## Standing and The Border Wall

### Horrible Outcome Plausible Opinion

So I was initially aghast at the opinion granting the government a stay in Trump v. Sierra (the emergency funding for the wall case). How could the court have done something so obviously wrong. But then I went and read the briefs and came out with a different view.

However, a key caveat here is that it’s only reasonable if Judge McFadden’s decision decision the House lacked standing to challenge is overturned on appeal. If the Supreme Court upholds that then, precedent or no, they’ve endorsed the position that the president could just start spending money without the fig lead of an excuse and no one could challenge it.

First, the court’s stay wasn’t based on whether or not the expenditure was unlawful (obviously yes IMO) but the court’s conclusion that the plaintiffs probably lacked standing. Personally, I would have voted with Bryer to allow the transfer of money but not the start of construction (thus avoiding harm to both parties) but the fact that they convinced Breyer to at least stay the injunction on the transfer of money suggests there was a pretty good argument for this point of view. And, indeed, after reading the briefs (there is only a super short opinion as it was an order) I came away thinking that this was a plausible outcome.

The most important point here is that the court has a long held rule for prudential standing that the interests of the plaintiffs raising a statutory challenge has to fall within the zone of interests the law was intended to protect. For instance, in Tax Analysts the court denied standing to an oil company seeking to challenge an IRS ruling that gave competitors tax benefits it argued were barred by law. I think it’s a stupid rule (uniform application is always an interest of the legislature).

This puts the plaintiffs in a tough spot since they are obviously not within the zone of interests protected by section 8005 (the law that allows the DoD to transfer money in an emergency) so they argue that it’s a constitutional violation of the spending clause since that means the government is spending money without congressional authorization. However, this is a dubious move as in some sense all government actions in violation of a statute are unconstitutional1. I think the fact that any claim of statutory violation could be turned into a constitutional violation to be a reducto of the supreme court’s precedent but the precedent is what it is. Indeed, there is some pretty explicit precedent in Dalton that seems to establish that when the executive makes a decision in a way that violates some constraint congress placed on that decision it doesn’t thereby become a constitutional violation (in the sense that’s relevant for standing). Specifically, the court held that

Our cases do not support the proposition that every action by the President, or by another executive official, in excess of his statutory authority is ipso facto in violation of the Constitution. On the contrary, we have often distinguished between claims of constitutional violations and claims that an official has acted in excess of his statutory authority. See, e. g., Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 373 U.S. 647, 650-652 (1963) (distinguishing between “rights which may arise under the Fourth Amendment” and “a cause of action for abuse of the [statutory] subpoena power by a federal officer”); Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 396-397 (1971) (distinguishing between “actions contrary to [a] constitutional prohibition,” and those “merely said to be in excess of the authority delegated . . . by the Congress”).

I think this distinction is kinda arbitrary and unreasonably provides the (arguably more important) rights protected by structural features of the constitution less protection than explicitly named rights. The plaintiffs try to distinguish Dalton by suggesting it applies only when the decision is ultimately relegated wholly to the discretion of the president but I think this misreads Dalton2.

The government also argues the constitutional violation would occur when the money is transferred between accounts not when it is spent. This feels too clever by half since the intent of section 8005 is obviously to prevent the expenditure of funds on projects congress disapproves of not to change DoD accounting procedures3.

Finally, even if we accept that the challenge should be considered based on a constitutional violation there is some debate over whether the zone of interests test still applies.

The government argues that it does based on an absurdly strained reading of the phrase “statutorily created” arguing that because the courts of equity are a creation of congress that any cause of action arising out of them are statutorily created. Frankly, that’s absurd (if that was true what function does “statutorily created” have?). But from a structural point of view it’s not implausible to think that for derivative constitutional claims, i.e., constitutional claims that arise because a statutory constraint is violated, that the zone of interests test still applies and that zone of interests is determined by those specified in the statute. Indeed, if one accepts the principle behind the zone of interests tests it seems like it applies just as strongly here (though if you, like me, don’t one would want to limit it’s application).

I’d note that the government’s argument that the transfer of funds here was legal is just absurd. It relies on a technical distinction between the budget item in the DoD and the funding of the very same project via DHS (which congress denied). That’s ridiculous and would let the president fund absolutely anything just by changing the names or agencies under which it was funded.

1. I mean why can’t the competing business in Tax Analysts just allege that issuing their competitors a refund (after estimated tax payments) based on this interpretation is an expenditure without congressional authorization or just generally rely on the fact that the constitution vests legislative authority with congress to challenge any contrary administrative ruling.
2. Specifically, in Dalton the president’s only power was to either accept in whole or reject in whole a proposal by a commission on what military bases to close and the plaintiffs alleged the commission’s proposal was crafted in violation of law. I can’t see how the fact that the president ultimately had to approve or reject is relevant to the standing.
3. To steelman the argument as best I can consider this. Imagine the Trump admin had refused to say on what exact pieces of land it was planning to build the wall on before transfering the money. In that case the plaintiffs could surely not claim injury when the transfer happened (the mere fact that the government might do something isn’t enough) and surely standing can’t turn on what you believe the government plans to do with the money. However, I’d respond that in this case if the defendants would (if they otherwise would have had standing) gain standing when that money was spent (or about to be spent) in a way that injured them.

## Global Warming Before Social Programs

Is this right? Only 2 of the democratic candidates for president have come out in favor of carbon taxes? Only Delany seems to have made it a key platform. I’ve never been a big climate change hawk before but, while I’d really love to have many of the social programs the dems are proposing, we’ve got to deal with global warming sometime and, unlike all the other priorities, this one gets much more expensive the longer we wait.

So waiting on global warming means less money in the future to fund the social programs we want and harms that might offset them. A carbon tax now means revenue that we could spend on desired social programs.

Yes, I know other candidates have supported funds for R&D, renewables etc.. but, c’mon, that’s just a gesture. The government doesn’t have the money, absent a huge tax hike in which case just tax carbon, to subsidize renewables enough to make fossil fuels more expensive across the board given their superior energy density and existing infrastructure.

## What’s With The Worry About Deepfakes

When I see articles like this one I’m puzzled as to why people think it will be such a big deal. For a damn long time we managed without photo or video evidence at all and it’s even easier to fake text than it is to fake photos or videos. Yes, it will take time to get used to it but once people realize that there are videos out there showing absolutely everything they’ll stop believing things just because they saw a video of it.

I mean, I do see that a video has a stronger emotional impact but I don’t see why people won’t adapt.

#### Deepfakes are getting better-but they’re still easy to spot

Last week, Mona Lisa smiled. A big, wide smile, followed by what appeared to be a laugh and the silent mouthing of words that could only be an answer to the mystery that had beguiled her viewers for centuries. A great many people were unnerved.

## Privacy Regulation Is Likely Unworkably Hard

### Don't Count On The Government Regulating Facebook

#### Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.

1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism.
2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation.
3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers).

## More Crappy Treatment Of College Athletes

Why do we put up with this kind of shit (preventing college athletes from even monetizing their own youtube videos)? I mean no one really believes that this is deeply important to preserve some weird value of “amatuerness” in sports do they? Even if you thought that why not let the athletes themselves vote on whether being amatuer is worth the loss of revenue?

If you think they are too young and immature go ask former college athletes to make the call. Of course they won’t because this is all about making money off them.

Sigh, it just pisses me off that we can fight so much about issues of political controversy on campuses but in places where its clear as day that colleges are doing the wrong thing and both the right and left should support fixing somehow gets a pass. Yes this is just a contentless rant but sometimes it happens.

## Does Anyone Really Object To Normalizing Racism/Sexism?

### Or Reasons Not To Call Trump Racist

When it is revealed that a public figure said something with racist/sexist overtones criticism piles on fast. Even if it is clear that the figure doesn’t really have these racist/sexist attitudes the common refrain is that its still extremely harmful because it normalizes racism/sexism/etc.. Presumably the theory being that if other people believe that high status people commonly behave this way they will think its ok for them to as well.

Is this just a lie (or self-deception) for partisan purposes? I mean consider the implications if you really believed the following back when Bush was President (No one will plausibly believe Trump isn’t saying sexist things whatever you do):

1. G. W. Bush isn’t really a racist/sexist (replace with Clinton if you prefer) but he sometimes uses racist/sexist language without thinking in the privacy of the white house.
2. If people realized the president was saying these racist things they too would think that racism was ok and it would have bad consequences.

First, you should be much more angry at whatever staffer leaked the fact that the president used racist language than at the president himself. The staffer who leaked it had time to contemplate it and still choose to make the country think the president uses racist slurs while the president has a slip of the tongue from time to time. Indeed, you should be most angry if the staffer is a minority themselves who claims to be leaking the information because of his concern for racial justice. Even if you give the leaker some kind of pass for ignorance1 at the very least you should be trying your damnedest to (quietly) discourage any future such leaks.

Second, you should be archenemies with the liberal activists and members of the social justice community who spin stories about how racist/sexist the president is even, perhaps especially when it is true (excepting perhaps the very rare case where you believe it will do enough to affect the balance of power to outweigh the harms to race relations). Even with Trump it should be inexcusable to make allegations about dog whistle racism without absolutely rock solid evidence such as staffer testimony of intent and recognition in the community.

Third, you should be worried about maximally racist/sexist interpretations of a public figure’s comments. Even if it is plausible they meant them in the worst possible way you should favor the least racist/sexist interpretation that is plausible just so you don’t further normalize racism/sexism.

Yet, while I see people make the ‘this normalizes X’ argument all the damn time I’ve yet to see them get angry upset or even remonstrate people who are working to push marginally plausible theories of racist/sexist intent or dubitable claims of racist/sexist language. I’ve certainly never seen anyone making such an argument even suggest that it was bad/wrong for someone to leak that information. To the contrary they usually suggest it was in the national interest.

So how should one understand such claims? They can’t really believe the harm from normalization is that big a deal or they wouldn’t be on board with accusations that offer only minor political benefit at the cost of normalizing such behavior. My best guess is what they really mean is: how dare you break this social norm which I feel is very important. Even though your action only had a really tiny harmful effect the norm is really important because without it people would come to believe it was normal and acceptable to engage in racism/sexism.

That’s a fair statement but notice the implication: since any particular incident only does minor harm to this norm and barely nudges people’s sense of what is normal only a minor penalty is appropriate. After all, the benefit to the speaker is presumably virtually nothing from the slur and its sufficient if everyone takes relatively weak action to ensure they don’t utter any slurs so a small deterrent should suffice. In other words we still can’t interpret the speaker as making a cogent complaint as their intent in raising the specter of normalization was to show why this kind of behavior was so serious we couldn’t just let it go with a slap on the wrist but the speaker’s own disposition to prioritize a modicum of political advantage over avoiding further instances of normalization shows that he can’t coherently believe that the possibility of normalization shows the seriousness of the offense.

1. Shouldn’t the speaker get the very same pass if he hasn’t worked harder to control his occasional slips of the tongue because he isn’t aware that it has any negative effect on others? Often racist phrases are picked up simply from hearing them said so the speaker isn’t in any way morally more responsible than the leaker…indeed arguably a better position as the leaker has to sit down and think over if he should leak while the speaker may have never even done that regarding his slips of the tongue.

## Rejecting Rationality

I felt I would use this first post to explain this blog’s title. It is not, despite appearances to the contrary, meant to suggest any animosity toward the rationality community nor sympathy with the idea that when evaluating claims we should ever favor emotions and intuition over argumentation and evidence. Rather, it is intended as a critique of the ambiguous overuse of the term rationality’ by the rationality community in general (and Yudkowsky specifically).

I want to suggest that there are two different concepts we use the word rationality to describe and that the rationality community overuses the term in a way that invites confusion. Both conceptions of rationality are judgements of epistemic virtue but the nature of that virtue differs.

### Rationality As Ideal Evaluation Of Evidence

The first conception of rationality reflects the classic idea that rationality is a matter of a priori theoretical insight. This makes intuitive sense as rationality, in telling us how we should respond to evidence, shouldn’t depend on the particular way the evidence turns out. On this conception rationality constrains how one reaches judgements from arbitrary data and something is rational just if we expect it to maximize true beliefs in the face of a completely unknown/unspecified fact pattern1. In other words this is the kind of rationality you want if you are suddenly flung into another universe where the natural laws, number of dimensions or even the correspondence between mental and physical states might differ radically from our own.

On this conception having logically coherent beliefs and obeying the axioms of probability can be said to be rationally required (as doing so never forces you to belief less truths) but it’s hard to make a case for much else. Carnap (among others) suggested at one point that there might be something like a rationally (in this sense) preferable way of assigning priors but the long history of failed attempts and conceptual arguments suggests this isn’t possible.

Note that on this conception of rationality it is perfectly appropriate to criticize a belief forming method for how it might perform if faced with some other set of circumstances. For instance, we could appropriately criticize the rule: never believe in ghosts/psychics on the grounds that it would have lead us to the wrong conclusions in a world where these things were real.

### Rationality As Heuristic

The second conception of rationality is simpler. Rationality is what will lead human beings like us to true beliefs in this world. Thus, this notion of rationality can take into account things that happen to be true. For instance, consider the rule that when asked a question on a math test (written by humans in the usual circumstances) that calls for a numerical answer you should judge that 0 is the most probable answer. This rule is almost certainly truth-conducive but only because it happens to be true that human psychology tends to favor asking questions whose answer is 0.

Now a heuristic like this might, at first, seem pretty distant from the kind of things we usually mean by rationality but think about some of the rules that are frequently said to be rationally required/favored. For instance, one should steelman2 your opponents arguments, try to consider the issue in the most dispassionate way you can manage and you should break up complex/important events.

For instance, suppose that humans were psychologically disposed to be overly deferential so it was far more common to underestimate the strength of your argument than it was to underestimate your opponent’s argument. In this case steelmanning would make us even more likely to reach the wrong conclusions not less. Similarly, our emotions could have reflected useful information available to our subconscious minds but not our concuss minds in such a way that they provided a good guide to truth. In such a world trying to reach probability judgements via dispassionate consideration wouldn’t be truth conducive.

Thus, on this conception of rationality whether or not a belief forming method is rational depends only on how well it does in the actual world.

### The Problematic Ambiguity

Unfortunately, when people in the rationality community talk about rationality they tend to blur these two concepts together. That is they advocate belief forming mechanisms that could only be said to be rational in the heuristic sense but assume that they can determine matters of rationality purely by contemplation without empirical evidence.

For instance, consider these remarks by Yudkowsky or this lesswrong post. Whether or not they come out and assert it they convey the impression that there is some higher discipline or lifestyle of rationality which goes far beyond simply not engaging in logical contradiction or violating probability axioms. Yet they seem to assume that we can determine what is/isn’t rational by pure conceptual analysis rather than empirical validation.

This issue is even more clear when we criticize others for the ways they form beliefs. For instance, we are inclined to say that people who adopt the rule ‘believe what my community tells me is true’ or ‘believe god exists/doesn’t exist regardless of evidence’ are being irrational since such rules would yield incorrect results if they had been born in a community with crazy beliefs or in a universe with/without deities. Yet, as I observed above the very rules we take to be core rational virtues have the very same property.

The upshot of this isn’t that we should give up on finding good heuristics for truth. Not at all. Rather, I’m merely suggesting we take more care, especially in criticizing other people’s belief forming methods, to ensure we are applying coherent standards.

### A Third Way

One might hope that there was yet another concept of rationality that someone split the difference of the two I provided here. A notion that allows us to take into account things like our psychological makeup or seemingly basic (if contingent) properties our universe has, e.g., we experience it as predictable rather than being an orderless succession of experiential states, but doesn’t let us build in facts like Yeti’s don’t exist into supposedly rational belief forming mechanisms. Frankly, I’m skeptical that any such coherent notion can be articulated but don’t currently have a compelling argument for that claim.

Finally, I’d like to end by pointing out there is another issue we should be aware of regarding the term rationality (though hardly unique to it). That is rationality is ultimately a property of belief forming rules while in the actual world what we get is instances of belief formation and some vague intentions about how we will form beliefs in the future. Thus there is the constant temptation to simply find some belief forming rule that qualifies as sufficiently rational and use it to justify this instance of our belief. However, it’s not generally valid to infer that you are forming beliefs appropriately just because each belief you form agrees with some sufficiently rational (in the heuristic sense) belief forming mechanism.

For instance, suppose there are a 100 different decent heuristics for forming a certain kind of belief. We know that each one is imperfect and gets different cases wrong but any attempt to come up with a better rule doesn’t yield anything humans (with our limited brains) can usefully apply. It is entirely plausible that almost any particular belief of this kind matches up with 1 of these 100 different heuristics thus allowing you to always cite a justification for your belief even though you underperform every single one of these heuristics.

1. I’m glossing over the question of whether there is a distinction between an arbitrary possible world and a random’ possible world. For instance, suppose that some belief forming rule is true in all but finitely many possible worlds (out of some hugely uncountable set of possible worlds). That rule is not authorized in an arbitrary possible world (choose the counterexample world and it leads to falsehood) but intuitively it seems justified and any non-trivial probability measure (i.e. one that doesn’t concentrate on any finite set of worlds) on the space of possible worlds would assign probability 1 to the validity of the belief forming procedure. However, this won’t be an issue in this discussion.
2. The opposite of strawmannirg. Rendering your opponents argument in the strongest fashion possible.