Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

NRA Conferences Reduce Gun Injuries?

Misleading Reporting and Dubious Statistics

So the following letter is being widely reported online as if it is evidence for the importance of gun control. I’m skeptical of the results as I detail in the next post but even if one takes the results at face value the letter is pretty misleading and the media reporting is nigh fraudulent.

In particular if one digs into the appendix to the letter one finds the following statement: “many of the firearm injuries observed in the commercially insured patient population may reflect non-crime-related firearm injuries.” This is unsurprising as using health insurance data means you are only looking at patients rich enough to be insured and willing to report their injury as firearms related: so basically excluding anyone injured in the commission of a crime or who isn’t legally allowed to use a gun. As a result they also analyzed differences in crime rates and found no effect.

So even on it’s face this study would merely show that people who choose to use firearms are sometimes injured in that use. That might be a good reason to stay away from firearms yourself but not additional reason for regulation as is being suggested in the media.

Moreover, if the effect is really just about safety at gun ranges then its unclear if the effect is from lower use of such ranges or that the NRA conference encourages greater care and best practices.

Reasons To Suspect The Underlying Study

Also, I’m pretty skeptical of the underlying claim in the study. The size of the effect claimed is huge relative to the number of people who attend an NRA conference. I mean about 40% of US households are gun owners but only ~80,000 people attend nationwide NRA conventions or ~.025% of the US population or ~.0625 of US gun owners. Thus, for this statistic to be true because NRA members are busy at the conference we would have to believe NRA conference attendees were a whopping 320 times more likely to be inflict a gun related injury than the average gun owner.

Now if we restrict our attention to homicides this is almost surely not the case. Attending an NRA convention requires a certain level of financial wealth and political engagement which suggests membership in a socioeconomic class less likely to commit gun violence and than the average gun owner. And indeed, the study finds no effect in terms of gun related crime. Even if we look to non-homicides gun deaths from suicides far outweigh those from accidents and I doubt those who go to an NRA convention are really that much more suicidal inclined.

An alternative likely explanation is that the NRA schedules its conferences for certain times of the year when people are likely to be able to attend and we are merely seeing seasonal correlations masquerading as effects from the NRA conference (a factor they don’t control for). Also as they run all subgroup analysises and don’t report the results for census tracks and other possible subgroups the possibility for p-hacking is quite real. Looking at the graph they provide I’m not exactly overwhelmed.Not exactly convincing graph

The claim gets harder to believe when one considers the fact that people who attend NRA meetings almost surely don’t give up going to firing ranges during the meeting. Indeed, I would expect (though haven’t been able to verify) that there would be any number of shooting range expeditions during the conference and that this would actually mean many attendees would be more likely to handle a gun during that time period.

Though, once one realizes that the data set one is considering is only those who make insurance claims relating to gun related injuries it is slightly more plausible but only at the cost of undermining the significance of the claim. Deaths and suicides are much less likely to produce insurance claims and the policy implications aren’t very clear if all we are seeing is a reduction in people injured because of incorrect gun grips (see the mythbusters about this..such injuries can be quite serious).

Artificial Intelligence And The Structure Of Thought

Why Your Self-Driving Car Won't Cause Armageddon

In recent years a number of prominent individuals have raised concerns about our ability to control powerful AIs. The idea is that once we create truly human level generally intelligent software or AGI computers will undergo an intelligence explosion and will be able to escape any constraints we place on them. This concern has perhaps been most throughly developed by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Unlike the AI in bad science fiction the concern isn’t that the AI will be evil or desire dominion the way humans are but simply that it will be too good at whatever task we set it to perform. For instance, suppose Waymo builds an AI to run its fleet of self-driving cars. The AI’s task is to converse with passengers/app users and route its vehicles appropriately. Unlike more limited self-driving car software this AI is programmed to learn the subtleties of human behavior so it can position a pool of cars in front of the stadium right before the game ends and helpfully show tourists the sites. On Yudkowsky’s vision the engineers achieve this by coding in a reward function that the software works to maximize (or equivalently a penalty function it works to minimize). For instance, in this case the AI might be punished based on negative reviews/frustrated customers, deaths/damage from accidents involving its vehicles, travel delays and customers who choose to use a competitor rather than Waymo. I’m already skeptical that (super) human AI would have anything identifiable as a global reward/utility function but on Yudkowsky’s picture AGI is something like a universal optimizer which is set loose to do its best to achieve rewards.

The concern is that the AI would eventually realize that it could minimize its punishment by arranging for everyone to die in a global pandemic since then there would be no bad reviews, lost customers or travel delays. Given the AI’s vast intelligence and massive data set it would then hack into microbiology labs and manipulate the workers there to create a civilization ending plague. Moreover, no matter what kind of firewalls or limitations we try and place on the AI as long as it can somehow interact with the external world it will find a way around these barriers. Since its devilishly difficult to specify any utility function without such undesirable solutions Yudkowsky concludes that AGI poses a serious threat to the human species.

Rewards And Reflection

The essential mechanism at play in all of Yudkowsky’s apocalyptic scenarios is that the AI examines its own reward function, realizes that some radically different strategy would offer even greater rewards and proceeds to surreptitiously work to realize this alternate strategy. Now its only natural that a sufficiently advanced AI would have some degree of reflective access to its own design and internal deliberation. After all it’s common for humans to reflect on our own goals and behaviors to help shape our future decisions, e.g., we might observe that if we continue to get bad grades we won’t get into the college we want and as a result decide that we need to stop playing World of Warcraft.

At first blush it might seem obvious that realizing its rewards are given by a certain function would induce an AI to maximize that function. One might even be tempted to claim this is somehow part of the definition of what it means for an agent to have a utility function but that’s trading off on an ambiguity between two notions of reward.

The sense of reward which gives rise to the worries about unintended satisfaction is that of positive reinforcement. It’s the digital equivalent of giving someone cocaine. Of course, if you administer cocaine to someone every time they write a blog post they will tend to write more blog posts. However, merely learning that cocaine causes a rewarding distribution of dopamine in the brain doesn’t cause people to go out and buy cocaine. Indeed, that knowledge could just as well have the exact opposite effect. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that merely because an AGI has a representation of their reward function they will try and reason out alternative ways to satisfy it. Indeed, indulging in anthropomorphizing for a moment, there is no reason to assume that an AGI will have any particular desire regarding rewards received by its future time states much adopt a particular discount rate.

Of course, in the long run, if a software program was rewarded for analyzing its own reward function and finding unusual ways to activate it then it could learn to do so just as people who are rewarded with pleasurable drug experiences can learn to look for ways to short-circuit their reward system. However, if that behavior is punished, e.g., humans intervene and punish the software when it starts recommending public transit, then the system will learn to avoid short-circuiting its reward pathways just like people can learn to avoid addictive drugs. This isn’t to say that there is no danger here, left alone an AGI, just like a teen with access to cocaine, could easily learn harmful reward seeking behavior. However, since the system doesn’t start in a state in which it applies its vast intelligence to figure out ways to hack its reward function the risk is far less severe.

Now, Yudkowsky might respond by saying he didn’t really mean the system’s reward function but its utility function. However, since we don’t tend to program machine learning algorithms by specifying the function they will ultimately maximize (or reflect on and try to maximize) its unclear why we need to explicitly specify a utility function that doesn’t lead to unintended consequences. After all, Yudkowsky is the one trying to argue that its likely that AGI will have these consequences so merely restating the problem in a space that has no intrinsic relationship to how one would expect AGI to be constructed doesn’t do anything to advance his argument. For instance, I could point out that phrased in terms of the locations of fundamental particles its really hard to specify a program that excludes apocalyptic arrangements of matter but that wouldn’t do anything to convince you that AIs risked causes such apocalypses since such specifications have nothing to do with how we expect an AI to be programed.

The Human Comparison

Ultimately, we have one example of a kind of general intelligence: the human brain. Thus, when evaluating claims about the dangers of AGI one of the first things we should do is see if the same story applies to our brain and if not if there is any special reason to expect our brains to be different.

Looking at the way humans behave its striking how poorly Yudkowsky’s stories describe our behavior even though evolution has shaped us in ways that make us far more dangerous than we should expect AGIs to be (we have self-preservation instincts, approximately coherent desires and beliefs, and are responsive to most aspects of the world rather than caring only about driving times or chess games). Time and time again we see that we follow heuristics and apply familiar mental strategies even when its clear that a different strategy would offer us greater activation of reward centers, greater reproductive opportunities or any other plausible thing we are trying to optimize.

The fact that we don’t consciously try and optimize our reproductive success and instead apply a forest of frameworks and heuristics that we follow even when they undermine our reproductive success strongly suggests that an AGI will most likely function in a similar heuristic layered fashion. In other words, we shouldn’t expect intelligence to come as a result of some pure mathematical optimization but more as a layered cake of heuristic processes. Thus, when an AI responsible for routing cars reflects on its performance it won’t see the pure mathematical question of how can I minimize such and such function any more than we see the pure mathematical question of how can I cause dopamine to be released in this part of my brain or how can I have more offspring. Rather, just as we break up the world into tasks like ‘make friends’ or ‘get respect from peers’ the AI will reflect on the world represented in terms of pieces like ‘route car from A to B’ or ‘minimize congestion in area D’ that bias it towards a certain kind of solution and away from plots like avoid congestion by creating a killer plague.

This isn’t to say there aren’t concerns. Indeed, as I’ve remarked elsewhere I’m much more concerned about schizophrenic AIs than I am about misaligned AI’s but that’s enough for this post.

Don’t Make Drug Companies Police Usage

Is this a ridiculous amount of opiates for a single small town to prescribe. Sure thing. But I find the idea that drug companies being held to task for this, and thus implicitly the idea that they should have done something to supply fewer pills to these pharmacies deeply troubling.

I mean how would that work out? The drug companies are (rightly) legally barred from seeing patient records and deciding who does and doesn’t deserve prescriptions so all they could do is cut off the receiving pharmacies. Ok, so they could put pressure on the pharmacies to fill less prescriptions but the pharmacies also don’t have patient records so what that means is the pharmacies scrutinize you to see if you ‘look’ like someone who is abusing the prescription or a ‘real’ patient. So basically being a minority or otherwise not looking like what the pharmacist expects a real pain patient to look like means you can’t get your medicine. Worse, the people scamming pills will be willing to use whatever tricks are necessary (faking pain, shaving their head whatever) to elicit scripts so it’s the legitimate users who are most likely to end up out in the cold.

While I also have reservations about the DEA intimidating doctors into not prescribing needed medicine it is the government (who, I understand, is informed about the number of opiates being sold by various pharmacies) who should be investigating cases like this not the drug maker. Personally I think the solution isn’t and never has been controlling the supply but always about providing sufficient resources like methadone and bupenorphine maintenance so people who find themselves hooked can live normal lives.

Drug companies submerged WV in opioids: One town of 3,000 got 21 million pills

Drug companies hosed tiny towns in West Virginia with a deluge of addictive and deadly opioid pills over the last decade, according to an ongoing investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. For instance, drug companies collectively poured 20.8 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the small city of Williamson, West Virginia, between 2006 and 2016, according to a set of letters the committee released Tuesday.

AI Bias and Subtle Discrimination

Don't Incentivize Discrimination To Feel Better

This is an important point not just about AI software but discussions about race and gender more generally. Accurately reporting (or predicting) facts that, all too often, are the unfortunate result of a long history of oppression or simple random variation isn’t bias.

Personally, I feel that the social norm which regards accurate observation of facts such as (as mentioned in the article) racial differences in loan repayment rate conditional on wealth to be a reflection of bias is just a way of pretending society’s social warts don’t exist. Only by accurately reporting such effects can we hope to identify and rectify the causes, e.g., perhaps differences in treatment make employment less stable for certain racial groups or whether or not the bank officer looks like you affects likelihood of repayment. Our unwillingness to confront these issues places our personal interest in avoiding the risk of seeming racist/sexist over the social good of working out and addressing the causes of these differences.

Ultimately, the society I want isn’t the wink and a nod cultural in which people all mouth platitudes but we implicitly reward people for denying underrepresented groups loans or spots in colleges or whatever. I think we end up with a better society (not the best, see below) when the bank’s loan evaluation software spits out a number which bakes in all available correlations (even the racial ones) and rewards the loan officer for making good judgements of character independent of race rather than the system where the software can’t consider that factor and we reward the loan officers who evaluate the character of applications of color more negatively to compensate or the bank executives who choose not to place branches in communities of color and so on. Not only does this encourage a kind of wink and nod racism but when banks optimize profits via subtle discrimination rather than explicit consideration of the numbers one ends up creating a far higher barrier to minorities getting loans than a slight tick up in predicted default rate. If we don’t want to use features like the applicant race in decisions like loan offers, college acceptance etc.. we need to affirmatively acknowledge these correlations exist and ensure we don’t implement incentives to be subtly racist, e.g., evaluate loan officer’s performance relative to the (all factors included) default rate so we don’t implicitly reward loan officers and bank managers with biases against people of color (which itself imposes a barrier to minority loan officers).

In short, don’t let the shareholders and executives get away with passing the moral buck by saying ‘Ohh no, we don’t want to consider factors like race when offering loans’ but then turning around and using total profits as the incentive to ensure their employees do the discrimination for them. It may feel uncomfortable openly acknowledging such correlates but not only is it necessary to trace out the social causes of these ills but the other option is continued incentives for covert racism especially the use of subtle social cues of being the ‘right sort’ to identify likely success and that is what perpetuates the cycle.


A.I. ‘Bias’ Doesn’t Mean What Journalists Say it Means

In Florida, a criminal sentencing algorithm called COMPAS looks at many pieces of data about a criminal and computes the probability that they will commit new crimes. Judges use these risk scores in criminal sentencing and parole hearings to determine whether the offender should be kept in jail or released.

The Effect Of Self-Driving Cars On Schooling

In hindsight it often turns out the biggest effect of a new technology is very different than what people imagined beforehand. I suggest that this may well be the case for self-driving cars.

Sure, the frequently talked about effects like less time wasted in commutes or even the elimination of personal car ownership are nice but I think self-driving cars might have an even larger effect by eliminating the constraint of proximity in schooling and socialization for children.

While adults often purchase homes quite far from their workplaces proximity is a huge constraint on which schools students attend. In a few metropolises with extensive public transport systems its possible for older children to travel to distant schools (and, consequently, these cities often have more extensive school choice) but in most of the United States busing is the only practical means to transport children whose parents can’t drive them to school. While buses need not take children to a nearby school they are practically limited by the need to pick children up in a compact geographic area. A bus might be able to drive from downtown Chicago to a school in a suburb on the north side of the city but you couldn’t, practically, bus students to their school of choice in the metropolitan area. Even in cases where busing takes students to better schools in remote areas attending a school far from home has serious costs. How can you collaborate with classmates, play with school friends, attend after school activities or otherwise integrate into the school peer group without a parent to drive you?

This all changes with self-driving cars. Suddenly proximity poses far less of a barrier to schooling and friendship. By itself this doesn’t guarantee change but it creates an opportunity to create a school system that is based on specialization and differing programs rather than geographic region.

Of course, we aren’t likely to see suburban schools opening their doors to inner city kids at the outset. Everyone wants the best for their children and education, at least at the high end, is a highly rivalrous good (it doesn’t really matter how well a kid scores objectively on the SAT only that he scores better than the other kids). However, self-driving cars open up a whole world of possibility for specialty schools catering to students who excel at math and science, who have a particular interest in theater or music or who need special assistance. As such schools benefit wealthy influential parents they will be created and, by their very nature, be open to applicants from a wide geographic area.

No, this won’t fix the problem of poor educational outcomes in underprivileged areas but it will offer a way out for kids who are particularly gifted/interested in certain areas. This might be the best that we can hope for if, as I suspect, who your classmates are matters more than good technology or even who your teachers are.

I should probably give credit to this interesting point suggesting that school vouchers aren’t making schools better because they don’t result in school closures for inspiring this post (and because I think its an insightful point).

Why Are We DDOSing North Korea?

An Ineffective Strategy With Worrying Implications

Wait what? We are launching a DDOS attack against North Korea. Could we do anything more stupid? Its not like North Korea uses the internet enough for this to represent a serious inconvenience to the nation while at the same time we legitimize the use of cyber attacks against civilian infrastructure as a way to settle international disputes. Dear god this is a bad idea!

As US launches DDoS attacks, N. Korea gets more bandwidth-from Russia

As the US reportedly conducts a denial-of-service attack against North Korea’s access to the Internet, the regime of Kim Jong Un has gained another connection to help a select few North Koreans stay connected to the wider world-thanks to a Russian telecommunications provider.

The Troubling Issue Of Masterpiece Cakes

Masterpiece Cakeshop Is In The Wrong But Anti-Discrimination Laws Based On Orientation May Be The Long Run Danger

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is the Supreme Court case about the religious baker who refused to sell any wedding cake for a gay wedding and is now challenging the Colorado anti-discrimination laws that bar him from doing this on both free speech grounds and religious liberty grounds.

Legal Considerations

The religious liberty challenge is pretty weak (both as a moral and legal matter). Essentially, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop is arguing that he shouldn’t have to comply with the same laws that everyone else does just because his religion disagrees. It used to be the case that in some situations the Supreme Court recognized a first amendment right to an exception to generally applicable laws when they conflicted with religious belief. However, in Employment Division v. Smith Scalia got rid of this nonsense. As long as a law is generally applicable and isn’t motivated by religious animus the fact that it requires you violate your religious beliefs is immaterial1. As a result Masterpiece Cakeshop really doesn’t have a leg to stand on as far as the free exercise claim goes.

The free speech arguments are a bit more hefty. There is a long ling of cases that hold the first amendment bars the government from compelling you to express views you disagree with. For instance, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston the Supreme Court held that the first amendment protected the right of march organizers to exclude groups from their demonstration (despite contrary anti-discrimination law) when it would compromise their message, e.g., you can’t force a march against homosexuality to allow gay groups to join or a white supremacist march to include blacks. In other cases the court has held that the government can’t force students to pledge allegiance, newspapers to carry political responses for balance or PG&E to include environmental fliers in its bills.

As such, if Masterpiece Cakeshop was about the baker refusing to decorate the cake with a message they disagreed with I’m inclined to think there is a plausible argument to be made. If Masterpiece Cakeshop was willing to sell blank or generic wedding cakes to gay couples getting married there would be a strong case that requiring them to distribute messages on the cakes that they find objectionable is analogous to requiring PG&E to distribute environmental fliers it disagrees with. However, that’s not the fact patter in this case. Masterpiece Cakeshop is refusing to sell any wedding cake for a homosexual wedding.

Now there have been some heroic attempts to argue that merely providing any wedding cake at all conveys a celebratory message. However, this argument just isn’t very plausible. Certainly, wedding cakes are used as part of an event which, as a whole, sends a celebratory message but so too are the plates, silverware and chairs used at such functions. Surely no one thinks that a vendor who rents chairs for events is somehow being compelled to speak (in the way the Supreme Court has deemed unacceptable) when the law requires they deliver chairs to both gay and straight weddings. Indeed, if we accept the argument that merely because a good sold by a business will be used for an expressive purpose the sale of that good is itself expressive and thus protected from compulsion we would have to conclude that a white supremacist who owned an art supply shop had a first amendment right to refuse to sell pens to blacks as they will be used in an expressive manner (and quite likely to disapprove of white supremacy).

More broadly, there is an expressive component to all business transactions. In some sense serving black customers at a dinner expresses approval of their presence in the same dinner as whites. However, this isn’t the kind of incidental compelled expression the supreme court has identified as deserving of special protection nor should it be. When the government mandates that newspapers carry articles they disagree with the newspaper’s ability to express its desired message is seriously burdened. In contrast, when the government requires business owners to serve customers at a dinner regardless of race or sexual orientation there isn’t the same burden place on the ability of the diner owner to clearly convey his bigotry (modulo certain issues about signs2). If these brief remarks haven’t convinced you on this point I urge you to read this piece.

Policy Considerations

Alright, so Masterpiece Cakeshop deserves to lose (and almost surely will lose) at the Supreme Court. Indeed, if SCOTUS found for Masterpiece Cakeshop it would raise serious issues about the continued practical applicability of anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Many of which still address compelling needs.

However, I’m far less convinced there is any similarly compelling need for protecting homosexuals access to public accomodations like bakeries. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that individuals like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop are deeply misguided and probably bigots3. However, such individuals are being overwhelmed by the remarkably rapid march towards greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Certainly, there are still pockets of homophobia in the country but by the time laws barring anti-homosexual discrimination in public accommodations can be enacted and have an effect in less progressive states than Colorado there will be more homosexuals than people who support discrimination against homosexuals. I don’t mean to in any way diminish just how hurtful it can be to be discriminated against but we need to balance that hurt against the burden such laws place on our freedoms. The judgement we’ve made in almost all cases is that just because something is hurtful or offensive isn’t a good enough reason to abridge people’s rights to choose whom to sell to. After all, its also quite hurtful to refuse to sell to someone because they are dumb, support abortion, or because their hipster beard looks stupid (though that may be more understandable). Those may not be quite at the same level but refusing to serve any ex-cons is closer as is any number of personal reasons for discrimination one sees in small towns.

The argument that there is a special need for public accommodation laws (as opposed to other instances of hurtful but appropriately legal behavior) stems, in the case of racial discrimination, from the claim that such discrimination is systematic, pervasive and makes it particularly difficult to dissolve bigoted attitudes. These all were, and perhaps would be again absent such laws, in the case of racial discrimination. It wasn’t just that blacks were excluded from a few venues run by marginalized bigots but systematically barred from whole classes of establishments — particularly high status establishments were power and influence get traded. The systematic exclusion of blacks from these establishments created a particularly formidable barrier to racial understanding and acceptance.

In contrast, homosexuals are only rarely discriminated against in public accommodations (I’m not suggesting that many people don’t remain closeted because of likely bigoted responses from friends and family but this is beyond governmental intervention) and usually have ample alternative venues. Those public accommodations which do discriminate against homosexuals tend to be low status enterprises run by socially marginalized assholes. The penetration of chain stores into virtually all parts of America provides high quality cheap products in a non-discriminatory fashion even in some of the most backwards regions. The opinion poll trend lines prove that even without such laws the cultural shift towards homosexual acceptance is both rapid and unstoppable. In short, virtually all the reasons for thinking that anti-discrimination laws serve a special need whose exceptional importance warrants prioritizing it over the individual freedoms of the business owner don’t seem to apply. Certainly, its awful and morally unacceptable but it doesn’t seem to be different in kind from the other awful morally unacceptable behaviors we don’t outlaw.

I certainly recognize that reasonable people can disagree on the relative value of the freedoms given to business owners as well as the substantial compliance costs, unintended harms and regulatory burdens imposed by anti-discrimination laws. However, the lack of any serious attempt to weigh the costs and benefits of such anti-discrimination laws makes me suspect that people support laws barring discrimination against homosexuals merely to signal their moral disapproval of such discrimination not based on any policy analysis.

Currently, many states as well as the federal government lack laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation (hiring is a harder question IMO) so given the fact that once an anti-discrimination law is passed it is virtually impossible to ever repeal (for fear of sending the message that discrimination is acceptable) now is the time to sit down and ask whether we really want the kind of laws that lead to Masterpiece Cakeshop. If I could choose to enact such laws for a ten year period I’d probably support them but when I balance 50 or 100 years of reduced freedoms, compliance costs and unintended harms against the rapidly fading benefits I find leaning against such laws.

In short, while Masterpiece Cakeshop is clearly in the wrong from both a moral and legal perspective in the long run I fear that the well-intentioned laws that lead to this case are what we should really fear. If only there was a good way to signal our moral disapproval with sufficient strength without actually creating expensive and invasive new torts and enforcement agencies.

  1. Of course, in some circumstances we do feel that religious groups deserve a special break on a generally applicable law such as when the law is merely a matter of enforcing some uniform standard and the costs of allowing sincere religious objection is small. For instance, the purpose of a law stipulating that city employees are barred from wearing any visible clothing besides their uniform isn’t substantially impeded by allowing Jewish employees to wear a kippah (aka yamaka) and the benefit to religious individuals pretty clearly outweighs the additional hassle of having to make individual determinations of appropriateness. Congress and state legislatures have adopted RFRA laws in a (deeply flawed) attempt to ensure that, in those cases where the societal cost is small and the individual benefit large, we make exceptions. Personally, I would prefer a legal regime that was religiously neutral and simply focused on strongly held views and applied a balancing test but that’s another conversation. 
  2. As Eugene Volokh has pointed out there is a serious tension between free speech rights and anti-discrimination laws which bar vendors from expressing bigoted/sexist messages in their workplace. While being forced to serve blacks doesn’t seriously burden the owner’s freedom of expression being barred from decorating the diner with news clippings praising white supremacy, denigrating blacks and arguing for the racial inferiority of minorities does. However, this is an issue for another time. 
  3. From afar animus is hard to distinguish from compassionate belief someone is making mistaken life choices combined with a desire not to encourage further mistakes. I honestly believe some very devout catholics who truly treat homosexuality as a mistake just like adultery or premarital sex fall into the second category but such people are rare. Animus is far more common. 

Galef’s Unpopular Ideas About Crime And Punishment

Missing from this list is the suggestion that we should be maximizing the economic value of convicted felons by making them use their skills to earn money to be paid to the state and the victim. There was an interesting post about this on econolog not too long ago and while practical considerations may limit the application of this idea I think it is something we should more seriously consider.

I mean a large amount of support for increasingly harsher punishments seems driven not by the idea that it is necessary for ideal punishment but by horror at what happened to the victim. But, to the extent that is true, maybe the victim should get the choice between longer/more extreme punishment and letting the perpetrator work in a more lucrative fashion to better compensate them. True, this would mean that less skilled/educated criminals might get the worse end of the stick but criminal justice is about making the best choice from bad alternatives and if we can better compensate some victims by letting the perpetrator work for more money maybe we should consider it.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best). Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories.

It’s Time To Show Your True Colors

Do You Care About Protecting Women Or Just About Middle Class Values

It’s time for everyone claiming to support criminal bans on prostitution because they want to protect vulnerable women to choose sides. Are you really concerned about doing what it takes to protect vulnerable women or are you just using that as an excuse to justify your middle class values and your discomfort with the idea of exchanging sex for money?

Time to choose sides since it looks like research based on the (unfortunately brief) accidental Rhode Island experiment in decriminalizing indoor prostitution has some interesting results. Decriminalization resulted in a 50% drop in gonorrhea and a 30% drop in reported rapes (which, given the ability for prostitutes to go to the police without fearing prosecution, should have increased if rapes had stayed the same). Importantly, it appears that even women who weren’t in the prostitution industry saw a decrease in incidence of rape. I’d say these results were surprising except they weren’t to those familiar with the field, indeed, that’s why I’m willing to say this seems like a pretty solid result (maybe not the actual number but the direction of the change).

While no one suggests that the lives of most prostitutes (though the high end ones sometimes do well for themselves) are sweetness and light but sex workers who have experienced decriminalization will usually express strong support for the change and the ways it has changed their lives. However, one could still make an intellectually cogent case for decriminalization creating a real net harm, e.g., suggest that even if it makes the lives of sex workers better it makes more people into sex workers. However, if this research stands up, its just no longer even plausible to claim women are better protected in a regime which results in 30% more rapes. No matter how far you stretch the additional harm of increased numbers of sex workers (though often of a different class which isn’t as vulnerable) it doesn’t go that far.

But I’m pretty pessimistic. While I believe the passionate advocates in this area really do care about the victimization of women (though one can care so much that you are unable to let some go to save more) I don’t think that is what drives criminalization of prostitution at all. Rather, it’s just more of the usual human psycho-sexual drama about the threat which ‘virtuous’ women perceive from prostitution dressed up in new language.

The Effects of Decriminalization in Rhode Island

The study itself was a standard difference in differences design. Basically, that means they look at the data on rapes and STDs from both Rhode Island and the rest of the country before the decriminalization and then after the decriminalization. If the difference between Rhode Island and other states changes at the time prostitution is decriminalized then we infer that this difference in differences is a result of the change in legal status at that time. Of course, the actual statistical work is a bit more complex than this and uses data over a number of years but it’s a decent way to estimate the effect in a natural experiment provided one doesn’t believe that some other change singled out Rhode Island at the same time. To further shore up their work they use synthetic controls (basically they find the states which resemble Rhode Island in terms of the pre-decriminalization data and then use those as a control instead of the rest of the US).

Unfortunately, a reason why this study itself is only fairly persuasive and not highly persuasive is that the recriminalization results were not as strong. While rapes did rise again after Rhode Island made prostitution illegal again this result had a p-value of only .2. The story the authors offer is that the fact that this change was widely anticipated might dull the statistical power of the difference-in-differences method. In other words, they are suggesting that maybe the rapes started rising again once everyone realized they were going back to criminalization. I don’t find this very plausible since most mechanisms for this effect I can imagine, particularly including the author’s suggestion that rape is a partial substitute for paid sex, shouldn’t see much change, if any, until prostitution is actually recriminalized.

However, I think this result actually fits very nicely into a different model. In particular, while it may be the case that rape and consensual sexual encounters are partial substitutes I’m pretty skeptical that accounts for the effects here. Its not as if prostitution doesn’t exist when it is illegal or someone willing to rape for sex wouldn’t avail themselves of it. Rather, I suspect there are more general network effects at play here. In the pre-decriminalization world you have a system that relies on a system of pimps, organized crime and other bad actors to operate in which the girls involved may have little control/ownership interests and probably have only a minimal support network among themselves. Decriminalization not only removes this criminal element from the scene it also, as suggested by the health data, draws in a new class of prostitute who has better resources, planning, risk mitigation and isn’t at the mercy of her drug dealing pimp, i.e., more middle class prostitution. Recriminalization appears to have push some people out of the industry but it doesn’t change the fact that the criminal element is no longer present. A prostitute with a regular list of clients, a system for meeting new clients online and who isn’t already enmeshed with the criminal element has little need to return to their clutches even after recriminalization meaning the benefits linger. Sadly, I would guess that in the long term we will see a regression to previous levels as the police work to disrupt the organization and continuing business relationships these women have used to replace pimps and organized crime and eventually people will go back to securing prostitution through this element and rapes will rise.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to believe my analysis (which is just speculation) since one can rely on the fact that the results found for decriminalization are similar to what other studies have found.

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The Story Of Decriminalization

The story of how Rhode Island came to decriminalize prostitution is pretty neat so I advise you to read this article. I am not, however, please with the top billing they gave people who in my opinion were nothing but moralizing middle aged women who had never had to make really hard choices using the language of concern for vulnerable women to justify their disapproval.

Prostitution decriminalized: Rhode Island’s experiment

Around the world, there’s a growing movement to decriminalize sex work. Last year, Amnesty International, the largest human rights group in the world, came out with a recommendation that governments should decriminalize consensual sex work and develop laws that ensure workers are “protected from harm, exploitation and coercion.”

A US House Of Lords

As our system of government becomes more complex the importance of independent agencies and the boards that govern them continues to grow. If we define such agencies functionally, rather than legally1, this sweeps in the obviously influential supreme court but in the modern world more and more turns on agencies like the FCC, Federal Reserve, SEC, etc… Indeed, in many ways these independent agencies are more important than congress itself. For a variety of reasons congress simply isn’t equipped to engage in precedent driven rule making requiring substantial expertise and institutional competence, e.g., its hard to imagine congress successfully running the recent broadcast incentive auction or developing a set of rules for whitespace devices much less run the Fed.

However, recent battles over supreme court appointments and the controversial choices of new FCC commissioner Pai to rollback net neutrality rules expose the obvious danger in this system. As the importance of these agencies increases the importance of these appointments to various political interests grows and that turns the appointment and confirmation process into an acrimonious partisan struggle. Now, at first glance one might think that’s fine. After all, if these agencies have so much power over the lives of average Americans isn’t it appropriate for our political disagreements to play out in the appointment process? Unfortunately, especially given limitations imposed by supreme court precedent, this method of choosing the heads of independent agencies is problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. Political interest in such appointments is usually limited to a few hot button issues which means politicians will favor predictable ideologues.
  2. The best policies for these agencies are often counterintuitive and not what plays well for voters who lack the time to learn.
  3. The president is given a disturbing amount of (effectively) legislative power.
  4. Politicians’ self-interest will push them towards the most vanilla least criticizable candidates rather than the best.
  5. All too often political conflict leaves us with unfilled positions exacerbating the other problems, particularly 3.

I think we can do a lot better. We need a way to render such appointments responsive, in a long term sense, to the will of the voters but insulated from their immediate interests and preferences. I propose a kind of US house of lords consisting of former senators and representatives who have retired from office (and are barred from ever holding federal elected office again) as well as perhaps former judges and commission members from these independent agencies. Unlike the UK house of lords I wouldn’t let membership determined by votes but be automatic for all former congressmen who wish to join with their voting power proportional to their number of years of service (thus making the votes proportional to congressional representation modulo age/participation gaps). One might imagine multiple ways this could work from the body directly selecting appointees to being responsible for admitting distinguished academics, lawyers, etc.. into various expert bodies which then nominate board members for independent organizations.

Importantly, in the long run this body still reflects the choices of the American voter but, barred as they are from running for future office, their concerns will tend to be more long term and historical in nature. This would be especially true if we mandated secret voting in this ‘house of lords’. The voters will never again evaluate them for public office so why not let them vote secretly?

Of course this would require a constitutional amendment but I still think it’s a neat idea.

  1. That is an independent agency is a unit of the federal government answerable to a governing body appointed by the president with senatorial consent but whose members can’t be removed without cause.