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step back to step forward

I’ve enjoyed blogging on current events and policy issues as new happenings and writings trigger responses that end up being blog posts, but I’ve found it a bit frustrating. The idea of spinning my wheels, repeating myself on the same issues bores even me. I would like to make a point, record that point and the supporting evidence, and move on — drawing on that point when useful in further discussions.

That’s a bit problematic. The blog medium has become (needlessly) something of a disposable art. Written, sometimes read, and forgotten; it’s no surprise that bloggers repeat their main points in slightly altered forms, like a late night TV host who provides the same slightly off-kilter angle on daily events.

I’ve neither the time nor the interest in disposable reporting. I would like to isolate some of the larger issues of the day and explore the validity of potential solutions. This means updating the blog with any new arguments or developments in the issue area, expressing my perspective, and isolating and exploring disagreement.

To this end, I’ve signed up for delicious.com, a social bookmarking website that allows you to “tag” webpages with titles, descriptions, and labels (e.g., immigration). I am in the midst of converting my posts and the articles I’ve shared through Google Reader into labeled delicious entries. It’s quite a process, but I think worth it. It will allow me to systematically accumulate knowledge and understanding of particular issues, and hopefully allow this site to serve as a medium for acknowledging the valid points on both sides of the argument, and debating the points of contention.

Furthermore, I hope some will find it useful for finding interesting points of view on the topics found on this blog — from cognition to immigration to trade to health care.

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Filed under: Misc

‘nudge’ tops short action-verb econ books


I second-guessed my purchase of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, almost the minute I received my Amazon e-mail receipt — I had already read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, and heard about the literary disaster that is Sway, and yet there I was, reading Nudge’s introduction about the arrangement of cafeteria food.

I’m glad I did. While Thaler and Sunstein are happy to revel in the small ways that their insights into “choice architecture” can lead to better or worse choices, they also lay out their political principles and detail their impact on current policy debates (e.g., Social Security, Medicare Part D, Education.) To top it all off, they begin the book with a treatment of our cognitive failings, distinguishing between our automatic and reflective processing systems (what’s not to love!), leading right into their arguments for how to help the automatic majority overcome their cognitive frailty without infringing the reflective minority’s ability to choose.

So what is choice architecture? Well, are you choosing out of ten choices, or 100? Are you automatically enrolled in one choice or another if you don’t make an active decision? How is that default set? How is information presented to you to about the available choices? All of these questions speak to choice architecture — in other words, the arrangement and organization of choices — which has a nasty habit of leading individuals to choices that they themselves would not find optimal (see don’t be bob bias, the mind and morality).

Furthermore, “choice architecture, both good and bad, is pervasive and unavoidable.” This point is essential to Thaler and Sunstein’s argument if you are a libertarian. Ignoring choice architecture won’t make it go away, it will only make it more likely that the choices favored by choice architecture are more likely to be poor. For instance, you can make the default option for new employees enrolled at 5% in a 401(k) with an option to opt-out, or you can make the default option to not be enrolled (as is often the case). If you stick with the current default, many who would otherwise enjoy being enrolled will not do so because of the choice architecture. Thaler and Sunstein recommend acknowledging the importance of choice architecture and deliberately deciding on its design.

Thaler and Sunstein aren’t interested in helping individuals pick out their dry cleaners; as the authors note, if a dry cleaner performs poorly, it is fairly easy for individuals to make a better decision the next team.

Rather, “people are most likely to need nudges for decision that are difficult, complex, and infrequent, and when they have poor feedback and few opportunities for learning.”

Individuals are primed to make poor choices for Medicare Part D, Mortgages, and retirement investments. Thaler and Sunstein don’t advocate for eliminating choices because of these problems. On the contrary, their final chapter points to the infamous “third way” — separate from both the command-and-control left and the single-minded ‘choice’ monkeys of the libertarian right.

There needn’t be a war between ‘no choice’ and ‘unlimited choice.’ Thaler and Sunstein spend around 250 pages explaining that this is indeed a false choice. Like myself, they side with the libertarians when it comes to the importance of choice, and side with the left when it comes to the failure of ‘choice’ to solve all problems. Choice is important. Coercion isn’t necessary. Focus on the choice architecture.

Oh, and I have to add. As someone who has long supported responding to the gay marriage debate by taking government out of the marriage business (perhaps keeping a civil union or partnership business) and leaving it to independent churches, I was very happy to see Thaler and Sunstein put forth such an argument in Nudge.

Whether you are on the left or right, worth a read!

Filed under: Economic Policy

priorities for helping humanity

Bjorn Lormborg isn’t against reducing man’s carbon footprint, but — like me — he just thinks that the proposals bandied about cost too much given other available choices for helping the world’s worst off. The Copenhagen Consensus ranked a list of solutions to the world’s problems based on their cost and estimated benefits. The Copenhagen Consensus was originally sponsored by the Danish government and The Economist to assess proposals to advance global welfare under the stewardship of Lormborg, a Danish economist. There have been two rounds of discussion by the group — which invites the world’s top economists to participate (five Nobel laureates this year) — the most recent in the spring of 2008.

Lormborg recently penned an opinion piece for the WSJ answering the Copenhagen Consensus’ question, “How to get the biggest bang for 10 billion bucks.” You can also watch his past Ted talk below for an introduction to his work, and read more (link also appears below the video) for a few select factoids from his work. Lormborg is something of a controversial figure, because of his skepticism regarding the global warming movement, but if you watch the Ted talk and read what he has to say, I think you’ll agree that he is very intelligent and very reasonable.

Of Lormborg’s top five priorities to improve global welfare, three address malnutrition, one disease, and one trade. At the bottom of Lormborg’s list (of 30 priorities), two fall under global warming, two under pollution, and one under disease.

What’s number one?

Providing micronutrients — particularly vitamin A and zinc — to 80% of the 140 million or so undernourished children in the world would require a commitment of just $60 million annually, a small fraction of the billions spent each year battling terrorism or combating climate change. The economic gains from improved productivity and a lower burden on the health system would eventually clear $1 billion a year. Every dollar spent, therefore, would generate economic benefits worth $17.

I’ll leave you with Lormborg’s take on the current environmental proposals, which I largely agree with:

“If mitigation — economic measures like taxes or trading systems — succeeded in capping industrialized emissions at 2010 levels, then the world would pump out 55 billion tons of carbon emissions in 2100, instead of 67 billion tons.

This is a difference of 18%; but the benefits would remain smaller than 0.5% of the world’s GDP for more than 200 years. These benefits simply are not large enough to make the investment worthwhile.

Spending $800 billion (in total present-day terms) over 100 years solely on mitigating emissions would reduce temperature increases by just 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

When you add up the benefits of that spending — from the slightly lower temperatures — the returns are only $685 billion. For each extra dollar spent, we would get 90 cents of benefits — and this is even when things like environmental damage are taken into account.

A continued narrow focus on mitigation alone will clearly not solve the climate problem. One problem right now: Although politicians base their decisions on the assumption that low-carbon energy technology is being rapidly developed, that is not the case. These technologies just do not exist. Wind and solar power are available — at a high expense — but suffer from intermittency. Researchers need to develop better ways to store electricity when those renewable sources are offline.

If we took that $800 billion and spent it on research and development into clean energy, the results would be remarkably better. In comparison with the 90-cent return from investing solely in mitigation, each dollar spent on research and development would generate $11 of benefits.”

As Lormborg emphasizes in the Ted talk above, it’s time to stop conflating goals and proposed solutions. You can believe that it’s important to save the environment and still think the Kyoto Protocol is a waste of resources. Pumping funds into R&D will be a lot less visible and might give us a less fuzzy feeling than taking Hummers off the road, but that doesn’t make it the wrong choice.

Returning to Lormborg’s number one priority, if anyone has information on well-run programs to distribute micronutrients (e.g., vitamin A) I would love to check it out.

Filed under: General Welfare

meditation, prozac, and cognitive therapy

The final chapter of the Happiness Hypothesis series (1) book to own: happiness hypothesis, 2) the evolution of the elephant and the rider, 3) the mind and morality, 4) man’s misuse of morality) looks at what works and what doesn’t when it comes to improving our flawed cognitive processes. The elephant and rider aren’t perfect, but by understanding their nature, we can improve their functioning.

To begin, let’s remember that the elephant (often equated with our intuition or instinct) “was shaped by natural selection to win at the game of life and part of its strategy is to impress others, gain their admiration, and rise in relative rank. The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness.” I want to stay on topic, but I’ll note that Haidt distinguishes between the interest in relative social status and happiness, which have been conflated in modern discussion about inequality.

Back to the main show, what do with our intelligent, but slow-acting rider and stubborn, hyper-emotional elephant?

The answer isn’t whipping the stubborn elephant into submission, but rather to “drop the brute force method and take a more psychologically sophisticated approach to self-improvement. … Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all. … Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior.”

Leave it to Ben Franklin to put the point most succinctly, “If Passion drives, let Reason hold the Reins.”

Reason, in this case, “knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.”

Enough of the vagueries, Haidt points to three methods for improving our cognition: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac. I’m only going to spend a moment on meditation (its utility is well-documented), a few more on Prozac (for the eyebrows raised by its inclusion), and concentrate on cognitive threapy.

The “goal of meditation is to change automatic thought processes … proof of taming is the breaking of attachments.” These types of attachments “are like a game of roulette … the more you play, the more you lose. The only way to win is to step away from the table … Although you give up the pleasures of winning, you also give up the larger pains of losing.”

Prozac is controversial because it appears to be a shortcut — “cosmetic psychopharmacology” — that shapes minds like a cosmetic surgeon augments breasts. Haidt notes that our culture endorses two partly opposing perspectives — “relentless self-improvement as well as authenticity – but we often escape the contradiction by framing self-improvement as authenticity. … As long as change is gradual and a result of the child’s hard work, the child is given the moral credit for the change, and that change is in the service of authenticity. But what if there were a pill that enhanced tennis skills? … Such a separation of self-improvement from authenticity would make many people recoil in horror.”

Haidt explores the stigma on cosmetic surgery as well, but I’ll focus on his criticism of those who criticize Proaz as a chemical shortcut — “It’s easy for those who did well in the cortical lottery to preach about the importance of hard work and the unnaturalness of chemical shortcuts.”

Haidt supplies research that argues that each person is born with an inherited chemical balance, which goes largely unchanged throughout life, which will dictate the range of emotion of happiness and sadness the person is susceptible to — “ many people really do need a mechanical adjustment. It’s as though they had been driving for years with the emergency break halfway engaged.”

Prozac shouldn’t be seen as cosmetic for the “worried well”, but “like giving contact lenses to a person with poor but functional eyesight who has learned ways of coping with her limitations.” Contact lenses and Prozac both are a “reasonable shortcut to proper functioning.”

Fascinating.

Finally, cognitive therapy was born as a means for therapists to engage depressed people, who weren’t being reached by the Freudian exploration of painful memories and forced sexual innuendo. Cognitive therapy allowed patients to get beyond the bad memories and critical thoughts by questioning “the legitimacy of his patients’ irrational and self-critical thoughts.” The key was to “[map] out the distorted thought processes characteristic of depressed people and [train] his patients to catch and challenge these thoughts.”

Just as depressed patients are convinced of their self-critical beliefs, we also deploy distorted thought processes “not to find the truth but to invent arguments to support our deep and intuitive beliefs (residing in the elephant).” For depressed people, the three types of irrational distortions are “personalization” (seeing events as reflection of self), “overgeneralization” (take an event and believing it ALWAYS happens), and “magnification” (arbitrary inference, or jumping to a conclusion without evidence).

These should sound familiar, as they are cousins of the cognitive biases and distortions that are well documented in non-depressed people. I think this is meaningful. Accurate and realistic judgment is good for your mental health.

Cognitive therapy is about “challenging automatic thoughts and engaging in simple tasks” to create positive habits that will further shape your automatic thought processes — “it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.” You get better at thinking the same way you do at anything — practice — “write down your thoughts, learn to recognize the distortions in your thoughts, and then think of a more appropriate thought.”

Specifically, Haidt refers to psychological studies that found that writing about the impact of biases doesn’t change behavior, though it does allow one to predict the behavior of others better, and neither does writing an essay arguing the opposing view. The only thing that worked was asking subjects to read an essay on biases and then write an essay about the weaknesses of their own case; this made study participants far more fair-minded. That said, the study didn’t ask them to question the deeply-held beliefs one associates with personal character, only recently assumed positions. Still, it’s a start.

In sum, man comes “equipped with cognitive processes that predispose us to hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and moralistic conflict. … By knowing the mind’s structure and strategies, we can step out of the ancient game of social manipulation and enter into a game of our choosing. … By seeing the log in your own eye you can become less biased, less moralistic, and therefore less inclined toward argument and conflict.”

Redux

Filed under: Cognition

why are the other guys wrong?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, as I’ve waited to see if I’d be hit with a stroke of inspiration (…no, not yet.) So I thought I would see if any of my few (but dedicated) readers could get the game going.

One of the reasons I am sympathetic to both conservative and liberal perspectives is that I agree with both sides’ criticisms of the other — both sides fail to recognize distortions in their perspectives, which, in turn, undermine the intellectual integrity of their arguments.

My theory is that each of us internalizes one or more insights about different policy issues. For instance, if someone talks to me about the problems with public schools, I will be drawn to the inefficiencies that public schools has in common with other government programs. On the other hand, a more liberal friend will point to the fact that the public schools don’t get enough funding.

I think it’s important both for self-awareness and public discourse to explore these prepackaged insights, as they can get you in trouble. For instance, those who yelled for “liberalization!” in poor countries over the last 40 years when privatization was only going to lead to exchanging public corruption for private; also, for those on the other side of the aisle who have routinely demanded more and more funding for government programs (e.g., those public schools) that also do not lead to positive results. In both cases, even when the results aren’t positive, both sides simply say, ‘Well, the problem is you need more liberalization/funding.’

So, fair readers, why do you think the other side is routinely wrong? What don’t they get? I’ll be supplying my own thoughts later on, but I’d like to respond to what YOU think as well.

Filed under: Cognition

publius recommendations on the ‘net

Yelp.com
Terrific resource for finding great restaurants, bars, etc. in your neighborhood or any place you might be visiting.

RememberTheMilk.com
Post-it notes are useful to keep track of “to-do’s” — RememberTheMilk is even more useful in managing your tasks, both personal and professional. You can integrate your list into your iGoogle homepage, Gmail, download an application on to your computer, or just use their homepage. I use it for work and personal tasks.

Google Reader
It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Google Reader has changed the way I used the internet. Before I would add some of my favorite websites’ RSS feeds (lists that automatically update with the newest articles or posts on the website) to my iGoogle homepage, or add them to my bookmarks, and spend all my time hopping from one blog to another website, etc.

Now I just open up the Google Reader page, which automatically updates with the new posts on everything from the Economist to Soccer by Ives. And, of course, you can more easily track Publius’ Shared Items.

Google text message search
Text GOOGLE or 466453 from your cell phone for quick and easy searches. Check out the link above for how to get the information you need on the run with only a quick text message — no need for a high-price data plan

Gmail phone app
Yet another shortcut provided by Google — once you download this application to your cellphone, you can check your email from your phone without data charges.

Buxfer.com
This is a new addition to my harem of internet stops. Buxfer is a powerful financial management tool that allows you to centralize the records of your credit cards, checking, savings, etc. accounts. Not only can you see your balances, but it automatically tags your purchases (if you’d like) with labels like “food and drinks” for restaurants, etc. What’s more, you can create your own labels and automatic labels so that everytime “JJ Foley’s Bar and Grill” pops up on your credit card charges, it gets labeled “alcohol” (…or food?) An excellent way to take control of your financial future.

Am I missing anything?

Filed under: Misc

what to worry about…

I may be wrong, but I’d say most of my posts are about positive developments (e.g., my latest post). Generally, I look around and see a lot of fear-mongering that I find dangerous.

This post is different. I was struck by a scenario presented by Tyler Cowen that strikes to the heart of a nuclear threat that current debates about rogue states and terrorist non-state actors only begin to touch on.

“…let’s say that you can blow up the world if a) you can exceed 1550 on your two main SATs, b) you are willing to spend $50,000, and c) you sincerely wish for world destruction for one month straight.

How long would the world last?”

While I think we are lucky to have the problems we have now as compared to every other point in history, I don’t think Tyler is wrong to say: “We may someday envy the problems we have now.”

Filed under: General Welfare