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THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Contra Caplan On Arbitrary Deploring

Last year, Bryan Caplan wrote about what he called The Unbearable Arbitrariness Of Deploring:

Let’s start with the latest scandal. People all over the country – indeed, the world – have recently discovered that many celebrities are habitual sexual harassers. Each new expose leads to public outrage and professional ostracism. Why does this confuse me? Because many celebrities do many comparably bad things other than sexual harassment, and virtually no one cares.

Suppose, for example, that a major celebrity is extremely emotionally abusive to all his subordinates. He screams at them all the time. He calls them the cruelest names he can devise. He habitually makes impossible demands. He threatens to fire them out of sheer sadistic pleasure. But the abuse is never sexual (or ethnic); the celebrity limits himself to attacking subordinates’ intelligence, character, pride, and hope for the future. I daresay the average employee would far prefer to work for a boss who occasionally pressured them for a date. But if the tabloids ran a negative profile on the Asexual Boss from Hell, the public wouldn’t get very mad and Hollywood almost certainly wouldn’t ostracize the offender […]

Or to take a far more gruesome case: When the Syrian government last used poison gas, killing roughly a hundred people, the U.S. angrily deployed retaliatory bombers, to bipartisan acclaim. But when the Syrian government murdered vastly more with conventional weapons, the U.S. government and its citizenry barely peeped. The unbearable arbitrariness of deploring!

In the past, I’ve made similar observations about Jim Crow versus immigration laws, and My Lai versus Hiroshima. In each case, I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about both evils. I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about neither. I can understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the greater evil, but not the lesser evil. But I can’t understand why people would have strong negative feelings about the lesser evil, but care little about the greater evil. Or why they would have strong negative feelings about one evil, but yawn in the face of a comparable evil.

He concludes people are just biased by dramatic stories and like jumping on bandwagons. Everyone else is getting upset about the chemical weapon attack, and people are sheep, so they join in.

I have a different theory: people get upset over the violation of already-settled bright-line norms, because this is the correct action if you want to use limited enforcement resources efficiently.

Imagine a town with ten police officers, who can each solve one crime per day. Left to their own devices, the town’s criminals would commit thirty muggings and thirty burglaries per day (for the purposes of this hypothetical, both crimes are equally bad). They also require different skills; burglars can’t become muggers or vice versa without a lot of retraining. Criminals will commit their crime only if the odds are against them getting caught – but since there are 60 crimes a day and the police can only solve ten, the odds are in their favor.

Now imagine that the police get extra resources for a month, and they use them to crack down on mugging. For a month, every mugging in town gets solved instantly. Muggers realize this is going to happen and give up.

At the end of the month, the police lose their extra resources. But the police chief publicly commits that from now on, he’s going to prioritize solving muggings over solving burglaries, even if the burglaries are equally bad or worse. He’ll put an absurd amount of effort into solving even the smallest mugging; this is the hill he’s going to die on.

Suppose you’re a mugger, deciding whether or not to commit the first new mugging in town. If you’re the first guy to violate the no-mugging taboo, every police officer in town is going to be on your case; you’re nearly certain to get caught. You give up and do honest work. Every other mugger in town faces the same choice and makes the same decision. In theory a well-coordinated group of muggers could all start mugging on the same day and break the system, but muggers aren’t really that well-coordinated.

The police chief’s public commitment solves mugging without devoting a single officer’s time to the problem, allowing all officers to concentrate on burglaries. A worst-crime-first enforcement regime has 60 crimes per day and solves 10; a mugging-first regime has 30 crimes per day and solves 10.

But this only works if the police chief keeps his commitment. If someone tests the limits and commits a mugging, the police need to crack down with what looks like a disproportionate amount of effort – the more disproportionate, the better. Fail, and muggers realize the commitment was fake, and then you’re back to having 60 crimes a day.

This looks to me like what’s happening with chemical weapons. The relevant difference between chemical weapons and conventional weapons is that the international community made a credible commitment to punish chemical weapons use, and so far it’s mostly worked. People with chemical weapons expect to be punished for using them, so they rarely get used. If there are some forms of atrocity that are easier with chemical weapons than with conventional ones – ie a dictator with a limited arms budget can kill more people with a choice between chemical and conventional weapons than they can when restricted to conventional weapons alone – then the taboo against chemical weapons saves lives. And so when a dictator tests the limits by trying a chemical weapon, it’s worth responding to that more forcefully than if they used conventional weapons to commit the same massacre. You’re not just preventing the one attack, you’re also acting to enforce the taboo.

The sexual harassment situation seems like the same dynamic. We can’t credibly demand our elites are never jerks to their subordinates – jerkishness is too vague a concept, there’s too much of it around, and it’s just not really an enforceable norm. But we have sort of credibly demanded our elites don’t sexually harass their subordinates, and it seems like we might be getting enough of a coalition together to enforce this in a lot of cases. If we can solidify this into an actual social norm, such that the average elite expects to be punished for sexual harassment, then elites will stop sexually harassing their subordinates and we won’t have to keep calling the whole coalition together all the time to enforce the punishment. A fixed amount of public outrage per news cycle is the same kind of “limited enforcement resource” as only having ten police officers; commit to using it to disproportionately enforce existing taboos, and you’ll have more of it left over later on.

This is my long-winded answer to a question several people asked on the last links post – why should we prioritize responding to China’s mass incarceration of the Uighurs? Aren’t there other equally bad things going on elsewhere in the world, like malaria?

Yes. But I had optimistically thought we had mostly established a strong norm around “don’t put minorities in concentration camps”. Resources devoted to enforcing that norm won’t just solve the immediate problem in China, they’ll also help maintain a credible taboo against this kind of thing so it’s less likely to happen the next time.

The GATTACA Trilogy

[Few people realize that the 1997 cult hit GATTACA was actually just the first film in a three-movie trilogy. The final two movies, directed by the legendary Moira LeQuivalence, were flops which only stayed in theaters a few weeks and have since become almost impossible to find. In the interest of making them available to the general public, I’ve written summaries of some key scenes below. Thanks to user Begferdeth from the subreddit for the idea.]

GATTACA II: EPI-GATTACA

“Congratulations, Vincent”, said the supervisor, eyes never looking up from his clipboard. “You passed them all. The orbital mechanics test. The flight simulator. All the fitness tests. More than passed. Some of the highest scores we’ve ever seen, frankly. You’re going to be an astronaut.”

Vincent’s heart leapt in his chest.

“Pending, of course, the results of the final test. But this will be easy. I’m sure a fine specimen like you will have no trouble.”

“The…the final test, sir?”

“Well, you know how things are. We want to make sure we get only the healthiest, most on-point individuals for our program. We used to do genetic testing, make sure that people’s DNA was pre-selected for success. But after the incident with the Gattaca Corporation and that movie they made about the whole thing, public opinion just wasn’t on board, and Congress nixed the whole enterprise. Things were really touch-and-go for a while, but then we came up with a suitably non-invasive replacement. Epigenetics!”

“Epi…genetics?” asked Vincent. He hoped he wasn’t sounding too implausibly naive – he had, after all, just aced a whole battery of science tests. But surely there were some brilliant astronomers who didn’t know anything about biology. He would pretend to be one of those.

The supervisor raised an eyebrow, but he went on. “Yes, epigenetics. According to studies, stressful experiences – anything from starvation to social marginalization – change the methylation pattern of your genes. And not just your genes. Some people say that these methylation patterns can transfer to your children, and your children’s children, and so on, setting them back in life before they’re even born. Of course, it would be illegal for us to take a sample and check your methylation directly – but who needs that! In this day and age, everybody’s left a trail online. We can just check your ancestors’ life experiences directly, and come up with a projection of your methylation profile good enough to predict everything from whether you’ll have a heart attack to whether you’ll choke under pressure at a crucial moment. I’ll just need to see your genealogy, so we can run it through this computer here…you did bring it like we asked you, right? Of course you did! A superior individual like you, probably no major family traumas going back five, six generations – I bet you’ve got it all ready for me.”

Vincent reached into his briefcase, took out a slim blue binder. Here goes nothing, he thought.


Two weeks earlier, he had thrown a wad of cash down on a granite table in a downtown apartment.

The man across from him leaned forward in his wheelchair, extended a trembling arm to slowly take the cash.

“You’re, uh, sure you want to do this?” asked Vincent, suddenly feeling a pang of conscience.

“Yes,” rasped Jerome. “You’re young. You still have your whole life ahead of you. You can still make something of yourself. Me, I’m done.”

“Look,” said Vincent, despite his better judgment, “just because you’re partly paralyzed doesn’t mean you can’t…do anything, really. Write a book. Travel the world.”

“You want to know how this happened?” Jerome asked. “I did it to myself. I used to be the best swimmer in the state, maybe in the country. I was going to the Olympics. With a spotless family history like mine, there were no limits. Then it happened. I had a fluke defeat. Lost the Olympics qualifier by a hairbreadth to a guy I’d beaten twenty times before. After that, why go on?”

“But…couldn’t you have just tried again four years later?”

“You still don’t get it. It wasn’t the loss. That loss stressed me out, Vincent. It made me feel bad about myself. I experienced lowering of my social status. With my methylation profile that screwed, it wasn’t just my own body I had ruined. It was my future children too. How was I ever going to marry when I would have to look my wife in the eyes and tell her our kids would be epigenetically tainted forever? So I did the only thing I could. I threw myself in front of a car. Couldn’t even kill myself properly, that’s what happens when your methylation profile is ruined. So here I am.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Vincent, who was starting to regret ever having come. “We can help you. We can find some way to…”

“No,” said Jerome, and he put the cash in his pocket. “What’s done is done.” He took a slim blue binder, slid it over the table to Vincent. “My geneaology. Absolutely perfect. Not a single microaggression against any of my ancestors since the Mayflower.”

Vincent considered saying something, but finally just nodded. “I won’t let you down. I’ll use the gift you’ve given me in a way that would make you proud.”


He’d been so close. And now, this…whatever it was.

“It’s not a problem with you,” said the supervisor, though he looked haggard and did not exactly inspire confidence. “It’s just…there’s been an incident. We’re interviewing everybody.”

It was two days before launch. Everything had been set up. Now, as the supervisor ushered him into a sterile-looking interview room, he could already imagine the headlines. MAN BUYS FALSIFIED GENEAOLOGY, TRIES TO HIDE EPIGENETIC INFERIORITY. Or, FRAUD DECEIVES EPIGATTACA CORPORATION, MISSION CALLED OFF.

He was so busy generating worst-case scenarios that he didn’t even notice the identity of the detective seated across from him until the door had closed and they were alone together.

“Anton?”

“Vincent?”

“Um…yeah…” was the best Vincent could think of to say to his older brother.

They’d been in touch, sure. But Vincent had thought it prudent not to mention his exact job description, lest his brother start asking the wrong questions. He’d just said he worked for the Epigattaca corporation, letting Anton infer that he was sweeping floors or validating parking tickets or something else suitable to someone with his inadequate histone pattern. Finally he put himself together and spoke.

“What are you doing here?”

“There’s been a death. One of the executives. Foul play suspected. I’m a detective, so…”

Then it had nothing to do with him. Or, at least, it hadn’t. Now…

“Okay, Anton. Before you ask, yeah. I admit it. I faked my epigenome. There’s a black market in geneaologies. I found a guy willing to sell his identity. I saved up, bought it from him, gave it to the suits here. They think I haven’t had a microaggression in my family line since the Mayflower. And they’re going to do it. They’re going to let me go to space.”

“But why, Vincent? You were always such a good kid!”

“Of course you wouldn’t understand,” said Vincent.

It was true. Anton was five years older. He’d been born perfect, the product of the latest eu-epigenics program. Female infants with good epigenes were sent to live a sheltered existence in Denmark, the most equitable country in the world, and kept drugged on heroic doses of beta-blockers to prevent them from feeling any trauma or anxiety. They were raised in special houses by caretakers who denied them nothing, then sent to special schools where it was impossible to fail or feel inadequate. Then, when they reached puberty, they were artificially fertilized – no way the program was going to let them deal with something as stressful as sexual relationships – until they pumped out five or ten kids each. The most innocent were brought back to the shelters to restart the cycle.

It had all gone so well with Anton. But a year after he was born, everything had changed. One of the nurses had gotten sick, and an untrained nurse was brought in to cover. She had told Anton’s mother that she was looking “a little chubby”. Faced with this sudden awareness of patriarchal beauty standards and devaluing from a human being to a sex object, her histones had wilted instantly, her precious DNA inundated with methyl groups. When the scientists found out, they discharged her from the breeding program, she married a similarly damaged man, and the result, a few years later, had been Vincent.

“You’re right,” said Anton. “I can never understand what you go through. But I’m going to clear you. Right now. No conditions.”

Vincent could barely believe he’d heard correctly. “What?”

“It’s…my son. Your nephew. I never told you this, but a few years ago, he broke his leg biking. We got it treated by a black-market doctor, covered it up, no trace of it in any of the records, but – I can’t help worry about him. He remembers what happened. He’s going to need role models to look up to when he grows older, people who overcame epigenetic determinism and succeeded despite the changes our experiences impose on our DNA. He’s going to need someone like you. And besides, we’re brothers. I’ve already figured out who committed the murder – it was another executive whose department would profit by delaying the launch. I’m going to report that you’re innocent. And I’m also going to report that I didn’t discover anything else of note about you. Nothing that should delay this week’s launch.”

“You…you’d really do that for me?”

“Good luck in space, bro.”

Vincent walked out of the office in a daze. By the time he reached his desk, the email was already on the screen “Detective has said you’re good to go – launch is still on for Wednesday”. He read it three times, lost in thought.

He had always wanted to be an astronaut. Now he realized why – it was to escape his own epigenome. More than that – it was to escape a world that held epigenetics in such high regard that his epigenome mattered. He would still go to space. He would do it for Anton’s son, and for all the other individuals with a history of personal or family trauma. But he no longer felt like there was nothing for him on Earth. There were people who would judge him as a full human being, not just a methylation pattern shaped by familial disadvantage. And someday – he vowed – everyone would be able to say the same.


GATTACA III: EDU-GATTACA

“Congratulations, Vincent”, said the supervisor, eyes never looking up from his clipboard. “You passed them all. The astrogation test. The crisis simulation. All the physicals and health panels. More than passed. Some of the highest scores we’ve ever seen, frankly. You’re going to be an astronaut…”

Vincent broke out into a giant smile.

“…pending, of course, the results of the final test. But this will be easy. I’m sure a fine specimen like you will have no trouble.”

“The…the final test, sir?”

“Well, you know how things are. We want to make sure we get only the strongest, most intelligent individuals for our program. We used to do genetic testing, make sure that people’s DNA was pre-selected for success. But after the incident with the Gattaca Corporation and that movie they made about the whole thing, public opinion just wasn’t on board, and Congress nixed the whole enterprise. Then we tried epigenetics, but it turned out they made a movie about that one too. Really, our luck in all of this has been terrible. But this time, we’ve really got it! This time, we know how to identify truly superior human beings who deserve to be astronauts, no creepy biology involved. We’re going to base our decision on…what institution you spent four years in during your teens and early twenties!”

“Oh, come on,” said Vincent. “Can’t you just give up already and judge people on their merit?”

The supervisor pounded the desk. “Never! So-called meritocracy is a sham designed to justify inequality. No, we’ve made our choice, and we’re going to judge you by which university accepted you at age 17 based on a combination of illegibly-inflated grades, recommendations by people who barely knew you, and how much money your parents were willing to donate. You can complain all you want, but that’s just how we roll, here at the…” He pointed out the window, to the gleaming sign outside “…at the PhDMSMABSBA corporation.”

“How do you even expect people to pronounce that?” asked Vincent.

“Irrelevant! Now tell us what college you went to, so we can figure out what Greek letter to assign you on your application.”

“Greek letter?”

“Just an internal company code we use. We got tired of saying ‘top-tier institution’, ‘second-tier institution’, and so on, so now you’re Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. The Alphas get positions like executive or astronaut. The Betas get positions in middle management. The Gammas and Deltas have jobs like clerks and call center reps. And the Epsilons do the really dirty work, the stuff nobody else will touch.”

“That’s terrible!” said Vincent.

“That’s what everybody does,” the supervisor corrected. “The only difference is we use Greek letters. Is your moral system so fragile that its results depend on whether you refer to something with Greek letters or not?”

“Wow,” said Vincent, “this conversation has taken a disturbing turn.”

“That’s right. So why don’t you just show us your college degree, and we can get your application going?”

Vincent reached into his briefcase, took out a slim red binder. Here goes nothing, he thought.


Two weeks earlier, he had thrown a wad of cash down on a marble table in a suburban apartment.

The man across from him leaned forward in his wheelchair, extended a trembling arm to slowly take the cash.

“You’re, uh, sure you want to do this?” asked Vincent, suddenly feeling a pang of conscience.

“Yes,” rasped Jerome. “You’re young. You still have your whole life ahead of you. You can still make something of yourself. Me, I’m done.”

“Look,” said Vincent, despite his better judgment, “just because you’ve got some kind of condition doesn’t mean you can’t…do anything, really. Write a book. Travel the world.”

“You want to know how this happened?” Jerome asked. “I did it to myself. I used to be the best football player in the state. Maybe the country. Got accepted to Harvard on a football scholarship. Then I learned that college football causes so many concussions that it increases your risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I didn’t know what to do. Stick around, and I risked degenerating into the condition you see me in now. Leave, and I’d lose my scholarship, never get a degree, and have to go to community college. I’d never be anything higher than a Delta.”

“A Delta?”

“Some new corporate jargon people are using.” Jerome shrugged. “So I kept it up and got my degree. Now I can barely walk, and half the time I can’t remember my own name. So here I am.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Vincent, who was starting to regret ever having come. “We can help you. We can find some way to…”

“No,” said Jerome, and he put the cash in his pocket. “What’s done is done.” He took a slim red binder, slid it over the table to Vincent. “My Harvard degree. Top-tier institution, absolutely Alpha quality. With this, every single door in the world will be open to you.”

Vincent considered saying something, but finally just nodded. “I won’t let you down. I’ll use the gift you’ve given me in a way that would make you proud.”


He’d been so close. And now, this…whatever it was.

“It’s not a problem with you,” said the supervisor, though he looked haggard and did not exactly inspire confidence. “It’s just…there’s been an incident. We’re interviewing everybody.”

It was two days before launch. Everything had been set up. Now, as the supervisor ushered him into a sterile-looking interview room, he could already imagine the headlines. MAN BUYS FAKE DEGREE, TRIES TO HIDE EDUCATIONAL INFERIORITY. Or, FRAUD DECEIVES PHDMSMABSBA CORPORATION, MISSION CALLED OFF.

He was so busy generating worst-case scenarios that he didn’t even notice the identity of the detective seated across from him until the door had closed and they were alone together.

“Anton?”

“Vincent?”

“Um…yeah…” was the best Vincent could think of to say to his younger brother.

They’d been in touch, sure. But Vincent had thought it prudent not to mention his exact job description, lest his brother start asking the wrong questions. He’d just said he worked for the PhDMSMABSBA corporation, letting Anton infer that he was sweeping floors or validating parking tickets or something else suitable to someone with his educational background. Finally he put himself together and spoke.

“What are you doing here?”

“There’s been a death. One of the executives. Foul play suspected. I’m a detective, so…”

Then it had nothing to do with him. Or, at least, it hadn’t. Now…

“Okay, Anton. Before you ask, yeah. I admit it. I faked my degree. I found a guy willing to sell his identity. I saved up, bought it from him, gave it to the suits here. They think I’m a Harvard alum. And they’re going to do it. They’re going to let me go to space.”

“But why, Vincent? You were always such a good kid!”

“Of course you wouldn’t understand,” said Vincent.

It was true. Vincent had spent years working ten-hour days after school teaching the saxophone to underprivileged children to build his resume, but the Admissions Departments hadn’t been impressed. Anton had learned from his mistake, hired an admissions coach, and with her guidance had founded the country’s first Klingon-language suicide prevention hotline; the Ivy League had eaten it up. Vincent had ended up with a degree from a Gamma-level state institution; Anton had gone to Yale.

“You’re right,” said Anton. “I can never understand what you go through. But I’m going to clear you. Right now. No conditions.”

Vincent could barely believe he’d heard correctly. “What?”

“It’s…my son. Your nephew. You remember how he started a synchronized underwater molecular gastronomy team at his high school? Apparently all the other kids have been going to the Third World and starting synchronized underwater molecular gastronomy teams there, and we never knew about it. Now there’s no way he’s going to be competitive. I can’t help worry about him. He’s going to need role models to look up to when he grows older, people who overcame going to a low-tier college and succeeded anyway. He’s going to need someone like you. And besides, we’re brothers. I’ve already figured out who committed the murder – it was another executive whose department would profit by delaying the launch. I’m going to report that you’re innocent. And I’m also going to report that I didn’t discover anything else of note about you. Nothing that should delay this week’s launch.”

“You…you’d really do that for me?”

“Good luck in space, bro.”

Vincent walked out of the office in a daze. By the time he reached his desk, the email was already on the screen “Detective has said you’re good to go – launch is still on for Wednesday”. He read it three times, lost in thought.

He had always wanted to be an astronaut. Now he realized why – it was to escape his own low-tier college degree. More than that – it was to escape a world that held degrees in such high regard that the college he went to mattered. He would still go to space. He would do it for Anton’s son, and for all the other individuals with a subpar secondary education. But he no longer felt like there was nothing for him on Earth. There were people who would judge him as a full human being, not just a set of letters after his name. And someday – he vowed – everyone would be able to say the same.

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OT104: Antelopen Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. I’ve added an entry to my Mistakes page regarding my post about hallucinogen persisting perceptual disorder. Based on some of the comments, I think I was wrong to favor a cell death based explanation and think that an aberrant learning explanation is at least equally likely. I was especially convinced by the comparison to mal de debarquement (THAT WAS A REALLY FUN TIME READING THAT LINK WHILE I WAS ON A SHIP-BASED VACATION, LET ME TELL YOU), which seems similar but doesn’t naturally lend itself to a cell death angle. The aberrant learning idea raises more questions than it solves, but does seem to fit a variety of phenomena better.

2. New sidebar ad for Throne, a social media site for personalized chat rooms.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 588 Comments

Links 6/18: Linkonberry Jam

Scientists Share The Worst Stock Photos Of Their Jobs.

A subreddit for somnivexillology, the study of flags that appear in dreams.

In 1962, a pair of con artists claimed to be representatives of the Incan gods and used their charisma to enslave a small Mexican village. Then things got weird. Needing a fake Inca goddess to bedazzle the locals, they hired a nearby prostitute to show herself at the appropriate moment. But the prostitute got too into her role, became convinced she really was the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, took over the cult, took over the village, killed everyone who opposed her leadership, and led a string of grisly human sacrifices until the whole thing was finally broken up by police. The story of Magdalena Solis.

The latest exciting breakthrough drug for PTSD is…an unnecessary patent-protecting modification of cyclobenzaprine – ie it might be that cyclobenzaprine is an effective PTSD-sleep-disturbance drug for people who can’t tolerate prazosin. Link sent to me by a friend who reports unexpected dramatic improvement in PTSD nightmares when taking cyclobenzaprine for a muscle problem.

Some context for last month’s link on rare earths: China Can’t Control The Market In Rare Earth Elements Because They Aren’t All That Rare

In “primitive DNS hijacking” incident, Chicago man files change of address notice at the post office to change UPS corporate headquarters to his apartment, receives all their stuff and money.

Researchers claim that conventional statistics showing the War On Poverty didn’t significantly decrease poverty are calculated wrong, present alternative measurement methods suggesting US anti-poverty programs have been very successful.

New birth order study using Swedish records: “Firstborn children are more likely to be managers and to be in occupations requiring leadership ability, social ability, and Big Five personality traits.” Likely explanation is higher parental investment; not super-compatible with zero role for shared environment.

Volokh Conspiracy on good guys with guns: “Data from the FBI’s Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017 report [shows] legal civilian gun carriers tried to intervene in 6 out of 50 [mass shooting] incidents, and apparently succeeded in 3 or 4 of them.”

Gwern summarizes the idea of commoditizing your complement. This helped a lot of things about business snap into place for me.

Fun rabbit hole: “personality tests” that claim to be able to determine what neurotransmitters are dominant in your system, eg whether you’re a “dopamine type” or a “serotonin type”. See eg the Braverman Test and Brown et al. These show every sign of being about as accurate as their four-humors predecessors, even though in theory something like this ought to work. My guess is that there are so many different neurotransmitters, receptors, and brain regions where they can act that anything this broad is going to be able to explain a fraction of a percent of variance at best.

And while we’re talking crazy out-there psych hypotheses, Dual-gender macrochimeric tissue discordance is predicted to be a significant cause of human homosexuality and transgenderism.

Article on the tendency of places to play classical music to repel the unwanted. The default hypothesis would be that homeless people don’t want to sleep (and groups of ruffians don’t want to hang out and chat) in places with loud music, but the article seems to think (without really giving evidence) that there’s something more specific going on, where classical music’s high-class connotation has a specific anti-welcoming effect on poor people.

This week: Trump calls for elimination of all tariffs, endorses marijuana legalization, says he will talk to kneeling NFL players about pardoning the unjustly imprisoned. Next week: Trump defects from US, becomes President of Mexico, converts to Islam.

This article claims that a quirk of 1970s tax policy killed off smaller fiction genres. But see this comment, which casts doubt on some aspects of the story and clarifies a few things.

In Missouri, the beef industry is pushing a bill making it illegal to describe vegetarian meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger as meat. Opponents argue that misleading labeling is already illegal, so this would mostly ban people from using terms like “plant-based meat” that clearly state the nature of the product. Philosophical dispute about whether the category “meat” refers to things that taste a certain way vs. things that were produced by a certain process mirrors other categorization debates.

Kim Jong-un reported to have said that he hopes for “Vietnam-style reforms”.

China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs into mass internment camps, where they are subjected to brutal re-education. “Hour upon hour, day upon day, Omir Bekali and other detainees in far western China’s new indoctrination camps had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party. When Bekali, a Kazakh Muslim, refused to follow orders each day, he was forced to stand at a wall for five hours at a time. A week later, he was sent to solitary confinement, where he was deprived of food for 24 hours. After 20 days in the heavily guarded camp, he wanted to kill himself.” It’s hard to know what to do about something so terrible and so under-discussed, but ChinaFile suggests that one starting point might be sanctioning Xinjiang officials under the Human Rights Accountability Act.

Somehow I never learned about Abscam, maybe the biggest federal corruption incident since Watergate. The FBI got some con artists to pretend to be Arab sheiks and try to bribe Congressmen to do various things. Most of the Congressmen agreed and took the bribes, and six were convicted and sent to prison – including John Jenrette, who when offered the bribe answered “I’ve got larceny in my blood. I’d take it in a goddamn minute.”

Very competent and well-funded German team tests the seemingly physics-defying EM Drive more precisely than previous experiments. Preliminary results suggest that its thrust comes from some of the electronics interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, that there are no novel physics involved, and that it would not work in space.

Buddhist sources are silent on which direction the Wheel Of Samsara turns, but the evidence from salvia users who have weird visions of it (1, 2, 3) universally suggests it’s counterclockwise.

A post on the Effective Altruism forum discusses how funding vs. talent gaps are different for different charitable causes. Helped clear up some of my permanent confusion on what it would mean for causes to “not have funding gaps”.

You can now buy explicit placebo pills on Amazon. Professional-looking, very well branded, kind of convincing-seeming placebo pills, no less.

Popehat on free speech: courts will likely rule in favor of government employee fired for posting anti-Trump messages on Facebook on her own time.

A correction to my basic income post: some states will help financially support you if you are taking care of elderly or disabled relatives.

This week in headlines that would have sounded crazy just a few years ago: marijuana-based cryptocurrency PotCoin sponsors Dennis Rodman’s trip to join the summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Our World In Data shows The Effect Of Life Events On Life Satisfaction over time. Especially interesting since they start their time series a few years before the events. For example, men’s life is terrible the five years before a divorce, but immediately becomes better starting the year the divorce happens. I’ve been showing some of these graphs to my patients to help convince them there’s life on the other side of [personal catastrophe]. Also, the unemployment graph seems to confirm claim that it’s uniquely hard to habituate to in a way that’s not just a function of pre-unemployment problems.

In some traditional Chinese and Korean families, the founder of the family chooses a poem, and the nth generation of his descendants will always have names starting with the nth syllable of the poem.

Some people will like this essay as object-level social commentary, others as a window into the anthropology of weird inter-left disputes, but here’s a very strong take on the disability activists vs. Democratic Socialists of America argument/scandal/clusterf**k.

A list of the latest ICE scandals and atrocities, in case you’re having trouble keeping track. But see also this correction to the “1500 kids missing” story.

Washington Post on the truck driver shortage and why few want an $80,000 job. Mostly because it doesn’t actually pay $80,000 unless you get lucky / accept unreasonably awful conditions.

Interested to know what people think of this: Labour vote in England closely matches historic presence of coal mining.

New big paper on intelligence by Gail Davis and co-authors including Ian Deary and Stuart Ritchie, finds more genes for cognitive function, able to predict 4.3% of variance with polygenic score. But the fun part here is the genetic correlations, which note among other things that the genes for higher intelligence also seem correlated with poor eyesight, eg the “smart people wear glasses” effect. This is really interesting because I was under the impression that people had done some really good work showing the glasses-intelligence correlation was mostly due to smart people staying inside reading and not getting enough UV light for their eyes to develop properly. Either I totally screwed up my analysis of that one, or this is an unusually good example of a multifactorial trend. I hope this paragraph was good enough to avoid ending up in Stuart’s Hall of Shame for how this paper has been covered in the media.

Jacob of Putanumonit has an article on outgroups in Quillete that uses a really interesting concentric circles model I hadn’t thought of before.

DeepMind publishes a paper theorizing that the human prefrontal cortex is involved in “meta-reinforcement learning” and claiming to have created machine learning agents that can duplicate it. I haven’t been able to wrap my head around this yet; grateful to anyone who wants to explain it to me.

Related: Eliezer Yudkowsky asks believers in an upcoming new AI winter what sort of resolveable claims (suitable for bets) their hypothesis would entail.

And Eliezer (vs. David Chapman, sort of) on Toolbox Thinking And Law Thinking.

The latest in the DashCon / FyreFestival / etc genre of “fan conventions collapsing disastrously” is the marginalized-fan-community-centered Universal FanCon. I first read about this on Siderea’s blog and then found my way to this longer article. An interesting detective story / rationality practice to sort through the competing accounts and try to figure out what happened, and how so many seemingly trustworthy and well-intentioned people ended up running something that looks so much like a scam. Also possibly a good test for how paranoid vs. trusting you are, or how willing to resort to bad actor vs. institutions-are-hard explanations. Something like an answer (if you believe it) about what happened here

Giussepe Conte chosen as new Italian PM, ending months of standoff (and settling my prediction about whether a “far-right” party would take power in a major European country). Of interest here – the ruling Five Star Movement has a campaign promise to institute a basic income of 780 euros/month, even though this is even less financially realistic in Italy than it would be elsewhere. Related: populist anti-immigrant party with anti-Semitic links retakes power in Slovenia.

Bloom’s Two Sigma Problem: children given private tutoring will do two sigmas better than average (ie the average tutored student will be in the 98th percentile of nontutored students). But see here for some argument that the real value is lower, maybe more like 0.4 sigma. Some further discussion on the subreddit asks the right question – can we simulate this with some kind of clever computer-guided learning? – and gives the right answer – apparently no. TracingWoodgrains has a great comment. Especially interested in their discussion of Direct Instruction: “One of the few schools to use it as the basis of their program for math and English, a libertarian private school in North Carolina called Thales Academy, is reporting results exactly in line with the two-sigma bar: 98-99th percentile average accomplishment on the IOWA test. Their admissions process requires an interview at the elementary level, but no sorting other than that, so it’s not a case of only selecting the highest-level students.” (though note that IOWA is nationally normed, and Thales is in the well-off Research Triangle area). On the other hand, it costs half of what public schools do, so file this under “cost disease” too.

Find out where your hometown would have been on Pangaea.

Study on the political impact of immigration: when more high-skilled immigrants move to an area, the native voters shift more Democratic; when more low-skilled immigrants move to an area, the native voters shift more Republican. Effect is not dependent on immigrants’ country of origin.

England used to have free college tuition. In 1998, they decided it wasn’t working, got rid of it, and their colleges now cost more than the US. A team from the Brookings Institution discusses the English experience and what it can teach Americans, including the surprising role of English progressives in the anti-free-college fight.

A one parameter equation that can exactly fit any scatter plot. Though see the comment thread starting with Slocum on Marginal Revolution for discussion of whether this is as interesting as it sounds. Another commenter correctly brings up Tupper’s self-referential formula.

New study finds that, contra popular myth, people who believe in the genetic determination of human traits are more progressive, more tolerant of vulnerable individuals, and less racist. Likely just because more educated people are more likely to be aware of genetics, but still useful in slapping down a whole class of terrible arguments.

Related: in good news for progressivism and tolerance of vulnerable individuals, new study finds that some trait differences among Asians, Europeans, and Africans have significant genetic contributions. Genetic role was found for height, waist-hip-ratio, and schizophrenia risk; was not found for cholesterol, diabetes, or educational attainment.

Remember the mystery illness afflicting US diplomats in Cuba, possibly caused by some kind of weird infrasonic weapon? Now it’s happening to US diplomats in China too.

You’ve probably seen the graph showing that even as US productivity increases, US worker wages do not. A new study finds that productivity and worker pay continue to be correlated, suggesting it’s not so much that productivity doesn’t help as that some other force is keeping pay down despite the productivity effects. This might be beyond my pay grade, so interested in hearing if anyone has a good interpretation of this.

Zero HP Lovecraft: The Gig Economy

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HPPD And The Specter Of Permanent Side Effects

I recently worked with a man who took LSD once in college and never stopped hallucinating. It’s been ten years now and it’s still going. We can control it with medication, but take the meds away and it starts right back up again.

This is a real disease – hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. Most descriptions of the condition emphasize that it’s just some of the visual effects and doesn’t involve distorted reality perception. I’m not sure I believe this – my patient has some weird thoughts sometimes, and 65% of HPPD patient have panic attacks related to their symptoms. Maybe if you can see the walls bubbling, you’re going to be having a bad time whether you believe it’s “really true” or not.

Estimates of prevalence vary. It seems more common on LSD and synthetic cannabinoids, less common (maybe entirely absent) on psilocybin and peyote. Some people say about 1-4% of LSD users will get some form of this, which seems shockingly high to me – why don’t we hear about this more often? If I were a drug warrior or DARE instructor, I would never shut up about this. But if most people just get some mild visual issues – by all accounts the most common form of the condition – maybe they never tell anybody. Maybe 1-4% of people who have tried LSD are walking around with slightly distorted perception all the time.

There’s a lot to say about this from an epidemiological or cultural perspective. But I want to talk about the pharmacology. How can this happen? Why should a drug with a half-life of a few hours have permanent effects on your psyche?

It can’t be that the LSD sticks around. That doesn’t make metabolic sense. And a study discussed here using radio-labeled LSD definitively finds that although a few molecules might stay in the body up to a week or so, there’s no reason to think the drug can last longer than this. I like this study, both for its elegant design and because it implies that somewhere someone got a consent form saying “we’re going to give you radioactive LSD” and thought “sure, why not?”

But then why does it have permanent effects? I know very few other situations where this happens, aside from obvious stuff like “it gives you a stroke and then you’re permanently minus one lobe of your brain”. The only other open-and-shut case 100% accepted by every textbook is a movement disorder called tardive dyskinesia. If you take too many antipsychotics for too long, you can get involuntary tremors and gyrations that never go away, even off the antipsychotic. Although traditionally associated with very-long-term antipsychotic use, in a few very rare cases you can get it from a single dose. On the other hand, most people can take antipsychotics for decades without developing any problems.

Some other possibilities are controversial but plausible. The sexual side effects of SSRIs almost always stop within a few months of stopping the medication, but a few people have reported cases where they can last years or decades. Psychedelics may permanently increase openness and hypnotizability, though it’s unclear if this is biochemical or just that drug trips are a life-changing experience – see my discussion here for more. Also, for every drug that has a mild week-long withdrawal syndrome in the average population, you can find a handful of people who claim to have had a five-year protracted nightmare of withdrawal symptoms that never go away.

So, again, how does this happen?

Every discussion of HPPD etiology I’ve seen is speculative and admits it doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Also, most of them are in gated papers I can’t access. But a few papers seem to gesture at a theory where LSD kills an undetectably small number of very important neurons. Hermle et al talk about “the excitotoxic destruction of inhibitory interneurons that carry serotonergic and GABAergic receptors on their cell bodies and terminals, respectively”. Martinotti seems to be drawing from the same inaccessible source in mentioning “an LSD-generated intense current that may determine the destruction or dysfunction of cortical serotonergic inhibitory interneurons with gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABAergic) outputs, implicated in sensory filtering mechanisms of unnecessary stimuli”.

This would require some extra work to explain the coincidence of why the effects of HPPD are so similar to the effects of an LSD trip itself. In particular, if we’re talking excitotoxicity, shouldn’t the neurons be stimulated (ie more active) in the tripper, but dead (ie less active) in the HPPD patient? Maybe the tripper’s neurons are just so overwhelmed that they temporarily stop working? Or maybe you could interpret the comments above to be about LSD exciting some base population of neurons, the relevant inhibitory neurons having to work impossibly hard to inhibit them, and then the inhibitory neurons die of exhaustion/excitotoxicity.

Against cell death based explanations, some people seem to recover from HPPD after a while. But this could just be the same kind of brain plasticity that eventually lets people recover from strokes that kill off whole brain regions. The body is usually pretty good at routing around damage if you give it long enough.

What about tardive dyskinesia? When I was in medical school, I was told that the drugs “permanently hypersensitized dopamine receptors”, which is kind of a cop-out – why do they permanently hypersensitize receptors? How come all the other drugs don’t permanently hypersensitize the receptors they antagonize? Apparently now the story is more nuanced. From here:

The pathophysiology of TD is complex and remains unclear. Multiple models have been proposed to explain this unpleasant and sometimes disabling side-effect. One of the first widespread and popular explanations was the theory of dopamine-receptor hypersensitivity. It was suggested in 1970; however, it cannot completely explain the clinical findings, because TS does not generally appear among all dopamine receptor-blocking drugs users.

To date, several neurochemical hypotheses have been proposed for the explanation of TD development. These theories include: (i) a disturbed balance between dopamine and cholinergic systems; (ii) noradrenergic dysfunction; (iii) dysfunctions of striatonigral, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic neurons; and (iv) excitotoxicity. Recently, the role of oxidative stress and structural abnormality in the pathophysiology of TD has gained impetus. Induction of free radicals by neuroleptic drugs leading to oxidative stress and resultant structural abnormality could be the key factor in the pathogenesis of TD. The studies by Lerner et al. and Libov et al. support the neurotoxicity hypothesis. This hypothesis has also been supported by reports that chronic neuroleptic treatment increases free radical production and causes structural damage. In 2005, Tan et al. reported that a brain-derived neurotrophic factor appears to exert a protective effect in the nervous system against TD in patients with schizophrenia. There is solid evidence of a genetic predisposition to TD. A study performed by Souza et al. suggests that GSK-3B polymorphism may play a role in the genetic vulnerability to TD manifestation in individuals with schizophrenia.

There also seems to be some sort of role of acetylcholine:

Several studies in animals have reported that cholinergic cells (or the marker enzyme choline acetyl transferase) in the striatum are lost or reduced in amount after prolonged regimes of haloperidol and fluphenazine (49,50). Recently, Grimm and others showed that prolonged haloperidol treatment in rats led to cholinergic cell loss in the specific areas of the striatum related to oral movements (51). This result may provide an animal model to explain why TD in humans is most commonly a motor disorder of orofacial musculature. Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy provides supporting evidence for the cholinergic hypothesis. This method allows quantification of choline, the precursor of acetylcholine, in specific brain structures. Choline reuptake leads to the accumulation of choline in cholinergic neurons before its conversion to the transmitter; an excess of choline in brain tissue will signify a loss of cholinergic neurons. Using this method, investigators have shown that, in schizophrenia, choline levels in the basal ganglia are greater than normal (52). Ando and others produced further results with this method (53), implying that choline levels in the lenticular nucleus are higher in schizophrenia patients with TD than in those without the syndrome.

Apart from such methods for assessing cholinergic processes in the striatum, clinical trials with cholinergic agents in patients with TD could provide indirect evidence related to the cholinergic hypothesis (44). Caroff and colleagues showed that the anticholinesterase donepezil was effective against the symptoms of TD (54,55). Since choline, the precursor of acetylcholine, was not effective, Caroff and others regarded their evidence as support for the hypothesis of Miller and Chouinard. However, a recent metaanalysis concluded that trials of cholinergic agents in the treatment of TD conducted to date have insufficient statistical power to reach a firm conclusion about the drugs’ effectiveness (56). This area of research may be clarified when cholinergic agents effective against specific muscarinic receptors are tested in patients with TD.

So apparently it’s a conflict between a receptor hypersensitivity hypothesis and a killing-off-interneurons hypothesis that resembles some of the work around HPPD?

I’m biased in favor of killing-off-neurons hypotheses because they’re comfortable and they make sense. Of course if a drug kills something, it’s going to permanently impair function. This makes the idea of “drugs with permanent side effects” a little bit less scary, restores us to the “some medications cause strokes and then you’re screwed” realm of everyday life.

The alternative is thinking of the body as a chaotic system which settles into various attractors. Take the wrong drug and you can push yourself into a different attractor state, which will persist until something shifts it. This definitely seems true of some things, and is one of the ways I think about depressive episodes – which can last months or years, and which can be precipitated by some sort of obvious stressor (getting fired, breaking up, being bullied) but last long after the stressor is gone. If this explains permanent drug side effects, it seems somehow scarier to me than the other option. It’s not just that you have to make sure not to accidentally kill any cells. It’s more that nobody has any idea what the underlying mechanisms look like, anything can happen, and you just have to hope you don’t screw up.

OT103: The Curse Of Tutancomment

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. I’m on vacation for the next few weeks. I might schedule a few drafts to auto-post just so things won’t be totally quiet, but don’t expect to hear much from me until late June.

2. I’ve gotten a few comments and emails from people who are visiting the Bay Area and want to know how to meet the rationalist community there. Your best bet is to check the schedule for the community center and show up there when something interesting is happening (or just drop by whenever and hope for the best). If you’re really interested, you can stay in their guest rooms for a few days. You can also see bayrationality.com for (slightly) more information and event dates, or check the LW meetups page for more on meetups in San Francisco, San Jose, etc. I would like for there to eventually be a better and longer-term solution to this problem, but this’ll have to do for now.

3. Some people have complained that they like an SSC post and want to send it to their friends, but some of the comments are so bad that they’d be embarrassed for their friend to see them. Evan recently reminded me that there’s a Link Without Comments button at the bottom of every post.

4. Comment of the week is Aurel presenting some evidence against the lead-crime connection. Any thoughts?

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In Search Of Missing US Suicides

[Content warning: suicide. Thanks to someone on Twitter I forget for alerting me to this question]

Among US states, there’s a clear relationship between gun ownership rates and suicide rates, but not between gun ownership rates and homicide rates:

You might conclude guns increase suicides but not homicides. Then you might predict that the gun-loving US would be an international outlier in suicides but not homicides. In fact, it’s the opposite:

Why should this be?

We’ve already discussed why US homicide rates are so high. But why isn’t the suicide rate elevated?

One possibility: suicide methods are fungible. If guns are easily available, you might use a gun; if not, you might overdose, hang yourself, or junp off a bridge. So getting rid of one suicide method or another doesn’t do much.

This sounds plausible, but it’s the opposite of scientific consensus on the subject. See for example Controlling Access To Suicide Means, which says that “restrictions of access to common means of suicide has lead to lower overall suicide rates, particularly regarding suicide by firearms in USA, detoxification of domestic and motor vehicle gas in England and other countries, toxic pesticides in rural areas, barriers at jumping sites and hanging…” This is particularly brought up in the context of US gun control – see eg Suicide, Guns, and Public Policy, which describes “strong empirical evidence that restriction of access to firearms reduces suicides”.

The state-level data from above support this view – taking guns away from a state does decrease its suicide rate. And then there’s this graph, from Armed With Reason:

…which shows that adding more guns to a state does not decrease its nonfirearm suicide rate.

But if suicide methods aren’t fungible, then why doesn’t the US have higher suicide rates? Here’s another way of asking this question:

The US has fewer nongun suicides than anywhere else. The seemingly obvious explanation is that guns are so common that everyone who wants to commit suicide is using guns, decreasing the non-gun rate. But that contradicts all the nonfungibility evidence above. So the other possibility is that the US ought to have an very low suicide rate, and it’s just all our guns that are bringing us back up to average.

Of all US states, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Hawaii have the fewest guns. Unsurprisingly, suicides in these states are less likely than average to be committed with firearms. In MA, the rate is 22%; in NJ 24%; in HI, 20%. Their suicide rates are 8.8, 7.2, and 12.1, respectively. Hawaii has an unusual ethnic composition – 40% Asian and 20% Native Hawaiian, both groups with high suicide rates (see eg the suicide rate for Japan above). So it might be worth taking Massachusetts and New Jersey as examples to look at in more detail.

Either state, if it were independent, would be among the lowest-suicide-rate developed nations. And both still have more guns than our comparison countries. If we did a really simple linear extrapolation from New Jersey-level gun control to imagine a state where firearms were as restricted as in Britain, we would expect it to have a suicide rate of around 5 or 6 – which is around the current level of non-gun US suicides. This is much lower than any of the large comparison countries in the graph above, but there are two developed countries currently around this level – Italy and Israel. I think it makes sense to suppose that the US might have a low Italy/Israel-style base rate of suicides.

For one thing, it’s unusually religious for a developed country. Religion is one of the strongest protective factors against suicide. This also seems like a good explanation for Italy and Israel.

For another, it’s culturally similar to Britain, which also has a low suicide rate somewhere in the 7s. Other British colonies don’t seem to have kept this effect – Australia and Canada are both higher – but maybe the US did.

And for another, it’s unusually ethnically diverse. Blacks and Hispanics have only about half the suicide rate of whites; which means you would expect the US to be less suicidal than Europe. I previously believed this was because whites had more guns, but this doesn’t seem to be true: Riddell et al find that whites have higher non-firearm suicide rates too. So this could be an additional factor driving US rates down.

(another conclusion from the graphs above: US whites – who have most of the guns – do have an anomalously high suicide rate compared to other countries)

A confounding factor – the US has lots of different cultures, and Massachusetts and New Jersey represent only one of them. But if anything I would expect Southern and Midwestern culture, which are more religious, to have a lower base suicide rate; the South also has a lower percent white, another reason to expect their rate to be lower. And there is no evidence of these states having a higher non-firearm suicide rate, which we might expect if they were unusually suicidal.

So I think the simplest explanation is true. A gun-free US would have one of the lowest suicide rates in the developed world, maybe 5 or 6 people per hundred thousand. The US’ average-seeming suicide rate is an artifact caused by combining the low base with the distorting effects of high gun availability. The lack of a relative suicide crisis in the US doesn’t indicate that easy firearm access isn’t causing thousands of preventable suicides per year.

This is maybe not the most pressing question we’re facing right now, but I take it as a warning against gotcha-style debating. A simple bar graph comparing national suicide and homicide rates would be a compelling, elegant, and easily-digested argument that guns increased homicides but not suicides. It would also be totally wrong.

[EDIT: Commenters point out this paper by Alex Tabarrok on how there is some, but less-than-perfect, substitutability of suicide methods.]

Highlights From The Comments On Basic Jobs

These are some of the best comments from Basic Income, Not Basic Jobs: Against Hijacking Utopia. I’m sorry I still haven’t gotten a chance to read everything that people have written about it (in particular I need to look more into Scott Sumner’s take). Sorry to anyone with good comments I left out.

Aevylmar corrects my claim that Milton Friedman supported a basic income:

Technically speaking, what Milton Friedman advocated was a negative income tax, which (he thought, and I think) would be much more efficient than basic income – I don’t remember if these are his arguments, but the arguments I know for it are that the IRS can administer it with the resources it has without you needing a new bureaucracy, it doesn’t have the same distortionary effects that lump sum payment + percentage tax does, and it’s probably easier to pass through congress, since it looks as though it costs less and doesn’t have the words ‘increasing taxes’ in it.

And Virbie further explains the differences between UBI and negative income tax:

The main difference is that discussing it in terms of NIT neatly skips over a lot of the objections that people raise to flat UBIs that are abstractly and mathematically (but not logistically or politically) trivial. Many of these focus on how to get to the new policy position from where we are now. For example, people ask both about how a flat UBI would be funded and why rich people should receive a UBI. Given that the tax load to fund a basic income plan would likely fall on the upper percentiles or deciles, a flat UBI + an increase in marginal tax rates works out to a lump sum tax cut for high-earners and a marginal tax increase. Adding negative tax brackets at the bottom of the existing system and modifying top marginal rates is a simpler way to handle this and extends gracefully from the current system instead of having to work awkwardly alongside it.

In the example above, the NIT approach has the logistical advantage of the bureaucracy and systems we already have handling it more easily. And the political advantage of the net cost of the basic income guarantee looking far smaller than for flat UBI, since we’re not including the lump sum payments to upper-income people (that are more than offset by their marginal tax increases).

There’s some further debate on the (mostly trivial) advantages of NIT or UBI over the other in the rest of the thread.


Tentor describes Germany’s experience with a basic-jobs-like program:

We had/have a similar thing to basic jobs in Germany and it worked about as well as you would expect. Companies could hire workers for 1€/hour and the state would pay social security on top of that. The idea was that long-term unemployed people would find their way back to employment this way, but companies just replaced them with new 1€-workers when their contract was over and reduced fully-paid employment because duh!

Plus people on social security can be forced to take jobs or education. As a result a lot of our homeless are depressed people who stopped responding to social security demands because that’s what caused their depression.

(Links are to German Wikipedia, maybe Google translate helps)

Another German reader adds:

I agree that it doesn’t work as expected in Germany, but I think it it important to point out that not everyone is allowed is to hire workers for 1€. The work has to be neutral to the competition and in the public interest. So people are hired at a lot of public institutions (e.g. schools, universities, cleaning up the city).

Additionally these jobs improved the unemployment statistics at a low cost for the government, as people who are working in these jobs count as employed although most of these jobs are only part time jobs.


Murphy describes the UK experience:

One likely model for “guaranteed jobs” is the disaster that they tried in the UK for a while.

Basically the government partners with crappy low-skill employers who’s owners are buddy buddy with the right ministers and the state provides them with a steady supply of slaves jobseekers.

They then declare it all “Education”, in fact pay a premium to the corporate partners for “providing education” in the form of 5 minutes showing someone who’s already worked shelf stacking jobs how to stack shelves.

The people who love the scheme tend to genuinely believe the fiction about “education” because they tend to be the kind of people who believe that all poor people are thick and can’t learn and really do need 6 weeks to learn how to put a tin of beans on a shelf.

Your manager is abusive? tough luck. You have no rights. if you quit or the supervisor just declare you not to be working hard enough you lose your dole money. Hope you like starvation and death.
So if your manager demands you suck his dick then make sure to bring kneepads to work.

Remarkably employers who suddenly had the option of free labor along with free money from the government leapt at the option so people found themselves fired from positions only to find themselves required to do the same job a few weeks later only this time without pay.

The government was taken to court over it, the court rules it unlawful.

“I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.”

So the UK Parliament passed retrospective legislation to overrule the courts.

Anyone and I mean anyone with a libertarian bone in their body and an ounce of principles should be disgusted by “guaranteed jobs” because it’s thinly disguised slavery and a drive to replace paid work with forced labor.


Herbert Herbertson on the Native American experience:

I’ve said it before, but beyond the Alaska permanent fund, there’s an area where we could see a TON of extremely varied UBI case studies that I’ve never really seen anyone talking about UBI mention, one where we could see the limits, the pitfalls, and the benefits of a UBI as applied to a population with extremely deep historical poverty, intergenerational trauma, and serious substance abuse issues: Native American tribes with (more or less) successful gaming operations who distribute a portion of profits to their members in the form of a “per capita” payment.

My anecdotal experience is that it’s no panacea, but that it sure as fuck helps–but there’s a lot of potential data out there to move beyond anecdote.


Unirt describes the Finnish experience:

There has been a universal employment trial in a Finnish town Paltamo, which lasted 3 or 4 years. Apparently it costed the government more than just paying unemployment subsidies, and they found that undesirable.


richarddormersvoice describes the Chinese experience:

the closest thing to a guaranteed work program today is the iron rice bowl in china, which is a clusterfuck.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_rice_bowl

from what I know/heard:

a) 50% of state-owned enterprises are operating at a loss, meaning they are inefficient, corrupt, unproductive, and generally terrible places to work. it is stable though because it’s guaranteed by the ccp.

b) areas where irb has been liberalized do much better economically, shenzhen, guangdong, chongqing, while much of the northeast has barely developed.

c) even so, getting rid of the irb is difficult because, well, people, firms, politicians are dependent on it. chinese politics is heavy on corruption, soes are especially heavy on corruption.


Doktor Relling describes the Scandinavian experience:

Scandinavian countries have for some years had something functionally similar to a Universal Basic Job guarantee. We label it “activation policies”.

Since we have been doing this for some years (and increasingly the rest of Europe likewise), we have some empirical knowledge of the pros and cons. For those interested, here is a simplified walkthrough of the system (full disclosure: I spend my working life as a health & social policy researcher – and I believe that, on balance, this policy is better than the alternatives.) 1) You start out by introducing a means-tested social assistance scheme that covers everybody – including single males at subway stations shouting GRAAAGH to passers by. 2) You require that those who apply for social assistance, work for the benefit if they are able to work. 3) To find out if they are able to work, the social assistance administration does a work test.

Effects of the system: When the social assistance administration does the work test, it discovers that many long-term social assistance claimants are actually disabled (which was never found out before we introduced the activation requirement plus work test). Hence they qualify for a disability pension instead (somewhat similar to US Special Supplementary Income). In short: This version of a UBJ channels the unemployable GRAAGHs among us to a (more generous and not-means-tested) disability benefit. This takes care of Scott’s objection concerning what to do with those whose net “worth” to an employer is negative.

As an aside: organisations for people with disabilities, in particular the youth organisations, like the activation requirement. Their complaint is that the government does not always follow up its job guarantee in practice.

Why not a Universal Basic Income instead? Most of the weaknesses of a UBI have already been pointed out in the discussion (by rahien.din and David Friedman among others). Let me just re-state that many disabilities are really expensive. A UBI will not be sufficient to grant people with severe disabilities a good life. If voters want to provide them with above-minimum tax-financed income, the state simply cannot avoid to burden medical personnell and administrative staff with the difficult and contradictory helper/gatekeeper roles they perform in our present social security systems. It is messy, difficult, and yes there are Type I and II errors, but these problems are unavoidable if voters want to provide people with disabilities with more than what everyone else gets. (And hey this role conflict is difficult but it is not THAT difficult; after all we have been able to live with this role conflict for more than a hundred years.)


Yakimi describes the Nauru experience:

There are societies where entire populations have been unconditionally emancipated from the necessity of labor. I have seldom heard basic income advocates talk about these precedents, probably because these experiments do nothing to justify their optimism.

The Republic of Nauru has an unemployment rate of 90%. Its people do not work because their incomes are publicly subsidized, mostly by the exploitation of their island’s phosphate deposits, an industry which once provided them with the highest incomes per capita in the world. These people who once lived on a diet of coconut and fish used their sudden influx of wealth to import all the worst excesses of civilization, leaving them with the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world and a life expectancy of 59.7 years. They’ve nearly exhausted their sources of phosphate, completely destroying the natural beauty of their island in the process, and the people are now physiologically incapable of any existence other than idleness.

We might also look to the banlieues of France, where the youth unemployment rate is over forty percent and the underclass survives, illicit economic activities aside, at the expense of the generous French welfare state. Is there any evidence at all these beneficiaries are grateful to have been freed from drudgery? If anything, their lack of economic stake only seems to aggravate their resentment against a society that is keeping them humiliatingly idle. As recent events remind us, men hate being made to feel superfluous. Nor does there any appear to be evidence that their idleness has enabled the Byrons, Churchills, Von Brauns, et al. among them to improve the world with their genius. They are quite capable of setting cars on fire, though.

There are no doubt people, like yourself, who are natural aristocrats, who are very good at finding discipline, purpose, etc. even when freed from the pressures of necessity and would benefit from a stipend. But it is solipsistic to assume that most, or even many, humans can operate functionally when made entirely independent of the disciplinary pressure of having to earn your fill. Posthuman biotrash is a big enough problem already, and basic income can only make it worse.

I certainly don’t deny that a lot of ghettos and banlieues contain some very unhappy people. But does work help?

Suppose Alex lives in a ghetto and spends 12 hours a day watching TV and eating Cheetos. Bob lives in the same ghetto, works at a gas station 8 hours a day selling people lotto tickets, then comes home and watches TV and eats Cheetos for 4 hours. Aside from economic arguments about producing value for other people, is Bob’s life more meaningful than Alex’s? Is it happier? Would you rather be Alex or Bob? Would you rather Alex exist, or Bob exist?

If you want to make the argument for work, you have to argue that it does something other than turning Alex into Bob. That it has some other effect, where Bob gets home from work and says “You know, all that lotto-ticket selling has awoken a spark of something higher in me. Instead of watching TV, I think I’m going to read Anna Karenina.” Or something. If I’m strawmanning this argument, it’s because I don’t really know how people expect it to work.

I don’t want to disagree with Yakimi. I don’t want to come out and predict “If we institute UBI, we won’t have ghettos full of Alexes”, and have you point and laugh when I’m proven wrong. I think ghettos full of Alexes is a very likely outcome. But I don’t think that’s worse than ghettos full of Bobs. I think it’s just more surprising, more unfamiliar, more of a man-bites-dog style interesting news story that will provoke concern.


Wrong Species writes:

I only have one small quibble. Amazon is relentless with their employees because they’re so competitive. Jobs guarantee programs would be anticompetitive so we probabaly wouldn’t see anything like that. In fact it would probably be the opposite where there is too little to do and a lot of it is pointless busy work, like in high school.

Yes, this is a good point. Most surveys seem to find job satisfaction is higher in the private sector than the public sector, but I could imagine the opposite being true for the most-exploited kinds of unskilled labor.

And for what it’s worth, here’s a reader who works in an Amazon warehouse commenting to say it’s really not that bad.


Naj on another way things can go wrong:

It seems to me that many people whose lives suffer due to lack of money are in significant debt and that debt payments are a large fraction of their income. If a UBI is given to everyone, how are people prevented from borrowing $100,000 against it, blowing it quickly, and then having $0 income because their UBI is all spent on interest? Solving this problem also seems full of opaque bureaucracies and Kafkaesque rituals. Unless we just ban loaning money with interest for consumptive goods at the same time(a policy I might just favor).

po8crg suggests:

Bankrupts will still be entitled to UBI. Assuming (not unreasonably) that bankruptcy laws won’t allow garnishment of UBI to pay debts, anyone with only UBI as income and more debts than assets could declare bankruptcy, surrender their assets to their creditors, and walk free from their debt.

The risk of loaning to someone with nothing but UBI would be huge, so no lender would lend.

(incidentally, the problem with this may be in the housing market, landlords will be demanding rent up-front rather than in arrears and being very aggressive about evicting people who fall behind)


Simon Sarris (author of the piece I was criticizing) writes:

The point of something like Basic Jobs is that giving people the option, but not the obligation, may result in better outcomes for some people at the margins. It’s not a panacea, it is definitely not a Utopian alternative to the largely Utopian plans of UBI because I do not think any Utopian plan as described is wise. It’s a suggestion of mere incrementalism, something to try on top of the hodge-podge of welfare that currently exists. A splint is safer than a spleen removal, as they say.

In other words, I think you are committing a mistake by comparing your Utopian vision to another Utopian vision (which I do not advocate). I do not think any Utopian vision is good or possible. You can make UBI look better by comparing it to other Utopian ideas, but this is in effect masking the deficiencies of UBI by comparing it to something else unrealistic.

I do not want to give the impression that Basic Jobs would ever accommodate everyone as UBI may intend to do. In the best case I 100% agree its positive effects would be smaller, but its implementation would also be safer. If you have a hard time imagining that, simply imagine “Maybe we should have farm subsidies, but they work more like Japan’s or Austria’s than what the US does right now.”


10240 writes:

The huge difference between UBI and public works/job guarantee (even if it’s busywork) is that you only take a public works job if you can’t get a job on the market, and don’t have any better option. With UBI, everyone would take it, and many people who can work would quit. This may make a job guarantee at least remotely feasible.

This is the same as the difference between a homeless shelter and a rent subsidy: a homeless shelter keeps one from freezing on the street, but it’s pretty shitty, so the only people who choose it are those who really don’t have any other option. It’s a built-in means test that’s much more effective than a conventional means test that can be attached to a rent subsidy.

As such, a job guarantee may even save money if it replaces unemployment benefits. Of course, implemented this way it’s a right-wing policy (aimed to minimize welfare usage and incentivize work), rather than a left-wing one. (Hungary’s right-wing government has replaced unemployment benefits with public works like this.) It works if the goal is to keep the poor from starving, rather than to give them a decent standard of living.

This is a good and important point.

I was tempted to respond to Sarris that UBI isn’t that much more utopian than BJG. After all, it can be funded by a tax such that rich people overall pay more in extra taxes than they get in UBI, middle-class people pay the same, and poor people get more in UBI than they pay in taxes. Depending on where you set the definition of “poor”, you can ensure that only the very poor/unemployed people who would go for a basic job are really getting any money from UBI. So there’s no reason to think UBI is necessarily broader-scale than BJG.

10240’s point proves me wrong. Because basic jobs are potentially unpleasant, they act as a screening mechanism so that only people who really need them will take them. That means even targeted at the same income level, they would be less universal than UBI (another commenter points out that we could produce the same effect by making people wait in line for eight hours a day to receive their daily UBI check).

I was hoping to be able to wave away the cost issue with “this is equally bad for UBI and BJG”, but I guess I can’t anymore. I am not an expert in this so I don’t have strong opinions, but I would be pretty okay with a Piketty-esque wealth tax, a Georgist land tax, or whatever experts declare to be the least stupid and distortionary tax that mostly falls on the rich. This article (possibly wrong, possibly biased) suggests that some proposals for raising taxes on the rich could produce about $250 billion/year. That’s enough to pay the poorest 10% of Americans a $10K/year basic income (ie have a basic income plus tax increases such that they break even around the 10th percentile) even before cutting any welfare programs.

In my ideal system, we would propose some sort of inherently progressive tax at some fixed percent, and say that the basic income was “however much that produces, divided by everybody”. That means that as the economy grows, the basic income increases. At the beginning, the basic income might not really be enough to live off of (especially if I got my calculations wrong). As we get more things like robot labor and productivity increases, so does the income. By the time robots are good enough to put lots of people out of work, they’re also good enough that X% of what the rich robot-owning capitalists make is quite a lot, and everybody can be comfortable.

Then various Congresspeople can debate at what point the UBI is large enough that we can eliminate various welfare programs. On the one hand, welfare programs can be sticky, so we might worry they would be overly cautious. On the other hand, many Congresspeople are Republicans, so they probably wouldn’t be.


Yaleocon on winding down UBI:

Saying “winding down basic income is easy” assumes we have an Income Czar who can just say “all right, let’s wind it down.” We wouldn’t have that. We have a democracy, and do you really want to be the guy running on “everybody gets less money each year”? It’d be like opposing social security, except even more politically impossible. Candidates—at least, the winning ones—will only ever pledge to defend or expand it. (This also probably makes UBI a fiscally unsustainable policy in the long term.)

Once those political incentives are taken into account, I think we should view UBI as an irreversible, and probably unsustainable, change to our economic system. Scott (or any other knowledgeable UBI advocate), do you stand by the assertion that UBI would be easy to end, and if so, why? (I probably prefer the status quo to UBI, for what it’s worth.)


Thegnskald on long-term effects:

The economic right likes to pretend the distribution problem is solved. The economic left likes to pretend the production problem is solved. A UBI helps alleviate the distribution issue at minimum penalty to production; relative well-being so important, the incentive to work will be as strong as ever.

A major part of the problem with modern society is that there isn’t an economic incentive to cater to the cashless, the perpetually broke, the homeless; this is a service we want performed, but the system cannot enable it, and the system limps on.

A UBI creates such an incentive. In the short-term, we will have some shortages and price increases; in the long term, we will have a new consumer base, and new industry will arrise to support it.

Inflation is one possible result, and likely unless we make it economic to build such industry. A UBI needs a corresponding decrease in regulation, in order to make it possible to produce low-cost goods for that new money to chase.

And responding to completely different comments: if a state or city wants a higher UBI, so be it. But a major advantage that the UBI offers is to incitivize people to spread out more evenly across the US, reducing population density. Likewise, a major problem with current welfare is that it disincentivizes work, by punishing those who get it (as working costs benefits, resulting in less overall available funds). I don’t think we will have a rising class of jobless vagabonds; I think instead we will have a rising class of gig-economy people, who take short-term work to get money to buy luxuries, while they mostly skate by on the UBI. This is where we are heading anyways, so this is a net improvement, by making such gig work more secure.

I see little harm and much good in a UBI, and expect it to accelerate employment relative to the current system of “You only get your benefits if you don’t work and avoid making yourself too employable”.


Gimmickless is still worried about the rent issue:

I came of age in a military town. Part of the military benefit package is a stipend, should you qualify to live off-base. I could never find a apartment or single-wide that ever cost less than that stipend. That information gets out, and gets spread. Do people with McJobs cram themselves 3-4 to a trailer to make ends meet? Yes they do.

I fail to see how landlords will not take UBI into account on what rent they charge. Will there be a price gradient that actually settles out? Possibly. Probably. But it’s almost certainly going to end up higher than what rent is now.

This definitely sounds like what would happen in the case of a captive audience in a world with no ability to increase housing stock. If you relax some of those assumptions, I fail to see why rent shouldn’t reach a balance between supply and demand the same way other necessities like food, clothing, and gas do.


Dnkndnts doubts the “universal” part of UBI:

My problem with UBI is that it’s virtually guaranteed not to actually be universal. It’s going to be “universal” for Good Citizens. We’re going to probe and test you for any sort of substance abuse and if we find anything, you’re off the program; if you have a criminal record of any sort, you’re off the program. The government is not going to sponsor your alcoholism and crack addiction!

First, I think this immediately falls into the kafkaesque nightmare disability currently has: you have to prove to the Bureaucracy that you are, in fact, a Good Citizen in the same way that you currently have to prove to the Bureaucracy that you are, in fact, Actually Disabled.

Second, the people who need UBI the most are precisely those least likely to be labeled Good Citizens. Poverty massively correlates with substance abuse and criminal behavior.

I get that I’m attacking a strawman here in some sense, but I think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that UBI would actually be universal.

Counterexample: Social Security. As far as I know, every elderly person gets it, whether they’re a good law-abiding citizen or not.


RC Cola writes:

I’m no economist but it seems to me that this essay under-plays what I thought would have been one of the main features of a job requirement over a free-floating income. For the moment put aside complications like disability and third-party effects and just imagine the core case of a person with no job. Jobs suck, as Scott notes toward the end. But it is in everyone’s interest if everyone who is able to support themselves with jobs do so rather than resorting to compulsory confiscation of others’ money to do so. So we want obtaining such government money to be unpleasant. This isn’t to say that most people on government programs are just lazy. But people do respond to incentives, and there are probably lots of marginal cases where it would be extra hard to support oneself with a job, and an easy, frictionless transition to government support would be an easy call whereas a costly and painful one would end up causing this marginal person to choose to remain in private employment.

so what is the main obvious attractor of a government-granted income without a work obligation? I think it’s not having to have a job. So to a first order of approximation, adding a job requirement does exactly what you would want it to do. It removes the largest incentive to avail oneself of the government program, namely the removal of work obligations during work hours. We want to do this not out of a punitive motivation, or even out of a “help the recipient” motivation. We want it out of a deterrent motivation, precisely to deter availing oneself of redistributive programs that by their nature cannot work if too many people opt in. Is that not an important part of the argument here?


Thegnskald writes:

My objection [to a previous comment] comes down to this: the assumption that UBI is a solution to poverty, rather than a solution to the systemic issues inherent in a bureaucracy-administrated welfare.

This puts me at odds with Scott, who seems to favor a high UBI intended to make work obsolete for most people. I favor a low UBI which makes the bureaucracy obsolete, but isn’t intended to pull people out of poverty. My preferred solution is a debit card (or maybe just a fingerprint-enabled system to disable theft) linked to an account with daily accrual of small amounts of money; 10-18 dollars per day per adult, some possibly smaller amount for children. Do away with disability and food stamps and housing assistance and social security, keep Medicaid/Medicare. Pair this with a new classification of minimal legal rental housing that amounts to an updated-fire-code-compliant barracks (a bunk, a locker or chest, and access to a bathroom and washing facilities, probably gender-segregated; family-style housing might amount to a lockable room). Toss in density maximums on the barracks, and proximity limitations, to avoid concentrating poverty. Maybe – maybe – add in a requirement for security guards.

The goal shouldn’t be to enable a luxurious life – it should be to enable a very basic one. With daily accrual of funds, huxters and con artist won’t find viable targets, and anything more expensive than a daily meal will encourage short-term thrift and the accrual of some very basic financial knowledge.

This is a more basic lifestyle than is afforded by the current system, but removes the barriers to entry and waiting lists that plague us now. I think the “lower middle class” version of UBI is a terrible idea; it should be treated as a safety net, not a replacement for productive enterprise.

This is the incrementalist version of a UBI. Trial it, adjust as necessary.


baconbits brings up other concerns:

What does it mean to have a “basic” income? Surely housing is included, and housing prices vary wildly over different regions. Are residents of Detroit getting enough money to pay for housing in NYC or are residents of NYC getting enough money to pay for housing in Detroit, or do we have a “cost of living adjusted UBI” where some people get enough for a low end car payment and others enough for a monthly subway pass and every other conceivable difference or are we just accepting that a few (tens of) millions of people are going to not be getting a basic level of income at all while a few (tens of) millions of people are getting well over their basic level?

While we are on the subject of the disabled, well the disabled have extra health costs… are getting more in terms of UBI? Long story short as soon as UBI is introduced it will be noticed that a great many people cannot afford their health insurance payments on their UBI and there will be cries for a nationalized health insurance on top of the UBI.

What about children and married couples? How are we balancing UBI payments to families without seriously screwing up incentives there? And immigrants? And families of immigrants?

The short answer is that right after you cut the Gordian you are going to pick up the slashed pieces of rope and attempt to retie them together to hold the system in place.

The optimism that there is a simple solution to an enormous issue is overwhelming.


Ninety-Three discusses risk to private industry:

You’re being unfairly rosy towards basic income by not mentioning that it too could destroy private industry. Imagine you institute basic income and most of the McDonalds workers quit. McDonalds tries to invent robots, but can’t because robots are hard. So they raise wages in order to attract more workers. In order to pay for their increased wages, they raise prices. The market informs McDonalds that people don’t want to pay more for their fast food, and McDonalds goes bankrupt because their business model was only profitable with $8/hour wages. Higher-end restaraunts will still exist, but your basic income scheme just destroyed the entire “cheap fast food” industry.”

This seems little different from minimum wage laws. Some studies suggest that $15/hour minimum wage laws don’t seem to hurt restaurants. Others do find some negative effect, but the effect is far from catastrophic and restaurants continue to exist.

If basic income is so high that nobody will work at $15/hour ($30/hour? $45/hour?) and private industries collapse, then we must have set the basic income too high. This would be a disaster, but no more than setting the minimum wage too high would be.

David Friedman adds: “From a little googling, labor is about 20% of the cost of McDonalds franchisees. Double wages and, if they pay those wages instead of substituting more skilled labor or machinery, and prices go up by about 20%.”


From Nicholas Weininger:

Scott, you mention aristocrats as a group who seem to flourish without needing to work for a living, and cherrypick a lot of great examples, but surely you’re aware of the phenomenon of corrupt wastrel layabout aristocrats too. It’s at least perceived as common enough that today, parents who have enough money that their kids don’t ever have to work typically spend a good deal of time and effort devising constraints on the kids’ ability to access their inheritances so that they don’t become corrupt wastrel layabouts. Do you think the perception of commonness is incorrect? Are the parents worried for no reason? Note too, as other commenters have, that these parents are much more capable of instilling responsibility and work ethic in their kids than the typical parents of those who might depend on a large UBI.

This is one of many reasons why I think we should start with a very small, Alaska-fund sort of level of UBI, plus a child allowance for primary caregivers of young kids, and see how that goes for awhile before taking up the question of an increased UBI level.


Martin Freedman refers us to previous work on the subject which I should get around to reading:

Hello, long time lurker first time poster here.

This is an interesting post but it seems to miss the boat on the whole Jobs Guarantee debate and analysis that has been going on for many years. This is partly due to your post being a response to another interesting article by Simon Saris, which also, but less so, misses the boat on this debate. Still he does raise points that you sort respond to as if they were never raised e.g over disability and he emphasized no removal of those benefits.

I also read as much as I could of the 100+ comment stream and only two commentators correctly identified the real issues : ShamblerBishop and userfriendlyy.

Anyway a more substantive issue is the body of work and analysis done on the JG done by many economists over the years. You mentioned economists who had argued for a CBI or UBI where you included Milton Friedman who really argued for a Negative Income Tax which is not the same BTW (as others have noted).

However why did you not mention those economists who have argued for a JG? Where were Keynes’ On-the-spot employment, Minsky’s Employer of Last Resort, Mitchell’s Buffer Stock Employment, Mosler’s Transition Jobs and, in general, collectively named by the Modern Monetary Theory economists called the Job Guarantee?

Simon’s post using the non-standard term “Basic Jobs” – which he is entitled to do – is somewhat indicative that this is an unorthodox presentation of these ideas. He (and, for that matter, I) are unknown bloggers on this topic and, regardless, stand or fall on the quality of arguments and analysis. Whilst writing for a particular audience might have been a motivation for him, for whatever reason he omitted the critical, IMV, macroeconomic basis which is particularly important both for the JG and for a more complete evaluative comparison of the JG to BI.

If you really want to do this topic justice I humbly suggest you look to the main economist out of the MMT group who has specifically focused on this topic. (Of course, the others – mentioned above or not – have researched this aspect too, this is only my recommendation). This is Pavlina Tcherneva who has written for a range of audiences from the interested lay person to the mainstream economist academics. You could start with her Job Guarantee Faq or her team at Bard

Suffice to say all your objections have long been answered. That does not mean you agree with the arguments in those answers, of course, but a clearer discussion should start with those answers not write as if these have never been considered.


Michael Handy says:

Umm, correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t we try a Basic Jobs program back in the 19th century in England? Namely, the Workhouses, carefully calibrated to make any private sphere job heaven by comparison.

I feel that a program that literally uses the first chapters of Oliver Twist as a technical manual might not need such a comprehensive debunking, but I’m glad one exists.

On the one hand, this is unfair. The workhouse was nothing like existing basic jobs guarantees – it was a combination housing program / food program / jobs program that poor people were in many cases forbidden by law to leave. This is totally unlike proposals for a $15/hour voluntary job not linked to housing or food.

On the other, what I find most interesting about workhouses is that most sources suggest they weren’t profitable. Even offering workers the most miserable conditions and paying them no wages, they still failed to produce anything that sold well and had to be subsidized by taxpayers. This reinforces my concern that basic jobs are not going to be able to produce as much as people think.


Watchman writes:

My issue here, and this comes from someone convinced of the futility of the Keynsian approach embodied by basic jobs (the left wing are clearly bored of re-hashing the bad ideas of the 1970s and are going back to the 30s for their inspiration now…), is that basic jobs appear to be much safer for a functioning democracy than basic income. Democracy is ill served if leaders are able to use their power to effectively bribe voters: any study of the working of machine politics in US cities, or of the small electorates of English rotten boroughs, will reveal this. Basic income is a tool that in the right hands could be used to bribe voters by promising an increase in the income; in the US at least I find it easy to imagine populist figures on both sides of the political divide promising voters higher basic income. Democracy requires a certain restraint from voters and basic income would be a potential danger to this by creating a clear incentive for voters to focus on self-interest in their decision making, to a degree not currently seen (mind you, it is possible I’m just repeating arguments made when income tax was introduced…).

I agree that income tax is worth considering. The “politicians will bribe voters with their own money” thing is plausible, but how come there are still taxes? It would be pretty easy to run the federal government without making the bottom 50% of the wage distribution pay taxes at all; why don’t we? I think the answer is something like “to maintain some fiction that everyone must contribute equally”, but that makes the bribe-voters-with-their-own money strategy look pretty powerless, doesn’t it?

For that matter, free universal health care is an example of bribing voters with their own money – how come it keeps failing? So is universal college – how come no one except Bernie Sanders even pushes it? For all their flaws – and they have many – the average American voter seems remarkably bribery-resistant.


Liz writes:

Extreme example to make the point: Take a person with Down’s syndrome and give them a job (like washing dishes) which they can perform, and see how they respond to it. They’re far happier doing that as opposed to sitting at home being fed and “entertained”. However unmeaningful you might believe that work to be, it might be very meaningful to them. I’m sure there are a lot of people in the service industry (“would you like fries with that?” et al) who DO INDEED make a positive difference in people’s lives. Even a smile can do that for a frustrated, stressed out person….a smile that makes one feel they aren’t alone. A kind gesture, some simple random act of kindness of any sort can actually restore ones’ faith in humanity. So I happen to think the “fries with that?” work is meaningful. It might (depending on circumstances and how it is done, of course) be even more meaningful than far higher paid and higher skilled (on paper) labor.


Many people say they feel that they wouldn’t personally be able to handle not working very well. For example, Joyously:

The reason I have always been basic-income-skeptical is because of myself. If I had a basic income the same as my grad stipend, I could *definitely very-much* see myself mostly just playing a lot of video games. There’s a *possibility* I’d finally finish my novel. But it would be mostly video games.

And I’d be happy–but the thing is I *can* do other things that fill a slot society needs. (And I am a privileged educated person from a privileged educated background who doesn’t really *need* this assistance.) So shouldn’t I?

Yes. I think you would do great as one of the vast majority of people who would continue to work even after society had a basic income. I’m not in favor of preventing people from working. I myself would probably work even if offered a basic income. I think it’s great if people don’t have to work but want to anyway. I’m not sure how to get this point across more strongly than I already have.


Other people say that obviously everybody would quit if a Basic Income were available. Aphyer writes:

I am a programmer. I have a really good job. I quite enjoy it, I get paid well, I like my coworkers. I can listen to my favorite music over headphones while working. When someone does something stupid my coworkers and I enjoy ourselves laughing about it. I am probably somewhere north of 95th percentile job satisfaction in the country.

If you offered me enough money to support myself indefinitely while staying at home playing and designing increasingly complicated computer games and board games…well…I don’t think I would take it. Probably. But I would be very tempted.

This seems to suggest that somewhere around 90 percent of people would quit their jobs. And maybe in the Glorious Robot Future that would not be a problem. However, one thing that several of Scott’s articles on this topic seem to have missed is that we are not actually in the Glorious Robot Future yet. Yes, once you get to a position where our robot armies can do everything we want, a basic income guarantee is probably the best way to convert this into a high standard of living for many people. But we are not in that position. We are not close to that position. Right now people’s jobs are actually adding value that will be lost if they quit. And implementing a basic income guarantee now feels like it would just obviously be a disaster.

(None of this should be taken as support of a basic jobs program, which sounds even more obviously disastrous and makes me want to exhume Joseph McCarthy and turn him loose on everyone suggesting it.)

Ozy brings up that there are various ways that skilled workers can work part-time to make $10K per year (the easiest is to work a $100K job one year in ten). Since almost nobody does that, it seems unlikely that these people would really quit their job in exchange for basic income.

I’m glad Ozy showed up, because I used to think the same thing as Aphyer, and Ozy reminded me that I wasn’t taking any of the opportunities to work much less in exchange for much less money either. I wonder if this is just a universal bias, where people feel like they would definitely prefer more free time to working more, but then work more anyway.


ec429 defends the much-maligned but ever-popular position of “being angry that other people might get by without having to work”:

A lot of people have commented above on the incentive problems etc. with both UBI and UBJ, so I’ll not go into that. But I’ve noticed a bit of a thread of “why are opponents of UBI so determined that no-one ever gets a free ride?” Since this generalises to other welfare/disability/secondary distribution programs, I think my viewpoint here may be relevant. Warning: raw and emotional, rather than cool and rational. But maybe it’ll help people understand why I, at least, am so implacably opposed to redistribution. (Also it drifts a bit off-topic by the end.)

Stipulated: I’m a nerd, bookish, aspergiac. (Also, technically not fully-abled: I have a sleep disorder that prevents me working full-time.)

Between the ages of (let’s say) 8 and 18, I was bullied a lot; this was made bearable by the knowledge that in adulthood, I’d be an affluent knowledge-worker and the people bullying me were idiots who would be stuck in retail or manual labour, and that it would utterly serve the b—ers right.

And now you expect me to give up some large slice of the product of my work (when you add up income tax, national insurance*, VAT** on the goods I buy, push effects from taxes supposedly levied upon ‘business’, etc., the total tax bite is probably over 50%) to give those same b—ers welfare cheques, and then to give them more when it turns out they spent the first lot on pot and xboxes, because somehow it’s not acceptable for people who make stupid decisions to starve.

So no. If you want _my_ money to fund _your_ life, you had d-mn well better prove that you’re trying to better yourself and not just suffering the consequences of your own stupidity. Ideally, let me make that decision myself through private charity, rather than forcibly taking the decision away from me and giving it to some unaccountable bureaucrat. (If nothing else, I could hardly be _more_ Kafkaesque than the disability-scheme bureaucrats.

Good news! I hear that basic income will sap meaning and community from people’s lives. So all those bullies will be living unhappy lives without any purpose, and you’ll still have the last laugh!

Should Psychiatry Test For Lead More?

Dr. Matthew Dumont treated a 44 year old woman with depression, body dysmorphia, and psychosis. She failed to respond to most of the ordinary treatments, failed to respond to electroconvulsive therapy, and seemed generally untreatable until she mentioned offhandedly that she spent evenings cleaning up after her husband’s half-baked attempts to scrape lead paint off the walls. Blood tests revealed elevated lead levels, the doctor convinced her to be more careful about lead exposure, and even though that didn’t make the depression any better, at least it was a moral victory.

The story continues: Dr. Dumont investigated lead more generally, found that a lot of his most severely affected patients had high lead levels, discovered that his town had a giant, poorly-maintained lead bridge that was making everyone sick, and – well, the rest stops being story about psychiatry and turns into a (barely believable, outrageous) story about politics. Read the whole thing on Siderea’s blog.

Siderea continues by asking: why don’t psychiatrists regularly test for lead?

Now, in my case, I’m a talk therapist, and worrying about patients maybe being poisoned is not even supposed to be on my radar. I’m supposed to trust the MDs to handle it.

Dumont, however, is just such an MD. And that this was a clinical possibility was almost entirely ignored by his training.

Dumont’s point here is that while “medical science” knows about the psychiatric effects of lead poisoning and carbon disulfide poisoning and other poisons that have psychiatric effects – as evidenced by his quoting from the scientific literature – psychiatry as practiced in the hospitals and clinics behaves as if it knows no such thing. Dumont is arguing that, in fact, he knew no such thing, because his professional training as a psychiatrist did not include it as a fact, or even as a possibility of a fact.

Dumont’s point is that psychiatry, as a practical, clinical branch of medicine, has acted, collectively, as if poisoning is just not a medical problem that comes up in psychiatry. Psychiatry generally did not consider poisoning, whether by lead or any other noxious substance, as a clinical explanation for psychiatric conditions. By which I mean, that when a patient presented with the sorts of symptoms he described, the question was simply never asked, is the patient being poisoned?

Dumont wants you to be shocked and horrified by what was done to those people, yes. He also wants you to be shocked and horrified by this: psychiatry as a profession – in the 1970s, when (I believe) the incidents he relates where happening, in the 1990s, when he wrote it in his book, or in 2000 when a journal on public health decided to publish it – psychiatry as a profession did not ask the question is the patient being poisoned?

And it didn’t ask the question, because clinical psychiatry had other explanations it liked better, to which it had a priori philosophical commitments.

And that, when you think through what it means for psychiatry, is absolutely chilling.

And:

I can tell you that, standing here in 2018:

• No mental health clinic I’ve worked at ever had the facilities for even performing blood draws, nor doing urine testing for anything other than commonly abused intoxicants (alcohol, opioids, amphetamines, etc), and then only the clinics that specialized in substance abuse treatment. The clinic I work for now can’t even do urine screens. Psychiatrists’ offices, here abouts at least, are not places blood tests are or can be performed, unless they are attached to a general medical practice. Such tests have to be referred out, usually to the patient’s PCP’s office.

• No psychiatrist has ever asked me to arrange blood draw test from the PCP for anything other than white blood cell count, thyroid panel, or Lithium blood level.

• Though I’ve seen documentation in patient charts of psychiatrists ordering two of those three tests from PCPs themselves, I’ve never seen documentation of ordering any other tests. I have literally never seen a psychiatrist order a test for any sort of poison.

• I have never seen any sort of toxicology report for poisons in any of the blood test results I have found in my patients’ discharge paperwork from psychiatric hospitalization.

• I have never, in all my case discussions with psychiatrists in-patient and out, or with hospital staff at psychiatric hospitals and hospital departments, ever heard anyone suggest anything about poisoning be a possibility in our mutual cases. Nobody has ever said anything like, “We don’t want to prescribe anything until the tox report comes back, in case it’s an environmental toxin” or “R/o env tox” or even “We don’t think there’s much chance of an environmental toxin, so we’re not bothering to test for it. It has literally never been mentioned.

• Not even when, due to the suddenness of the onset of psychotic symptoms, psychiatrists were discussing with me the possibility that a patient was intoxicated on some street drug that somehow just wasn’t showing up in his/her urine screens and blood draws.

Maybe it’s not fair for me to generalize from the psychiatrists I’ve worked with. Maybe it’s just that the psychiatrists I’ve worked with – including at MGH and McLean – aren’t representative, being somehow really bad doctors, or poorly educated, and that, contrariwise, normal psychiatrists, basically adequately well-trained psychiatrists, generally do stop to consider poisoning as a cause for severe presenting symptoms, especially when they’ve proved refractory.

I’m not getting that impression though.

I’m not getting that impression from the many interactions I’ve had with psychiatrists and other psychiatric professionals over the last decade, and neither have I been subject to exhortations of what I, as a clinical mental health counselor, should be alert to as evidence of possible poisoning in my patients.

When I was in grad school, it was briefly mentioned that most disorders in the DSM (this was version IV-tr) had a “caused by a General Medical Condition” variety, and then it was never spoken of again.

So as far as I can tell, nothing has changed.

This is not merely an incidental failure of instruction on the part of Dumont’s med school professors, nor of mine in grad school. This is, at the most charitable, a massive blindspot, of precisely the sort that “scientific” field of endeavor should never have, and it seems to afflict the entire profession.

There’s a lot more, and you should read the whole post. Siderea is a great writer and a careful thinker, so when she criticizes my practice I take note. And since I don’t think I’ve ever tested anyone for lead, this is definitely criticizing my practice. What’s my justification?

Take a look at some papers like The Emerging Role For Zinc In Depression And Psychosis and Effect Of Zinc Supplementation In Patients With Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Done? Looks like there’s some pretty good evidence that zinc deficiency is involved in depression somehow, right? Do you think zinc is more or less important than lead? By how much?

Or what about toxoplasma? Seems to be twice as common in depressed people as in controls, and increases suicide risk 50%. Pretty suspicious; should we test all depressed people for toxoplasma? If so, is this more or less important than testing all depressed people for lead? By how much?

And when you’ve answered that, what about copper? Omega-3/omega-6 ratio? Vitamin D levels? Cortisol? Magnesium balance? The methylation cycle? Mitochondrial function? Inflammation? Covert viral infections? Covert autoimmune disorders? Paraneoplastic syndromes? Allergies? Light exposure? Circadian rhythm? Selenium? Lithium levels in your local water supply? Insulin resistance? Gut microbiome? PANDAS? FODMAPs? Structural brain abnormalities? And that’s not even getting into the psychosocial stuff!

Every one of these has some evidence of being involved in depression. Some have excellent evidence of being robustly involved. Imagine how dumb you would feel if it turned out only 0.01% of cases of depression were lead related, and you spent so much time testing your patient for lead that you never got around to asking about color temperature of their home lighting, or whether they clean their cats’ litterbox, or how many dental fillings they have.

(Dental fillings? Really? No, not really.)

Why not test all the things? Number one, cost. Number two, sticking your patient with more needles than a Trump voodoo doll owned by the DNC. But number three, everybody is weird in a bunch of ways. Have you ever gone to your doctor for labwork, and gotten a piece of paper back with a lot of words like BASOPHILS and BUN-CREATININE RATIO, and probably three or four of them were highlighted in red to indicate they were abnormal, and your doctor looked at it and shrugged and said not to worry about it? That’s because everybody is weird in a bunch of ways. Your 30-item depression risk factor panel is going to come back saying you don’t have enough selenium and your gut microbiome is off, and your doctor is going to make you spend a month eating nothing but kefir and brazil nuts, and then a month later you’ll leave your abusive partner and your depression will mysteriously disappear.

Consider prostate cancer screening. This is like the best-case scenario for universal testing. Prostate cancer is pretty common – about 10% of men are diagnosed with it sometime during their lives. We know who’s most at risk – older men. It’s potentially pretty bad – nobody wants cancer. The test is easy – the same simple blood draw that tells you if your cholesterol is too high. And yet governing bodies keep recommending that doctors stop screening for prostate cancer (recent guidelines are nevertheless complicated: ask your doctor if PSA screening is right for you). The bodies cite possibility of “overdiagnosis and overtreatment”, potential false security by missing some cancers, and studies which show no decrease in mortality. Breast cancer screening organizations keep pushing back the age at which they recommend women start getting mammograms, because the costs outweigh the benefits before then.

Doctors never just say “I hear this condition is bad in my field, let’s worry about it with everyone who comes through the door”. They want really good evidence that it’s common enough (and that testing works well enough) that the benefits are worth the risk. Right now for lead, we have no such evidence.

The only study I have ever seen even begin to make the slightest attempt to quantify the role of lead in depression is Bouchard et al. It claims that people in the highest quintile (top 20 percentiles) of lead exposure have twice the depression risk as people in the lowest quintile. Big if true. But I’m skeptical, for several reasons:

1. Lead exposure is heavily linked to poverty – poor people tend to live in the decaying houses and polluted neighborhoods where lead is most common. Poor people are also more likely to get depressed. The study attempted to control for poverty, but this never works. So it’s not clear how much of the lead effect they picked up was really a poverty effect.

2. This is an implausibly large effect size. The amount of environmental lead has plummeted over the past thirty years after the removal of leaded gasoline. Since then, the percent of people with elevated lead levels has decreased by a factor of twenty. Some quick calculations suggest that if this study were right, depression rates should have gone down 66% in the past few years. They haven’t. Compare this to violent crime, which we have better evidence is lead-related and which did decrease by a factor of 2 or 3 over the past few years.

3. I don’t entirely understand what they’re doing with statistics here. In Table 2, every lead quintile has about the same depression rate. It’s only after they apply their model that they find higher-lead people have higher depression. This is sort of a red flag for the kind of thing that might not replicate later on. Nobody else has ever tried to repeat this study and as far as I know it remains the only investigation into the epidemiology of lead and depression.

Aside from this study, we have nothing to guide us. Does lead contribute to 5% of cases of depression? 0.5%? 0.0005%? I’m not sure anyone knows.

If it’s 0.0005%, then we’re talking about people who work in lead mines, or Dumont’s patient who scrapes lead paint off the wall every day. I agree if your patient works in a lead mine and has any problems at all, you should test them for lead poisoning. This is why your doctor asks you what line of work you’re in when you go in for an evaluation. She’s not trying to make small talk – she’s waiting for the one guy who says “I French kiss cockatiels for a living” so she can diagnose him with psittacosis.

I am definitely not going to make every patient take a blood test just so I can catch 0.0005% of people. But should I be more careful in the history here? Specifically ask patients “Do you have any hobbies that put you in contact with lead?”. I’m not sure – right now I have no intuition for whether that’s more or less important than “Do you do anything that might cause zinc deficiency?” or “Do you clean out cat litterboxes?” Usually what I do is I ask broad open-ended questions to start with, and then as the depression proves itself weirder and more treatment-resistant, we gradually go one-by-one down the list of super-rare causes that never happen in real life so I can be sure I’m not missing anything.

What if lead causes more like 5% of depressions? In this case, we’re talking about people with no specific exposure factors. Maybe they just live in an old house, or a bad neighborhood, or got a bad draw in the genetic lottery for whatever systems affect heavy metal removal. So suppose I grudgingly give every patient who comes through the door a blood lead level test. Lots of them come back with lead levels in the top quintile – just like 20% of the general population would. Now what? I say “Your lead level is within the normal range, I have no proof that it’s contributing to your depression at all, but just to be safe you should move to a classier neighborhood”? “Oh, you mean that will cure my depression?” “No, Dr. Dumont didn’t even cure his patient’s depression when he made her stop scraping lead paint off the walls, I’m just saying it probably couldn’t hurt”. I consider it a good day when I can get my patients to take their Lexapro without missing any doses. My ability to get them to move to a nicer neighborhood – most people aren’t living in bad neighborhoods just because they never thought of moving to a better one – is pretty low, especially when I can’t even honestly say I expect it to help that much.

What about chelation therapy, a series of techniques that suck lead out of the body? From Wikipedia: “Chelation therapy must be administered with care as it has a number of possible side effects, including death…various health organizations have confirmed that medical evidence does not support the effectiveness of chelation therapy for any purpose other than the treatment of heavy metal poisoning.” If you chelate everyone who comes through the door with high-average lead levels, there’s no guarantee you will cure any depressions, but you will definitely kill some people.

There’s an old medical maxim: never do any test if you have no plan for acting on the results. What’s my plan for acting on the results of a upper-end-of-normal lead level? I really don’t have one. If it’s an extreme level, the 0.0005% works-in-a-lead-mine type, then I can at least demand the patient find a different line of work. But if I’m just going to be diagnosing 20%+ of the patients who come in the door with upper-end-of-normal lead? Forget it.

I understand Siderea probably isn’t recommending universal blood lead screening. But then I’m having trouble figuring out what she is recommending doctors do differently. Ask everyone some history questions to see if they work in lead mines? We try to do that kind of thing already. Have lead poisoning on the top of our minds and ask a lot of really intense history questions to ferret out any possible exposure? Not clearly privileged above doing that for the thirty other rare causes of depression. Just make sure to talk about lead as a cause of depression in medical school? They already do, it’s right between “Prader-Willi Syndrome as cause of obesity” and “Q fever as cause of pneumonia” in the lecture series entitled Extremely Rare Causes Of Common Symptoms Which Ideally You Can Keep In Mind And Have Dr. House Levels Of Diagnostic Genius, But Let’s Be Honest Here, Realistically Over Half Of You Will Prescribe Antibiotics For Viral Infections.

I’m not saying nobody should worry about lead poisoning and depression. I’m just saying those people shouldn’t be front-line clinicians. Some epidemiologist should absolutely be trying to replicate Bouchard et al’s work on the magnitude of the lead-depression correlation. Some guideline-making body should be coming up with a guideline for when doctors should take lead levels, and what results should prompt what kind of action, even if the guideline is just “never worry about this unless somebody works at a lead mine” (which is plausibly the right answer given the current paucity of data, but I’d feel more comfortable if a guideline-making body said so officially). And public health officials should worry a lot about how to decrease lead on a society-wide level (which they’re already doing, albeit for different reasons), since that’s much higher-yield than some random doctor telling a poor person to move to a different house.

But I am not sure the average clinician needs to think about this too much.

(Maybe Siderea already agrees with me here; I can’t tell.)

There are thirty-plus plausible causes of depression that nobody knows enough about to be sure they’re real, estimate their magnitude, or begin to treat. If you look at any one of them too closely, you will come to the conclusion that every psychiatrist in the country is a quack who’s ignoring the evidence right in front of their eyes and willfully blind to the role of [lead/zinc/toxoplasmosis/inflammation/gut microbiome/etc] in order to keep getting the sweet pharma company cash for prescribing Lexapro. It’s not that we don’t know about these things. It’s that we don’t have an action plan. We don’t have a good feel for when to do the tests, what numbers on the tests mean we should do something, what that thing should be, and whether it should work. So we punt the question to the researchers, who already have a backlog of ten million other things they need to be working on.

This isn’t a great state of affairs. But I only know three ways doctors can deal with it, and none of them are very good.

The first is the one I learned at age 3 from my father teaching me to read out of evidence-based-medicine textbooks. You insist that nothing can be admitted into the medical canon unless it has some guideline-making-body’s stamp of approval, which the guideline-making-body will not give until a bunch of randomized controlled trials have validated every step of the model and shown that the proposed solutions definitely work on a large scale with every demographic of patient. Until then we will keep doing the things that have met that bar – which is basically giving people Lexapro and telling them to diet and exercise. This path assures you a long and prosperous career as a respected member of the medical establishment.

The second is to become Dr. Oz. You fall in love with anything that has an even slightly plausible mechanism and at least one n = 15 study saying it works. I’m not talking about literal homeopathy here. I’m talking about things where if you ask a biologist whether it works, they just sort of shrug and say “well, it should“, and there’s a bunch of respectable research into it. But this is a really low bar, and if it’s the only one you hold yourself to, then you’re going to be the guy telling your patients they need heavy metal tests and vitamin levels and SPECT brain scans and screens for twenty latent infections just because they came in saying they’re tired all the time. This path assures you a lucrative daytime TV show and a side gig selling supplements with your picture on them.

The third is to be a generally respectable doctor with one Big Idea. Like “why aren’t we testing everybody for lead?” or “why don’t we care more about the gut microbiome?”. These people are often really good at what they do, really passionate, and mostly within the mainstream. Sometimes they are impressive researcher-crusader-prophets, they get their Big Idea universally adopted, and then they become the next generation of medical orthodoxy. Other times they’re just annoying clinicians who love saying “I see you aren’t even testing for cortisol levels, clearly you have no interest in going beyond Textbook 101 Level” but can’t really explain why this is better than the twenty-nine other things you might consider doing. This path assures you a long bibliography of successful articles in The Journal Of Medical Hypotheses.

I love everybody in Group 3, they’re all great people. But the thing is, if I were to believe everybody in Group 3, then I would end up as Group 2 – and I don’t have enough time to star on a TV show, so screw that. I think that makes me Group 1 by default, which is good, because otherwise my family would disown me.

“Shouldn’t we be able to use rationality techniques to figure out which of the Group 3 people are right, and move faster than guideline-making bodies“? Well, that’s the dream. But take that route, and you notice you’re wading through ankle-deep skulls. I occasionally flirt with trying this – like every doctor, my practice has a few idiosyncrasies and places where it deviates from the exact textbook solutions. But I would be nervous putting too much trust in my own gut.

This is all context for how to think about questions like “should we test everybody for lead?” or “should we think more about lead?” or “is the psychiatric establishment incompetent for not testing lead more?” The prior on the psychiatric establishment being incompetent is never that low. But the prior on any given alternative being especially fruitful isn’t great either.

[EDIT: The only general medical conditions I consistently find worth worrying about in depression (absent some specific reason to worry about another) are hypothyroidism and sleep apnea. I test a lot of people for anemia and various vitamin deficiencies, because the guidelines say so, but I’ve never found them too helpful. Curious if anyone else in the field has different experiences. I recently had one patient obtain a miraculous and lasting cure of his chronic fatigue using nasal steroids (ie it was apparently caused by nasal inflammation from allergies) but nobody ever talks about that and I’m not sure if it was just a fluke.]

Can Things Be Both Popular And Silenced?

The New York Times recently reported on various anti-PC thinkers as “the intellectual dark web”, sparking various annoying discussion.

The first talking point – that the term is silly – is surely true. So is the second point – that it awkwardly combines careful and important thinkers like Eric Weinstein with awful demagogues like Ben Shapiro. So is the third – that people have been complaining about political correctness for decades, so anything that portrays this as a sudden revolt is ahistorical. There are probably more good points buried within the chaff.

But I want to focus on one of the main arguments that’s been emphasized in pretty much every article: can a movement really claim it’s being silenced if it’s actually pretty popular?

“Silenced” is the term a lot of these articles use, and it’s a good one. “Censored” awkwardly suggests government involvement, which nobody is claiming. “Silenced” just suggests that there’s a lot of social pressure on its members to shut up. But shutting up is of course is the exact opposite of what the people involved are doing – as the Times points out, several IDW members have audiences in the millions, monthly Patreon revenue in the five to six figures, and (with a big enough security detail) regular college speaking engagements.

So, from New Statesman, If The “Intellectual Dark Web” Are Being Silenced, Why Do We Need To Keep Hearing About Them?:

The main problem with the whole profile is that it struggles because of a fundamental inherent contradiction in its premise, which is that this group of renegades has been shunned but are also incredibly popular. Either they are persecuted victims standing outside of society or they are not. Joe Rogan “hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the country”, Ben Shapiro’s podcast “gets 15 million downloads a month”. Sam Harris “estimates that his Waking Up podcast gets one million listeners an episode”. Dave Rubin’s YouTube show has “more than 700,000 subscribers”, Jordan Peterson’s latest book is a bestseller on Amazon […]

On that basis alone, should this piece have been written at all? The marketplace of ideas that these folk are always banging on about is working. They have found their audience, and are not only popular but raking it in via Patreon accounts and book deals and tours to sold-out venues. Why are they not content with that? They are not content with that because they want everybody to listen, and they do not want to be challenged.

In the absence of that, they have made currency of the claim of being silenced, which is why we are in this ludicrous position where several people with columns in mainstream newspapers and publishing deals are going around with a loudhailer, bawling that we are not listening to them.

Reason’s article is better and makes a lot of good points, but it still emphasizes this same question, particularly in their subtitle: “The leading figures of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ are incredibly popular. So why do they still feel so aggrieved?”. From the piece:

They can be found gracing high-profile cable-news shows, magazine opinion pages, and college speaking tours. They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of followers. And yet the ragtag band of academics, journalists, and political pundits that make up the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW)—think of it as an Island of Misfit Ideologues—declare themselves, Trump-like, to be underdogs and outsiders. […]

[I’m not convinced] they’re actually so taboo these days. As Weiss points out, this is a crowd that has built followings on new-media platforms like YouTube and Twitter rather than relying solely on legacy media, academic publishing, and other traditional routes to getting opinions heard. (There isn’t much that’s new about this except the media involved. Conservatives have long been building large audiences using outside-the-elite-media platforms such as talk radio, speaking tours, and blogs.) In doing so, they’ve amassed tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers. What they are saying might not be embraced, or even endured, by legacy media institutions or certain social media precincts, but it’s certainly not out of tune with or heretical to many Americans.

The bottom line is there’s no denying most of these people are very popular. Yet one of the few unifying threads among them is a feeling or posture of being marginalized, too taboo for liberal millennial snowflakes and the folks who cater to them.

The basic argument – that you can’t be both silenced and popular at the same time – sounds plausible. But I want to make a couple points that examine it in more detail.

1. There are lots of other cases where we would agree there’s some form of silencing going on, even as a group has many supporters and rich, famous spokespeople

I know a lot of closeted transgender people. They’re afraid to come out as trans, they talk about trans people being stigmatized and silenced, and they clearly have a point. Does anyone disagree that it can be dangerous to be a trans person even in the First World, let alone anywhere else?

On the other hand, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of every magazine, won Woman Of The Year, got her own documentary and reality TV show, and earns up to $100,000 per public appearance, with a total net worth rumored to be around $100 million. She is probably one of the most famous and popular people in the world.

Only a moron would make an argument like “Caitlyn Jenner is doing very well, therefore there’s not really a stigma around transgender”. For one thing, your success is a function of how many people like you, not your net (likers – haters) total. For another, Hollywood is its own world and probably doesn’t correlate with any particular person’s social sphere. And for another, Jenner is popular partly because of how surprising and controversial her transition was – her story is at least partly a function of “look how brave this person is to defy social stigma this way”.

Transgender people complain of social shaming, silencing, and stigma. Some transgender people can become very famous celebrities who everyone agrees are rich and popular. And nobody finds this at all surprising or thinks that these two claims contradict each other.

(No, Twitter, I’m not making the claim “Sam Harris is exactly as marginalized as transgender people”. I’m saying that even groups who we all agree are more marginalized than the IDW can have very successful and famous spokespeople.)

Or what about the early US labor movement? They were faced with everything from Pinkerton goon squads, to industry blacklists, to constantly getting arrested on trumped-up charges; nobody seriously denies that government and private industry put a lot of effort into silencing them.

Yet they were very popular with their core demographic, and their most charismatic spokespeople remained famous and widely-liked. Emma Goldman would go around the country lecturing to packed halls, collecting far more energy and interest than Sam Harris gets nowadays when he does the same. If the papers of the time had said “Emma Goldman sure is popular for someone who says her movement is being silenced”, well, screw you and your dumb gotchas, that’s just a 100% accurate description of the state of affairs.

2. In fact, taboo opinions seem to promote a culture of celebrity

From Current Affairs:

There are dozens of well-known critics of social justice activists: Harris, Shapiro, Peterson, Brooks, Stephens, Hoff Sommers, Weinstein, Weinstein, Murray, Murray, Rogan, Chait, Haidt, Pinker, Rubin, Sullivan, Weiss, Williamson, Yiannopoulos, Dreger, Hirsi Ali. Who are their equivalents among the Social Justice Types? Who has their reach or prominence?

A few people have tried to answer the question – and certainly a few names like Ta-Nehisi Coates belong in any such list. But I think the overall point is basically correct. If so, what does that mean?

Consider this: how many neo-Nazi/white supremacist activists are famous enough that the average news junkie would know their names? Maybe two: David Duke and Richard Spencer. Okay. How many low-tax activists are equally famous? I think just one: Grover Norquist. There are some important people who happen to support low taxes among many other causes (eg Paul Ryan) but they don’t count – if they did, our list of famous “social justice types” would have to include Hillary Clinton and a hundred others.

Presumably we shouldn’t conclude that neo-Nazism is twice as common/popular/acceptable as tax cuts. But that means you can’t always measure how popular an ideology is by counting its famous advocates.

I’d go further and say that more taboo ideas are more likely to generate famous spokespeople. If you can’t think of any modern feminists with star power, you can always go back to the 1970s and find people like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin – who made waves by being at least as outrageous then as the IDW is now. If Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t famous enough for you, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X certainly will be. Malcolm X didn’t get more famous than Ta-Nehisi Coates by being more well-liked, he got famous by being as controversial and threatening and feared as Coates is accepted. So the implication of the Current Affairs article – we mostly hear about well-liked people, and really controversial people never get famous – seems questionable at best and backwards at worse.

But why would more taboo causes generate more celebrity? Here are some ways I think this could work:

1. Controversy sells in general. Caitlyn Jenner is more famous than Bruce Jenner not because transgender is less stigmatized than running, but because it’s more likely to provoke debate.

2. All else being equal, if an ideology is taboo, it should have fewer loud open activists per covert believer than an orthodox ideology. But that means the field is less crowded. If feminism has 1 loud activist per 10 believers, and the IDW has 1 loud activist per 1000 believers, then the feminist activist will generally be speaking to a college club, and the IDW activist to a crowded lecture hall. This will catapult the IDW activists to greater celebrity.

3. Activists for taboo views need a skill that activists for orthodox views don’t – that of surfing controversy. The insult “edgelord” is basically correct – they thrive by being on the edge of what is acceptable. If you go completely beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, you fall from grace – either into literal ruin, or just having your fan base shift entirely to being weird alt-right people whom you hate and don’t want to be associated with. Only people who can continually surf that boundary – edgy enough to be interesting, restrained enough to get the New York Times to write basically positive editorials about you – are really able to make it. Most people correctly assume they would screw up and end up totally taboo rather than delightfully edgy. Once again, this makes the field less crowded, giving everyone who comes in more star power per person.

4. Orthodox ideologies tend to be well-represented within institutions, meaning that the ideologies’ leaders are more likely to be institutionally prestigious people. Taboo views are unrepresented within institutions, meaning their spokespeople kind of just arise naturally by being really good at getting attention and acclaim. The natural “leaders of feminism” might be Women’s Studies professors, Planned Parenthood directors, and whoever the most feminist person at the New York Times is. These people might be very good at what they do, they might even be very effective at promoting feminism, but they’re probably less good at getting attention than people who have been specifically selected for that trait. And with the institutional leaders sucking up all the status, it might be harder for some woman who’s just a very good writer and really in-touch with the zeitgeist to say “Yes, I am the leader of feminism, everyone please care about me now”.

5. Generic famous people will support orthodox causes, but not taboo causes. The absence of people famous for feminism is counterbalanced by a glut of famous people who happen to be feminists. Here is a list of actors who say they are proud to call themselves feminist, also just known as “a list of actors”. Famous people who are against feminism are more likely to keep quiet about it, creating a void for specific anti-feminist celebrities can fill.

6. Celebrity helps launder taboo ideology. If you believe Muslim immigration is threatening, you might not be willing to say that aloud – especially if you’re an ordinary person who often trips on their tongue, and the precise words you use are the difference between “mainstream conservative belief” and “evil bigot who must be fired immediately”. Saying “I am really into Sam Harris” both leaves a lot of ambiguity, and lets you outsource the not-saying-the-wrong-word-and-getting-fired work to a professional who’s good at it. In contrast, if your belief is orthodox and you expect it to win you social approval, you want to be as direct as possible.

I don’t know if these six points really explain the phenomenon. But I think there’s definitely a phenomenon to be explained, and I think “crowded field” is a big part of it. In my own experience, my blog posts promoting orthodox opinions are generally ignored; my blog posts promoting controversial opinions go viral and win me lots of praise. I assume this is because my orthodox blog posts are trying to outcompete the people at Vox (highly-polished, Ivy-League-educated mutants grown in vats by a DARPA project to engineer the perfect thinkpiece writer), and my controversial blog posts are trying to outcompete three randos with blogs that consistently confuse “there” and “their”. Winning one competition is much easier than winning the other – and the prize for winning either is “the attention of about 50% of the population”.

3. Fame lets people avoid social repercussions, but that doesn’t mean those repercussions don’t exist for ordinary people

Caitlyn Jenner can be as visibly and fabulously transgender as she wants, because being transgender is a big part of her job. She’s organized a lot of her life around being a transgender person. Any friends she was going to lose for being transgender have already been written off as losses. Anybody who wants to harm her for being transgender is going to get stopped by her bodyguards or kept out of her giant gated mansion. When she argues that transgender people face a lot of stigma, fear, and discrimination, she mostly isn’t talking about herself. She’s talking about every transgender person who isn’t Caitlyn Jenner.

Likewise, Sam Harris is pretty invincible. As a professional edgelord, he is not going to lose his job for being edgy. Whatever friends he’s going to lose for being Sam Harris, he’s already written off as losses. I assume he has some kind of security or at least chooses not to live in Berkeley. So when he’s talking about his ideas being taboo, he means taboo for everybody who isn’t Sam Harris.

I worry that this conversation is being conducted mostly by media personalities who write controversial takes for a living. They work for ideologically-aligned publications, and everyone knows that a few crazies hating and harassing you is a common part of the job. If you didn’t propose the death penalty for abortion and then get a job at The Atlantic, you’ll probably be fine.

Out in the rest of the world, if a rando on social media calls your company and tells them you’re a Nazi because [out of context tweet], the complaint is going straight to a humorless 60-year-old HR drone whose job is minimizing the risk of PR blowups, and who has never heard of Twitter except as a vague legend of a place where everything is terrible all the time. So if you write for a webzine, consider that you may have no idea how silenced or living-in-fear anyone else is or isn’t, and that you may be the wrong person to speculate about it.

Out in the rest of the world, if someone sends you a death threat, you might not be such an experienced consumer of Internet vitriol that you know it usually doesn’t pan out. You might not be so thick-skinned that “Go to hell, you fucking Nazi scum” no longer has any effect on you. You might not live in an bubble of intellectualism where people appreciate subtle positions. You might have friends and family who are very nice people but somewhat literal-minded, who have heard that only rapists oppose feminism so many times that they have no ability to create a mental category for someone who opposes feminism but isn’t pro-rape. And you might not really relish the idea of having to have a conversation with your sweet elderly great-aunt about how no, you really don’t think raping people is good. Seriously, imagine having to explain any of what you write on the Internet to your sweet elderly great-aunt, and now imagine it’s something that society has spent years telling her is equivalent to rape apologism.

(my father recently implied I had brought dishonor upon our family by getting quoted approvingly in National Review. I am 90% sure he was joking, but only 90%.)

Or maybe I’m wrong about this. Part of how silencing works is that nobody really knows how strong it is or isn’t. I had a patient who agonized for years over whether to come out to his family, only to have his parents say “Yes, obviously” when he finally got up the nerve. The point, is Sam Harris no longer has to worry about any of these things. So if your line of reasoning is “well, Sam Harris seems to do pretty well for himself, so I guess you can’t get in trouble for being controversial”, I don’t know what to tell you.

4. If you spend decades inventing a powerful decentralized network to allow unpopular voices to be heard, sometimes you end up with unpopular voices being heard

Sam Harris’ business model is a podcast with a Patreon, advertised by Internet word-of-mouth. This is pretty typical for the “intellectual dark web” figures.

The Internet promised to take power away from media gatekeepers and make censorship near-impossible. In discussing the many ways in which this promise has admittedly failed, we tend to overlook the degree to which it’s succeeded. One of the most common historical tropes is “local government and/or lynch mob destroys marginalized group’s printing press to prevent them from spreading their ideas”. The Internet has since made people basically uncensorable, not for lack of trying. More recently, crowdfunding has added the final part to this machine – semi-decentralized cash flow.

So, after hundreds of engineers and activists and entrepreneurs work for decades to create a new near-impossible-to-censor system, and some people who would never have gotten heard on any other channel are able to use it to get heard – well, it’s pretty weird to turn around and say “Aha, you got popular, that proves nobody is trying to silence you!”

I think this also explains why, even though people have been talking about these issues forever, it’s only becoming a “big deal” now. Before, people would either watch their mouths to avoid getting kicked out by major gatekeeper institutions – or they would go to explicitly right-coded spaces like talk radio where the gatekeepers already agreed with them.

What’s new is that there’s a third route in between “tame enough to be on CNN” and “conservative enough to be a guest on Rush Limbaugh”. The new brand of IDW thinkers are interesting precisely because – excluding Ben Shapiro (always a good life choice) – they’re not traditional conservatives. The thing that’s new and exciting enough to get New York Times articles written about it is that the anti-PC movement has spread to friendly coastal liberals. From the Democrats’ perspective, the IDW aren’t infidels, they’re heretics.

5. When the IDW claims they are threatened, harassed, and blacklisted, people should at least consider that they are referring to the actual well-known incidents of threats, harassment, and blacklisting against them rather than imagining this is code for “they demand to be universally liked”

Here are some of the stories in Weiss’ original IDW editorial:

A year ago, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were respected tenured professors at Evergreen State College, where their Occupy Wall Street-sympathetic politics were well in tune with the school’s progressive ethos. Today they have left their jobs, lost many of their friends and endangered their reputations. All this because they opposed a “Day of Absence,” in which white students were asked to leave campus for the day. For questioning a day of racial segregation cloaked in progressivism, the pair was smeared as racist. Following threats, they left town for a time with their children and ultimately resigned their jobs.

And:

Mr. Peterson has endured no small amount of online hatred and some real-life physical threats: In March, during a lecture at Queen’s University in Ontario, a woman showed up with a garrote.

And:

Dr. Soh said that she started “waking up” in the last two years of her doctorate program. “It was clear that the environment was inhospitable to conducting research,” she said. “If you produce findings that the public doesn’t like, you can lose your job.”

When she wrote an op-ed in 2015 titled “Why Transgender Kids Should Wait to Transition,” citing research that found that a majority of gender dysphoric children outgrow their dysphoria, she said her colleagues warned her, “Even if you stay in academia and express this view, tenure won’t protect you.”

And:

The University of California, Berkeley, had to spend $600,000 on security for Mr. Shapiro’s speech there.

So. Threats against a professor and his family forcing him to leave town. Another professor told that she would lose her job if she communicated research to the public. A guy needing $600,000 worth of security just to be able to give a speech without getting mobbed. Someone showing up to a lecture with a garrote. And Reason Magazine reads all this and thinks “I know what’s going on! These people’s only possible complaint is that they feel entitled to have everyone agree with them!”

Maybe I’m being mean here? But how else do I interpet paragraphs like this one?

The supposed ostracism they suffer because of their views ultimately comes down to a complaint not about censorship or exclusion but being attacked, challenged, or denied very particular opportunities. They want to say the things they are saying and have the marketplace of ideas and attention not only reward them with followers and freelance writing gigs but universal acceptance from those that matter in the academy and chattering classes.

I am nowhere near these people either in fame or controversialness, but I have gotten enough threats and harassment both to be pretty sure that these people are telling the truth, and to expect that the stuff that fits in one article is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

(Do other groups face similar pressures? Absolutely. Would people who wrote similar articles using those groups’ complaints to make fun of them also be antisocial? Absolutely.)

On a related note, what does the article mean by contrasting “excluded” vs. “denied very particular opportunities”? I understand the meaning of the words, but I am not sure the people writing about them have a principled distinction in mind. When Debra Soh faced pressure to quit academia, was she being “excluded” or “denied a very particular opportunity”? Would the 1950s version of Reason describe communist sympathizers as being “excluded”, or as “denied very particular opportunities” in the film industry? If, as the surveys suggest, 20% of philosophers would refuse to hire transgender professors to their department, are transgender people facing “exclusion”, or just being “denied very particular opportunities”?

[My position – if you decide not to hire someone based on any characteristic not related to job performance (very broadly defined, including things like company fit and fun to work with), you’re trying to exclude people. If you make up a really strained dumb argument for why some characteristic relates to job performance when it obviously doesn’t (“communist actors could try to hold a revolution on the set, thus making our other employees feel unsafe”), then you’re trying to exclude people and lying about it. You can say, as many throughout history have “I’m proud to be part of the effort to fight the Communist menace by denying them positions of influence”, and then you get points for honesty and (if the Communists were really as menacing as you thought) maybe utilitarianism points as well. But don’t say “What? Me exclude Communists? We’re just denying them very particular opportunities! Sure are a whiny bunch, those commies!” See also Is It Possible To Have Coherent Principles Around Free Speech Norms?]

6. The IDW probably still censor themselves

Another common point in this discussion has been that the IDW copies the worst parts of social justice – intense focus on the latest outrage, shoddy science, its own set of insults (“snowflake! triggered millennial!”), us-vs-them dichotomy, et cetera. And Despite Their Supposed Interest In Rational Discussion Actually They Are Very Bad At Supporting Their Points Rationally.

Here’s a site that hasn’t been in any “intellectual dark web” editorials and never will be: Human Varieties. You can Google it if you want, but I won’t direct-link them for the same way I wouldn’t build a giant superhighway to some remote forest village enjoying its peaceful isolation. Here’s an excerpt from a typical Human Varieties article:

I did look through the PING survey (age 3-21, N ~ 1,500) – which might not be very informative owing to the age structure. Going by this, Greg [Cochran] seems to be more or less correct about some of the endo[phenotypic] differences and probably about their origins. As an example, Figure 1 & 2 show the [black/white] diff[erences] for intracranial and total brain volume by age. ([African-Americans] are picked out for illustration since they are the largest non-White ethnic group, showing the biggest deviation from Whites.) And Figure 3 shows the relation between brain volume and ancestry in the self-identified [African-American] group; the results were basically the same for intracranial volume, etc. — and so not shown.

Read Human Varieties for a while, and you notice a few things:

1. They’re much more taboo and openly racist (in the Charles Murray sense) than almost anyone in the “intellectual dark web”
2. They are much less annoying and less likely to shout “TRIGGERED! SNOWFLAKE!” than almost anyone in the “intellectual dark web”
3. Nobody pays any attention to them at all

I think all three of these are correlated.

If you want to be Human Varieties, you can talk about the evidence for and against various taboo subjects. But nobody wants to be them, for two reasons.

First, somebody is going to have to present the evidence for the taboo subject, not just in an edgy “what if…perhaps this should not be suppressed?? or did i blow your mind??” way, but in a “here’s exactly what I believe and why I believe it” way. This isn’t just Sam Harris level edgy, this is way off the edge into the void below.

Second, if you do even a moderately good job, it’s probably going to sound exactly like the quote above, stuff like “this survey of intracranial volume endophenotypes might not be very informative, owing to the age structure” – and everyone will fall asleep by minute two. People will do lots of things to own the libs, but reading an analysis of the age structure of endophenotype data probably isn’t one of them.

“TRIGGERED! SNOWFLAKE!” solves both these problems. You avoid the object-level debate about whether taboo subjects are true, and it’s automatically interesting to a wide range of people. “That other monkey has status that should be my status!” – nobody ever went broke peddling that.

I think this model knocks down a few reasonable-sounding but on-reflection-wrong critiques of the way these issues are discussed:

“The IDW demands rational debate, but they never engage in it”. Somewhat true. If they engaged in it, they would move beyond the bounds of acceptable edginess. “We wish we were allowed to talk about X without massive risk to our reputations and safety” and “We are definitely not going to talk about X right now” are hardly contradictory; they follow naturally from each other. And I think this is more subtle than people expect – somebody may feel they can get away with making some arguments but not others, giving them the appearance of a skeletal but flimsy ideology that falls down on close examination. Or people might be willing to talk about these issues in some low-exposure spaces but not other higher-exposure spaces, giving them the appearance of backing down once challenged.

“The IDW focuses too much on triggered snowflakes.” Somewhat true – even independent of this being popular and lucrative. This is the least taboo thing you can do while still getting a reputation for being edgy. And winning the free speech wars makes it easier to talk about other stuff.

“The IDW says they’re being silenced, but actually they’re popular”. Somewhat true, even independent of all the arguments above. The things they complain about not being able to say, aren’t the things they’re saying.

7. Nobody in this discussion seems to really understand how silencing works.

If you say “We know a movement isn’t being silenced because it’s got lots of supporters, is widely discussed, and has popular leaders” – then you’re mixing up the numerator and the denominator.

Gandhi’s Indian independence movement had lots of supporters, was widely discussed, and had popular leaders. So did a half dozen Irish revolts against British rule. And the early US labor movement. And Eastern Bloc countries’ resistance to Soviet domination. And Aung San Suu Kyi. And every medieval peasants’ revolt ever. And…well, every other movement that’s been suppressed. Really, what sort of moron wastes their time suppressing a leaderless movement that nobody believes in or cares about?

Popular support and frequent discussion go in the numerator when you’re calculating silencing. Silencing is when even though a movement has lots of supporters, none of them will admit to it publicly under their real name. Even though a movement is widely discussed, its ideas never penetrate to anywhere they might actually have power. Even though it has charismatic leaders, they have to resort to low-prestige decentralized people-power to get their message across, while their opponents preach against them from the airwaves and pulpits and universities.

Scott Aaronson writes about the game theoretic idea of “common knowledge” as it applies to society:

If you read accounts of Nazi Germany, or the USSR, or North Korea or other despotic regimes today, you can easily be overwhelmed by this sense of, “so why didn’t all the sane people just rise up and overthrow the totalitarian monsters? Surely there were more sane people than crazy, evil ones. And probably the sane people even knew, from experience, that many of their neighbors were sane—so why this cowardice?” Once again, it could be argued that common knowledge is the key. Even if everyone knows the emperor is naked; indeed, even if everyone knows everyone knows he’s naked, still, if it’s not common knowledge, then anyone who says the emperor’s naked is knowingly assuming a massive personal risk. That’s why, in the story, it took a child to shift the equilibrium. Likewise, even if you know that 90% of the populace will join your democratic revolt provided they themselves know 90% will join it, if you can’t make your revolt’s popularity common knowledge, everyone will be stuck second-guessing each other, worried that if they revolt they’ll be an easily-crushed minority. And because of that very worry, they’ll be correct!

(My favorite Soviet joke involves a man standing in the Moscow train station, handing out leaflets to everyone who passes by. Eventually, of course, the KGB arrests him—but they discover to their surprise that the leaflets are just blank pieces of paper. “What’s the meaning of this?” they demand. “What is there to write?” replies the man. “It’s so obvious!” Note that this is precisely a situation where the man is trying to make common knowledge something he assumes his “readers” already know.)

The kicker is that, to prevent something from becoming common knowledge, all you need to do is censor the common-knowledge-producing mechanisms: the press, the Internet, public meetings. This nicely explains why despots throughout history have been so obsessed with controlling the press, and also explains how it’s possible for 10% of a population to murder and enslave the other 90% (as has happened again and again in our species’ sorry history), even though the 90% could easily overwhelm the 10% by acting in concert. Finally, it explains why believers in the Enlightenment project tend to be such fanatical absolutists about free speech.

One can take this further:

Bostrom makes an offhanded reference of the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced. So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on.

Suppose in the dictatorless dystopia, one guy becomes immortal for some reason. He goes around saying “Maybe we shouldn’t all shock ourselves all the time.” Everyone tries to kill him and fails. But if anybody else starts agreeing with him – “Yeah, that guy has a point!” – then everybody kills that other guy.

The don’t-shock-ists have 100% popular support. And they have charismatic leaders who get their points out well. But they’re still being silenced, and they’re still the losing side. Social censorship isn’t about your support or your leaders. It’s about creating systems of common knowledge that favor your side and handicap your opponents. Censorship = support / common knowledge of support.

Bret Weinstein said of his conflicts with Evergreen State: “I’ve received…quite a bit of support privately from within the college. Publicly, only one other professor has come forward to say he supports my position.” Freddie deBoer writes about how his own conflicts with callout culture have ended the same way: an outpouring of private emails voicing agreement, plus an outpouring of public comments voicing hostility, sometimes from the same people privately admitting they agree with him

This provides context for interpreting the Reason article’s last paragraph:

They want not so much any particular policy platform, political idea, or candidate to catch on as for more people to acknowledge that they are right. And that will always be a proposition that winds up making one feel aggrieved, because it’s an impossible one. To the extent that they are spouting marginalized or unpopular ideas, the only way to spread these into the mainstream is to put in the hard work of winning people over.

This is the equivalent of going to communist Czechoslovakia and thinking “Look at all those greengrocers with communist slogans in their shop windows! Clearly communists have won the war of ideas, and anti-communists are just too aggrieved to do the hard work of convincing people”. The other interpretation is that lots of people are already convinced and afraid to say so, and that convincing more people is less productive than building common knowledge of everyone’s convictions (maybe you should hand out blank leaflets). I’m not saying convincing people isn’t good and necessary, just that assessing how convinced people are is harder than it looks.

Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said “Probably for the same reason I did”.

This is the denominator of silencing in a nutshell. I think it’s a heck of a lot more relevant to this discussion than how many Patreon followers Sam Harris has, and I’m happy there are people speaking out against it and trying to make common knowledge a little bit more common.