformity, conformity, conformity.

The important question going forward is this: What wickedness is going on that our society has deemed just, and what morally praiseworthy things are going on that our society has deemed unjust?

I very regularly settle in on controversial opinions that broader society calls evil. I also call evil much of popular opinion. Call me a saint or a sinner, what I am not is a conformist.

Few Children Die in Hot Cars

Google informs me that 38 children a year die from being left in hot cars. I’ve mentioned that fact to people in my life before, and their reactions are what I would expect. Something like, “Yeah, isn’t it awful?” Google even feels the need to remind me that, “Even the best of parents or caregivers can unknowingly leave a sleeping baby in a car; and the end result can be injury or even death.” This excruciating article warns us that even the best parents could leave their child in a broiling car. “My heart breaks for the 15 families who have lost children to the heat so far this year and the more than 650 who have done so in recent decades.”

This sounds like social desirability bias to me because my point was that it isn’t that awful. Only 38 children a year? That shouldn’t even be a blip on any serious account of risk. 650 over the course of decades?!! Are you kidding me?!!

The counterfactual of course, is taking your child out of the car, where there are 4 – 5 thousand pedestrian fatalities in traffic crashes. Many of those are children, certainly a lot more than 38. One person told me that any number of deaths are too many, even 38. But children die if you do and they die if you don’t, and the idea that you should be willing to pay anything to reduce the risk to your child is insane.

The temptation is to neglect the denominator of these two metrics: 38 kids dying in cars, and 4 – 5 thousand dying outside of them. The truth is that far fewer parents leave their kids in cars, especially these days when the whole culture is too emotional to think straight about the issue. Fewer than 38 kids probably die from being dangled from windows, that doesn’t mean its safe to dangle your child from a two story window. So while it might not actually be safer to leave your child in the car while you run an errand, it still might be a good idea and it certainly isn’t child neglect.

Which gets at my biggest concern. Parenting laws get enforced against what looks like bad parenting, not bad parenting. Parents get their children taken away and get put in jail for such things. Where’s the moral outrage for these people? No, leaving your child in a car should not land you in prison or get your child taken away. Simply driving your kid anywhere is the biggest risk of all. 9,000 children die in car accidents. Is that child neglect?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Real Minimum Wages of Countries

I love sites that make data accessible.

Here is a site that does international comparisons of minimum wage using constant dollars and using a purchasing power parody. What are the real minimum wages in U.S. 2013 purchasing power?

U.S. of course is $7.25
Canada is $7.80
Belgium $10.10
France $10.70
New Zealand $8.70
Mexico $.80
Korea $5.30
U.K. $8.00

Come to think of it, Canada recently had a fairly sharp minimum wage increase in 2014, and since this data is from 2013 it’s probably a bit higher.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Unclarity in Abortion

I’m going to try to communicate my view on abortion in this post. I think it’s one of the most firm and original beliefs that I have. It doesn’t answer all the questions people debate about abortion, honestly it answers few of them. But what is great about it is that it’s a framework that creates a lot more common ground, which in turn should influence decision making and policy.

Lets do some epistemological hovering first. What’s the debate even about anyway?

So we have this moral rule everyone agrees to, I think it goes something like the don’t kill babies rule. Er… maybe we shouldn’t call it a rule. After all most people kill a baby if he’s about to hit the blow-up-the-world-button. It’s the don’t kill babies standard. We usually talk about the rights of the baby, or maybe the dignity of the baby, in order to justify not killing people, babies especially. This kind of talk is usually foundationless however. People just utter the word, “rights” or “dignity” in a way that sounds good to their conscience, inspire a handful of head nods, and they think they’ve made a competent argument. And anyone who disagrees must be either ignorant or evil. They must either not be listening to their conscience (ignorant) or have starved it to death (evil). They almost always put people inside their social circles but have different views in the ignorant group. They almost always put people outside their social circles but have different views in the evil group. But they rarely consider how gullible conscience is to framing effects. They never think that maybe these other people just heard other words in a way that sounds good to their conscience.

Wait, that’s not what I’m talking about.

What’s important here is that there is common ground in the don’t kill babies standard. There is also common ground in believing that women have choice. Nobody is anti-life and nobody is anti-choice, to think so is to severely fail the intellectual empathy test (and indeed the ideological turing test). One more area of common ground: life trumps choice. I choose what I can do in my home sans murder my children. If my baby sticks his arm in my mouth I should not bite down on it. This is not a point for pro-life, but a point that the pro-choice label that emerged is a rhetorically effective team name, but one that misses the point.

When is life?

Somewhere within the gestation period a being inherits rights or dignity or whatever, and people disagree on exactly when that happens. Whether you’re a dualist should be relevant. If you think there’s a point when a body is infused with a soul then that’s just one more possible point earlier when the fetus becomes a rights/dignity owner. Dualism also allows for the point to be very very early, like at conception. Maybe that fertilized egg has an invisible spirit in it. If there are no spirits, then it can’t, and life would begin that much later.

I never hear an abortion debate transform into a dualism debate even though it should. Different sets of assumptions lead to different conclusions. How can reason be constructive when we don’t deal with the more basic before the less basic?

Now here’s the point where these cocksure people are going to challenge me; there exists a broad spectrum of unclarity concerning when dignity/rights having life begins. People involved in the debate have given up reason in order to wholly commit to their ideology. And while it’s impossible to get through to them, more sensible people should be able to admit that a young fetus might not be a person, and an old one might be.

At the tails of the spectrum it is clear that the fetus has or does not have dignity/rights, but in the middle we should be less certain. Key idea: anywhere in the middle, that is most of the spectrum where we don’t have clarity (very high level of certainty), we can say two thing: it is morally impermissible to have an abortion and to prosecute people who have abortions.

Why? Because before we do something that might be absolutely horrible, we should have very high confidence that we’re not.

It is absolutely horrible to abort a fetus which is morally equivalent to a baby. It is not different from murdering your child. An abortion condoning society is one which permits an unrecognized holocaust. It is not enough to “believe” or be “pretty sure” that the fetus “probably” isn’t a baby. We need clarity. Since we don’t have genuine clarity within the spectrum of uncertainty, we should err on the side of life.

So why not incite legal means to prevent this potential mass murder? Because we’d be sprinting toward another massive moral cliff because we “believe”, or are “pretty sure” that the fetus “probably” is a baby. If laws are going to prevent abortion they will need teethe, and they will chew up a lot of women who may well be innocent. It is the moral equivalent of taking anyone suspected of murder and turning their benefit of the doubt into a presumption of guilt. We don’t know if these abortions are really wrong, and we’re going to start imprisoning people for them? Since we don’t have clarity, we should give people the opportunity to decide.

Where the spectrum of uncertainty begins and ends will be different for each person, and I’m sorry to say that people who talk about abortion will pretend like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist. We have this miraculous thing where a non-person becomes a person, and it is grey when precisely that happens. Sometimes things that look like people aren’t people. Sometimes things that don’t look like people are people. I think there is clarity before conception and after a baby has been born. Somewhere down the line, that clarity becomes sufficiently vague that we should not have abortions or use legal coercion against people who do.

1. Nobody believes in killing babies. The don’t kill babies standard.
2. Everybody believes that women should have choice. But not to kill babies.
3. People should admit that it is a range of unclarity concerning whether a fetus is a baby or not.
4. The range of unclarity should be pretty broad, but won’t be the same for everybody.
5. Where there is unclarity, we should not kill something that might be a baby.
6. Where there is unclarity, we should not use legal coercion against those who might have killed a baby.