Data Science, Literature, Model

Two Fallacies From ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’

Much thanks to Cody Wild for providing editing and feedback. That said, I would like to remind my readers that I deserve full credit for all errors and that all opinions expressed here are only guaranteed to be mine.

[12 minute read]

I recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Dr. Cathy O’Neil and found it an enormously frustrating book. It’s not that whole book was rubbish ­– that would have made things easy. No, the real problem with this book is that the crap and the pearls were so closely mixed that I had to stare at every sentence very, very carefully in hopes of figuring out which one each was. There’s some good stuff in here. But much of Dr. O’Neil’s argumentation relies on two new (to me) fallacies. It’s these fallacies (which I’ve dubbed the Ought-Is Fallacy and the Availability Bait-and-Switch) that I want to explore today.

Ought-Is Fallacy

It’s a commonly repeated truism that “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. People who’ve been around the statistics block a bit longer might echo Randall Monroe and retort that “correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there'”. Understanding why a graph like this:

In addition to this graph obviously being anchored, using it is obviously fair use.
Image Copyright The New York Times, 2017. Used here for purposes of commentary and criticism.

Is utter horsecrap [1], despite how suggestive it looks is the work of a decent education in statistics. Here correlation doesn’t imply causation. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find excellent examples where correlation really does mean causation:

This would be a risky graph to use if echo chambers didn't mean that I know literally no one who doesn't believe in global warming
Source: The National Centers for Environmental Administration. Having to spell “centre” wrong and use inferior units is a small price to pay for the fact that the American government immediately releases everything it creates into the public domain.

When trying to understand the ground truth, it’s important that you don’t confuse correlation with causation. But not every human endeavour is aimed at determining the ground truth. Some endeavours really do just need to understand which activities and results are correlated. Principal among these is insurance.

Let’s say I wanted to sell you “punched in the face” insurance. You’d pay a small premium every month and if you were ever punched in the face hard enough to require dental work, I’d pay you enough to cover it [2]. I’d probably charge you more if you were male, because men are much, much more likely to be seriously injured in an assault than women are.

I’m just interested in pricing my product. It doesn’t actually matter if being a man is causal of more assaults or just correlated with it. It doesn’t matter if men aren’t inherently more likely to assault and be assaulted compared to women (for a biological definition of “inherently”). It doesn’t matter what assault rates would be like in a society without toxic masculinity. One thing and one thing alone matters: on average, I will have to pay out more often for men. Therefore, I charge men more.

If you were to claim that because there may be nothing inherent in maleness that causes assault and being assaulted, therefore men shouldn’t have to pay more, you are making a moral argument, not an empirical one. You are also committing the ought-is fallacy. Just because your beliefs tell you that some aspect of the world should be a certain way, or that it would be more moral for the world to be a certain way, does not mean the world actually is that way or that everyone must agree to order the world as if that were true.

This doesn’t prevent you from making a moral argument that we should ignore certain correlates in certain cases in the interest of fairness, merely that you should not be making an empirical argument about what is ultimately values.

The ought-is fallacy came up literally whenever Weapons of Math Destruction talked about insurance, as well as when it talked about sentencing disparities. Here’s one example:

But as the questions continue, delving deeper into the person’s life, it’s easy to imagine how inmates from a privileged background would answer one way and those from tough inner-city streets another. Ask a criminal who grew up in comfortable suburbs about “the first time you were ever involved with the police,” and he might not have a single incident to report other than the one that brought him to prison. Young black males, by contrast, are likely to have been stopped by police dozens of times, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. A 2013 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that while black and Latino males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four made up only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 40.6 percent of the stop-and-frisk checks by police. More than 90 percent of those stopped were innocent. Some of the others might have been drinking underage or carrying a joint. And unlike most rich kids, they got in trouble for it. So if early “involvement” with the police signals recidivism, poor people and racial minorities look far riskier.

Now I happen to agree with Dr. O’Neil that we should not allow race to end up playing a role in prison sentence length. There are plenty of good things to include in a sentence length: seriousness of crime, remorse, etc. I don’t think race should be one of these criteria and since the sequence of events that Dr. O’Neil mentions make this far from the default in the criminal justice system, I think doing more to ensure race stays out of sentencing is an important moral responsibility we have as a society.

But Dr. O’Neil’s empirical criticism of recidivism models is entirely off base. In this specific example, she is claiming that some characteristics that correlate with recidivism should not be used in recidivism models even though they improve the accuracy, because they are not per se causative of crime.

Because of systematic racism and discrimination in policing [3], the recidivism rate among black Americans is higher. If the only thing you care about is maximizing the prison sentence of people who are most likely to re-offend, then your model will tag black people for longer sentences. It does not matter what the “cause” of this is! Your accuracy will still be higher if you take race into account.

To say “black Americans seem to have a higher rate of recidivism, therefore we should punish them more heavily” is almost to commit the opposite fallacy, the is-ought. Instead, we should say “yes, empirically there’s a high rate of recidivism among black Americans, but this is probably caused by social factors and regardless, if we don’t want to create a population of permanently incarcerated people, with all of the vicious cycle of discrimination that this creates, we should aim for racial parity in sentencing”. This is a very strong (and I think persuasive) moral claim [4].

It certainly is more work to make a complicated moral claim that mentions the trade-offs we must make between punishment and fairness (or between what is morally right and what is expedient) than it is to make a claim that makes no reference to these subtleties. When we admit that we are sacrificing accuracy in the name of fairness, we do open up an avenue for people to attack us.

Despite this disadvantage, I think keeping our moral and empirical claims separate is very important. When you make the empirical claim that “being black isn’t causative of higher rates of recidivism, therefore the models are wrong when they rank black Americans as more likely to reoffend”, instead of the corresponding ethical claim, then you are making two mistakes. First, there’s lots of room to quibble about what “causative” even means, beyond simple genetic causation. Because you took an empirical and not ethical position, you may have to fight any future evidence to the contrary of your empirical position, even if the evidence is true; in essence, you risk becoming an enemy of the truth. If the truth becomes particularly obvious (and contrary to your claims) you risk looking risible and any gains you achieved will be at risk of reversal.

Second, I would argue that it is ridiculous to claim that universal human rights must rest on claims of genetic identicalness between all groups of people (and trying to make the empirical claim above, rather than a moral claim implicitly embraces this premise). Ashkenazi Jews are (on average) about 15 IQ points ahead of other groups. Should we give them any different moral worth because of this? I would argue no [5]. The only criteria for full moral worth as a human and all universal rights that all humans are entitled to is being human.

As genetic engineering becomes possible, it will be especially problematic to have a norm that moral worth of humans can be modified by their genetic predisposition to pro-social behaviour. Everyone, but most especially the left, which views diversity and flourishing as some of its most important projects should push back against both the is-ought and ought-is fallacies and fight for an expansive definition of universal human rights.

Availability Bait-and-Switch

Imagine someone told you the following story:

The Fair Housing Act has been an absolute disaster for my family! My brother was trying to sublet his apartment to a friend for the summer. Unfortunately, one of the fair housing inspectors caught wind of this and forced him to put up notices that it was for rent. He had to spend a week showing random people around it and some snot-nosed five-year-old broke one of his vases while he was showing that kid’s mother around. I know there were problems before, but is the Fair Housing Act really worth it if it can cause this?

Most people would say the answer to the above is “yes, it really was worth it, oh my God, what is wrong with you?”

But it’s actually hard to think that. Because you just read a long, vivid, easily imaginable example of what exactly was wrong with the current regime and a quick throw away reference to there being problems with the old way things were done. Some people might say that it’s better to at least mention that the other way of doing things had its problems too. I disagree strenuously.

When you make a throw-away reference to problems with another way of doing things, while focusing all of your descriptive effort on the problems of the current way (or vice-versa), you are committing the Availability Bait-and-Switch. And you are giving a very false illusion of balance; people will remember that you mentioned both had problems, but they will not take this away as their impression. You will have tricked your readers into thinking you gave a balanced treatment (or at least paved the way for a defence against claims that you didn’t give a balanced treatment) while doing nothing of the sort!

We are all running corrupted hardware. One of the most notable cognitive biases we have is the availability heuristic. We judge probabilities based on what we can easily recall, not on any empirical basis. If you were asked “are there more words in the average English language book that start with k, or have k as the third letter?”, you’d probably say “start with k!” [6]. In fact, words with “k” as the third letter show up more often. But these words are harder to recall and therefore much less available to your brain.

If I were to give you a bunch of very vivid examples of how algorithms can ruin your life (as Dr. O’Neil repeatedly does, most egregiously in chapters 1, 5, and 8) and then mention off-hand that human decision making also used to ruin a lot of people’s lives, you’d probably come out of our talk much more concerned with algorithms than with human decision making. This was a thing I had to deliberately fight against while reading Weapons of Math Destruction.

Because for a book about how algorithms are destroying everything, there was a remarkable paucity of data on this destruction. I cannot recall seeing any comparative analysis (backed up by statistics, not anecdotes) of the costs and benefits of human decision making and algorithmic decision making, as it applied to Dr. O’Neil’s areas of focus. The book was all the costs of one and a vague allusion to the potential costs of the other.

If you want to give your readers an accurate snapshot of the ground truth, your examples must be representative of the ground truth. If algorithms cause twice as much damage as human decision making in certain circumstances (and again, I’ve seen zero proof that this is the case) then you should interleave every two examples of algorithmic destruction with one of human pettiness. As long as you aren’t doing this, you are lying to your readers. If you’re committed to lying, perhaps for reasons of pithiness or flow, then drop the vague allusions to the costs of the other way of doing things. Make it clear you’re writing a hatchet job, instead of trying to claim epistemic virtue points for “telling both sides of the story”. At least doing things that way is honest [7].

Footnotes

[1] This is a classic example of “anchoring”, a phenomenon where you appear to have a strong correlation in a certain direction because of a single extreme point. When you have anchoring, it’s unclear how generalizable your conclusion is – as the whole direction of the fit could be the result of the single extreme point.

Here’s a toy example:

Note that the thing that makes me suspicious of anchoring here is that we have a big hole with no data and no way of knowing what sort of data goes there (it’s not likely we can randomly generate a bunch of new countries and plot their gun ownership and rate of mass shootings). If we did some more readings (ignoring the fact that in this case we can’t) and got something like this:

I would no longer be worried about anchoring. It really isn’t enough just to look at the correlation coefficient either. The image labelled “Also Not Anchored” has a marginally lower correlation coefficient than the anchored image, even though (I would argue) it is FAR more likely to represent a true positive correlation. Note also we have no way to tell that more data will necessarily give us a graph like the third. We could also get something like this:

In which we have a fairly clear trend of noisy data with an average of 2.5 irrespective of our x-value and a pair of outliers driving a slight positive correlation.

Also, the NYT graph isn’t normalized to population, which is kind of a WTF level mistake. They include another graph that is normalized later on, but the graph I show is the preview image on Facebook. I was very annoyed with the smug liberals in the comments of the NYT article, crowing about how conservatives are too stupid to understand statistics. But that’s a rant for another day…  ^

[2] I’d very quickly go out of business because of the moral hazard and adverse selection built into this product, but that isn’t germane to the example. ^

[3] Or at least, this is my guess as to the most plausible factors in the recidivism rate discrepancy. I think social factors ­– especially when social gaps are so clear and pervasive – seem much more likely than biological ones. The simplest example of the disparity in policing – and its effects – is the relative rates of being stopped by police during Stop and Frisk given above by Dr. O’Neil. ^

[4] It’s possible that variations in Monoamine oxidase A or some other gene amongst populations might make some populations more predisposed (in a biological sense) to violence or other antisocial behaviour. Given that violence and antisocial behaviour are relatively uncommon (e.g. about six in every one thousand Canadian adults are incarcerated or under community supervision on any given day), any genetic effect that increases them would both be small on a social level and lead to a relatively large skew in terms of supervised populations.

This would occur in the same way that repeat offenders tend to be about one standard deviation below median societal IQ but the correlation between IQ and crime explains very little of the variation in crime. This effect exists because crime is so rare.

It is unfortunately easy for people to take things like “Group X is 5% more likely to be violent”, and believe that people in Group X are something like 5% likely to assault them. This obviously isn’t true. Given that there are about 7.5 assaults for every 1000 Canadians each year, a population that was instead 100% Group X (with their presumed 5% higher assault rate) would see about 7.875 assaults per 1000 people, a difference of about one additional assault per 3500 people.

Unfortunately, if society took its normal course, we could expect to see Group X very overrepresented in prison. As soon as Group X gets a reputation for violence, juries would be more likely to convict, bail would be less likely, sentences might be longer (out of fear of recidivism), etc. Because many jobs (and in America, social benefits and rights) are withdrawn after you’ve been sentenced to jail, formerly incarcerated members of Group X would see fewer legal avenues to make a living. This could become even worse if even non-criminal members of Group X would denied some jobs due to fear of future criminality, leaving Group X members with few overall options but the black and grey economies and further tightening the spiral of incarceration and discrimination.

In this case, I think the moral thing to do as a society is to ignore any evidence we have about between-group differences in genetic propensities to violence. Ignoring results isn’t the same thing as pretending they are false or banning research; we aren’t fighting against truth, simply saying that some small extra predictive power into violence is not worth the social cost that Group X would face in a society that is entirely unable to productively reason about statistics.  ^

[5] Although we should be ever vigilant against people who seek to do the opposite and use genetic differences between Ashkenazi Jews and other populations as a basis for their Nazi ideology. As Hannah Arendt said, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people. It was a crime against humanity (rather than “merely” a crime against Jews) because Jews are human. ^

[6] Or at least, you would if I hadn’t warned you that I was about to talk about biases. ^

[7] My next blog post is going to be devoted to what I did like about the book, because I don’t want to commit the mistakes I’ve just railed against (and because I think there was some good stuff in the book that bears reviewing). ^

Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Sensitivity Analysis

[10 minute read]

Last week, I used the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution to find a set of stable equilibria in the present conflict between North Korea and the USA. They were:

  • The tense status quo (s. 0)
  • An American troop withdrawal, paired with North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons (s.10)
  • All out conventional warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 4)
  • All out nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 5)

But how much can we trust these results? How much to they depend on my subjective ranking of the belligerent’s preferences? How much do they depend on the stability metrics I used?

To get a sense of this, I’m going to add another stability metric into the mix, come up with three new preference vectors, and look at how the original results change when we consider a North Korean invasion to be irreversible. After these eight new stability calculations, we’ll have nine slightly different ways of looking at the conflict; this should help us guess which equilibria are robust to my subjective choices and which might exist only because of how I framed the problem.

Alternative Stability Metrics

Previously we assessed stable states using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability. Sequential Stability allowed us to see what would happen if the decision makers were looking two moves ahead and assuming that their opponents wouldn’t “cut off the nose to spite the face” – it assumes, in essence, that people will only sanction by moving to states that they like more, not states they like less.

Maybe that’s a bad assumption dealing with Trump and Kim Jong-un. In this case, wouldn’t it be better to use Symmetric Metarationality? With Symmetric Metarationality, all sanctioning unilateral moves are on the table. Symmetric Metarationality also allows decision makers to respond to sanctioning. In effect, it lets them look three moves ahead, instead of the two allowed by Sequential Stability.

Before we see how this new metric changes things, let’s review our states, preference vectors, and stability analysis from last time.

The states are:

Click for a copyable version

Or in plain English:

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

From these states, we saw the following equilibria and unilateral improvements:

Click for copyable version

When dealing with Symmetric Metarationality, I find it very helpful to modify the chart above so that it also includes unilateral moves. After we make this change and blank out our results, we get the following:
Click for copyable version

From here, we use a simple algorithm. First, all states without unilateral improvements are Nash Stable. Next, we check each unilateral improvement in the remaining states against the opponent’s unilateral actions, then against the original actors best unilateral action from each of the resulting states. If there are no results lower than the original actor started, the move is unstable. Otherwise it’s stable by Symmetric Metarationality (and we’ll mark it with “S”). Like Sequential Stability, you can’t truly call this done until you check for states that are simultaneously sanctioned (this is often easy because simultaneous sanctioning is only a risk when both sides are unstable).

An example: There exist a unilateral improvement for America from s. 4 to s. 5. From s. 5, North Korea can move to s. 1, 13, or 9. America disprefers both s. 1 and s. 13 to s. 4 and has no moves out of them, so the threat of North Korea taking either of those actions is an effective sanction and makes s. 4 stable on the American side.

Once we repeat this for all states across both sides, we get the following:

Click for copyable version

We’ve kept all of our old equilibria and gained a new one in s. 12: “NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response”.

Previously, s. 12 wasn’t stable because North Korea preferred the status quo (s. 0) to it and the US had no UIs from the status quo. North Korea moving from s. 12 to s. 0 is sanctioned in Symmetric Metarationality by the US unilateral move from s. 0 to s. 1, which leaves North Korea with only the option of moving from s. 1 to s. 5. State 5 is dispreferred to s. 12 by North Korea, so it can’t risk leaving s. 12 for s. 0. State 12 was always Nash Stable for the US, so it becoming stable for North Korea makes it an equilibrium point.

To put this another way (and to put an example on what I said above), using Symmetric Metarationality allows us to model a world where the adversaries see each other as less rational and more spiteful. In this world. NK doesn’t trust the US to remain at s. 0 if it were to call for a truce after an invasion, so any invasion that starts doesn’t really end.

It was heartening to see all of our existing equilibria remain where they were. Note that I did all of the work in this post without knowing what the results would be and fully prepared to publish even if my initial equilibria never turned up again; that they showed up here made me somewhat relieved.

Irreversible Invasions

Previously we modelled invasions as reversible. But is this a realistic assumption? It’s very possible that the bad will from an invasion could last for quite a while, making other strategies very difficult to try out. It’s also likely that America wouldn’t just let North Korean troops give up and slink away without reprisal. If this is the case, maybe we should model a North Korean invasion as irreversible. This will mean that there can be no unilateral improvements for North Korea from s. 4, 5, or 6 to s. 0, 1, 2, 8, 9, or 10.

In practical terms, modelling an invasion as irreversible costs North Korea one unilateral improvement, from s. 4 to s. 0. Let’s see if this changes the results at all (we’re back to sequential stability):

Click for copyable version

We end up losing the simultaneous sanctioning that made s. 4 a stable state, leaving us with only three stable states: the status quo, a trade of American withdrawal for the North Korean nuclear program, and all out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

We’ve now tried three different ways of looking at this problem. Three equilibria (s. 0, 10, 5) showed up in all cases, one in two cases (s. 4), and one in one case (s. 12). We’re starting to get a sense for which equilibria are particularly stable and which are more liable to only pop up under certain conditions. But how will our equilibria fare when faced with a different preference vectors?

Bloodthirsty Belligerents

What if we’ve underestimated how much North Korea and the United States care about getting what they want and overestimated how much they care about looking reasonable? I’m going to try ranking the states so that North Korea always prefers invading and the US always prefers first that North Korea doesn’t invade the South and second that they have no nuclear weapons program.

This gives us the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 5, 13, 2, 0, 10, 1, 9, 8

Since we’re modelling the actors as more belligerent, let’s also assume for the purposes of these analyses that invasions are irreversible.

Here are the preferences vectors we’ll use to find equilibria:

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

Here we have only two stable states, s. 5 and 12. Both of these involve war on the Korean Peninsula; not even the status quo is stable. State 2 is at risk of simultaneous sanctioning, but the resulting states (4, 12, 5, 13) aren’t dispreferred, to s. 2 for either actor, so no simultaneous sanctioning occurs. There really are just two equilibria.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Symmetric Metarationality gives us the exact same result. Only s. 5 and s. 12 are stable. This is suspicious, as the conflict has managed to stay in s. 0 for quite some time. If these preferences were correct, North Korea would have already invaded South Korea and been met with a nuclear response.

What if these preferences are substantially correct and both sides are more aggressive than we initially suspected, but North Korea disprefers being attacked by nuclear weapons below s. 0 and s. 10? That state of affairs is perhaps more reasonable than the blatantly suicidal North Korea we just imagined. How does a modicum of self-preservation change the results?

Nuclear Deterrence

If we’re assuming that North Korea has broadly similar preferences to our last variation, but doesn’t want to get attacked by nuclear weapons, we get the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 0, 10, 5, 13, 2, 1, 9, 8

Here are the annotated preferences vectors we’ll use to assess stability with Sequential Stability and Symmetric Metarationality. Since we’re leaving the belligerency of the United States the same, we’ll continue to view invading as an irreversible action.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

One “minor” change – deciding that North Korea really doesn’t want to be nuked – and we again have the status quo and a negotiated settlement (in addition to two types of war) as stable equilibria. Does this hold when we’re using Symmetric Metarationality?

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Again, we have s. 0, 5, 10, and 12 as our equilibria.

As we’ve seen throughout, Symmetric Metarationality tends to give very similar answers to Sequential Stability. It’s still worth doing – it helps reassure us that our results are robust, but I hope by now you’re beginning to see why I could feel comfortable making an initial analysis based just off of just Sequential Stability.

Pacifistic People

What instead of underestimating the bloodthirstiness of our belligerents, we’ve been overestimating it? It’s entirely possible that both sides strongly disprefer all options that involve violence (and the more violence an option involves, the more they disprefer it) but talk up their position in hopes of receiving concessions. In this case, let’s give our actors these preference vectors:

US: 8, 0, 10, 2, 9, 12, 4, 5, 14, 13, 6, 1
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 8, 4, 12, 5, 1, 9, 13

(Note that I’m only extending “peacefulness” to these two actors; I’m assuming that North Korea would happily try and annex South Korea if there was no need to fight America to do so)

There are fewer unilateral improvements in this array than in many of the previous ones.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

This is perhaps the most surprising result we’ve seen so far. If both powers are all talk with nothing behind it and both powers know and understand this, then they’ll stick in the current high-tension equilibria or fight a war. The only stable states here are s. 0, 4, and 5. State 10, the “negotiated settlement” state is entirely absent. We’ll revisit this scenario with hypergame analysis later, to see what happens if the bluff is believed.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Here we see more equilibria than we’ve seen in any of the other examples. States 2 (unilateral US withdrawal) and 8 (North Korea unilaterally abandoning its nuclear weapons program) make their debut and s. 0, 4, 5, 10, and 12 appear again.

Remember, Symmetric Metarationality is very risk averse; it considers not just opponents’ unilateral improvements, but all of their unilateral moves as fair game. The fact that s. 0 has unilateral moves for either side that are aggressive leaves the actors too scared to move to it, even from states that they disprefer. This explains the presence of s. 2 and s. 8 in the equilibrium for the first time; they’re here because in this model both sides are so scared of war that if they blink first, they’ll be more relieved at the end of tension than they will be annoyed at moving away from their preferences.

I think in general this is a poor assumption, which is why I tend to find Sequential Stability a more useful concept than Symmetric Metarationality. That said, I don’t think this is impossible as a state of affairs, so I’m glad that I observed it. In general, this is actually one of my favourite things about the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution: using it you can very quickly answer “what ifs”, often in ways that are easily bent to understandable narratives.

Why Sensitivity Analysis?

The cool thing about sensitivity analysis is that it shows you the equilibria a conflict can fall into and how sensitivity those equilibria are to your judgement calls. There are 12 possible states in this conflict, but only 7 of them showed up in any stability analysis at all. Within those seven, only 5 showed up more than once.

Here’s a full accounting of the states that showed up (counting our first model, there were nine possible simulations for each equilibrium to show up in):

State Explanation #
0 Status quo 7
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal 1
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses 4
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike 9
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons 1
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons 6
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response 6

Of the five that showed up more than once, four showed up more than half the time. These then are the most robust equilibria; equilibria that half of the reasonable changes we attempted couldn’t dislodge.

Note “most robust” is not necessarily equivalent to “most likely”. To get actual probabilities on outcomes, we’d have to put probabilities on the initial conditions. Even then, the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution as we’ve currently talked about it does little to explain how decision makers move between equilibria; because this scenario starts in equilibrium, it’s hard to see how it makes it to any of the other equilibria.

Hopefully I’ll be able to explain one way we can model changes in states in my next post, which will cover Hypergame Analysis – the tool we use when actors lack a perfect understanding of one another’s preferences.

Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Introduction

[10 minute read]

Why do things happen the way they do?

Every day, there are conflicts between decision makers. These occur on the international scale (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), the provincial level (Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum anyone?) and the local level (Toronto’s bike lane kerfuffle). Conflict is inevitable. Understanding it, regrettably, is not.

The final results of many conflicts can look baffling from the outside. Why did the Soviet Union retreat in the Cuban missile crisis? Why do some laws pass and others die on the table?

The most powerful tool I have for understanding the ebb and flow of conflict is the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution (GMCR). I had the immense pleasure of learning about it under the tutelage of Professor Keith Hipel, one of its creators. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share it with you.

GMCR is done in two stages, modelling and analysis.

Modelling

To model a problem, there are four steps:

  • Select a point in time for the model
  • Make a list of the players and their options
  • Remove outcomes that don’t make sense
  • Create preference vectors for all players

The easiest way to understand this is to see it done.

Let’s look at the current nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. I wrote this on Sunday, October 29th, 2017, so that’s the point in time we’ll use. To keep things from getting truly out of hand in our first example, let’s just focus on the US and North Korea (I’ll add in South Korea and China in a later post). What options does each side have?

US:

  • Nuclear strike on North Korea
  • Withdraw troops and normalize relations
  • Status quo

North Korea:

  • Invasion of South Korea
  • Abandon nuclear program and submit to inspections
  • Status quo

I went through a few iterations here. I originally wrote the US option “Nuclear strike” as “Pre-emptive strike”. I changed it to be more general. A nuclear strike could be pre-emptive, but it also could be in response to North Korea invading South Korea.

It’s pretty easy to make a chart of all these states:

Click for a copyable version

If you treat each action that the belligerents can make as a binary variable (yes=1 or no=0), the states will have a natural ordering based off of the binary sum of the actions taken and not taken. This specific ordering isn’t mandatory – you can use any ordering scheme you want – but I find it useful.

You may also notice that “Status quo” appears nowhere on this chart. That’s an interesting consequence of how actions are represented in the GMCR. Status quo is simply neither striking nor withdrawing for the US, or neither invading nor abandoning their nuclear program for North Korea. Adding an extra row for it would just result in us having to do more work in the next step, where we remove states that can’t exist.

I’ve colour coded some of the cells to help with this step. Removing nonsensical outcomes always requires a bit of judgement. Here we aren’t removing any outcomes that are highly dispreferred. We are supposed to restrict ourselves solely to removing outcomes that seem like they could never ever happen.

To that end, I’ve highlighted all cases where America withdraws troops and strikes North Korea. I’m interpreting “withdraw” here to mean more than just withdrawing troops – I think it would mean that the US would be withdrawing all forms of protection to South Korea. Given that, it wouldn’t make sense for the US to get involved in a nuclear war with North Korea while all the while loudly proclaiming that they don’t care what happens on the Korean peninsula. Not even Nixon’s “madman” diplomacy could encompass that.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and invade South Korea. There are a number of gambits where this might make sense – for example, it might believe that if they attacked South Korea after renouncing nuclear weapons, China might back them or the US would be unable to respond with nuclear missiles. Ultimately, I think these should be left in.

Here’s the revised state-space, with the twelve remaining states:

Click for a copyable version

The next step is to figure out how each decision maker prioritizes the states. I’ve found it’s helpful at this point to tag each state with a short plain language explanation.

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

While describing these, I’ve tried to avoid talking about causality. I didn’t describe s. 5 as “North Korean invasion in response to US nuclear strike” or “US nuclear strike in response to North Korean invasion”. Both of these are valid and would depend on which states preceded s. 5.

Looking at all of these states, here’s how I think both decision makers would order them (in order of most preferred to least preferred):

US: 8, 0, 9, 10, 12, 5, 4, 13, 14, 1, 2, 6
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 4, 12, 5, 1, 13, 8, 9

The US prefers North Korea give up its nuclear program and wants to keep protecting South Korea. Its secondary objective is to seem like a reasonable actor on the world stage – which means that it has some preference against using pre-emptive strikes or nuclear weapons on non-nuclear states.

North Korea wants to unify the Korean peninsula under its banner, protect itself against regime change, and end the sanctions its nuclear program has brought. Based on the Agreed Framework, I do think Korea would be willing to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for a normalization of relations with the US and sanctions relief.

Once we have preference vectors, we’ve modelled the problem. Now it’s time for stability analysis.

Stability

A state is stable for a player if it isn’t advantageous for the player to shift states. A state is globally stable if it is not advantageous for any player to shift states. When a player can move to a state they prefer over the current state without any input from their opponent, this is a “unilateral improvement” (UI).

There are a variety of ways we can define “advantageous”, which lead to various definitions of stability:

Nash Stability (R): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements. States that are Nash stable tend to be pretty bad; these include both sides attacking in a nuclear war or both prisoners defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma. Nash stability ignores the concept of risk; it will never move to a less preferred state in the hopes of making it to a more preferred state.

General Metarationality (GMR): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by unilateral moves by others. This tends to lead to less confusing results than Nash stability; Cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma is stable in General Metarationality. General Metarationality accepts the existence of risk, but refuses to take any.

Symmetric Metarationality (SMR): Stable if an actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral moves after it has a chance to respond to them. This is equivalent to GMR, but with a chance to respond. Here we start to see the capacity to take on some risk.

Sequential Stability (SEQ): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral improvements. This basically assumes fairly reasonable opponents, the type who won’t cut off their nose to spite their face. Your mileage may vary as to how appropriate this assumption is. Like SMR, this system takes on some risk.

Limited Move Stability (LS): A state is stable if after N moves and countermoves (with both sides acting optimally), there exists no improvement. This is obviously fairly risky as any assumptions you make about your opponents’ optimal actions may turn out to be wrong (or wishful thinking).

Non-myopic Stability (NM): Equivalent to Ls with N set equal to infinity. This predicts stable states where there’s no improvements after any amount of posturing and state changes, as long as both players act entirely optimally.

The two stability metrics most important to the GMCR (at least as I was taught it) are Nash Stability (denoted with r) and Sequential Stability (denoted with s). These have the advantage of being simple enough to calculate by hand while still explaining most real-world equilibria quite well.

To do stability analysis, you write out the preference vectors of both sides, along with any unilateral improvements that they can make. You then use this to decide the stability of each state for each player. If both players are stable at a state by any of the chosen stability metrics, the state overall is stable. A state can also be stable if both players have unilateral improvements from it that result in both ending up in a dispreferred state if taken simultaneously. This is called simultaneous sanctioning and is denoted with u.

The choice of stability metrics will determine which states are stable. If you only use Nash stability, you’ll get a different result than if you combine Sequential Stability and Nash Stability.

Here’s the stability analysis for this conflict (using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability):

Click for copyable version

Before talking about the outcome, I want to mention a few things.

Look at s. 9 for the US. They prefer s. 8 to s. 9 and the two differ only on a US move. Despite this, s. 8 isn’t a unilateral improvement over s. 9 for the US. This system is called the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution for a reason. States can be viewed as nodes on a directed graph, which implies that some nodes may not have a connection. Or, to put it in simpler terms, some actions can’t be taken back. Once the US has launched a nuclear strike, it cannot un-launch it.

This holds less true for abandoning a nuclear program or withdrawing troops; both of those are fairly easy to undo (as we found out after the collapse of the Agreed Framework). Invasions on the other hand are in a tricky category. They’re somewhat reversible (you can stop and pull out), but the consequences linger. Ultimately I’ll call them reversible, but note that this is debatable and the analysis could change if you change this assumption.

In a perfect world, I’d go through this exercise four or five different times, each time with different assumptions about preferences or the reversibility of certain states or with different stability metrics and see how each factor changes the results. My next blog post will go through this in detail.

The other thing to note here is the existence of simultaneous sanctioning. Both sides have a UI from s. 4; NK to s. 0 and the US to s. 5. Unfortunately, if you take these together, you get s. 1, which both sides disprefer to s. 4. This means that once a war starts the US will be hesitant to launch a nuclear strike and North Korea would be hesitant to withdraw – in case they withdrew just as a strike happened. In reality, we get around double binds like this with negotiated truces – or unilateral ultimatums (e.g. “withdraw by 08:00 tomorrow or we will use nuclear weapons”).

There are four stable equilibria in this conflict:

  • The status quo
  • A coordinated US withdrawal of troops (but not a complete withdrawal of US interest) and North Korean renouncement of nuclear weapons
  • All out conventional war on the Korean Peninsula
  • All out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula

I don’t think these equilibria are particularly controversial. The status quo has held for a long time, which would be impossible if it wasn’t a stable equilibrium. Meanwhile, s. 10 looks kind of similar to the Iran deal, with the US removing sanctions and doing some amount of normalization in exchange for the end of Iran’s nuclear program. State 5 is the worst-case scenario that we all know is possible.

Because we’re currently in a stable state, it seems unlikely that we’ll shift to one of the other states that could exist. In actuality, there are a few ways this could happen. A third party could intervene with its own preference vectors and shake up the equilibrium. For example, China could use the threat of economic sanctions (or the threat of ending economic sanctions) to try and get North Korea and the US to come to a détente. There also could be an error in judgement on the part of one of the parties. A false alarm could quickly turn into a very real conflict. It’s also possible that one party could mistake the others preferences, leading to them taking a course of action that they incorrectly believe isn’t sanctioned.

In future posts, I plan to show how these can all be taken into account, using the GMCR framework for Third Party Intervention and Coalitional Analysis, Strength of Preferences, and Hypergame Analysis.

Even without those additions, the GMCR is a powerful tool. I encourage you to try it out for other conflicts and see what the results are. I certainly found that the best way to really understand it was to run it a few times.

Note: I know it’s hard to play around with the charts when they’re embedded as images. You can see copyable versions of them here.

Advice, Model

A Practical Guide to Splitting The Housework

[15-minute read]

Note: This blog post is about housework and chores. If disability or mental illness makes chores difficult for you to do and having someone breezily describe it as “easy” will be bad for you, I recommend skipping it. This meant to help people who are able split chores with a partner – but historically haven’t – begin to do so. It isn’t meant to be a cudgel with which to beat people who have difficulty with chores due to ability status. If this describes you, you are not lazy or broken and your difficulties are real and valid.

So, you’ve seen the comic by Emma, or read The Second Shift (which also happens to be my favourite term for the chores and childcare that happens after or before work), or maybe someone has linked you here with a pointed note. In any case, I’m going to assume you’re reading this because you’ve realized that you don’t help your partner with much around the house, don’t share much of the management of household chores with your partner, or aren’t very good at household chores and want to get better.

This is what you’re trying to avoid. Image Copyright: Emmaclit [SOURCE], used here with the permission of the artist.
There are three main things you need to work on if you want to be able to split both the act of doing chores and the mental load of keeping track of them with your partner [1]. These are: general skills, noticing things, and keeping track of what needs to happen. It’s difficult to work on any of these in isolation. Getting better at chores will help you feel empowered to notice when they need to be done or keep track of the schedule of doing them. Doing chores whenever you notice they need to be done will give you the practice you need to get better at them.

I think it would be a confusing guide if I laid it all out as holistically as you’ll be working on everything. In the interest of making this digestible, I’ve given each of the key areas their own subsection, with an additional final section the talks about dealing with some of the issues that may arise as you and your partner negotiate and re-negotiate the second shift.

General Skills

If you honestly don’t have any housework skills at all (either because you lacked an adult to model them for you, or adults refused to model them for you because of your gender, or any other reason) you’re going to need to start by building them up. It may seem like a good idea to ask your partner for help with this task.

It might not be. If your partner is frustrated with you because they feel you aren’t pulling your weight around the house, asking them to teach you will only increase the short-term stress on them. You’ll probably expect them to respond really positively to your change of heart, but you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re instead grumbly. Teaching someone how to do something is work. Teaching you chores would mean that for a while, all chores will take them longer.

It’s possible that your expectation that your partner be thrilled that you’re helping out will clash with any annoyance they have at doing chores more slowly in order to teach you and leave both of you feeling out of sorts. You’ll be hurt that your partner isn’t appreciating your “gift” [2], while your partner might feel like it’s taken you long too long to even offer. It’s also possible that seeing you learn might convince your partner that you can’t do chores correctly, which will make them reluctant to delegate chores to you and ruin your whole enterprise before it really begins.

If it turns out your partner is a bad choice, cadge lessons from your closest friends. They don’t have to live with you and they aren’t starting from a place of frustration. For many friends, it’s definitely worth a few pointers to have someone else do the grunt-work of their chores for them. And that’s exactly the deal I suggest you make.

That said, if your relationship with your partner is one where you can talk honestly and openly (and if it isn’t, um, what are you doing?) you can cut out the guessing and just ask them what they’d prefer. Talking with your partner has a further advantage: you can ask them what chores they’d most like you to learn. I have some samples here, but if these are the chores your partner minds least (while I know at least one person who hates each of these, they also just happen to be the chores I find most tolerable), you may want to substitute them for chores your partner especially hates (like fucking sweeping, the objectively worst chore).

Cooking

Think about the type of food you (and your friends or your partner) like to eat, then go looking online for recipes that match. I’m very partial to the President’s Choice recipes website, as well as the blog Cookie and Kate, but Google is your friend here. Once you have a recipe in mind, contact your chosen teacher and ask if you can buy the ingredients [3] and make it for them. Make it clear that the meal will only happen if they teach you things like basic knife skills and how to boil water.

Repeat this process with several different friends until you can make 2-3 recipes unaided. Ideally these shouldn’t have much overlap in technique (e.g. one soup, one stir fry with rice, and one pasta dish). Once you have the basics under your belt, you should be able to pick the rest up as you go along, assuming you end up doing at least some of the cooking in your household.

Doing Dishes

There are four good reasons to learn to do the dishes:

  1. It’s easy to learn and hard to get wrong
  2. It’s an excellent way to train your ability to notice things
  3. Doing the dishes doesn’t preclude talking with people
  4. Which means that you can get a reputation as helpful simply by doing the dishes whenever someone invites you over for a meal, without sacrificing any time hanging out with your friends

You can learn to do the dishes the same way as cooking. Just ask a friend if you can come over, hangout, and do their dishes. Basically no one will say no to this. It can also be combined with learning to make food if you want to save some time.

Whenever you do dishes at home, especially if it’s part of your set of chores, you should remember that the dishes aren’t truly done until you’ve put them away. Don’t leave them in the dishwasher or drying rack for days!

Laundry

Laundry is a chore that has to be scheduled (unless you like running out of underwear), so learning it will allow you to practice that aspect of the second shift. You can learn laundry the same as you would dishes or cooking, or maybe even at the same time if are picking recipes with lots of dead time.

There are two important things to note about laundry:

  1. If you don’t want everything to be horribly wrinkled, you need to take it out of the dryer as soon as it’s done.
  2. If you are doing laundry for someone else (and especially if that person wears feminine clothes), you must ask them “is there anything in this load that can’t go in the dryer or needs to go in on delicate?”. Many things (especially hosiery) can be ruined by the wrong dryer setting, or by going in the dryer at all.

Cleaning the washroom

I’ve found that people give me an inordinate amount of credit (relative to the work involved) whenever I clean a washroom. I think this is because (oddly) most people hate cleaning the washroom. These people are mistaken. In all households where the washroom has been cleaned in the last year or so, this is one of the least gross rooms to clean.

(That said, this is one chore I wouldn’t recommend learning at the same time as you cook!)

People are very cavalier about food. Food spills rarely get cleaned up properly, leading to stickiness or mold in the kitchen. Kitchen sinks are often a disaster of old food, soggy vegetables, and clogged drains. I find it impossible to clean a kitchen without retching at least once from some food that’s gone off.

In all likelihood, this smells worse than the 3rd Circle of Hell. Image Credit: Steven Depolo on Flickr

Bathrooms, on the other hand, rarely smell all that bad (and when they do, it’s more of a faint lingering odour, as opposed to the concentrated wretchedness you might find at the back of the fridge). People are incredibly embarrassed by any spills they cause in the bathroom and try to completely clean them up. If you wear gloves and wash your hands regularly, you should rarely be grossed out cleaning the bathroom (with the exception of the shower drain, which becomes a yawning abyss as soon as anyone in the house has hair past shoulder length).

Pictured: Actually just dust; one good wipe and this will be squeaky clean. Image credit: Bart Everson on Flickr

Most people (especially people in their twenties) don’t realize all this and treat cleaning the bathroom as only marginally less heroic than cleaning up nuclear waste.

Take advantage of this fact and offer to clean your friend’s washroom if they show how to do it. You really only need to do this once or twice to get the hang of it. Then you’ll be all set to take over what’s probably your partner’s least favourite chore.

Once you’ve learned some things

You can show off your skills to your partner. If you started learning before your inability to do chores became a problem in the relationship, you were probably having your partner teach you, in which case you can skip this step. If you instead learned from friends, you need to make your partner aware that you can now do things around the home.

Ideally, you would clean a room or make a dinner and then have your partner make non-judgemental suggestions about how you could do it better. Be prepared to spot genuine conflicts of values; you might view things as clean after a quick wipe, when your partner considers them clean only after a thorough scrub. I suggest that you and your partner put some time into negotiating a combined standard if your preferences aren’t already congruent. Remember that if you haven’t been doing the chores much, you aren’t really negotiating from a position of strength. Also remember that diverging cleanliness preferences aren’t really a good reason to go back to doing nothing.

Within a month or so of starting your journey towards chores competence, you should be ready to take stuff off your partner’s plate. Note that the chores I’ve outlined above don’t represent half the housework for a typical couple (unless you do a significant amount of yard work or take over all of the cooking), so you’ll probably have to learn a few more things. Once you’ve built up goodwill from actually doing some chores, it should be fine to have your partner teach you how to do the remaining ones.

I actually recommend learning how to do every chore that gets regularly done. This allows you to do it if your partner is gone or sick (or if you ever break up). It also helps you discover which chores you don’t mind and which you despise (I’m looking at you, cleaning the kitchen). It’s probably best to split up the housework such that you and your partner spend a similar amount of time on the chores you don’t mind, in addition to trying to balance the overall amount of work.

Noticing Things

Being able to do some chores means you’ve graduated from Chores 101. In Chores 202, you should develop the ability to do chores without prompting. It’s one thing to clean the washroom when asked, or make dinner when your partner loudly declares “I’m hungry”. It’s quite another to say to your partner “hey, I think this is as messy as I ever want the bathroom to get, will it disrupt your routine if I clean it tonight?” or “hey dear, does cauliflower mac and cheese sound good for dinner at six?” and then follow through.

When you take ownership of a chore and follow through on it, your partner can begin to drop the chore from their mind. Instead of looking around the washroom every so often, thinking about when they need to tell you to clean it, they can enjoy their shits in peace; instead of reminding you to go grocery shopping as a subtle way of telling you it’s your night to cook, they can relax and assume you’ll cook something delicious.

To build up your ability to notice things, you should pick a handful of chores and internally declare them MY RESPONSIBILITY. For chores that are your responsibility, you are forbidden to think “somebody should do that”. Whenever this thought happens, replace it with “I should do that!”.

With dishes this is especially easy. Look at the sink whenever you’re in the kitchen. If you don’t have anything urgent to do and there are some dishes in the sink, immediately do them (this is especially useful while waiting for the microwave, coffee maker, or toaster). On nights when your partner is cooking, head into the kitchen midway through their meal prep and start doing any dishes they’re done with. If you time this right, almost all the dishes can be done by the time you start eating and you can keep your partner company to boot [4].

You should aim to never be asked about something that is your responsibility (outside of extenuating circumstances, like “finals week”).

It’s obviously unfair to expect one person to notice everything wrong with the house (especially if people in the house have different cleanliness preferences). Note that this applies to your partner just as much as it applies to you. Neither of you should have to notice everything! This probably requires you and your partner to talk about what wrong means to you and come to a clear consensus. You should judge the state of the house off of this consensus, not off of how it feels to you personally [5].

There’s one final step to noticing things. When your partner asks you to do something (like get out a specific dish from the dishwasher), notice what else could be done and assume that the ask was as expansive as possible. Don’t just get out a single dish. Empty the whole dishwasher. When asked to take the laundry out of the dryer, fold it and put it away too. When you do the bare minimum, you push all the rest of the work onto your partner.

Keeping Track of What Needs to Happen

This is the last thing you need to get good at if you really want to share the mental load of chores with your partner.

Almost all chores spawn meta-chores. Cooking provides a simple example; you can’t cook if you don’t pay the power bill, buy groceries, and keep your cooking surfaces relatively clean. Even less involved chores probably require the occasional shopping trip, while children spawn a truly staggering amount of secondary work (like doctor’s appointments, vaccinations, permission slips, pre-school applications, birthday party invitations to sort, and homework to look over).

You can’t truly have ownership of a chore without taking responsibility for the chores it spawns. If your partner has to ask you every week if they need to pick up more cleaning supplies at the store, you’ve done a poor job managing the meta-chores. Your partner can only really banish a chore from their head once you’ve shown a clear track record of managing the meta-chores too.

If your memory isn’t great, assistive technology can really help. Apparently virtual assistants are now good enough that saying “Okay Google, remind me to buy dryer sheets next time I’m at a store” actually works. If you don’t want to share everything you ever do with Google or Apple, a pen and paper or notes to yourself on a calendar can work just as well.

You don’t need to do everything here yourself. If your partner regularly shops or is on their way to the grocery store for something they need, it’s totally fine to ask them to grab something you need on the way. The thing you want to avoid is the sort of cascading failure (e.g. a lack of soap means that laundry isn’t done for two weeks) that promotes chores they thought would be safely done to the top of their attention.

Ultimately, responsibility for your chores means that you should be able to do it even if no one else comes and saves you. In the same way that you want to train yourself to replace “someone should do that” with “I should do that” for the physical act of the chore, you need to replace things like “someone should buy more soap” with “I need to make sure we get more soap”.

Problems Sharing the Second Shift

I got the idea to write this after a friend shared Emma’s comic on their Facebook wall. Seeing the sense of hopelessness or anxiety it gave people who hadn’t been raised to know how to do chores or recognize when they had to be done was very eye-opening for me. One common complaint among people unused to chores was that it would be very stressful for them to try and notice every time something wasn’t perfect in order to swoop in and fix it.

I think this is a very reasonable thing to worry about if you and your partner are incapable of talking about things like “what does good enough look like?” and “how can we split these up, so that neither of us has to constantly ensure absolutely everything is perfect?”. In mainstream society, there’s a tendency for couples not to talk about their preferences and instead believe that true love necessarily provides intuition into everything your partner could want.

This becomes a real disaster when everyone assumes that their own way of doing things is the only reasonable way people would want to do it. In this case, genuinely different standards end up being misinterpreted as incompetence or subtle resistance.

All this is to say: if you’re worried that you can’t do anything to your partner’s nebulous standards, the root cause of this problem might be that you have no clue what those standards are and don’t know how to talk about them, not that noticing things is inherently very stressful [6]. You should also make sure that you haven’t just ignored ten years of requests to do things to a certain standard, maybe because it was more convenient for you to ignore them?

I will say that if it feels impossible or very stressful to try and keep track of everything, this should be taken as evidence of how your partner might feel about it too. Foisting all that work onto them is a step of last resort that should only be undertaken after you’ve talked with them and made sure it isn’t just as costly for them to do all the management as it would be for you to do it.

Once you’ve overcome (or renegotiated) the stressful aspects of the second shift and taken on your share of it, it’s pretty natural to expect your partner to express a lot of gratitude. This may not necessarily happen or may not happen right away, especially if it’s taken you a very long time to start caring. “What took them so long?” is probably a more realistic response than “my hero!”.

If you feel underpraised, stop and consider how often you praise your partner for doing housework. If you already do, that’s awesome. Tell them that while this isn’t a quid pro quo, you’d be more motivated to do chores if they praised you too. If you don’t praise them, perhaps ye should give as ye expect to receive? Positive reinforcement probably will help you continue to do chores, but you and your partner may have to work through some lingering feelings before they’re quite willing to take that final step.

Footnotes:

[1] Or partners. Or roommates. Or family. Endlessly caveating for all potential relationships that can occur in shared spaces is inimical to good flow and I’m vain enough about my writing that I’m going to sacrifice some nuance in the name of readability. ^

[2] For more about how the “economy of gratitude” can intersect with chores, see pages 54, 147, and 308 of The Second Shift by Professor Arlie Russel Hochschild (eBook version).  ^

[3] Make sure to do the grocery shopping yourself, as grocery shopping is a skill all on its own. You haven’t fully appreciated just how taxing it can be until you’ve found yourself in the produce aisle, futilely scanning for an obscure vegetable and frantically Googling things like “can you use green onions instead of shallots?” or “what is the difference between scallions and shallots?”. (Learning to cook was full of onion related trauma for me) ^

[4] There is a big difference between your partner doing a chore while you relax and do other things and your partner doing a chore while you keep them company and help them with little things. If there are chores you are genuinely hopeless at that you still want to be a part of, you can help your partner out by making their life less boring and providing some company. Even people who can’t boil water without burning down the kitchen can fetch things from the fridge. ^

[5] It’s deeply unfair for people to be held to standards that they don’t know about. Having a clear conversation about chore expectations allows you and your partner to avoid the feeling that you’re being judged by capricious and mysterious standards. ^

[6] I am a bona fide expert at stressing out over little things and found a ten-minute conversation codifying the implicit assumptions my partner and I had around chores eliminated basically all of the stress I had. I now know that they find disorder much more stressful than lack of cleanliness and really appreciate me keeping things organized (I’m the opposite, so gave little thought to order), while they now know my esophageal problems make it very hard for me to eat food that is weirdly prepared (my partner is a very proficient cook with an iron gut, which sometimes leads to culinary experiments that are a bit beyond my ability to choke down; I stick to recipes).

Still, if this is very stressful for you even after a conversation, there is nothing wrong or broken about you! Be prepared to challenge your assumption that this will necessarily be stressful, but if your assumption is borne out, you should probably try something else. Maybe you can compensate for not managing the chores in other ways (perhaps by doing more of the actual work of chores)? I think splitting all aspects of chores evenly is a useful default, but each partnership needs to figure out for themselves what feels fair and achievable to them! ^

Economics, Model, Quick Fix

Regulation Revisited

Previously I described regulation as a regressive tax. It may not kill jobs per se, but it certainly shifts them towards people with university degrees, largely at the expense of those without. I’m beginning to rethink that position; I’m increasingly worried that many types of regulation are actually leading to a net loss of jobs. There remains a paucity of empirical evidence on this subject. Today I’m going to present a (I believe convincing) model of how regulations could kill jobs, but I’d like to remind everyone that models are less important than evidence and should only be the focus of discussion in situations like this, where the evidence is genuinely sparse.

Let’s assume that regulation has no first order effect on jobs. All jobs lost through regulation (and make no mistake, there will be lost jobs) are offset by different jobs in regulatory compliance or the jobs created when the compliance people spend the money they make, etc., on to infinity. So far, this is all fine and dandy.

Talking to members of the local start-up community, I reckon that many small sized hardware start-ups spend the equivalent of an engineer’s salary on regulatory compliance yearly. Instead of a hypothetical engineer (or marketer, or salesperson, etc.), they’re providing a salary to a lawyer, or a technician at the FCC, or some other mid-level bureaucrat.

No matter how well this person does their job, they aren’t creating anything of value. There’s no chance that they’ll come up with or contribute to a revolutionary new product that drives a lot of economic growth and ends up creating dozens, hundreds, or (in very rare cases) thousands of jobs. An engineer could.

There’s obviously many ways that even successful start-ups with all the engineers they need can fail to create jobs on net. They could disrupt an established industry in a way that causes layoffs at the existing participants (although it’s probably fallacious to believe that this will cause net job losses either, given the lump of labour fallacy). Also, something like 60% of start-ups fail. In the case of failure, money from wealthy investors is transferred to other people and I doubt most people care if the beneficiaries are engineers or in compliance.

But discounting all that, I think what this boils down to is: when you’re paying an engineer, there’s a chance that the engineer will invent something that increases productivity and drives productivity growth (leading to cheaper prices and maybe even new industries previously thought impossible). When you pay someone in sales or marketing, you get a chance to get your product in front of customers and see it really take off. When you’re paying for regulatory compliance, you get an often-useless stamp of approval, or have to make expensive changes because some rent-seeking corporation got spurious requirements written into the regulation.

Go on, tell me all million pages of this are necessary to protect consumers – I dare you. Image Credit: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

Or the regulatory agency catches a fatal flaw and averts a catastrophe. I’m not saying that never happens. Just that I think it’s much rarer than many people might believe. Seeing the grinding wheels of regulation firsthand has cured me of all my youthful idealistic approval for it. Sometimes consumers need to be protected from out of control profit-seeking, sure. But once you’ve been forced to actually do some regulatory compliance, you start to understand just how much regulation exists to prevent established companies from having to compete against new entrants. This makes everything more expensive and everyone but a few well-connected shareholders worse off.

Regulations has real trade-offs; there are definite goods, but also definite downsides. And now I think the downsides are even worse than I first predicted.

Model, Quick Fix

Living Beyond Your Time Means

[3 minute read]

Most of us are familiar with what it looks like when someone we know is living beyond their means. Expensive vacations, meals, or possessions pile up, accompanied by a veritable mountain of credit card debt. People fall into the horrible habit of paying one credit card off with another and get punished by punitive credit card interest rates.

If someone lives beyond their means for years, they may never be able to retire. Only frantic work keeps them just ahead of the tsunami of debt.

People living beyond their means often have a higher material standard of living then their friends. They have a nicer house, nicer cars, take nicer vacations and eat out more. But they tend to be more stressed out. Every month they have to figure out how to make ends meet.

For people who like possessions and don’t mind stress, it can be smart (albeit risky) to live beyond their means. As long as nothing happens that prevents them from working, they’ll get more of things they enjoy than they otherwise could, all at the cost of a little (to them easily ignorable) stress.

I think it’s also possible to do something like this with your time. By analogy, I call it living beyond your time means.

What does this look like?

When you’re living beyond your time means, you’re almost always overbooked. You have to hustle from event to event if you ever want to be able to do everything you’ve signed up for and your occasional failures make you seem at least a little bit flaky. It becomes very hard to schedule anything involving you. Your friends may have to take drastic action, like asking you about plans three months in advance.

There are benefits to this! Your life will almost always be interesting and you’ll quickly end up with a large network of friends. You’re less likely than most to get fear of missing out, because you miss out on so little. On Mondays, you have more stories about the weekend than anyone you work with.

There are costs to this as well. Many basic person- and space-maintenance tasks take time and time is your most precious currency. It’s more likely than not that your living space deteriorates and is never quite as clean as you’d like it to be (unless you pay someone to clean it for you). Your food situation tends to become interesting, with you as likely to eat restaurant or take-out meals as quick, weird snacks or instant meals. Home-cooked, nutritious meals can become a rare luxury.

(If you buy more time with money, you can avoid some of these pathologies, at the risk that you might live beyond your material means as well.)

And when you’re living beyond your time means, you so rarely get the feeling that all of the things you need to do are done (e.g. the plants watered, lunch for tomorrow is made, the washroom is clean, and the dishes washed) and your time is now entirely your own, with no more nagging worries at least until tomorrow. I love this feeling and couldn’t imagine living without it, but I know people who only experience it once every month or so.

(I think all new parents inevitably spend a few years living beyond their time means and often experience great relief when their kids get old enough that they no longer need to be constantly supervised. This isn’t so much a deliberate choice as it is a natural consequence of the difficulties of keeping young children fed, happy, and safe from their own destructive natures.)

Just as some people get a lot of net benefit from living beyond their financial means, some people find living beyond their time means to be net good. They love moving fast and doing interesting things and they’re quite happy to get that in exchange for a chaotic living situation and the nagging feeling that they’ve left basic tasks undone.

The purpose of this post isn’t to moralize at people who are living beyond their time means. Just because the thought of trying to do it stresses me out doesn’t mean that it isn’t really good for some people. But I do worry that there are people who are accidentally living beyond their time means and feeling very stressed out about that. If that describes you, consider this your wakeup call. I promise you that your life can still be interesting and your friends will still like you if you cut back on the activities a bit.

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

They don’t hate your values; they just assign them no weight

[3-minute read]

Content Warning: Extensive discussion of the morality of abortion

Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone [1].

Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion [2].

This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true that limiting abortion also limits women’s financial and sexual freedom. In the vast majority of cases it’s false to claim that this is a plus for the most vociferous opponents of abortion. To their detriment it also isn’t a minus. For many of the staunchest opponents of abortion, the financial or sexual freedom of women plays no role at all in their position. Held against the life of a fetus, these freedoms are (morally) worthless.

People opposed to abortion who also value these things tend to take more moderate positions. For them, their stance on abortion is a trade-off between two valuable things (the life of a fetus and the freedoms of the mother). I know some younger Catholics who fall into this category. Then tend to be of the position that things that reduce abortion (like sexual education, free prenatal care, free daycare, and contraceptive use) are all very good, but they rarely advocate for the complete abolition of abortion (except by restructuring society such that no woman feels the need for one).

Total opposition to abortion is only possible when you hold the benefits of abortion as far less morally relevant than the costs. Total support likewise. If I viewed a fetus to be as morally relevant as a born person, I could not support abortion rights to the extent I do.

The equation views my values as morally meaningless + argues strongly for things that would hurt those values can very easily appear to come out to holds the opposite of my values. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Most anti-abortion advocates aren’t trying to paper over women’s sexual freedoms (with abortion laws). Most abortion supporters aren’t reveling in the termination of pregnancies.

This mistake is especially easy to make because you have every incentive to caricature your political enemies. It’s especially pernicious though, because it makes it so hard to productively talk about any area where you disagree. You and your opponents both think that you are utterly opposed and for either to triumph, the other must lose. It’s only when you see that your values are orthogonal, not opposed that you have any hope for compromise.

I think the benefits of this model lie primarily in sympathy and empathy. Understanding that anti-abortion advocates aren’t literally trying to reduce the financial security and sexual freedom of women doesn’t change the fact that their policies have the practical effects of accomplishing these things. I’m still going to oppose them on the grounds of the consequences of their actions, even if I no longer believe that they’re at all motivated by those specific consequences.

But empathy isn’t useless! There’s something to be said for the productivity of a dialogue when you don’t believe that the other side hates everything about your values! You can try and find common values and make compromises based on those. You can convince people more effectively when you accurately understand their beliefs and values. These can be instrumentally useful when trying to convince people of your point or when advocating for your preferred laws.

Abortion gave me the clearest example of orthogonal values, but it might actually be the hardest place to find any compromise. Strongly held orthogonal values can still lead to gridlock. If not abortion, where is mutually beneficial compromise possible? Where else do liberals argue with only a caricature of their opponents’ values?

Epistemic Status: Model

Footnotes:

[1] Socially liberal legislation is just objectively right and is based on the values everyone would have if they could choose freely. Only my political enemies try and force anything on anyone. /sarcasm ^

[2] People who aren’t women can also have abortions and their ability to express their sexualities is also controlled by laws limiting access to abortion. If there exists a less awkward construction than “anyone with a uterus” that I can use instead of “women”, I’d be delighted to find it. ^

Model, Politics

Socially Conservative Legislation as Akrasia Managment

[5-minute read]

If you hang out with people obsessed with self-improvement, one term that you’ll hear a lot is akrasia. A dictionary will tell you that akrasia means “The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”

Someone who struggles with it will have more visceral stories. “It’s like someone else is controlling me, leaving me powerless to stop watching Netflix” is one I’ve often heard. Or “I know that scrolling through Facebook for five hours is against my goals, but I just can’t help myself”.

I use commitment contracts (I agree to pay a friend a certain amount of money if I don’t do a certain things) or Beeminder (a service that charges me money if I fail to meet my goals) to manage my akrasia. Many of my friends do the same thing. Having to face consequences helps us overcome our akrasia.

If you’ve ever procrastinated, you’ve experienced akrasia. You probably know the listlessness and powerlessness that comes with it, and the frantic burst of energy that you get as the due date for your task nears. Commitment contracts impose an artificial deadline, allowing akratics to access that burst of energy need to break free from an endless cycle of Netflix or Facebook.

Obviously it would be better if akrasia could be wished away. Unfortunately, I haven’t really met anyone who has entirely succeeded in vanquishing it. All we can do is treat the symptoms. For those of us stuck with akrasia, managing it with sticks (and perhaps the occasional carrot) allows us to accomplish our goals. Time your sticks right and you rarely get the listlessness or the shame that can go with it.

Recently, I’ve started viewing social conservatives who push for tough morality laws and then personally fall short of them as more than risibly hypocritical. I’ve begun to think that they’re deeply akratic individuals who think that strong public morality is their only hope for living up to their own standards.

This model has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. When I read John Scalzi’s rant about covenant marriage while researching for this post –

As a concept, it’s pretty damn insulting. “Covenant Marriage” implicitly suggests that people won’t stay married unless they subject themselves to onerous governmental restrictions on their personal freedoms; basically, it’s the state telling you that it expects you to get a divorce at some point, unless it makes it too annoying for you to get a divorce to make it worth your while. The State of Arkansas is banking on sloth, apathy and state bureaucracy to keep a bunch of bad marriages together, as if bad marriages are really better than divorce.

– All I could think was yes! Yes, that is exactly what some of the people pushing covenant marriage believe and want. They believe that a bad (or at least difficult) marriage is better than a divorce. But they don’t trust themselves to stay in a difficult marriage, so they want to strongly bind their future self to the decisions and values of their current self.

Most of the akratics I know have been unable to overcome their akrasia via willpower. Only the consequences they’ve set up are effective. By the same token, social conservatives who frequently let themselves down (like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, or any of these nineteen others) might be trying to overcome their failings by increasing the consequences. For everyone.

On one hand, this leads to onerous restrictions on anyone who doesn’t share their views. On the other hand, there aren’t many levers left to accomplish this sort of commitment device except through legislation that affects everyone. Look at marriage; in America, no-fault divorces are allowed in every state. You can enter a so-called “covenant marriage“, with more onerous exit requirements, but these are only offered in a few states and can be avoided by divorcing in a state with different marriage laws. Adultery laws are all but dead.

Even enforcing fidelity through prenups is difficult. Such clauses have been ruled unenforceable in California. While some other states might decide to enforce them, you’re still left with the problem of actually proving infidelity actually occurred.

This isn’t to say that I have a problem with no-fault divorces. If I didn’t support them for helping people leave terrible marriages, I’d support them for ending an embarrassing daily spectacle of perjury. But it is amazing that many governments won’t let consenting adults make more stringent marriage contracts if that’s what they choose. America let people get underwater mortgages that could never be repaid. But it won’t let a pair of adults set harsh penalties for cheating?

Faced with such a dearth of commitment options, what’s an akratic to do? Fail? If you’re religious, this is opening you up to the possibility of eternal damnation. That’s clearly not an option. Fighting for regressive “family values” laws becomes a survival mechanism for anyone caught between their conservative morality and their own predilections.

I know societal punishments aren’t a perfect solution for akrasia. Many people desire not to shoplift, yet shoplift things they don’t need anyway, despite all the penalties. Beeminder isn’t a perfect solution either. Some people lie. Some people give up. But it helps some people. It helped me.

For some people, societal punishments are the only thing that will work. In a push to liberalize everything about society, liberals really have backed some people into a corner. It wouldn’t be that hard to let them out. Make cheating clauses in prenups enforceable and allow them to include punitive damages. Allow couples to set arduous conditions on their own divorce. Listen to what people want and see if there are ways that we can give it to them and only them.

I can see the obvious objections to this plan. It might sweep up young romantics, still indoctrinated by their parents and ruin their lives. Some (from the liberal point of view) bad contracts could become so common that everyone faces strong social pressure to make them. But these are both issues that can be addressed through legislature, perhaps by requiring a judge to certify adequate maturity and understanding of the contract (to address the first concern) and forbidding preferential treatment from institutions or businesses based on marriage (or other salient contract) type (to address the second).

There are some things that liberals and social conservatives will probably never be able to compromise on. Gay marriage, trans rights, and abortion… these should be our non-negotiable demands. What makes these our red lines is the realization that we must allow individuals to make their own choices (and not deny them any benefits that people who make other choices receive). The cornerstones of social liberalism are a celebration of authenticity and an openness to the freely made personal choices of others, even when we disagree with them. Even when we think they’re nonsensical. Even when we think they’ll bring only grief.

It’s the authoritarian who seeks to make their choices the choices of everyone. Too often that authoritarian is the social conservative. Allowing them to sanction themselves won’t end that. Too many are motivated by self-righteousness or a belief that what works for them must necessarily work for everyone else. We can’t fix that. But we sure as hell can be better than it.

Epistemic Status: Model

Economics, Model, Politics

Meditations on Regulation, or the Case of the $10,000 Staircase

[10-minute read]

Breaking news: a retired mechanic spent one afternoon and $550 building a staircase. This is news because the City of Toronto said it would cost $65,000 for them to do it. They’ve since walked back that estimate, claiming it won’t be that expensive (instead, the final cost looks to be a mere $10,000).

Part of this is materials and labour. The city will probably go for something a bit more permeant than wood – probably concrete or metal – and will probably have higher labour costs (the mechanic hired a random guy off the street to help out, which is probably against city procurement policy). But a decent part (perhaps even the majority) of the increased costs will be driven by regulation.

First there’s the obvious compliance activities: site assessment, community consultation, engineering approval, insurance approval. Each of these will take the highly expensive time of highly skilled professionals. There’s also the less obvious (but still expensive and onerous) hoops to jump through. If the city doesn’t have a public works crew who can install the stairs, they’ll have to find a contractor. The search for a contractor would probably be governed by a host of conflict of interest and due diligence regulations; these are the sorts of thing a well-paid city worker would need to sink a significant amount of time into managing. Based on the salary information I could find, half a week of a city bureaucrat’s time already puts us over the $550 price tag.

And when the person in charge of compliance is highly skilled, the loss is worse than simple monetary terms might imply. Not only are we paying someone to waste her time, we are also paying the opportunity cost of her wasting her time. Whenever some bright young lawyer or planner is stuck reading regulatory tomes instead of creating something, we are deprived of the benefits of what they could have created.

When it comes to the stairs, regulations don’t stop with our hypothetical city worker. The construction firm they hire is also governed by regulations. They have to track how much everyone works, make sure the appropriate taxes go to the appropriate parties, ensure compliance with workplace health and safety standards and probably take care of a dozen minor annoyances that I don’t know about. When you aren’t the person doing these things, they just blend into the background and you forget that someone has to spend a decent part of their time filling out incredibly boring government forms – forms that demand accuracy under pain of perjury.

No source needed, because I stole this from a US government form and no documents produced by the US government can be copyrighted
What, you never noticed how fond government documents were of waving the p-word around? This basically says “fill this out right, or one of the state’s armed enforcers will use violence to bring you to a small room that you won’t be allowed to leave for a very long time”.

Hell, the very act of soliciting bids can inflate the cost, because each bid will require a bunch of supporting paperwork (you can’t submit these things on a sticky note). As is becoming the common refrain, this takes time, which costs money. You better bet that whichever firm eventually gets hired will roll the cost of all its failed past bids (either directly or indirectly) into the cost the city ends up paying.

It’s not just government regulations that drive up the price of stairs either. If the city has liability insurance, it will have to comply with a bunch of rules given to it by its insurer (or face higher premiums). If it chooses to self-insure, the city actuaries will come up with all sorts of internal policies designed to lessen the city’s chance of liability – or at least lessen the necessary payout when the city is inevitably sued by some drunk asshole who forgets how to do stairs and breaks a bone.

With all of this regulation (none of which seems unreasonable when taken in isolation!) you can see how the city was expecting to shell out $65,000 (at a minimum) for a simple set of stairs. That they managed to get the cost down to $10,000 in this case ­(to avoid the negative media attention of over-estimating the cost of stairs more than one hundred times over?) is probably indicative of city workers doing unpaid overtime, or other clever cost hiding measures [1].

The point here is that regulation is expensive. It’s expensive everywhere it exists. The United States has over 1,000,000 pages of federal regulation. Canada makes its federal regulation available as a compressed XML dump(!) with a current uncompressed size of 559MB. Considering XML overhead, the sum total of Canadian federal regulation is probably approximately equivalent to that of the United States.

The only thing that hates federal regulation more than libertarians is the bookshelf that has to hold it all. Image Credit: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t it for either country; after federal regulation, there’s provincial/state and local regulations. Then there are the interactions between all three, with things becoming even worse when you want to do anything between different jurisdictions within a country or (and it’s a miracle this can even happen at all) between countries.

People who can hold a significant subset of these regulations in their head and successfully navigate them (without going mad from boredom) are a limited resource. Worse, they’re a limited resource who can be useful in a variety of fields (i.e. there has to be some overlap between the people who’d make good programmers, doctors, or administrators and the people who can parse and memorize reams of regulation). Limited supply and consistent (or increasing) demand drives the excessive cost of buying their time that I mentioned earlier.

This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about how regulation destroys jobs and how we should repeal it all if we care about the economic health of our society. But I’m not going to do that. The idea that regulation kills jobs is based on economic fallacies [2] and not borne out by evidence (although it is surprisingly poorly studied and new evidence could change my mind here).

As best we can currently tell, regulation doesn’t destroy jobs; it shifts them. In a minimally regulated environment, there will be fewer jobs requiring highly educated compliance wizards and more jobs for everyone else. As the amount of regulation increases, we should see more and more labour shift from productive tasks to compliance tasks. Really regulation is one of the best ways that elites can guarantee jobs for other elites.

Viewed through this lens, regulation is similar to a very regressive tax. It might be buying us social goods that we really want, but it does so in a way that transfers wealth from already disadvantaged workers to already advantaged workers. I think (absent offloading regulatory compliance onto specialized AI expert systems) that this might be an inherent feature of regulation.

When I see progressives talking about regulation, the tone is often that companies should whine about it less. I think it’s totally true that many companies push back against regulation that is (on the face of it at least) in the public good – and that companies aren’t pushing back primarily out of concern for their workers. However, rejecting the libertarian position doesn’t mean we should automatically support all regulation. After reading this, I hope you look at regulation as a problematically regressive tax that can have certain other benefits.

Because even taking into account its regressive effects, regulation is often a net good. Emissions standards around nitrous oxide emissions have saved thousands of lives – and Volkswagen cheating on them will lead to the “pre-mature deaths” of over one thousand people.

Corporations have no social duty beyond giving returns to their shareholders. It’s only through regulation that we can channel them away from anti-social behaviour [3]. Individuals are a bit better, motivated as they are by several things beyond money, but regulation is still sometimes needed to help us avoid the tragedy of the commons.

That said, even the best-intentioned regulation can have ruinous second order effects. Take the new French law that requires supermarkets to donate unsold, expiring produce to food banks. The law includes a provision indemnifying supermarkets against any legal action for food poisoning or other problems caused by the donated food. Without that provision, companies would be caught in a terrible bind. They’d face fines if they didn’t donate, but face the risk of huge lawsuits if they did [4][5].

Regulation isn’t just the purview of the government. If all government regulation disappeared overnight, private regulation – overseen primarily by insurance companies – would take its place. The ubiquity of liability insurance in this litigious age has already turned many insurers into surrogate regulators [6].

Insurance companies really hate paying out money. They can only make money if they make more in premiums than they pay out for losses. The loss prevention divisions of major insurers work with their clients, making sure they toe the line of the insurer’s policies and raising their premiums when they don’t.

This task has become especially important for the insurers who provide liability insurance to police departments. Many local governments lack the political will to rein in their police force when they engage in misconduct, but insurance companies have no such compunctions. Insurers have written use of force policies, provided expensive training, furnished use of force simulators, and ordered the firing of chiefs and ordinary officers alike.

When insurers make these demands, they expect to be obeyed. Cross an insurer and they’ll withdraw insurance or make the premiums prohibitively high. It isn’t unheard of for police departments to be disbanded if insurers refuse to cover them. Absent liability insurance, a single lawsuit can literally bankrupt a small municipality, a risk most councillors won’t take.

As the Colombia Law School article linked above suggested, it may be possible to significantly affect the behaviour of insurance purchasers with regulation that is targeted at insurers. I also suspect that you can abstract things even further and affect the behaviour of insurers (and therefore their clients) by making arcane changes to how liability works. This has the dubious advantage of making it possible to achieve political goals without obviously working towards them. It seems likely that it’s harder to get together a big protest when the aim you’re protesting against is hidden behind several layers of abstraction [7].

Regulation isn’t inherently good or bad. It should be able to stand on its own merits and survive a cost-benefit analysis. This will inevitably become a tricky political question, because different people weight costs and benefits differently, but it isn’t an intractable political problem.

(I know that’s what I always say. But it’s a testament to the current political climate that saying “policy should be based on cost-benefit analyses, not ideology” can feel radical [8].)

I would suggest that if you’re the type of person whose knee-jerk response to regulation is to support it, you should look at how it will displace labour from blue-collar to white-collar industries or raise prices and ponder if this is worth its benefits. If instead you oppose regulation by default, I’d suggest looking at its goals and remembering that the cost of reaching them isn’t infinite. You might be surprised at what a true cost benefit analysis returns.

Also, it probably seems true that some things are a touch over-regulated if $65,000 (or even $10,000) is an unsurprising estimate for a set of stairs.

Epistemic Status:  Model

Footnotes:

[1] Of course, even unpaid overtime has a cost. After a lot of it, you might feel justified to a rather longer paid vacation than you might otherwise take. Not to mention that long hours with inadequate breaks can harm productivity in the long run.  ^

[2] It seems to rest on the belief that regulation makes things more expensive, therefore fewer people buy them, therefore fewer people are needed to produce them. What this simple analysis misses (and what’s pointed out in the Pro Publica article I linked) is that regulatory compliance is a job. Jobs lost directly producing things are more or less offset by jobs dealing with regulations, such that increased regulation has an imperceptible effect on employment. This seems related to the lump of labour fallacy, although I’ve yet to figure out how to clearly articulate the connection. ^

[3] In Filthy Lucre, Professor Joseph Heath talks about the failures of state-run companies to create “socially inclusive growth”. Basically, managers in companies care far more about their power within the company than the company being successful (the iron law of institutions). If you give them a single goal, you can align their incentives with yours and get good results. Give them two goals and they’ll focus on building up their own little fief within the company and explaining away any failures (from your perspective) as the necessary results of balancing their dual tasks (“yes, I posted no profits, I was trying to be very socially inclusive this quarter”).

Regulation, if set up so that it seriously affects profits (or if set up so that it has high personal consequences for managers) forces the manager to avoid acting in a ruinously anti-social way without leaving them with the sort of divided loyalties that can cause companies to become semi-feudal. 

[4] The end game would quite possibly involve supermarkets setting up legally separate (with significant board overlap) charitable organizations that would handle the distribution, and compelling these shells (who would carry almost no cash so as to be judgement proof) to sign contracts indemnifying the source supermarket against all lawsuits. This would require lots and lots of lawyer time and money, which means consumers would see higher food prices. ^

[5] Actually, higher food prices are pretty much inevitable, because there’s still a bunch of new logistics that have to be worked out as a result of this law. If the logistics turn out to be more expensive then the fines, supermarkets will continue to throw out food (while passing the costs of the fines on to the consumer). If the fines are more expensive, then food will be donated (but price of donating it will still inevitably be passed on to consumers). Any government program that makes food more expensive is incredibly regressive – it’s this realization that underlies the tax-free status of unprepared food in Canada.

Supplemental nutrition programs (AKA “food stamps”) have the benefit of subsidizing food for those who need it from the general tax pool, which can be based on progressive taxation and mainly paid for by the wealthy.

It’s really easy to see a bunch of food sitting around and realize it could be better used. It’s really hard (and expensive) to actually handle the transport and preparation of that food. ^

[6] Meaning that a government that really wanted to reduce regulation would have to make it rather hard to sue anyone. This seems like an unlikely use of political capital and also probably in conflict with many notions of fundamental justice.

Anyway, you should look at changes to liability the same way you look at regulation. Ultimately, they may amount to the same thing. ^

[7] This is dubious because it’s inherently anti-democratic (the government is taking actions designed to be opaque to the governed) and also incredibly baroque. I’m not talking about simple changes to liability that will be intuitively understood. I’m talking about provisos written in solid legalese that tweak liability in ways that I wouldn’t expect anyone without a law degree and expertise in liability law to understand. If a government was currently doing this, I would expect that I wouldn’t know it and wouldn’t understand it even if it was pointed out to me. ^

[8] Note, crucially, that it feels radical, but isn’t. Most people who read my blog already agree with me here, so I’m not actually risking any consequences by being all liberal/centrist/neo-liberal/whatever we’re calling people who don’t toe the party line this week. ^

Economics, Model, Politics

Minimum Standards or Broad Access?

[5-minute read]

There are two sides to every story. Zoning and maximum occupancy regulations are exclusionary and drive up the price of housing. They are also necessary to prevent exploitative landlords from leaving their tenants in squalor. Catastrophic health insurance plans leave patients uncovered for many of the services they might need. They’re also often the only plans that are rational for younger people to buy.

Where you come down on either of these – or any similar cases where there’s a clear trade-off between maximum access and minimum standards – is probably heavily dependent on your situation. If you’re an American millennial without an employer-provided or parental health care plan, you’re probably quite incensed about the lack of catastrophic health care insurance. For healthy young adults, those plans were an excellent deal.

Similarly, workaholics in the Bay Area sometimes want to be able to stuff a house full to the bursting to save on rent. If you’re never going to be home, regulations around the number of square feet per bed feel incredibly onerous.

I like to point out that regulation is a trade-off. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it’s a trade-off made at the middle. People in the long probability tails – those who are far from the median when it comes to income or risk-tolerance often feel left out by any of the trade-offs made by the majority. This is an almost inevitable side-effect of trade-offs that I rarely see mentioned.

If you have health problems for which Obamacare didn’t mandate coverage, then you might find yourself wishing that the coverage requirements were even more expansive. If you find yourself really hating the illegal AirBnB you’re living in with twelve other programmers, you might wish that the city’s rental enforcement unit was a bit more on their game.

Most articles about people on the extremes leave out the context and leave out the satisfied middle. They don’t say “this is the best trade-off we could get, but it’s still imperfect and it still hurts people”. They say breathlessly “look at this one person hurt by a policy, the policy hurts people and is bad; the people who advocate for it are evil.”

It’s understandable to leave out the middle in the search of a better story. The problem arises when you leave out the middle and then claim all advocates are evil for failing to care about the fringes. Because most of the time, no one is being evil.

The young people skipping out on coverage because it’s not worth it for them aren’t shirking a duty. They’re making the best of their limited finances, ravaged by a tough entry-level job market and expensive university education. The NIMBYs who fight against any change to local building codes that might make housing more affordable are over-leveraged on their houses and might end up underwater if prices fall at all.

Even appeals to principles don’t do much good in situations like this. You can say “no one should live in squalor”, but that might run right up against “everyone should be able to afford a place to live”. It can be that there simply isn’t enough housing supply in desirable cities to comfortably accommodate everyone who wants to live there – and the only way to change that involves higher direct or indirect taxes (here an indirect tax might be something like requiring 15% of new rental stock to be “affordable”, which raises the price of other rental stock to compensate), taxes that will exclude yet another group of people.

When it comes to healthcare in America, you can say “young people shouldn’t be priced out of the market”, but this really does compete with “old people shouldn’t be priced out of the market” or “pre-existing conditions shouldn’t be grounds for coverage to be denied”.

The non-American way of doing healthcare comes with its own country specific trade-offs. In Germany, if you switch from the public plan to a private plan it is very hard to get back on the public plan. This prevents people from gaming the system – holding cheaper private insurance while they’re young, healthy and earning money, then trying to switch back during their retirement, but it also can leave people out in the cold with no insurance.

In Canada, each province has a single, government-run insurance provider that charges non-actuarial premiums (premiums based on how much you make, not how likely you are to use healthcare services). This guarantees universal coverage, but also results in some services (especially those without empirical backing, or where the cost-benefit is too low) remaining uncovered. Canada also prohibits mixing of public and private funds, making private healthcare much more expensive.

Canadians aren’t spared hard choices, we just have to make different trade-offs than Americans. Here we must pick (and did pick) between “the government shouldn’t decide who lives and who dies” and “care should be universal”. This choice was no less wrenching then any of those faced by Obamacare’s drafters.

Municipalities face similar challenges around housing policy. San Francisco is trying to retain the character of the city and protect existing residents with rent control and strict zoning regulations. The Region of Waterloo, where I live, has gone the other way. Despite a much lower population and much less density, it has almost as much construction as San Francisco (16 cranes for Waterloo vs. 22 for SF).

This comes at a cost. Waterloo mandated that houses converted into rental properties cannot hold more than three unrelated tenants per unit, thereby producing guaranteed renters for all the new construction (and alleviating concerns about students living in squalid conditions). The region hopes that affordability will come through densification, but this cuts down on the options student renters have (and can make it more expensive for them to rent).

Toronto is going all out building (it has about as many cranes on its skyline as Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix combined), at the cost of displacing residents in rooming houses. There’s the hope that eventually supply will bring down Toronto’s soaring house costs, but it might be that more formal monthly arrangements are out of the reach of current rooming house residents (especially given that rent control rules have resulted in a 35-year drought on new purpose-built rental units).

In all of these cases, it’s possible to carve out a sacred principle and defend it. But you’re going to run into two problems with your advocacy. First, there’s going to be resistance from the middle of society, who have probably settled on the current trade-off because it’s the least offensive to them. Second, you’re going to find people on the other underserved extreme, convinced all the problems they have with the trade-off can be alleviated by the exact opposite of what you’re advocating.

Obamacare looked like it would be impossible to defend without Democrats controlling at least one lever of government. Republicans voted more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare. Now that they control everything, there is serious doubt that they’ll be able to change it at all. Republicans got drunk on the complaints of people on the long tails, the people worst served by Obamacare. They didn’t realize it really was the best compromise that could be obtained under the circumstances, or just how unpopular any attempt to change that compromise would be.

(To be entirely fair to Republicans, it seems like many Americans, including many of those who opposed Obamacare up until Obama left office, also just realized it was the best possible compromise.)

This is going to be another one of those posts where I don’t have a clear prescription for fixing anything (except perhaps axing rent control aka “the best way to destroy a city’s rental stock short of bombing it”). I don’t actually want to convince people – especially people left out of major compromises – not to advocate for something different. It’s only through broad input that we get workable compromises at all. Pluralistic society is built on many legitimate competing interests. People are motivated by different terminal values and different moral foundations.

Somehow, despite it all, we manage to mostly not kill each other. Maybe my prescription is simply that we should keep trying to find workable compromises and keep trying not to kill each other. Perhaps we could stand to put more effort into understanding why people ask for what they do. And we could try and be kind to each other. I feel comfortable recommending that.

Epistemic Status: Model