Apr 25 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 6:04 pm

1. Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway the decisions of judges. A study of Israeli judges holding parole hearings found that “the odds that prisoners will be successfully paroled start off fairly high at around 65% and quickly plummet to nothing over a few hours. . . . After the judges have returned from their [food] breaks, the odds abruptly climb back up to 65%, before resuming their downward slide. A prisoner’s fate could hinge upon the point in the day when their case is heard.”

“Danziger thinks that the judges’ behaviour can be easily explained. All repetitive decision-making tasks drain our mental resources. We start suffering from ‘choice overload’ and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for the default offer, whether they’re buying a suit or a car. And when it comes to parole hearings, the default choice is to deny the prisoner’s request. The more decisions a judge has made, the more drained they are, and the more likely they are to make the default choice. Taking a break replenishes them.”

“This doesn’t mean that judges make decisions arbitrarily – after all, the figures showed that rehabilitation and the likelihood of reoffending also affected the outcomes. Nita Farahany, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, says, ‘To me, this study underscores that decision-making is complex and does not occur in a theoretical or formalistic vacuum.’ She says that similar studies have found that people from medical residents to air force pilots make more errors when they go for long periods without rest.”

More about it is here.

2. Why Skinny Moms Sometimes Produce Fat Children. A new study shows that epigenetic effects may lead to the children of skinny mothers being more likely to become obese. “It’s not uncommon for pregnant mothers in the United States and the United Kingdom to follow a low carbohydrate, Atkins-style diet, says epidemiologist and lead author Keith Godfrey. That may send a starvation-like signal to their fetuses, which puts the children out of sync with the high-calorie world into which they are born. The findings, he says, could also help explain the obesity epidemic in countries like China, where the children of poorly nourished mothers are now obese, middle-aged adults. . . . Still, the researchers can’t be certain that the mother’s diet caused the epigenetic changes. But the strong correlation has experts excited. . . . ‘This suggests that even in normal pregnancies, the fetal environment has major effects on subsequent development,’ adds fetal physiologist and co-author Peter Gluckman of the University of Auckland.”

3. Will women marry down?, or assortative mating among humans. The majority of college graduates are now women (57% in 2011). Twenty-two percent of wives earn more than their husbands and “[t]wenty-eight percent of wives have more education than their husbands. . . . But there are several reasons to believe that our new grads will not be growing these percentages by very much. For one thing, ‘breadwinner wives,’ as women earning more than their husbands are sometimes called, are more common among couples where neither person has a college degree. For another, hypergamy, the term experts use for women marrying up, remains a powerful force in the mating market . . . As for education, the most common practice is for like to marry like, or ‘homogamy.’ According to research by Christina Schwartz and Robert Mare, homogamy has been going up, especially among the college educated. . . . Today about 55% of married couples have the same educational level. To coin a mouthful of a phrase, homogamy is replacing hypergamy.”

These trends have interesting implications for future trends such as income inequality, social class, and education.

Apr 19 2011

Why I don’t use links in my posts

Category: blog stuffJames @ 7:43 pm

Several blog readers have asked why I don’t use hyperlinks in my posts, but instead use footnotes. The reason is that studies have shown that the presence of hyperlinks impairs reading performance.1

Hyperlinks interrupt the flow of reading. I think that using footnotes instead of hyperlinks minimizes this type of interruption to the flow of reading, while still allowing readers to easily locate any sources that I refer to in a post.



1 Diana DeStefano and Jo-Anne LeFevre, Cognitive load in hypertext reading: A review, Computers in Human Behavior 23 (2007), pp. 1616–1641. PDF available here.

Apr 17 2011

What If Everyone Paid the Same Taxes as You?

Category: economics,government,law,taxesJames @ 5:54 pm

The U.S. government has provided an interesting tool1 that tries to show you where your tax dollars are spent. You just put in the amount of Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes you paid, and it shows how much of that money will go to different government programs and expenditures.

Over at Econlog Arnold Kling points out2 that for most of us, the calculator makes it look like most we get a bargain in government programs and benefits for a relatively small amount of taxes paid. Kling suggests a more interesting calculator would be one that calculates how much money the government would have if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you pay.

Progressive taxation means that people with higher incomes also pay higher tax rates3 About 150 million individuals file tax returns every year.4 The budget for 2010 estimated that total government revenue would be $2.381 trillion. This averages out to about $15,900 in revenue for each tax return filed. If you paid less than that in federal taxes (including Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes) this year, then that means you’re getting a good deal because someone else is paying more.5 Now, there are good justifications for having a progressive taxation system. The marginal utility of each additional dollar decreases as a person’s income increases. Moreover, the wealthy owe their good fortune to being able to live and work in the United States, so it makes sense that they give something back.

I’m not trying to argue for or against a progressive tax system. I just think it is interesting for each of us to realize how our tax system is structured and how our taxes compare to what other Americans pay.

To that end, I’ve accepted Arnold Kling’s invitation and I’ve created a very basic calculator to let each of you get an idea of what the government’s revenue and deficit would be like if every taxpayer paid the same amount of taxes that you do. All you need to do is enter into the first box the total amount that you paid in taxes for 2010 and then hit enter (make sure to include in that total income taxes and also Social Security and Medicare taxes). The calculator will then show how much total government revenue would decrease, what the total deficit would be, and the percentage the deficit would increase if everyone paid the same amount of taxes that you did in 2010. The government’s tax calculator says that a family of four with a total income of $80,000 would pay $9,983 in taxes this year, so $9,983 is set as the default starting number for the calculator.

Tax Comparison Calculator:

[price-calc variation=tax]


For comparison, here are the actual 2010 budget numbers:

Total Revenue: $2,381 billion
Total Expenditures: $3,552 billion
Total Deficit: $1,171 billion6

Some caveats: this calculator is pretty basic, so it’s only going to give you a ballpark figure. The calculator assumes that the government’s only source of revenue is individual taxpayers paying Social Security, Medicare and income taxes. In reality, the government has other sources of revenue including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the calculator’s numbers are overestimates (in other words, if everyone really did pay the same taxes as you did, the deficit wouldn’t go up as much as the calculator shows). Since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, however, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of the progressive nature of our tax system, how our taxes compare to the average amounts paid, and the general trends of what would happen if everyone paid the sames taxes that you do.




3 The top one percent of wage earners pay a little less than 40 percent of all income taxes, and a little under 30 percent of all federal taxes. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/04/david_cay_johns.html

5 To compare your taxes to the averages I’m quoting, you would need to include Social Security, Meidcare and income taxes. I know that the government has other sources of revenue, including payroll taxes from employers and corporate income tax, so the $15,900 figure overestimates the actual average amounts paid by individual taxpayers, but since the vast majority of government revenue comes from individuals, these numbers work for each of us to get a ballpark idea of how our taxes compare to the average.

Apr 14 2011

Do you really have a right to that?

Category: government,law,rightsJames @ 6:07 pm

Do we have a right to receive an education in the same way that we have a right to free speech? Do we have a right to healthcare in the same way that we have a right to own property? We often use the word “right” without thinking much about what the word actually means and without considering what the government is obligated to do about our rights. There are actually two very different conceptions of rights, and these two different conceptions are at the root of many political disagreements in the United States. Unfortunately, because most conservatives or liberals don’t even know that the other side has a different conception of rights, both sides often end up talking past each other in political discussions.

Positive and Negative Rights

Philosophers have created many ways to categorize rights: natural rights vs. legal rights1; claim rights vs. liberty rights2; individual vs. group rights.3 These are all great ways to classify rights, but when it comes to our relationship with government, the most useful category is positive versus negative rights.4

From the point of view of an individual citizen, a positive right is a right to get something from the government. A positive right thus obligates the government to take action. When we talk about having a right to eduction or a right to health care, we are talking about positive rights.

A negative right is a right to be left alone – the right for individuals to act without government interference. A negative right thus obligates the government to not take action. This includes things like the right to free speech, the right to keep and use property, freedom of religion, etc. Most (if not all) of the rights listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights are negative rights.

Like almost any human attempt at classifying and categorizing something, the categories of positive and negative rights are not perfectly black and white. Some people have argued that almost any right can be understood to be either positive or negative, depending on how you approach and define the right. In spite of this criticism, I still think that it is useful and meaningful to distinguish between positive and negative rights. The most recent national debate in the United States where differences between positive and negative rights came up was with healthcare reform.

Is There a Right to Healthcare?

When the U.S. Congress was considering various reforms of the U.S. health care law in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats zealously defended such reforms by arguing that health care was a right, and that the U.S. government was therefore obligated to ensure that everyone had access to health care.5 Puzzled Republicans scratched their heads and wondered why Democrats would use such an obviously flawed argument to defend their proposals, since healthcare was obviously not a right.6 So who was correct? They both were. The two sides didn’t understand each other because Democrats tend to believe in positive rights while Republicans generally do not.

In the debates about the health care bill, people on opposite sides were often talking past each other because they didn’t understand the opposing side’s view about rights. If everyone understood the difference between positive and negative rights would it eliminate political discord in our country? No, but it would at least lead to better-informed debate about the issues. So let’s learn about each side’s justifications for their ideas about rights.

Why do Democrats believe in positive rights?

One of the principal reasons to support the idea of positive rights is a concern about equality. Starting with the Progressive Era,7 during the Great Depression and World War II, and culminating in the Civil Rights movement, many Americans became more aware of inequities in our society such as segregation and wealth disparities. Many people became devoted to achieving greater equality and to the idea that government was the best tool to bring it about.

In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Democrat) proposed that the United States adopt a second bill of rights8 to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee individuals’ rights to employment (with a living wage), freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, health care, education, and social security. Roosevelt died a little over a year later, and his second bill of rights was never seriously considered in Congress. But his ideas have held powerful sway over many people ever since.

People who believe in positive rights see recognition of positive rights as a natural progression and outgrowth from the negative rights recognized in the Eighteenth Century in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Starting in the 1970s legal theorists have talked about three generations of human rights corresponding to the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity.9 The negative rights of the type listed in the Bill of Rights are the first generation (liberty); the second generation are positive rights to things like housing, employment, and healthcare (equality); and the third generation being things like group rights, rights to self determination, and rights to a healthy environment (fraternity). They see the recognition of positive rights as part of the natural progression from feudal medieval societies to modern democracies, the recognition of negative rights in the Bill of Rights was merely one step in that progression, not the end of it.

Why do Republicans reject the idea of positive rights?

Republicans and Libertarians generally reject the idea that people are entitled to positive rights. There are three reasons for this:

First, we live in a world of limited resources. This means that governments may often simply lack the resources to fulfill positive rights. They criticize the notion of positive rights as just being a way for people on the left to dress up their political goals using “rights” language in order to make their political goals seem more legitimate.

Second, the notion of a positive right creates a corresponding obligation for others to fulfill it. In other words, if I have right to housing, then that means that everyone else in society has an obligation to build me a house. Critics of positive rights argue that the only way for governments to guarantee people’s positive rights is to illegitimately force other people to act against their will to fulfill those purported rights. What if you don’t want to build a house for someone else? For the government to fulfill a person’s right to housing, it will need to take some of your property from you to pay for that other person’s house.10 Critics thus argue that positive rights lead to the erosion of negative rights and lead to an ever-larger government which must infringe individuals’ negative rights with greater and greater regularity. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat summarized this argument:

People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.

But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.” And, in fact, it is quite impossible for me to separate the word “fraternity” from the word “voluntary.” It is quite impossible for me to conceive of fraternity as legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice being legally trampled underfoot.1112

Third, American conservatives also tend to be originalist13 in their views toward constitutional interpretation (IE they believe that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning as originally understood at the time of its ratification). Originalists point to the text of the Bill of Rights and most other constitutional amendments dealing with rights which seem to only recognize negative rights. Many conservatives thus also reject the notion of positive rights as being antithetical to the American constitutional system.


You might be wondering where I stand on the positive rights debate. I’m not sure I agree with either side. I have real trouble accepting the idea that someone can have positive rights which entitle them to infringe other people’s individual rights. My tentative conclusion is that there are not positive rights, but that there are “positive obligations,” meaning that even though the poor shouldn’t have a legal right to take my property from me, I am morally obligated to freely use my property to help the poor.

Now that you’ve finished reading this, there are two things you should do: First, think about what conception of rights makes most sense to you and about how you should apply that conception to your political beliefs. Second, whenever you hear people disagreeing about politics (or, heaven forbid, you get in a political disagreement yourself), think about how these conceptions about rights influence each side’s argument, and try to have some more empathy for both side’s views.

Also, like I said at the beginning of this, there are other ways to approach the question of what is a right. I invite you to read and think about these other ways too (I included footnotes to the Wikipedia articles about each of those different approaches, and the Wikipedia articles have footnotes to other good sources to get you started).





5Like this Washington Post op-ed praising the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as “enshrine[ing] the principle that all Americans have the right to health care — an extraordinary achievement that will make this a better nation.”

6For example, in his 2010 speech at CPAC, Glen Beck said “[w]e don’t have a right to health care, housing or handouts.”

10See, for example, this editorial criticizing the notion that healthcare is a right:

That people think they have a “right” to health care just goes to show how little people think at all. “Rights” only make sense when they can be applied universally, without causing a “wrong” to someone else. You can have a right to own property, for example, because everyone can enjoy the right under the same terms and conditions. You can have a right to say what you like too…as long as everyone can say what he likes. But if you have the right to a cat scan, someone must have an obligation to make the machine…to put it in service…to run it…to maintain it…to offer it to you…and to interpret the results, etc. Who is this poor slave who has been shackled to your service?

12Economist F. A. Hayek also argued along these same lines:

Question: Well, then, why isn’t there any such thing as social justice?

Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about. . . .

In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a ‘just’ manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.

Apr 13 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 7:48 pm

1. Scientifically Proven Tips For a More Productive Office. This summarizes some easy ways (which have been confirmed with scientific research) to increase productivity: bluer lights, bringing nature into the office, having a highly adjustable chair, and maintaining a comfortable (or slightly cold) temperature.

2. Cell Phones Track Your Every Move and You May Not Even Know. A German politician obtained the data his cell phone provider’s records about his movements. They had six month’s worth of data about everywhere he had been (as long as he had his cell phone with him).

3. Greatest Reduction in World Poverty Ever in History. An economic study concluded that “[u]sing the official $1/day line, we estimate that world poverty rates have fallen by 80% from 0.268 in 1970 to 0.054 in 2006 (see chart above).”

4. The Republican fluency with science. Except for evolution, Republicans and Conservatives are more science literate than Democrats.

Apr 07 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 5:38 pm

1. Periodic Fasting May Cut Risk of Heart Disease, Diabetes. A study comparing Mormons who fast once a month with Mormons who don’t fast indicates that “[o]ccasional water-only fasts may lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

2. Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School. Research shows that spontaneous, exploratory learning encourages children to “look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options” than when children learn from a teacher giving instruction. This has interesting implications for figuring out how we can best teach children.

3. Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Settlement in North America. An archeological site that is as much as 2,500 years older than previous estimates of when humans reached the Americas indicates that the Americas may have been populated earlier than we thought (as early as 15,500 years ago).

4. Are the Wealthiest Countries the Smartest Countries?. Researchers found “that intelligence made a difference in gross domestic product. For each one-point increase in a country’s average IQ, the per capita GDP was $229 higher. It made an even bigger difference if the smartest 5 percent of the population got smarter; for every additional IQ point in that group, a country’s per capita GDP was $468 higher.”

Apr 06 2011

Morality and ethics – part 2

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 6:45 pm

Note: This is part 2 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 3, and part 4, and part 5.

When asked about whether a given act is moral, most of us will make a conclusion based on our initial intuition, and then try to rationalize a justification for that initial intuition. In day-to-day life, this intuitive approach to ethics usually works quite well. In this series of posts, however, I’m trying to go beyond this ad hoc, gut-level approach to morality. To really understand morality, I think we need to understand why a given act is moral or immoral.

In this post about morality, I’ll start by listing a set of baseline premises we can use to determine what makes something moral. I will try to give rational justifications for each of these premises. I admit that some of my justifications are somewhat conclusory, but I don’t think that most of these will be terribly controversial. If you can think of any better justifications for these premises, or of any good ways to refute them, please share in the comments. They are listed below (in roughly descending order of importance):

Perpetuation of the human race

Ensuring that the human race as a group survives, thrives, and progresses is more important than anything else.

This principle may seem to be removed from day-to-day life. Few of us will make choices which will, by themselves, determine the fate of all of humanity. But at the same time, the aggregate of our individual choices does determine humankind’s destiny. And the welfare of humankind should take precedence over everything else. Why? There are several reasons:

1. The ability to think, reason, and understand the world is something special and unique. The universe will be a worse place without beings there to understand it, so it is important to make sure that humanity not only survives, but that we continue to advance in our understanding of the universe.

2. The biological imperative: Evolution has shaped our behaviors and desires to ensure the survival of our species. We owe our very existence to these evolutionarily-determined behaviors and desires. These innate urges, desires, and behaviors are powerful and shape much of our behavior (both consciously and unconsciously). A reasonable moral system should account for these behaviors and desires and channel them to fulfill their purpose. A successful moral system needs to encourage the perpetuation of the species – if the species is not perpetuated, then the moral system will not be perpetuated either.

3. Mortality: all of us are going to die, but the perpetuation of humanity ensures that something of ourselves will continue on.

The Value of human life

Every human being is entitled to life. There are several reasons for this:

1. Intrinsic value: each human being is unique and is capable of making different contributions to our society and to humanity’s future.

2. Biological imperative: Every living thing has an instinct to self-preservation. Only living things which survive to reproduce pass on their genes. The process of evolution has thus selected for each of us to have the desire to stay alive. Our ancestors survived to reproduce because they had the urge to stay alive. We owe our existence to this instinct, and any reasonable moral system must account for this strong biological urge and encourage its continuing vitality.

3. Autonomy: because each person is independent and autonomous, each person’s life has independent value.

Individual Autonomy and accountability

Because each person is a separate individual, each person is free to determine the course of his or her own life and seek after his or her own happiness. Even when a person’s freedom is infringed by others (by being imprisoned, for example), that person is still free to make choices within the constraints placed on him or her and is free to think whatever he or she wants.

Every person is free to choose his or her actions, but every action has natural consequences which result from that action. When we choose something, we are also therefore choosing the consequences which come with that choice. This means that autonomy also comes with accountability: each person is accountable for the consequences of his or her actions.

Importance of community

No one is an island. Humans are social animals. We are each part of a larger community and society. Community is incredibly important, and moral rules should ensure that our society and community survives and thrives for the following reasons:

1. Social benefits: we have evolved to need social contact. Living in a community provides the social interactions which are essential for good mental health.

2. Protection: living in a community affords us protection from dangerous people and animals.

3. Material benefits: Almost all of the material benefits we derive from modern life (easy access to food and shelter, modern medicine, gadgets and tools to make life easier, etc.) come from the benefits of living in a community: for example, I could not build a car or a computer on my own, nor do I grow my own food (and the list could go on). Each of us is immeasurably better off because of our society/community.

Respect for living things

We should respect other living things and promote their welfare, inasmuch as doing so does not threaten the welfare of other humans. There are several reasons for this:

1. Animals are autonomous and many exhibit some level of being self-aware, so some of the justifications for humans’ autonomy and for the value of human life also apply (to a lesser degree) to animals.

2. Our survival depends on the survival of the living things around us. The Earth remains habitable for us because of the respiration of plants and the complex interactions of living organisms. Moreover, as omnivores, we depend for sustenance on eating a variety of other living things. We use also materials created from living things for a variety of other non-food uses.

3. The variety of living things on the Earth make it beautiful and pleasant.

Intentions and consequentialism

A moral system should incentivize and maximize moral behavior. When evaluating the morality of an action (both before and after the proposed action has been accomplished), both the intentions of the actor and the likely consequences of the act are relevant.

A moral system’s value comes from governing the conduct of individuals to bring about positive, moral results. The morality of an act cannot therefore be divorced from its consequences. When evaluating an the morality of an action (or inaction), the consequences of that act matter. Focusing on the consequences of an act encourages people to carefully evaluate the likely outcomes of their decisions and encourages them to maximize positive and moral outcomes as much as possible. Focusing on the consequences of an act helps to encourage better results.

Intentions are also important, though, when evaluating an act’s morality because none of us can perfectly predict the future; when evaluating the morality of a future action, the consequences which the actor expects to result from an act (or inaction), and the actor’s reasons for doing (or not doing) something are an important consideration.

While it is true that a person’s actions do not always accomplish that person’s intended result, when someone intends to accomplish something, he or she is more likely to achieve that result than when he or she does not intend the result. There will thus be more outcomes which are moral when the moral system successfully encourages people to act with good intentions. A moral system should thus encourage people to have moral intentions, and judge the morality of actions based on the actor’s intent.


It is better for more people to be happy than fewer. Taking into account the above considerations, and all other things being equal, we should act in a way that maximizes the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles.


In part three of this series, I’ll explore how applying these premises can help us derive a coherent system of morality.