Friday, March 21, 2014

Crime and Punishment: If We Could Create Hell, Should We?

This is also posted at my religion and morality blog The Lucky Atheist.

Sam Harris has in several places discussed his moral thought experiment of a pill that would make prisoners think they'd been tortured when they really hadn't. This is why a recent piece in Aeon about length of punishment was so interesting. First it asks if it's ethical to extend someone's life so they could serve a thousand year sentence; then it asks if it would be ethical to change their consciousness so they thought they had served a thousand years, or least much longer than they actually had. (Star Trek fans will recognize an episode of Deep Space 9 here, where exactly this happened.)

More broadly, the moral issue they're getting at here is whether some kind of hell is permissible or even to be encouraged, once we can create it. (Again science fiction has been there: Iain Banks readers will recognize the central question of Surface Detail, where virtual reality hells are used to punish brutal dictators.) It would also be interesting to ask theists about this. Assuming a situation where everyone (theist and atheist) agrees that a particular person's actions are suitably heinous, shouldn't we begin their punishment as soon as possible? If Hell is a real place that bad people go to, why wait?

Leaving aside the more mundane questions that we can ask of our prison right now - who wants to feed a bad guy for a thousand years, and does knowledge of a thousand year sentence actually deter behavior (utility calculations don't seem to affect bank robbery rates, for example) - I think it's obvious that we should focus on how to prevent terrible behavior in the first place, instead of how to make punishment after the fact more severe. Instead of creating virtual hells, shouldn't we focus on creating a real heaven? If you have the science to make someone think they're living a thousand years, what about the science to keep them from becoming a serial killer in the first place? Here people might object that if we choose that path, surely there's something scary about tampering with human nature and free will, to which I answer: you better have a very, very clear argument then. If we weigh the very concrete suffering experienced by Ted Bundy's victims and their families against this amorphous threat to human nature, I think engineering better behavior wins hands down.

In a way, up until now we've been fortunate, because this hasn't been a choice that it's within our power to make. But once it's within our grasp, if we don't face the facts head on and make an explicit decision based on our values - if we muddle through pretending we still don't have that power, or we just let inertia be our guide - then we're being profoundly immoral. Maybe not this particular decision, but many decisions like it, are going to have to be made already in this century.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wealth and Coastline, Part 2: The United States

Previously I showed that the average income in the set of 138 countries for which I had income data, countries that do have some saltwater coastline is $13,562, vs $9,040 for those with no coastline. This is not surprising, to the extent that you'd expect places with globally linked economies established by their historical presence on the seas to do well, as you would expect for places that were non-extractively colonized (they'll often be the same places, i.e. the U.S.) So it might be worth asking, is there a similar effect in the U.S.?

Yes. In general, the coastal states have higher per capita incomes than the landlocked states. But the scatter plot is interesting. There's a U-shaped trend to this data, of distance of each state capital from American saltwater, versus per capita income (U.S. Census). I say "American saltwater" because there are two states (New Mexico and Arizona) where it's faster to go to the Gulf of California. Even including that as the closest saltwater doesn't change much.

You notice the income minimum at 607 miles from saltwater? It's not just a curve artifact - if you look at the states with capitals 500-700 miles from saltwater, they have a lower per capita among them ($24,141) vs the country as a whole ($28,051). These 7 states with capitals 500-700 miles are the sparsely populated and therefore small service economies of the northern Rockies (Utah, Montana, Idaho), as well as part of the Bad Stripe in the Appalachians (Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana), and post-industrial Michigan. Is there something worse about being 600 miles from the sea, as opposed 1000 or more? (6 states: Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, the latter the furthest at 1,235 miles.) But it's possible that it's just a historical accident, as with the supposed effect of rainfall at 100 degrees west longitude causing the population to drop off toward the west. In the case of 100 degrees west, Americans had settled to about that distance inland when the rail lines were completed. (Read the history of towns in western Texas and you will usually see a discussion of which rail line it was on; true for most of the Frontier Strip.)

Also of note: I used driving distance to saltwater, but this is not a great approximation. Even if we were going to use driving distance to saltwater regardless of country, you couldn't include Hudson Bay as North Dakota's closest, because you can't drive there! And just because you can drive to coastline doesn't mean there's a port there, or geography that allows ports to be built. Furthermore, the Great Lakes states are de facto on saltwater because canals and locks connect shipping all the way through to Minnesota.

If you count states in the discrete category of whether they're landlocked and how landlocked they are (1 state away from saltwater? 2 states?) it's clear that the median income of saltwater states is higher - $29,551 vs $26,073. However, among the landlocked states, the U-shaped curve appears again: for the land-locked states, there's no trend for more isolated = lower income; if anything it's the opposite (isolated means the more states you have to go through to get to saltwater from there). The only state 4 states away from Saltwater is Minnesota which at 30,656 has a higher PCI than the median of the coastal states., the better its income. (1 state away, $25,275; 2 states away, $26,695; 3 states away, $26,545.)