Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Assault of Thoughts - 10/17/2012

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- Posner makes the important point that most (all?) human outcomes are the result of luck - or perhaps a less combustible term is circumstance. A lot of people confuse their circumstances for their personal accomplishments or value. He makes the equally important point that this is not an excuse for complete redistribution. The fact that outcomes are largely a result of circumstance does not overturn the reality of incentives. But these insights should temper our moralizing about things like taxation.

- Alpha Centauri has an Earth-sized planet! The problem is that it is far too hot. I am not deterred. I have every confidence that our AC technology will progress at least as fast as our interstellar travel technology. Colonists just won't be able to take a stroll outside.

- I tentatively recommend this video by Steve Horwitz on gender discrimination. It has all the right points, but he still concludes that wage differentials between men and women "are not the result of discrimination", which is astounding to me. The really critical point comes in at 3:10 where Steve acknowledges that discrimination or any kind of unjust inequality may come in at the level of human captial or occupational choices, and norms about family life. Which is exactly right: when you control for those things the wage disparity largley disappears (estimates of the extent to which it disappears vary, of course), and a lot of the observed wage disparities come in through other channels. Why, after pointing that out at 3:10, you would then say that wage differentials is not the result of discrimination is beyond me. So my tentativeness is really not on the content of the video at all. It's that the presentation is made in a way that I think a lot of people are going to walk away from it thinking that gender discrimination or disparities are not a problem worth worrying about.


  1. Confused about your gripe with Steve's video - I thought it was crystal clear.

    He distinguished between discrimination by employers *given* the choices of prospective employees and the broader notion of discrimination that may influence those choices.

    While these two notions interact, they're clearly distinguishable. In the first case you take an employee's MVP as *given* and ask whether the wage corresponds to it - greater gaps for different types correspond to greater discrimination.

    In the second case you treat a person's MVP as endogenous (often thinking of it over longer periods of time).

    Anyways, when most people talk about gender wage discrimination, they're talking about the first case. And as Steve pointed out, it's not really a problem.

    1. Well I did recommend it after all!

      The blue text is quoted from him, after going through all the points about occupational segregation and human capital investments. It's a poorly chosen way of putting it, and I think it's likely to mislead.

      I anticipate a lot of people are going to walk away from this video thinking "there is no gender discrimination in the labor market". Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but I think that's likely. And what bothers me is there are very specific things about how the information is presented that would lead people to think that. Hopefully I'm just being pessimistic about people.

      I deeply disagree with your second to last sentence.

    2. Being as, according to some, I am Stimulus-Response living tissue robot, I cannot help but comment on the first paragraph.

      The arguments in the article are not internally consistent. He declares that he does not believe in free will, and discusses the "ethical" problem of income disparity.

      Without free will, discussions of 'ethics' are meaningless. I don't "want" to be able to run a half marathon in less than two hours any more than someone else "wants" to be a meth addict, or "wants" to enjoy good wine. Still, for unknowable reasons I spend time running, and someone else doing drugs, and someone else driving hither and yon in search of wine. There is no objective good or bad in any of those if no harm is done.

      So: Why are differences in behavior that result in varying wealth accumulation an ethical problem? I suffer no harm by someone else spending countless hours at some activity that generates a lot of income when I spend few hours at the same activity which generates little income.

      This "no free will" thing is fun to think about, and we robots have been thinking about this very thing since at least as far back as ancient Greece. Sometimes you can gain insights into behavior if you use an S-R, or S-Organism-R model, and people like B.F. Skinner did some neat studies on it. The end game is that we are each a massive network of stimulus response reactions that APPEAR to be free will, but really aren't. I can't prove I'm not living in The Matrix right now, or that I am not a brain in a beaker, or that I have free will. But it sure seems like I have free will. And Occam's Razor is pretty compelling for me on this point.

      Finally, to tie the supposition of no free will to any given robot's prerogative to turn incentive knobs for other robots so that the world will appear to be 'fair' or 'more ethical' to the former robot is utterly preposterous. Why does our condition of not having Free Will have any bearing on a puppet master's empowerment to adjust the S-R equation so that some meat robots must choose between spending their time painting the houses of other meat robots who don't care if their house is not painted or not, or going to jail for tax evasion?


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