Feeling Smart
July 6, 2014, 10:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Elliot Temple replying to the Scott Aaronson post I reacted to here:

This is a common problem where people are more interested in the social role of a rational intellectual than truth-seeking discussion. They’re more interested in feeling smart than being smart. They’re more interested in self-image than action. They care about popular opinion and socialized legitimized status, and only feel much need to address arguments with some kind of (social) authority behind them. They look at the source of ideas and then wonder whether, socially, they can get away with ignoring the ideas (ignoring arguments is something they seem to treat as desirable and try to maximize).

It’s not about, “Have I already written an answer to this argument? Has someone else written an answer to it that I can endorse? If yes, I’ll give a link/cite. If no, maybe I or someone else better write something.” That’d be rational but few people think that way.

Instead it’s about, “If I don’t answer this, will other people think it was a serious argument I should have answered? Am I expected to answer it? Do I have to answer it to protect my social status? Do I have any excuses for not engaging with the argument that most people (weighted by their status/authority) will accept?”

Smart People.

Smart Person humbly suggests using higher math to secretly weigh Smart Peoples’ votes more
June 20, 2014, 8:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Scott Aaronson has written an interesting post (HT: mathbabe) proposing borrowing concepts from ‘eigenmorality’ and Google page-ranking to improve democracy. I thought I’d go into it a little if you don’t mind.

The core of the idea is this:

A trustworthy source of information is one that’s considered trustworthy by many sources who are themselves trustworthy (on the same topic or on closely related topics). The current scientific consensus, on any given issue, is what the trustworthy sources consider to be the consensus. A good decision-maker is someone who’s considered to be a good decision-maker by many other good decision-makers.


…once people’s individual decisions did give rise to a giant connected trust component, the recommendations of that component could acquire the force of law.

Essentially, some Google PageRank-like algorithm would be set up (by Smart People) to rank how ‘trustworthy’ people are (according to definitions and metrics presumably defined by Smart People). Starting from how much people ‘trust’ each other, the ‘largest connected trust component’ would be extracted via some basic linear algebra, and that component would be deemed to be Trustworthy, hence would rule. (And then we’d have a carbon tax1.)

In a sense, this is just a description of a hagiocracy – rule by priests, by people who are sufficiently holy. He just defines his ‘priesthood’ implicitly, in a certain way that (he is confident) would include himself and other Smart People who agree with him about stuff (like, a carbon tax). So in particular, the overall idea constitutes a decent outline of a formal, workable mechanism for setting up an Yglesiocracy:

Smart People favor the rule of Smart People.

Oh, but don’t worry, he doesn’t seek dictatorship and he doesn’t like numbers-based amorality that allows one gang to tyrannize another. Just ask him. He says so and everything. He just wants the views of the ‘largest connected trust component’, whatever they are, to ‘acquire the force of law’. Apples and oranges!

Let me start by dialing back his concept a bit and then seeing where it goes off the rails. Because he is right that our current system, (nominally) democracy, does a similar sort of thing: it is The Majority that rules. He just wants to replace The Majority with something else, The Smart People. But there would be advanced math™ behind it, so it’s all good.

In fact, we can cast winner-take-all democracy into his framework quite easily. To simplify matters imagine a country with five people (A,B,C,D and E) who are sharply divided into two Parties: A,B, and C implicitly trust each other about everything and distrust D & E, and vice versa. (This is an admittedly extreme but for our purposes reasonable approximation to how our society already works for certain issues.)

It’s easy to write down the equivalent of the trust-matrix for this setup:


(I hope this is pretty self-explanatory. Row A has 1s for columns A, B, and C since that’s who he trusts. It has 0s for columns D and E since that’s who he distrusts. Etc.)

The ‘eigenmorality’/Google approach suggests that we convert this trust matrix, which encodes how much people (rightly or wrongly) trust each other, into something we interpret as an absolute, external, objective measure of trustworthiness, using the circular/implicit reasoning I excerpted above:

A trustworthy source of information is one that’s considered trustworthy by many sources who are themselves trustworthy

Or, as I put it in my groundbreaking, award-winning^H^H^H^H^H^H^H -eligible, seminal post on Smart People,

The odd thing about Smart People is that they all seem to know who they are. They recognize each other, instinctively.

It appears the Google/eigenmorality idea is that (due to some hand-waving) the most-likely-to-be-the trustworthy bloc would be represented by whoever’s in the primary eigenvector of the trust matrix, since if we ran this game a bunch of times, [a. give people some Trust Points, b. let them distribute them to those they Trust], that would characterize the long-term equilibrium.

In our above ABCDE case that primary-eigenvector happens to be (a multiple of) this vector:


What those 1s mean is that the people in party ABC are part of the largest eigenvector; the 0s mean that those in party DE are not. Which is just to say, for our simplified all-or-nothing party-system trust model, the largest eigenvector = largest connected component = the party with the most votes. So winner-take-all majority-rule democracy is the same thing as Aaronson’s ‘eigenmorality’ if ‘trust’/’morality’ is assumed to be binary and to correspond to simple-agreement on the issue in question.

And we even already have a mechanism for discovering this largest-connected-component too. It uses no advanced linear algebra. It’s called ‘voting’.

Aaronson is clearly unhappy with this mechanism though, since it doesn’t produce the outcomes he wants (e.g. a carbon tax). The policy he wants hasn’t gotten enough of this ‘voting’ thing and so there must be something wrong with that process, says he. What other process might his idea lead to, exactly?

Let’s modify our model a little. After all, it was admittedly an oversimplification. Let’s look for areas to improve and generalize. The first one is pairwise trust. I can buy that A trusts himself 1 trust-unit, but all other people? Just because they’re in his party? People aren’t so groupthink-minded right? So make things slightly more realistic: let’s say that instead of trusting each other 1, party members trust each other p<1:


But it doesn’t matter what p is (as long as it’s not 0): this still has the same leading eigenvector, the majority party ABC, as before. So this is still just a model of majority-rule democracy.

What to change next? One more thing oughta do it: Maybe the members of party DE trust each other a different amount, say q, than do the members of party ABC:


Does this change things? It turns out that it could: if q>2p then Party DE, not ABC, actually becomes the first-eigenvector.


Despite being a minority, the PageRank Democracy Machine would do its linear algebra and declare – ultimately, simply because they ‘trust’ each other more, or whatever q is measuring exactly – that Party DE is the Most-Trustworthy-Connected-Component and therefore that their preference – not that of the majority, ABC – should carry force of law.

Another way to get the same exact outcome, clearly, is just to give the votes of Party DE, the Smart People, extra weight.

So don’t be fooled; that is what he is saying he wants. If Smart People can convince Linear Algebra that they’ve arranged themselves into an impressive-enough Mutual-Trust-Admiration-Society (and is that not, if nothing else, exactly what Smart People are good at doing?), then they get to rule, regardless of such parochial concepts as actual voter preferences.

Thus we see that this ‘eigenmorality’/PageRank-based reform of democracy is really just a roundabout way of overweighting the votes of Smart People (more generally, of whoever can figure out how best to game the math and control the spigots of who is given ‘trust’ – but we’re all pretty convinced that would be Smart People, right?), in the guise of Google-like hi tech and advanced math™.

Now sure. A straightforward, overt appeal to give Smart People double-votes, to count non-Smart People as 3/5 of a vote, or whatever it takes, probably wouldn’t have been so appealing or palatable. But perhaps this idea of ‘using linear algebra to discover the Most-Trustworthy-Connected-Component’ could sneak through?

I’m just here to tell you that, despite the hifalutin language and math, for all intents and purposes they’re the same exact thing. Do not be fooled; Aaronson wants the votes of himself and people-who-agree-with-him-about-stuff to count more than they currently do. That is what he is saying. That is all he is saying.

In fairness, it’s a pretty common wish.

1It’s pretty amusing just how important something like a carbon tax is to Smart People, even those who don’t know the first thing about either climate modelling or economics and thus have no idea whatsoever what if anything a carbon tax would accomplish.

May 17, 2014, 8:29 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Congratulations on an improtant millstone.

Question time – open borders
May 16, 2014, 9:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This time it was Bryan Caplan’s turn to play Smart Person by asking Mark Krikorian some Questions. Do you want to know my answers to those questions? Well regardless (and despite the redundancy, since my answers are broadly similar to Krikorian’s) here they are:

How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you’d reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn’t impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?

No one can prove, even in principle, a proposition such as ‘open borders will raise living standards by X’ as a sort of Law Of Physics, so let’s take that off the table right now; if that’s the premise of the question I reject it outright. Also, merely ‘raising living standards’ is too aggregate and vague for my taste; whose living standards? I reserve the right to care about micro details of what happens, not merely macro or on average. Finally, ‘living standards’ isn’t even the only relevant metric.

In the end we all form a view regarding what the likely effects of open borders – or any other nontrivial policy – would be, based on knowledge and data but also based on our economic and other intuition, our priors, our experience, and so forth. We then measure that against our preferences. Viewed in this light Caplan is essentially asking ‘if you thought open borders would be beneficial would you think open borders beneficial?’ Sure! But in the event, evidently, taking everything into account, I don’t find open borders to be desirable. If I did, then I would, but I don’t, so I don’t. Sorry, what is Caplan even asking?

Suppose the U.S. had a lot more patriotic solidarity. In what specific ways would it be better to live here?

There would, I have to think, be more good fellow-feeling amongst the people one encounters day to day. There would be less insularity and distrust. That’d be pleasant, I think.

I also venture that there would be less of the cheating, angling, trickery, corruption, rent-seeking, etc etc that IMHO is pervasive in modern life. I mean, if there really is a lot more solidarity. Right? We hear a lot about ‘high-trust societies’ (and they are usually quite homogeneous). Although it isn’t mentioned as much, this presumably goes hand in hand with high-trustworthiness societies. It is not the dumbest thing in the world to think that ‘patriotic solidarity’ would nudge things in that direction, and that that would be nice.

Aren’t there any practical ways you could unilaterally adopt to realize their benefits? Are you using them?

Krikorian didn’t understand this question but I do; Caplan links to his ‘bubble’ post. So I interpret him to be asking this: whatever good effects I think might stem from ‘patriotic solidarity’, can’t I just ‘unilaterally’ create them on my own?

I think the answer is a resounding no. I can’t ‘unilaterally’ make other people act more pleasantly. I can’t ‘unilaterally’ get others to stop trying to rip me off. I could metaphorically (or literally) build a moat and fortress around myself and mine in various ways – and people do – but that’s very expensive (so I perceive it as a cost/tax), and doesn’t really achieve the state of ‘patriotic solidarity’ anyway.

These are weird questions. Suffice to say that ‘patriotic solidarity’ as such isn’t my main reason for being an immigration-trimmer, but I guess there was a context for Caplan raising these points. In any event, they aren’t good ones.

Do you really think low-immigration parts of the U.S. are nicer places to live? If so, why aren’t more natives going there? Why don’t you?

Some are some aren’t. It’s not a single-dimensional issue. It’s also not a simple matter of evaluating or going to ‘places’ that are ‘low-immigration’ in some aggregate sense.

In fact, I would say that generally natives do try to go where immigrants aren’t, whether or not they live in a place that is ‘low-immigration’ overall. Ever hear of ‘white flight’? I presume Caplan is thinking of places with a lot of immigrants somewhere kinda nearby – you know, so that they can commute in to be ‘workers’ to aid him and his in his daily life – but that’s not quite the same thing.

New York for example may have a lot of immigrants but fancy rich people will pay up to live cloistered away from them – even if that only means a couple dozen blocks away. Or look at a racial map of the DC metro area sometime; it’s a pie chart. Both of those places are ‘high immigration’ but the natives are expressing clear revealed-preferences regarding proximity to immigrants (among other groups), and no, Bryan, that revealed preference is clearly not indifference.

Doesn’t patriotic solidarity often lead people to unify around bad ideas? Think about the Vietnam War or Iraq War II. If so, why are you so confident that we need more patriotic solidarity rather than less?

I guess a thing can lead to unifying around bad ideas sure. I have quibbles with the examples he gives but it’s not worth going into. Again, I am not a non-open-borderser primarily because of a desire to engineer an increase in ‘patriotic solidarity’ so the question doesn’t really apply to me.

I’m sincerely puzzled. How exactly is discriminating against blacks worse than discriminating against foreigners?

Krikorian’s answer is fine.

Suppose you were debating a white nationalist who said, “I agree completely with [you], except I value racial solidarity rather than patriotic solidarity.” What would you say to change his mind? Would you consider him evil if he didn’t?

I’m not sure why I’d be ‘debating’ with him. I don’t really care what he thinks. Why do I have to ‘change his mind’? Maybe I’d just walk away. Or if I stayed, maybe I’d be listening to his thoughts out of sheer curiosity without feeling any sort of obligation or pressure to ‘debate’ them.

If I were really heart-set on changing his mind, I guess I’d make the argument to him that pitching (white, Caplan presumably means) ‘racial solidarity’ is a loser’s game and a lost cause and not really even likely to achieve whatever goals he has. What does this have to do with anything? The idea is that non-open borders is equivalent to white supremacy? Sorry, it’s just that it can be hard to follow when an open-borderers goes Full Lefty like this.

Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. How big does x have to be before you save the foreigners?

There’s no mathematical critical-threshold x that I could define and state here and it would be stupid if someone did state such a thing. Like a human, I’d take this sort of thing on a case by case basis.

In what sense is letting an American employer hire a foreigner is an act of charity?

It’s not. As I’ve stated many times,

(a) I’d ‘let’ American employers hire foreigners or anyone else, I don’t care; and
(b) doing that by itself does not ‘open the borders’ so it’s silly to include it in an open-borders pitch.

I know I keep saying that over and over, which is a little silly in its own right and accomplishes little besides scaring readers away, but I promise it’s only because Bryan Caplan doesn’t understand it yet. He literally doesn’t understand the substantive difference in what is taking place between letting an employer hire someone and letting a guy cross the border. I’ve pointed it out to him. He’s read the words where I pointed it out to him. And they didn’t register, because he’s ‘not a lawyer’.

Suppose the U.S. decided to increase patriotic solidarity by refusing to admit Americans’ foreign spouses: “Americans should marry other Americans.” Would that be wrong?

If that were the policy beforehand and it were known by all then there really wouldn’t be a lot of situations involving someone getting married (elsewhere, it would have to be, logically speaking) and then trying to bring their spouse to America only to have America ‘refuse to admit’ them. Instead the status quo legal situation would be that marrying someone in a foreign country wouldn’t confer on that person the automatic right to immigrate to America. Everyone would know that. And thus they probably wouldn’t court or get married to foreigners, or if they did, they’d do so with no expectation of being able to return to America with their spouse, rather, they’d do so with the intent to stay in the country in question.

That may or may not be a wise or desirable outcome but I have a hard time seeing such a counterfactual as some kind of grave ‘wrong’ to get all worked up over. It seems like a highly relevant question only because, as I promise you I am fully aware, Americans marrying foreign spouses happens a not-insignificant amount of time, but if the legal landscape were as Caplan posits then I guess it wouldn’t be so much, so it kinda wouldn’t come up. *shrug*

This is a good example though because it illustrates that whether to allow this or that person to immigrate is nothing but a practical question on which there can be reasonable disagreement, discussion, etc. ‘Rights’ do not belong in the discussion and you will search for them in vain in my above answer to his question. That’s because it would be ridiculous to insist that a foreign person upon saying ‘I do’ to an American suddenly and magically gained the natural inalienable human ‘right’ to resettle within the United States. That’s not how it works and it’s not on the table. It’s a thing we decide, just as with all immigration allowances.

This has been another…QUESTION TIME

Question time – climate change
May 16, 2014, 1:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When a Smart Person is talking to a non-Smart Person, he loves to line up an enumerated list of ‘Questions’ for that person. Devastating questions. In answering them the non-Smart Person will inevitably reveal how much of a neanderthal he is somewhere.

Let me demonstrate by tackling some Questions recently asked of Bryan Caplan by (some guy who wrote a cartoon book) regarding Climate Change.

Are you comfortable saying that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas?

Um, sure? ‘Greenhouse gas’ is a category of thing with a definition. Carbon dioxide meets that definition. Duh. This is like asking am I comfortable saying that 2 is an even number. There is not real debate about this.

That human emissions of carbon dioxide are raising atmospheric CO2 concentrations?

I guess; if humans emit X CO2’s then at least in short-term there are X CO2’s that weren’t there before. Though there could ultimately be feedback effects, which I don’t trust anyone to have modeled well. (For example more CO2 -> more trees -> less CO2, so it’s a wash? I dunno. Nor do you.)

Perhaps the real implied question is, if one goes back to (say) 1850 and spawns a parallel universe in which one instantly and without pollution kills all the humans, then runs the clock forward to today, is there more CO2 in our universe than in that parallel universe’s 2014? In that case, my even-money bet would be ‘yes’. But I don’t feel hugely strongly about that. I also don’t care or think it is germane to much of anything.

That global temperatures have been increasing over the past century?

So they say. I haven’t been measuring. I have seen measurements that seem fine and show warming from the late 1800s to ~2000. It seems to have paused in the last decade or two though.

Climates change. Did you know there have been “Ice Ages”?

That humans are partly responsible for those increasing global temperatures?

I doubt it, unless ‘partly’ is defined so expansively as to mean ‘causing an epsilon temperature increase, with probability epsilon, for some epsilon>0′.

Again it would be convenient to check that parallel universe, but absent that, all we have are computer models to inform our answer to this question. I don’t trust the output of those computer models to have the resolution or accuracy enabling them to establish a hypothesized Human Responsibility Factor as being measurably, statistically-significantly different from 0. Does the cartoonist? If so, why, exactly?

That “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”?

‘The’ dominant? No, I do not think this extremely likely. I think it is one of the possibilities, sure.

By the way, none of the above questions matter one iota regarding what forward-looking climate change policy ought, or ought not, to be.

Thanks everyone, this has been: QUESTION TIME

May 14, 2014, 7:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Mortgages Should Be Easier to Get

Right. Of course. Pointing government policy toward making mortgages easier to get has always worked out pretty well for us before.

The duty to coordinate
May 13, 2014, 9:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Florida Couple Fined $746 For Crime Of Feeding Homeless People

The police chief helpfully explains:

“If you want to feed people, and you want to do a good, Christian act, we encourage you to coordinate with the social service agencies.”

Makes sense. How/why could someone do a good, Christian act without ‘coordinating with ‘the social service agencies’? Why would this even be allowed?

In any fascism, there can be no religion outside of the state.


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