More Links For January

India officially declared polio-free!

Sugar taxes are very effective at making people eat healthier. This mirrors similar work on cigarette taxes. A while ago I grudgingly admitted to Sarah that she was right and I was wrong and government interference in nutrition wasn’t a good idea, but I may have to change my mind again. Public health is awkward because it’s always about interventions that silently save tens of thousands of lives and I feel bad not jumping to support them full-throttle immediately.

Feinstein is a seller of fine stones – a jeweler. Wasserman is a water carrier. Shulman is the man who takes care of the shul (synagogue). Rothbard is a red-beared person. The origins of popular Jewish surnames are both unexpected and obvious in retrospect. Well, sometimes – still not sure what’s up with “Strauss” meaning “ostrich” (but see this correction of some egregious errors).

Could We Afford A Universal Basic Income? The article says if we scraped together money from all the benefits and tax breaks we have now, we might be able to afford a universal income of $5850 per person per year. I wouldn’t want to have to live on $5850 a year. Hmmmm, what about rich people? Don’t they have lots of money we can take?

Rimonabant, sometimes colloquially called anti-marijuana, is a drug that inverse agonizes the same receptors marijuana agonizes and so has effects which are opposite marijuana in almost every way. It is mostly used to reduce appetite and improve memory.

Why Olanzapine Beats Risperidone, Risperidone Beats Quetiapine, and Quetiapine Beats Olanzapine – why are there intransitive results for comparative antipsychotic drug effectiveness? Spoiler: it depends whose pharmaceutical company is funding the study.

The oft-cited rule not to talk to cops is good advice – but probably only if you’re middle class and well-educated, unlike most of the people police actually deal with.

The Economist comes out in favor of modern unemployment being technology-driven instead of cyclical. “Today’s governments would do well to start making the changes needed before their people get angry.”

Stranger than fiction – there is a 312 foot tall, $200 million, giant-gold-statue topped Neutrality Monument. “If I don’t survive, tell my wife hello”.

You can improve retention by practicing in random blocks instead of until you master a single skill.

I previously discussed the dangers of trolls on research surveys. Now news comes out that one of the data sources social scientists most rely upon to determine the demographics and opinions of gay teens may consist mostly of straight teens saying they were gay to troll researchers. Still too early to determine how much of what we know about homosexuality this changes. The authors say it debunks the claim that gay teens commit suicide more often than straight teens, but the authors have pushed that line for a while so not sure how much to believe them.

The Myth Of The Absent Black Father – CDC study finds that contrary to popular belief, black fathers are likely to spend more time with their children than fathers of other races, whether living with them or divorced. There might be a Simpson’s Paradox going on here.

I’ve previously dabbled in job advice, and one thing I forgot to mention but which I have since been thoroughly convinced of is if you want a PhD, get an economics PhD. It’s more humane than most others, has much better job prospects, and there’s such a wide range of economics that you can still study pretty much whatever you want.

Mimosa plants display learning, memory, reponse habituation, and other complex cognitive features generally thought to be restricted to animals – all without any neurons.

Julia on book recommendations in jail.

The Chinese are so advanced, they can encode ethnic slurs into subunits of a single character.

64% of Chinese millionaires have either emigrated from China or plan to emigrate.

I have been moderately skeptical of Penrose and Hameroff’s ORCH-OR theory (the one where consciousness is a quantum state sustained in microtubules) before, but credit where credit is due – several of the predictions they made when they developed the theory have since been confirmed. The latest of these is the discovery that microtubules do in fact sustain quantum vibrations. The article links this to brain waves, but I can’t tell whether they’ve found evidence for this or are wildly speculating – I suspect the latter since the former would be a Super Big Deal. Despite its outrageousness ORCH-OR was always the theory of consciousness I hated least because it made predictions and didn’t completely sidestep the question, so I will be interested in seeing where this goes.

The media coverage of the minimum wage issue recently has been startlingly good. This review of the evidence clarifies things especially well; its main conclusion is that “whether the sign is negative or positive, the impact of minimum wages on employment rates is small”, but it decreases turnover among teenagers, meaning those with jobs keep them longer but hiring rates decline. On the other hand, it’s possible that only 11% of workers who benefit from a minimum wage boost will live in poor households.

Gentrification actually helps the people already living in an area, decreasing their likelihood of moving away and improving their financial health. Article still shows picture of protesters with sign saying “GENTRIFICATION IS GENOCIDE”.

Glenn Greenwald points out that bloggers suggesting Iranian nuclear scientists be assassinated provoked outrage, yet actually assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists didn’t seem to bother anyone. Local conversations make better signaling opportunities than global events? Or assassinations being too deniable and time-spread to effectively coordinate anger?

Those of you who have followed me for a while know I like unusual magic systems for fantasy books. This blogger’s idea of magic inversely related to care is a particularly interesting one.

A gift for my Reactionary readers: Democracy in the Third World found to be directly related to activity of Protestant missionaries, with the missions explaining half the variance in country outcomes. Gwern finds the original paper. But before you get too excited, the main proposed mechanism is missionaries increasing education and general social advancement. A friend adds a gay atheist who thinks “Africa needs God”

This is why I love Marginal Revolution: “You may have heard recently that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion. Tim began by pointing out that his 2 year old also has more wealth than the bottom 2 billion since his 2-year old has no debt.”

People who believe they’ve slept better are more functional regardless of whether they have actually slept well. This reminds me of the genetic testing post from a few days ago and the whole vast category of things-sort-of-like-stereotype-threat.

Studies mentioned in TIME: People get angry at people who help themselves by helping charity, but not at people who help themselves by being selfish. Willing to sacrifice on average $173,000 of fundraising money to prevent the guy who ran the fundraiser from gaining any benefit. But weird preferences go away when people are made aware of them and asked to consciously compare the situations.

I always thought I could tell whether someone was trustworthy just by looking at them, but somehow I reached age 29 without knowing this is empirically validated. Men with higher face width-to-height ratio are more likely to exploit others for personal gain and deceive their counterparts in negotiation. They are also more likely to be racist. May I just say that the fact that there are genetic traits accurately reflected in a person’s outward appearance that you can use to stereotype them as racist is the most delicious thing I have heard all year?

Oh, almost forgot. The whole reason I was even getting into all that research was the discovery that brown-eyed people are more trustworthy and are accurately perceived as more trustworthy. The researchers investigated and found that it wasn’t brown eyes themselves that indicated trustworthiness, but facial structures that tended to cluster with brown eyes. My main takeaway from this is that the next time someone tells me about Jane Elliot’s experiment with telling a classroom that blue-eyed children are better, I’m going to respond “Well, that’s silly. All the evidence shows that brown-eyed people are the morally superior ones.

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119 Responses to More Links For January

  1. Gunlord says:

    Ah, that CDC article on black fatherhood reminds me of Herbert Gutman’s classic work, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. It was first published in 1977, I believe, at which time many commentators–most notably Sen. Moynihan–believed that slavery had reduced the black family to a “matriarchal” state. Gutman did some research and found out that wasn’t necessarily so. Seems like the CDC’s giving him some backup here…though if Gutman didn’t convince everybody all the way back in the 70s and early 80s, I wouldn’t put much money on the CDC having much better luck.

  2. Sniffnoy says:

    Glenn Greenwald link is broken due to a stray tag in the URL.

  3. Joshua Fox says:

    Re the Ashkenazi Jewish names, take that article with some large grains of salt. There are a lot of errors there.

  4. Kaj Sotala says:

    I only skimmed it, but the basic income post seems to assume to take the common of approaching of calculating the affordability of UBI by taking some sum and then dividing it by the population, as evidenced by e.g. this line:

    > suppose that instead of taking the roughly $1 trillion of welfare spending and giving it all to low-income families, we were to distribute it equally to all 316 million Americans. Doing so would give each person a grant of about $3,160 a year.

    That seems to imply a UBI approach where everyone ends up getting essentially the same amount of extra money. That seems clearly inferior to the suggested UBI schemes in which we adjust the taxation so that, while the UBI itself is never taxed, if you make a lot of money then your non-UBI earnings get an extra tax so that the whole reform ends up having very little direct effect on you. One could construct e.g. a system in which only the bottom half of the population end up better off from the UBI, which can more than double (since those near to the cut-off point get to keep a much smaller fraction of the extra income) the amount of money the lowest-earners get.

    Of course you have to ensure not to make the progression too steep, so as to avoid undermining people’s work incentives.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      seems to assume to take the common of approaching of

      Damn, too used to sites where I can edit my comments after posting them. This should read, “Seems to take the common approach of”.

    • Symmetry says:

      I always thought that the UBI would go very well with a flat tax so that for instance you might have a 33% tax and $10,000 UBI where you get $10,000/year from the government with no earnings, get no UBI but pay no taxes when you earn $30,000/year, pay $10,000/year in taxes for $60,000/year in earnings, etc.

      This way you get a tax that’s progressive in effect, but doesn’t disincentivize education or working multiple years for a single big payoff.

    • AR+ says:

      This sounds like what a negative income tax tries to achieve. The specific model proposed by Milton Friedman is even progressive overall but proportional on the margin.

  5. T. Greer says:

    “I’ve previously dabbled in job advice…”

    No link?

  6. Nestor says:

    Had to read the livejournal comments to check if I hadn’t already made this reccomendation. Here goes

    This webcomic, Unsounded, has a nifty and highly original magic system based on “aspect switching” wherein the world is defined by a custodian field called the Khert which can be interacted with using programming-like commands and used to switch aspects belonging to specific objects, shifting properties like heat, mass, solidity, etc…

    Frankly, I think the system is broken due to one mechanism called the core leech but aside from that the artwork, characterization, world building and plot are extraordinarily good, so, you know, read it anyway.

  7. Kaj Sotala says:

    If you read romance novels, even a little

    I read several books worth of one supernatural Harlequin series relatively recently, but that series was more about political power struggles between werecats than it was about romance. I’m actually not even sure why it was a Harlequin series in the first place. Does that count?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      It totally counts (although I am less nice than Ozy and I would probably write my thesis on “Look, men try to justify their romance novel reading by saying they only do it ‘for the political power struggles'” 😛 )

  8. ciil says:

    OK, I guess I cheated by being a German native speaker, but … many of those name origins are really news to you?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yup. I’ve previously mentioned how easy it is to miss etymologies for even very common and moderately obvious words – for example, I spent a long time not realizing that “goodbye” was a contraction of “God be with ye”.

  9. “Wa was the earliest written name of Japan, and the first graphic pejorative to be replaced by another character. Han Dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE) scribes initially wrote the exonym “Japan” as Chinese Wo or Japanese Wa 倭 meaning “submissive; dwarf barbarian”. The Japanese adopted this kanji as their autonym, but replaced it with Wa 和 “harmony; peace” circa 756, and convinced the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) Chinese to adopt the new autonym, Japanese Nihon or Chinese Riben 日本 (lit. “root of the sun”).”

    Earliest example of PC?

  10. Vanzetti says:

    >>>The oft-cited rule not to talk to cops is good advice – but probably only if you’re middle class and well-educated, unlike most of the people police actually deal with.

    I don’t quite understand what the author trying to say. Of course the cops can screw you more the less resources you have. Does it change the rule of “try not to incriminate yourself”?

    • The implication might be that refusing to talk is likely to anger the police so that they’re more likely to do something drastic.

    • Army1987 says:

      He says that staying silent is worse if you’re poor than if you’re rich, not that staying silent is worse than speaking if you’re poor (quite the contrary), though he only makes that clear near the end of the article.

  11. Douglas Knight says:

    I’m rather suspicious of the sugar tax story in light of the historical evidence. For decades sugar was 4x as expensive in America as in the rest of the world. That’s why America adopted corn syrup c1980. But I believe that there were decades of the high tax regime before the loophole was found. And then c2005, the price of sugar everywhere caught up with America.

    It’s possible that these prices had an effect on consumption that I’m unaware of, but history suggests that economics is completely divorced from reality and there is just no reason to look for evidence that a new economics paper has any value.

    • That economics paper seemed kind of hypothetical.

      Also, there’s always the risk that the government’s nutritional theory is destructively wrong.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      In other words, as economists say, short-run elasticity is larger than long-run elasticity. Oh, wait, that’s the opposite of what they say. But they do have a good language.

  12. Daniel Speyer says:

    Isn’t magic-through-not-caring how Jedi work? Stay calm and peaceful even when someone is trying to kill you?

    • Anonymous says:

      That’s different. You can be calm and peaceful yet care immensely about what you are doing.

    • MugaSofer says:

      That was my first thought too, although – after reading the link – Jedi seem to work more on the principle that emotion while working magic will drive you insane – in fact, Falling to the Dark Side actually seems to make you stronger.

  13. Multiheaded says:

    “Today’s governments would do well to start making the changes needed before their people get angry.”

    For some reason I’m just so horribly, horribly pessimistic about that. From what I’ve seen, today’s governments are so used to driving a wedge between the “decent” and “useless” working-class people – see the talk about the “deserving poor” and “personal responsibility” (haha!) and all that Protestant bullshit – that they’d implement widespread miserable, visibly pointless and thus degrading workfare, or some other awful serfdom-like shit. Decent, actually needed, well-compensated workfare with conditions superior to today’s McJobs could be another matter, but a government typically just doesn’t give a fuck about the feelings and dignity of the most needful employees.

    And tomorrow’s governments are likely to be even worse if the influence of a corrupt, indifferent bureaucracy is supplanted by the aggressively meritocratic, capitalism-worshipping new tech elite. They might actually be quick to recognize the problem… then concentrate the unemployable in some GoogleWork labour camps, all the better to get at them with paternalistic moralism and total control. All for their own good, of course!

    Providing for a new way of living in the wake of tech unemployment is such an absolutely crucial task, and the worst aspects of our classism, social paranoia and degrading status games could just fuck it up so horribly. As you can see, I’m really fucking worried.

  14. Paul Torek says:

    For a reality check, I googled the bird navigation quantum stuff. and got this New Scientist article.

    In [the radical pair (RP)] mechanism, light excites two electrons on one molecule and shunts one of them onto a second molecule. Although the two electrons are separated, their spins are linked through quantum entanglement. … the team calculated that for such tiny fields to have such a strong impact on the birds’ compasses the electrons must remain entangled for at least 100 microseconds. […] Thorsten Ritz of the University of California, Irvine, who helped perform the robin experiments, cautions that the RP mechanism has yet to be confirmed.

    So, birds might (yet to be confirmed) have quantum entanglements over two molecules, not the whole brain. Color me unimpressed.

    Penrose and Hameroff are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist: how to accommodate free will in a mind/brain story. But any account that gives sufficient room for reason and imagination – i.e., any account even remotely in the running – will do for that purpose. No need to invoke whole-brain quantum coherence collapse, or even any quantum indeterminacy at all*. But if you insist on barking up the wrong free, check out Peter Tse’s Neural Basis of Free Will, which at least hews to a plausible neuroscientific theory. And blame me for stealing his pun, but not for coining it.

    *Not that there’s anything wrong with quantum indeterminacy – I’m fond of the Possibilist Transactional Interpretation myself.

    But don’t take my word for it. I’m broad-faced and blue-eyed 🙁

  15. Paul Goodman says:

    The linked wiki article for the neutrality monument says it cost $12 million. Where do you get $200 million?

  16. Paul Goodman says:

    Hey Scott, if you don’t mind me asking, why is it that you refer to your girlfriend with a gendered noun like “girlfriend” but not with gendered pronouns? I can understand people not wanting to be referred to with gendered words, but liking some and not others doesn’t really make sense to me. Thanks.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Ozy was someone’s girlfriend before ze realized that ze was genderqueer and so somehow that word got positive connotations and was grandfathered (grandparented?) in.

  17. Alex R says:

    “Strauss” meaning “ostrich” is probably related to the fact that the Russian word for “ostrich” is “страус” (IPA: /ˈstraʊs/).

    • Julia says:

      I think the confusion is more about why anyone would have that as a last name.

      • ciil says:

        As both страус and Strauß stem from the Latin struthio or alternatively Old-Greek στρουθίων, that’s kinda likely.

        Going down the other Road “But WHY would anybody like to be called like that?!” I think it may have to do with another meaning of Strauß (as a German word), which is “bouquet of flowers”. There are quite some “flowery” Jewish names (off the top of my head, I’m thinking Rosen(berg) or Goldblum etc.), they may just have run with the theme – “Oh, you’re gonna call yourself Rosen now? Well, I’M going for Strauß then!” 😉

        Everything about that is one huge assumption of course, but I always liked to think up cool stories about how some people came into their names. There’s just too many Bauers (which means “farmer” in German) or Hubers (which also means “farmer” in German – although with a special type of farm) around, me included, so one has to do with the cool names – and many Jewish names could have had really nice stories behind them.

        • Julia says:

          I did like the explanation for the flowery names – I had always wondered what kind of profession would get you “Rosenblum”, and it does make sense that some of them were just chosen to sound nice.

        • Creutzer says:

          Once a book fell into my hands that, as far as I recall, was a serious historical investigation, where I read the following account of these flowery Jewish last names: at the time when family names were introduced to facilitate government, Jews were given lists of such made-up names to chose from because people wanted them to be clearly recognisable as Jews. I don’t remember the time that this is supposed to have happened in various German cities.

        • ciil says:

          Just going by German Wikipedia here: There seems to have been a period of about 70 years, from the 1780s to the 1850s, where Jews in Europe were forced to adopt a surname, sometimes from lists, sometimes they had to take insulting names like “Trinker” (“Drunk”) or “Bettelarm” (“Bitterlypoor”) … I don’t think there’s Jews still around with such names, so they must have been allowed to change them later on. Interestingly enough, many of those changes were justified with “giving the Jews more rights, sometimes even granting full citizenship rights”. I have no idea whether that’s true even in part or if they just wanted identifiable lists of Jews.

          Interesting detail: In later years of this period France and Austria seem to have adapted a policy of “integration”, forcing Jews to take usual French and Austrian names instead of the, by then, already widely used exclusively Jewish names.

          Also interesting: It seems some seemingly unambiguous surnames like “Apfel” (“Apple”) were German or Russian malapropisms for originally Jewish forenames like Ephraim. Would not have thought of that.

  18. Randy M says:

    “we might be able to afford a universal income of $5850 per person per year. I wouldn’t want to have to live on $5850 a year. ”

    Is that sarcasm, or do I not get the point of a basic income guarantee? Is the point really to give to everyone at least as much as they would prefer to have?

    • Julia says:

      In that scenario, there is no other welfare. So if you’re disabled or similar and have no other income, $5850 is not much to live on.

      • Randy M says:

        Sorry, I hadn’t done the math, was just reacting to the word comfortable, but yeah, 6,000 isn’t in danger of being comfortable anywhere I’ve lived.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, I think the point is that the income is enough to solve poverty or make unemployed people’s lives non-miserable. And since part of the plan is to abolish every other form of welfare, we better make darned sure it’s enough.

      • Anthony says:

        There’s a proposal that would provide something like a guaranteed income to people who were willing to work that seems like it wouldn’t cost too much. Go read it here. I see a few problems with it, but you really should go read it, because I can’t describe it in many fewer words than the author.

  19. a person says:

    Great article where a guy tries anti-weed and other anti-drugs:

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve always felt Vice’s staff care too much about writing edgy stories that get views to bother with informative stories. All I got from this is there are drugs that have effects that cancel out other drugs’ effects (and come on, calling risperidone “the anti-LSD”? unlike rimonabant and naltrexone, risperidone isn’t even known for counteracting psychedelics’ effects, it’s known for its use as a treatment for schizophrenia and bipolar).

      • Anonymous says:

        correction: i meant to say that rimonabant and naltrexone are known for being “anti-weed” and “anti-heroin/opioid” whereas calling risperidone “anti-LSD” is simply sensationalist. if someone called me up and said “i’ just ate a notebook where every page was blotter paper” risperidone wouldn’t even be the first thing that comes to mind, it would be seroquel, and my experience says that is what most people would say

        • Douglas Knight says:

          If you are getting medical advice from Vice, you’re doing it wrong. If there was a point to article, it was to suggest mind-altering drugs that are not well-known because they aren’t fun, but which might still teach you something (not that the author seems to have learned anything). But maybe seroquel is a better choice for that purpose, too.

      • a person says:

        “I’ve always felt Vice’s staff care too much about writing edgy stories that get views to bother with informative stories.”

        Oh, definitely, I just thought this particular article was interesting and enjoyable and well-written, albeit from an obviously less scientific perspective

        • Anonymous says:

          Sorry, I was having a bit of a crazy episode when I typed up those comments and I now realize they were excessive.

  20. Matthew says:

    Regarding atypical magic systems:

    a) In Sergey Lukanyenko’s Night Watch/Day Watch/Twilight Watch/Last Watch (the books, not the movies), the forces of light can use people’s positive emotions for added magical power (by leeching them away, leaving people sad). Meanwhile, the forces of dark can take people’s nightmares to augment their power, leaving them in a more peaceful emotional state. (There’s other ways in which the morality in that series is ambiguous as well.)

    b)There is an urban fantasy, which I read for free on the blog at some point, but can no longer find there, where the protagonist’s mentor essentially magicked away his penis, and derives his power from pent-up sexual frustration. No, seriously.

    c)I think you might find Blake Charleton’s series Spellwright, Spellbound, and [not yet released final book] interesting, both because the magic is a bit unusual, and because Charleton was a medical student while he was writing them, and this comes through very clearly in the books.

  21. gwern says:

    You can improve retention by practicing in random blocks instead of until you master a single skill.

    Some cites:

  22. Douglas Knight says:

    Here is the microtuble paper, but I always regret tracking down papers from

    I really liked the books in jail and graphic slurs, but I have nothing to say about them.

  23. JRM says:

    Talking to the cops:

    The site, Popehat, has a lot of good stuff if you can overlook their occasional justifications for murdering government witnesses against drug dealers. So there’s that.

    To the merits:

    If you ran over those kids in the playground and drove off because it seemed like fun, from a purely narcissistic point of view, you shouldn’t talk to the cops. But maybe from a utilitarian point of view, you should accept the punishment. Maybe the right thing is to say, “I killed those kids because it was fun. I ran because I wanted to have more opportunities to run over children.” You’ll go to prison forever, but that doesn’t seem like a wrong result.

    Defense attorneys tend to say things like this for a few reasons. First, they may be biased against law enforcement. Second, their clients who think they can talk their way out of trouble with transparent lies are often wrong, and this pins their client to an untenable story rather than having the opportunity to have a better story.

    But the third is selection bias: If you’re a criminal defense attorney, you don’t see the guy whose mom ID’d him from a robbery photo, but who gave the cops enough of a story to follow up on instead of hooking him. You don’t see the woman who explained exactly where and when she got the stolen car. You don’t see the guy who technically met all the elements of armed residential robbery, but who had one hell of an affirmative defense that convinced the cops.

    As to the sometimes-seen assertion that it can never help to talk to the cops, well, no. I’m a prosecutor. Before I was a lawyer, I was detained by the police at gunpoint, handcuffed, and held for a couple of hours. I waived my Miranda rights and I talked. If I hadn’t, I would have been arrested on the spot. Someone else wouldn’t have. And it would have been very hard to fault the cops.

  24. St. Rev says:

    If $5,840 doesn’t sound like a lot, you’re not in the target population. There are still an awful lot of people in the US living in literal holes in the ground–that is, actual holes in the actual ground in the forest–and feeding from dumpsters. That’s wayyyy down on the utility curve. My housemates run a charity for people in that situation:

    One important aspect of GBI proposals that often gets overlooked is that they solve the welfare trap problem, too. Getting a guaranteed benefit of ~$10,000 and a (wildly discontinuous and counterintuitive) marginal tax rate averaging 95% on your first $30,000 of real income is arguably much worse than getting a guaranteed benefit of ~$6,000 and being able to supplement that freely with whatever work you’re able to handle.

    • St. Rev says:

      Ignore last sentence of previous comment; invented numbers render it painfully stupid. We apologize for the inconvenience.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree that $5850 is better than nothing, but unless I am so insulated by my middle-class existence that I am missing really cheap lifestyle options, a world where a lot of the population has to subsist on $5850/year still seems pretty dystopian/not amenable to human flourishing.

      • St. Rev says:

        a world where a lot of the population has to subsist on $5850/year still seems pretty dystopian/not amenable to human flourishing

        $5850/year is pretty close to world mean income IIRC, so I’m not sure what you mean.

        Beyond that, it sounds like you’re setting the perfect against the good here with ‘not amenable to human flourishing’. Setting a minimum level where we say “no citizen shall sink below this, no matter what” seems a lot more feasible to me than “every citizen shall be entitled to flourish”. ‘Flourish’ is kind of a mushy target. The former goal at least needs to be met first.

        • Army1987 says:

          $5850/year is pretty close to world mean income IIRC, so I’m not sure what you mean.

          If by “pretty close” you mean ‘within a factor of 2 of’, yes it is.

        • St. Rev says:

          The number I was looking at was ~$7,000, but I see that’s an old figure.

        • Julia says:

          My clients (in a Boston jail) routinely say they don’t know how they are supposed to live on $800/month or whatever they get from welfare/ disability. Admittedly, most of them are terrible at impulse control, which is why they are my clients. They mostly supplement it in illegal ways (not necessarily standard crime, but selling food stamps, illegally living in other people’s subsidized housing or illegally renting their couch to others, working under the table). Moving to a cheaper city is not appealing to them largely because their support network, their kids, etc. are all here. Unless they have relatives elsewhere, they would arrive in a new town and have nowhere to stay while they applied for benefits.

          Granted, this is not as bad as poverty in most of the world.

        • St. Rev says:

          I would assume that a GBI would be administered federally by SSN, so applying for benefits would be a non-issue beyond filing a change of address, but I see your point.

          How much of the gray/black market participation is driven by the existing benefit structure? I’d think that both difficulty in navigating the system, and the punitive effective marginal tax rate, would drive people to illegal work, but I’m not in a good position to tell.

        • Julia says:

          St. Rev: Yes, moving would be easier if benefits followed you. But still, people living on very little seem to do so mostly with the help of social ties. People whose life includes college, lots of internet, etc. have more intra-city ties than people whose friends and family are basically all in one town or neighborhood.

          I don’t know how much off-the-books work or exchange is because of benefit structure. I believe selling food stamps is pretty common, because it means you can get non-food items like soap and diapers that you need as much as food.

      • St. Rev says:

        To put it in more concrete terms: there are people in the US today for whom $5850/yr would be a substantial improvement. I think there’s a good net utility argument that addressing those guys should be prioritized.

        Yes, there are also a lot of people who get more than $5850 in net state benefits under the existing system–but a lot of those people are, because of welfare traps, essentially unable to do any better, either. $5850 + even a few hundred dollars a month of odd jobs starts to approach a reasonable condition of living.

        • St. Rev, have you found that vitamins are generally of good enough quality? I remember a Consumer Reports had a piece about dollar store vitamins being unreliable. (CR didn’t mention brand names, and I think they should have.)

          As for flop houses, I have a notion that a lot of efforts to help the poor (at least in the US) have the effect of screwing over the very poorest to help the slightly less poor.

        • St. Rev says:

          I don’t have access to an assay lab, so I don’t have a strong opinion. Quality may well be poor, but they’re just insurance for a diet that’s 90% rice, beans and oil. A surprisingly large number of the homeless keep vegetable gardens, which is probably at least as good.

          • I wasn’t expecting an assay, I was wondering whether you ever found yourself showing signs of vitamin deficiency.

            It’s quite possible that buying your vitamins in a chain drugstore rather than a dollar store is good enough.

        • St. Rev says:

          I eat better than that! Things haven’t gotten that bad for me. I made a little personal project of computing price per 1000 calories for various staples out of curiosity, and just in case; what I found was that $1/day was extremely hard and not really viable long-term, $2/day is tough but doable, $3/day isn’t that bad at all.

          Hell, it isn’t hard to get 2500 calories of good quality ice cream for $3.

          I have multiple serious medical issues but vitamin deficiency isn’t one.

      • St. Rev says:

        nb: I’ve been living on about $400/mo for a while. It’s not comfortable but it’s not a blasted hellscape.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Can I ask how that works? What do you pay for rent vs. groceries vs. other?

        • St. Rev says:

          I’m basically living off surplus house. Not paying rent right now, but not imposing a significant marginal expense on my housemates. Most of my budget is food, medicine and cat food (I have four and feed a lot of strays).

          IIRC Ran Prieur lived on about $2000/yr for a while, but they didn’t have significant medical expenses.

        • St. Rev says:

          Housing is the killer expense for a lot of people, but to some extent that’s a created problem. e.g., flophouses were a norm even 75 years ago; they were zoned out of existence and replaced with so-called affordable housing, which can be read as an imposition of middle-class preferences for space, security and amenities on the poor by fiat, with predictably disastrous results. My housemates’ charity builds quasi-legal plywood huts for the worst-off homeless. Barely enough room to lie down in, far below minimum zoning standards, but much better than what’s otherwise available to many of them.

          On a semi-related note, you can eat for $3 a day pretty much indefinitely–if you have access to kitchen facilities. There are a lot of staple calorie sources that cost less than $1 per 1000 calories, and vitamin supplements can be got for a nickel a day.

        • Randy M says:

          “Not paying rent right now”

          That can make any amount go a lot farther, for sure, but I don’t think it is a widely applicable solution. I’ve lived in a 2-bedroom apt for 1,100 a month in sothern california recently, so my ballpark estimate for rent would be about $500 per month, just above this figure. But I’m sure it varies a lot by state.

          But then, one of my buddies has a mobile home for his family and pays about $200 in rent & utilities, so cheaper solutions are possible, but I don’t know if they would be currently widely available.

        • St. Rev says:

          Sharing one bedroom with two or three or four others isn’t comfortable, and may violate lease terms and/or zoning code. But, not to drive the point into the ground, it beats living under a tarp in the woods.

          There’s a ton of available housing in semi-rural trailer parks. A lot of people live in the California desert for damn near free, or did ~10 years ago–I vaguely remember reading about the authorities pushing people out. But those kinds of options seem to be invisible to middle-class urbanites. Again, taste and class snobbery leading to objectively worse outcomes for the worst off.

      • suntzuanime says:

        You are so insulated by your middle-class existence that you are missing really cheap lifestyle options. Or rather, how much $5850/year gets you depends heavily on the local real-estate market and how healthy/willing to go without healthcare you are. Where I live $5850/year doesn’t even cover rent living in a run-down house with two roommates, but I’m young and vital and only paying $1800 a year for health insurance. I probably need 10K a year to scrape out a basic existence, but that would be way less if I lived someplace fewer people wanted to live, or way more if I were old and frail and needed to pay doctors a lot of money.

        This seems like a big problem for the idea of a GBI, actually. I mean, you could make an argument that people shouldn’t be allowed to live in Boston if they don’t have a job, but it’s hard to argue people shouldn’t be allowed to get old and sick.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Oh, I just read the article and he considers medical expenses outside the scope of the GBI. So, that’s the biggest objection dealt with. So long as you’re willing to tell the unemployed Bay Area citizens to move somewhere cheaper, and expect them to actually do that rather than start guillotining Google employees.

        • St. Rev says:

          Yeah, medical expenses are a whole second set of unsolvable problems; lumping them in is just masochistic.

          I don’t really understand why people live in big cities, TBH. A humane/sustainable/efficient/buzzword solution is going to involve a lot of people living in places that rich urbanites would consider unacceptable, in conditions they would consider distasteful (as reflected in things like zoning codes, which have put an awful lot of people on the streets). But it beats camping under the highway overpasses.

  25. caryatis says:

    Not true that black fathers are likely to spend more time with their children than fathers of other races. They are much less likely to live with them, but the study says that *controlled for whether they live with the children,* they spend more time together. Kathryn Edin thinks this is because, as poor fathers generally fail in the traditional male role (i.e. being married to your child’s mother and providing for the family) they take on a softer role which is more achievable for them and provide emotional support in the way a traditional mother might.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is what I meant by Simpson’s Paradox; fathers in each group are more likely to spend more time, but the group balance is shifted.

      • caryatis says:

        Fair enough.

      • Anon says:

        I’m having a tough time internalizing the right intuitions to understand the Simpson’s paradox. It makes sense if I think about it for about 5 minutes, but if I then leave the problem and come back to it it makes no sense again. Very frustrating.

  26. Sarah says:

    I believe that people usually respond to incentives. I’m not surprised that people consume less of whatever’s being taxed. The thing about national public health initiatives is that if you incentivize all the people to do something and it’s the *wrong thing*, you’ve just made public health worse, not better. And, given that nobody’s hit rate on nutrition is very good and the government has incentives (e.g. the agriculture industry) to be less than impartial, I expect a lot of public health initiatives to backfire.

    I’m pretty sure “eat less sugar” is good advice, though. A general prior against government interventions having good effects is totally consistent with public health initiatives turning out to be worthwhile every now and then.

  27. Sarah says:

    If we
    a.) found some way to coordinate getting poor people to live in the many, many abandoned houses in the US
    b.) got resources at developing-world prices (the very cheap food, water, tools, etc. used by aid organizations)

    I think it’s plausible that we could ensure adequate food and shelter for everyone in the US.
    We do not actually have a shortage of food, shelter, or water. We also don’t have *that* many starving or homeless people. (Only 600,000 homeless Americans, 1 million Americans living in households with “very low food security.”) Extreme US poverty really is a solvable problem, at least in principle.

    [People earning about $20,000 a year — most of these are retail and service jobs — are far more numerous. Fixing problems like unemployment, debt, medical expenses, and crime/the justice system is probably a lot harder and more expensive than literally just feeding and sheltering people who have no food or shelter.]

    • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

      We also don’t have *that* many starving or homeless people. (Only 600,000 homeless Americans, 1 million Americans living in households with “very low food security.”)

      “Very low food security” does not mean starving. It means your “normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.” E.g., occasionally skipping a meal. Also, “Typically, households classified as having very low food security experienced the condition in 7 months of the year, for a few days in each of those months.” I don’t know that but I’m guessing the few days are the last few days of the month right before the next welfare check arrives.

      As for starvation, in a year I googled the report for, 2,556 died from “nutritional deficiencies”, of which most were old people (1,200 in the bracket “85 years and over”) which suggests a medical situation rather than lack of means was the reason.

      • How accurate do you think the statistics are for very poor people?

        It seems plausible that the statistics are incomplete.

        • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

          Do you think it likely that these reports understate the problem? I’d rather expect the opposite. The whole notion of “food insecurity” sounds like was introduced to be able to claim relatively large numbers for some phenomenon that may seem to belong in the same top-level category of things as hunger.

        • The discussions about voter registration show that there are a fair number of people without ID– how likely are they to be counted as being among the poor, even though they’re likely to be poor?

          I really don’t know. Do you need ID to get government benefits?

          Also, there are poor people who aren’t getting benefits– too frightened, too mentally disorganized, too proud. I suspect some of them aren’t getting counted.

          Also, if you’re talking about all people in the country rather than limiting your discussion to citizens, you have to include illegal immigrants. (I believe there are some illegal immigrants who died in the 9/11 attacks, but were never counted.)

        • St. Rev says:

          The notion of ‘food insecurity’ is clearly, to some extent, a way of overstating the extent of the problem as a means of advertising a certain approach to policy, and as a means to extend the power of a certain bureaucratic apparatus.

          It is also an important way to get a handle on the larger penumbra of a problem for which ‘starving to death’ is simply the most extreme outcome. US society is wealthy enough that most people can resort to dumpster diving long before starving to death; one presumes, however, that dumpster diving is an undesirable behavior on public health grounds if nothing else.

          I’m going to point again to my livejournal post (linked below) where I talk about (among other things) the actual definitions of USDA’s terms.

      • St. Rev says:

        I dug down into the definitions and actual numbers for this question last May:

        My best estimate was that ~767,000 children go hungry on any particular day, but that could easily be off by a factor of two in either direction. Suspect the situation is worse than Sarah says, but not massively so.

    • St. Rev says:

      Backing out USDA data, I get .057 x 103.9 m/.855 = 6.9 million households experiencing very low food security during a given year, and .009 x 103.9 m/.855 = 1.1 million on any given day. Multiply that by about 3 to get a head count, and note that that doesn’t count the homeless population at all.

  28. gattsuru says:

    A while ago I grudgingly admitted to Sarah that she was right and I was wrong and government interference in nutrition wasn’t a good idea, but I may have to change my mind again.

    It depends. There seems to be pretty strong evidence that folk can’t easily lose weight through dietary modification, which is usually what proponents of these actions point to, and the Stanford study focuses on. If the benefits of a sugar tax are eating healthier rather than actually being healthier, I’m not convinced that this is worth major government response.

    ((The study also has some methodological issues that leave me a little suspicious.))

    I wouldn’t want to have to live on $5850 a year. Hmmmm, what about rich people? Don’t they have lots of money we can take?


    Of course, if we took all their money, pretty much /any/ spending seems a lot easier, excepting perhaps actually handling the national debt. The point of the analysis is that historically, things like government revenue and total welfare spending as percentages of the GDP have not been able to sustain dramatic changes. If there were political support for a 4+ trillion USD spending program of this sort, we’d not be debating it as a theoretical exorcise.

    • Randy M says:

      “eating healthier rather than actually being healthier”

      If a mode of eating doesn’t actually improve health, I don’t think it should be called healthier. Of course, I’m sure that’s what you were implying, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out.

    • People might be healthier if they ate less sugar even if they didn’t lose weight.

      • gattsuru says:

        The study’s opening specifically cites obesity directly (pdf warning), and mentions diseases like diabetes only through the link of obesity. As a result, the analysis focuses primarily on calorie intake : even salt taxes are compared through change in caloric intake.

        People might be healthier if they ate less sugar and more vegetables, possibly, although the evidence is significantly less strong than you might expect. But the models the paper uses don’t seem very good at predicting that, and in the past an attempt to clear one “bad” food item (fats) out of the market just resulted in focusing on a newer bad one. If we can assume that calories substitute over time and using the elasticity numbers from that paper, consumers are likely to load up on bread and grain products in response to a sugar tax. I’m not sure a bunch of carbs is that much better than the same caloric content of sugar.

        • I could hope that reasonably healthy fats would substitute for some of the sugar, but I may be projecting my preferences.

        • gattsuru says:

          According to the paper, ‘healthy’ meats had an inverted price elasticity and very small (~0.15) expenditure elasticity. The milk and cold flavored beverages had some specific cross-substitution effects in their model, but every one of these items had a significant (>1.5) price elasticity and a lot of sugar to start with, meaning that folk shouldn’t be presumed to load up on these in response to a 20% price increase.

          The study’s analysts presumed that this will result in people simply purchasing fewer calories — I’m not putting words in their mouth, that’s an explicit conclusion on page 6 — but we have a lot of evidence that this isn’t so simple either in general or for the specific case of soda.

          I don’t trust their numbers, but even if we’re using their numbers, the results may be meaningful without being /useful/.

          ((And, really, this should be obvious enough that we’d need opposing evidence. The obesity epidemic model puts a demarcation point somewhere in the 60s or 80s. Coca-Cola has been around for over a hundred years, and as popular cultural icon since at least the 30s, and I’m doubtful it’s become more addictive with the removal of cocaine.))

  29. Matt Simpson says:

    I’ve previously dabbled in job advice, and one thing I forgot to mention but which I have since been thoroughly convinced of is if you want a PhD, get an economics PhD. It’s more humane than most others, has much better job prospects, and there’s such a wide range of economics that you can still study pretty much whatever you want.

    I’d put a statistics PhD in the same boat. Similarly wide range of topics so you can do nearly anything you want – and most importantly, it’s not the same range as an econ PhD. Similarly great job prospects (just tell everyone you’re a “data scientist”). I’m not sure about how humane most stat PhD programs are, but mine isn’t too bad.

    (Source: I’m a joint PhD student in Stat and Econ)

  30. Tommy says:

    My favorite part about the Simpson’s Paradox article on wikipedia is the bit where they call their two example document editors ‘Bart’ and ‘Lisa.’

  31. Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

    A lot of people on the Internet are huge fans of the Basic Income. I’m guessing that’s because we all like to fantasize how nice it would be to take some time off to connect with your inner child on a government’s dime. However, this is not the reason usually given. It’s usually postulated that Basic Income is needed to make poor people’s lives non-miserable, or something.

    Consider the graph from this blog post:

    If having $20k of disposable income makes your life non-miserable, then poor people in the USA are already not miserable. Through some government program or other, no matter how little you make you can spend at least $20k. You’ll probably have to jump through some hoops before you qualify for TANF, SNAP, CHIP, etc. I know nothing of the process but I’m guessing it’s something that people in need will be willing to go through and bored software engineers who want to take some time off won’t.

    • gattsuru says:

      The 20k value is for a single parent of a dependent, who qualifies for certain large programs, and a large portion of the money isn’t income in the traditional sense of the word (most obviously, Medicaid and CHIP benefits aren’t fungible, Section-8 housing benefits are only weakly fungible, but even SNAP and TANF can’t be used to purchase a number of things). Some of the benefits require that the individual demonstrate that they’re looking for work, which involves non-trivial time investment on a daily basis, while others have maximum lifetime usage caps.

      It’s a lot better than things might sound from the reporting in the New York Times, and it’s a little misleading US statistics on poverty universally ignore the value of welfare benefits, but it’s nowhere near as comfy as the simplest analysis suggests.

      • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

        The 20k value is for a single parent of a dependent, who qualifies for certain large programs

        Here is an older post by the same author, where he uses data from BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey, resulting in a fairly similar graph:

        • gattsuru says:

          The author is discussing median income, not minimum, and it’s worth noting that many people with 0 incomes are doing so temporarily (operating on savings between jobs).

          His full thesis isn’t entirely wrong, but the minutia are significant, and enough to explain why many software engineers don’t follow the same pathways.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The bigger concern, at least from my perspective, is the poverty trap. The US welfare system does provide many people who lack income and assets with the basic resources they need to sustain life. The problem is that these programs are almost all means-tested, and so people who are inside the welfare system have disincentives to work. Why get a job when it just means the US government will send you a letter demanding its money back? In some situations people actually end up with less disposable income by working more, because it makes them ineligible for the means-tested programs that were worth more than their wages.

      As I see it, the greatest promise of GBI is not for the worst off people who can’t work, it’s for the slightly-better-off people who can work but can’t command high wages. They’re the ones getting screwed by the current means-tested system.

    • suntzuanime says:

      My guess is the reason you see “bored software engineers” coming out in favor of the GBI is that they’re smarter than most people. Or, if that’s too offensive, they’re more used to dealing with abstractions and spotting flaws in systems, and so they can spot the flaw in the huge number of means-tested programs that add up to each additional dollar earned putting negative fifty cents in your pocket.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I write about why I think such a guarantee is useful here. Basically we need to set up something for the future when most people are unemployed and unemployable (see Economist link on this very post) without turning them into an underclass. Welfare mostly supports people but also turns them into an underclass by stigmatizing them, tying their benefits to stuff, and creating an income trap – the goal of BIG is to not do that.

      • Pawel Aleksander Fedorynski says:

        Presently, there is a large number of unemployed and possibly unemployable people, and they’re for the most part doing just fine. This is now, while we still don’t have the robots doing all the work for us. Why would things change in the future, when the unemployed are the majority (of the voters) and presumably thanks to the robots there’s also more wealth to hand out?

        Your whole point seems to hinge on the assertion that the current welfare system stigmatizes the recipients, whereas BI wouldn’t. I don’t exactly see how the current system stigmatizes anyone. When I stand in line at Safeway I have no idea whether people in front of me choose debit or credit or that other welfare-related option which I’m blanking the name of it right now. But even it somehow does, this can hardly be a problem when everyone is the recipient, can it? Everybody cannot be stigmatized.

        I do agree with your and suntzuanime’s point about the income trap, though this also doesn’t seem like it will be much of a problem in the fully automated 100% unemployment future.

  32. Doug S. says:

    Glenn Greenwald points out that bloggers suggesting Iranian nuclear scientists be assassinated provoked outrage, yet actually assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists didn’t seem to bother anyone. Local conversations make better signaling opportunities than global events? Or assassinations being too deniable and time-spread to effectively coordinate anger?

    Israel has a history of doing this.

    • Doug S. says:

      Also… in general, I suspect that the people who would be pissed off at Israel for these assassinations tend to be people who are already pissed off at Israel for other reasons, so Israel doesn’t have much to lose by trying it.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      What are you saying? That people got mad at an American advocating that the US assassinate, but they wouldn’t have gotten mad if he’d advocated that Israel do it? Or if an Israeli had advocated that Israel do it? That doesn’t sound very plausible to me.

  33. Jessica says:

    Not sure how relevant this is, but the Russian word for ostrich is pronounced “strah-oos” (страус), which could explain the surname Strauss.