The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: February 2018 Page 1 of 2

Adam Smith Explains Why Good Guys with Guns Don’t Stop School Shooters

By Eric A. Anderson

After almost every mass shooting since Wayne LaPierre became leader of the National Rifle Association (NRA), he and his minions have said that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. In Wayne’s world, the bad guys will cower in fear of a ubiquitously armed citizenry always on the ready to draw their weapons in self-defense. The image is attractive and probably resonates because it’s the story in so many movies and television shows, and harkens back to our myths of the Wild West.

Per economic theory, what we should do is arm children in schools, but I trust it’s obvious why that would be a bad idea.

Since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed twelve children at Columbine High School in 1999, school shootings have become commonplace. Between Columbine, and the most recent mass school executions at Marjory Stoneman Mason High School, at least sixty-five of our nation’s children under the age of eighteen have been killed by bad guys with guns. In not one instance has a good guy with a gun shown up to save the day, despite the fact that, in several of the mass executions, “good guys with guns” in the form of school resource officers had been present but failed to protect the children. Why? What explains the disconnect between the NRA’s vision of peace through fire-power and reality?

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, may shed some light.

Although the origin of the term homo economicus remains disputed, it is unlikely the term would exist today without Adam Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations. There, Smith states his dictum, now reduced to dogma by neo-classical economists, that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” From there, it is no great stretch to arrive at a modern definition, as provided by Chris Doucouliagos in his 2016 paper titled, “A Note on the Evolution of Homo Economicus”:

The neoclassical economists’ Homo Economicus has several characteristics, the most important of which are: (1) maximizing (optimizing) behavior; (2) the cognitive ability to exercise rational choice, and; (3) individualistic behavior and independent tastes and preferences.

Put simply, Smith’s self-interested, individual rationally exercises independent tastes and preferences to produce optimal self-interested behavior. Which begs the question: What rational human being’s tastes and preferences would lead them to believe it is in their optimal interest to rush into a hail of AR-15 rifle fire? The only answer possible is an individual motivated purely by altruism.

Many with only a passing familiarity with Adam Smith do not know that he had much to say on the subject of altruism. Three theories of altruism had already been outlined by the middle of the eighteenth century that mirror modern theories: (1) the egoistic perspective, can be seen as a variant of reciprocal cooperation, maintaining that one may share his income with another to induce a reciprocal transfer in the future; (2) the egocentric view, maintains that a donor would donate a resource if the pleasure of watching the happiness of others exceeds at the margin the donor’s satisfaction from consuming some resource himself; and (3) the altercentric framework views the benefactor’s action as stemming from a moral sense as binding as rules of honesty. However, Smith took issue with all of these approaches, preferring instead an alternative based of the idea of sympathy.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith conceived of sympathy as the foundation of beneficence, or in modern terms, altruism. Elias Khalil writing for the American Institute for Economic Research states in a paper titled Adam Smith and Three Theories of Altruism states:

For Smith, the motive to satisfy self-interest and other-interest stems from the same general tendency of humans to sympathize- in one case with the self and in the other with the beneficiary. That is, Smith did not view self-interest as radically different from other-interest: both are simply different instances of sympathy. We witness that man acts more often in sympathy with the self (i.e., out of self-interest) because man is obviously more familiar with the circumstance of his own self than with the circumstance of others. That is, for Smith, there is no fundamental distinction, but only a difference in degree, between one’s own feelings as opposed to the feeling of others towards one’s interest.

Smith’s own summation of the “difference in degree” between one’s own interest, and the interest of another, reveals the problem inherent in relying on a random good guy with a gun to protect our children, stating:

After himself, the members of his own family, those who usually live in the same house with him, his parents, his children, his brothers and sisters, are naturally the objects of his warmest affections. They are naturally and usually the persons upon whose happiness or misery his conduct must have the greatest influence. He is more habituated to sympathize with them. He knows better how every thing is likely to affect them, and his sympathy with them is more precise and determinate, than it can be with the greater part of other people. It approaches nearer, in short, to what he feels for himself.

Getting yourself killed for fifteen-dollars an hour for people you don’t care about as much as you care about yourself isn’t rational behaviour. Investing more money in guards or teachers whose sympathy for themselves is greater than their sympathy for school students is irrational.

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The Problem With Empathy and the Advantage of Sympathy

I recently wrote an article on how to be happy in bad times, and advised, in effect, that in most cases one should avoid feeling other people’s suffering.

One should, to be happy, not constantly be empathizing with people who are suffering.

Empathy happens when you feel what other people feel. You put themselves in their shoes, as it were, and feel what they feel.

Empathy is a deeply problematic emotion. It works best when we identify with someone else. It is for this reason that, for example, when New York or London suffers a terrorist attack, we (Westerners) get very worked up, but when Iraq suffers (yet another) attack, we hardly even notice and if we do, most Westerners care little, if at all.

Empathy requires us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to imagine ourselves as them. It is near automatic with people who are like us, with whom we identify, and virtually non-existent for people with whom people we don’t identify.

When empathy works, we feel a version of what the other person feels; if they are suffering, we suffer. If they are happy, we are happy, and so on.

Sympathy is different: We care about someone else, and we want them to be better. We do not have to feel what they feel, instead we feel caring. And when we feel caring, we tend to act. Sympathy is a positive emotion, it feels good to care. It is beneficial to us to feel sympathy, and it is beneficial to others if we act.

These are two distinct emotions, and they show up on brain scans as activating different areas of the brain.

Empathy is important in personal interactions with people with whom we identify or are close to. It shows that we are like them. It is a marker of being one of the tribe or the family. If my best friend or spouse is horribly upset and I’m smiling, we’re going to have problems.

But it is unhealthy in a networked world, where I identify with people thousands of miles away. Someone is always hurting, and if I read the news and feel empathy for every bad story, I’m going to be hurting a lot in empathy with them.

This wasn’t a problem in a hunter-gatherer band. I knew only a few people, and if something was hurting them, given our close ties, it was something I should really care about.

Empathy does not imply, either, what sympathy does: a desire for the other person to be better off. A torturer can feel empathy with a victim, and get off on it. Sympathy includes “want them to stop suffering,” empathy doesn’t always. I take care to feel empathy for my enemies, so I know what they feel and how they think, so I can defeat them, after all.

For most purposes, in our world, sympathy is the better emotion. Have sympathy for others, act if you can, and get on with your life. Don’t feel the pain of strangers in trouble all the time, because there are too many of them. Your empathy does nothing for them, and it is harmful to you to feel bad so much.

I’m a strong proponent of being able to feel empathy for almost anyone. But much of the time, using empathy should be a conscious choice, because doing so with someone who is suffering, hurts.

(Of course, learning to feel empathy for happy people is one of the best skills one can have. In fact, it is one of the “four Buddhist treasures.” Someone’s always happy, if that makes you feel happy, well, you can be happy almost all the time.)

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How to Be Happy in Bad Times

Last year, the New York Times had a profile of two people marrying: one 98, the other 94. They met in gym, they’re both active and happy despite their age.

What is their “secret?”

“People always ask what it is that keeps us young,” Mr. Mann said. “Of course, one part of it is medical science, but the bigger part is that we live worry-free lives; we do not let anything we cannot control bother us in the least.”

All times are bad times. Bad stuff is happening to a lot of people, somewhere in the world, and in your country. Oh, some times are worse times: the An-Lushan rebellion, say. WWII. The Great Depression. The Sea-People invasions that destroyed almost all civilization in the Europe and the Middle East, and so on. The Congo today.

And it may be that, as a species, we have a big one coming down the line. I’ve seen reasonable scenarios where climate change and ecological collapse get bad in less than a decade. I’ve seen scenarios where it takes a hundred years. My current over/under is about 40 years from now and has been for a long time. The science is creeping towards shorter and shorter numbers. (40 years is about where I expect us to start losing continental coastal cities.)

There are a variety of other problems, economic, technological, social, and political, and they are going to be aggravated by our environmental issues, though environmental issues may also make some of the worst stuff unlikely, or destroy bad civilizational choices like panopticon societies. (China is definitely going to have one. In certain cities, it almost does alread–held back only by the technical problem of way too much information. Other societies will too, the UK isn’t far behind in London.)

So it is entirely rational, in one sense, to despair for the future. Lots of bad shit coming down the pike, and anyone who takes their blinders off and looks can see it.

But it is not rational to despair and become depressed because of stuff you do not control.

And you do not control the environment, the economy, or politics.

You are one of seven billion people, and unless you are part of an elite of maybe 1,000 people, you have no real power. Maybe you’re part of the million or so people who have power locally. If so, use it well to help your locale. But even then, you aren’t stopping the big forces coming down the line; all you can do is prepare somewhat better and for more people.

Your responsibility can never be more or less than your power. Look at how much power you have over anything, including yourself, and that is the extent of your responsibility. Even when it comes to yourself, your power is not infinite. You don’t, for example, have direct control over your thoughts and feelings, though through various methods you have some indirect control and ability to slowly change the preponderance.

A clear recognition of what you can control and what you cannot control; of the exact extent of your power, allows you to relax. You don’t control it, don’t sweat it.

Of course this is easier said than done. It is unlikely that you can change to be that way overnight. But you can change to be that way over time, in part by simply remembering that worrying about things you don’t control is pointless.


And remember, death and suffering are not optional. They happen to everyone. The schedule has some flex–when you die and suffer, but only some. You may have some influence over the amount of both, but other suffering will happen completely out of the blue, taking you by surprise.


That which you cannot control, you should not care about. That doesn’t mean pain won’t happen, it means you won’t add to it with worry and self-blame. You didn’t cause climate change. You may be the proximate cause of your suffering or death, but you did not invent either suffering or death. So—


Everything ends. Everything. Nothing is eternal.

This is, however, as true of everything bad as everything good.

And remember also that the good is always around too. Food that tastes good and satisfies. Love. Beauty. The satisfaction of a soft bed (hopefully). The good times pass and return, just as the bad times do.

And everyone dies, and everything ends, and in that is freedom.

Your worry hurts you and helps no one else. By all means do things. If you can make a difference, and want to, go ahead. But once that all is done—

Don’t worry and be happy.

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How to Comment Productively

Recently I changed this blog’s comments to be reviewed and approved before posting, because too many comments were, well, bad comments.

In particular, many of the comments were attacking other commenters, not other commenters’ arguments. Others still were simply racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive.

I had been reluctant to place comments under moderation both because I didn’t want the extra work and because I believe that sometimes calling evil, evil is required; that swearing is not always bad, and; that it is helpful for people to see the trogdolytes.

I still believe these things (and am still lazy) but the problem was moderation: There was simply too much insulting and too much racism and so on.

So, since I’ve put on comment moderation, almost all comments have been clean and approved. The few exceptions were marginal. Granted, there are no new threads yet on topics people get excited about, so we’ll see. But I’m guessing most people understand how to be polite.

That said, let’s run through how to comment productively.

First: no ad-hominem attacks. That means addressing the commenter’s, or poster’s argument, not their character. “I believe that red is not the best color,” rather than “Any fool knows blue is the best color,” or “Only a depraved ^!#%#$# would say red is the best color.”

I understand this can be difficult at times, because a commenter may say something truly vile or stupid like, “the Holocaust didn’t happen,” or compare a race to animals, or whatever. However that won’t be happening now because such comments will not be approved.

Of course a poster may say something you think is evil, or may themselves engage in some ad-homs (I have not been shy about calling various people evil in posts). This may seem unfair and probably is. You will simply have to suck it up and deal with the argument. So, instead of “Ian is scum for calling the Iraq war/Iraq/Putin/Obama/Bush/Trump/Clinton/My Cat (or whatever) evil,” try “Ian is wrong about Iraq being evil because by gosh, it has made the Middle East objectively a better place as measured by (damned if I know).” If doing it this way is unbearable, well, there are other blogs. You are not required to read this one.

Second: No racism, sexism, etc… I’ve put up with some of this, maybe too much of it, because I believed that it was useful for readers to see people make the arguments. But now that I am pre-approving comments, I will be very reluctant to allow it. Commenters might be able to get it in by using racist or other objectionable comments as launching points for rebuttals and so on.

There is a gray area here, when it comes to actual differences between the genders and ethnic groups. Obviously there are some. Let me suggest it should not be suggested that any race or gender is innately bad. Blacks are not arrested more than whites in America because they are innately criminal, and so on.

There are going to be some marginal cases here, and I’ll just have to judge them. There will be no appeal, because I do not have time to get into finely-parsed arguments with commenters. I may well make the wrong choice in either direction, especially if I decide an argument I think dubious needs some air time so that it can be seen, and hopefully rebutted. How much of that I allow will depend as much on how other commenters deal with it as anything else.

I don’t want this blog’s comments to turn into a place where it is impossible to note, say, that there are biological differences between men or women. I also don’t want it to be a cesspit or sexism and racism.

Third: Swearing.

Yeah, I’ve been known to swear myself in blog posts. The old progressive blog argument was that civility was bullshit, people were suffering and dying and angry people, who should be angry, were being censored out of the conversation because they spoke and wrote like angry people, when anger was entirely appropriate.

So. Limited, for effect, and not directed at other commenters. There will, again, have to be judgment calls here. I will make them, they will not be up for appeal, for time reasons. If you use invective, you will be risking your comment. Up to you if you want to take that chance.

Concluding Remarks

I am saddened it has come to this, but it has. Let’s make it work, though. It really shouldn’t be hard. The basic rule is: “Would I say this to the face of a guy I know could whup my ass in real life.” If the answer is no, don’t say it.

I have many, very good commenters. I value your comments. Let’s make the comment threads something people want to read, not something they flee.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Comment Moderation Is Now ON

Moderation is now on. All comments will go through me before being posted. This will last for at least a couple weeks.

Do not email me if comment approval takes a while, I’ll try to check at least once a day, but it may be somewhat longer depending on the events of my life.

No comments with ad-homs will be approved. In some cases, I may edit them, to show how to make an argument without using ad-homs, in other cases I may just delete them. I will also not approve comments which, in my opinion add nothing to the discussion, or which include lies. This will not be up for debate, it is at my discretion.

I have tried to avoid this, but it is as it is. Play nice for a couple weeks and I’ll take the moderation off, as it’s extra work and I’m not interested in doing it.


Mueller’s Russian Indictments

So, Mueller has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three entities. Let’s look at this a bit closer.

In an indictment announced Friday in Washington, Mueller describes a years-long, multimillion-dollar conspiracy by hundreds of Russians aimed at criticizing Hillary Clinton and supporting Senator Bernie Sanders and Trump.

More accurately, I suspect, would be to say that Putin wanted someone who wasn’t as anti-Russian and anti-Putin. Clinton and Putin have a long-time adversarial relationship, and Clinton has been very antagonistic to Russia. In particular she wanted a no-fly zone in Syria after the Russians were there, and Putin sees her as lying to him about Libya: Reassuring him that the no-fly zone there was not about regime change.

This “information warfare” by the Russians didn’t affect the outcome of the presidential election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters. Trump and his Republican supporters have repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and have denied any collusion. The indictment cites no instances of Russians coordinating directly with the Trump campaign.

The election was so close that I don’t see how it can be said that the Russian interference didn’t effect the outcome. Though, it is precisely because it was so close that the outcome can be “blamed” on everything, from Clinton not campaigning in key Rust Belt states, to Republican voter suppression. (The latter is probably most significant, but Clinton racked up a lot of votes where she didn’t need them and didn’t put much in the way of resources into some marginal states which mattered.)

The Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization, and the defendants began working in 2014 to interfere in U.S. elections, according to the indictment. They used false personas and social media while also staging political rallies and communicating with “unwitting individuals” associated with the Trump campaign, it said.
In a Feb. 10, 2016 planning memo, the Russians were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”

The operations also denigrated candidates including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s rivals in the 2016 Republican primary, the indictment said.

The 2014 date indicates plans were in place long before Trump or Sanders could have been expected to run. That Trump was the chosen candidate on the Republican side makes sense; he was consistently Russia- and Putin-friendly. As for the Democratic side, it was Clinton or Sanders, and Sanders, while not a Russia booster, was certainly better for Russia than Clinton.

I don’t see a great deal here to be excited about. The US routinely interferes in foreign elections to a much greater extent than this. The best solution would be an agreement to stop interfering in foreign elections on both sides.

I assume Mueller will continue and indict some more Americans (one American is indicted here on minor charges).

Oh, and…

They spent thousands of dollars a month to buy advertisements on social media groups, while carefully tracking the size of U.S. audiences they reached, according to the indictment. (emphasis added)

Thousands of dollars? Not millions? Or even “hundreds of thousands”? It is hard to take that very seriously.

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Is “Skin in the Game” Good?

So, this is an idea whose time has come, again.

It is only half right.

It is right, somewhat, when it comes to suffering harm if something fails. One of the reasons for the 2008 financial collapse is that most of the actors were rich, and knew that even if their companies failed and were not bailed out, they would be fine.

OTOH, taking massive risks was making them rich. So given the upside was theirs, and the downside wasn’t, there *was* no risk for them, so why not?

And this is before they knew for sure that the government would bail out almost all of the companies.

So, had they had relatively small amounts of money, and thus needed their ongoing salaries, and for their companies not to collapse, the financial collapse might well have not happened.

However to do that meant making sure that they were not reaping so much of the upside of the housing and MBS (mortage backed securities) market.

The less upside they had, the poorer they were, and the more they needed their companies to continue, the more they would have been risk averse.

Alternatively, the credible threat of losing everything they had could have worked, but it had to be credible, and as we see, for most, it did not exist. Threats of future losses don’t work well unless they are near certain: This is well established in criminology, where it is known that how likely one is to be caught and convicted of a crime is far more important than how harsh the punishment will be.

People who think they’ll get away with it, in other words, aren’t scared by “having skin in the game.”

Skin in the game has to be a near certainty to work.

The core issues of making skin in the game work are responsibility, power, and externalities.

A person’s responsibility (consequences/skin) must be equal to their power.

You should only take a hit equal to your responsibility, and your responsibility is NEVER more than how much power you have.

But the hit you take must be equal to all the losses for which you are responsible.

And that is, often and effectively, impossible. The key people behind the financial crisis were responsible for losses far greater than the amount of money they personally possessed. This is particularly true of central bankers like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, but is also true of Wall Street execs and so on.

Even in an ideal world, they could not take hits equal to the damage they did. The closest  one could come would either be lifetime imprisonment, or death. (Understand, very clearly, that many people died because of the financial crisis and its aftershocks. People who lose their jobs and housing die a lot.)

To make “skin in the game” work requires two things:

1) No one must be in a position to “quit the game” if they win. If the upside is so large that it doesn’t matter if the game continues, people will destroy the game. Understand that if it takes seven years to make enough money to never work again and live a life of luxury, those people WILL do that no matter the consequences after they leave.

2) No one must be isolated from the social consequences of their actions. Money or power must NEVER be able to buy anything that matters: health care, a good education for your kids, skipping security theater, avoiding endemic social violence, or anything else. If the decision will cause bad things to happen to people in society, decision makers must suffer the consequences with those people.

(This means no private schools. No public schools that are better than other public schools. No private jets. No skipping security lines for first class travel. No buying healthcare poor people can’t have. No polluting and not having to suffer the pollution  yourself.)

But even if you put this in place, “skin in the game” has sharp limits to its usefulness.

Skin in the Game Doesn’t Beat the Death Bet or IBG, YBG.

The death bet is a bet that you’ll be dead before the consequences of your decisions occur. Climate change was understood and taught in school as early as the late 70s, but adults in the late 70s bet that they would be dead before it mattered. They were right to make that bet. They didn’t have skin in the game and they never would.

During the 2000s, in the run-up to the financial crisis, the saying when a shitty deal was being cut was “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” Anyone who has worked in a big firm is familiar with how a new executive will change things one way (“Let’s outsource!”) then the next one will change them back (“Let’s bring it in-house, for control!”). They are familiar with how salesmen get almost all their commissions up front, and multi-year sales deals then blow up a few years down the line.

Real skin in the game requires a commitment to go after people who did shitty things in the past and then disappeared. When the Sepoy rebellion happened in India in the 19th century, the British didn’t just blame the current Viceroy, they went after the Viceroy before him, because he had to have screwed up too.

But, at the end of the day, skin in the game only goes so far. People do die (which is why harsher regimes than ours would hit our entire families). People do leave.

And then, there is fact that skin in the game can actually be bad when…

Detachment is needed.

Doctors make better decisions when they have no financial incentives. Those who make more money the more surgeries they do, do more surgeries, needed or not. Those who make more money the more drugs they prescribe, prescribe those drugs.

Those who have no incentive tend to do the right thing by the patient, because, why not? Flat fee suffering person, help them. But they aren’t required to die if the patient dies, the normal human mechanisms of empathy and social bonding work quite fine IF they aren’t overwhelmed by incentives.

This is true also of analysts. The best analysts are generally people who have no skin in the game; no dog in the fight. They may be interested, but they don’t actually care.

Detachment, lack of concern–these things make it possible to see things as they actually are.

Skin in the game works best when it is identical with the largest group that makes sense. Aligning workers with overly precise incentives leads them to ignore possibilities outside those that confer incentives. Whatever the bottom line for them is, they see to it (even by cheating) and they ignore everything else.

The survival and prosperity of a country, a company, a team, or a marriage must be the responsibility of everyone involved, and they must suffer the consequences if it fails equal to their power in that group.

When they don’t, societies fail.

But even this rule is not enough, because we are finite beings. We die. This is the reason for the Iroquois maxim that decisions must be made with the next seven generations in mind. It is why the Ancient Greeks said that a society is great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

And to get there requires something more than Skin In The Game.

Or rather, it requires an extended sense of self which our society does not embrace and which it cannot embrace as long as its core moral sentiments and identity are based on individualistic liberalism and the selfish, self-concern that is mandated by capitalist ideology.

Self-interest can only walk so far.

More on that another time.

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How to Solve London’s Housing Problems (and Canada’s)

So, two lovely facts about London’s housing market. First:

Londoners spend 72 percent of their income on rent.


Overseas buyers snap up the majority of exclusive London homes

These two facts are related.

This is a problem with an obvious solution, do not allow non-residents to buy housing in your country. Do not allow housing to be empty more than three months a year. If it is, and renovations are not actively ongoing (physically check to see if it is), then tax them at punitive rates (30 percent of the property value or more) and, if after a year the property still doesn’t meet the requirements, simply expropriate it, with no compensation.

Further, smaller countries CANNOT absorb the excess money of larger countries busy printing money and/or creating billionaires. Canada and Australia: I am talking to you with relation to China. You are pygmies and China is printing more money than every other major nation combined. You cannot allow Chinese to buy up real estate, or anything else in your countries, because they have enough money to buy everything at prices with which your locals cannot compete.

This is obvious. It is stupidly obvious. But various speculators and builders are getting rich, so it is ignored.

These housing price problems require more than just banning foreign buyers, but any solution starts there, and the problem cannot be solved without doing so.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

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