Is minimalism immoral?

I came across a simple but important question on Quora: Is it wrong to aspire to be a minimalist? Doesn’t this negatively affect the country’s GDP?

I see two big lessons here: 1) wise use of metrics requires wisdom… i.e. appropriate interpretation and critical thinking. 2) Maximization is just one version of one part of the whole story. (There are also important questions to ask about what we can expect from others, but I’ll leave that for the comments.)

Readers of NOL should be familiar with the notion that GDP is only an imperfect proxy for well being. But not everyone is so we have to repeat ourselves. There’s what we’re after, and there’s what we can measure, and the two are not the same. GDP is a really clever way to aggregate total production in an economy, but production is only valuable to the extent we’re producing the things that actually improve people’s lives. It’s easy for busy people to confuse a proxy measure for the latent variable we actually care about, so we need someone whispering in the emperor’s ear “the metric is not the mission.

Economics is easier to describe using the simplifying assumption that people want more stuff. It’s easy to forget that people also want more leisure (and so less work). This is a subtle reappearance of the seen and unseen. We can see when someone gets a cool new car and we can’t see when someone has a fun evening with friends and family. We have to check our bias towards trying to get more stuff and remember that reducing work is another feature of human flourishing.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

A quick thought on UBI

I’m still not sure where I land on the issue of Universal Basic Income (UBI), but I just thought of a bit of clarifying language that lead to a thought. I’m sure this thought isn’t original, but I’m also sure it doesn’t come up as often as it ought to.

A UBI system’s appeal stems from the fact that it’s a minimal welfare state (kinda sorta). We all know the old debate between proponents of a minimal state–and the debates about what exactly that constitutes–and those of a welfare state–and again, there’s plenty of disagreement on what that actually means.

On a 0-10 spectrum of “how important should the government be? / how important is the government currently” a UBI is a lateral move with obvious efficiency gains. It strips out all the bureaucracy in our current welfare state, provides a wide safety net, and allows the poor to exercise their own agency using their local knowledge about their particular circumstances and opportunities. No cookie cutter solutions, no lines, just a modest check in the mail and an entire population looking for good ways to use it.

On the other hand, it lays bare some of the worst case scenarios of a maximal welfare state. Subsidizing sloth and dependency, enormous costs, reduction in savings, net negative cultural effects, and who knows what else!

But still, perhaps UBI with some minimal modifications is an improvement over what we’ve got now?

2×2 matrix (robust vs thin welfare state and broad vs targeted welfare state).

The maximal welfare state is robust, and broad. There’s a housing bureau, a food bureau, a work bureau, and nearly everyone is waiting in line at one of them at some point each week.

The minimal state would have no welfare, but the minimal welfare state would have a thin and targeted system. No social workers, no bureaucrats, just a check. And unlike a UBI, this would only apply to the poor. Which might cost it political support.

A UBI is thin but broad. That might require it to be less generous, but could (literally) buy it some votes. On the other hand, what do I know about what makes people vote?

The thinness and breadth of a UBI makes it startling next to the old dichotomy. It simultaneously opens up whole new realms of possibilities–it dramatically increases the opportunity cost of drudgery and bureaucracy and provides an easy enough safety net to allow widespread entrepreneurial activity. If we had the right culture we could do anything! But (!) we don’t get to choose the culture.

That breadth is pretty scary when we consider some of the negative behaviors it will surely breed. The lunatic fringe will be funded by the rest of us. A cult is easy to finance when all your members sign over a government check to you every month.

Here’s a possibility: Imagine a vastly simpler tax code. “What’s your income? Scan your tax/employment card that isn’t as stupid as a Social Security Number.” $X “Thank you, give us f(X). Insert cash or card into the machine.” You could file taxes every month (or more or less frequently if you prefer). In that world, we could just give a refundable tax credit to anyone who had a low enough income.

Mind you, I’m assuming away the issue of designing the right marginal tax rates and setting the level of the tax credit. But such a system could be simultaneously broad (it kicks in for anyone as soon as you need it) and narrow (you only get it if you’re poor… and you end up paying it back if you get rich). I think a simpler tax system would be necessary to make a minimal UBI workable

On why complexity from simple rules is counterintuitive

“… normally we start from whatever behavior we want to get, then try to design a system that will produce it. Yet to do this reliable, we have to restrict ourselves to systems whose behavior we can readily understand and predict–for unless we can foresee how a system will behave, we cannot be sure that the system will do what we want.

“But unlike engineering, nature operates under no such constraint. So there is nothing to stop systmes like those at the end of the previous section from showing up. And in fact one of the important conclusions of this book is that such systems are actually very common in nature.

“But because the only situations in which we are routinely aware both of the underlying rules and overall behavior are ones in which we are building things or doing engineering, we never normally get any intuition about systems like the ones at the end of the previous section.”

Stephen Wolfram

The deeper you dig into math and computer science, the more Hayekian things look. The impossibility of economic calculation under socialism has important counterparts in Godel and Turing/Church.

A quote

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

Mark Weiser

Hayek would have liked this quote about computers. On his behalf, I’m going to co-opt it as a description of the miracle of markets.

Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.

What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.