Monday, February 28, 2011

Power and Sentience

Muammar Qaddafi is insane.  His actions, like the actions of countless dictators and cult leaders before him, seem inhuman.  He has gone from 'bad person' to 'barely sentient'.  All hints of conscience, even consciousness, seem to be fading.  It is if a bizarre alien has taken over his brain.

It has now become a cliche to say, "Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  Here's the original quote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. ( Lord Acton )

Research in psychology, most famously the Stanford prison experiment, confirmed this.  Power makes people act very badly.  Even a hint of power can do the same thing.

Recent research and theoretical developments in neuroscience explain why humans do this.  People used to think that humans had large brains in order to understand and deal with the natural world and to make tools.  But it does not take much brainpower to use tools, and brains are very metabolically expensive.  Also, we know that humans are not, instinctively, very good at using tools and solving problems.  So we need a new theory to explain why people have such large brains.

The Social Intelligence Hypothesis says that humans have large brains in order to manage social relationships.  There is a very large advantage to working in a large, well-coordinated group, and this advantage is what drove the development of larger brains.  Casual observation supports this theory.  Most normal people instinctively employ social strategies that are amazingly sophisticated from a mathematical game-theory point of view.  The same people who struggle with basic arithmetic will often do things in their social life that our best and most sophisticated mathematical models can barely replicate.  For example, people will spread gossip in order to test and monitor the social connections of their peers

The key to human coordination is our theory of mind.  This is, briefly, the ability to imagine that other people have their own thoughts, desires, and knowledge.  We are the only species that has a well-developed theory of mind, although other social animals like dogs and wolves have somewhat similar abilities.

In order to imagine and predict the thoughts of others, we have to be able to analyze our own thoughts.  It is very hard to model how others might be thinking just by collecting data from the world.  Even our best computers and our best analytical techniques, supplied with mountains of data, will take a long time to estimate anything just based on data with no guiding theory programmed in.  It is much, much easier to be able to look at your own thoughts, ask yourself why you did what you did, ask yourself what you would do in an imaginary situation, and then assume others might act in a similar way.  In other words, consciousness mainly exists because it is a useful social tool.

This analysis of our own thoughts, and our ability to see ourselves as part of a larger society, is perhaps the most defining feature of humanity.  But there are two things to keep in mind.  The first is that the 'consciousness process' is grafted onto an animal brain, and it is not essential for maintaining life.  The second is that the human body is amazingly lazy.  Most things that are not regularly will atrophy.  This applies to muscles, bones, connective tissue, and also neurons and their connections.  Any mental process that is not used will be shut down.

So is perfectly possible for consciousness, like any other mental skill, to wither away from disuse.  Now remember that consciousness exists only to navigate society.  In order to get things from others, you have to interact with them.  For almost all people, getting what you want means keeping  other people happy.  But what happens when you can get whatever you want without having to care about what other people are thinking?  If you are in a position of power, you do not need to navigate social complexities.  You just tell other people what to do and they do it.  There is no need to activate your social intelligence.

With this background knowledge, the corrupting nature of power becomes more clear.  People who are in power for an extended period of time start to lose their theory of mind.  They lose the ability to analyze the thoughts and desires of others.  There is no need to analyze and reflect on their thoughts, so they simply stop doing it.*  Over time, their brains simply stop bothering to be conscious, or even human.  They are left with nothing but animalistic desires and an ability to use language to express those desires.

Or, put simply:

Power means not having to think about what other people think. Sentience is thinking about what other people think. Therefore, more power means less sentience.

An extended period of power will literally make someone inhuman.

*Note that people who have lots of power, but bigger ambitions, do not suffer this.  If you are the absolute and unchallenged ruler of a country, but you want to make your country larger and more powerful, you will have to constantly analyze the thoughts of the people in the surrounding countries.  You will make alliances and deals with neighboring rulers, and this will keep your brain exercised.  Conversely, people who have a tiny amount of power, but who are unchallenged in that tiny sphere and have no desire for anything else, can suffer these mental effects.

Friday, February 25, 2011


On the night of Aug. 6, 2004, Cyntoia Brown, a runaway forced into prostitution by her abusive boyfriend, was picked up in front of a Nashville Sonic drive-in restaurant by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent. They went back to his house, where Cyntoia — who later insisted she feared for her life — shot him to death. She was subsequently tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

The night of the shooting, Birman said, "Cyntoia was creeped out by the guy, but she lacked the judgment to get up and walk out of the house." Instead, she panicked. Or perhaps, after so much abuse by so many men, she simply snapped. In any event, she grabbed a gun, pulled the trigger and Allen was dead. While the impulse to punish a perpetrator is understandable, it's hard to see how anyone, or any meaningful principle, is served by locking up Cyntoia for a half-century or more. (She's now in her early 20s.)
If there's a heavy in the film, it's the prosecutor at her murder trial who argues successfully for a guilty verdict and sentence of life without parole. But Birman gives him a chance to state his viewpoint at the end, and it's a perfectly reasonable one: His mandate is to keep violent, dangerous people off the streets, and he was doing his job. How she became violent and dangerous is someone else's responsibility. 

I know that I do not have all of the information about this case, so what follows is not in any way meant to indicate that people involved did the wrong thing.  Maybe they did, but I have no evidence to make such a claim.  Think of this as a philosophical thought experiment based on the given scenario:

1) A woman has no record of violent crime and is not carrying a weapon.
2) A man picks her up and drives her to his house in order to conduct an illegal activity.
3) The man has a loaded gun, with the safety off, lying around within easy reach.
4) The woman shoots the man with this gun.

I would say that such a woman is no threat to any law-abiding citizen.  She is only dangerous to people who seek out illegal activity with strangers in the presence of an unsecured weapon.  I will not go so far as to say that the man she shot deserved to die, but he was clearly an idiot, and possibly a dangerous one.  

When you consider the situation, the woman certainly had reason to fear for her life.  Why would the man have the gun there, if he did not intend to threaten or kill her with it?  Responsible gun owners who care about self-defense do not leave their weapons lying unsecured in the presence of strangers.  They will either be carrying their gun in a holster at all times, or will have it in a hidden but easily reached location.  They will also keep the safety on.

Given these facts alone, it would be hard to define the death of this man as 'crime'.  It should be listed as either 'self defense' or 'gun accident'.  When you add the facts of what he was planning to do to her, the case for trying her as an adult criminal starts to look incredibly weak.  She may be dangerous to men who plan on sexually abusing her in the presence of a loaded gun, but there is no evidence that she is 'dangerous' to anyone else.

Maybe she should have walked away.  But that is a lot harder than it sounds like.  She was in a strange area with no transportation.  How would she even get back to a place she knew?  It might mean a 20-mile walk through bad neighborhoods, and that is if she even knew the way out.  Also, it is definitely possible that walking away from that man in that situation would result in her getting shot in the back.

I would not feel the least bit threatened such a woman if she were living right next door to me.  I cannot imagine any possible situation in which she would harm me.  If anything, her shooting people like this would make the neighborhood a better and safer place.

The really annoying thing is that the man who raped her have never been punished.  They are the truly dangerous people.  If the legal system is not going to punish them, then it should at least stop punishing the women who defend themselves.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Repair Tool

Our copier broke earlier this week, and a man was repairing it today.  He went out to do something and left his tool bag open in the mail room.  I was curious, so I started to look closely at the tools.  Along with nice-looking screwdrivers and needlenose pliers, there was, carefully hooked into an elastic band, a paper clip.

I laughed when I saw it.  Anyone who has worked with electric or electronic hardware knows the value of a paper clip.  It is such a useful, versatile tool.

Aside from computer repair, there are so many things you can do with a paperclip.  I have personally used paper clips to make handles for three crock pots* and do an auto body field repair**.

* Those plastic handles always fall apart after a few years.
** There was a plastic panel that had come loose from under the front bumper of my parents' van, and it was dragging on the road.  I reattached it with a paper clip twisted where a screw had fallen out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Reading this article made me depressed.

The article itself is not depressing.  It is an upbeat review of a book that looks at the evidence on effective antipoverty programs in the developing world.  The thing that depressed me was this:

I do think more Americans will support international aid programs if the sales pitch is focused on effectiveness and efficiency. The last chapter of More Than Good Intentions presents a "takeaway" of seven ideas that have stood up to rigorous evaluation. They include:
• Deworming programs in Africa that drastically increased school attendance at extraordinarily low cost.

This is depressing because public health campaigners knew this a hundred years ago

Think about it.  By 1920, the success of hookworm eradication in the American South was obvious.  A generation of lethargic dullards had been turned into a generation of good students and productive workers by evicting the parasites from their intestines.  It dramatically improved the health, wealth, and quality of life of a large portion of the country.  It was one of the public health miracles of the century

And yet, for the past ninety years, this lesson has been ignored or forgotten by people in the international aid community.  They have squandered billions on aid programs that accomplished nothing, or given money to corrupt governments in ways that were actively harmful to the population.  They have wasted amazing amounts of time and effort on various schemes that tried to alleviate a few of the symptoms of poverty, while the people they were trying to help suffered under crippling parasite loads that could have been erased cheaply and easily.

It is enough to make my mind start spinning cynical conspiracy theories.  Charities and aid organizations do not have any incentive to actually solve problems.  They have an incentive to let the problems linger and fester while they try various visible but ineffective remedies, so they can constantly attract more money and pay their own salaries.

This is a perfect example of why you need to pay people based on results.  Charities should only get money if they can demonstrate that they have done something useful and permanent.  There seems to be some movement in this direction.  Hopefully it will catch on.  If we had applied the lessons of basic economics to charity and public health campaigns, then poverty in the developing world would have been eliminated decades ago.

The root cause of all of this is people and governments who give money to inefficient charities.  Think of how many times you have seen people brag "We raised $X for cause Y".  The language of giving makes input, not output, the goal, with the predictable consequence that efficiency, the amount of output you get per unit of input, falls to about zero.  People brag and feel good about how much money they gave away, as if there was some fixed correlation between input and output, but in reality they accomplish nothing at all.

Here's a bit of advice: Never give any money to anyone who seems to have a goal of raising money, and talks about success in terms of raising money.  Demand results and do your research.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Obama and Government

I have noticed something interesting about the Obama presidency.  During the election, the conventional wisdom was that he was a great politician, but he would not be a good manager.  He was seen as someone full of rhetoric and short of practical skills.

The reverse seems to be true.  Obama seems amazingly inept at playing Washington's political games; he has shown no ability to control or manage Congress.  Almost everything that has come out of Congress since his election has been junk, and that shows no signs of changing.  And yet, he is running the administrative branch of government, the part he is directly responsible for, with admirable competence.  His economic and regulatory policies have been much better than normal, and certainly much better than the Bush's.

He is very much an intellectual, a technocrat who knows how to deal well with anything that can be studied and analyzed academically, but who is incapable of dealing with the explosive vagaries of human nature.  He can give a good speech and work a crowd, but he cannot 'work' a room full of politicians.  I get the impression that he would be much better at chess than poker.

He also seems to be a moral and idealistic human being.  Whatever you may think of his policies, and the people he has worked with, his personal actions and lifestyle are beyond reproach.  In many ways, he is the exact opposite of people like LBJ and Bill Clinton.

I know it is silly to look for patterns like this, and it is easy to invent connections out of thin air, but there are amazing parallels between Obama and Carter.  They are similar kinds of people, and they were elected by a population reacting against the attitudes and actions of the previous administration.  Both presided over a rotten economy that was not really their fault, and both of them had to deal with a popular revolt against American-backed dictators in Muslim countries that had been propped up by previous administrations.  

Obama, however, seems to be handling things much better than Carter did.

Here's the story that inspired this post.  Economists have long knows that competitions are the best way to get value for money, and Obama's time at the University of Chicago, which has one of the best Economics departments in the country, seems to have taught him a lot of good lessons.

Friday, February 18, 2011


A physician is more or less a human database and an incredibly expensive one. With medical training we basically take some of the most valuable brains on earth and hack them into doing something a brain is not intended to do: store and retrieve massive amounts specific information on demand with very low error rates.

I for one welcome the day when medical decisions are made by computers.

China and Buddhism

News of Master Yang's impending death reached his most enigmatic student on an isolated mountaintop above the Shaolin Temple. There Shi Dejian, a 47-year-old Buddhist monk, had already endured a trying week. A television crew had trekked up the vertiginous series of switchbacks hacked into the granite mountainside to reach the monastery. They brought with them a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter, whom they planned to film testing his skills against the monks. (He went home bruised.) A neurology team from Hong Kong University had arrived to study the effect Dejian's rigorous meditation regimen has on his brain activity, and he had spent an exhausting night applying his chi techniques to ease the pain of an ill friend. Then there had been the Communist Party official from Suzhou who had barged through the gate and demanded a cure for his brother's diabetes. For a man who seeks solitude, Dejian finds himself inundated with people.

The Chinese 'Communists'* have a very odd relationship with Buddhists.  They claim to be atheists and their official policy is one of condemnation and dismissal.  And yet, they pass laws trying to regulate reincarnation, and then you have incidents like this one.  They try to control and regulate the monks, and they also try to make money off exporting their image.

I know that it is a mistake to think of a government as a single self-consistent entity.  All governments are full of different people who think different things.  The main leadership will act and think differently than local officials.  But they seem unusually confused on this issue.

That official is an interesting portrait of religion, hope, desire, and corruption.  Generations of indoctrination fade away and old religious beliefs resurface when a family member gets sick.  He is desperate for a cure, and accustomed to ordering people around, so he turns to anything that might work.  This official has been trained his whole life to believe that the monks are frauds, but he turns to one in desperation.  And yet, even if the monk had anything to offer, this would be exactly the wrong way to get it.  You don't order around a Shaolin monk like one of your lackeys.  

The official's actions are ignorant, arrogant, and irrational.  And from what I have seen, the Chinese government is full of people like him.  Remember that when thinking of the future of China.  That kind of government incompetence seriously limits a society's potential.  There is a reason that all of the richest and healthiest economies are democracies.

*As I always tell my Econ 200 class, they are no longer communist or socialist and should be classified as 'Fascist'.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

American Exeptionalism

Jason Sorens, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, casts a sceptical eye on the common assumption that the United States is an unusual or "exceptional" country. According to Mr Sorens, America is not exceptionally free, American government is not exceptionally small, and that American inequality is not exceptionally high. 

read the whole article, which is nice and short but has links to all kinds of interesting data, if you want to know more, 

Math and Intuition

When I read this quote:

one metric ton of CO2 ... is the amount a typical family car will emit every 10 weeks.

I did not believe it at first.  On order to generate a metric ton of C02, you would need to combine about a third of a metric ton of fuel with oxygen in the atmosphere.*  That is about 700 pounds.  I thought, 'There is no way that anyone burns that much gas in 10 weeks.'

But then I looked up how much a gallon of gas weighs.  It is about 7 pounds.  So 700 pounds is 100 gallons of gas, or 10 gallons a week.  Suddenly the figure seems much more plausible.

I guess it is easy to underestimate just how much weight we are pumping into our cars when we fill up the gas tank.  My car is about 70 pounds heavier after I fill up the tank.  Somehow that makes the fuel burning seem a lot more real.

*Any engineers or physicists reading this are probably horrified by this simple approximation.  I know that carbon and oxygen have different atomic weights, and I also know that real fuels have a lot of hydrogen, which turns into water.  But I don't feel like taking the time to look up the atomic weights and doing a proper calculation.  Think of my estimate as a lower bound on the amount of fuel you would need to burn.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Suspect Description

I just got the following email:

University police are searching for a man described as about 6-feet 1-inch tall, 175 pounds. He was wearing a gray hooded jacket with orange  letters and carrying a dark shoulder bag. He entered the pharmacy at 8:24 a.m. with a note demanding drugs. No weapon was seen.
If you see someone matching this description call Clemson University police at 911 or

Except for the letters on the jacket, this description fits me very closely.  I guess I should avoid wearing my jacket and backpack if I go outside on campus today...

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I am sitting in the chair outside my door, in direct sunlight, with my back to a wall of warm bricks that is shielding me from wind and cold. I am still digesting a breakfast of chickpea hotcakes with onion, mushrooms, and avocado.

Life is good.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Here are a few interesting links.  I had been planning on writing comments but I don't really have much to say, except to recommend reading them.


The last 48 hours are a dim haze. I was working for at least 30 of them. Between 10:00 AM Wednesday, when I finished teaching my classes, and 11:00 PM Thursday, when I emailed my paper to a professor, I was working at a computer the entire time except for restroom breaks and about six hours of sleeping. My sustenance during that time was in the form of two loaves of oatmeal bread from my bread machine, some leftovers, lettuce and hummus, and granola bars, all eaten at my desk.

I have vague memories of reading dozens of articles, building mathematical models and proofs, formatting and manipulating piles of data, learning how to write Stata code and do-files, downloading image conversion software to my computer, dealing with formatting issues in LateX code, and of course writing up the actual paper and proofreading it for the increasingly bizarre typos that accumulated along with the fatigue poisons in my body.

Most econ research is really complicated and can only be understood by specialists. But while you need to be a specialist to understand how I got my results, and to see how they might be improved, the output of my paper can be understood by anyone who has taken a course in basic Econ. The end result of my work is basically this:

"In this paper, I estimate the demand curve for American citizenship and the associated revenue-maximizing quantity of immigrants to admit each year. I use a model where willingness to pay is based on moving costs and the net present value of the difference in income that immigrants could obtain by moving to the USA. I calculate the demand curve using data on worldwide income distributions and applications to the Diversity Visa program. I estimate that if the BCIS issued 1.37 million citizenships annually and sold them at auction, the equilibrium price would be $97,000 and annual revenues would be about $133 billion. Revenues in the first years of the program would likely be higher, because of a large backlog of demand.

...lots of math...

For the past decade, the USA naturalized around a million people each year. If those million citizenships had been auctioned off, I estimate that this would have generated about $124 billion in revenue each year."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Entrepreneurs believe that to the extent they can control the future, they don't need to predict it.

This is an awesome quote, and a great insight.  Because the future is so hard to predict, the costs of doing so well are higher than most people think.  Because random opportunities and problems pop up more often than people think, the benefits of a wide set of capabilities are greater than most people think.

A focus on prediction means abandoning control to the outside world.  You are like a weather forecaster, helpless to change things.  A focus on control lets you direct events to an outcome of your choosing.  If you have the ability to control a situation, there is no need to predict it, because what happens is what you want to happen.

One of my main personal mottoes is "Never make plans. Always be prepared."  This is a bit extreme, but the fact is that you can spend your time trying to plan and predict things, or you can spend your time building up skills and resources.  There is a great advantage to having the ability to deal with situations and take advantage of opportunities as they come up, and doing so can lead to better results than trying to plan everything out.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Office Management

Last summer, I collected and dried a lot of fruit: cherries, apples, and mulberries.  Dried fruit lasts for a long time, but there is a small chance that it could get moldy if you leave it at room temperature, so I kept it in clear plastic zipper bags in the department fridge, eating it a little at a time.  I thought it would be fine there; there is almost nothing in the fridge, it is rarely used, and nobody ever cleans it out.

When I went to get my lunch today, my fruit was gone.  Our new office manager had, without any warning, cleared out the fridge.  I went out to the hall trash can and saw that it had already been emptied.  I was not going to let that fruit go.  I had put a lot of work into it, and you simply cannot buy stuff like it.  I found the janitors, asked them where the trash bag was, and then followed their directions to the big dumpster by the loading dock.  After opening three trash bags, I found my fruit.

I understand that there was some old junk in the fridge.  But you do not just throw away food and containers without any warning.  You need to give people advance notice before doing things like that.  If there is a problem, you solve it by setting clear rules ahead of time, not by arbitrary unannounced action.  The office I used to work at had a perfectly sensible policy: The fridge would be cleared out at 4:30 every Friday.  Everything would go, and everyone knew it.  There was a sign on the fridge saying exactly what would happen.  The fridge stayed clean, despite lots of use, and nobody ever lost anything.

I would think that anybody could tell the difference between perfectly preserved bagged dried fruit and spoiled old leftovers.  But because one or two people had left some junk in the fridge, they reacted by throwing out anything that had been in there for more than a few days.

This is a perfect example of the things we teach in basic Econ class: misallocation of a public resource, followed by an ignorant and wasteful government intervention.  The problem could have been prevented by good institutions, in the form of a well-known policy, but instead we have to deal with the destructive consequences of arbitrary dictatorship.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cows and Culture

Large parts of South Sudan are invitingly fertile. Farmers could grow grain, sugar cane, coffee, tea and tropical fruits for canning. Few do. Most concentrate on raising cows, and not even for slaughter. Some 11m head of cattle wander the south, possibly more numerous than people, but beef sold in markets is usually imported.

Cattle are a cultural touchstone for most South Sudanese. Horned herds are a status symbol, a way of storing wealth in a land without a banking system, and the main currency in which dowries are paid. No matter how poor they are, people try to hold on to their beasts.

One million southerners are so poor that they need food aid—yet they rarely get enough to eat. All electricity comes from private generators, but the supply of fuel is irregular. Water is hard to get. In the capital men line up beside the Nile at sunrise to fill yellow jerry cans. Only 30% of the population has access to health care, most of it supplied by western agencies. Hospitals are extremely rare. Even large towns must make do with meagre dispensaries and most lack doctors. One baby in six dies before his or her first birthday.

Massive chunks of fertile land are given to cattle cultivation, which is a horribly inefficient way of feeding a population, even if you actually do eat the cows.  People are starving in a land of plenty.  

There are several possible ways to interpret this.  One is to assume that this is all a costly mistake, to assume that the people are bound up in a blind status-driven rat race that causes them to sacrifice their lives and their children for no good reason.  

The economic interpretation is as follows:  These people have lived for decades, perhaps centuries, in a state of near anarchy.  They are constantly threatened by raiders, and often driven out of their homes.  If they invested the time an effort to improve their lands and plant crops, they could easily lose everything with the next raid.  They would be stuck and vulnerable.

However, by focusing on raising a herd of cows, their wealth is mobile.  If war gets too close, they can flee to the hills with their animals.  Their children may be ill-fed, but at least they have something.  Farmers would have nothing at all.  It is entirely rational to pursue a strategy of herding.

We see this throughout history.  In chaotic places, people chose a nomadic herding lifestyle.  When they live in a society that protects property and provides rule of law, they switch to farming.  Farming is much more productive in most places, but it requires large and vulnerable investments.

The most nuanced view is this:  Cultural practices evolve as a rational response to the conditions that people face.  However, culture changes slowly, and old ways are often not appropriate for a new environment.  If South Sudan becomes a peaceful place, the cultural insistence on herding rather than farming will become a liability, a horrible waste of opportunities.  People who rethink old assumptions and embrace new ways will be rewarded.  

But if the place falls into chaos again, the herders will be better off, and the old norms will prove their worth.