Category Archives: Politics

The Real Problem with Inequality

Lots of people who talk about economic inequality will often list reasons why inequality is bad. Inequality causes crime. Inequality causes bad health outcomes. Inequality could lead to a revolution. Bringing up these justifications for the harm of inequality doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like writing an article about why being set on fire is a bad thing and giving reasons like you won’t be able to catch public transport.

I think there is a core feature of inequality that makes it a bad thing and in comparison the above problems seems like minor side effects. I almost never hear this problem being mentioned. And it is a fundamental concept in economics so the pro free market economists should be very familiar with it.

The problem is diminishing marginal utility. In this case the diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Giving $100 to a person with an income of $1000 a year will give that person more utility than giving that $100 to a person with an income of $100,000. And taking $100 from the first person will harm them more than taking $100 from the second individual.
Because of this, most form of unequal distribution of resources (represented by wealth) lead to a lower level of utility overall. So if we could costlessly redistribute wealth to decrease equality that could increase overall utility.

There are several exceptions to this. Firstly some inequalities are justified by different resource requirements to reach the same level of utility. For example, if there are two people who spend the same amount on all goods and services, except one has to spend an additional several thousand dollars a year on medical expenses to keep them alive, that person needs more resources to achieve the same level of utility as the other person.

Secondly, there is the argument that inequality motivates people to work, and if there was one standard income that everyone received it would distort the market and resources would not be allocated most efficiently. This is probably true, and figuring out the best trad off between efficient use of resources and utility maximization (which are not the same thing) is a hard problem.

But I think that this is the kind of conversation that should be going on when we talk about economic inequality instead of pointing out other side issues like the correlation of inequality with other negative societal outcomes. It can be hard paying for a funeral, but that is not why death is bad.

One Step Closer to Understanding Gender

So after reading the Slate Star Codex essay The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories I think I actually understand gender now. Well, I understand it a bit better than before.

I don’t know why it didn’t click with me before. I have read the Less Wrong sequence on words that Scott builds on and I even remember telling myself I should apply it to something that I’m more interested in then AI, like gender. To summaries in my own words:

We can visualise a Gender Space (check out the Wikipedia page on Vector Space to help understand what I mean by Gender Space) where every possible thing we associate with a gender (chromosomes, physical genitalia, appearance, identification, gender roles etc) on an axis (gender space has dozens of dimensions) and then place people at points in that space. We will observe clusters in this space, for example the cluster [XX chromosomes + Feminine gender presentation + Identifies as a woman] will be populated by people more than [XX chromosomes + Masculine Gender presentation + Identifies as non binary]. This doesn’t mean the later is wrong or bad, there are just empirically more members of the first cluster currently on earth than the second cluster.

This is the same with everything. For example planets have many characteristics (round, big, have moons, clears a path in space) and some [things in space] have some of these properties and not others. We then decide where we want to draw an imaginary line around a cluster in Gender Space and label these clusters things like “men” and “women” and “non binary.” But where we choose to draw this boundary is completely subjective so if someone draws the boundary somewhere differently to you they are not wrong.

Gender is more confusing than planets because  there is an axis in gender space called “Gender Identification” which is what people say when they ask themselves what their gender is. There is also another axis which we could call “external gender identification” which would be what they tell people their gender is, which for some people would be different from their internal gender identification and would be different depending on the person.

This is even more confusing when you are trying to put yourself in gender space (find where you are in gender space?) because it causes a recursion. If I self identity as a woman that means on the axis of self identification I am at the point labeled woman, which makes me a member of the cluster that I have drawn the label around called woman, which means I am a woman, which means I identify as a woman, which means on the axis of gender identification etc.

I first was confused about gender when I learned that after you separate gender of biological sex, there are two separate things, gender identity and gender presentation. Gender presentation (clothing preferences, mannerisms, gender roles, pronouns)i completely understood and could understand people with any biological sex (which also is obviously not a binary) wanting any combination of those. Andi I understood what it meant to identify as a gender in the sense of saying “I am a [Gender]” But surely there must be something influencing that right? Like some kind of internal experience or set of facts that cause one person to identify as one gender and one person to identify as another.

I asked my friend (a cis woman) what she meant when she says she identifies as a woman (my memory will be inexact when recalling this conversation). She said she “feels like” a girl/woman. I had absolutely no idea what she meant by that. Up until this point i had identified as a man because my biological sex is male and I fit most (though not all) of the male gender presentation criteria. But I had no idea what she meant by “feel like a woman.” I didn’t feel like a man, just like I didn’t feel like a left wing person, i just surveyed my political beliefs and chose the label that fit. Unlike “feeling hungry” or “feeling sad” I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to feel like a gender.

After asking more people and doing research I asked my original friend if by “I feel like a woman” she meant “I have a preference for and/or feel happy when people use feminine pronouns to refer to me, and other forms of feminine presentation” she said yes but there was also a part beyond that where she felt like a woman. While I could understand the former part the latter still made no sense to me. After a while I started identifying as Agender due to fact I didn’t seem to feel what other people felt.

(although what i found interesting is that at least a third of my cis friends that I asked felt the exact same way as me, and didn’t really understand what it meant to “feel like” a specific gender. Later I learned about people who are Cis by Default which is a cis person who doesn’t feel a strong gender identity.)

But I’m still not sure if the gender you feel like is an axis in gender space or if it is how an algorithm feels from the inside, and in the same way that words feel like they have meaning or Pluto still feels like a planet even after we know every characteristic about it.

I think that if I knew everything I know now about gender when I first asked myself what gender I am, I would have said I’m probably a cis by default man. But at the same time now that my self identification is Agender, am I stuck in a recursive loop of being Agender because i identify as Agender and identifying as Agender because I am Agender?

I also don’t know how this affects my gender abolitionist leanings. Like the same arguments that apply to abolishing the category of gender seem to apply to abolishing a lot of other categories, so to be consistent would I have to be an abolitionist about every category? I have more thinking to do.

So to sum it up gender is still confusing, but slightly less than it was before. Progress!

Social Justice and Gold Stars

While i am extremel pro-equality, I disagree with many beliefs that are held by the ideological cluster Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism (obviously not all people who talk about social justice and feminism on Tumblr believe these things). One relatively minor idea that is held by Social-Justice-Tumblr-Feminism that I disagree with is the concept of Gold Stars. That when a person does something that helps an oppressed group they are not deserving of praise and are merely fulfilling the bare minimum requirement of being a decent human being.

My first problem with this is consequentialist. When someone has told me they did something positive (relative to the alternatives they could have done) my reaction to them will likely affect how they act in the future. If I give a positive reaction like “Good job for doing that Good Thing, High five!” it will likely reinforce the behaviour, making them associate the behaviour with positive emotions and reinforce that a member of their social group approves of the behaviour. If I react with “You did a Good thing? What do you want a gold star? A cookie? Good job meeting the minimum requirements for not being a horrible person” it will likely have the opposite result. So on purely consequentialist grounds if what we actually care about is people doing the positive things than we will want to react to people in a way that encourages that action.

My second problem is that drawing a line at some point on the moral spectrum and declaring that anything above that is merely a decent human being and undeserving of praise is arbitrary and I think makes a moral error. No person in there entire life has made 100% correct moral decisions (given their knowledge at the time) and no one ever will. No one has done all the good they could possible do. Even if someone is completely in compliance with every social justice rule, the still need to give all of their surplus income to the most effective charity possible. So declaring that here is a minimum standard that everyone has an obligation to be higher than seems to make less sense than simply promoting the pursuit of getting as close to perfect as possible. Because of this any step upward should be encouraged.

Steel manned counter arguments:

Firstly giving people praise may not actually encourage them. If they think they have done their one good deed for the day they may do less to be good in the future not more. Secondly while there is no objective way of drawing the line people may respond psychologically better to having a line that he need to be above (that we slowly raise at roughly the same pace as the social average but set higher) rather than a general direction.

These arguments ma be right, I’m not sure, I will need to think more about it. There are also some areas where I definitely endorse a No Gold Star attitude, for example if someone is using the fact they did one Good Thing as an excuse for not doing other Good Things. I have a fairly strong feeling that friendly encouragement is better in general for a social movement than sarcastic mocking (Effective Altruism movement vs Tumblr Social Justice) but I may just have a very large difference in opinion and emotional reaction to those two groups.

Liberty vs Coercion is a Fight Over Property Rights

So recently i have been binging on Econtalk Podcast so I have been hearing a lot of libertarian perspective recently (I highly recommend econ talk, the host leans towards libertarianism but is very open minded and balanced relative to the average commentator from any political ideology). So the next few posts will probably be about that. Libertarians often use the phrases liberty and coercion. Liberty is the freedom to make your own choices, both social and economic whereas coercion is when someone (the government) forces you to do something against you will, likely pay taxes, which is theft (according to libertarians).

My first problem with this is that most peoples values (definitely mine , could be typical mind fallacy) value other things besides liberty in the way libertarians use the. Libertarian Liberty is negative freedom (the freedom from interference by an outside force i.e the government) rather then positive freedom (the right to have access to something, like clean water, giving others an obligation to provide that thing to you). Now as a consequentialist I don’t look at the situation in terms of rights, but its seem intuitively obvious to be that there is no difference between taking food away from a person and refusing to give them food, either way the affect is a person who is hungry doesn’t have food.

On the other hand it seems that libertarians/free market advocates see taking food from a hungry person to be coercive and wrong but to refuse giving food that you legitimately own to a hungry person is completely within your right. Of course libertarianism can be argued for on consequentialist grounds, that free markets will likely lead to hungry people have food so redistribution will be unnecessary. But Many libertarians (possibly the majority) seem to advocate on deontological right theories rather than consequentialism.

The other problem is that the meaning of words like “coercion” and “force” as used by libertarians and particularly Anarcho-capitalists is completely dependent on what system of property rights is being used. If a hungry person is about to eat an apple from a tree and you use force to prevent them from doing so, this is seem as wrong if they own the tree (stealing from them/not letting them use their property as the choose) but it is fine if you own the tree (preventing them from stealing your property). So when an Anarcho-capitalist and and Ancarho-communist debate, they will mostly likely talk past to each other because they have different ideas of what property rights there should be (the Anarcho-communists doesn’t recognize private ownership of the means of production)and therefore different definitions of force and coercion.

I once heard an exchange that went like this:

Anarcho-capitalist: In my preferred society you would be able to form a communist commune within that society, would i be able to form a capitalist commune with private property and trade under Anarcho-communism?

Anarcho-communist: Of course, as long as you don’t use force to prevent me from using the means of production.

Now form my Trying Really Hard To Be Non-ideological But Still Somehow Far Left perspective, property rights are subjective and we should choose the set of property rights that are best for the particular society we are in, which will depend both on the technologically level of that society and the psychological stat of it s inhabitants (including there preference of one system n over another). So I don’t think there is an inherently true and correct set of property rights that one side has correctly identified, it seems like both sides have different sets of property rights and therefore different definitions of words like force and coercion

Consent Is Compilcated

Recently listened to a conversation between a Feminist and an MRA talk about consent. The feminist was advocating enthusiastic consent while the MRA was arguing that the current model of consent was sufficient. Here are some vague thoughts I had from my perspective as a Gender Egalitarian.

Consent is really complicated. I sided closer to the Feminist but bot sides acted like if they just solved this one question then the matter of consent would be settled.

Lets break this down into external and internal consent. Internal consent is how a person feels about the sex on the inside, whether or not they want to have sex. External consent is outwards signs that they give the other person (or people but lets assume its just two people for now) they they want to have sex, like saying “I want to have sex” or making sounds that signal enjoyment. Both internal and external consent are on a scale and while they are correlated one does not guarantee the other. The Feminist and MRA were arguing over where the line society draws on the spectrum of external consent should be. I have heard people use different definitions of enthusiastic consent, some that include nonverbal consent like touching or signs of enjoyment and others that require verbal consent.

Clearly all we care about is internal consent, and external consent just increases the likelihood of internal consent. If internal consent is very certain (like in a long term relationship, doing sexually activities both have verbally talked about and agreed to before hand and using safety words) then apparent lack of external consent (like in non con play) is usually fine.

But this distinction means that someone can give enthusiastic external consent, say “i want you to do X” at every step, and still not give internal consent. Maybe they feel like i they don’t give external consent their partner will be upset. Or they are just to nervous to say no.Enthusiastic consent doesn’t guarantee internal consent. But it is still a good idea because it does make internal consent more likely. Although I’m not sure if enthusiastic verbal consent makes internal consent a lot more likely than enthusiastic non verbal external consent

Another problem is that internal consent is also a spectrum. Someone one can not know whether  they want to have sex, or have a small preference for not wanting sex but not enough to express external non consent.

Another related issues is how alcohol affects consent. Most people agree that people who have had one standard drink can consent to sex and that people who have passed out cannot. But there is no way to objectively decide where on the alcohol spectrum to draw the line, both legally and morally. In a Alcohol affects other internal consent and a its relations to external consent.

I also think that while consent remains a very good deontological heuristic, there are still possible situation where there are consequentialist reasons for not having sex with someone even if they consent. For example if someone really wants to have sex but you are fairly sure they will regret it afterwards,because for example they have a religious belief that will make them feel shame.

Consent is really complicated and the solution that i personally use (“try REALLY hard to not accidentally do something that someone doesn’t consent too”) is to vague to give directly to other people.

Thoughts on National Security Part 1

This semester I am taking a class on National Security and each week we are given a set of questions to discuss in the tutorials. I am going to take the more interesting of these questions and use them as a stimulus for a series of blog posts with the goal of crystallizing my thoughts on National Security related issues.

  • What forces are challenging the ability of states to provide for the welfare and security of their population?

I disagree with the framing of this question (which will become a common theme in my answers) because it seems to view the state as a unified agent with the goal of providing welfare and security to their population. In reality the state is a group of people that have a set of beliefs, information, desirers and biases that are influence by other people with their own sets of beliefs, information, desirers and biases. These people do things that cause other people to do things. from a higher level of resolution (just like a plane is what a collection of atoms looks like from a higher resolution) this looks like states and business and political parties interacting, but I think this level of resolution may lead to incorrect beliefs, like applying agency incorrectly and making incorrect predictions.

To go more directly to the question I feel like the answer that the question writer desires is something like terrorism, increased competing on over resources etc. but I think “people who most people would consider members of the group of people that collectively form the state having incorrect beliefs or desirers that are different to ensuring the welfare of the population is an equally legitimate answer.”

(Note: I’m still working out and formalising this reductionist way of viewing national security and international relations, hopefully there is already a school of thoughts that thinks this way that i can build from rather than starting from scratch.)

  • What is the “natural condition” for states, peace or war?

First I think that the phrasing of the question is unproductive. What does “Natural Condition” mean? and even if we have a coherent definition why should we care about the “Natural Condition” of states unless this is the natural conditions are a common conditions for the states to be in? A similar questions that are in closer to a form that can actually be answered is “statistically are states more likely to be at war or at peace?” There is also not a sufficient definition of peace, war and the many possible situations between (“military conflicts,” cold wars, economic terrorism, proxy wars, states in conflicts with their own citizens) so answering the second half of the question is also problematic.

So my answer would be that it is a non optimally formed question and the answer would change based on different definitions and implicit assumptions. Deconstructing all these assumptions and moving the question to the point where it can be answered and the answering it would be an essay length reply

  • What impact has globalisation had on the viability of the modern state?

Not really sure. The modern state doesn’t seem that much less viable than it did 60 years ago. The UN and other global organizations decrease the powers of certain states in certain areas, but it could be argued that they in effect redistribute power from some states to others. Increase in global trade means theoretically war is even more of a zero sum game than it used to be for states, but the argument “states wont go to war because they trade so much it would be economically disastrous” was used before world one and generated the wrong prediction so I’m sceptical of it being used now. The internet has probably lead to people indentifying less wit there nation relative to other identities so peoples subjective feeling that they are united with the people in the same geographical area as them and should be governed together could be lessening.

  • Can the military be a force for good?

I think this question is quite biased. The phrasing means that to answer in the negative we would have to argue that the military can never be good, which seems very unlikely. SO the only reasonable answer to this question is yes, but accepting the phrase “the military can be a force for good” would make people more likely to accept the statement “the military is a force of good” without actually realising it.

A better question would be “is the Australian military overall a force for good or [bad? not good? evil?]” Again my answer would be that I don’t know, and considering that it is unliekly that the whole Australian military would be disbanded it may be more useful to look at the value of each individual action and component of the Australian military and decide on a case by case basic

  • Are the laws of war appropriate for today?

I think that the implication of this question is that due to new threats (i.e. terrorism) the laws of war may no longer be appropriate. This seems like a step away from arguing that things like torture are ok in the “War on Terrorism.” Or that civilians casualties from drone strike are not that bad, or outweighed by the benefits of drone strikes. Overall I think this argument is wrong and that the laws of war serve an instrumentally useful role as a form of ethical injunction against acts that could seem like a good thing at the time but are more likely to not be.

Unicorn Governance, Typical Mind Fallacy and Unicorn Markets

This week I read Unicorn Governance by Michael Menger. Menger argues that some people states as magical entities that don’t actually exist (“unicorns”) and when they say that “the state should do X” they don’t realise or don’t properly think about the fact that the state is a group of people with particular incentives rather than a single benevolent actor and because of this misunderstanding make error in reasoning about the states behaviour.

He proposes what he calls the Menger test:

1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”
3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

An example he gives of this is:

When someone says, “The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power,” ask them to take out the unicorn (“The State”) and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?

I think this concept is overall useful and seems closely related to the rationalist skill of Tabooing Words. But I have two additional points I think are worth mentioning.

Firstly it is possible that this test will be less effective than Menger and other libertarians may think due to there already existing bias against the state and it components (politicians, bureaucracy etc.). For example, I did the Menger test myself for several of my beliefs about things that I think the state/”politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist”  should do and they seemed to hold up pretty well. For example:

Me: “I think the state should run some form of socialized healthcare, most likely a hybrid of different aspects of the UK, France, and the Nordic countries”

Menger Test: But the state is a unicorn, so you should taboo it. So what you actually mean is “I think a group of politicians elected by uniformed voters and given money by pharmaceutical interest groups should run a form of socialized healthcare” (possibly adding phrases like:”with money taken from the taxpayer without consent by force”)

Me: Well it does sound worse when you put it like that, but the reason I agree with the policy (the empirical success of similar systems compared to systems without socialized healthcare) are still the same so I don’t feel the need to shift my position. But if you have other arguments or empirical data against my position Id love to hear it.”

But I’m most likely not the target audience for the test because I have already mentally reduced things like the state to their components. I definitely think there are people who haven’t thought about this before that could benefit from the test.

The second point is that I think it would also be useful to do this for “The Market” in addition to just “The State.” After all we shouldn’t apply more scrutiny to one side than to another.

So the Reverse Menger test:

1. “Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the Market to do, and what you want the Market to be in charge of.
2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State” delete that phrase and replace it with “the actual people who own and run businesses, making decisions with imperfect information trying to maximise the amount of money they make.”
3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.””

I predict that if a libertarian reads the above they will most likely still support whatever they wanted the Market to do in the first place which may help them understand why the original Menger test isn’t as effective as they think it should be.

(By the way, in the above reversed test I wasn’t sure how harsh to be to the market, I didn’t want to go to over the top but its probably a bit more extreme than the original.)