Saturday, May 29, 2010

Maximization: The Heroin Problem of Happiness-Based Morality

A problem of any happiness-maximizing theory of morality is "the heroin problem". If the point of morality is to increase pleasure (for self or for the greatest number, i.e. utility theories), shouldn't our goal be to create as much pleasure as possible, even if that pleasure is created by gaming the system (e.g., with heroin or a Matrix-like simulation)?

There are a few ways to think about this problem.

Resolution #1: Destroy values that obstruct pleasure maximization. In a parallel development, I have endeavored to destroy my taste in wine because by developing a taste in wine or anything else, you're working against yourself - you're actually making your marginal unit of pleasure more expensive. You have to choose which is the better option: having a refined taste, where you drink an expensive wine, experiencing X pleasure points, and signal your refinement to peers; OR tasting a cheap wine and not knowing any better, so you also experience X pleasure points, and also you have $50 dollars in your pocket to buy 5 more bottles of wine (so you actually get 6X pleasure points; unless the admiration you get from peers has some combination on the spectrum between being worth $50 or is 5 times more pleasure points, you're better off with no taste in wine.

Expanding this approach to happiness-maximizing morality in general, certainly it's the rare human whose moral intuition drives them toward hedonic excess at the expense of all other values. However, perhaps we're still laboring under bad and unquestioned moral assumptions which are after all not innate to human beings, and in fact it should be our goal to identify and do away with all values, beliefs and behaviors that get in the way of optimum utility. For example, most of us recoil at the suggestion that empathy should be eliminated because it conflicts with the pursuit of utility, but perhaps our outrage at such a suggestion is an example of a bad moral assumption. The anti-ascetic of the future will gladly pluck out (for example) the brain circuits that create a desire to care for his/her offspring, as clear offenders to the unflinching goal of increasing happiness.

Resolution #2: Heroin and orgasms aren't the only things that bring about happiness. There are certainly multiple types of experiences that lead to happiness beyond that of physical pleasure; again, if morality is really and only about happiness, the goal should be to identify those types of experiences, the realization of which conflict with each other, and destroy the desire/capacity for conflicting experiences which are in the minority. And presumably a simulation could provide not just heroin rushes and orgies with supermodels, but all the higher hedonic forms, up to and including a sense of meaning: professional achievements, family ceremonies, etc.

Resolution #3: It's the capacity for current and future happiness that matters. Neurologically gaming the system leads to an organism vulnerable to predation and disease; is ten years in heroin-simulation land until your body dies of dehydration better than sixty years in the real world? If asking to be hooked up to a pleasure simulation and left there until you die is wrong, why? This resolution is suspect because it usually conveys some degree of knee-jerk disgust for the incapacitated agent who has diminished their contact with reality in exchange for the equivalent of neurochemical masturbation. Again, see #1 above: this disgust for voluntarily putting oneself in such a passive position is certainly an obstacle to realizing a life of greater pleasure. Also test claimants of this resolution by asking: what if the simulation were built by aliens who guarded it and made absolutely sure the deteriorating, drooling simulation zombies inside the simulation (you!) were 100% safe - i.e., capacity for future happiness is now not a problem. Do you still have a problem with giving yourself over to such a simulation? If so, then future happiness capacity is not your real demand.

Resolution #4: Our moral sense is not entirely predicated on happiness. Our behavior is certainly not 100% rational or conscious-principle-guided by any means, so why do we think that our moral sense would different?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Do We Decide When a Good or Service Is Too Dangerous For a Free Market?

There are areas of commerce where markets can be perceived as maintaining a tension with moral values. These areas include but are not limited to: commonly, gambling, prostitution, mind-altering drugs; more centrally in the study of economics, labor arrangements (here and here), and of course health care. We could extend this last category to the laws growing up around the U.S. and elsewhere restricting sale of trans fats or sugary drinks to kids. It's harder to argue (but not impossible) that markets should not be allowed to run their course in things like (for example) clothing. It's surprisingly difficult to think of examples of things that governments have tried to specially insulate from market economics short of 100% centrally planned economies. (In fact if you're worried about the free markets of shoes destroying the world, Douglas Adams anticipated your concern.) What the commonly insulated goods and services have in common is that they're things about which humans have difficulty thinking rationally (short term sensual goods, "vices" - gambling, prostitution, sugary drinks) or no rational basis for their behavior in the first place (avoidance of negatives, like indignity, suffering, and death, i.e. labor arrangements and health care). As a first approximation, the more boring a good or service - i.e., the more that commerce decisions take place entirely in the executive centers of the brain - the fewer problems it will cause on an open market. Shoes are not as dangerous as opiates, or as contentious as indentured servitude.

But humans are not always the rational optimizers we think we are, and it will always be the case that some of us make bad decisions with regards to certain goods or services, and this tendency differs between individuals. Whether it is moral to restrict others from these goods and services is an important question that libertarians wish more people would consider. Case in point: I have given up trying to eat only reasonable, non-health-damaging amounts of chocolate. Is it moral to demand limits, or an outright ban, on chocolate sales for everyone, to protect the weak-willed like myself? Why then for alcohol? Why for prostitution and heroin and gambling? After all, you're mature enough to handle (or just plain avoid) these things, so how can I demand you alter your actions, even though keeping chocolate available absolutely has an impact on my health? So why isn't allowing the poor judgment of some to make the decision for all a classic case of tyranny of the majority?

What's interesting is that as freedoms are extended, the leading narrative-generators in these sorts of debates become less moral and more economic, not to mention more transparently self-serving. That is, at the start of the discussion, we can't make X legal because the world will end, and think about the children! Once X is legal in some polities, it becomes increasingly clear that the world has not ended and the children are fine, so the debate moves to economics. Eventually, no one can remember what the fuss was. Charging interest on loans was considered immoral and an affront to God in European Christianity. How much of that talk have we heard in the Greek crisis so far? Of course, debt can be dangerous, which is exactly what the last few years of economics have shown, but without it, most of us would never own property.

What prompted me to write this post is that, with liberalizing goods (as opposed to de-liberalizing ones like health care in the U.S.) it's during the transition period from world-ending to pure-economics that we hear the funniest arguments. Economic stake-holders want to defend their turf, and their competition is largely held at bay through government-enforced monopolies or oligopolies. At the same time, these stakeholders know that "if you allow more businesses to buy/do X the world will end" is more compelling to a liberal-democratic public than "if you allow more businesses to buy/do X, I'll have more competition", especially if the earlier values that made the good or service a vice persist over time. So a stake holder will pony up to the mic and with a straight face, s/he will tell the public that what s/he does for a living is bad, and there shouldn't be any more allowed. To use two provincial Eastern U.S. examples: "'We have to fight this explosion of gambling all around us,' said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which has four casinos in Atlantic City." (From "East Coast Casino Market Getting Crowded"; another provincial East Coast issue is the liberalization of alcohol laws in Pennsylvania, allowing sales in supermarkets like most of the U.S. allows, which also gets its share of incoherent moral and economic arguments from, you guessed it, managers of state-run alcohol stores. [Added later: at National Review Reihan Salam analyzes arguments against the spread of online education as being one example of the general phenomenon of traditional producers' inconsistent rhetoric against a shift in production; I would argue the same applies to distribution: "Call it the producer’s lament. Basically, traditional producers — of handicrafts, of pop albums, of community college education — grow accustomed to making a product in a particular way. When cheaper alternatives threaten to put them out of business, we hear a wide array of arguments, many of them conflicting and contradictory (but hey, whatever works!), about why the new mode of production is profoundly dangerous or unjust. Clay Shirky has vividly described how this discourse has played out in the book-selling and publishing industries, as has the always excellent Tim Lee."]
[Added still later - it works in politics too, as in this case where the existing Cherokee Nation is suing Tennessee over its recent recognition of other tribes. Native solidarity, right?]

Of course, there's really no surprise here; people will act in ways that are in their material self-interest, and industry-based rhetoric is no exception. But it's a reminder that capitalists are particularly, as we should expect, materially self-interested - they want wealth, not free markets - and they're willing to use government to that end. Hence we've had admonitions right from the start from the likes of Adam Smith to save capitalism from the capitalists: "The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [businesspeople], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention."

Note the absence of explicit "the world will end" alarmism from the casino manager's rhetoric, because that would require a little bit too much doublethink even for the average news-consumer aiming to reconfirm his or her values. I'm looking forward to seeing the same kinds of self-oblivious contortions from money-lending banks in majority-Islamic countries this century, as well as from marijuana sellers (or local governments benefiting from tax revenues) in parts of the U.S. that are liberalizing marijuana laws: here, here and here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Economic Impact: If Not Religion, Then Culture?

[Via Organizations and Markets.]

Max Weber famously conjectured that something called the Protestant Work Ethic was responsible for the industrial output of German-speaking workers. For as much as this hypothesis has become a cliche, it's attracted appropriate scrutiny. For example, in the excellent Mystery of Capital, Hernando DeSoto openly scoffed at the idea, turning to Japan as one counterexample. (As an aside: Japan is an excellent counterexample for many, many theories about economics, development, culture and religion, and one which is often inexplicably ignored by Westerners. Fortunately for accurate social science, it's getting much harder to miss the rise of Japan and the rest of East Asia.)

We now have solid quantitative evidence that DeSoto and other doubters were right. Davide Cantoni at Harvard has looked back at historical data from the German-speaking statelets of the Holy Roman Empire and shown no effect of religion on economic growth.

The question remains: what does explain industrial successes of this region, or of one region relative to another? One argument is that other aspects of culture are what matter, since religion and government differed between the German states.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Immigration and Power

Background facts you need to appreciate this story:

1) In response to the new immigration law, Los Angeles City Council voted to boycott trade with Arizona.

2) LA gets 25% of its power from Arizona.

Emphasis on the fightin' words is mine:

An Arizona Corporations Commissioner responds to LA Mayor Villaraigosa with an open letter: "If an economic boycott is truly what you desire, I will be happy to encourage Arizona utilities to renegotiate your power agreements so Los Angeles no longer receives any power from Arizona-based generation. I am confident that Arizona's utilities would be happy to take those electrons off your hands. If, however, you find that the City Council lacks the strength of its convictions to turn off the lights in Los Angeles and boycott Arizona power, please reconsider the wisdom of attempting to harm Arizona's economy.

People of goodwill can disagree over the merits of SB 1070. A state-wide economic boycott of Arizona is not a message sent in goodwill."

Full story here.

[Added 20 June 2010: Cal Coast News rounds up the large deals with Arizona companies that many of the more rhetorically overheated California city governments have quietly consummated since getting on the bandwagon. The boycott seems to have disappeared down the memory hole.]

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Productivity Paradox?

An article by Shaun Hendy about New Zealand's poor recent productivity growth points to a paper by McCann. As trade barriers with New Zealand's larger continental neighbor have fallen, New Zealand's productivity growth has been anemic. This is the productivity paradox. Hendy points out that the same thing is going on between Australian states, and links to a paper on the poor performance of South Australia's economy relative to the rest of the country. What's going on?

Hendy argues that as barriers to movement of capital and talent fall, capital and talent will tend to enucleate around the same locations and they will concentrate geographically, in what could be considered a big coordination game. How many Australians are moving to New Zealand to further their careers or find investors? How many people from Sydney are moving to Adelaide?

It's worth asking this same question for the United States. Anecdotally, I have known this recession to have forced multiple families to move to the coasts, and if this is representative, it's going to accelerate an internal U.S. productivity paradox. While Richard Florida's vision of vibrant, tolerant, creative-class-oriented cities is certainly a positive one, not everybody can be San Francisco and Seattle - and we may see a runaway productivity paradox within the U.S. The only productivity growth map I could find (below) does not show a clear separation by region, but it predates this recession.

From Steve Cochrane at

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Obscure Interesting Person: Charles Curtis

Vice President of the United States with Hoover, 1929-1933. Interestingly, the first acknowledged non-100% European to hold this office (he was 3/8 Native American, a factor of 6 greater than your blogger); therefore, the highest elected not-100% European official in the United States until 2009. Ben Kingsley is slated to play him in an upcoming independent film.

Boutique Indices

I don't care that China has four times the population of the U.S. When they're beating us at beer consumption even in absolute terms, things have gone south. Get with the program Yanks!

The Development of Planism and Line in Art History

This is cross-posted at my outdoors and running blog.

Looking toward the south side from the Genesee Highlands area of San Diego. Acrylic on canvas. Do note I make no representation of skill; my rule for myself is from stepping out my front door, to picking up the canvas to go home, can be no more than 30 minutes, including travel time. You can tell, but it's still fun.

When you're out running, you perceive massive amounts of information just for a moment (that rock on the trail, that lizard skittering in front of you, a patch of mustard flowers hanging out from the chaparral to the side) and literally after a second all that experience is gone, and you're left with an impression of a ridge and a valley with yellow grass and mint-green sage. That's okay; you can't take the sense-experience with you.

I'm not the first runner or outdoor enthusiast who's wanted to pay tribute to the lands I know and love by reproducing them in my own hand, by writing or painting, so I thought I'd try filtering Rose Canyon through a planist perspective. "Planism" is an umbrella term I use to catch many styles of art, including some named 20th century schools (including cubism) but also van Gogh and in particular Cezanne. I think given my lack of training it's clear that the idea is more interesting than the execution, but it at least prompted me to think about where my interest in this style comes from:

1) Planism is how humans actually see. We break the world into surfaces. This has been investigated scientifically and I've also had a number of personal experiences reinforcing and highlighting this aspect of visual perception. By this I mean the kinds of experiences that nature forces on you, if you're paying attention. Climbing a steep trail in mountainous country, endless parallel ridges backing up to the horizon reveal themselves this way and in so doing lift one corner of the veil off the inner workings of how our consciousness quietly knits itself together moment-to-moment. Even staring through a tree long enough can make the branches seem to suddenly stratify into planes of non-continuous depth. "Line" in representative art seems often (usually?) to really just be a way to emphasize the break between planes, a discontinuity in depth, and that's what inspired my amateurish effort here. Apparently in Europe a century or two ago the fashionable debate was between followers of Ruben or Poussin, who debated whether line or color should demarcate surfaces. Evidently none of these people were ever in the outdoors in California, because here, line clearly does exist in nature.

2) The recent history of line in Western art is a history of planism. Cubism and some of the other 20th-century -isms were descended from or influenced by Cezanne and van Gogh, who broke scenes into planes favoring certain angles (right or slightly acute in the case of cubism). Cezanne's paintings in particular (especially later in his career) flattened scenes into non-contiguous planes, often using dark lines.

Mont-Sainte Victoire, 1885,
image courtesy

Also moving toward a more planar style was van Gogh, influenced by Asian and in particular Japanese art which hadn't yet assimilated three-dimensional perspective or realism. (This is no indictment of perspective or realism as aberrations of European art - it's under-appreciated that realism was independently developed in sculpture at least one other time by the Maya.) In the end, if I'm trying imitate anybody, it's Cezanne, but true imitation would require talent and technique which as you may have noticed are absent in the work above.

3) The Pacific Northwest. A form of planism that absolutely fascinates me is the style traditionally referred to as Haida, but it really spans the Pacific Northwest culture region. (By planism I specifically mean art which appears to intentionally overemphasize the surfaces in a scene by a dramatically decomposing them into planes. I'm not referring to all art which lacks perspective, which would be a useless term since it would mean, for starters, every drawing ever beginning Lascaux through 15th century Europe.) I might be trying to imitate Pacific NW style even more than Cezanne (except in full color, on canvas):

From wikistange.

This technique breaks up the animal in stylized ways, emphasizing through relative-size-exaggeration functionally important parts of the animal; teeth, claws, head and eyes; on birds, the wings and their anticipated movements are prominent. Most interesting is that Pacific NW representations are essentially the same in both two and three dimensions - that is, the style in drawings is essentially the same as the style in wood-carving. Think about that: they have more wood than they knew what to do with, and yet when the style was developing they ended up imposing planes on three dimensions rather than imposing depth on two.

Boy, that's a whole lot of talkin' for one painting. If you made it this far I hope it was interesting to you.

I haven't decided whether the next one will be another planist attempt (on San Clemente Canyon, i.e. Marian Bear) or I'll do a Pacific Northwest mountain lion.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Future Corporate Personhood: Union Pacific Meets Skynet

This is cross-posted at my hard science and science fiction blog Speculative Nonfiction.

In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a legal decision which is regarded as significant because it in effect granted corporations legal personhood. Southern Pacific Railroad was the defendant in a case brought by Santa Clara County, California (the modern day location of Silicon Valley).

We can all concede that this seems strange on its face. A corporation is a social and legal fiction that exists by fiat of its owners and stake-holders, and has no free will of its own. By the same token you can't get out of a car accident by saying (for example) "It was my mirror that clipped you, not me, and the mirror is the car's property, not mine." By the same token, your dog doesn't own his leash, your computer doesn't own your printer, etc. - you do - and you're responsible for them. Thinking about it this way makes it seem even more bizarre that a mere century and a half ago, in much of the U.S., you couldn't own property if your skin wasn't the right color, because you yourself were property (or could be). Again: a computer can't own a printer.

That the legal conceit of corporate personhood seems strange does not mean that it is bad. There are lots of mutually-agreed social hallucinations that have ended up benefiting their participants, materially or otherwise: social mores, nation-states, games, religions, and certifications. Some of these mutual hallucinations differ in that they are considered inarguably "real" constituents of objective reality outside of their human participants, while some are not. Some of them are more voluntary, artificial, and explicitly engineered for a purpose; the trend is toward these. This is a good thing, and corporations are a prime example. Everyone knows that a corporation isn't a person, but legal conceits are like the social equivalent of capital markets or enzymes: as long as it's above board, everyone winks and then is okay calling a spade a club until you get the loan, or you lower the energy of the transition state. Then you get over whatever barrier you had to wealth or energy generation, and everyone gets what they want.

Some seem concerned at the unnaturalness of these legal conceits and fear that once we legitimize such silliness as corporate personhood, we open the door to a future in which humans exist enmeshed in an increasingly byzantine network of such arrangements. This phobia is portrayed darkly in books like The Unincorporated Man, which attempts to convey a dystopia in which one such future legal conceit is the opposite of the Union Pacific decision, where individuals incorporate themselves and sell shares of themselves to investors. In fact, due to a desire for wealth creation driving an increasing profusion of complex social arrangements, a world like that one is almost certain to come to pass, and furthermore I hope it does! No, I personally cannot imagine a world of personal corporatehood, and if I woke up in 2100, I'm sure I would have a hard time adjusting. That in itself is no argument against such an arrangement. In the same vein Julius Caesar would have been equally clueless about (and perhaps frightened of) the concept of corporate personhood, though if he were born in 1960 I bet he would get it just fine.

There is one concern I do have for the future of corporate personhood specifically that I haven't seen discussed and which I grant will seem esoteric. Corporate personhood is a safe legal fiction only when the property owned by the corporation is not equivalent in its abilities to a person. That is, there was no confusion about the bounds of property and person in 1886 or today. None of the steam engines sitting in Southern Pacific railyards had the potential to achieve a place in the Southern Pacific boardroom. This observation will seem less pointless when we recognize that some of the property of corporations will almost certainly, by the end of this century, be at least equal in decision-making ability to board members. In 2100 the steam engines or at least the computers running them will probably have a say in corporate governance. If a corporation consists of a single powerful computer, that corporation will then be a person, both legally and (de facto) cognitively.

If you've read Stross's Accelerando, it's hard not to think of the computer system that was constantly spinning multinational shell corporations around itself to protect its owner's interests. We can argue later whether these machines are "conscious", "intelligent", or any other adjective that interests you. But will we see incorporated expert systems with no human board members? Is this a threat to the human economy? Is this an argument for or against designing a constitution in a legal programming language that has to be compiled and can't execute until its internal logic is consistent? The utility of these legal fictions is that we live in the real world and we can reel them back when they get too non-sensical or damaging; at such time that corporate personhood is deemed a threat to human happiness and survival, we can eliminate the convention. We can't do this with a corporation that has literal vested interests of its own.