Archive for the 'Musings' Category

Alternative Realities

Romans Pancs, my friend from what is slated to be the other side of The Wall, observes in an email that a substantial fraction of the US population attends church, where they are fed a steady diet of alternative facts and fake (old) news. Yet not many people seem terribly outraged by this, and in fact churchgoers are widely respected for the power of their fact-free, unconditional faith.

Why, then, all the angst and anger and disrespect for those who place their unconditional faith in the fake news and prophesies purveyed by Donald Trump? Whence the double standard?

I have a separate question, motivated by the same observation: To what extent have the churches, by training people to accept obvious nonsense without blinking, created the condiitions in which Trumpism can flourish?

I’ll be glad to hear your answers to either question, or to both.

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Why She Lost

Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business OwnersFor your consideration:

I submit that Hillary Clinton lost because she did not make even a minimal effort to make herself palatable to people like me — people who care primarily about economic growth, fiscal responsibility, limited government, individual freedom and respect for voluntary arrangements.

Because I care about those things (and for a number of other good and sufficient reasons), there was never a chance I would vote for Donald Trump. I gave money to Jeb Bush. Then I gave money to Ted Cruz. Then I gave money to the “Never Trump” movement that was trying to foment a revolt at the convention. Then I gave money to pro-growth Senate candidates. For me, the only remaining choice was between voting for Clinton and not voting for Clinton. (I also considered sending her money.)

I knew that if I voted for her, I’d never feel good about it. That was too much to ask. But I’d still have voted for her, if only she hadn’t gone out of her way to make me feel awful about it. And that she just would not or could not stop doing.

Every time I listened to her recite the litany of reasons not to vote for Trump, I cheered her on. But she seemed incapable of getting through a speech without veering off into the loony-land of free college and unfree trade. Most disturbingly — partly because it was most disturbing and partly because she harped on it so often — was the glee with which she looked forward to rewriting other people’s labor contracts and vetoing their voluntary arrangements. Do you want to accept a wage of less than $12 an hour in exchange for, say, more on-the-job training or more flexible work hours? Hillary says no. Do you want to forgo parental leave in exchange for, say, a higher salary? Hillary says no. And on and on.

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Killer Instincts

So help me out with this.

1) Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel sure that it’s not uncommon, when a guy is murdered for a pair of shoes, or for the 23 cents in his pocket, that we tend to read commentary about how this murder is made particularly tragic and/or reprehensible by the fact that the killer gained so little.

2) The murder of schoolteacher Katie Locke is being widely condemned as particularly tragic and/or reprehensible because the killer had sex with her corpse, which was apparently his goal all along.

Do you see my problem here? How can a good outcome for the killer make a murder both better and worse?

Alright, let’s ask what the key difference is. Here’s one: Robbing a corpse (or a soon-to-be corpse) is a zero-sum game. What the robber acquires comes from the pockets of the heirs. Sex with a corpse is probably a positive-sum game; it’s unlikely to interfere with anyone else’s plans.

Unfortunately, that only makes things even more unsettling. It leads to this syllogism:

  1. People feel better about a murder when they learn that the killer stole $10,000 from the heirs as opposed, to, say, 23 cents. This suggests that they care more about the killer than they do about the heirs, who could be pretty much anyone.
  2. People feel worse about a murder when they learn that the killer got some satisfaction even if it came at nobody’s (additional) expense. This suggests that they care a negative amount about the killer.

Put all that together, and these people must be pretty much seething with hatred for the world at large.

Or to put this another way: It appears (taking the murder as given) that people want killers to achieve their goals when and only when those goals are achieved at someone else’s expense. That’s pretty much the definition of “anti-social”.

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Political Strategy

It now seems likely that:

  • In order for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio to become the Republican nominee, he must first consolidate the anti-Trump vote, which is to say that either can succeed only if the other drops out.
  • Cruz and Rubio have approximately equal chances of driving each other out.
  • Each would prefer to drive the other out sooner rather than later — i.e. before Trump wraps this whole thing up anyway.

Given that, it seems like one of the following two things should happen at tonight’s debate:


  1. Cruz, after making an eloquent case against Trump and explaining why he thinks it’s important to keep Trump out of the White House, turns to Rubio and offers to flip a coin right on the spot. The loser drops out of the race and the winner takes on Trump.
  2. or

  3. Rubio, after making an elegant case against Trump and explaining why he thinks it’s important to keep Trump out of the White House, turns to Cruz and offers to flip a coin right on the spot. The loser drops out of the race and the winner takes on Trump.

This gives each of them only a 50% chance of survival. But if they’ve already each got only a 50% chance of survival, that’s no loss. And it substantially increases the value of survival, because it gets things over with now instead of a month from now.

If I’m wrong in saying that each currently has a 50% chance — if instead, say, Cruz has a 60% chance and Rubio a 40% chance or vice versa — then they can flip an appropriately weighted coin.

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A Question About the Modern World

Suppose you want, for some reason, to find the length of a randomly chosen river or the population of a randomly chosen city.

In the old days, we all had things called “reference books”, with long lists of river lengths, city populations, etc. You could open to a random page, close your eyes, put down your finger, and there you’d have it.

But now many of us no longer own reference books. We own smartphones instead. This raises two issues:

1) I’m not sure there are online lists of river lengths or city populations that are as extensive as what you used to find in reference books. Why should there be? Nowadays, if you want to know the population of Des Moines, you just Google for Des Moines; you don’t need a site that lists the populations of thousands or tens of thousands of cities.

2) Even if there were such lists, what would be the modern equivalent of opening to a random page, closing your eyes and pointing? Scrolling for a random amount of time seems less random somehow.

So what do you do?

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Dear Old Golden Rule Days

ssyShortly before I started Kindergarten, my mother purchased a book called “Steven’s School Years”, with pockets to store my report cards and school projects, and questionnaires for me to fill out at the end of each school year.

I was not diligent about filling in the questionnaires, and they remain mostly blank. But had I been forced to, I wonder how I would have answered the following question, which was to be answered annually at the end of Grades 1,2,3,4,5, and 6:

(According to my mother, my ambition at age three was to be an electric drill, and sometime after that a rabbit. No other records of my early career inclinations seem to have survived.)

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Seeing Things Differently

Can humans learn to see in more than three dimensions?

What follows is highly speculative (and therefore possibly nonsense), but bear with me. (Or, if you prefer, don’t.)

First, let’s think about how humans learn to see in more than two dimensions. Your visual cortex (at least as I understand it) is pretty much two-dimensional, but apparently your brain is pretty adept at converting two dimensions worth of information into a three-dimensional picture of the world around you.

To accomplish that feat, your brain employs (at least) two tricks. First, it can infer an object’s depth (by which I mean its distance in front of you) from the angle between it and your two pupils:

Second, your brain can infer an object’s depth from the size of the accommodation reflex (change in lens shape, pupillary contraction, etc) needed to focus on it.

Ordinarily, these two methods pretty much agree, and your brain uses that answer to construct its map of the world.

But suppose I could surgically adjust your eyes in a way that breaks that agreement. For example, the angle-method might continue to work just as it does now, but I’d disrupt the accommodation reflex so that your pupils now contract by an amount that depends not on the distance to an object but on, say, its redness, or its squareness, or even just varies randomly. Better yet, suppose I could do this at a very early age, when your brain is still learning how to process visual signals.

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Life in Baltimore

Christopher Ingraham, writing in the Washington Post, points with alarm to a 20-year gap in life expectancies between the poorest and the richest Baltimoreans. This begs the question of whether that gap is too small or too large, or better yet, what the optimal gap would be. Surely it is not zero, which is to say that longevity is only one of the problems poor Baltimoreans face, that directing more resources to life extension means directing fewer resources elsewhere, and that redirecting enough resources to close a 20-year longevity gap would almost surely leave poor Baltimoreans worse off than they are. Even if we were prepared to spend whatever it takes to close that gap, it’s not implausible that most poor Baltimoreans would rather have the cash.

More striking is Ingraham’s observation, in the same article, that in some Baltimore neighborhoods, life expectancies are lower than they are in North Korea. Poor Baltimoreans are certainly wealthier than average North Koreans, so you’d expect them to live longer. Unless there’s some other variable at play (like, for example, a Korean genetic predisposition to long life), this suggests either that poor Baltimoreans die too young or that North Koreans live too long. It’s not clear which.

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Those Clinton Emails

Hillary ClintonIf Jeb Bush is elected president and appoints me Secretary of State, the first thing I will do is set up a private server to handle my official email correspondence. This is not because I expect to have anything to hide, but because I expect my email to be important, and I do not want my service to depend on the whims of the sorts of aggressively incompetent nincompoops who, in my experience, tend to populate the IT departments of large institutions.

The University of Rochester, where I work, provides email services to all its employees. I do not use those services. Instead, I own several Internet domains and manage my own email For all I know, the University IT center might currently be 100% nincompoop-free, but all past experience suggests that it’s unlikely to stay that way very long.

Yes, I realize that one is still at the mercy of one’s upstream providers. But I am here to tell you from experience that the frequency of outages and other disasters is now about 10% of what it was in the years when I was at the mercy of the IT managers.

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Now What?

It was the election of 1994 that knocked the idealism out of me. Republicans ran on a national platform of reform, they won — and nothing happened. My recollection (someone correct me if I have this wrong) is that a series of substantial reform bills passed the Republican house in short order, and all of them died in the Republican senate. My guess (without having thought too hard about it) is that this is the natural order of things because Senate campaigns are so expensive that no matter what legislation the House sends up, there’s always some committee chairman with a large donor who opposes it.

There is no reassurance to be had from the identities of the likely new chairmen-to-be: Thad Cochran at Appropriations, Pat Roberts at Agriculture, Jeff Sessions at Budget, Orrin Hatch at Finance. Even aside from the question of what you can or can’t get past the White House, these are not the sort of people I want rewriting the tax code; they are not the people I want setting agricultural policy; they are not the people I want in charge of immigration reform.

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Amazon’s Bargemen

In early 20th century China, goods were frequently transported by barges pulled by teams of six men. The men were paid only if they delivered their goods on time. Therefore they all agreed to pull as hard as possible.

This is a classic example of what economists call a Prisoner’s Dilemma — a situation where everyone wants to cheat, regardless of whether he believes the others are cheating. Any bargeman might reason that “If the others are pulling hard, we’re going to make it anyway, so I might as well relax. And if the others are not pulling hard, we’re not going to make it anyway — so I still might as well relax .” Therefore they all relax and nobody gets paid.

According to my late and much lamented colleague Walter Oi, the bargemen frequently solved this problem by hiring a seventh man to whip them whenever they appeared to be giving less than 100%. You might suppose, at least if you’re a person of ordinary tastes, that hiring a man to whip you is never a good idea. There’s a sense in which you’d be right. But hiring a man to whip your colleagues can be a very good idea indeed, and if that requires getting whipped yourself, it might prove to be an excellent bargain.

If I’d lived in China a hundred years ago, I believe I’d have gone out of my way to buy goods from the teams with whipmasters — partly because that’s where I’d expect the best service, but also partly because I’d feel a certain combination of admiration and loyalty for the teams who were working so hard to earn my business.

That’s how I feel about the folks at Amazon. Based on the fabulous service I’ve been getting, I’m confident these people are knocking themselves out to do a good job for me. In fact, it’s been widely (and perhaps accurately) reported that during a heat spell a couple of summers ago, workers in an un-airconditioned Pennsylvania warehouse continued to fill orders even as several were being treated for heat sickness.

There’s a narrative going around that tries to paint these workers as victims, though I’ve heard no version of that narrative that makes clear who, exactly, is supposed to have victimized them — the stockholders? the management? the customers? the do-nothing Congress? But there’s little point in trying to make sense of this narrative, since it’s so obviously wrong to begin with.

Imagine a team of ambitious but relatively low-skilled workers. They know that if they all push themselves to the limit, they’ll all be more productive and therefore earn higher wages. They also know that if they all promise to push themselves to the limit, they’ll all break their promises, figuring that success or failure depends almost entirely on what the others do.

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Discussion Question

Imagine a world where everyone is equally risk-averse, and where there are two assets available: You can hold stock in an umbrella company, or you can hold stock in a sunscreen company. Depending on the (quite unpredictable) weather, one of these stocks is sure to gain value at 100% a year while the other is sure to lose value at 95% a year, but it’s impossible to know which is which.

Given this, the smart thing to do is to hold a balanced portfolio of the two assets and earn a comfortable 5% per year. Most people in this imaginary world are smart enough to figure this out. But a small number are stupid enough to put all their eggs in one or the other basket. Half these people are quickly wiped out; the other half become super-rich.

Now we have a society in which nobody smart is especially rich, and everyone rich is especially dumb.

Question: Does this parable contribute anything useful to understanding some aspect (obviously not all aspects!) of the wealth distribution in the world we inhabit? Discuss.

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Chips off the Block

Last week, I wrote to condemn the gang of angry yahoos who have piled onto Walter Block for making a perfectly reasonable argument about slavery, involuntary association, and Civil Rights legislation. Today I write to give Walter’s argument the respect it deserves by trying to pick it apart.

It’s important to recognize that Walter wasn’t making a formal argument. Instead, he was offering a rhetorical framework to clarify some of the issues. His (informal) argument, if I understand it, comes down to essentially this:

Look. We all agree that slavery is bad. And when you think about it, pretty much all of the badness stems from its involuntary nature. This should make us wary of involuntary associations in general, and hesitant to impose them. This applies, for example, to laws that require restaurant owners to serve people they don’t want to serve.

Now I happen to be quite sympathetic to that argument (indeed, I’ve been known to make essentially the same argument myself). In fact, I’ll go further and say that I think any reasonable person ought to be at least somewhat moved by that argument. But I can see where it’s not airtight.

To see why not, let’s take a pass at formalizing this:

1) Slavery is bad.
2) For a thing to be bad, some aspect of it must be bad.
3) Slavery has no bad aspects except possibly involuntary association.
4) From 1), 2) and 3), we can deduce that involuntary association is a bad aspect of slavery.
5) From 4), we deduce that involuntary association is bad.
6) Involuntary association is an aspect of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
7) Anything with a bad aspect is at least partially bad.
8) From 5), 6) and 7), we can deduce that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is at least partially bad.

Now let’s see where the problems are.

Continue reading ‘Chips off the Block’

The View From Olympus

Correct me if I’m wrong here:

1) In Russia, there is a law against so-called “gay propaganda”. Reasonable people (including me) consider this a regrettable curtailment of liberty. Some of those reasonable people also believe that it contributes to a culture in which violent acts against gay people are condoned or encouraged. This, if true, is sickening.

2) In Russia, there is also a law requiring most male citizens to serve at least a year in the military. Reasonable people (including me) consider this a regrettable curtailment of liberty. It is widely reported that conscripts are routinely subject to violent hazing that has been characterized as rising to the level of torture. News reports suggest that hundreds of conscripts die every year as a result of this hazing. This, if true, is sickening.

3) Conscription affects far more people than the anti-propaganda laws. In most cases, it also affects them far more severely. (If you doubt this, try asking your friends which they’d prefer: avoiding public discussions of homosexuality or serving a year in the Russian military.) Conscription is therefore, on both counts, the (far) greater outrage.

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Blinded By Prejudice?

I’ve been reading about the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which, in its original form, banned racial segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels (though by the time it was passed, almost all of the content had been stripped out). There’s a part of this history that makes no sense to me and I’m wondering if someone can explain it.

Remember first that this was at a time when several southern states enforced laws that mandated segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels.

It was also at a time when, as I understand it, the outcome of the legislative battle was very much in doubt, so that each side feared the worst and was eager to compromise. Supporters weren’t sure they could beat a filibuster, which meant the bill might never even come to a vote. Opponents feared a filibuster might be beaten and the bill passed without amendments.

Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader of the Senate, wanted above all else to avoid a major fight, and was eager to facilitate any compromise both sides could agree on. He floated several compromise proposals and actively solicited others, from legislators, attorneys, and everyone else he could think of.

In Master of the Senate, the third in his three-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro describes a vast number of compromises that failed before the passage of the final successful compromise.

Now here’s what astonishes me: Here you had all these lawyers and politicians, desperately trying to find a creative compromise — and yet, as far as I can tell, nobody ever proposed the compromise that seems (to me) to be obvious. The Republicans and northerners wanted mandatory integration. The southerners wanted to maintain mandatory segregation. The obvious compromise, I should think, would be to have neither — the northerners agree not to pass a federal law, and the southerners agree to repeal some state laws.

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A Sip of Monstrous Moonshine

You and a stranger have been instructed to meet up sometime tomorrow, somewhere in New York City. You (and the stranger) can decide for yourselves when and where to look for each other. But there can be no advance communication. Where do you go?

Me, I’d be at the front entrance to the Empire State Building at noon, possibly missing my counterpart, who might be under the clock at Grand Central Station. But, because there are only a small number of points in New York City that stand out as “extra-special”, we’ve at least got a chance to find each other.

A Schelling point is something that stands out from the background so sharply that we can expect people to coordinate around it. Schelling points are on my mind this week, because I’ve just heard David Friedman give a fascinating talk about the evolution of property rights, and Schelling points play a big role in his story. But that story is not the topic of this post.

Instead, I’m curious about the Schelling points that say, two mathematicians, or two economists, or two philosophers, or two poets, or two street hustlers might converge on. Suppose, for example, that you asked two mathematicians each to separately pick a number between 200 and 300, with a prize if their answers coincide. I’m guessing they both go for 256, the only power of two within range.

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Thought for the Day

If I could choose any name I wanted and require everyone to call me by that name, I think I would probably go with something considerably more creative than “Francis”. Just saying.

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The Most Important Date Ever

I am not one of the public intellectuals who were queried by The Atlantic (link might require subscription) as to which date most changed world history — but on the Internet, you can always spout off without an invitation.

It’s hard to argue with Freeman Dyson, who nominates the day an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, clearing the evolutionary path for the likes of you and me.

(Actually, it’s remarkably easy to argue with Freeman Dyson. I know this, having done so over tea in Princeton, many years ago. He made it very easy indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was 100% right and I was 100% wrong.)

At the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, the standup comedian W. Kamau Bell, after lamenting that there’s no way he can get this right so he might as well punt, nominates the day Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk on national TV. Unfortunately, his intent to give the most ridiculous possible answer is thwarted by one Neera Tanden of something called the Center for American Progress, who, with an apparently straight face, nominates August 26, 1920 (the day American women gained the right to vote) — an answer that begins by placing 20th century America at the center of the Universe and proceeds downhill from there.

Other 20th-century answers (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) are at least more serious, and I think that Anne-Marie Slaughter‘s nomination of the still-very-recent-by-historical-standards signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 is even defensible. But then what about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which arguably laid the political and intellectual groundwork that made the Declaration possible?

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Enough Already!

Today’s email brings a gripe from Mark Skousen, the irrepressible impresario behind FreedomFest, who could have avoided this problem by being born in the old Soviet Union:

I was in the large Stop & Shop grocery store here in New York to buy some items, including a new tube of toothpaste. I like Colgate, but I can never seem to get the same toothpaste product.

Now I know why. Guess how many different types and sizes of toothpaste Colgate sells?


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Late Night Thoughts on Determinism

Last week, we had some discussion of free will, which prompted some comments about determinism. I’m not convinced that determinism has all that much to do with free will one way or the other, but since the topic’s been raised, here are a few bullet points, jotted down late at night, which I hope will still make sense in the morning.

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The Long Now

Here is a link to my piece in today’s issue of; and here’s the executive summary:

Deep inside a West Texas mountain, engineers are building a clock designed to click for 10,000 years.’s Jeff Bezos has sunk $43 million into this project and that’s just a start. What’s the purpose? “To foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, say the organizers.

Now thinking and responsibility are two different things, but it’s hard to see how this project is likely to encourage either. Re thinking: The question of what we owe to future generations is subtle and difficult and requires close attention to difficult arguments; it’s hard to see how a ticking clock will do to foster that kind of effort. And as for responsiblity — if responsibility means making a better life for our distant descendants, then Bezos’s $43 million would almost surely be better spent on lobbying for lower capital taxes. Whether the goal is thinking or responsibility, a giant clock seems like a giant waste of time.

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In the News

As long as we have anything like traditional marriage, I believe that restricting it to heterosexual couples is an exceptionally bad and stupid policy, laced with unnecessary cruelty. It is not, however, an issue that is likely ever to affect my vote, because so much else dwarfs its importance. Legalizing gay marriage would make life substantially better for a few million people of the wealthiest people in the world (i.e. Americans) and is therefore a good thing, but if I’m going to pick my battles, I’ll cast my lot with, say, the tens or hundreds of millions of Third Worlders who are relegated to dire poverty by American trade and immigration restrictions. I’ll take the homophobic free trader over the protectionist crusader for sexual equality every single time.

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Another Nightmare

nbcYesterday’s nightmare scenarios triggered some good discussion, so let me throw out another one, which I think will help to isolate some of the issues that came up yesterday. Sometime next week I’ll try to summarize the best of the comments and ponder what we’ve learned.

Today’s Dilemma

In front of you are two childless married couples. For some reason, it’s imperative that you kill two of the four people. Your choices are:

A. Kill one randomly chosen member from each couple.
B. Kill both members of a randomly chosen couple.

All four people agree that if they die, they want to be well remembered. Therefore all four ask you, please, to choose A so that anyone who dies will be remembered by a loving spouse.

If you care about the four people in front of you, what should you do?


Argument 1. For goodness’s sake, they’ve told you what to do. If you care about them, of course you should respect their wishes. Choose A.

Argument 2.Once the killings are over, Option A leaves two grieving spouses, whereas Option B leaves one relieved couple. Surely two dead plus two happy is better than two dead plus two sad. Choose B.

Continue reading ‘Another Nightmare’

Nightmare Scenarios


Here’s a question to ponder:

Question 1: If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?

Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he destroys all human life; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips 7 billion coins, one for each person on earth. He destroys anyone whose coin comes up heads.

I’ll tell you in a minute why I ask, but first let’s consider arguments in each direction:

Argument 1. In scenario A, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of continuing my current life. In scenario B, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of a life in which half my loved ones are gone. Surely I should take A.

Argument 2. In scenario A, there’s a 50-50 chance that all future generations will be destroyed-in-advance. In scenario B, even if the coin comes up heads, people will continue to be born, and in the very long run, the evil alien will be a forgotten memory. Surely I should take B.

Your answer to this question, I think, is likely to reveal a lot about how much you think we owe to future generations. If you think we owe them nothing, then Argument 1 is definitive. If you think we owe them the same respect we owe our contemporaries, then Argument 2 is definitive. If you think we owe them something in between, you might waver.

Now that sort of question might strike you as nothing more than Sunday-afternoon dorm room fare, but I don’t believe it can be dismissed so easily. It is pretty much impossible to take a coherent stand on issues ranging from Social Security reform to environmental conservation without first deciding how much we are obligated to care about future generations. A lot of people seem to think those issues are worth debating, which pretty much forces us to face up to the fundamental issues.

On the other hand, come to think of it, I suppose a person might prefer Scenario B to Scenario A for reasons that have nothing to do with future generations — namely the desire to be remembered. Is that something we care about? To focus on that issue, here’s another question:

Question 2: Suppose you’re happily married. If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?

Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills you and your spouse; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills just you; if it comes up tails, he kills just your spouse.

Here again we have:

Argument 1. In scenario A, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of continuing my current life. In scenario B, I have a 50-50 chance of death, and a 50-50 chance of a life in which my beloved spouse is gone. Surely I should take A.

Argument 2. In scenario A, there’s a 50-50 chance that my spouse and I will both be dead and unremembered (or at least unremembered by anyone who knows us as intimately as we know each other). In scenario B, however, we each get to live on, at least in the memory of a loved one. Surely I should take B.

Your answer to Question 2 will tell me something about how much being remembered matters to you, which will help me interpret your answer to Question 1.

The original version of this post included several more followup questions. But I suspect these two are grist enough for a day or two of discussions. I’ll post the followups after those responses start to peter out.

Related post here.

Neutrinos and Appomattox

Scientists at CERN have found apparent evidence that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

Suppose that tomorrow historians at Harvard find apparent evidence that the South won the American Civil War — not in some metaphorical “they accomplished their goals” sense, but in the literal sense that it was actually Grant who handed his sword to Lee at Appomatox and not the other way around.

Question: Of which conclusion would you be more skeptical?

Of course your answer might depend on exactly what this new “apparent evidence” consists of. So let me reword: As of this moment, which do you think is more likely — that neutrinos can travel faster than light, or that the South won the Civil War?

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Looking Forward to Looking Backward

Each generation wishes it could go back fifty years and shake some sense into those people who were so bound by unnecessary customs, and so blind to the options they could have chosen and the changes that loomed on the horizon. As I said on Tuesday, this was Edith Wharton’s theme when she wrote in 1920 about the 1870′s, and it’s the theme of Mad Men, written in 2010 about the 1960s.

I invited you on Tuesday to speculate about which of our own quirks will trigger this sort of bittersweet nostalgic frustration among our descendants fifty years from now. There were some great responses in the comments.

Here are some predictions of my own that I think are least plausible — some moreso than others, but I’ll throw them out in no particular order.

Continue reading ‘Looking Forward to Looking Backward’


When I review the blessings of my extraordinarily blessed life, this one always appears near the top of my list: I am an adult male who has never been to war. I have always assumed — without thinking about it too hard — that in the historical scheme of things, this is a great privilege, and a great rarity.

Am I right about that? Over the course of human history, what is your estimate of the fraction of males who have reached adulthood without participating in a military conflict?

(Obviously, there’s some fuzziness about what counts as military conflict. I’m thinking here not about the occasional street fighter, but about the guy living in mud and getting shot at for weeks at a time — or things equally dangerous/traumatic/uncomfortable.)


1) I just had an extremely pleasant walk around the Beale Street area in Memphis, which strikes me, roughly, as Bourbon Street without the urine. (Also without the trash and the high general level of obnoxiousness — though also of course without the magnificent architecture, etc.) Yes, I realize it’s also a different musical genre (though in both cases it’s a sub-genre of “too loud”). But it’s astonishing to me how clean the streets are here, and how well-behaved the crowds, compared to what I’ve seen in Louisiana. If they can do that here, why can’t they do it there?

2) This weekend marks the anniversary of a world-changing event — an event that might be of particular interest to readers of The Big Questions, both the book and the blog. Who can tell me what event I have in mind? (Hint: It’s an anniversary ending in zero.) I’ll blog the answer on Monday.

3) The discussion of the Allais paradox rages on in comments on multiple posts. For the few of you who have not yet tuned this out, my latest comment is an attempt to cut through the fog and identify the locus of some commenters’ confusion, or disagreement, or both. I think it will very much help focus the discussion if the dissenters could tell us where they stand on these questions. (My answers are all “yes”.)

Continue reading ‘Miscellany’

Efficiency Experts

Is it better to tax consumption or to tax income? Is it better to tax carbon or to mandate fuel efficiency? Is it better to foster global competition or to protect local industries?

Today, I will attack none of these questions. Instead, I will attack the meta-question of how to attack such questions. For economists evaluating alternative policies, the industry standard is the efficiency criterion, also known as the welfare criterion. (I’ll illustrate what that means as I go along.) But now comes Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt with a piece in the New York Times that questions the orthodox approach found in virtually all modern textbooks (including one in particular).

Let’s first dispense with the straw man. I’ve never heard of an economist who believes that every efficient policy is good, and I’ve heard of very few who believe that every inefficient policy is bad. It’s true that most economists do seem to believe that any good policy analysis should start by considering efficiency. That doesn’t mean it should end there.

I think economists are right to emphasize efficiency, and I think so for (at least) two reasons. First, emphasizing efficiency forces us to concentrate on the most important problems. Second, emphasizing efficiency forces us to be honest about our goals.

Continue reading ‘Efficiency Experts’

Causation versus Correlation


Data from 9,785 users of the dating site OKCupid reveal that iPhone users have 50% to 100% more sex partners than Android users, at every age.

This graph combines men and women, but the same pattern holds for each gender separately.

Explain this to me!

More info here (if you scroll down a couple of screens).