History, Model

Warriors and Soldiers

Epistemic Status: Full of sweeping generalizations because I don’t want to make it 10x longer by properly unpacking all the underlying complexity.

[9 minute read]

In 2006, Dr. Atul Gawande wrote an article in The New Yorker about maternal care entitled “How Childbirth Went Industrial“. It’s an excellent piece from an author who consistently produces excellent pieces. In it, Gawande charts the rise of the C-section, from its origin as technique so dangerous it was considered tantamount to murder (and consequently banned on living mothers), to its current place as one of the most common surgical procedures carried out in North American hospitals.

The C-section – and epidurals and induced labour – have become so common because obstetrics has become ruthlessly focused on maximizing the Apgar score of newborns. Along the way, the field ditched forceps (possibly better for the mother yet tricky to use or teach), a range of maneuvers for manually freeing trapped babies (likewise difficult), and general anesthetic (genuinely bad for infants, or at least for the Apgar scores of infants).

The C-section has taken the place of much of the specialized knowledge of obstetrics of old, not the least because it is easy to teach and easy for even relatively less skilled doctors to get right. When Gawande wrote the article, there was debate about offering women in their 39th week of pregnancy C-sections as an alternative to waiting for labour. Based on the stats, this hasn’t quite come to pass, but C-sections have become slightly more prevalent since the article was written.

I noticed two laments in the piece. First, Gawande wonders at the consequences of such an essential aspect of the human experience being increasingly (and based off of the studies that show forceps are just as good as C-sections, arguably unnecessarily) medicalized. Second, there’s a sense throughout the article that difficult and hard-won knowledge is being lost.

The question facing obstetrics was this: Is medicine a craft or an industry? If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills—the Woods corkscrew maneuver for the baby with a shoulder stuck, the Lovset maneuver for the breech baby, the feel of a forceps for a baby whose head is too big. You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.

But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. could really master all these techniques. You notice the steady reports of terrible forceps injuries to babies and mothers, despite the training that clinicians have received. After Apgar, obstetricians decided that they needed a simpler, more predictable way to intervene when a laboring mother ran into trouble. They found it in the Cesarean section.

Medicine would not be the first industry to industrialize. The quasi-mythical King Ludd that gave us the phrase “Luddite” was said to be a weaver, put out of business by the improved mechanical knitting machines. English programs turn out thousands of writers every year, all with an excellent technical command of the English language, but most with none of the emotive power of Gawande. Following the rules is good enough when you’re writing for a corporation that fears to offend, or for technical clarity. But the best writers don’t just know how to follow the rules. They know how and when to break them.

If Gawande was a student of military history, he’d have another metaphor for what is happening to medicine: warriors are being replaced by soldiers.

If you ever find yourself in possession of a spare hour and feel like being lectured breathlessly by a wide-eyed enthusiast, find your local military history buff (you can identify them by their collection of swords or antique guns) and ask them whether there’s any difference between soldiers and warriors.

You can go do this now, or I can fill in, having given this lecture many times myself.

Imagine your favourite (or least favourite) empire from history. You don’t get yourself an empire by collecting bottle caps. To create one, you need some kind of army. To staff your army, you have two options. Warriors, or soldiers.

(Of course, this choice isn’t made just by empires. Their neighbours must necessarily face the same conundrum.)

Warriors are the heroes of movies. They were almost always the product of training that starts at a young age and more often than not were members a special caste. Think medieval European Knights, Japanese Samurai, or the Hashashin fida’i. Warriors were notable for their eponymous mastery of war. A knight was expected to understand strategy and tactics, riding, shooting, fighting (both on foot and mounted), and wrestling. Warriors wanted to live up to their warrior ethos, which normally emphasized certain virtues, like courage and mercy (to other warriors, not to any common peasant drafted to fight them).

Soldiers were whichever conscripts or volunteers someone could get into a reasonable standard of military order. They knew only what they needed to complete their duties: perhaps one or two simple weapons, how to march in formation, how to cook, and how to repair some of their equipment [1]. Soldiers just wanted to make it through the next battle alive. In service to this, they were often brutally efficient in everything they did. Fighting wasn’t an art to them – it was simple butchery and the simpler and quicker the better. Classic examples of soldiers are the Roman Legionaries, Greek Hoplites, and Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

The techniques that soldiers learned were simple because they needed to be easy to teach to ignorant peasants on a mass scale in a short time. Warriors had their whole childhood for elaborate training.

(Or at least, that’s the standard line. In practice, things were never quite as clear cut as that – veteran soldiers might have been as skilled as any warrior, for example. The general point remains though; one on one, you would always have bet on a warrior over a soldier.)

But when you talk about armies, a funny thing happens. Soldiers dominated [2]. Individually, they might have been kind of crap at what they did. Taken as a whole though, they were well-coordinated. They looked out for each other. They fought as a team. They didn’t foolishly break ranks, or charge headlong into the enemy. When Germanic warriors came up against Roman soldiers, they were efficiently butchered. The Germans went into battle looking for honour and perhaps a glorious death. The Romans happily gave them the latter and so lived (mostly) to collect their pensions. Whichever empire you thought about above almost certainly employed soldiers, not warriors.

It turns out that discipline and common purpose have counted for rather a lot more in military history than simple strength of arms. Of this particular point, I can think of no better example than the rebellion that followed the Meiji restoration. The few rebel samurai, wonderfully trained and unholy terrors in single combat were easily slaughtered by the Imperial conscripts, who knew little more than which side of a musket to point at the enemy.

The very fact that the samurai didn’t embrace the firing line is a point against them. Their warrior code, which esteemed individual skill, left them no room to adopt this devastating new technology. And no one could command them to take it up, because they were mostly prima donnas where their honour was concerned.

I don’t want to be too hard on warriors. They were actually an efficient solution to the problem of national defence if a population was small and largely agrarian, lacked political cohesion or logistical ability, or was otherwise incapable of supporting a large army. Under these circumstances, polities could not afford to keep a large population under arms at all times. This gave them several choices: they could rely on temporary levies, who would be largely untrained. They could have a large professional army that paid for itself largely through raiding, or they could have a small, elite cadre of professional warriors.

All of these strategies had disadvantages. Levies tended to have very brittle morale, and calling up a large proportion of a population makes even a successfully prosecuted war economically devastating. Raiding tends to make your neighbours really hate you, leading to more conflicts. It can also be very bad for discipline and can backfire on your own population in lean times. Professional warriors will always be dwarfed in numbers by opponents using any other strategy.

Historically, it was never as simple as solely using just one strategy (e.g. European knights were augmented with and eventually supplanted by temporary levies), but there was a clear lean towards one strategy or another in most resource-limited historical polities. It took complex cultural technology and a well-differentiated economy to support a large force of full time soldiers and wherever these pre-conditions were lacking, you just had to make do with what you could get [3].

When conditions suddenly call for a struggle – whether that struggle is against a foreign adversary, to boost profits, or to cure disease, it is useful to look at how many societal resources are thrown at the fight. When resources are scarce, we should expect to see a few brilliant generalists, or many poorly trained conscripts. When resources are thick on the ground, the amount that can be spent on brilliant people is quickly saturated and the benefits of training your conscripts quickly accrue. From one direction or another, you’ll approach the concept of soldiers.

Doctors as soldiers, not as warriors is the concept Gawande is brushing up against in his essay. These new doctors will be more standardized, with less room for individual brilliance, but more affordances for working well in teams. The prima donnas will be banished (as they aren’t good team players, even when they’re brilliant). Dr. Gregory House may have been the model doctor in the Victorian Age, or maybe even in the fifties. But I doubt any hospital would want him now. It may be that this standardization is just the thing we need to overcome persistent medical errors, improve outcomes across the board, and make populations healthier. But I can sympathize with the position that it might be causing us to lose something beautiful.

In software development, where I work, a similar trend can be observed. Start-ups aggressively court ambitious generalists, for whom freedom to build things their way is more important than market rate compensation and is a better incentive than even the lottery that is stock-options. At start-ups, you’re likely to see languages that are “fun” to work with, often dynamically typed, even though these languages are often considered less inherently comprehensible than their more “enterprise-friendly” statically typed brethren.

It’s with languages like Java (or its Microsoft clone, C#) and C++ that companies like Google and Amazon build the underlying infrastructure that powers large tracts of the internet. Among the big pure software companies, Facebook is the odd one out for using PHP (and this choice required them to rewrite the code underlying the language from scratch to make it performant enough for their large load).

It’s also at larger companies where team work, design documents, and comprehensibility start to be very important (although there’s room for super-stars at all of the big “tech” companies still; it’s only in companies more removed from tech and therefore outside a lot of the competition for top talent where being a good team player and writing comprehensible code might top brilliance as a qualifier). This isn’t to say that no one hiring for top talent appreciates things like good documentation, or comprehensibility. Merely that it is easy for a culture that esteems individual brilliance to ignore these things are a mark of competence.

Here the logic goes that anyone smart enough for the job will be smart enough to untangle the code of their predecessors. As anyone who’s been involved in the untangling can tell you, there’s a big difference between “smart enough to untangle this mess” and “inclined to wade through this genius’s spaghetti code to get to the part that needs fixing”.

No doubt there exist countless other examples in fields I know nothing about.

The point of gathering all these examples and shoving them into my metaphor is this: I think there exist two important transitions that can occur when a society needs to focus a lot of energy on a problem. The transition from conscripts to soldiers isn’t very interesting, as it’s basically the outcome of a process of continuous improvement.

But the transition from warriors to soldiers is. It’s amazing that we can often get better results by replacing a few highly skilled generalists who apply a lot of hard fought decision making, with a veritable army of less well trained, but highly regimented and organized specialists. It’s a powerful testament to the usefulness of group intelligence. Of course, sometimes (e.g. Google, or the Mongols) you get both, but these are rare happy accidents.

Being able to understand where this transition is occurring helps you understand where we’re putting effort. Understanding when it’s happening within your own sphere of influence can help you weather it.

Also note that this transition doesn’t only go in one direction. As manufacturing becomes less and less prevalent in North America, we may return to the distant past, when manufacturing stuff was only undertaken by very skilled artisans making unique objects.

Footnotes:

[1] Note the past tense throughout much of this essay; when I speak about soldiers and warriors, I’m referring only to times before the 1900s. I know comparatively little about how modern armies are set up. ^

[2] Best of all were the Mongols, who combined the lifelong training of warriors with the discipline and organization of soldiers. When Mongols clashed with European knights in Hungary, their “dishonourable” tactics (feints, followed by feigned retreats and skirmishing) easily took the day. This was all possible through a system of signal flags that allowed Subutai to command the whole battle from a promontory. European leaders were expected to show their bravery by being in the thick of fighting, which gave them no overall control over their lines. ^

[3] Historically, professional armies with good logistical support could somewhat pay for themselves by expanding an empire, which brought in booty and slaves. This is distinct from raiding (which does not seek to incorporate other territories) and has its own disadvantages (rebellion, over-extension, corruption, massive unemployment among unskilled labourers, etc.). ^

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.

Ethics, Philosophy

Against Moral Intuitions

[Content Warning: Effective Altruism, the Drowning Child Argument]

I’m a person who sometimes reads about ethics. I blame Catholicism. In Catholic school, you have to take a series of religion courses. The first two are boring. Jesus loves you, is your friend, etc. Thanks school. I got that from going to church all my life. But the later religion classes were some of the most useful courses I’ve taken. Ever. The first was world religions. Thanks to that course, “how do you know that about [my religion]?” is a thing I’ve heard many times.

The second course was about ethics, biblical analysis, and apologetics. The ethics part hit me the hardest. I’d always loved systematizing and here I was exposed to Very Important Philosophy People engaged in the millennia long project of systematizing fundamental questions of right and wrong under awesome sounding names, like “utilitarianism” and “deontology”.

In the class, we learned commonly understood pitfalls of ethical systems, like that Kantians have to tell the truth to axe murderers and that utilitarians like to push fat people in front of trains. This introduced me to the idea of philosophical thought experiments.

I’ve learned (and wrote) a lot more about ethics since those days and I’ve read through a lot of thought experiments. When it comes to ethics, there seems to be two ways a thought experiment can go; it can show that an ethical system conflicts with our moral intuitions, or it can show that an ethical system fails to universalize.

Take the common criticism of deontology, that the Kantian moral imperative to always tell the truth applies even when you could achieve a much better outcome with a white lie. The thought experiment that goes with this point asks us to imagine a person with an axe intent on murdering our best friend. The axe murderer asks us where our friend can be found and warns us that if we don’t answer, they’ll kill us. Most people would tell the murderer a quick lie, then call the police as soon as they leave. Deontologists say that we must not lie.

Most people have a clear moral intuition about what to do in a situation like that, a moral intuition that clashes with what deontologists suggest we should do. Confronted with this mismatch, many people will leave with a dimmer view of deontology, convinced that it “gets this one wrong”. That uncertainty opens a crack. If deontology requires us to tell the truth even to axe murderers, what else might it get wrong?

The other way to pick a hole in ethical systems is to show that the actions that they recommend don’t universalize (i.e. they’d be bad if everyone did them). This sort of logic is perhaps most familiar to parents of young children, who, when admonishing their sprogs not to steal, frequently point out that they have possessions they cherish, possessions they wouldn’t like stolen from them. This is so successful because most people have an innate sense of fairness; maybe we’d all like it if we could get away with stuff that no one else could, but most of us know we’ll never be able to, so we instead stand up for a world where no one else can get away with the stuff we can’t.

All of the major branches of ethics fall afoul of either universalizability or moral intuitions in some way.

Deontology (doing only things that universalize and doing them with pure motives) and utilitarianism (doing whatever leads to the best outcomes for everyone) both tend to universalize really well. This is helped by the fact that both of these systems treat people as virtually interchangeable; if you are in the same situation as I am, these ethical systems would recommend the same thing for both of us. Unfortunately, both deontology and utilitarianism have well known cases of clashing with moral intuitions.

Egoism (do whatever is in your self-interest) doesn’t really universalize. At some point, your self-interest will come into conflict with the self-interest of other people and you’re going to choose your own.

Virtue ethics (cultivating virtues that will allow you to live a moral life) is more difficult to pin down and I’ll have to use a few examples. On first glance, Virtue ethics tends to fit in well with our moral intuitions and universalizes fairly well. But virtue ethics has as its endpoint virtuous people, not good outcomes, which strikes many people as the wrong thing to aim for.

For example, a utilitarian may consider their obligation to charity to exist as long as poverty does. A virtue ethicist has a duty to charity only insofar as it is necessary to cultivate the virtue of charity; their attempt to cultivate the virtue will run the same course in a mostly equal society and a fantastically unequal one. This trips up the commonly held moral intuition that the worse the problem, the greater our obligation to help.

Virtue ethics may also fail to satisfy our moral intuitions when you consider the societal nature of virtue. In a world where slavery is normalized, virtue ethicists often don’t critique slavery, because their society has no corresponding virtue for fighting against the practice. This isn’t just a hypothetical; Aristotle and Plato, two of the titans of virtue ethics defended slavery in their writings. When you have the meta moral intuition that your moral intuitions might change over time, virtue ethics can feel subtly off to you. “What virtues are we currently missing?” you may ask yourself, or “how will the future judge those considered virtuous today?”. In many cases, the answers to these questions are “many” and “poorly”. See the opposition to ending slavery, opposition to interracial marriage, and opposition to same-sex marriage for salient examples.

It was so hard for me to attack virtue ethics with moral intuitions because virtue ethics is remarkably well suited for them. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Virtue ethics and moral intuitions arose in similar circumstances – small, closely knit, and homogenous groups of humans with very limited ability to affect their environment or effect change at a distance.

Virtue ethics work best when dealing with small groups of people where everyone is mutually known. When you cannot help someone half a world away, it really only does matter that you have the virtue of charity developed such that a neighbour can ask for your help and receive it. Most virtue ethicists would agree that there is virtue in being humane to animals – after all, cruelty to other animals often shows a penchant for cruelty to humans. But the virtue ethics case against factory farming is weak from the perspective of the end consumer. Factory farming is horrifically cruel. But it is not our cruelty, so it does not impinge on our virtue. We have outsourced this cruelty (and many others) and so can be easily virtuous in our sanitized lives.

Moral intuitions are the same way. I’d like to avoid making any claims about why moral intuitions evolved, but it seems trivially true to say that they exist, that they didn’t face strong negative selection pressure, and that the environment in which they came into being was very different from the modern world.

Because of this, moral intuitions tend to only be activated when we see or hear about something wrong. Eating factory farmed meat does not offend the moral intuitions of most people (including me), because we are well insulated from the horrible cruelty of factory farming. Moral intuitions are also terrible at spurring us to action beyond our own immediate network. From the excellent satirical essay Newtonian Ethics:

Imagine a village of a hundred people somewhere in the Congo. Ninety-nine of these people are malnourished, half-dead of poverty and starvation, oozing from a hundred infected sores easily attributable to the lack of soap and clean water. One of those people is well-off, living in a lovely two-story house with three cars, two laptops, and a wide-screen plasma TV. He refuses to give any money whatsoever to his ninety-nine neighbors, claiming that they’re not his problem. At a distance of ten meters – the distance of his house to the nearest of their hovels – this is monstrous and abominable.

Now imagine that same hundredth person living in New York City, some ten thousand kilometers away. It is no longer monstrous and abominable that he does not help the ninety-nine villagers left in the Congo. Indeed, it is entirely normal; any New Yorker who spared too much thought for the Congo would be thought a bit strange, a bit with-their-head-in-the-clouds, maybe told to stop worrying about nameless Congolese and to start caring more about their friends and family.

If I can get postmodern for a minute, it seems that all ethical systems draw heavily from the time they are conceived. Kant centred his deontological ethics in humanity instead of in God, a shift that makes sense within the context of his time, when God was slowly being removed from the centre of western philosophy. Utilitarianism arose specifically to answer questions around the right things to legislate. Given this, it is unsurprising that it emerged at a time when states were becoming strong enough and centralized enough that their legislation could affect the entire populace.

Both deontology and utilitarianism come into conflict with our moral intuitions, those remnants of a bygone era when we were powerless to help all but the few directly surrounding us. When most people are confronted with a choice between their moral intuitions and an ethical system, they conclude that the ethical system must be flawed. Why?

What causes us to treat ancient, largely unchanging intuitions as infallible and carefully considered ethical systems as full of holes? Why should it be this way and not the other way around?

Let me try and turn your moral intuitions on themselves with a variant of a famous thought experiment. You are on your way to a job interview. You already have a job, but this one pays $7,500 more each year. You take a short-cut to the interview through a disused park. As you cross a bridge over the river that bisects the park, you see a child drowning beneath you. Would you save the child, even if it means you won’t get the job and will have to make due with $7,500 less each year? Or would you let her drown and continue on the way to your interview? Our moral intuitions are clear on this point. It is wrong to let a child die because we wish to more money in our pockets each year.

Can you imagine telling someone about the case in which you don’t save the child? “Yeah, there was a drowning child, but I’ve heard that Acme Corp is a real hard-ass about interviews starting on time, so I just waltzed by her.” People would call you a monster!

Yet your moral intuitions also tell you that you have no duty to prevent the malaria linked deaths of children in Malawi, even you would be saving a child’s life at exactly the same cost. The median Canadian family income is $76,000. If a family making this amount of money donated 10% of their income to the Against Malaria Foundation, they would be able to prevent one death from malaria every year or two. No one calls you monstrous for failing to prevent these deaths, even though the costs and benefits are exactly the same. Ignoring the moral worth of people halfway across the world is practically expected of us and is directly condoned by our distance constrained moral intuitions.

Your moral intuitions don’t know how to cope with a world where you can save a life half the world away with nothing more than money and a well-considered donation. It’s not their fault. They didn’t develop for this. They have no way of dealing with a global community or an interconnected world. But given that, why should you trust the intuitions that aren’t developed for the situation you find yourself in? Why should you trust an evolutionary vestige over elegant and well-argued systems that can gracefully cope with the realities of modern life?

I’ve chosen utilitarianism over my moral intuitions, even when the conclusions are inconvenient or truly terrifying. You can argue with me about what moral intuitions say all you want, but I’m probably not going to listen. I don’t trust moral intuitions anymore. I can’t trust anything that fails to spur people towards the good as often as moral intuitions do.

Utilitarianism says that all lives are equally valuable. It does not say that all lives are equally easy to save. If you want to maximize the good that you do, you should seek out the lives that are cheapest to save and thereby save as many people as possible.

To this end, I’ve taken the “Try Giving” pledge. Last September, I promised to donate 10% of my income to the most effective charities for a year. This September, I’m going to take the full Giving What We Can pledge, making my commitment to donate to the most effective charities permeant.

If utilitarianism appeals to you and you have the means to donate, I’d like to encourage you to do the same.

Epistemic Status: I managed to talk about both post-modernism and evolutionary psychology, so handle with care. Also, Ethics.

Model, Physics, Science

Understanding Radiation via Antennas

It can be hard to grasp that radio waves, deadly radiation, and the light we can see are all the same thing. How can electromagnetic (EM) radiation – photons – sometimes penetrate walls and sometimes not? How can some forms of EM radiation be perfectly safe and others damage our DNA? How can radio waves travel so much further than gamma rays in air, but no further through concrete?

It all comes down to wavelength. But before we get into that, we should at least take a glance at what EM radiation really is.

Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of two orthogonal waves. In one direction, you have an oscillating magnetic field. In the other, an oscillating electric field. Both of these fields are orthogonal to the direction of travel.

These oscillations take a certain amount of time to complete, a time which is calculated by observing the peak value of one of the fields and then measuring how long it takes for the field to return to that value. Luckily, we only need to do this once, because the time an oscillation takes (called the period) will stay the same unless acted on by something external. You can invert the period to get the frequency – the number of times oscillations occur in a second. Frequency uses the unit Hertz, which are just inverted seconds. If something has the frequency 60Hz, it happens 60 times per seconds.

EM radiation has another nifty property: it always travels at the same speed, a speed commonly called “the speed of light” [1] (even when applied to EM radiation that isn’t light). When you know the speed of an oscillating wave and the amount of time it takes for the wave to oscillate, you can calculate the wavelength. Scientists like to do this because the wavelength gives us a lot of information about how radiation will interact with world. It is common practice to represent wavelength with the Greek letter Lambda (λ).

lambda class shuttle from star wars
Not that type of lambda. Image Credit: Marshal Banana on Flickr

Put in a more mathy way: if you have an event that occurs with frequency f to something travelling at velocity v, the event will have a spatial periodicity λ (our trusty wavelength) equal to v / f. For example, if you have a sound that oscillates 34Hz (this frequency is equivalent to the lowest C♯ on a standard piano) travelling at 340m/s (the speed of sound in air), it will have a wavelength of (340 m/s)/(34 s-1) = 10m. I’m using sound here so we can use reasonably sized numbers, but the results are equally applicable to light or other forms of EM radiation.

Wavelength and frequency are inversely related to each other. The higher the frequency of something, the smaller its wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. I’m used to people describing EM radiation in terms of frequency when they’re talking about energy (the quicker something is vibrating, the more energy it has) and wavelength when talking about what it will interact with (the subject of the rest of this post).

With all that background out of the way, we can actually “look” at electromagnetic radiation and understand what we’re seeing.

animated gif showing oscillating magnetic and electric fields orthogonal to direction of travel
Here wavelength is labeled with “λ”, the electric field is red and labelled with “E” and the magnetic field is blue and labelled with “B”. “B” is the standard symbol for magnetic fields, for reasons I have never understood. Image Credit: Lookang on Wikimedia Commons.

Wavelength is very important. You know those big TV antennas houses used to have?

picture of house with old fashioned aerial antenna
Image Credit: B137 on Wikimedia Commons

Turns out that they’re about the same size as the wavelength of television signals. The antenna on a car? About the same size as the radio waves it picks up. Those big radio telescopes in the desert? Same size as the extrasolar radio waves they hope to pick up.

image of the VLA radio telescopes
Fun fact: these dishes together make up a very large radio telescope, unimaginatively called the “Very Large Array”. Image Credit: Hajor on Wikimedia Commons

Even things we don’t normally think of as antennas can act like them. The rod and cone cells in your eyes act as antennas for the light of this very blog post [2]. Chains of protein or water molecules act as antennas for microwave radiation, often with delicious results. The bases in your DNA act as antennas for UV light, often with disastrous results.

These are just a few examples, not an exhaustive list. For something to be able to interact with EM radiation, you just need an appropriately sized system of electrons (or electrical system; the two terms imply each other). You get this system of electrons more or less for free with metal. In a metal, all of the electrons are delocalized, making the whole length of a metal object one big electrical system. This is why the antennas in our phones or on our houses are made of metal. It isn’t just metal that can have this property though. Organic substances can have appropriately sized systems of delocalized electrons via double bonding [3].

EM radiation can’t really interact with things that aren’t the same size as its wavelength. Interaction with EM radiation takes the form of the electric or magnetic field of a photon altering the electric or magnetic field of the substance being interacted with. This happens much more readily when the fields are approximately similar sizes. When fields are the same size, you get an opportunity for resonance, which dramatically decreases the loss in the interaction. Losses for dissimilar sized electric fields are so high that you can assume (as a first approximation) that they don’t really interact.

In practical terms, this means that a long metal rod might heat up if exposed to a lot of radio waves (wavelengths for radio waves vary from 1mm to 100km; many are a few metres long due to the ease of making antennas in that size) because it has a single electrical system that is the right size to absorb energy from the radio waves. A similarly sized person will not heat up, because there is no single part of them that is a unified electrical system the same size as the radio waves.

Microwaves (wavelengths appropriately micron-sized) might heat up your food, but they won’t damage your DNA (nanometres in width). They’re much larger than individual DNA molecules. Microwaves are no more capable of interacting with your DNA than a giant would be of picking up a single grain of rice. Microwaves can hurt cells or tissues, but they’re incapable of hurting your DNA and leaving the rest of the cell intact. They’re just too big. Because of this, there is no cancer risk from microwave exposure (whatever paranoid hippies might say).

Gamma rays do present a cancer risk. They have a wavelength (about 10 picometres) that is similar in size to electrons. This means that they can be absorbed by the electrons in your DNA, which kick these electrons out of their homes, leading to chemical reactions that change your DNA and can ultimately lead to cancer.

Wavelength explains how gamma rays can penetrate concrete (they’re actually so small that they miss most of the mass of concrete and only occasionally hit electrons and stop) and how radio waves penetrate concrete (they’re so large that you need a large amount of concrete before they’re able to interact with it and be stopped [4]). Gamma rays are stopped by the air because air contains electrons (albeit sparsely) that they can hit and be stopped by. Radio waves are much too large for this to be a possibility.

When you’re worried about a certain type of EM radiation causing cancer, all you have to do is look at its wavelength. Any wavelength smaller than that of ultraviolet light (about 400nm) is small enough to interact with DNA in a meaningful way. Anything large is unable to really interact with DNA and is therefore safe.

Epistemic Status: Model. Looking at everything as antenna will help you understand why EM radiation interacts with the physical world the way it does, but there is a lot of hidden complexity here. For example, eyes are far from directly analogous to antennas in their mechanism of action, even if they are sized appropriately to be antennas for light. It’s also true that at the extreme ends of photon energy, interactions are based more on energy than on size. I’ve omitted this in order to write something that isn’t entirely caveats, but be aware that it occurs.

Footnotes:

[1] You may have heard that the speed of light changes in different substances. Tables will tell you that the speed of light in water is only about ¾ of the speed of light in air or vacuum and that the speed of light in glass is even slower still. This isn’t technically true. The speed of light is (as far as we know) cosmically invariant – light travels the same speed everywhere in the galaxy. That said, the amount of time light takes to travel between two points can vary based on how many collisions and redirections it is likely to get into between two points. It’s the difference between how long it takes for a pinball to make its way across a pinball table when it hits nothing and how long it takes when it hits every single bumper and obstacle. ^

[2] This is a first approximation of what is going on. Eyes can be modelled as antennas for the right wavelength of EM radiation, but this ignores a whole lot of chemistry and biophysics. ^

[3] The smaller the wavelength, the easier it is to find an appropriately sized system of electrons. When your wavelength is the size of a double bond (0.133nm), you’ll be able to interact with anything that has a double bond. Even smaller wavelengths have even more options for interactions – a wavelength that is well sized for an electron will interact with anything that has an electron (approximately everything). ^

[4] This interaction is actually governed by quantum mechanical tunneling. Whenever a form of EM radiation “tries” to cross a barrier larger than its wavelength, it will be attenuated by the barrier. The equation that describes the probability distribution of a particle (the photons that make up EM radiation are both waves and particles, so we can use particle equations for them) is approximately  (I say approximately because I’ve simplified all the constants into a single term, k), which becomes  (here I’m using k1 to imply that the constant will be different), the equation for exponential decay, when the energy (to a first approximation, length) of the substance is higher than the energy (read size of wavelength) of the light.

This equation shows that there can be some probability – occasionally even a high probability – of the particle existing on the other side of a barrier.  All you need for a particle to traverse a barrier is an appropriately small barrier. ^

Economics, Model, Politics, Quick Fix

On Low-Income Voters and Self-Interest

Neil McDonald’s new column points out that Trump’s low-income supporters voted against their own economic self-interest. This presents a fine opportunity for Mr. McDonald to lecture those voters about how bad Trump’s policies will be for them, as if they couldn’t have figured it out themselves.

I say: some of Trump’s supporters voted against their own self-interest? So what? Hillary Clinton’s well-off supporters, from Sam Altman, to many of my friends in the Bay Area did as well.

Back in Canada, I have even more examples of people who voted against their self-interest. They include myself, Mr. McDonald (in all likelihood), a bevy of well off technologists and programmers, and a bunch of highly educated students who expect to start high-paying jobs before the next election.

Just like Trump’s lower-income voters, we knew what we were getting into. We understood that we were voting for higher taxes for people like us. We voted for higher taxes because we like the things taxes buy – infrastructure, social services, and science funding, to name a few.

I have no doubt Mr. McDonald would understand this. But when it comes to low-income voters putting their aspirations for their country above their self-interest, he’s flabbergasted.

Americans are raised to believe that anything is possible in America if you are pure of heart and willing to work hard, which is nonsense, and that anyone can become president, which is even more foolish, and that free markets always make the right decision, which is nuts.

They are told that rugged individualism is the American way, which it isn’t, and that government is never the solution, which it sometimes most definitely is.

Mr. McDonald forgot to wonder if the people voting for Trump might desperately want these things to be true. What if the people he’s talking about really wanted everything he listed to be true and saw voting for Trump as their best chance to make them reality? What if they understood what they might lose and chose to vote anyway? Why should he believe they’re less likely to evaluate the consequence of a vote than he is? If any of these are true, are these voters still sheep led astray by right-wing politicians? Or are the politicians just responding to a real demand from their constituents?

These are the sorts of questions I’d like to see journalists who want to write about people – especially low-income people – voting against their economic self-interest grapple with.

It’s certainly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be able to deliver everything his supporters hope he will or everything he’s promised. That makes him a liar, or more charitably, overambitious. It doesn’t make his followers worthy of scorn for the simple act of voting for the type of society they wanted.

I would like to note that I view many of Trump’s policies as wrong-headed and profoundly lacking in compassion. I have no objections to someone scorning Trump voters because those voters seem to prefer fear to compassion and division to equity. I simply object to the hypocrisy of journalists mocking low-income Republicans for the same actions for which they lionize well-off Democrats (replace with Conservatives and Liberals if you’re in Canada and it still holds).

Why should people vote for their economic self-interest anyway? Sure, studies show that money totally can buy happiness, but it’s not the only thing that can. You can also become happy by living in a place that embodies your values. What left-wing think pieces criticizing the poor for voting against their interests miss is that this is true no matter how much money you make.

Here’s one theory of political consensus: if everyone votes for the policies that will be most to their own economic benefit, we’ll end up with compromise policies that tend to economically benefit everyone reasonably well. Here’s a different take: if everyone votes for the type of country they want to live in, we’ll end up with a country that fits everyone’s preferences reasonably well.

If you look at the exit poll data, it looks like people are pursuing a mix of these two strategies. Hillary Clinton won among people making less than $50,000 per year and Donald Trump won among people making more. While this may look like people are mainly voting in their economic interest, all of these margins were remarkably thin and notably much smaller than they were in the last election cycle. This could be indicative of more and more people voting aspirationally, rather than economically.

One interesting tidbit for Mr. McDonald though – if you look at the exit poll data, it turns out low income voters are the ones least likely to vote against their own self-interest.

Economics, Model

International Trade Explained with Jellybeans

Imagine that you’re a young teenager who really loves red jellybeans. You love them so much that you unabashedly call them your favourite food. It’s only the red ones though – you find all other jellybeans disgusting. For the purposes of this extended metaphor, you will have a sister. Like you, she loves one colour of jellybeans, but unlike you she only loves the green ones.

Image Credit: Larry Jacobsen on Flickr

Your parents are stingy. They long ago realized that they could save a lot of money by paying you for your chores in jellybeans, instead of with an allowance. To prop up this system, they’ve forbidden both you and your sister from buying jellybeans in any store. Both of you can only get jellybeans from your parents. You each get a few jellybeans of your preferred colour each time you complete a chore.

You keep a small horde of jellybeans in a jar in your room. Chores are irregular and you don’t want to risk having a jellybean craving but no way to get jellybeans. It’s pretty inconvenient that you and your sister like different flavours of jellybeans. If this wasn’t the case, you could use jellybeans as a sort of currency, trading them back and forth for various small things. For example, if only you liked the same jellybeans, she could give you jellybeans in exchange for using your new Nintendo Switch for a bit, while you could give her jellybeans to help you sneak out at night. You do this sometimes already, but only when you both want something of the other at the same time.

One day your sister takes the bus to a friend’s house. On the way, she happens to sit next to an economics professor. She complains to the professor about her plight and the professor offers a solution. Your sister comes home that night with a large grin splitting her face.

The scheme she proposes to you is simple. When you don’t have two things to trade at the same time, you’ll use jellybeans as your currency. If you agree to accept her jellybeans as payment, she’ll accept yours. You’ll both have the understanding that someday your sibling will trade those jellybeans back to you for some other thing. As the first trade, she offers you fifteen of her green jellybeans for one hour on your Nintendo Switch.

You think about it for a few minutes. It’s true that the fifteen green jellybeans are worthless to you. But they aren’t worthless to your sister and she will probably eventually want them back. As long as you trust that she’ll be around in the future and will still want green jellybeans, you may as well accept the trade. You’ve now realized that green jellybeans are useful to you even though you can’t eat them to feed your jellybean cravings.

You and your sister successfully trade like this for a few weeks. There are some wild fluctuations in your horde of jellybeans – some days it’s mostly red, other days it’s almost entirely green – but over the long run it tends towards red and you get to enjoy all of the benefits of trading with your sister. You’ve successfully snuck out to see your friends three times, while she’s made it halfway through the new Zelda game. It’s at this point where she comes to you with a discovery.

She’s invented a chemical that she can mix with a jellybean to double its size. She can’t make very much of it, only enough to make thirty new jellybeans a day. She makes a deal with you: she’ll use the chemical on your jellybeans in the proportion that they appear in her stash, but she’ll still own them afterwards and they’ll be worth twice as much in future trades.

Slowly the trading relationship changes. Your sister does fewer favours for you – although she doesn’t stop completely. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of your wealth of jellybeans end up with her, despite her playing your Switch very often. You don’t mind this arrangement, because you end up with many more jellybeans than you would have without her. Your sister doesn’t mind either, because it’s made playing the Switch much more accessible to her. That said, there are some negatives for her as well. She’s gotten noticeably weaker without the exercise from chores.

Eventually your parents catch on to this and confiscate your sister’s chemistry set. Furthermore, they punish her by cutting her jellybean allotment in half. Now, she’ll make half of what you do for the same chores. Worried about the effect of video games on her, they also limit the total screen time either of you is allowed (they ignore you whining that this is totally unfair) and demand that you each do one chore per day.

You still trade after this, although now things swing in the other direction. Your sister has to scrimp and save to afford time on the Switch, whereas you have an easier time hiring her as a lookout.

A few weeks later, your parents go on vacation. While they’re gone, they want you both to record the chores you do. When they get back, they’ll question you separately about the honesty of the chore log. If you both agree that it’s true (and they can see the chores actually got done), they’ll give you jellybeans for all the chores recorded on it.

They also switch up the compensation a bit. You’ve been spending more time inside these days, now that you’re lending the Switch to your sister less often, while your sister has gotten strong from all the yard-work she’s been doing. Your parents don’t really approve of this, so they’re changing the rewards that chores give.

Under the new rules, your sister still makes generally less than you, but it isn’t evenly distributed; she makes almost as much as you for chores inside of the house and much less than you for chores outside it. This is crappy for you, because now you’re the weak one. Your sister can do chores outside in half the time it would take you.

You and your sister immediately hatch a plan to do each other’s chores and later divide the spoils evenly. Your parents are too clever for this though. They tell you they’ll be watching your jellybean transactions for the next little bit. If you two split the difference and lie, they’ll know and they’ll ground both of you for a week. You’re both dejected, doomed to doing chores you aren’t good at. In a last-ditch effort to find something more palatable, your sister emails her economist friend from earlier.

She comes back a few hours later, contemplative. The economist offered a solution, but it seems odd.

The economist recommended that you lie about the chores; your sister will do all of the ones outside and you’ll do all of the ones inside. To get around your parent’s crude attempt at lie detection, you’ll do something simple. You won’t split the difference; you’ll accept payment in full for the chores you claimed to do and get to spend it as if it were yours.

Even though this seems unfair, it leaves both you and your sister better off overall. By focusing on the chores you’re both quickest at, you can maximize the number of jellybeans you earn for each unit of time you spend working. You both agree to this plan.

When they get back, your parents are suspicious of your sister’s muscles and the deep impression you’ve worn in the couch. They monitor your transactions for quite some time. But they never find any evidence that you averaged your take with your sister and eventually they give up and leave you alone.

In the fall, your sister plans to leave for the annual mother-daughter fishing trip your extended family does. The trip lasts two whole weeks. In the weeks leading up to the trip, you begin to panic. While your sister is gone, you won’t be able to get any of your jellybeans from her. Combine this with your worry that you will have fewer chances to earn jellybeans for chores with only one parent home and you start to have a problem. What if you run out of jellybeans because a bunch of the red ones are hoarded by your sister?

To counter this, you stop accepting your sister’s green jellybeans in trade for favours and only trade green jellybeans back to her when you need something done. Eventually you run out of green jellybeans. Now you can’t get her to do anything. You won’t risk your red jellybeans so close to her trip.

Unfortunately, you don’t get all of your jellybeans back this way. Your sister begins to hoard them, knowing that they’re the only thing she can use to really get you to do anything for her. Despite you trying to get all your jellybeans back, you’ve made her hold onto them even tighter.

She’s pretty annoyed with all of this, because she wants to trade with you like before. In desperation, she emails her economist friend. Once again, the economist comes through for you. Your sister offers you a deal. She currently has 100 red jellybeans. At the end of every day, you can convert up to twenty green jellybeans for red ones at a rate of one to one. Normally you wouldn’t bother with this (and sometimes one of you lacks the means to), but she’ll give you this option for the next week so that you can accept her jellybeans with confidence.

This works quite well. Your mutually beneficial trades resume. When your sister leaves for her fishing expedition, she only has ten of your jellybeans left. You’re not going to run out in her absence.


Everything that was observed between the two siblings trading with jellybeans can be observed (in one form or another) between countries trading.

For this metaphor to work, the medium of exchange (jellybeans of different colours) had to be something that was so similar as to be essentially the same thing while being treated as vastly different by the participants. This is how people in different countries treat each other’s money.

As a Canadian, I need Canadian Dollars to pay my expenses. If I walk into a grocery store or get on a bus and try to pay with Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen, I will be refused service. Because I want to eat and take the bus, if I were sell goods or services outside of Canada, I would only accept as payment:

  1. Canadian Dollars
  2. Something else I know is trivially convertible to Canadian Dollars at a stable rate

People in other countries are in the same boat as me. Even if there’s something they want to sell me, they can’t unless I can provide them something that holds stable value for them. Canadian Dollars are only valuable to them insofar as they can use them to buy things they want in Canada or, if they don’t want anything in Canada, trade them for something they want with someone who wants something in Canada.

You can’t get something for nothing. For someone to send me goods (that aren’t simply a gift) from outside of Canada, they must want something in Canada or know about someone who does. This is the principle that allowed you to trade with your sibling. Her jellybeans weren’t inherently useful to you, but they were stably convertible into things that were, which made it reasonable for you to accept them as payment.

The ease of currency conversion often hides this from us. To see it, you need to look at exchange rates. Exchange rates are nothing more than a measure of the relative demand for goods and services produced by countries and debts denominated in their currencies.

When America was in financial crisis and Canada was raking in huge oil profits, people wanted Canadian Dollars just as much as they wanted American Dollars. Now that America has recovered, people would prefer to have American Dollars (USD) and so the Canadian Dollar is only worth about $0.75 US. Had either you or your sister been able to offer much more valuable services, you might have seen an exchange rate other than 1:1, with it favouring whoever offered the better stuff.

If I’m right about this, we’d expect to see countries import as much as they export. Trade deficits shouldn’t exist. As Donald Trump might be happy to remind you, trade deficits do indeed exist. What’s going on? How is this possible?

Trade deficits can occur when trade is financed via debt. A country might borrow money denominated in another currency (which has a more stable value than its own) and use that borrowed money to purchase things. This is essentially a country promising that it will have exports of value to the lender at some point in the future. This is how developing nations can have trade deficits, but it isn’t generally how developed nations pull them off.

We can view America (and other developed nations with a trade deficit) as similar to your sister when she had the tools to create more jellybeans out of otherwise worthless chemicals. She was definitely doing less things of direct value for you than you were for her (e.g. she was standing lookout for you much less often than she was borrowing video games from you), but she was able to do this sustainably because she had a way of making the jellybeans to pay for it.

Developed nations can have a trade deficit in a sustainable way because other countries will give them raw materials or physical goods simply for the privilege of holding debt denominated in their currency or being able to buy property within their borders. The sophisticated financial systems of developed countries allow them to reliably and safely (most of the time) create money for anyone willing to invest. How do you get money to invest if you don’t live there? You trade for it!

Developed countries are still providing goods and services to their trade partners, even if they aren’t tangible or recorded on balance sheets as exports. Sometimes this does mean that trade is funded by loans, but crucially, the debt is generally denominated in the currency of the debtor country. This makes repayment much, much easier.

Countries have many more options for repaying debts denominated in their own currencies. Japan can safely have a government debt of several times its GDP because the debt is denominated in Yen. Japan controls the means to print more Yen, so is able to pay its debt just by printing more money. There are obviously problems with just printing money (i.e. inflation), but these apply less to Japan because of its overall economic situation (i.e. deflation). On the other hand, Greece’s debt burden was so bad specifically because it can’t print the Euros its debt is denominated in itself. It needs to produce things other countries want in order to raise the cash it needs to pay down its debt.

There are certainly ways that funding trade via financial products can go sour. If the financial system that provides for the trade deficit relies on high consumer debt, then a financial shock could make it all come crashing down and deprive a country of the exports they’re used to receiving. But when trade deficits are based on the security and sophistication of a nation’s financial institutions (or the value of its real estate, or something else that is relatively stable), that nation stands to benefit enormously. It can receive tangible goods just by letting other countries invest or loan with its currency.

Seen this way, Canada’s trade deficit with China (as an example) is caused because many Chinese people have been willing to ship us manufactured goods in exchange for the ability to invest in our companies, buy real estate in Toronto and Vancouver, and make loans to us.

There are trade-offs here. On one hand, foreign investment in housing has probably made living in Toronto and Vancouver less affordable. On the other hand, it has made electronics and manufactured goods available at lower prices than they would otherwise be. Whether this is good or bad for you personally depends on where you live and how often you buy manufactured goods.

There are also trade-offs around employment here. It’s not a simple matter of trade with developing nations costing us manufacturing jobs. It probably has! But I’d like to point out if trade has cost us jobs in manufacturing, it has certainly created jobs in construction and in finance. Houses aren’t built without workers and investments can’t be made without investment assistants and portfolio managers. These may not be manufacturing jobs, but they’re still jobs.

This shades into the next example from the jellybean world. When you and your sister could both work jobs at very different rates of compensation, you weren’t made worse off by letting you sister do half of the chores. You weren’t really in competition with you sister. Despite much of the rhetoric about trade being a competition, trade with another country isn’t a competition with that country.

When split up between two countries that are trading, jobs don’t get done based on who had the competitive advantage. Since trade cannot happen unless both parties benefit (remember, if no one outside Canada wants anything Canada produces, I will be unable to buy anything outside of Canada with Canadian dollars) the fact that trade is happening at all means that each country has something the other wants. Given this, what gets traded will be determined by the relative advantages industries in each country have over the industries within that country. This is the comparative advantage theory of trade.

China has the advantage of relatively cheap labour but has the disadvantage of relatively high corruption. When you compare China with Canada, China’s manufacturing sector is advantaged over their financial sector, so they will tend send Canada manufactured goods in exchange for Canadian financial instruments.

Even when your sister was making less than you for every chore, you and her were still able to trade for mutual benefit. You got to do only the chores you found easiest while still gaining enough jellybeans to trade for things you wanted from your sister. People (and countries) don’t act blindly to maximize the amount of money they make. They have other desires as well. You would have only been in competition with your sister if you wanted to blindly maximize your total haul, without a thought for how much leisure it would cost you.

Competition would also come up if your parents were looking to minimize the amount they paid for chores. In this case, your sister would have had a competitive advantage. But this isn’t a competition within your trading relationship with you sister! Here you would be competing for the business of some third party (your parents).

You are never competing with your trade partners within the context of the trading relationship. It would be impossible for the whole American economy to move to China (no matter how often Donald Trump claims it is happening) because if this happened China would refuse to sell America anything and America would again require indigenous industries. If industries get outsourced and aren’t replaced by something else that adds value, you’ll see them pop right back up in their original country. Outsourcing is only cheaper when you have things of value to buy the outsourced products with.

You can be competing with your trade partners for third party business, but the answer here isn’t to raise tariffs and abandon trade. Instead, you can reap the benefits of an integrated supply chain and the overall lower costs you see when countries focus on their comparative advantages. For example, Apple has become one of the largest companies in the world by marrying American business expertise, stability, and engineering know-how with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing, which allows them to compete with Samsung, a Korean company (which also makes use of Taiwanese/Chinese manufacturing).

Apple products would be more expensive if manufactured solely in the United States. They wouldn’t be a global luxury brand if they were designed and marketed from China. Apple wouldn’t be a global behemoth without trade. When the CEOs of companies stand up for international trade, they’re doing so because they understand this.

It is possible for a country to be in a state such that basically no one wants to trade with them, often because they produce very little of value to anyone else. Take North Korea as an example here. They’re able to trade some coal to China (in exchange for manufactured goods) and managed to make a one-off trade with Pakistan (swapping missiles for atomic bomb designs and materials), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t want to trade with them. Since the government is pursuing a policy of juche (“self-reliance”), North Korea isn’t much bothered by this.

Unfortunately, lack of trade doesn’t always happen by choice. Venezuela spent more than a decade squandering oil wealth on everything but productive infrastructure. When oil prices were high this was fine. Venezuelans could trade oil to other countries and in return they received all of the food, medicine, and manufactured goods they could want. This worked while global oil demand outstripped supply. Now that demand for oil has considerably lessened, Venezuela is facing serious difficulties importing necessities.

Because there’s little of value in Venezuela, no one wants to hold on to the Venezuelan currency (the Bolivar). Currently about all its good for is buying sub-par oil. This would suggest that Venezuela should be unable to important much of anything and indeed that’s what we’re observing.

In the jellybean world, we saw something similar. When your sister was about to leave on her trip, you didn’t want to trade with her, because her currency would soon be worthless. She was able to convince you to trade by using her reserves of your jellybeans.

Venezuela is currently able import goods via a similar mechanism. During the oil boom, the government of Venezuela was able to amass a significant number of American Dollars. It is now using this stockpile to pay for imports. Venezuela actually has three official exchange rates. If you are importing key goods, the government will turn your Bolivars into USD at a very preferential rate, 10 Bolivars for 1 USD. If you’re importing less critical goods, you’ll get fewer dollars per Bolivar. If you’re just a private citizen, the government will give you a much worse deal, something like 190 Bolivars to the dollar. It will also limit the amount you can exchange at any one time.

At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate was 3014 Bolivars per USD. You can make a lot of money if you bring USD into Venezuela, convert it to Bolivars on the black market, then use the government to convert it back to USD. The only loser here is the Venezuelan government (and you if you’re caught – please don’t actually do this).

Propping up the value of a currency this way is very expensive. If the Bolivar loses no more purchasing power, then Venezuela can limp along like this for two more years. If oil becomes cheaper or Venezuela becomes less able to export it, then Venezuela will lose purchasing power and that grace period shrinks. Once Venezuela exhausts its currency reserves it will be essentially unable to import anything and this story will end the same way every story about socialism ends: with a horrific famine.

This of course assumes that Venezuela doesn’t attempt to seize what it needs from its neighbours using force. Throughout this post I’ve assumed that trade has been undertaken freely for the mutual benefit of all participants. This hasn’t always been the case.

Colonialism is perhaps the best example of trade where one participant was compelled to participate. In colonies Europeans used force to extract resources and labour from non-Europeans. The colonizing Europeans would then ship these raw goods back to their home country in exchange for manufactured goods they couldn’t get from in the colony.

Trade was only ever disastrous for the colonized. They were forced to produce cash crops or mine until they were nearly dead from exhaustion, all in exchange for goods that they would never receive and had little use for even if they had.

There’s one last concept to cover. Let’s return to the jellybean metaphor!


Your sister gets deeply addicted to a game on your Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, she’s still getting far fewer jellybeans than you are. She has to do a lot of chores just to get to play it at all, many of which aren’t particularly fun or pleasant. Because of your control of the Switch, you don’t have to do any chores; you always have some of your sister’s jellybeans to trade for whatever you need. While your sister might be happy while playing her game, she’s deeply peeved about all the chores she has to do in order to be able to play it all.

Eventually, your sister’s desire for video games overcomes the number of jellybeans she can earn. You allow her to pay you in IOUs. Soon she’s racked up hundreds of them. When she finally beats the game and has free time for other things, she realizes that she’s going to have to spend weeks working and giving you all the jellybeans just to pay off the debt she owes.

She tries to default, but you go to your parents. They decide that she can’t be trusted to pay off the debt on her own, so they’ll give you red jellybeans for every chore she completes until she’s settled the account. Now your sister is stuck doing all the chores without any benefit to herself. It takes her weeks to dig herself out of her hole and start receiving green jellybeans again.


Even when trade technically makes people better off, it can be a devil’s bargain. The benefits of modern medicine and technology (like smartphones) are so overwhelming that many developing economies must set aside a significant amount of their potential productivity creating products that aren’t locally useful so that they have something developed countries want and will trade medicine and technology for.

This can lead to vast monocultures of cash crops grown only for foreign export, stifling unsafe textile factories, and vast poisonous open pit mines.

It’s not just modern necessities that cause countries to give over vast portions of their economies to export. Poor (one might even say predatory) lending practices by world financial institutions have left many nations with unsustainable foreign debts, denominated in foreign currencies.

Remember, the only way to get foreign currencies is by having something foreign countries want and being willing to sell it to them. As long as a country has foreign debts to service, it must leave aside a chunk of its productivity for foreign rather than domestic priorities. If the pie is big and the slice set aside for other countries is small, this is sustainable. But when a small pie requires a big slice, disaster can strike. Debt relief for struggling countries remains an urgent humanitarian priority.

In real life, the IMF and the World Bank have taken a role not unlike that of your parents in the metaphor. They threaten poor debtor countries with dire consequences unless they continue to pay down their (often) ridiculously large debts. This occurs even when debts were racked up by dictators, or are for money that was stolen from the public purse by corrupt administrators.

All serious advocates of international trade need to acknowledge and grapple with the negative consequences trade can have.

But I’m hopeful. I refuse to believe that there exists no way we can make essential generic medicine and essential modern technology available to all of the people of the world except through unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. Debt write-offs can fix some of the problems, but other reforms can only occur once the narrative around trade changes.

Framing trade as an adversarial process allows business interests to push for the rollback of worker and environmental protections where they exist and fight their introduction where they don’t. Protectionist rhetoric, whether it comes from Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, is wrong and hurts workers the world over. Trade isn’t a competition. Framing it that way may be useful for politicians when they are competing for votes, but it won’t improve the material situation of anyone, at home or abroad.

As prosperity increases, all of these problems become more tractable. International trade remains one of the best ways we have of increasing prosperity. We can’t afford to go without it. Trade is something people should be able to agree on, whether they want to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a just global society, or just plain get rich.


My primary source was Joseph Heath’s wonderful economics book, Filthy Lucre (subtitled Economics for People who Hate Capitalism). It systematically dismantles 12 common economic fallacies, 6 beloved of the left and 6 beloved by the right. Trade is covered in Chapter 5: Uncompetitive in Everything.

The rest comes from reading too many articles on Wikipedia and too many news think pieces. Some things only became clear to me as I was writing this, like the difference between Japan’s debt and Greece’s. I’m also indebted (heh) to Tessa Alexanian, who explained to me why trade can be bad for developing countries. She influenced most of the ideas laid out in that section (that said, I should get all the credit for any errors).

As usual, this blog post should only be taken as an accurate account of my own views, not the views of anyone else.

Epistemic Status: Model

Philosophy

Cutting the Gordian Knot: Bad Solutions to Good Paradoxes

Russel’s Paradox

Image Credit: Donald on Flickr

In a village, the barber shaves everyone who does not shave himself, but no one else. Who shaves the barber.

Imagine The Barber as similar to The Pope. When he is in his shop, cutting hair, he is The Barber and has all of the powers that entails, just as The Pope only possesses the full power of papacy when speaking “from the chair”. When The Barber isn’t manifesting this mantle, he’s just Glen, the nice fellow down the lane. Glen shaves his own beard. The Barber therefore doesn’t have to.

Alternatively, the barber is a woman.

Omnipotence Paradox

Image Credit: Tim Green on Flickr

Can God create a rock so large that he himself cannot lift it?

It depends.

In Christian theology, God is often considered all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. Some theologians dispute each of these, but most agree he has at least some mix of those three attributes. It turns out the answer to this paradox depends on which theologians are right.

This question is only interesting if god is all-powerful. If God isn’t all powerful, then this question will be determined by which is greater: his power of creation, or his power to manipulate creation. That’s a boring answer, so let’s focus on the cases where God is all powerful.

If God is all-knowing, then we’ll probably be left unsatisfied. God will know if he can or cannot create the boulder, so he’ll probably feel no need to test if he can.

If God is not all-knowing but is all-loving, then the question will only be answered if God cannot lift the first boulder he creates. If he can lift the first one, he will quickly realize that he could end up spending all of eternity trying to make a big enough boulder on the off chance that this is the one he finally cannot lift. An all-loving God would not abandon his flock for such a meaningless task, so we’ll never see the answer.

If God is neither all-knowing nor all-loving and has at least a bit of curiosity, then we should be able to eventually observe him trying to create a boulder large enough that he cannot lift it. This God won’t know the answer and wouldn’t necessarily care that finding out requires abandoning all of his other duties.

Given that this question was first posed right before the crusades, I believe that we’re experiencing the third scenario. The mere act of raising this paradox caused God to turn his face away from the world and worry about more interesting problems than those caused by a bunch of jumped up apes.

Zeno’s Paradox

Image Credit: Miranche on Wikimedia Commons

If you want to go somewhere, you first have to get halfway there. But to get to the midpoint, you have to go a quarter of the way. But to get to a quarter… When you subdivide like this, you’ll see that there are an infinite number of steps you must take to go anywhere. You cannot accomplish an infinite number of tasks in a finite time, therefore, movement is impossible.  

It’s a common mistake that space is infinitely sub-dividable. In fact, there is a limit to how finely you can cut space. You cannot cut the universe more finely than 1.61x 10-35m, a length called the Planck Length. The Planck length is to the width of a hair as the width of a hair is to the whole universe. It’s an unimaginably tiny length.

An important property of halving things: you get really small numbers very quickly. If you halve a distance of 1m a mere 116 times, you’ll have cut the distance as finely as it is possible to cut anything. At this point, you can halve the distance no more and you can proceed to your destination, one Planck length at a time.

Sorites Paradox

Image Credit: David Stanley on Flickr

There is a pile of sand in front of you. If you remove a grain of sand from it, it will still be a pile. If you remove another, it will still be a pile. But if you keep removing them, eventually it won’t be. When does it stop being a pile?

I’m emailing ISO and the NIST about this one. I expect to have an answer after ten years and three hundred committee meetings.

The Ship of Theseus

Image Credit: Verity Cridland on Flickr

The Athenian Theseus bequeathed his ship to the city. As the ship aged, the Athenians kept it in perfect condition by replacing any planks and fittings that rotted away. Eventually, the entire ship had been replaced. This caused all of the philosophers in Athens to wonder: was it still Theseus’s Ship.

We could leave this one to ISO as well, but luckily as a Canadian I have another recourse.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU (of which Greece is a member) and Canada considers a car “Made in Canada” or “Made in Europe” if at least 50% of the car came from there and at least 20% of the manufacturing occurred there.

Treating boats with a similar logic, we can see that as long as the Athenians were using local materials and labour (and weren’t outsourcing to the Persians or Phoenicians), the ship would count as “Made in Greece”. Since the paradox specifically states that the Athenians were doing all the restoring, this is probably a safe assumption.

If we take this and assume that Theseus had a solid grounding in trademark law – which would allow us to assume that he made his ship a protected brand like Harris Tweed, Kobe beef, Navaho, and Scotch – then we can see that the ship would still fall under the Theseus’s Ship™ brand. Most protected brands require a certain geographic origin, but we’ve already been over that in this case.

Even when philosophers argue that the boat is no longer Theseus’s Ship, they have to admit it is Theseus’s Ship™.

Unexpected Hanging Paradox

Image Credit: Adam Clarke on Flickr

A prisoner is sentenced to hanging by a judge. The judge stipulates that the sentence will be carried out on one of the days in the next week, that it will be carried out before noon, and that it must be a surprise to the prisoner.

The prisoner smirks, believing he will never be hung. He knows that if it is Thursday at noon and he hasn’t been hung, then the hanging would have to be on Friday. But then it wouldn’t be a surprise. So logically, he has to be hung before Friday. If this is the case though, he can’t be hung on Thursday, because if he hasn’t been hung by noon on Wednesday then a hanging on Thursday won’t be a surprise. Following through this logic, the prisoner could only be hung on the Monday. But then it will be no surprise at all!

This is indeed a problem if the judge is as good at logic as the prisoner. But if the judge remains blissfully unaware of logical induction, there is no paradox here. The judge will assume that by picking a day at random she can surprise the prisoner. The prisoner will no doubt be quite surprised when he is hung.

This becomes more likely if we set the problem in America, where some judges are elected and therefore aren’t governed by anything so limiting as qualifications.

Model, Politics

The Pitfalls of One-Man Rule

In light of the leaks about Michael Flynn, just about everyone, from America’s allies to its intelligence officers, seems to be reconsidering how much intelligence they share with Donald Trump’s White House. I can’t think of anything more damaging to President Trump’s ability to govern than various domestic and allied agencies (semi-)publicly mulling whether or not to share information with him.

It’s not that I think this will cause irreparable damage to his public image. At this point, you can be swayed by other people’s opinion of Trump or you can’t. Trump’s base doesn’t care what a bunch of intelligence geeks in suits think about him. They just want to see jobs come back.

It’s just that Trump is already beginning to experience one of the most significant failure modes of single-person rule: isolation.

One of the little talked about virtues of democracy is how its decentralizing tendency makes isolation of key decision makes much more difficult. Take Canada as an example. There are 338 Members of Parliament, each based in a different geographic region and expected to regularly travel there and respond to the concerns of the local residents. Each MP also has several aides, responsible for briefing them and keeping them in the loop. Cabinet Ministers have all of this, plus they’ll have one or two MPs acting as their assistants in matters of their portfolio. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accountable to his constituents, his cabinet, his MPs, and through them, all of Canada.

It is very difficult to influence Mr. Trudeau’s decision making by influencing the information he receives. Government agencies can attempt it, but Mr. Trudeau is broadly popular, which makes this much more difficult. To hide information from a leader, you need a quorum. While this can be accomplished by a vocal minority, it becomes very difficult to gather even this in the face of enthusiastic majority support.

In addition, the diverse information channels Mr. Trudeau has access to mean that he is very likely to hear about any notable news that leaks out a department, even if his chief of staff or one of his cabinet ministers doesn’t want him to.

This has the effect of making power struggles somewhat transparent. In general, power among the elites is apportioned based on the results of elections and measured in terms of Members of Parliament and political capital (or, more concretely, opinion polling and what this means for re-election chances). All of this information is a matter of public record. Anyone who wants to know what elite faction is currently dominant and how much political capital it has left can find this out with a simple Google search.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Vatican. Pope Francis was elected through an opaque process and few Catholics saw his election coming. The power games of the cardinals are hidden from most congregants and their reasons for voting how they do are between them and their god. Francis will reign until he dies or steps down, but the power games of the elites (read: the cardinals) haven’t stopped. Instead of jockeying for position directly, they will jockey by trying to control the flow of information to Francis. If one group of cardinals succeeds (or even partially succeeds), they will wield significant invisible influence.

This same sort of opacity is what makes the “science” of Kremlinology appealing. Without clear information, it takes a hundred subtle hints to figure out who has power (and perhaps even more critically, who is being listened to by those with power).

Right now, it seems like Donald Trump is in a situation that is closer to the Pope than the Prime Minister of Canada.

This normally isn’t the case for presidents. They’re deeply embedded in the fabric of a party and have multiple channels for information – as well as multiple factions they depend on for support. Trump lacks both history and (in his mind, at least) dependency. The route of last resort for information to travel to the president is through donors. Trump has closed off this route by believing he’s entirely self-made.

All of this means that Trump is at serious risk of being controlled by one or two influential advisors. If this happens, there really are limited options for his party to bring him back in line and coordinate on a legislative agenda if the interests of those advisors don’t align with the interests of the Republican party.

This is what should be keeping congressional Republicans up at night. Trump should be staying up at night wondering about what his agencies are refusing to tell him.

Governments have to rely on veritable armies of analysts to keep them swimming in the data they need to act. You want to launch an airstrike on a suspected terrorist? You’re going to need a dozen people to correlate a hundred small tidbits of information to positively identify them with enough time to spare to launch a cruise missile or a drone.

These people tend not to be that loyal to any particular party (at least when it comes to how they do their job). While the heads of departments are often political appointees, their deputies are career men and women who have come up through the civil service. Whatever they lack in loyalty to parties, they make up for in loyalty to the system. This is generally enough to allay any fears about them hiding information or failing to perform their role.

Enter Donald Trump, who seems like he might just try and rip the whole system down around their ears. Do you think they’re going to stand for that? If you can’t believe that they have conviction and a genuine loyalty to the system, at least believe that they have some instinct for self-preservation. Career civil servants rely on the system for a paycheck, after all.

Imagine you’re an intelligence officer, fairly high up. You know how much of a threat Russia is. You’ve been watching them for a decade and you’ve seen how they’re gobbling up territory along their borders, trying to reclaim some slice of their lost empire. You think Trump is going to give some of the intelligence you just collected to Russia, blowing the cover of a source or two. So, you hide it. It’s easy enough to do. All you really have to do is flag it as routine, not pass it up the chain of command. It’s almost the same as phoning it in, really.

Imagine you are Trump. Intelligence is drying up. What do you do? You can go yell at your CIA Department head (who might be loyal to you). He or she can go yell at some subordinates. And they’ll promise to do better. They might, for a week or two, or they might not. Maybe you start getting more intelligence, but it’s all of terrible quality.

What do you do? What can you do?

In the end, Trump is one man. He has maybe a hundred people who are personally loyal to him. If we’re generous, we might call it 150. But I think we have to cap it at Dunbar’s number. He can’t count on an unbroken chain of personal loyalty either, because there is a disconnect between the career civil servants and the political appointees.

Trump and all of his henchmen can rant and rail all they want. But at the end of the day, they can’t compel. They can’t hold guns to the heads of every CIA analyst and demand they tell the administration everything they know. They can’t even fire them all. You can’t solve an intelligence shortage by getting rid of all your intelligence analysts. At a certain point, you just have to give up.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think this couldn’t possibly work on Trump? Read Eichmann in Jerusalem and you’ll learn it worked on the Nazis. Where open resistance failed, obstructionism and carefully cultivated laziness succeeded.

Power is in many ways an illusion and a fragile one at that. Break it and you might not be able to put it back together. If Trump threatens the CIA (or any other agency; you can also image the DoJ taking forever to close an investigation or the EPA having a bunch of trouble finishing an inspection and giving an all clear) and fails to deliver on his threat (likely), then the jig is up. He’s lost all ability to change anyone’s behaviour through threats.

So, this is the problem Trump faces. He has the presidency and he intends to use it to make sweeping changes to America. But without close cooperation with lawmakers, his term is going to look a lot like an attempt at one-man rule. Certainly, this should be frightening for everyone who cares about checks and balances in America.

But it should also frighten Trump’s supporters. One man rule is a terrible system of government. If Trump makes a serious go at it, his cabinet and advisors will be at each other’s throats (when he isn’t around) in next to no time and he’ll face persistent (but impossible to end) resistance from almost every Federal department. I don’t know how exactly Trump plans to make America great again, but I bet he isn’t prepared for large scale passive resistance.

The final remaining question then is: will this resistance show up, or are the early rumours exaggerated. On this point, the world is watching and hoping that the ordinary civil servants of America display the requisite moral courage to passively resist Trump’s most damaging requests.

Epistemic Status: Model

Ethics, Politics, Quick Fix

Don’t confuse constitutional rights with social norms

When Ken over at Popehat gets into a full-on rant about people who don’t understand rights, I’m often sympathetic. It was Ken who made me understand that people who don’t understand rights are a threat to everyone. When many people are misinformed about their rights, those rights become easier to take away.

When Scott at Slate Star Codex talks about good social norms, I’m very keen to listen. Scott helped me understand that social groups are worth cultivating and that it’s a good idea to think about how your group norms will change your experience of interacting with people.

So, when Tessa linked me to a Slate Star Codex post where Scott disagreed with Ken, I had some thinking to do.

The Slate Star Codex post is a response to a piece Ken put up after the furor around Justine Sacco’s tweets a few years back. Ken is defending the right of everyone else on Twitter to say whatever they like in response to Justine Sacco’s thoughtless tweets. The particular part Scott highlights is:

The phrase “the spirit of the First Amendment” often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase “free speech” when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn’t like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks “why was it necessary for you to say that” or “what was your motive in saying that” or “did you consider how that would impact someone” to the second person and not the first. It’s ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.

Scott disagrees. He argues that there is a spirit of the First Amendment and it’s summed up by Eliezer Yudkowsky with: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.”

Scott asks to imagine at what point damaging responses become appropriate:

What does “bullet” mean in the quote above? Are other projectiles covered? Arrows? Boulders launched from catapults? What about melee weapons like swords or maces? Where exactly do we draw the line for “inappropriate responses to an argument”?

Scott’s eventual line in the sand is: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.”

I’m sympathetic to what Scott was trying to do here, but ultimately, I’m on the side of Ken.

Scott wants to talk about the spirit of the First Amendment, which is fine. But the spirit he wants to read into it is divorced from the reality of constitutional rights. The First Amendment, like many of the rights in the US Constitution, is a negative right – it prevents the government from acting in a certain way, rather than saying it must provide people with a certain thing. The US Government can’t stop you from saying what you want, but it has no obligation to make you heard. If everyone ignores you, the government will not intervene.

It’s pretty weird to try and read a positive spirit into a negative right. The framers of the Bill of Rights knew when the rights they were setting down were negative rights. They understood the difference between negative and positive rights. To claim that the spirit of a definitely negative right is actually positive feels like an unfair attempt to halo a set of normative ethics (or perhaps aesthetics) with the positive affect that many Americans hold for their constitution.

As far as the government is concerned, as long as people are debating and silencing through legal means, there actually isn’t a distinction between trying to debate and trying to silence. Neither type of speech can be stopped. And I think it’s trivially easy to come up with examples for why neither should be stopped as a matter of routine (if you need inspiration, think of what your worst political enemies call “hate speech” and shudder about it being banned).

Luckily, negative speech and association rights and the government monopoly on force means that it is really hard to credibly threaten people’s freedom of association, so Scott is free to build a subculture that shares his beliefs about normative ethics. A subculture is free to demand positive rights for all members within the context of subculture related discussions and has free association as the perfect tool for enforcing it.

I’m glad that this is what rationalists are trying to do and I like our subculture and all, but we can’t claim that our weird norms are universal positive rights. I know this is a common thing for subcultures to do, but it’s embarrassing.