Sunday, June 28, 2015

universal basic income

Yay, Utrecht is going to experiment with a universal basic income scheme. That is, a stipend regardless of other income. And they seem to be doing it in collaboration with economists, although the article is extremely thin on details.

Unfortunately, the coverage omits the number one reason to try such a scheme: it's a social safety net that doesn't result in exorbitant implicit marginal tax rates! That is, it doesn't discourage you from working due to the fear of losing your benefits. This is a very real, very big problem with social safety nets as currently ubiquitously implemented. Even >100% marginal tax rates occur, and it doesn't have to get nearly that high to have a big impact on work choices.

Friday, June 26, 2015

marriage equality!

Boy I wish I were in San Francisco for this Pride weekend!!

And now that we have marriage equality, we can move on to debating whether government should be involved in marriage at all :) (I still think this.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


As I mentioned in my last post, I have a gut affinity towards utilitarianism, but am confused about the details and not at all up to speed on philosophy in general. Part of my confusion comes from witnessing, and not being sure what to make of, the divide between moral libertarians and utilitarian libertarians. The former group is the one that believes in the inherent value of liberty regardless of the consequences, and the latter group believes in liberty because of the consequences.

The strange thing is that there is a great deal of opposition to utilitarianism among the moral libertarians (for example, Saint-Paul). It seems to me that the root of the opposition is a desire to discredit the philosophy so tightly linked to the argument for redistribution of wealth.[1] I suspect at least a few of the logical arguments against it are designed ex post to support that goal, which doesn't make them wrong, but justifies additional suspicion.

Basically, over time I've concluded that my heart is a moral libertarian and my brain is a utilitarian libertarian[2], and boy isn't it lucky that the conclusions coincide so well. But the more I think about it the less conflict I think there is and the more I just think utilitarianism is not very useful except at the broad gut-level analysis I employ it as.[3]

So back up - where does my affinity towards both utilitarianism and liberty come from?

Utilitarianism: I know this is something I care about because a) it's just obvious to want to maximize well-being, and b) in my daily life, I hate inefficiencies and frequently incur personal costs to get rid of them. I'm pretty sure my boyfriend is the only one who has ever accused me of being a generous person, but when he does it's always for things like driving out of my way to drop people off rather than letting them all pay extra money to spend hours on buses, or for organizing collective actions when I'm pretty sure a valuable public good won't be provided if I don't personally step up to the plate. My best friend can also confirm my inclination to meddle when I see people doing things inefficiently...

Libertarianism: I do not like being told what to do. That's pretty much the sum of it. Obviously that was only the initial root of it, and as a kid I formulated a value for liberty in tandem with a value for personal responsibility, and in college as an economics student I added onto that a belief system about the economy and larger-scale political issues. But fundamentally, I'll admit it, it comes down to a really, really strong desire to live and let live.

If I were unique in this desire and if markets didn't work they way they do, that would be a tough spot to be in. I personally value liberty for its utility to me, and if the rest of the world was happier being tightly regulated, I would have to just make peace with that[4]. But I don't think there's a conflict. No one likes being told what to do, even if they don't care as strongly as I do. Liberty inherently provides an enormous deal of utility! And luckily, liberty also allows for decisions that aggregate into much, much richer societies. Seems like a pretty utilitarian perspective to me.[5]

So what's the problem with utilitarianism? If I can use utilitarianism to support by libertarian view with as much conviction as someone can use it to support their enormous-welfare-state preferences, that's a bad sign. The argument becomes a (mostly, see [3] again) empirical question (which is where the field of economics comes in). But that's also kind of a good thing - if we can admit that we have common ground in wishing the world well, we can move on from the philosophy to the empirics.

I don't think that the practical difficulty of interpersonal utility comparisons and the prediction of the utility implications of various policies is a challenge to the principle of utilitarianism. If it's pretty obvious that I make my friends better off by organizing a carpool, it can be equally obvious that mutually-agreeable trades makes people better off. Difficulty in distinguishing shades of gray doesn't mean that the ends of the spectrum aren't black and white, or that we shouldn't try.

I started this saying I'm confused and uninformed on the whole topic, which is true but diminishingly so, so please tell me where I'm wrong :)

With spectacular timing, while I've been writing this in my head the last few days until I had a chance to actually type it, Tyler CowenScott Sumner and Bryan Caplan have relevant posts with which I mostly agree. I think. (There may be others in the thread that I've forgotten; apologies. And one of those is from 2010 but I just read it, I'm not sure how.)


[1] I believe that was the original motivation Bentham had for defining it, right? Or is that another biased simplification by moral libertarians that I shouldn't have taken at face value?

[2] Frequently also referred to as a bleeding heart libertarian, but I don't much like that phrase.

[3] I also know barely anything about Austrian economics but I think this is also one of their main points, that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible and therefore mainstream economics is invalid etc. I definitely don't go that far. Interpersonal utility comparisons are in principle impossible but a rough approximation is feasible, credible, ubiquitous, inevitable, and useful. See Tyler's link above.

[4] Similarly, I'm against public finding for radio and tv and arts despite the fact I personally greatly benefit from those subsidies. My unusual preferences don't give me the right to be subsidized.

[5] There are systematic differences you see between utilitarian and moral libertarians resulting from this acceptance of utilitarianism; accordingly, I'm perfectly fine with a minimal social safety net and policies that improve clearly failing markets.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


I keep thinking I'll finish the half dozen books I'm halfway through, but let's face it, that could be years from now.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh - Fantastic stories from his career as a brain surgeon, albeit terrifying if you think about them too personally. Many thanks to MR for the recommendation.

The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Sciences and the Rise of Paternalism, by Gilles Saint-Paul - Very interesting, but I think he is too quick too conclude that behavioral social science is in fact justifying more paternalism, and accepts too broad of a scope of this alleged justified paternalism. He is also too dismissive of utilitarianism, which should, after all, include utility from liberty. I don't think (but I'm not sure... this is something I think about often) that I require any compromise with my utilitarianish tendencies* to also place such a high value on liberty itself, both as something that I personally inherently value and something that I believe leads to a great deal of more tangible utility for everyone.

NW, by Zadie Smith - Couldn't make it more than halfway through, and only got that far because I was supposed to read it for a two-person book club. Use some frickin quotation marks Zadie! (That is the most minor of my gripes, actually, but the least excusable due to not being a matter of taste...)

Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks - Mind-blowing, thought-provoking, still lurking in my subconscious. There is a BBC documentary including some of the original patients with Dr. Sacks from the early 70's and it desperately needs to be made widely available. The hollywood movie is also excellent though, although I saw it before reading the book and significantly misunderstood the illness based on the film portrayal.

Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks - Not as difficult to put down as Awakenings, but the stories of Clive Wearing and a few others are incredible.

My Point, and I Do Have One, by Ellen DeGeneres - My Ellen crush continues unabated... She's much better on camera though.


*I know, could I possibly make that sounds more non-committal? I'm really quite confused about utilitarianism...

Monday, June 1, 2015

happy winter

Apparently it's the first day of winter here in Australia. An accident of history: the military used to switch uniforms with the changing seasons at the start of the month, and therefore June 1 (ahead of solstice on the 21st) became known as the official start of winter.

This is a case of two wrongs make a right though. The June solstice is astronomically significant for marking the point in the Earth's journey around the sun when the north pole is pointing most directly at the sun. That is, when the sun is beating down most directly on the northern hemisphere above the tropic of cancer. This (not distance to the sun!) is what causes the seasons. But then you'd think the solstice would mark the peak, i.e. mid-point, of winter, not the first day. That always bugged me as a kid. Summer was obviously May through August*, not late June through late September.

Weather-wise, June 21st still isn't exactly the peak of winter because of the oceans. Water stores a great amount of heat and so stays warm for a long time after heating up in the summer. This effectively keeps the continents warm, especially near the coast, a bit into autumn as well. So the solstice is really just somewhere in the first half of summer/winter.

I.e., June 1 is right about the start of the season. And historical averages confirm that June, July, and August are the coldest months of the year in Brisbane.

And by coldest, I mean that the average daily high temperature is around 75 degrees, with no rain. So, you know, why aren't you all moving here yet :)

*Yeah that's four months, not three. Oklahoma has long summers.