Monthly Archives: April 2014

Short Pieces - Two Stories and an Inspiration

Bird Watching

I heard the chickens in the henhouse grow silent. I loaded my shotgun and peeked around the corner. It was another zombie. Sometimes my birds quiet down for unrelated reasons, but it seems my chickens learned that the walking dead take longer to find quiet flock, and I'd found fourteen roving undead raiders by listening to the volume of their clucking, over the past week alone. A stopped cluck is right twice a day.


Eat My Shirts

There were twelve dresser drawers, and twelve moths; somehow, one had been trapped in each drawer during my vacation. Maybe some elaborate prank?

Whimsically, to claim some positive feelings out of the experience, I decided to name the bugs after the months of the year. The first three drawers contained little of lasting value - socks, undershirts, these things are easily replaceable. Drawers five through twelve contained little damage, because they mostly held things that moths don't eat - leather belts, tie bars, synthetics.

The fourth drawer, however, was full of my beautiful warm-weather shirts. Polos as thin and soft as a summer breeze. All of them had great big holes in them. April is the cruelest moth.



Of course I am an inspiration to you. You know this. I know this. But perhaps some of your friends do not. Perhaps I inspire you in so many ways that you don't know how to describe it all, or even where to start. At times you might find yourself asking, "How can I explain the extent to which Ben is an inspiration to me and others around him?"

My friends, you need no longer be perplexed by this quandary. You need only but explain: I am so inspirational that an "Inspirational Quotes" Twitter account follows ME:


Positive Queries - How Fetching

If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?

An elephant, of course.

Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.

Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.


This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.

It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.

Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.

Continue reading

Cauliflower Bread, Twice Attempted

I like good bread. A lot. A loaf of crusty sourdough or baguette, with some nice butter (and if I'm feeling extra indulgent, radishes and salt) is one of the foods I most enjoy. But it reliably causes me to put on weight, which I'm trying not to do right now.

I asked my friends for a recipe for something like bread except that it doesn't cause me to eat a huge number of calories. (If I were underweight, I could fix it in a day. Just give me some top-quality baguettes and a few pounds of nice butter.) "Eat less bread" isn't an option because I am on the minimum-willpower diet, and stopping before I run out of bread and butter is a major willpower expenditure. More about my minimal-willpower diet in a future post.

My deeply appreciated correspondent Julia Galef provided a recipe which sounded promising, because it has more satiety-inducing fat and protein and fiber, and less other carbs:

My paleo-friendly breadstick recipe:

Blend, in a food processor:
1 cup plain quick oats
1/2 cup egg whites (I was aiming low-calorie, but you could try 2 eggs instead)
~1 cup steamed cauliflower florets
Onion powder, garlic powder, salt & pepper to taste
Enough water to make it just barely pourable
Pour into 9 x 13 baking dish that has been sprayed/brushed with oil. Bake at ~375 degrees for ~1.5 hours. The bottom should get browned and crunchy; the inside should be soft.

This is what I use for a pizza crust, but you could cut it into strips to make breadsticks. I suspect this will satisfy your "dippable breadlike" craving... but lemme know how it turns out! I invented this recipe and have never tried transferring it to another person, so it's possible there's some detail I'm neglecting.

So I preheated the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, I took a head of cauliflower:


And steamed it in the microwave:


I stuffed some florets into a 1-cup measure, using up about half the cauliflower:


And put all the ingredients into the food processor:


Then I blent it until smooth:


The recipe said to add water until just barely pourable. Since I was able to pour it out (very slowly) without adding water, I added none, and poured it into a pan:


I smoothed it out with a silicone spatula. Then, since I had more than half a head of cauliflower left, I made a second batch, using some baking powder instead of salt. This one came out smoother, as you may be able to see from this side by side comparison:


After they had spent about an hour in the oven's top rack, I checked on them, and they looked like this:



The one made with baking powder turned out fine, but the other one was burnt. I cut both up into squares (putting aside the ones that were a little too crispy), and served them at that night's dinner party, with olive oil. They had nearly the consistency of the flatbread served at Cosi, and my guests said they liked them.

As a second experiment, which I did not document with photographs, I figured that since the problem was that it got crispy all through too soon, and also since a single recipe uses only half a head of cauliflower, I would try to double the recipe and cook it under the same conditions. The bread turned out a little wet, but was otherwise liked. I think that the way to go is to use the original single recipe per pan, with the addition of baking powder, but check it and pull it out sooner.

Civics and Seamonsters, Calvin and Hobbes

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
-Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt

Let's talk about consent. And when we talk about consent, that means talking about coercion. And when I talk about coercion, that means talking about the Book of Job. In particular, my favorite translation. (Granted it's not the most literal translation, but it's the one you should start with.)

Here's an article objecting to that aphorism attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, for pretty good reasons (h/t Kate Donovan, who also kindly helped me make some parts of this a bit clearer - Thanks!). The gist is that rejecting insults and verbal abuse isn't a default behavior but a learned skill, and that even if you have that skill, it takes energy you might not have, or might want to spend on something else.

Implicitly, this objection makes an important assumption about consent: that consent is an act of free will. A person can be said to consent to something when, with the right to say yes or no, when they are not being coerced to say "yes," they say "yes" anyway. And once someone has consented to something, it's okay and if you think it's bad for them, it's none of your business.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
-Genesis, King James Version, 25:29-34

As a society, we seem to have agreed that under certain circumstances, involving prior "consent," it is okay to forcibly eject someone from their home. I'm talking about foreclosure, of course. Someone moves into a house. Possibly with their family. They gain access to the house by sitting in a room with some other people - usually at least one of them has lived in the house previously - and making some marks on a few pieces of paper. (To be fair, these pieced of paper have words of power inscribed on them - but mostly words the person making marks on them hasn't really read and wouldn't fully understand if they did, unless they are a real estate lawyer, and maybe not even then.) The new "homeowner" now has some relation to the bank - but a purely formal one. The bank doesn't maintain the home, it doesn't protect the property, it doesn't have any physical contact with the borrower - but some numbers are moved around on a ledger or database somewhere, and if the numbers stop moving in the right way, eventually the bank can get the police to come and force the occupants out of their home. Plenty of people think this is heartless. And of course when the bank makes a mistake about which numbers didn't get moved around on the ledger, we all agree that kicking someone out of their home is unjust, evil, and wrong. But aside from that kind of edge case, very few people believe that the bank doesn't have the right to do this, in some sense. Because the borrower "consented" to the terms of the mortgage contract when they bought their home.

Another way you can get kicked out of your home is by being the other party in the room when marks are made on some sheets of pulped tree - by being the "seller." Once you consent to that contract, you can't go back home - it belongs to someone else now, and you have to ask their permission to go there. No matter how long you lived there. No matter how many good memories you have of that house. You agreed to sell it it, it's not yours anymore.

Another context in which we think it's okay for people to do things that might appear harmful is in the bedroom. If they've negotiated what's going to happen in advance, or affirm that they're okay with it in the moment, then it's none of our business whether it looks like it's helping or hurting. One person, in an act of free will, uncoerced, gave another permission to do something to them. Once you know that's the case, what happens between "consenting adults" is none of your business.

There are disagreements within this definition, of course, because coercion is a tricky concept - what kind of threats and promises constitute coercion? Contractarians and other libertarians will often resolve this by formally limiting the definition of "coercion" to the initiation of force - if the arrangement of people doing what they like with their property means that one of your choices isn't very good, that's not coercion - it's just a choice where you have a strong preference. Other people, often on the left, will resolve the tension the other way, and say that a choice isn't really "free" unless you can have access to some basic decent life either way.

Under either version of this definition, though, the claim attributed to Roosevelt is just plain false. You have imperfect control over your feelings. People can say and do things that will cause you to feel inferior, whether you want them to or not. They may do it even if you're actively trying to prevent them. You can say, "please do not say that to me," and they might still say things that make you hurt.

"Consent" is one of those words that is often wrong, in the sense that it stops me from asking what's really going on and gets me arguing about definitions. I'm going to propose another, older definition of "consent" that I find helps me think about these things more clearly, and as a beneficial side makes it really easy to distinguish between arguments about consent that are tautologies, and arguments that are nonsensical. But first, another famous quote that you will be able to read very differently by the end of this argument:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
-Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

To most people this sounds nice and high-minded, but if you're being honest, a little questionable. "All men are created equal"? "Unalienable rights"? "Consent of the governed"? What do these things mean?

All Men are Created Equal

Everyone is supposed to be deserving of basic respect because we're all equal. But in what way are we equal? Some of us are smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or in other ways superior to others. If you assume we're equal in these ways, you will make wrong predictions, and do things that don't help. You'll rely on people to do things outside their abilities, and get mad at them when they're not up to your standard. You'll assume that when other people are outperforming you, it's because you're not trying hard enough, and you'll try harder, and fail anyway, and the effort will be wasted.

I like to joke that one of the managers I've worked with got his MBA at the John Calvin School of Management. He doesn't do much to transform or teach the people who work for him - his strategy is to hire good people, and shuffle them around until he figures out what task someone's predestined to be good at. This works really well, and it wouldn't if people had equal ability.

Accommodations for disabilities are an especially paradoxical case. In one sense they depend on a sense of equality - everyone ought to be able to participate in society equally (but why?). In another they only make sense if some people need different things than others. I'm not going to talk about intellectual disabilities, because that's a tricky subject I don't know a lot about, but there are certainly things I can't do with my brain that other people can. I know people who seem wiser than me, kinder than me, better at mathematical reasoning than me, or are just plain morally better. I know people who are better at planning and following through on that plan.

Some people have imagined that natural inequality of this type qualifies some people to dominate others. Does inequality of ability mean that some of us are natural masters, and some of us are destined by nature to serve? Do the people I know who are better planners inherently have the right to tell me what to do, whether I like it or not? No, because:

Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

In other words: All men are created equal, because anyone can be murdered in their sleep.

There's no natural ruler outside of politics, because as long as people are acting alone, anyone sufficiently motivated can upset the balance. Anyone.

If you don't have lots of allies, then anyone you piss off could harm you. And if you do, then you're protected by orders of magnitude more strength, cunning, and skill than you have access to as an individual. The important parts of your power, then, are almost always the ones determined by the way the society you live in values you, not your natural abilities. You have power if you can organize enough people that you can sleep safely at night, because someone's keeping the night watch. Power is about social control. Making people do what you want just by telling them to. Making people believe in the legitimacy of your claims over them. Think about that before you say "words can never hurt me." Words can take away the only thing that protects you. They are the most dangerous weapon yet invented. If I were going to try to harm someone, and could use nukes, or words, but not both - I'd give up the nukes.

Consent of the Governed

Under the free will definition of consent, you have consent of the governed if each person who is governed, in an act of free will, gives the government permission to rule. This leads to the familiar paradox where if you think that consent has to be total for a government to be legitimate, then anything more than a libertarian minimal state - or maybe anarchy - is oppression, because even if only 0.1% of the population is libertarian, they don't consent to all those extra programs.

So, people try to save the idea by arguing that the important thing is consent of most of the governed (but are 51% allowed to enslave 49%?), or that libertarianism is incoherent and libertarians consent to public roads when they use them.

But these minor absurdities are pretty tractable compared to the real problem with the free-will definition of consent: the assumption that there exists some possible arrangement in which coercion is not practiced.

The State, of course (and any other method of enforcing social norms) is inherently coercive - it prevents people from committing acts of violence, by making threats of its own. So any action you perform inside the structure of laws, with the security of government or communal norms, relies on coercion.

Maybe we could go outside the state then?

Fortunately, Leviathan isn't just the world's best Halloween costume, but one of the least stupid, least wrong books on politics ever written, and explains this point quite well:

Out Of Civil States, There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

The Incommodites Of Such A War
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.


It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: [...] Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a civill Warre.

But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.

In Such A Warre, Nothing Is Unjust
To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but onely that to be every mans that he can get; and for so long, as he can keep it.

-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

There's a common misconception I want to set aside before I move on. Like many origin myths, it doesn't need to actually have unfolded sequentially over time to be true or useful. The point isn't that there actually was a time prior to collective enforcement of norms, when people got tired of the war of all against all, deliberated about the problem, and explicitly consented to some kind of sovereign. The point is that the state of nature is the counterfactual arrangement government protects us from, and the background against which we should judge all other social arrangements, including "anarchism" of various kinds (which in practice do rely on forcing people to either obey local norms, or leave).

Essentially, the very notion of a difference between a consensual and nonconsensual arrangement - between having the right to do something, and not - between wronging someone else and defending what is yours - depends on a jointly understood and enforced set of laws or norms. Until you set that up, with an apparatus of coercion to ensure compliance, consent means nothing.

The first - meaning foundational - act of consent is the one by which, in fear of the war of all against all, people come together and empower a sovereign - whether it is a single person, or the rule of the majority, or the abstract authority of a constitution, or something else - to compel them to respect one another's lives and property. Can this consent be withdrawn? Sure, you're not morally obliged to consent to being governed, but if you don't, be prepared to live with the consequences:

No Man Can Without Injustice Protest Against The Institution Of The Soveraigne Declared By The Major Part. Thirdly, because the major part hath by consenting voices declared a Soveraigne; he that dissented must now consent with the rest; that is, be contented to avow all the actions he shall do, or else justly be destroyed by the rest. For if he voluntarily entered into the Congregation of them that were assembled, he sufficiently declared thereby his will (and therefore tacitely covenanted) to stand to what the major part should ordayne: and therefore if he refuse to stand thereto, or make Protestation against any of their Decrees, he does contrary to his Covenant, and therfore unjustly. And whether he be of the Congregation, or not; and whether his consent be asked, or not, he must either submit to their decrees, or be left in the condition of warre he was in before; wherein he might without injustice be destroyed by any man whatsoever.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

It's not unjust to stand outside the system of justice - that wouldn't even mean anything. But it's equally not unjust for the state to use violence toward people who don't accept its legitimacy. After all, they said they preferred the state of nature - and in the state of nature there are no claims of justice.

So, what is the consent of the governed, if not an act of free will? It's the commitment by the governed to accept their government in practice, because they prefer it to the actually available alternatives. Even if the alternative is an explicit threat of punishment:

How Attained
Dominion acquired by Conquest, or Victory in war, is that which some Writers call DESPOTICALL, from Despotes, which signifieth a Lord, or Master; and is the Dominion of the Master over his Servant. And this Dominion is then acquired to the Victor, when the Vanquished, to avoyd the present stroke of death, covenanteth either in expresse words, or by other sufficient signes of the Will, that so long as his life, and the liberty of his body is allowed him, the Victor shall have the use thereof, at his pleasure. And after such Covenant made, the Vanquished is a SERVANT, and not before: for by the word Servant (whether it be derived from Servire, to Serve, or from Servare, to Save, which I leave to Grammarians to dispute) is not meant a Captive, which is kept in prison, or bonds, till the owner of him that took him, or bought him of one that did, shall consider what to do with him: (for such men, (commonly called Slaves,) have no obligation at all; but may break their bonds, or the prison; and kill, or carry away captive their Master, justly:) but one, that being taken, hath corporall liberty allowed him; and upon promise not to run away, nor to do violence to his Master, is trusted by him.

Not By The Victory, But By The Consent Of The Vanquished
It is not therefore the Victory, that giveth the right of Dominion over the Vanquished, but his own Covenant. Nor is he obliged because he is Conquered; that is to say, beaten, and taken, or put to flight; but because he commeth in, and submitteth to the Victor; Nor is the Victor obliged by an enemies rendring himselfe, (without promise of life,) to spare him for this his yeelding to discretion; which obliges not the Victor longer, than in his own discretion hee shall think fit.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

The consent of the governed consists in this: that they are not actively rebelling. It doesn't matter if the sovereign keeps the governed in line with threats, arguments, or promises. It doesn't matter if they proudly believe that their system is the best one possible, or merely despair of ever escaping it. If the sovereign has done something short of direct physical compulsion to cause people to obey - if someone will dig a ditch because the sovereign said "Dig"! and not because the sovereign pushed a shovel into the subject's hands and moved the subject's arms in a shoveling motion - if the police and the army will enforce the laws out of commitment to the sovereign, and people are sufficiently moved by these threats to obey, then the sovereign has consent of the governed. It's not always love, and it's not always fear. Sometime's it's engineered by the party who benefits, not a spontaneous expression of freedom. There are many kinds of consent.

In short: Government exists by the consent of the governed, and if you terrify people enough they'll consent to almost anything.

Unalienable Rights

So does that mean that you have to let the sovereign do anything it wants to you? No. Where's "have to" come from, anyway?

Consent is a promise of future compliance - so it's meaningless to consent to something if that doesn't imply some future act of compliance on your part:

A Mans Covenant Not To Defend Himselfe, Is Voyd
A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force, is alwayes voyd. For (as I have shewed before) no man can transferre, or lay down his Right to save himselfe from Death, Wounds, and Imprisonment, (the avoyding whereof is the onely End of laying down any Right,) and therefore the promise of not resisting force, in no Covenant transferreth any right; nor is obliging. For though a man may Covenant thus, "Unlesse I do so, or so, kill me;" he cannot Covenant thus "Unless I do so, or so, I will not resist you, when you come to kill me." For man by nature chooseth the lesser evill, which is danger of death in resisting; rather than the greater, which is certain and present death in not resisting. And this is granted to be true by all men, in that they lead Criminals to Execution, and Prison, with armed men, notwithstanding that such Criminals have consented to the Law, by which they are condemned.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

In short: It's not immoral to take away someone's basic right to self-defense; it's just impossible.

Seeing Past the Flim-Flam

Let's rewrite that part of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that you can't push other people around on your own without consequences because anyone can be murdered in their sleep, that there are things no one can credibly promise they won't try to get, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That because we don't know how to get these things in any other way, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the lack of open rebellion.
-Thomas "Hobbes" Jefferson

Sounds a little more hard-headed and fact-based, right? Less like a statement of ideals and more like a description of the world how it actually is.

There are lots of things you might ask about an arrangement between two people, or groups of people, or a communal norm, or a system of government. How nice it is, whether it's better than the alternative, whether it harms some people disproportionately or unnecessarily. Consent doesn't give you a free pass - consent is just what it looks like when power is exerted successfully. If you want to make sure you are helping and not hurting someone, you might start by checking for consent - but you shouldn't end there.

Ask these questions too:
Is this something they've affirmatively expressed interest in?
Do they seem happy?
If they weren't happy, would they tell me?
Do they have access to - and have I offered - nice alternatives?
Do they feel like they're in control?
Am I leaving this person better off than when I found them?
Could I be doing more to make this a mutually beneficial interaction?
Am I imposing big costs on them or asking them to do something unpleasant?

Now let's rewrite that Eleanor Roosevelt aphorism:

No one can make you feel inferior unless you don't stop them.

The same truth in a different context: Nobody can defeat you in battle unless you are weaker.

Real inspiring, huh?

A Special Discount Just For You, and The Importance of Lost Opportunities

In my previous posts on economic and financial concepts, I talked about the idea of a discount rate - the conversion rate between future goods and present goods. But how do you pick a rate to use?

Opportunity Cost

Brian, as you may remember, used the interest rate he had to pay on his debt to help him compare future payments with immediate ones. This is similar to the financial concept of "cost of funding," and it makes some intuitive sense. He can use this to figure out which strategies are strictly better than others.

Abby used the interest rate she earned in her bank account to make the same kind of comparison.

One of these interest rates is the rate you pay on your debt. The other is the rate you earn on savings. Do these seem like different things? To an economist, they're the same.

More precisely, if Abby withdraws $1,000 from her bank account that earns 2% interest per year, then in a year she has $1,020 less in her account. If she borrows $1,000 at 2% interest, then in a year, to pay off the debt she would have to take $1,020 out of her bank account. The amounts are the same for any other time interval too.

Because of this, an economist would say that the interest Abby doesn't earn from the $1,000 she withdrew is a cost, just as much as the interest she would have to pay if she borrowed at that rate. The word for the cost of a foregone opportunity like this is "opportunity cost."

When you think about it this way, Abby and Brian are really doing the same thing when they use the interest rate on Brian's debt, and the interest rate on Abby's savings, to help compare the future with the present. In both cases they are making the comparison by using as their discount rate, the cost of holding onto money, instead paying off debt or putting it into savings.


Picking a Discount Rate Based on Opportunity Cost

You probably have a current "best option" for where to get extra money you need, or where to put extra money. If you have a lot of credit card debt that you have the option of paying off or borrowing more of, then the interest rate on that debt is probably the opportunity cost of doing something else with your money. If you have a lot of savings in the form of mutual funds, then the expected return on your investments is your opportunity cost of doing something else with your money.

A key assumption here is that of "liquidity." Put simply, I'm just talking about cases where you actually can put money into or take it out of something. If you have fixed rate debt that you can't pay off or borrow more from, then there's no decision you can make about that - so it's not a real alternative to other uses for your money.

The world's not always that simple, though. Example:

Dylan has a mortgage with an interest rate of 5%, government savings bonds that earn 6% per year (but new bonds only earn 3%), and an emergency fund in a savings account that earns 0.5%. What should Dylan's discount rate be?

If Dylan has extra money to put somewhere, Dylan's better off paying down the mortgage and "earning" 5% on that money than either buying new savings bonds that earn 3% interest or putting it in the bank account that earns 0.5%. So if Dylan's comparing an option to get money now with an option to get money later, they should use a discount rate of 5%, the interest they can "earn" on that money.

But what if Dylan is comparing a present expense to a future expense? Well, if it's an emergency then Dylan can use the emergency fund to smooth things out. But even then, if Dylan takes their emergency fund seriously, they're going to have to come up with the cash to make up the difference - and that means drawing down those savings bonds (or spending less day to day, but that's a complication I'll get to later). And it's not really practical to borrow a little more against your house every time you have an extra expense. So Dylan's going to have to draw down those savings bonds earning 6%, and that should be Dylan's discount rate for expenses.


A Brief Digression on Interest Rate Arbitrage

Edward has a $100,000 mortgage with an interest rate of 5%, $2,000 of extra money (above what Edward needs for emergencies or to pay ongoing expenses) in a savings account that pays 1% interest per year, and $7,000 of credit card debt with an annual interest rate of 15%. Edward believes that an index fund would grow in value by 6% per year, but hasn't set one up yet. What should Edward do?

Edward has an opportunity to earn some free money here. If Edward takes a dollar from their savings account to pay off credit card debt, the opportunity cost on that dollar is 1% foregone interest per year, but the return on investment is 15% interest Edward won't owe. So on net, just by moving money from one account to another, Edward earns an extra 14%. In general, when one investment is strictly better than another, selling the worse one and buying the better one is called "arbitrage", and this is an example.

So Edward should put as much money as possible into paying off their credit card debt, and put the rest into the investment account. At the end of the process, Edward will have $5,000 in credit card debt, and a discount rate of 15%.

Now let's say Edward gets a  $20,000 windfall - an inheritance, a bonus, or a bunch of cash is discovered inside the mattress. What should Edward do?

Well, we know that Edward should first pay off their credit card debt, so that takes care of the first $5,000. But Edward still has $15,000 to invest. What's next?

You can't pay off more credit card debt than you borrowed, so right now Edward has two places to get funds from or put them into: a mortgage with 5% interest and a savings account with 1% interest. You might say that the next best investment Edward has is paying off their 5% mortgage, since Edward "earns" more interest that way than the opportunity cost of 1% interest in the savings account - Edward's getting an extra 4%, free, per year.

But what about the index fund Edward doesn't have?

That's the tricky thing about opportunity cost. You don't just count the opportunities you've taken advantage of in the past - you have to compare all the different options you have now. Edward expects a 6% annual return on shares in an index fund. So the opportunity cost of doing anything else is 6%. From that perspective, Edward would actually be losing 1% in interest each year on any money used to pay off that 5% mortgage ahead of schedule.

The best choice for Edward is to open up an investment account and use the remaining $15,000 to buy shares in that index fund. Edward's return on investment is 6%, so that's the discount rate Edward should use when comparing other future and present payments and expenses.


Indifference Curves

Let's say I want to buy some fruit for a snack. $1 will buy me an apple, or an orange. I like them both about the same, so I'm indifferent between these choices. If either of them only costs $0.90, I'll buy that one.

But I have a strong preference for more tastes in a meal. Suppose the store's running a special where for $1 you can get half an apple and half an orange. I'm going to get this. I'd even spend more than $1 on it.

Economists call this a "revealed preference" that I put the same value on one apple or one orange, but a higher value on the first half of each.

That's not very interesting yet, but let's say the combination is just a quarter of an apple and a quarter of an orange, still for $1. Now I'm torn again - I could go for either the orange, the apple, or the combo.

Since apples and oranges can be divided nearly continuously, you could describe a mathematical curve of the apple-orange combinations I'd be indifferent between. This is called an "indifference curve."


You can draw more than one indifference curve. The curve that passes through the quarter-apple and quarter-orange combo isn't the same curve that passes through the halfsies combo - I prefer any point along the second curve to any point along the first curve.


If your preferences are consistent, no two indifference curves will ever intersect. So if you prefer 10 hats to 5, and 10 scarves to 5, your indifference curves can't look like this:


If those were your utility curves, then you'd prefer 10 hats to 5 hats, and you'd be indifferent between 5 hats and a combination of 3 1/3 hats and 3 1/3 scarves, and you'd be indifferent between that combination and 10 hats. (Of course, you can't really have a third of a hat in any meaningful way. Economic reasoning often assumes that quantities are continuous, which is rarely completely true, but often close enough to be useful.)

Indifference curves tell you what you already know, but they don't help you extend your knowledge beyond the examples you think through. We want something that will help us abstract what we learn from our indifference curves, and apply that knowledge to many cases at once. That's why utility functions exist.


Utility Functions

Economists basically pretend that your indifference curves are a side effect of your attempts to maximize some mathematical function of the things you consume. In the case of my snacktime decision, I am trying to buy the combination that maximizes some function U=f(n_apples, n_oranges) subject to my budgetary constraints.

In this model, an indifference curve is just the set of all points with the same utility U - if they're all worth the same amount of utility, I don't care which one I pick - I'm indifferent. But if choices are on different indifference curves, that's the same as saying that they have different amounts of utility - and I'll always try to pick the one with a higher value of U.

Let's take a simple example and imagine that I'm indifferent between one orange, one apple, and half of each, and that I prefer any of two oranges, an orange and an apple, or two apples - but am indifferent between that set as well. In that case, my indifference curve is just a straight line, and my utility function is:



If I set U=1, I get:



This produces my first indifference curve.

If I set U=2, I get:



This produces my second indifference curve.

One important point here is that since utility is a quantity we can't observe directly, and we only observe the direction of a preference, not the strength of that preference, it doesn't matter if I'm maximizing U or 1,000,000*U or U+1,000,000. I make the same decisions in any of those cases. So as a quantity, utility is meaningless, but it explains the existence of indifference curves very simply.

Now let's talk about discount rates again.


Using Indifference to Infer a Discount Rate

Discount rates are ways of comparing valuable things in the future to valuable things in the present. (I used money because it's a simple example, but you may have time preferences about other things.)

So one thing you can do is assume that you have some fixed discount rate of x%, and ask yourself, would you rather eat a chocolate bar tomorrow, or 1.5 chocolate bars next year? (Don't ask about right now, because of hyperbolic discounting.) Adjust the amounts up or down until you get quantities where you're conflicted about the choice. Then you have an estimate of your true discount rate.

You should probably try comparing several kinds of valuable things, at several time scales, to get your true discount rate - your intuitions won't all be perfectly consistent, and you're trying to get something that's a good approximation for most of your preferences, not just your preferences about the first example you think of.

Would I rather spend an extra day hanging out with a friend this year, or two extra days with a friend in ten years?

Try to come up with some more examples on your own. Then you can back out your discount rate from your indifference curves, and pick a rate in the middle of your estimates.

Here's how to back out a rate. Let's say I'm indifferent between eating 20 chocolate truffles this week, and 21 chocolate truffles in a year. That's one year of discounting, so my rate is just 21/20 - 1 = 1.05 - 1 = 0.05 = 5%

On the other hand, let's say that I'm indifferent between spending a day with a friend this year, and two days in ten years. I need to back out the annual discount rate from that. I'll do it using a computer, I'm to lazy to use logarithms, but it's not particularly hard math if you want to look up how to do it yourself:

(2/1)^(1/10) - 1 = 1.07 - 1 = 0.07 = 7%

So I decide my subjective discount rate's about 6%.


What if My Discount Rates Don't Agree?

If your subjective discount rate is lower than your financial discount rate, then you're generally better off saving money and spending it later. Some people report that when they reflect for long enough on their subjective discount rates, they don't want to discount at all. Those people should only spend money now on things if they compound over time better than financial investments (like some education, spending time with friends, repairing their car so they can get to work, or relaxation so they don't have a breakdown between now and retirement) and things that will be much less enjoyable later in life (your gear to climb Mount Everest won't do you any good when you're 90 years old and can't get out of bed without help, even if it's much more affordable for you then).

If your subjective discount rate is higher than your financial discount rate, then you might be saving too much. That doesn't mean you should spend everything now, since your discount rate is a marginal rate that can change as you move money from the future to the present.

There are two complicating factors:

1) I mentioned hyperbolic discounting above.  Basically this is when pleasure and pain in the extremely short term feels like it vastly outweighs much larger amounts of pleasure or pain even the moderately near future. Most people don't endorse their own hyperbolic discounting, and there's no point in using a clever theory to do things you don't actually prefer by blowing all your money on one wild night in Vegas.

2) Declining marginal utility - this is basically a way of expressing the fact that I'd rather have an orange every day of the year, than 365 oranges today and none for the next 364 days. Your subjective discount rate isn't absolute, and it's going to be affected by how satisfied you already expect to be in the present vs. the future. If you alter this by transferring money from present you to future you or vice versa, your discount rate will change. Because of this, you may not even want to bother with a subjective discount rate - use your opportunity cost discount rate to make sure you're making consistent decisions, and comparing equivalent quantities of present vs. future stuff. Use discounting to make consumption decisions on a case-by-case basis, and notice if it always seems like a good idea to move things in one direction.

My friend Micah was visiting me three weeks ago, when my the cherry blossoms had just come out, and we got some lovely but seasonally inappropriate springtime snow in DC. We took this photo:

Cherry Blossoms in the Snow - Original Instagram Picture

Now Google Plus has "Auto-Awesomed" it, and you can "see" the "snow" falling:

Cherry Blossoms in the Snow

Pretty neat, huh?

A Plus, Is Greedy

Miri has an interesting post (h/t Kate Donovan) on the relation between depression and isolation. I've never been diagnosed with depression, or had any internal experience that felt as debilitating as what people who have say it's like. This paragraph describes something pretty recognizable to me anyway:

Depression is really nothing but a huge negative feedback loop. The worse I felt, the more I became convinced that I have nothing of value to offer other people as a friend, partner, or anything else. I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

I've certainly had times when I felt like I had nothing to answer "What's up?", because not much was going on. And as I've written before, it's not unusual to have trouble with this, even if you're not feeling terrible.

A lot of my social interactions got a lot better, easier, and more valuable when I connected these four things I already knew:

  • It makes me happy when other people ask me for things, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I want things from other people, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I don't know what to say in a conversation.
  • What makes me happy is likely to make someone else happy.

Instead of just letting my unmet needs, unanswered questions, unasked requests, and unresolved confusions simmer inside me, I decided to start asking other people for what I wanted - especially if what I wanted was advice, sympathy, or information.

At the CFAR workshop, if someone giving a presentation said something I didn't understand how to use, I didn't worry about whether I'd already put enough thought into figuring it out for myself. I just asked them, and if I didn't understand their answer, I kept at it, until we figured out where the confusion was. As a result, for the first time since before high school, I asked an instructor a question where I was genuinely confused, and got an answer that actually helped me learn. For example, I figured out that one reason some of the emotion-based techniques weren't working for me is that I have a limited emotional vocabulary, so if I want to use them I should work on building that capacity first.

(I asked questions in high school and grad school, of course - college doesn't count because my tutors weren't supposed to be serving as subject matter experts. But either it was a smartass question meant to show off, or a leading question meant to clarify a point I thought might confuse others. In the few cases where I really needed an answer, I got no help at all. I learned that the only way I'd get past the confusion was to read the textbook or work on the next assignment.)

When my grandmother died, I wanted to talk about it, so I contacted a few people who were online who I was sort of friends with and told them. I got to think through my feelings in a low-stakes conversation, and as an added benefit, one of them became a much closer friend as a result.

If I'd used this approach last time I was looking for a job - or when I was considering grad programs - I would have made much better choices, and performed a much more effective search. I remember one time when I was considering doing a PhD program in finance, and had the following two problems:

  1. A mentor of mine had introduced me to a professor at a well-regarded local finance program, and I was supposed to talk to him, but wasn't sure what to say to him or what questions to ask.
  2. I wasn't sure whether I had enough mathematical background to jump straight into a finance PhD, what my skill gap was, and how to close it. I didn't know how to put together a plan to do this, how to assess what skills I'd need, etc.

In hindsight, I should have used the second problem to solve the first one, and asked the professor all my questions. It would have been something to talk about, gotten us into an object-level discussion where we could work on a specific problem together, and gotten him used to being on my side. It would also have answered my object-level question about how to bring myself up to the mathematical level needed.

The key principle in all of this is to be greedy. Have a clear idea of what you want, and ask for it.

I'm mainly talking about requests for information or attention. This doesn't quite work for requests like "Can I have $1,000?", or "Will you help me paint my walls?". Requests for information or attention flatter the other person, which makes them mutually beneficial.

The other caveat here is that you have to be prepared for them to say no to your request, or to try to help you ineffectively. The point of this interaction isn't to have your problems completely solved with total certainty by the end. The point is to create an opportunity to make any dent in it at all, even if the only progress is that you learn about something that won't get you what you want. I find that this lower-pressure attitude makes it easier to think of things I want to ask for.

By the way, if you are looking for a job - first, do lots of informational interviews. This should be your primary search method, starting with people you have some direct connection to if possible.

Second, especially if you're just coming out of school or for some other reason you have a deadline, it may be tempting to just focus on wanting "a job," or "a job in field X." This won't help you bond with the people you talk with, it won't help them help you, and because of this it won't make them feel good about the interaction or put more work into helping you. Instead, try to figure out what you'd ask for if you were being maximally greedy. A billion dollars a year, sure. But also, maybe you find writing really fun or want to learn how to build models in Excel or want to work with people who speak a foreign language. The more specific things you know you would like, the more and better questions you can ask, and the more ideas the people you're talking to will have. You may not get all of them - but you might get some, and you'll likely do better finding "a job in field X" too.

You can also get greedy about the things you don't know. What's your workday like? What are the other roles where you work? Basic questions are fine, especially if you're new to the field and you've done the obvious reading of the easily available information.

Similarly, if you're in an interaction with a friend or acquaintance, and you don't know what to say, specific questions and requests at least give them cues for what they should be saying or doing to make the interaction go well. (Did you think you were the only one who didn't know what to say next?)

Now, how do you apply this to "What's up?" Remember that "What's up?" is not a literal query about the objectively most important thing in your life, or a demand that you impress the asker. It's an opportunity to bring up a topic of conversation you want to talk about.

Now, if what one most needs is to brag about something (and sometimes one does), then you can go ahead and do that. But if you're feeling boring and lonely and useless, then you might be well-served by keeping a list of things you want. For example:

  1. I have some free time and am looking for book recommendations.
  2. I am trying to write more, but keep not doing it. Want to meet up for a writers' study hall?
  3. I am feeling shitty and need some cheering up. Can you send me some cute animal pictures / social validation that I am liked / happy music?
  4. This stressful thing happened to me and I just want to complain about it to someone.

I did the second and it worked out really well and I felt awesome and interesting and got to hang out with a friend without having to try to be anything special or do anything impressive or say anything smart. We just went to the Kogod Courtyard and wrote for a couple of hours. It was great.

And you're not the only one who feels better if you do this. People like to feel needed. It feels good. It makes them feel valuable, smart, competent - all the things you wish you felt too. (Thank you notes are super powerful for the same reason.)

And what if you can't come up with a list, or don't know what to ask this particular person for, or are too confused or overwhelmed by your problems to come up with a specific request?

Then you get meta-greedy: ask for help with that.

The one thing it's better to be asked for than a minor favor, is advice. Most people love to tell other people what to do. For example, I read Miri's post on depression, and like an asshole, I am responding by giving advice to people whose problems I don't understand and likely never will. (This advice is not actually intended for Miri in particular, or even specifically for people with depression - it's more a bunch of stuff I wish someone had told me ten years ago - but it's still kind of a terrible response, and not at all what I'd do in a one-on-one conversation if I was trying to be helpful.) I'm writing this blog post, telling the generic reader how to solve their problems, if their problems happen to be identical to mine. I don't expect to reap any material benefits from this - it just feels good to write it, and it will feel awesome if anyone says they were actually helped by it.

Sometimes I do favors for friends out of obligation, or when it's a chore to do so. But if a friend asked me for advice - said that they wanted my opinion in particular, that they wanted it very much, that if I could help them think something through it would be very useful to them - well, then, there's not much I wouldn't gladly and easily give up for that, with no willpower expenditure at all, because it's simply a pleasurable thing to do. One of my more recent friends basically turned me from a friendly stranger to someone who considers her a fairly close friend, by asking me for lots of advice.

One of the things it took a while for me to really deeply grok about managing other people professionally is that telling people what to do isn't a guilty pleasure to be suppressed, or indulged only when absolutely necessary, but instead a necessary part of the job.

Recent requests I've made of a friend:

  • I want to do something to help mitigate existential risk but don't know where to start.
  • I got some bad news about a friend and I have limited control over dealing with it and I want to help them but I can't make decisions for them and I don't know what to do.

Examples of other requests one might make (and I've made modified versions of these requests too):

  • I am in a slump and don't know what will get me out of it.
  • I need something but I don't know what. Help me think - I need another brain!

Of course this requires a certain level of confidence to do, even over text. It requires confidence that your request is comprehensible. It requires confidence that you are asking for something that it might be possible to get. It requires confidence that you are valuable, and worth your friends' time - and that they're your friends at all. Sometimes one doesn't have this confidence. But if you don't have this confidence, you can write the email you'd write if you did have that confidence. You don't have to decide whether to send it until it's written - nobody has to see it - but if you write it, and it makes any sense, and it's not an onerous request - why not?

Sometimes people say no, of course. That's life. No need to pre-reject yourself, though.

Now, if only I could get myself to read this post, and follow the advice in it. 😐

The Appearances and The Things Themselves

Here's a neat puzzle by Scott:

My dermatology lecture this morning presents: one of those Two Truths and a Lie games. You choose which two you think are true and – special house rule – give explanations for why. The explanations do not require specialized medical knowledge beyond the level of a smart amateur. Answers tomorrow-ish.

1. Significantly more Americans get skin cancer on the left half of the face than on the right half.

2. People who had acne as children live on average four years longer than those who did not.

3. In very early studies, Botox has shown great promise as a treatment for depression.

My thoughts below the fold, you may want to guess first.

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