Cash transfers are not necessarily wealth transfers

Here’s a common argument:

The problem with the poor is that they haven’t got enough money. There’s ample empirical evidence backing this up. Therefore, the obviously-correct poverty intervention is to simply give the poor cash. You might be able to do better than this, but it’s a solid baseline and you should often expect to find that interventions are worse than cash.

There are technical reasons to be skeptical of cash transfers - which is why it is so important that the cash transfer charity GiveDirectly is carefully researching what actually happens when they give people cash - but until fairly recently, these objections seemed to me like abstruse nitpicks about an intervention that was almost analytically certain to be strongly beneficial.

But they’re not just nitpicks. Cash isn’t actually the same thing as human well-being, and the assumption that it can be simply exchanged into pretty much anything else is not obviously true.

Of course, saying “X is possibly wrong” isn’t very helpful unless we have a sense of how it’s likely to be wrong, under what circumstances. It’s no good to treat cash transfers just the same as before, but be more gloomy about it.

I’m going to try to communicate an underlying model that generates the appropriate kind of skepticism about interventions like cash transfers, in a way that’s intuitive and not narrowly technical. I’ll begin with a parable, and then talk about how it relates to real-world cases. Continue reading

Nightmare of the Perfectly Principled

My actual literal nightmares about civilizational collapse somehow manage to be insanely optimistic about human nature.

I dreamt that in response to the news of the Trumps’ probable successful intimidation or bribery of their New York prosecutors, the US devolved into a lawless hellscape, since the last shreds of pretense of “we’re punishing you because it’s what the law says” were gone. In my dream, I successively wished I’d transferred more of my assets to paper, then money, then gold, then firearms, as I realized how far things had gone.

If I’d been thinking sanely, the thing I should have wished I’d accumulated is the only real source of safety in a state of war: a bigger, better gang. But fundamentally, I should have known better than to imagine that things would collapse quickly.

What was I getting wrong? I was tacitly assuming that the majority of people were perfectly principled. Continue reading

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading

Defense against discourse

So, some writer named Cathy O’Neil wrote about futurists’ opinions about AI risk. This piece focused on futurists as social groups with different incentives, and didn’t really engage with the content of their arguments. Instead, she points out considerations like this:

First up: the people who believe in the singularity and are not worried about it. […] These futurists are ready and willing to install hardware in their brains because, as they are mostly young or middle-age white men, they have never been oppressed.

She doesn’t engage with the content of their arguments about the future. I used to find this sort of thing inexplicable and annoying. Now I just find it sad but reasonable. Continue reading

On the construction of beacons

I am afraid of the anglerfish. Maybe this is why the comments on my blog tend to be so consistently good.

Recently, a friend was telling me about the marketing strategy for a project of theirs. They favored growth, in a way that I was worried would destroy value. I struggled to articulate my threat model, until I hit upon the metaphor of that old haunter of my dreamscape, the anglerfish. Continue reading

On the fetishization of money in Galt’s Gulch

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is set in a world in which the death dance of capitalism has reached its final stages, the state itself becoming an instrument of direct appropriation of surplus value generated by the workers. As industrialists become aware of the extractive nature of the process in which they are participating, one by one, they convert to the radical anarchism of an agitator named John Galt,* and “go on strike” to an utopian community hidden in the mountains of Colorado: Galt’s Gulch.

In Galt’s Gulch, resources are allocated to whomever can use them most productively, in an informal process; since everyone can see how their interests converge, levels of trust are high, and hoarding and shirking are basically nonproblems. People pick up whatever tasks seem needed, regardless of their profession or the ability such tasks might give them to extract rents.

This raises the obvious question: Why does anyone use money in Galt’s Gulch? Continue reading

Sabbath hard and go home

Growing up Jewish, I thought that the traditional rules around the Sabbath were silly. Then I forgot to bring a spare battery on a camping trip. Now I think that something like the traditional Jewish Sabbath is an important cultural adaptation to preserve leisure, that would otherwise be destroyed in an urbanized, technological civilization. Continue reading