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Russian Dolls

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Incentive structures are created within other incentive structures, and at the outermost edge is only the initial distribution of the capability for force.



Should fast food restaurants be allowed to sell food without posting calorie content? To market unhealthy food to children?

Should garbage cans be labeled “Landfill”?

Should manufacturers be allowed to sell caffeinated alcoholic beverages? To whom should alcoholic beverages be sold?

Should prostitution be legal? Drugs? Weapons? Nukes? Divorce?

What should the age of contractual capacity be? The age of sexual consent?

What should be the consequences of a breach of contract?

Are taxes the same as stealing?

A System of Incentives

The field of law & economics recognizes that a system of law is a system of incentives. We adjust human welfare by adjusting the incentive structures in which humans operate.

Any incentive structure, including but not limited to a legal system, helps people predict how they will be treated, and thus how to plan their actions. Any incentive structure will do, more or less, for this purpose. But some individuals will always be treated sub-optimally by any incentive structure. The only certainty is that some will live in misery – there is always plenty of misery to go around. But who should be miserable, and how miserable, and why?

By creating or adjusting incentive structures, planners assume that they know what is best for human flourishing. Creating and adjusting incentive structures is an inherently epistemically ungenerous activity. This, I think, is the main problem with Bryan Caplan’s take on behavioral economics, which I’ve previously summarized thus:

Bryan Caplan thinks that the solution [to the problem of men not wanting to work] is to not have soup kitchens. That is, to make everybody so miserable that they HAVE to work, or else.

Caplan (and his coauthor) “know” that it’s better for people to live as close to a “productive,” middle-class existence as possible; so they argue we should adjust the incentive structure to give the poor fewer choices so that they are forced to make the “right” choice.

The search for a just, ethically defensible incentive structure requires an attempt to get outside of any single individual or group’s notion of what is best – to do what’s best for everyone, not just the would-be incentivizer and his cronies.

The Russian Doll Problem

In some sense, incentive structures compete with each other (e.g., capitalism v. communism). But even competing incentive structures exist within a wider incentive structure. The governments of countries may be seen as competing incentive structures, existing within the wider incentive structure of the world. Organized crime and government are competing systems of incentive, and operate within the wider incentive structure of the natural world. This is true even if the background incentive structure is merely “might makes right” – which is probably the only possible top-level, ultimate incentive structure.

Creating and adjusting incentive structures is at best hubris, at worst tyranny.

Some (libertarians, the religious, and advocates of democracy, for example) ignore this problem by assuming a privileged status for some kind of incentive structure.

Privileged Incentive Structure: God Said So

Some of the most successful religions worldwide have a built-in legal system and/or incentive structure. For this reason, some religions function very well as technologies that promote trade. Sharia in Islam, Gemora in Judaism, and Canon law in Christianity are the most well-known examples.

Religions are not written texts. As my rather religious Jewish boyfriend puts it, the written text (e.g. Mishnah) is like a constitution – but a government is not its constitution. The United States has a tiny little constitution, but the system of incentives is largely given by the enormous system of courts and police that interpret and enforce the written text.

Adherents of these religions get around the Russian dolls problem of incentive structures by assuming a privileged status for their enshrined incentive structure on the basis that this incentive structure was ordained by God.

Privileged Incentive Structure: The Market Said So

Libertarians attribute a privileged status to the “free market.” However, a market exists within a context of a wider incentive structure (the initial distribution, human nature, scarcity). Markets are not ever really “free” – there must be a wider incentive structure to contain the market, even if this incentive structure is merely “might makes right.”

Privileged Incentive Structure: The People Said So

A novel solution to the Russian Dolls problem of incentive structures is: let the participants choose their own incentive structure. Various forms of democracy claim to embody this solution.

Ultimately, this is no more than creating a market to determine the rules for the market. “One person-one vote” is, ultimately, as arbitrary as “one dollar, one vote” (or “one bullet, one vote,” for that matter). Why is a person the proper unit of democracy? Why adults and not children? Why present people and not future people? What about the rights of those in the minority position on anything? Why is it fair for a majority to impose its will on a minority? Democracy is, at best, a caricature of consent.

Prior to garnering fame as an authoritarian parenting enthusiast, law and economics scholar Amy Chua wrote a book (World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability) explaining some of the problems with “democracy-as-privileged-incentive-structure” – especially when combined with a purportedly free market. In the real world, economic advantage tends to not be spread equally among people – or randomly. Advantages, whether intellectual or material, tend to be clustered within identifiable groups of people, and these groups tend to attempt to manipulate the system of incentives to increase this clustering (that is, to promote inequality). Unfortunately, the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of the background incentive structure is frequently revealed when “market-dominant minorities” are punished for their inequality-promoting success in often gruesome ways by the (ethnic) majority.

Is the “free market” right, in this case? Should market-dominant minorities, racial or otherwise, own and keep an ever-growing majority share of the world’s property? Or is “democracy” right? Should the majority be able to punish the market-dominant few? The conflict, rarely acknowledged, demonstrates that neither is an inherently good incentive structure.

The nature of our universe prevents an ethically sound incentive structure from existing.

It’s the initial distribution all the way down.


Misery, or suffering, might be defined as that of which there is negative scarcity. Not only is there an abundance, but there is an abundance and its consumption is not optional. I think it is more humane to think of economics in terms of a system for the distribution of misery, rather than the distribution of scarce, utility-promoting goods and services.

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Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Imaginary Status and the Tendency to Externalize

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[A] remarkable fraction of female journalistic output, at least the most heartfelt stuff, consists of demands for society to change so that that particular female journalist would be considered hotter looking.

—Steve Sailer, in “Female Journalism

Humans all want high status, but we can’t all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).

Salem of Why I Am Not… argues that status need not be a zero-sum game. For one thing, status is “obscure” – it’s hard to measure, and we tend to overrate ourselves, resulting, presumably, in extra utility for everyone. However, even if we overrate ourselves, a large number of people still correctly rate themselves as being of low status, and suffer as a consequence. We are biased about status, but far from blind.

For another, says Salem, there are multiple statuses, not just one – multiple, overlapping groups among whom to achieve and display status, and multiple domains within which to achieve and display status. To some degree, these groups and domains even compete for status – which shows us that there is some kind of “background” status that exists outside of the group or domain within which status is sought. Status exists only in the minds of other humans, and in our own models of those minds. It is not merely context-dependent, but attempts to broaden itself over all contexts.

What I find to be the most fascinating objection to the “status is zero-sum” claim is that there may be imaginary status – i.e., status may be measured against others who aren’t really in the game, and can’t perceive their own relatively low status – non-playing characters in computer games, animals, those outside of and unaware of the existence of a given status domain, etc. As Salem puts it, “This also gives a different perspective on animal welfare. Perhaps little boys picking the wings off flies aren’t so bad after all.” As Chip Smith puts it, “If trivial inequalities that nevertheless satisfy discrete human desires for status welfare can be distinguished from consequential inequalities that satisfy the same end, then maybe there is a net benefit in the former. I’m sure market forces promote both.”

Imagine an unattractive female journalist. She has a few choices available to her:

  • Be sad about her low status in the mating domain (zero-sum)
  • Focus on her high status in other domains (scholarship, etc.) and forget about the mating domain (potentially not zero-sum)
  • Change relevant mating groups so that she may gain high status in the mating domain within some group, even if it’s not the wider group (potentially not zero-sum)

Indeed, she might, to some extent, engage in all three. However, there is a fourth option that is almost universally pursued by those of low status:

  • Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more “real” or “important” than the forms of status she does not possess.

That is, humans desire high status, and attempt to externalize their conceptions of status. What it means to compete for status is not just that the agent must perceive himself as having high status, but that others must perceive the agent as having high status.

Imaginary status (“subjective” status) may be a substitute for others-perceived status (“objective” status) in the same way that pornography is a substitute for sex – an inferior substitute. We still try to get the real thing.

Written by Sister Y

February 22, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Yet More Evidence that Suicide is Adaptive

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The more babies you produce, the less likely you are to commit suicide (Reuters: The more kids, the lower moms’ suicide risk).

This evidence supports the theory that suicide can be an adaptive behavior – people who commit suicide are people of low reproductive value anyway (i.e., those with few or no children and little likelihood of producing any viable offspring). Suicide may be an effective means of accomplishing one’s evolved ends – “make sure your genes live on.” When one consumes more than one contributes to one’s relatives, one’s continued existence is a drain on evolutionary fitness.

Of course, that’s not how the study phrases it. Rather, motherhood is seen as having a “protective effect” against suicide – as if suicide were gonorrhea, and motherhood a condom.

Looking at 30 years’ worth of data on 1.3 million Taiwanese mothers, [Dr. Chun-Yuh Yang, of Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan] found that women with two children were 39 percent less likely than those with one child to commit suicide.

That risk was 60 percent lower among women with three or more children, Yang reports in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Thus the species continues.

(As do I, despite speculation to the contrary.)

Written by Sister Y

March 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Theories of Punishment

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Suicide is the only action that is not a crime that may be prevented by force.


Criminal justice is the formal practice of preventing and punishing proscribed behaviors.

There are five generally recognized theories of punishment, in criminal justice terms:

  • General deterrence means making an example of a criminal so that the population at large will be deterred from committing a crime.
  • Specific deterrence refers to punishing an individual criminal so that he or she will “think twice” and be deterred from committing a crime in the future.
  • Incapacitation means isolating and/or restraining a criminal so that he or she will not be able to commit a crime for the duration of the incapacitation.
  • Rehabilitation refers to providing assistance to a criminal so that he or she will not want or need to commit a crime in the future.
  • Retribution involves taking revenge on a criminal for the crime that he or she committed.

Deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation models aim to prevent crime. Deterrence and rehabilitation models operate on the criminal’s mind, whereas the incapacitation model operates only on his body.

Suicidality is often considered to be a mental illness, properly considered to be within the purview of medicine; however, the interventions that are commonly undertaken in cases of suicidality demonstrate that the act is properly viewed as part of the criminal justice model.

The key feature of suicide: it is the only action that is not a crime that may be prevented by force.[1]

The prevention of suicide generally takes punitive, rather than medical, form. Generally, the methods used are incapacitative:

Because [preventing a determined person from committing suicide] is impossible, psychiatrists enjoy (if that is the right word) virtually unlimited professional discretion to employ the most destructive suicide-prevention measures imaginable, provided the measures are called “treatments.” The authoritative American Handbook of Psychiatry (1959 edition) endorsed lobotomy “for patients who are threatened with disability or suicide and for whom no other method seems likely to relieve or restore them.” In the 1974 edition, lobotomy was replaced by electroshock treatment administered in sufficient doses to destroy the subject’s will to kill himself: “[W]e do advocate its initial use for one type of patient, the agitated patient, often middle-aged and usually a man, who presents frank suicidal intention. We give ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] to such a patient . . . daily until mental confusion supervenes and reduces the ability of the patient to carry out his suicidal drive.” Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide, pp. 56-57 (citations omitted). [Emphasis mine.]

However, often the methods used are so obviously unpleasant that they fall under the deterrent models as well – if not the retributional models!

In they Army, anyone reporting suicidal ideation is made to wear a bright orange vest and rubber bands in place of his shoelaces – not to mention watched 24/7 by a “buddy.” As reported by Elspeth Reeve:

Suicide watch (also called unit watch, buddy watch, or command interest profile) is how the Army deals with soldiers in garrison who express suicidal thoughts but don’t appear to be in immediate danger of harming themselves. It’s been around in some form since the 1980s, and generally involves a suicidal soldier being watched by one or two fellow soldiers around the clock, and having his gun, shoelaces, and belt taken away, so he can’t kill himself.

. . . . “You’re in an isolated state,” [a recruit who was under suicide watch] says. The orange vest makes you a pariah. “You’ve got the reason you’re on suicide watch to begin with on top of the fact that you stick out like a sore thumb,” he says. “It’s like you’re walking around in a zoo, and you’re the animal.”

. . . . The purpose of the vest is, ostensibly, to make it easy for others to keep an eye on a suicidal soldier, but forcing a soldier to advertise his own depression creates a powerful stigma. “When you see what happens to someone on suicide watch—the orange vest, the trips to the chaplain, the drill sergeant talking about them when they’re not there, saying they can’t handle the military. … When you see that, you’re going to think twice about speaking up and saying you need some help. It makes you not want to talk to someone. You don’t want to be like that guy,” the recruit from Benning says. [Emphasis mine.]

The Army’s treatment of suicidality is clearly punitive. Indeed, there is a strong incentive for soldiers to express insincere suicidality – that is, removal from combat duty. This would make it seem rational for the Army to institute counterincentives (conceding, implicitly, that suicidal behavior is rational in that it responds to incentives). But, as Reeve indicates, the punishment also dissuades genuine suicides from disclosing suicidal ideation.

At any rate, the “treatment” is clearly not rehabilitative, but punitive. General and specific deterrence are at work here, as well as incapacitation.

Similarly, from prisons to mental hospitals, disgusting and punitive “interventions” are used to prevent suicide. This is “mental health treatment” only in the most crudely and obsoletely behavioralist sense. Humiliating heavy dresses/smocks, presumably worn without underwear, are placed on male and female prisoners (of hospitals and prisons) to prevent them from committing suicide.[2] Again, general and specific deterrence are operative, as well as incapacitation. The smock is awful and undesirable, in addition to preventing one from enacting one’s suicidal wishes.

If suicide is a symptom of a mental illness, though, wouldn’t the distress be treated – not the action? People with trichotillomania do not have their hands forcibly restrained from touching their heads. Rather, the distressing compulsion to pull one’s hair is treated – and that only if it distresses the patient in the first place. In the case of suicide, however, the distress of everyone except that of the suicidal person is considered. If suicidal ideation does not cause one marked distress, why is it a mental illness?

The truth is that, despite the ostensible decriminalization of suicide, modern society still encounters suicide under a criminal model. The extreme position of Justice Scalia is, unfortunately, the one tacitly held by our government in general:

“At common law in England, a suicide – defined as one who “deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death,” 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *189 – was criminally liable. Ibid. Although the States abolished the penalties imposed by the common law (i.e., forfeiture and ignominious burial), they did so to spare the innocent family, and not to legitimize the act.” Cruzan v. Director, MDH, 497 U.S. 261 (1990).

Thanks Rob Sica.


1. I realize it may be necessary to distinguish civil injunctions, and civil contempt actions, here. Civil injunctions are ordered only in the case of irreparable harm to others. And, to be punished – by fine or jail – a contempt action must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Neither of these criteria are in place in the case of suicide. And, just to be clear, civil injunctions are by far an exceptional case. Money damages are by far the preferred remedy, when they are at all applicable.

2. Gawker says, “It’s weird these models don’t get more work! They are really selling the look. ‘Show me ‘I sure wish I could kill myself but this smock is impossible to rip into strangle-friendly strips’! Perfect.'”

Written by Sister Y

May 16, 2009 at 3:57 am

On People Not Being Able to "Make It Look Like a Suicide"

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Those in favor of forcing people to remain alive against their will often hypothesize that an institutional right to suicide would put vulnerable people at risk of being coerced or pressured into suicide.

There is no evidence for that position. On the other hand, in a society with an institutional right to comfortable, doctor-assisted suicide by barbiturates, it would be much more problematic for a killer to murder someone and make it look like a suicide. In such a society, why would anyone commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning or by gunshot? Some might choose other means of death, of course, but suicides by old-fashioned means would likely become somewhat rare and extremely suspicious, no longer the norm.

Some believe that a right to suicide would harm vulnerable people. But there’s just as much reason to believe that a right to suicide would eliminate some incidences of the worst coercive deaths – murders.

Written by Sister Y

September 20, 2008 at 3:46 am