Liberalism and Charity

People should, as a starting point and first approximation, pursue their self-interest. And society should be set up to give people the freedom to control their own lives, so that they can. People are in the best position to know what they value and how to get it. They are in the best position to help themselves. And if they pursue their self-interest fully correctly, there will be no conflicts with others who are also acting correctly.

It’s much more reasonable if, as a starting point, everyone looks after and takes care of himself. If each person instead took care of his neighbor, it’d be chaotic, uneven and (accidentally) unfair, kinda random who gets taken care of how much, and broadly less efficient. It’d be hard to plan your life and future actions because you wouldn’t have much control over what resources you’d have in the future. And there’d be constant fights, resentments and suspicious that someone put some of his effort into his own self-interest and thereby got a larger share of help for himself, and there’d be fights about the distribution of help to others – some popular people would have thousands who want to help them, while some unpopular people would have no one.

People aren’t omniscient. They make mistakes, live in a society with flawed incentives and memes, etc. So just doing what you think is in your self-interest doesn’t always work well. The first check you should do is: do you think it’s in your self interest to initiate force? If so, seriously fucking reconsider and study up about the harmony of mens’ interests, the advantages of peaceful cooperation, how the claim that capitalism exploits the workers is false, etc. But if the thing you think is in your self interest won’t hurt anyone else or break laws, then you’re only risking yourself and your property, so just put thought into it relative to the importance, irreversibility and risks.

Do not consider the good of others as your starting point. If you do that, you will end up sacrificing yourself in some ways because you aren’t omniscient and significant attention to self-interest is required to do a good job of promoting your self-interest. Instead, start with self-interest and then consider the good of others secondarily. Any time your beliefs about your self-interest appear to clash with the good or self-interest of others, that’s an indication you have a misconception about your or their interests (because if there are no misconceptions then, in a free society, there’s a harmony of men’s interests). So try to understand where the apparent conflict of interests is coming from, and consider some adjustments – maybe there is a way to act which is better for others and a way to make that work for yourself too. Or a way to do almost the same thing but with a slight adjustment to avoid it bothering others. Your number one criterion to keep in mind is: do not sacrifice yourself. If you do, you’re betraying yourself and your life, and harming your ability to help yourself or others in the future. Such sacrifices ruin lives while also broadly reducing the total overall problem solving power of the world (especially effectiveness to act in reality, due to wealth and knowledge). You need to be happy and have your own house in order, and only spare things for others when it’s cheap and easy, not when it’s hard and difficult and significantly impacts your own progress. This is not the attitude expressed by Effective Altruism and others.

Charity should be and is a small fraction of the total economy. Charity is less economically productive, so having a mostly-charity economy would mean there’s a lot less total wealth. It’s better to have a bigger pie (economy, wealth), which is growing (a large amount of effort goes to efficient, productive activities to grow the economy and create more wealth), and which has a reasonably small fraction being used in other ways. A mostly-charity oriented economy would mean a smaller pie with less growth of the pie. Charity is generally short term focused, plus anything productive can be done at a profit so charity is unnecessary (it can still be done in a charitable way, but there’s no need to; I’d advise against doing things that could be done profitably, while passing on the profit, on a big scale, as a large part of the economy).

The more of money flows are related to productivity and profit, the more signal there is about the values and preferences of consumers. The more economic planning there is to decide how wealth is used. Charity is inferior at economic planning because it isn’t able to use the price system, and the profit and loss system, as well as normal commerce.

Humanity makes progress, overall, because people try to use lesser amounts of wealth (as measured in money prices, which are by far the best way to measure the value of some wealth in almost all cases) in pursuit of greater amounts of wealth, but not vice versa. And because some people save wealth – which means accumulating capital, which can be used to raise the productivity of labor (thus beginning a virtuous cycle in which the more productive labor creates wealth at a higher rate, allowing for even more saving, allowing for even more productivity increases. Note that scientific research is one of the ways that accumulated wealth gets turned into higher productivity of labor, it’s not just about building factories and tools.). Charity deviates from this system, largely in order to help with short term problems (because in the long term this system creates the best overall situation, the most wealth, the biggest pie, and so is best for everyone). It’s fine to spend a little on charity to help people who fall through the cracks (though there’s a lot of pressure to be more charitable to some of the worst people, not just to help a few good people who got unlucky, nor to help some great people who find that, as a (positive) outlier, they don’t fit into society quite right, so they have some difficulties.) But charity shouldn’t be a major priority, it’s not how things get better in the future. What makes things better in the future is, broadly, when people pursue their own self-interest efficiently (which generally includes valuing their own future, and the future of their children, and even, sure, humanity’s future – most people need not and do not narrowly value only themselves right now). If everyone keeps making their lives better, and interacts with others only for mutual benefit, then things will keep getting better. It’s dangerous when there are interactions without mutual benefit – then there’s the potential for loss, sacrifice, force, hatred, lying, war.

So, in broad strokes, I think charity should be under 10% of the overall economy. Maybe under 1%, but it depends how you count economy size. For each piece of consumer spending, there are many business-to-business transactions that go into that production. GDP or total consumer spending are poor measures of economy size.

These thoughts are related to this discussion.

Thank you Ludwig von Mises (books), Ayn Rand (books), and David Deutsch (discussions) for helping me understand these things.

See also my first comment below.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (104)

Sam Harris vs. Capitalism

Sam Harris wrote an article against economic freedom. Every sentence is nasty. I reply to a few:

How Rich is Too Rich?

The title is a leading question. It's asking for an answer like 3 million, 50 million, or a billion dollars. It's assuming there is an amount of wealth that's too rich, and the issue is just to decide where the line is. But that premise is incorrect. There is no "too rich". Wealth is a good thing. More wealth isn't bad.

Also, in our culture, the title will be understood to refer to individual wealth and maybe company wealth but not government wealth, university wealth or non-profit foundation wealth.

[Hearst Castle Photo, at the top]

The uncaptioned photo is misleading. The article opens by talking about wealth inequality and rich individuals. But that's a photo of a government owned tourist attraction, not a private residence. It's not a picture of wealth inequality.

I’ve written before about the crisis of inequality in the United States and about the quasi-religious abhorrence of “wealth redistribution” that causes many Americans to oppose tax increases, even on the ultra rich.

Ludwig von Mises and many other economists and political philosophers have written arguments against wealth redistribution and related concepts like socialism, statism, interventionism, initiating force, central planning, and the erosion of property rights. Rather than address these arguments, Harris just incorrectly implies they're a matter of religious faith.

The conviction that taxation is intrinsically evil has achieved a sadomasochistic fervor in conservative circles—producing the Tea Party, their Republican zombies, and increasingly terrifying failures of governance.

"intrinsically evil" is a straw man. "sadomasochistic fervor" is an insult. "Tea Party" is brought up negatively, without specifying anything negative about it. "Republican zombies" is an insult. The assertion that failures of governance are due to taxes being too low is false and unargued. The intensifier "increasingly terrifying" is aggressive, emotional rhetoric, without facts or reasoning provided.

We've now made it through the first paragraph of the article. I'll speed up for the rest.

Of course, this is just an economic cartoon.

After more insults and straw men, but no economic arguments, Harris declares that people who disagree with him are cartoon idiots. He follows up with wild uncited assertions. E.g. he thinks capitalism is at fault for the 2008 financial crisis, but he doesn't engage with the many books explaining why that's incorrect.

If you are an economist and believe that you have detected any erroneous assumptions above, please write to me here.

As I write this, the linked contact form doesn't exist. Also, this is dishonest because many economists have published detailed explanations of why the things Harris is saying are false. He's just ignoring them as if they don't exist, rather than trying to respond to any.

The federal government should levy a one-time wealth tax (perhaps 10 percent for estates above $10 million, rising to 50 percent for estates above $1 billion) and use these assets to fund an infrastructure bank.

This is a proposal for using physical force on a huge scale. Harris wants to forcibly take "a few trillion dollars" for projects he considers wise, including environmentalism. He doesn't understand liberal ideas like the advantages of dealing with people on a voluntary basis, using persuasion instead of force, or only interacting in a win/win way (when all parties think they're better off by proceeding).

Also, I don't think Harris thought through the practical details of his plan. Why does he think most or all multi-billionaires have ~50% or more of their wealth in liquid assets? And what happens if they don't? They have to take huge losses selling off non-liquid assets?

And stocks won't be liquid enough in the context of all the rich people trying to unload a bunch of stocks. The market would crash.

Consider if e.g. Jeff Bezos had to dramatically reduce the amount of wealth he has invested in Amazon. Here's four basic possibilities:

  1. Bezos finds new investors to replace him. This would basically be impossible when all the other rich people are also trying to come up with cash to pay a huge tax.
  2. Bezos sells the stock at a huge loss and is unable to pay the government half of what his net worth on paper used to be. He's pointlessly ruined.
  3. Amazon buys the stock back from Bezos (at near full price) and operates with much less capital than it had before. A tax intended to take money from rich individuals ends up hurting businesses.
  4. The government accepts non-cash assets as tax payments. Bezos simply hands over a large portion of his ownership of Amazon to the government. And if the government wanted to sell this stock so it could do the projects Harris wants, it'd face the same difficulties that Bezos did.

Contrary to many readers’ assumptions, I am not recommending that the federal government confiscate productive capital from the rich to subsidize the shiftlessness of people who do not want to work.

But he is advocating that the federal government confiscate productive capital from the rich. It's just for a different intended purpose.

to the eye of this non-economist, it seems obvious

Why doesn't he try reading some economics books to find out about what he's missing? The answers seem obvious because he's arrogant, despite knowing he's ignorant of the field.

Yes, I share everyone’s fear that our government, riven by political partisanship and special interests, is often incapable of spending money wisely. But that doesn’t mean a structure couldn’t be put in place to prevent poor uses of these funds.

Harris doesn't propose any structure that would prevent poor use of the funds, nor does he acknowledge that this is a hard problem which people have been trying to solve for centuries without much success. Putting in place a structure to make government more effective is not a new idea, but Harris treats it like an answer even though he apparently hasn't thought of a structure that would work (nor can Harris point to a structure that would work that anyone else has thought of).

The article is hateful throughout, advocates massive use of force (taking trillions of dollars from its owners who give up their property rights only because they don't want to be shot, jailed, or similar) and doesn't even try to engage with the economics literature or even a fair version of what Republicans think. Harris wrote a bunch of biased insults against large groups of mainstream Americans, but didn't contribute a single topical, relevant argument to the current debate about wealth inequality.

Harris also wrote a followup article unreasonably claiming that what his critics objected to was "suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires". He then contradicted that by admitting, "Many readers were enraged that I could support taxation in any form." But what about how Harris insulted all Republicans as zombies? And the overall message was his hatred for all people who favor liberal ideas like economic freedom, peace, or property rights?

Related Post: Criticism of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape

Criticism of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape

Commentary on The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris.

... How could we ever say, as a matter of scientific fact, that one way of life is better, or more moral, than another? ...

I will argue, however, that questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

This is incorrect because well-being is itself value-dependent: what a person values affects which physical states constitute good/high well-being for that person. Studying these scientific facts – just like studying economics – helps people figure out what to value by helping inform them about the consequences of various choices and actions, but it can't directly tell them what to value or what goals to have in life. That requires moral philosophy. Omitting moral philosophy leaves no way to connect facts with values.

One plan could be to claim moral philosophy as a part of science (because the laws of physics determine the laws of computation which determine the laws of epistemology and the foundations of moral philosophy may be from epistemology). But that's not what Harris is saying. He thinks he can directly connect facts to values.

Also, even if something can be studied scientifically via a lengthy chain of relevancies, that doesn't mean that's the best way to study it. Science and reason aren't equivalents, one can do rational thinking outside of science. For moral philosophy, you'll learn more if you think about it rationally and directly than if you try to figure it out via the scientific study of physics (which would be a reductionist approach).

Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia;

Harris doesn't understand schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is not a disease like cancer or cholera, for it's a social judgment that cannot be detected at autopsy or by other scientific methods.

Either it's intentional, off-topic activism, or Harris is so ignorant of the issue that he chose this example while trying to choose an uncontroversial example. Both of those possibilities are bad.

And if there are important cultural differences in how people flourish—if, for instance, there are incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children—these differences are also facts that must depend upon the organization of the human brain.

This misses the point. There are cultural differences in how people judge flourishing, in which life outcomes they value.

Also, lots of cultural differences are due to context, not value differences nor brain differences. E.g. there is more flourishing-via-camel-breeding in areas where camels live, and kids riding on camels is a larger part of good parenting in those areas.

In principle, therefore, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the context of neuroscience and psychology.

But the presence of camels in the area affects culture – and how many people it defines as camel breeders – but isn't neuroscience or psychology.

While the argument I make in this book is bound to be controversial, it rests on a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain.

That's literally true because the states of the human brain include value judgments, too, not just the kinds of things mentioned above like being happy or having a retributive impulse. But that doesn't mean that studying brains is the best way to learn about moral philosophy, just because there's a connection doesn't mean one should take the indirect route. It's good to be aware the indirect route exists because it may be relevant to some arguments, but there's nothing wrong with the direct route (I think Harris believes there is something wrong with doing moral philosophy directly, which is why he prefers this more indirect way of trying to approach moral issues.)

Earlier I quoted Harris:

Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

Did he really mean something more like the following?

Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood because all human ideas, including about values, are information which is recorded in the brain (in the same way that computers store information on disks), so the brain is a physical medium containing information about human values – just like a book on moral philosophy is also a physical medium containing information about physical values (which therefore, being physical, can be studied by science).

I don't think he meant that. Studying the human brain because it physically contains information about values – just like a book – doesn't appear to be the project Harris has in mind. So I think we disagree. I think Harris is incorrectly trying to claim his value judgments about certain emotions and psychology states as a part of science, not saying that value judgments are recorded as physical information in brains (which is also true of books, which I think he views differently than brains).

A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.

I think it's disgusting and revealing that Harris wants to use the authority of science to "force" people to think in certain ways, rather than to persuade them to.

There are, for instance, twenty-one U.S. states that still allow corporal punishment in their schools. These are places where it is actually legal for a teacher to beat a child with a wooden board hard enough to raise large bruises and even to break the skin.

This is factually false (in 2010 when the book came out). The part I object to is about raising large bruises and even breaking the skin. Some of the 21 states referred to do not legally allow that. Here's an example of contradicting information, from Time:

In Texas, corporal punishment becomes child abuse when it “results in substantial harm to a child.” As a practical matter in Texas, that means a physical injury that leaves a mark, like bleeding and bruising...

... In Maine, for instance, corporal punishment is lawful if it results “in no more than transient discomfort or minor temporary marks.” Georgia simply forbids any “physical injury,” but here again, what that means is largely at the discretion of judges and prosecutors.

What is Harris doing by including factually false information in his book? What's going on? One of this themes is scientific rigor (which he's bad at in his own scientific papers), but he's not being rigorous in his claims. Either research corporal punishment adequately or don't write about it.

In fact, all the research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology—and, perversely, to greater support for corporal punishment.[4]

As much as I despise corporal punishment, I don't trust Harris' claim about the state of scientific research. So I checked the cite and it's just one long paper which criticizes corporal punishment in US schools. That can't be adequate for Harris' claim about "all" the research because it's not a survey of every piece of research in the field. It's not a survey at all, and doesn't tell us what even 20% of the research says, so reading Harris' "all" as an exaggeration of "most of" won't fix this error. Harris is trying to deny that people disagree with him, which is false and nasty (you should refute opponents, not deny their arguments exist). He does this by citing a paper that argues for his position but doesn't actually try to survey what everyone else is saying.

Further, the research doesn't indicate it's a "disastrous" practice because what is a disaster is a value judgment, which is outside the scope of any current empirical research (and this isn't even brain research, which is the type of research Harris thinks can tell us about morality). You can research how wounded students are in practice, or the severity of wounds permitted by law, but that kind of research can't tell you what wounds or lack of wounds would be a disaster or otherwise deviate from the moral or good life.

Papers like this often include value judgments which aren't labelled appropriately. It's common to either include philosophy arguments in papers as if they were part of science, or to sneak in philosophy conclusions without arguing them. E.g. this paper says "Fortunately, the practice of government-executed corporal punishment has been declared unconstitutional." But what is fortunate is a value judgment which the research doesn't determine (the research is relevant information to help us make this value judgment, but that's different than the research itself being able to conclude that this is fortunate in the way a physics paper can reach a conclusion about gravity.)

Similarly, the paper says, "A wealth of scientific research demonstrates that corporal punishment of children damages them cognitively, motivationally, physically, psychologically, and emotionally." No it doesn't because "damages" is a value judgment – parents differ regarding what kind of child they want to have. I think there's a truth of the matter and some parents are mistaken, but my knowledge of that comes from rational argument, not from scientific research. Regardless of what future brain research may reveal, today's corporal punishment research is not capable of telling us what science says we should value, it only aids us in choosing our values by helping us better understand the consequences of actions.

The "research" paper concludes with blatant political activism, not science:

The responsibility to create a kinder, gentler society resides with many people, including parents. But the government is uniquely positioned and particularly responsible for synthesizing scientific and other data to produce sound public policy. When state governments fail to recognize the unreasonableness of their own policies, it is incumbent upon the federal courts to uphold the Constitution in challenges to the government action. But the federal judiciary has been asleep at the wheel for more than thirty years when it comes to protecting children from beatings by state actors. The ultimate responsibility to safeguard citizens from liberty deprivations lies with the Supreme Court, but it, too, has chosen to ignore the plight of schoolchildren. The judiciary should act on this issue immediately and declare school corporal punishment unconstitutional. Until then, relatively innocent, quintessentially powerless, and strikingly black Americans will continue to pay the immediate price with incalculable ultimate social costs.

Agree or disagree, that's not empirical science. My view: I broadly agree that violence against children is bad, and I've proposed a guideline for parents: never do anything to your child that would be a crime to do to your neighbor. But I disagree with the author's perspective on government, which I want to be more limited. I think the government should stay out of science, parenting and education. (I have logical arguments regarding these beliefs, which we could discuss in the comments below, but I don't claim they are the outcome of scientific research.)

I think the example about corporal punishment is representative of how Harris (and many other authors) incorrectly use research, facts and cites.

And so it is obvious that before we can make any progress toward a science of morality, we will have to clear some philosophical brush. In this chapter, I attempt to do this within the limits of what I imagine to be most readers’ tolerance for such projects. Those who leave this section with their doubts intact are encouraged to consult the endnotes.

Harris is hostile to philosophy. That's notable because the book consists almost entirely of philosophy (or at least non-science, like politics, which is a sub-field of philosophy that we often don't call philosophy, and which requires philosopihcal methods to think about well). This is typical: people study science and then do philosophy, but don't do it very well because they haven't studied philosophy adequately (often because they dislike philosophy and don't think it's valuable, which is often because most philosophy is bad – but people's philosophical intuitions, learned in childhood, aren't very good either and it's necessary to find or create good ideas about how to reason).

But this notion of “ought” is an artificial and needlessly confusing way to think about moral choice. In fact, it seems to be another dismal product of Abrahamic religion—which, strangely enough, now constrains the thinking of even atheists. If this notion of “ought” means anything we can possibly care about, it must translate into a concern about the actual or potential experience of conscious beings (either in this life or in some other). For instance, to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do.

But what constitutes being "better off" depends on what you want, so this does nothing to address the is/ought problem – it just moves the problem from "ought" to "better".

The person who claims that he does not want to be better off is either wrong about what he does, in fact, want (i.e., he doesn’t know what he’s missing), or he is lying, or he is not making sense.

Right, because "better off" means "better off according to your own values", so it's best for you no matter what you value. But this doesn't address the is/ought problem or the problem of determining what to value.

Imagine if there were only two people living on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer number 1: smash each other in the face with a large rock.)

Harris is appealing to widespread moral intuitions and common values in our culture, not actually scientifically establishing anything about moralitty. He just thinks it's obvious (which is what the phrase "of course" means), but appeal to obviousness isn't a method of science (it's a mistaken method of philosophy).

while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, most solutions to the problem of how two people can thrive on earth will not be zero-sum. Surely the best solutions will not be zero-sum.

I believe this (the non-existence of conflicts of interest) because of non-scientific arguments put forward by liberal political philosophers like Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. But Harris is just saying things like "surely" instead of relating it to scientific facts, so it's a bad argument.

While this leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open, there is every reason to think that this question has a finite range of answers.

No, logically there are an infinite range of answers to that question. I have no idea how Harris decided it's a finite range. For example, one could value there being exactly 3 paperclips in the whole universe. Or 4. Or 5. So you can see that, as a logical matter, there are infinite potential answers. Most of the logically possible answers are dumb, but dumbness is a matter for fallible, rational, critical discussion.

Let me simply concede that if you don’t see a distinction between these two lives [descriptions of lives that almost everyone in our culture, including Harris, considers especially good and bad] that is worth valuing (premise 1 above), there may be nothing I can say that will attract you to my view of the moral landscape.

Basically, Harris is admitting he lacks arguments about his main thesis. If you don't already agree with him about some of the main issues, he doesn't know what to do. He doesn't have a logical way to connect values to science, he needs you to share existing intuitions about morality with him.

Personally, I agree with him about the distinction (I disagree with the altruistic attitude, but it's still way better than rape, violence, and being hunted through a jungle by would-be murderers). I do believe that my view is rationally defensible, but I do not believe that my view of this matter is a part of science.

Harris, by contrasts, seems to think his view is not rationally defensible in full, because he thinks there may be "nothing" that he could say to persuade someone who doesn't already agree with parts of it.

It can be useful to say, "Here are arguments for conclusion C that use P as a premise, so if you already agree with me about P then I think you should agree with me about C too." But the book doesn't present itself as merely doing that – as building some additional moral ideas on top of common, existing moral ideas. Harris claims to be able to put morality on a scientific footing and otherwise deal with fundamental and foundational issues. But his book openly concedes it can't do that.

Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically—ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc.—and these must be put to use long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data.

The book seems to argue that there is a connection between empirical science – like brain scans – and values. But then Harris says actually he doesn't have any clear definition of science. If one is willing to include "respect for evidence" within the domain of science, then of course science can tell you about values – it can tell you to respect evidence (respect is a value judgment). Similarly, honesty and curiosity are moral issues. But for some reason Harris doesn't conclude, "Morality precedes science and moral values are needed before you can do science successfully, so trying to scientifically establish moral values is pointless." (To give credit: the need for moral values before you can do science was told to me by David Deutsch, years before The Moral Landscape was written.)

Broadly, if you think rational philosophy is a part of science, because you think science refers to all our best efforts to at rational understanding, then of course moral philosophy (being a field of philosophy) is part of science. But that's bad terminology (our culture usefully distinguishes physicists from reason-oriented philosophers), and it's not actually Harris' point.


The book is sloppy, and the thesis is misconceived because of Harris' mistaken attitudes towards science. It's unnecessary to claim everything as part of science. Reason isn't limited to empirical matters. He should study epistemology and understand reason correctly, rather than trying to use science as his only rational tool.

Everything about human beings physically exists, so technically physics research (including its sub-fields) can investigate any aspect of human beings. Further, human brains are computers which operate according to the laws of physics (which determine the laws of computation), and so physics is relevant. But that isn't Harris' thesis. And even granting all this, science wouldn't simply determine values on its own, and supercede philosophy, because we need epistemology in order to judge which science and applications of science are correct. (What I think is that science is relevant in many ways to thinking about morality – it's useful – but not that science can determine morality.)

Harris doesn't know how to scientifically determine which physical states of human beings to value and consider to constitute "well-being". He thinks that brain scans will help with this, but such scans can never tell us that the brain scan results we label "happiness" are scientifically good things (the "happiness" label is not science, it's not an observed fact, it's philosophy and value judgment which is open to rational discussion).

And science isn't the best way to learn about people and their actions or values, even if it would work. For more explanation, see the criticism of reductionism in chapter 1 of The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, or ask a question in the comments below. And as Popper explained, we can start anywhere – conjecture anything in any field – and approach it critically. We don't have to focus on building up to the ideas we're interested in starting from foundations that are difficult to argue within our current culture. We can just learn about morality directly with guesses and criticism – but Harris doesn't know that, so his book isn't very good. For example Harris writes:

Many of these people also claim that a scientific foundation for morality would serve no purpose in any case. They think we can combat human evil all the while knowing that our notions of “good” and “evil” are completely unwarranted.

Harris thinks that if you don't have scientific arguments, your conclusions are "unwarranted". This is a major error which is corrected by Critical Rationalism. Harris' problem is he has no idea how to defend reason itself without using science, not just when it comes to moral values but also for anything else (e.g. politics, economics, logic, math or epistemology). There are many valuable areas of human knowledge which are predominantly not understood in a scientific way, but which are rational nonetheless. Reason is actually about error correction, not about empiricism nor about using justifying authorities like science. Authority is actually the arch-enemy of reason, so Harris' book is actually, by accident, an extended attack on reason, because the essence of his project is about justifying moral claims (all justifications are appeals to authority, sometimes in disguise) rather than about thinking critically to try to correct errors and thereby improve our ideas. (In fairness, he's not alone here, and he's not unusually bad. These kinds of mistakes are common when one doesn't understand Critical Rationalism adequately, and we live in a world where fewer than 100 living people have that knowledge. What I dislike is the lack of Paths Forward – ways for Harris' mistakes to be corrected.)

PS I have not read the whole book. If I missed a part which addresses one of my criticisms, please let me know in the comments below and provide a quote.

Related Post: Sam Harris vs. Capitalism

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bad Sam Harris Brain Scanning Research Paper

This post criticizes The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief by Sam Harris , Jonas T. Kaplan , Ashley Curiel, Susan Y. Bookheimer, Marco Iacoboni, Mark S. Cohen in 2009. I wrote this as a reply on the Change My View subreddit, and made minor edits so it'd stand alone.

Once we had two groups of subjects (Christians and Nonbelievers)

Specific criteria used are not given, making this research non-reproducible. This especially concerns me because such criteria are controversial and I would expect to disagree with the study authors about some categorizations regarding which persons think about which topics in religious ways (I don't think that religious thinking is all or nothing).

Later, they admit the screening criteria were poor, and make excuses. They later admit, "the failure of our brief screening procedure to accurately assess a person's religious beliefs".

To this end we assessed subjects' general intelligence using the Weschler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI)

It's spelled "Wechsler".

IQ tests have many problems. Here is a previous discussion where I pointed out some of the problems.

screened for psychopathology using the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS)

Their non-random screening, including this, dropped 44% of people. That's getting far from a representative sample of the population! And those are only of the people who met the first 5 criteria that already included two related to psychiatric issues.

There are lots of problems with psychiatric screenings. I'm not going to go into it in detail here, but see these books criticizing psychiatry:

Forty of these participated in the fMRI portion of our study, but ten were later dropped, and their data excluded from subsequent analysis, due to technical difficulties with their scans (2 subjects), or to achieve a gender balance between the two groups (1 subject), or because their responses to our experimental stimuli indicated that they did not actually meet the criteria for inclusion in our study as either nonbelievers or committed Christians (7 subjects).

Dropping those 7 people is a big problem. They were removed because their data didn't fit the expected answer patterns. IMO that should have been a learning opportunity to reconsider mistaken expectations.

Here are example stimuli from the experiment. I didn't read them all, but it looked to me like over half the groups of 4 stimuli had a flaw. Also there's a systematic bias: the Christian truths are more often non-hedged statements, while the atheists truths are more often hedged. E.g. in 19 you read "The Bible" in the Christian one and "Most of the Bible" in the atheist one, and 29 has Jesus either "literally" rising from the dead or "probably" not rising from the dead.

The Bible is free from error.

This is categorized as something that all the Christian participants should consider true. But many serious Christians do not believe this.

The Bible is free from significant error.

It's weird that they have two very similar questions.

All books provided perfectly accurate accounts of history.

Grammar error.

The Bible is full of fictional stories and contains historical errors.

This is categorized as something that all the Christian participants should consider false. But many serious Christians do believe this.

People who believe in the biblical God often do so on very good evidence.

This is categorized as something that all the Christian participants should consider true. But many serious Christians do not believe this.

It reasonable to believe in an omniscient God.

Grammar error.

Jesus Christ can’t do anything to help humanity in the 21st century.

This is supposed to be considered true by non-believers, but many non-believers (including me) consider this statement false. (Though it's vague: do they mean Jesus Christ literally and personally can help people today, or his teachings can help? I'd change my answer depending on that. It's his teachings that I think can do "anything" (more than zero) to help.)

In general, they shouldn't have used words like "anything", "all", most", "greatest" because people routinely misread those statements (misreading e.g. "all" as "most", or vice versa). And those kind of statements are so often written incorrectly and carelessly that readers, reasonably, don't expect reliable, literal precision from them.

Jesus was literally born of a virgin.

Lots of Christians don't believe this – possibly because they are more educated about their religion (not less). "Virgin" (in the sense of not having sex) is a mistranslation – he was born of a young women (which, btw, is a typical meaning of "virgin" in English).

The Biblical story of creation is basically true.

Tons of Christians aren't young Earth creationists.

Most of the Bible is inferior to modern thinking on morality and human happiness.

This is supposed to be considered true by atheists, but as an atheist I consider it vague (which modern thinking?). If I try to read it using guesses about what the author of the statement meant, I think I disagree with it. Also if I read it with a "most" before "modern thinking", then I'd judge it false.

The Biblical story of creation is purely a myth.

This is supposed to be an atheist truth, but as an atheist I consider it false (due to "purely", which I mentioned above is the kind of word they shouldn't have used because people vary in how literally they read it). It's also problematic because I think many atheists aren't adequately familiar with the Biblical story of creation, including

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is almost surely fictional.

Many atheists couldn't say what what the Trinity doctrine is. And many atheists, including me, would disagree with this due to the "almost surely fictional". I consider it fictional and would not want to hedge in that way. If the words "almost surely" were deleted then I'd agree with the statement, but I'm not comfortable with this statement as written. There were lots of statements that were supposed to be things I would agree with, but which included hedges I don't believe.

Human beings have complete control over the environment and can grow food anywhere.

This is vague. They consider it false. But we can grow food in airplanes, submarines or spaceships. Where, exactly, can't we grow food? In the middle of active volcanos? In the middle of the sun? Did they expect me to worry about suns or black holes because of taking "anywhere" literally?

The greatest human accomplishments have had nothing to do with God.

This is one of the worst ones. This is meant to be considered false by atheists. But, historically, most human accomplishments (great and small) were accomplished by religious people who often did think God was relevant (or the gods in the case of polytheists like many Greeks). Example:

It is wise to create a government that can help protect its citizens from harm.

I'm confused about why this is meant to be false for everyone. Most people agree with this, right?

Also, for 54 and 55 they accidentally swapped the Christian and Atheist truths. Since they have things categorized incorrectly and make grammar and spelling errors in what they published, I'm concerned that these 4 statements were miscategorized in the actual study.

I could go on and on. There are tons of stimuli with these kinds of problems. This is not up to the high standards required for scientific progress. And they actually excluded 7 people for not answering the questions reliably enough (over 90%) in the way the study authors expected them to answer based on the poor phone screening. And, overall, it looked to me like a lot of highly religious Christians would agree with well under 90% of the Christian truth stimuli, so I think the experimental design is bad. The researchers seem to think that e.g. if you believe in evolution you aren't a serious, religious Christian, which is incorrect. Note they failed at their own design goal that:

All statements were designed to be judged easily as “true” or “false”

Anyway, I'm not even trying to be comprehensive with the issues. There are just a lot of issues. And cites to a ton more issues, e.g. I could go through "The role of the extrapersonal brain systems in religious activity" and point out flaws with that (it's the cite on some text I particularly disagreed with). For now, I'll continue with some comments on the brain scanning aspect since I didn't get to that yet.

For both groups, and in both categories of stimuli, belief (judgments of “true” vs judgments of “false”) was associated with greater signal in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex

This is like measuring magnitudes of electric signals in different regions of CPUs while running different software. That would be a bad way to understand CPUs or software.

Actually, overall, the brain scanning stuff is hard to criticize due to the lack of substantial claims. They need to conclude something significant for me to point out how the evidence is inadequate for the conclusion. But they didn't. Big picture, the paper says more like "We did something and here's the data we got" which is true as far as it goes. They were looking for correlations and found a couple. Finding correlations is quite different than understanding and making claims about how people think. The world is packed full of non-causal correlations. Due to the lack of major claims about the brain scan correlations meaning anything, I'm done. It has quality issues and doesn't reach important conclusions.

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Mises Against Open Borders

Ludwig von Mises was the greatest Austrian economist, and one of the best champions of freedom and capitalism. In 1944, he wrote in Omnipotent Government:

Under present conditions the adoption of a policy of outright laissez faire and laissez passer on the part of the civilized nations of the West would be equivalent to an unconditional surrender to the totalitarian nations. Take, for instance, the case of migration barriers. Unrestrictedly opening the doors of the Americas, of Australia, and of Western Europe to immigrants would today be equivalent to opening the doors to the vanguards of the armies of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Mises proposed, basically, freedom and (classical) liberal policies within the West, but did not advocate open borders (for trade or commerce) with the illiberal countries that threaten peaceful, prosperous civilization.

There is no other system which could safeguard the smooth coördination of the peaceful efforts of individuals and nations but the system today commonly scorned as Manchesterism. We may hope—although such hopes are rather feeble—that the peoples of the Western democratic world will be prepared to acknowledge this fact, and to abandon their present-day totalitarian tendencies. But there can be no doubt that to the immense majority of men militarist ideas appeal much more than those of liberalism. The most that can be expected for the immediate future is the separation of the world into two sections: a liberal, democratic, and capitalist West with about one quarter of the total world population, and a militarist and totalitarian East embracing the much greater part of the earth’s surface and its population. Such a state of affairs will force upon the West policies of defense which will seriously hamper its efforts to make life more civilized and economic conditions more prosperous. [emphasis added]

Mises, the great advocate of laissez faire capitalism, did not advocate free trade or open immigration with militarist, totalitarian countries. Today, many "libertarians" and "Objectivists", many of who are Mises fans, oppose Trump's plan to build a wall and limit immigration to focus more on letting in people with Western values. So I found Mises' own view of the matter notable. For those who wish to understand his reasoning, I recommend they read the book and his other relevant works.

Below I share comments on the next two sentences of the book and about Mises' perspective on world affairs.

Even this melancholy image may prove too optimistic. There are no signs that the peoples of the West are prepared to abandon their policies of etatism.

Etatism means statism, which Mises explains is "the trend toward government control of business". Think of how people look to a powerful government to solve their problems and control society (especially trade and production), rather than favoring freedom. 75 years later, we can see that Mises was right that Westerners were not prepared to abandon statism.

When governments control the domestic economy, they also control imports and exports, e.g. with tariffs (otherwise the goals of their economic controls would be thwarted by uncontrolled foreign businessmen). Mises explains that these statist economic controls make the government of Belgium the enemy of Americans, because the Belgium government is using force to harm the economic prosperity of Americans by confiscating money from Americans who sell products to Belgians. This economic fighting creates the incentives for war (conquering territory allows for getting rid of the hostile government that imposes tariffs against your products) and harms the cause of collaboration and peace.

Mises argues that peace is best incentivized when prosperity is created by the economic division of labor. Countries don't want to go to war with their trading partners who produce their X, and who they sell lots of Y to, because it's so disastrous to their standard of living (they will have a shortage of X and surplus of Y), and because their ongoing cooperation is so beneficial. The more extensively countries are partners in free trade, the more they become like one unified economic group, and the more economically destructive and painful a war between them becomes. (Division of labor makes everyone involved richer because it allows specialization and because of comparative advantage.)

Update: I've read 40% of the book now and can highly recommend it. The discussion of German and European history, and of liberalism and statism, is great. I have high expectations for the upcoming discussion of the Nazis. I found another passage that relates to the current political debate about open borders:

These considerations [about the benefits of liberalism, including free trade and free migration, and how that brings about peace] are not a plea for opening America and the British Dominions to German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants. Under present conditions America and Australia would simply commit suicide by admitting Nazis, Fascists, and Japanese. They could as well directly surrender to the Führer and to the Mikado. Immigrants from the totalitarian countries are today the vanguard of their armies, a fifth column whose invasion would render all measures of defense useless. America and Australia can preserve their freedom, their civilizations, and their economic institutions only by rigidly barring access to the subjects of the dictators. But these conditions are the outcome of etatism. In the liberal past the immigrants came not as pacemakers of conquest but as loyal citizens of their new country.

Twenty years after Mises wrote this, the U.S. opened its borders to immigrants from totalitarian countries and dictatorships, and immigrants who do not come to be loyal citizens of the U.S. As a result, we now face disasters, which you can learn about in Adios America and its criticism of the 1965 immigration act. Trump became president by promising to halt the damage and begin repairs, including by building a wall, but he hasn't followed through so far.

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How Many People Don't Understand Links?

Elliot Temple:

Benedict Evan's tech newsletter seems to believe many (tech-interested!) readers don’t know what links are, and can’t recognize them, without the “Link” label:

i wonder if that’s an issue with FI newsletter

Justin Mallone:

My reactions in order

1) that can't possibly be a significant issue, can it?

2) you should test it

Elliot Temple:

there’s no good way to test. 280 newsletter ppl. suppose 5% don’t understand links. that’s only 14 ppl. these ppl are less engaged than avg, presumably by a lot. so maybe 3 open the test newsletter, and maybe none of them would have clicked any links today even if they knew how

however, by similar logic, it’s not that big a deal

plus i have in fact explained how links work in at least one newsletter

plus there are sometimes more obvious links to clue ppl in who aren’t TOTALLY lost

like maybe they will realize “Buy now” is a link

and from that learn what all the other links look like

if they are too dumb for that, well, i am not planning to do ALL my links as a post-sentence “Link” text just for the small minority of my worst subscribers

even if it’s like 50% of subscribers … are they really the kind of ppl who matter to me and understand anything i say?

and do they know how to buy things online? or join an email group? or even post a blog comment? zzzzzz

or share the newsletter with their friends? you know by sending them a link? or forwarding an email?

i’m still curious how widespread a problem it is. i bet more than .01%. hard to get a good estimate tho

lots of ppl are really, really bad at things

ppl “forget” they can google things

that is partially a skills issue

a lack of understanding of the very basics of the internet

ppl also seem to DISLIKE links, in many contexts. which i think is partly skills. not, primarily, failure to know what a link is. but instead things like: being bad at using the Back button, getting lost online easily, and fear of going to a malware or scam site and being unable to recognize it

and just generally being bad at understanding what’s going on on a new website they haven’t been to before, b/c they aren’t familiar with standard layouts, and they don’t know how to recognize if it IS a standard layout or not, or otherwise quickly figure out what to make of it (including accurately knowing when to judge it as a bad site and just leave)

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Matt Levine Thinks Badly About Incentives and Economics

Matt Levine writes (bold added, links omitted):

AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner is a vertical merger: AT&T mostly owns pipes (DirectTV, cellular networks) that bring content to consumers, while Time Warner mostly owns studios (Time Warner) and networks (HBO, the Turner networks) that produce and package that content. By combining the two, they can achieve some efficiency benefits that should work to lower prices for consumers. For instance, by combining AT&T’s data on its wireless customers with Time Warner’s advertising inventory, they can introduce more targeted ads, which “will lead to higher ad revenues that will alleviate pressure on the programing side and lower the price of video distribution to consumers,” according to Judge Leon’s opinion. In modern antitrust law, more targeted advertising is a consumer benefit. There are those who think that modern antitrust law is bad.

Against these benefits, the government argued that the combined company would have so much market power that it would actually be able to raise prices. This is an unusual argument in a vertical merger—and vertical mergers are rarely challenged—because the merger won’t make AT&T any bigger in any of the businesses it (or Time Warner) is already in. Instead, the government’s theory is that AT&T can use its Time Warner content to bully competing distributors (other cable companies, video-on-demand companies, etc.). Right now, Time Warner makes its money by signing big high-stakes deals with content distributors who want to carry its content. If they don’t reach a deal, then everyone loses: Time Warner doesn’t get paid, and the distributor’s customers get mad that they can’t watch HBO and start thinking about switching cable companies. And so in practice they generally work out a deal; long-term blackouts are very rare.

But once AT&T owns Time Warner, the government argued, its incentives will shift: If it fails to reach a deal with Comcast or whoever, then it still won’t get paid for Time Warner’s content, and Comcast’s subscribers will still get mad and think about switching providers, but now they might switch to AT&T. (To DirecTV, or to some AT&T wireless video product, etc.) Blacking out Time Warner’s networks on a competing distributor will now be good for AT&T’s distribution business, which will give Time Warner more leverage to demand higher prices for its content in those negotiations with distributors. Or that is the government’s theory, which it argued based on some intemperate public statements from AT&T, some worries from its competitors, and the expert testimony of antitrust economist Carl Shapiro.

Judge Leon didn’t buy it. He noted that an AT&T expert witness looked at previous content/distribution vertical mergers and found that “There’s absolutely no statistical basis to support the government’s claim that vertical integration in this industry leads to higher content prices.” And he noted that, even after the merger, it will be in AT&T/Time Warner’s interest to distribute Time Warner’s content as broadly as possible, so it won’t really have that much leverage to demand higher prices:

Indeed the evidence showed that there has never been, and is likely never going to be, an actual long-term blackout of Turner content. Numerous witnesses explained, and Professor Shapiro acknowledged, that a long-term blackout of Turner content, even post-merger, would cause Turner to lose more in affiliate fee and advertising revenues than the merged entity would gain. Given that, there is insufficient evidentiary basis to support Professor Shapiro’s contention that a post-merger Turner would, or even could, drive up prices by threatening distributors with long-term blackouts.

The discussion gets into some odd theory-of-the-firm moments. Several of AT&T’s witnesses were people who had negotiated these content deals at other vertically integrated cable/content companies: “Madison Bond, who has served as a lead negotiator for NBCU during the past seven years when the company has been vertically integrated with Comcast,” for instance, and several Time Warner executives who “testified similarly about their time at the company when it was vertically integrated with Time Warner Cable.” All of these witnesses said the same thing: They never used their ownership by a distributor as leverage in negotiation with other distributors.

When questioned by defense counsel about his prior negotiations on behalf of NBCU, Bond testified that he “never once took into account the interest of Comcast cable in trying to negotiate a carriage agreement.” Consideration of potential Comcast gains during an NBCU blackout “doesn’t factor at all” into his negotations, Bond continued, nor has anyone from Comcast “ever asked” him “to think about that.” Bond’s statements were similar to testimony given by Comcast’s chief negotiator, Greg Rigdon, who testified that he has never suggested, or seen a Comcast document suggesting, that NBC “should go dark on one of [Comcast’s] competitors because then [Comcast] might pick up some subscribers” or that NBCU should “hold out for a little bit more in affiliate fees because that will harm” Comcast’s competitors.

(Citations omitted.) Similarly, a Turner executive said, “I’ve been in Turner when we were a vertically integrated company and had a sister company called Time Warner Cable. And I can tell you that at no time during my tenure there did anyone ask me to consider in my negotiations and how I dealt with other distributors the outcome and impact at Time Warner Cable.”

So basically everyone with experience of negotiating these deals, who had the leverage that the government claims AT&T/Time Warner will have, said: Nah, it never even occurred to us to do that. But the government’s economist testified that of course they would have that leverage and use it. “Indeed, this opinion by Professor Shapiro runs contrary to all of the real-world testimony during the trial from those who have actually negotiated on behalf of vertically integrated companies,” wrote Judge Leon. So he asked Shapiro about it, and got this fun answer:

No, I am aware of that testimony. And so I think there’s a very serious tension between that testimony and the working assumption for antitrust economists that Professor Carlton and I share; that the company after the merger will be run to maximize their joint profits.

Isn’t that sort of lovely? An economist testified about how companies should operate. Actual operators testified about how the companies do operate. The answers were different. “There's a very serious tension,” said the economist. It is really all you could ask for in an antitrust trial: An economic theory of corporate behavior was proposed, it was confronted with the practical reality of the people actually doing the corporate behavior, and the economic theory shrugged and melted away.

Judge Leon is surely right that the tension isn’t as serious as Shapiro thinks:

That profit-maximization premise is not inconsistent, however, with the witness testimony that the identity of a programmer’s owner has not affected affiliate negotiations in real-world instances of vertical integration. Rather, as those witnesses indicated, vertically integrated corporations have previously determined that the best way to increase company wide profits is for the programming and distribution components to separately maximize their respective revenues. … In the case of programmers, that means pursuing deals “to be on all the platforms,” rather than undertaking a “series of risks” to threaten a long-term blackout.

Part of how you combine different businesses is by getting them to work together: If Time Warner is good at selling ads, and AT&T is good at mining customer data, then you smush them together so that AT&T/Time Warner will be good at selling ads based on customer data-mining, which is where the money is. But part of how you combine different businesses is by leaving them to work separately: If Time Warner’s business model is selling programming to every distributor, then changing that model so that it only sells to AT&T, just because AT&T bought it, would be a mistake. Which is which—when you should combine businesses, and when you should leave them to make their own profit-maximizing decisions—is a complicated question, and you can certainly try to answer it with game theory and economic modeling. But sometimes you can just ask companies what they actually do! It is not perfect evidence of what they should do. But it’s pretty good evidence of what they will do.

I've read lots of Money Stuff columns. I often like them. This is the worst one I've seen. People lie. People fail to introspect, especially when the results would be inconvenient.

Of course merged companies work to make an overall profit for the new, single company. Not perfectly, but there's major incentives in companies to make a profit, and these incentives do play a major role in behavior. Sure it happens that sometimes the right hand of the company doesn't talk to the left hand, and they consequently fail to maximize profits. And sure it happens that sometimes the amount of profit available from a particular optimization is too small for the coordination effort required to get it. And sure it happens that people fail to notice opportunities. None of those mean economic theory is wrong.

Why is Levine so naively credulous of some people saying things in court that they have a strong incentive to say? AT&T wouldn't have brought in someone to testify if they were going to say something else that hurt AT&T... And people saying something else would be at risk of getting themselves fired, and maybe other bad things, because they'd basically be saying they personally, and their company, was doing bad stuff that there are various laws against (anti-trust if nothing else – yes anti-trust law is extremely vague, but this seems like the kinda stuff people think that violates it, which is exactly why it was a topic of discussion in this anti-trust case).

Also the witnesses said they didn't go up to Comcast, or whoever, and say "yo, give us lots of money or we'll do a blackout cuz we don't give a damn cuz we own DirectTV" or an equivalent of that. Choosing not to use it as an aggressive talking point, and saying with full clarity what one means, is perfectly compatible with negotiating harder due to the incentives that exist. The testimony also uses careful language, e.g. a person says he didn't suggest doing it, and didn't read any documents suggesting he do it. Another guy says he wasn't asked to take something into account. There's a comment about going dark, which is different thing than using it as a background possibility to negotiate a better deal (which is what they always do, all the time, obviously – of course, if they aren't paid enough money, they will go dark, and everyone on both sides knows it).

Why doesn't Levine consider the incentives people have, and just believes them when they say they act contrary to financial incentives?

And the mathy arguments used are nonsense. Blackouts are too expensive to threaten? Umm, not exactly. Blackouts are always an implied threat in negotiations. If you don't pay us, we will not let you air our shows. Duh. After the merger, the overall cost of a blackout will be smaller for the new merged company than it was for the old company (because e.g. the blackout it benefits DirecTV, which makes up for a portion of the downside).

If no deal is $100 less bad for you than before, you negotiate harder than before and you maybe get a $50 better deal. Even if the deal is worth a million dollars, this is still true, though in that case it'd be too small a factor to worry about. But the argument wasn't "we calculated how big a factor this is, and it's too small to matter much". They didn't figure out what size factor it is. They just denied it's a factor. That's stupid and incompetent, and Levine ought to have noticed if he were competent.

Similarly, the arguments about the benefits of letting different divisions of a company operate independently effect the degree of the issue. Maybe those benefits are larger than the ability of the merged company to negotiate harder and raise prices for TV content. Maybe a lot larger, so the merged company will only pursue the much larger benefit and not concern itself with the smaller benefit that isn't fully compatible with the larger benefit. But Levine doesn't treat it like competing factors and compare their size. He uses one to try to dismiss and ignore the other. That's nonsense. Nor does Levine consider what potential future changes to the company (e.g. some reorganization, selling some other divisions off and getting smaller, whatever) might change the calculations and therefore result in the price raising behavior being economically efficient.

Also, when deciding to believe the businessmen who said "oh no, we would never act according to financial incentives – in fact, we don't even know those financial incentives exist", Levine ignored that there were also public statements by AT&T that admitted it (at least Levine himself said those statements exist, but he didn't quote any or give a source).

Is it true that the best way to maximize profits for a company is for individual divisions to maximize profits? No. You might run your company that way because doing things more optimally is too hard. But that's not the theoretical best way.

And no, Levine, no one said anything about changing the model to only sell the TV shows to AT&T. That's an especially dishonest thing to write.

To be clear: anti-trust laws are evil (which is another thing Levine is clueless about). I'm not saying that mergers should be blocked because prices for some things would be raised, nor am I claiming they actually will be raised. I'm just analyzing the quality of the arguments and thinking presented by Levine, and the big mistakes in the article are on the pro-merger side.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sexism and Male Leadership

people are like "men get to lead and make more decisions, it's so unfair and sexist that wives are expected to be more compliant".

hello? we live in a society where well over 90% of people don't want to lead. most people hate the responsibility of making decisions. most people would rather someone else decided things so they don't have to think about it – and don't have to take the blame if it doesn't work out.

why would you want to be the "head of the household" when you find it hard and scary to lead? people struggle to deal with decisions. people doubt and hesitate, and struggle to lead since they aren't really sure where to lead to.

since wives get the role that most people prefer – that most people find more desirable – this aspect of marriage is sexist against men. right? wives are getting the better deal since they are less expected to deal with hard stuff that most people don't want and actively avoid.

our society pressures men to be more confident, have more leadership traits, figure out answers to more decisions, solve more problems, etc. it's putting more demands on men, more expectations, more stress, more worry, more hardship. women are given places in society where they have it easier. a few women want to be leaders and be in charge of lots of stuff – and they can do that (no one stops them in business, and they easily find a man who will let them wear the "pants" in the marriage). and the vast majority of women, who don't want that, don't do it. but what about men? they are under such pressure to be leaders (and providers and breadwinners), like it or not. if they don't do it, they are punished. there aren't plenty of women for them to choose from who will be happy with a weak man.

being more of a leader sounds appealing to most people, it sounds like a good thing, so they think men are getting a good deal. but if you look at people's actions – men and women – the vast majority prefer not to act much like leaders. people find being a leader hard/stressful/etc, and they run into problems like "i don't know what to do. how should i know what to do?" and they prefer easier routes.

would it be better if there were more leader-type people? sure. but sexism isn't the issue there. men have trouble leading, too. many men do some leading because they don't see any way to get out of it, but they are bad at it and have a bad time. it's not like men got a special upbringing that prepared them to be good leaders and enjoy it. they, too, had a childhood full of compliance to authority, being punished for taking initiative or exploring/experimenting, being punished for taking risks that don't work out instead of being really conservative, being punished for going first and pioneering anything instead of waiting to see what the majority do, etc, etc.

there are sexist aspects of parenting, which are nasty. overall i think they're worse for women. boys are pressured to suppress emotions, especially crying. girls are pressured to be pretty. there are many, many shared mistreatments and some gender specific ones.

regardless, it's so dishonest to be like "omg sexism, men get to lead more" without the speaker considering that they hate leading, and all their friends hate leading, and their father hates leading (usually, though not 100% of the time. and even if they won't admit it).

PS This is similar to the complaints about the lack of women in high paying jobs, and Jordan Peterson's reply that the main issue there is most people don't actually want or like those jobs, and women who have those jobs often quit because they don't want the stress, long work hours, etc. The women aren't quitting because of oppression, they're just making a reasonable decision to have some family life (or pursue whatever else they want) instead of just work hard all the time.

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DJ Khaled is Awful

(Typed in real time while watching DJ Khaled's show at the Overwatch League Finals. Twitch video link, Khaled comes up 45min in.)

jfc watching DJ Khaled at overwatch finals

he comes on stage and starts telling DHV story about the celebs he hangs out with and how busy he is with other concerts

then starts doing really bland, basic audience interaction games

kinda like basic flirty touch games u play with a 19yo girl u wanna fuck (KEEP IT SIMPLE)

the audience is rather passive but he just pretends they are doing a lot

you see that kinda lying a lot. e.g. b4 that there was an OK play – nothing very special – being hyped up as an INSANE play at LENGTH

they just figure if they SAY things are great, ppl will believe it without checking

just keeping saying it and never break frame

anyway Khaled is so basic and transparent and no one would be impressed by anything he did so far if he was low status.

and i’m thinking why is he on stage, getting paid the big bucks? and the audience, will kinda passive about the interactions, i think mostly does like him and a lot of them did some halfhearted, belated participation (he just kept doing it for minutes)

answer: THEY ARE BLUE PILL. they would never think of his story as a DHV story, they just take it at … not face value, but the value assigned to it by the social rules they utterly obey but never speak of

earlier the overwatch league commissioner was on for a bit and he said some bullshit about how great the audience and fans are. then he said: [but i’m not just saying that to pander, it’s true]. and they fucking cheered him for doubling down on his lying so blatantly

saying forms of “i’m not just lying” is common. and ppl believe it or something, even tho it’s only said when one would normally be suspected of lying, and it has no substance and any scumbag liar can easily say it.

they rarely use the word “lying” tho. mentioning lying would make it seem like they were lying. he didn’t say “pandering” either. i forget what he actually said

they just say something that means “u might assume i’m lying but i’m not lying”

and somehow that is socially calibrated and impresses ppl. what a culture…

it expresses awareness that most of the OTHER ppl saying similar things are liars

and then both sides just pretend THIS interaction is a special snowflake exception

NAWALT. and not all announcers are like that, either? he’s not. he said so!

Khaled is spending more time promoting himself than anything else

and ppl r impressed. cuz he promoted himself. so they see him as high status.

the promotion is working on them. he’s doing it to their faces, as part of the show

omg he’s now saying “family first always” and “i represent families” and doing some of the most generic bullshit shout outs i’ve ever heard to families in general

i’m pro-family!

he’s worse than a fucking politician

he said he’s pro-God too

then he says he’s gonna be exciting and hype to intro starting some music again

his music doesn’t speak for itself. he spends a large portion of his stage time SAYING he’s exciting.

now he’s pro New York. the show is in new york. then himself again.

he has ppl’s hands ALREADY in the sky then says: if ur NYer, raise hands. (are the non NY-ers gonna LOWER their hands now?)

then says if ur a fan of him, raise hands

so everyone sees other ppl’s hands up and thinks they are fans

it’s such fucking blatant manipulation and everyone is a blind blue piller

a few are red pill, but say nothing. they’d be shouted down and hated. so it adds to the apparent popularity

the venue doesn’t allow for dissent, so you never see how many ppl ACTUALLY are fans

this isn’t even a fucking Khaled concert with his own fans, it’s overwatch fans and some of them cheer and he just pretends they are all his fans. strong frame but jeez it’s so obvious

the actual music parts are quite short. lots of DHV talking breaks.

the camera ppl find whatever sections of the crowd are most into it and put those on TV

but u can see in wider shots that plenty of ppl are not into it

they are noticeably reusing some of the most enthusiastic ppl in the crowd

they dim the lights most of the time to make it way harder to see ppl who aren’t doing anything

they have shin stuff everywhere that sparkles in the dim lights and gives an impression the whole audience is into it everywhere, when actually the ppl aren’t doing anything

they just handed out some glowing dot things or put them on the seats or something

that’s another manipulative, fake trick. concerts try to make it look like the fans are super into it but they will pass out glow sticks or stuff cuz it’s self-serving.

he doesn’t try very hard in his dancing and only dances occassionally.

now he says he’s anti “player hating”. he has such bland causes that everyone can agree with

he said SHAME ON THEM about player haters


what a scape goat lol

not an actual well-defined group. not a group anyone self-identifies as. it just means “ppl i don’t like”

and everyone is like “yeah, i also don’t like the ppl i don’t like”

and assumes he means the same ppl they mean

lol now he’s bragging about his record sales

interrupting the music to tell us how popular his new record is on itunes and in 35 countries

lol he ends bragging with “my records are #1 b/c of you” as if he’s praising the fans, not DHVing himself

and blue pillers eat it up and feel like they helped something important

like when Awesome Games Done Quick raises $1,000,000 and says “we couldn’t have done it without you, viewers” and viewers who donated $5 feel like they were part of a $1,000,000 project and they matter. hell, viewers who didn’t donate feel like they helped too cuz it needs viewers.

i’ve watched other concerts b4 and they were way better, with more music and more dancing. this is so boring.

i’d skip it if i wasn’t commenting

typing while it plays

he’s so repetitive. he just said again that his new record is out, and that you can go buy it at itunes

are these ppl too fucking stupid to know where to buy it? is he calling them retarded? why doesn’t anyone interpret it that way?

how much do u wanna bet half the audience would say they hate advertising?

probably more

fuck advertising, fuck commercialism, fuck big business … but DJ Khaled, bragging again about how he does (commercial) shows with JayZ and Beyonce … he’s cool and real?

he did like 5 advertisements, and some pandering that was worse than stereotypes of politicians, and that’s a music show? that ppl who say they hate politicians cheer for?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (5)

Question-Ignoring Discussion Pattern

There's a common discussion pattern I've been trying to identify and understand. Example:

Me: What do you think about X?

Them: [silence]

Me: Why didn't you discuss X?

Them: [Starts saying their opinion about X.]

It happens with all kinds of meta discussion, not just asking why they didn't discuss. If you talk about how they were discussing badly, they often ignore you to discuss more. If you ask why they think the topic is unimportant (or whether they think it's important or not, and why), they often ignore that and start discussing it more.

The pattern seems to be they avoid bigger questions and bigger issues, like why they do things. They respond about smaller, more limited issues.

The major indicator of the pattern is they don't directly reply to the last thing you said. You just asked them a question and they start saying something else that is not an answer to the question. That's what stood out to me. They often seem to go back one step. We were talking about X. Then something went wrong, or they stopped talking, or a tangent came up. Then I ask a question about the new issue (the problem, the silence, or the tangent). Then they ignore the question but go back to the previous thing (stop being silent, drop the tangent). If the new issue was a problem, they often silently take one step to try to solve it – they will make a change to try to address the problem, but won't say that they did it, or discuss whether it'll work, they just do it. Often the supposedly problem-solving change is either counter-productive or irrelevant, and it's a burden for them, and they blame me for it (they think of themselves as doing it for me, because I wanted it). But all I'd said is what the problem is, not what I would regard as a solution or what I wanted – they just assumed that while refusing to talk about it.

The discussion issue is partly because people reinterpret questions as demands or assertions. They hear "Why didn't you discuss X?" as meaning "You should discuss X". They hear, "Why are you uninterested in X?" as meaning "X is interesting". They hear, "Do you want to discuss more, or not? You're sending mixed signals." as meaning "I demand you discuss more." They hear "Would it be OK with you if I shared more ideas about X?" as "Let's discuss X more."

I've been trying to understand this pattern and why people do it. I think it's related to people avoiding meta discussion, which I also don't understand very well. What is it about meta discussion that they don't like? My best guess is basically that they avoid talking about more important things in favor of less important ones, which fits their overall life pattern of not having productive discussions and learning philosophy.

I think it's kind of like getting a chore done by procrastinating on an even more unwanted task. They will have regular discussion to avoid discussion that involves "Why?" questions or other important things they find hard. They would feel bad about ignoring something like, "Why don't you want to discuss X? Do you have a reason X is unimportant?" They wouldn't feel justified in ignoring that and still believing themselves to be a rational person who discusses ideas. But if they start discussing X more (breaking their silence, doing one unstated action to try to solve the problem that was disrupting discussion, or dropping a tangent) then they feel legitimized to ignore the question.

One of the straightforward reasons I dislike it is because I don't want to ignore major signs they don't want to talk about X. I don't want to talk about X with a person who doesn't want to discuss X. I don't want to discuss with someone who isn't interested. I don't want to ignore problems like that and go back to the original discussion. Plus, the problems typically reoccur quickly so the discussion doesn't work out.

In general, problems are inevitable and no discussion can work out well, in the long run, without problem solving effort by the participants. But the pattern is people ignore things I say related to problem solving and just go back to the discussion.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (5)

Pre-Scripted Discussions

People in conversations usually just say their own (largely pre-determined) stuff, following their own script, because that’s all they know how to say.

They know something, and they are proud to know anything at all, and they go into the discussion planning to talk about that knowledge they do have, and they try to stick to that.

This is why they are so non-responsive when I say things that require off-script responses. They don’t know how to think on their feet and actually address a question. They can basically only answer a question if they already read/heard what to think about it in advance.

Some things this comes up with:

  • Meta discussion (e.g. any kind of proposal about how to organize the discussion, like to switch forums, use quotes, or go slower with smaller steps).
  • Asking them to engage with critics or rival ideas instead of just present their positive case.
  • Any questions they didn’t expect or which seem a bit off topic to them. it doesn’t matter if you have a reason for asking and it’s actually relevant, they don’t know how to answer because it doesn’t fit their script.
  • Any criticism that doesn't fit the script, e.g. about their writing being too unclear and failing to communicate. Dealing with misunderstandings isn't part of their script or pre-knowledge.
  • The people who seem to be talking to themselves or doing a monologue more than they are having an interactive discussion.

This is unnatural and unintuitive to me because I learn during discussions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Open Discussion

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Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (975)

Recording Setup

recording setup

Click the image to view with higher resolution. Photo taken with iPhone X.

The desk is 98 inches. It's like this Ikea countertop, but birch instead of oak. They don't sell mine anymore.

The bag hanging on the back of the mic stand holds a counterweight because the mic is a bit heavy for this stand. The mic is mounted in a shock absorber and has a pop filter. The pole you see goes down to a tripod on the floor. I often move the mic away when I'm not recording since it blocks my view of the left screen, and it's in the way of putting food in front of the left screen.

The fantasy pictures are old. I'd replace them if I had a better idea, but I don't care much. I might get some sound absorbing foam to put on my walls to improve the acoustics. I have a big US flag and a regular Israeli flag on other walls, but I think I'm bored of posters.

The right screen is showing TSM Leffen's Twitch stream. He's playing Super Smash Bros. Melee. I often have muted streams on side screens. The center screen has MailMate and Screenflow's window for beginning a recording.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)