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And A Pony

This has been making the rounds on Facebook lately:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

I prefer alternative versions.

The Zombie version (via Noah Galang):

No one should die because of a zombie infestation, and no one should become one of the walking dead because they get infected. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The Star Wars version (via Elizabeth Cohen):

No one should be frozen in carbonite, or be slowly digested for a thousand years in the bowels of a sarlaac, just because they couldn't pay Jabba the Hutt what they owe him. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The Beer version:

No one should go thirsty because they cannot afford beer, and no one should go broke because good beer is so expensive. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The transhumanist version of the original would be more concise and to the point:

No one should die. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

Cheating In The Context Of Marriage And Coase

Bryan Caplan graciously describes my critique of the norm of monogamy as "eloquent", but I fear he misses the point I was trying to make. Bryan writes:

I'm not a principled advocate of monogamy; it's not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love. I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises. If you don't want to practice monogamy, here's an idea: Don't agree to it. If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it. Don't accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn't have a choice.

I agree with Bryan: Once you make a promise, you should keep it. Dan Savage also agrees with Bryan; I quoted Savage qualifying his argument against the norm of monogamy: "Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments."

So Dan, Bryan, and I are all in agreement: People should honor their commitments. But what Dan and I are questioning, and Bryan seems to miss, is whether the default rule of a life-long commitment to a single partner is a wise commitment to make, or a wise commitment to reinforce through social pressure. As Tom points out in the comment thread to Bryan's post:

[P]rivate contract theory doesn't help justify Bryan's simple judgments about cheating. They make more sense in the context of people who choose to make strong public commitments of fidelity, as in covenant marriages. And they might make sense if Bryan wants to start putting some great value on the boilerplate statements about 'sickness and health' made during the wedding, or if he was was approaching it from some religious or ethical system that was premised on fidelity or on a conservative idea that a stable society requires that all publicly-recognized unions include a commitment to monogamy. But he isn't.

Private contracts have lots of terms, express and implied, and they are subject to modification. So it's very hard for the public to know the terms of the contracts and say who is in breach.

One of the things the Coase theorem teaches us is that in a world of positive transaction costs (which is in fact the world we inhabit), initial property allocations can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default rules in contracts can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default assumptions implicit in social norms can be very important.

And surely, for many people, signing a prenuptial agreement different from the standard default option represents a significant transaction cost. As Bryan himself argues in one of the posts he links to:

If you think that Nudge doesn't matter, take a look at marriage. Only 5-10% of marriages have prenups; everyone else goes with the "default option" - the family law of the state in which they reside.

Why do people go with state law? You could say, "State laws are so wisely crafted that no one would want anything else," but that's laughable. The real reasons, as Heather Mahar explains, are (a) people underestimate their probability of divorce, so they barely plan for a likely event, and (b) asking for anything other than the default option is a bad signal...

Bryan goes on to argue for his preferred policy outcome: Eliminate default rules entirely by getting state governments out of the business of writing default rules for marriage.

There are a few problems with this. First, even if the government got out of the marriage business, people would still be just as bad at estimating their probability of divorce. Well, maybe not just as bad. Perhaps if people were forced to think more about the possibility of divorce in the process of writing a prenup, they might better estimate the correct probability of their own relationship's demise. But the optimistic bias would still exist.

Second, getting the government out of the marriage business wouldn't necessarily eliminate default rules. People may just prefer not having to think about unhappy things like possible divorce, and therefore favor whatever boilerplate marriage contract the market is most likely to offer. And the market is most likely to offer those contracts that reflect existing social norms. But these social norms are precisely what Dan Savage and I are questioning! A social norm in favor of monogamy in marriage would still exist, all else being equal other than removal of government from the marriage business - just as a social norm in favor of monogamy in dating relationships still exists, even though in dating relationships, the government does not play (as) noticeable a role in shaping expectations.

Leaving the norm of monogamy unchallenged assumes that it is the most efficient one for resolving social conflict. But Bryan doesn't make this assumption and neither do I. As Dan Savage pointed out, "Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers." Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, seeking other sexual or emotional partners would not be considered an act of cheating, infidelity, unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure.

There might still be conflict involving issues of jealousy, and as I said in my post, it is an open question whether jealousy can be overcome, or if jealousy is so deeply ingrained (biologically and/or culturally) that it would be a futile task to try. But surely the social norm in favor of monogamy reinforces this feeling of jealousy; if people didn't expect their partners to be monogamous, partly because society expects partners to expect this of each other, people wouldn't feel as jealous when their partners failed to conform to a non-existent social expectation.

By analogy, our society does not have a social norm against having more than one child (fortuitously, given Bryan's pro-natalist position). Yet even without this social norm, children are often jealous of the attention their parents give to their siblings (attention being a scarce resource). Imagine how much more jealous these same children would be of their siblings (and how much angrier these children would be at their parents) if their parents violated the social norm in a society with a norm against having more than one child.

I'm Kind Of A Big Deal (in a footnote)

Earlier today, while digging up the link for an article I wrote five years ago about the political economy of Diablo II, I discovered that I'm referenced in a book! Published by a reputable university press! Written by a professor!

Alas, my 15 minutes of fame came and went long before I realized my short lived glory. But it's still heartwarming in retrospect. Those many hours I spent playing Diablo II all throughout undergrad were not a complete waste.

Here is some additional background on the article I wrote. And here is a description of the book, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, by Mia Consalvo, an Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Ohio University:

The widely varying experiences of players of digital games challenge the notions that there is only one correct way to play a game. Some players routinely use cheat codes, consult strategy guides, or buy and sell in-game accounts, while others consider any or all of these practices off limits. Meanwhile, the game industry works to constrain certain readings or activities and promote certain ways of playing. In Cheating, Mia Consalvo investigates how players choose to play games and what happens when they can't always play the way they'd like. She explores a broad range of player behavior, including cheating (alone and in groups), examines the varying ways that players and industry define cheating, describes how the game industry itself has helped systematize cheating, and studies online cheating in context in an online ethnography of Final Fantasy XI. She develops the concept of "gaming capital" as a key way to understand individuals' interaction with games, information about games, the game industry, and other players.

Consalvo provides a cultural history of cheating in videogames, looking at how the packaging and selling of such cheat-enablers as cheat books, GameSharks, and mod chips created a cheat industry. She investigates how players themselves define cheating and how their playing choices can be understood, with particular attention to online cheating. Finally, she examines the growth of the peripheral game industries that produce information about games rather than actual games. Digital games are spaces for play and experimentation; the way we use and think about digital games, Consalvo argues, is crucially important and reflects ethical choices in gameplay and elsewhere.

Cheating is a contested term in gaming (and in real life!), for a variety of reasons. I like to distinguish between internal and external forms of cheating. Almost everyone frowns upon external cheating (even cheaters themselves); the classic example being the sleazy poker player with an Ace up his sleeve. External cheating involves an explicit violation of the rules, by bringing something forbidden from outside the game into the game environment, whether it be an object (such as an additional card), or an idea (such as knowledge of another player's hand). The only exception people usually make for external forms of cheating is for solo games, such as solitaire or single-player video games. Even in solo games, however, people often frown upon external cheating, on the grounds that in most cases one is merely cheating oneself out of a enjoyable and lasting gaming experience; game designers are usually (but not always) smarter than the casual player when it comes to determining the best rules by which to play.

Internal cheating, on the other hand, is much more implicit and subjective. Sometimes internal cheating is a result of a player exploiting a bug, design flaw, or power imbalance unintentionally left inside the game by the designers themselves. Other times, the accusation of internal cheating arises from the conflicting motivations different kinds of gamers bring to the games they play. Mark Rosewater made a classic distinction between three different types of gamers who play Magic: The Gathering: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

A psychographic profile separates players into categories based on their psychological make-up. What motivates that player to play? What kind of cards do they like? What kind of things encourages that player to keep on playing?

Because R&D loves naming things, we have given each of these three category types a name: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike.

  • Timmy wants to experience something. Timmy plays Magic because he enjoys the feeling he gets when he plays. What that feeling is will vary from Timmy to Timmy, but what all Timmies have in common is that they enjoy the visceral experience of playing. As you will see, Johnny and Spike have a destination in mind when they play. Timmy is in it for the journey.
  • Johnny wants to express something. To Johnny, Magic is an opportunity to show the world something about himself, be it how creative he is or how clever he is or how offbeat he is. As such, Johnny is very focused on the customizability of the game. Deck building isn't an aspect of the game to Johnny; it's the aspect.
  • Spike wants to prove something, primarily to prove how good he is. You see, Spike sees the game as a mental challenge by which he can define and demonstrate his abilities. Spike gets his greatest joy from winning because his motivation is using the game to show what he is capable of. Anything less than success is a failure, because that is the yardstick he is judging himself against.

Spike plays to win. But Spike is often accused of a kind of internal cheating, or at least poor form or lack of style. Spike doesn't care about creativity like Johnny does, nor the experience of the journey like Timmy does; Spike is willing to copy whatever seems to be the dominant strategy, and will exploit whatever weaknesses in game design that may have been overlooked.

The conflict between these players arises because of different expectations about how the game should be played. And whenever an economist starts talking about conflict and differing expectations, you know that a discussion of the Coase theorem is probably right around the corner...

Which is why my next post will deal with objections raised by fellow gaming geek and economist Bryan Caplan to my previous post on cheating in the context of marriage.

Embrace Emotion

I've always been of the philosophy that in order to beat the market--if it's possible at all--I have to remain calm at all times. People panic at local minima, believing the market will keep going down forever and feel euphoric at local maxima, believing the good times will always last. Instead, better to remain calm, buy when everyone panics, sell when everyone is an optimist. In the words of a trader I greatly respect, "In the midst of chaos is an opportunity to profit."

There's an interesting article at The Big Picture about a study recently conducted on this topic. The author Steenbarger writes,

In a study that I conducted with Andrew Lo and Dmitry Repin of MIT, we found that emotional reactivity to financial markets was correlated with trading performance. Specifically, “…subjects whose emotional reactions to gains and losses were more intense on the positive and negative side exhibited significantly worse trading performance, implying a negative correlation between successful trading behavior and emotional reactivity” (p. 352).

In that study, we found, no single set of personality traits was significantly correlated with favorable trading outcomes. Rather, it was emotional reactivity overall that seemed to best predict profitability.

These results would seem to support the common perception that success in financial markets requires an elimination of emotion from trading decisions. A corollary of this view is that all good trading must be rationally conceived, planned, and executed: that good traders are those, as the saying goes, that “plan their trades and trade their plans.”

But, he says, that doesn't match up with what he's observed in trading firms.

These results would seem to support the common perception that success in financial markets requires an elimination of emotion from trading decisions. A corollary of this view is that all good trading must be rationally conceived, planned, and executed: that good traders are those, as the saying goes, that “plan their trades and trade their plans.”

The problem with this perspective is that it does not fit the realities of trading floors at the firms where I work as a psychologist and coach. Traders, even the most successful, are often highly emotional and competitive. Many sustain significant profitability year after year trading actively each day, holding positions for mere minutes. Invariably these very active traders have no time to research their trades, not to mention develop formal trading plans.

This describes what I've read about George Soros. He would take large bets in one direction after telling everyone why he's absolutely certain the market will move in that direction, only to change quickly his tune completely and make large bets in the other direction.

The answer seems to be that some people just have a "gut feel" that's more often than not, correct.

Research into implicit learning suggests that people routinely apprehend complex patterns in the world without necessarily being able to verbalize those patterns. For instance, young children can form grammatically correct sentences and yet cannot explain the rules of grammar. Very active traders develop a “feel” for markets that enables them to act on short-term shifts in momentum without being able to formally lay out the rationale underlying their trades.

Antonio Damasio’s research suggests that such implicit learning is cued by “somatic markers“: a felt sense of fit or non-fit when we perceive patterns in the world. Such markers, for instance, may cue us to shift topics in a conversation when we sense that the other party is uncomfortable. We may not be able to verbalize the reasons for the shift at the time–it occurs spontaneously in the flow of interaction–but we know it feels right in the context of discourse.

Very active traders describe a similar feel for what they do. A market will be weak and suddenly the trader will perceive that “we’re having trouble going lower.” Quickly he enters bids into the order book, gets filled, and rides a reversal move higher. Asked what made him think we were putting in a bottom, the trader simply replies, “They just couldn’t break ‘em.”

Damasio’s contention is that the feel that accompanies implicit learning is indeed a kind of feeling: emotion is an integral part of decision making. What makes emotional arousal detrimental to trading is not that emotion necessarily biases decision making, but that it can cover over the more subtle, felt somatic markers that alert us to subtle market patterns. When we are frustrated with our profits and losses, we can no longer fully attend to what feels right when we process complex market relationships. That leaves us out of sync with the market’s conversations.

In Lo and Repin’s study, ten experienced traders were connected to biofeedback equipment while they viewed financial markets. Interestingly, all recorded significant physiological changes during such trading events as breakouts from price ranges. “Contrary to the common belief that emotions have no place in rational financial decision-making processes,” the authors explain, “physiological variables associated with the ANS [autonomic nervous system] exhibit significant changes during market events even for highly experienced professional traders” (p. 332).

The intriguing implication of this work is that those who have immersed themselves in financial markets probably know far more than they know they know. Their performance crucially hinges, not on brushing emotion aside, but in sustaining access to those implicit cues that literally embody expertise.

I think anyone who's a "natural" at anything probably has a talent for seeing patterns at a subconscious level. They can't explain their success because they can't rationally tap into that nether-brain.

On a related note, my gut tells me that though VT is a one touchdown underdog against Alabama tomorrow, and even though VT has traditionally performed poorly against big programs, VT will win. My mind, of course, believes my gut is crazy.

CO2 and Climate Change

CO2 and Climate Change : Proof that intelligence is an evolutionary dead end.

Puzzle : From whom or what country does the following blog quote come?

The advocates of carbon regulation suffer from the same megalomaniac feelings as every dictator who has ever wanted to rule the world. These little green men think that they have the right to steal two trillion dollars a year - a bigger number than Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin could ever imagine - to realize their crazy plans and please their little green gods. Most of them are parasites who haven't contributed 100,000 dollars worth of products to [ed] mankind, but they have no moral problems with stealing trillions more.

Regards, Don


I finally saw 300 a few nights ago. Stylistically, it's a fun movie, and I have no complaints about it in that aspect. But what really blew my enjoyment of the movie was how I kept comparing it to the present day. The fictional Spartans make a lot of noise about freedom and justice, but these terms don't mean what we think they mean.

Sparta was one of the most thoroughly totalitarian societies in history, with a military caste forming its citizenry and an entire substratum of slaves--the vast of the population--to make its citizens' lifestyle possible. Babies were judged shortly after birth, and any that might not turn out to be a good warrior or a breeder of warriors was killed. If defending this against some foreign aggressor counts as fighting for freedom, well, they can keep it.

This all sounds like the Nazi propaganda campaigns against the USSR in occupied Europe. True, the Bolshevik system was monstrous, and indeed was intent on controlling as much of the Earth as possible, but you'd hardly be defending freedom and civilization by joining, as too many Europeans did, with the Nazi system.

Not to mention that the glorification of martial values makes me uneasy anyway. The Athenians, ridiculed in the movie, had a more complete picture of what a person should be. They had their share of faults as well, no doubt. But the ideal Athenian was not a mindless killer, and if we have to pick one or the other to lionize, the choice is easy.

Political continuity

David Swanson imagines what Bush's third time might have looked like, and finds that we already know. And here's a similar story.

Modern-day pilgrims

From the latest press release of the Human Rights Coalition (a.k.a. Coalición de Derechos Humanos):

Arizona— The number of human remains recovered on the Arizona-Sonora border since October 1, 2008 has reached 183 three weeks into the month of August. With five weeks left in the fiscal year, the count has already reached the fiscal year total for 2007-08.

Savagely Exploding Monogamy

I meant to quote this Dan Savage comment when he first wrote it on his blog in response to the Mark Sanford and Jon and Kate scandals, and then he ended up putting it in his column, so I missed out on the timeliness factor, but it's still quite good and relevant:

A new euphemism: When someone cheats on a spouse, that should be known as "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in honor of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

But I have to say that Adultery Confessional Theater is getting tired. Can our culture start to deflate the drama on extramarital affairs a little? Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Jon and Kate, John Ensign, Mark Sanford: Yes, it sucks if kids are involved and it often leads to divorce. But I wonder if setting the panic bar a bit lower wouldn't save more marriages. Maybe we should embrace the fact that few of us will remain monogamous over the long life of a marriage.

Anne In NJ

I'm with you, AINJ: At the bottom of all these sex scandals—Sanford, Ensign, Spitzer, et al.—is our unnatural fixation on monogamy. Human beings, male or female, aren't wired to be sexually monogamous, and the feigned shock with which we're required to greet each new revelation of infidelity on the part of an elected official, a reality-show star, or a sports figure would be comical if the costs weren't so great. Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers.

Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments or that there aren't folks out there capable of remaining monogamous over the five-decade course of a marriage or that the hypocrisy of assholes like Sanford—who called on President Clinton to resign during Monicagate—isn't worthy of censure. But think of all the people who've cheated and gotten caught. Now think about all the people who've cheated and gotten away with it. Our idealized notions about sex—within marriage and without—are at war with who and what we are. Sex is powerful; relationships are fragile. Why on earth do we insist on pitting them against each other?

The only part I'd push back against is his claim that humans aren't wired to be sexually monogamous. I have no idea how we are wired, if we are all wired the same, or if there are a significant number of outliers (and if these outliers are the consistently monogamous ones or the polyamorous ones), but there is clearly something wrong with the social expectation of life-long monogamy. It is totally unrealistic to the point of being laughable, and seems to lead to more frustration and family disintegration than if the expectation didn't exist at all. I understand some people have trouble dealing with their petty jealousies, but maybe they should try a little Don't Ask, Don't Tell instead of the nuclear option?

Mad Menaissance

Will Wilkinson has a smart take-down of Kay Hymowitz' 1950's nostalgia porn, granting the essential point that, yes, social change causes anxiety until people learn to adjust and create new norms to live by, but the changes are generally worth it. I would just add the somewhat obvious point that even if the cost-benefit analysis didn't turn out positive, it's not like we can reverse the hands of time and go back to an era that never really was, so conservatives like Hymowitz can stop whining already. Yes, feminism came and saw and conquered, for better or for worse (mostly for the better), till death do us part, and we are now living in the "postfeminist era", whatever the hell that means, while clueless libertarians sit on the sidelines with their thumbs up their asses continually wondering "where all the wimmenz at?"

Also, if you're looking for new norms to live by, don't look to the creepy, repulsive "seduction community" when there are perfectly wholesome, flamingly gay advice columnists like Dan Savage dispensing commonsense weekly wisdom for free. More on that in the next post.

One part of Will's response that sticks out like a...sore thumb, though, is his interpretation of Mad Men:

I think Hymowitz’s story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren’t angry and confused because they don’t know what women want. They’re angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can’t get it. They’re confused because they can’t quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared. It is still possible to create a traditional patriarchal household, but it’s harder than ever for men to find women who will happily play along. And, in any case, there is little assurance of the stability of this sort of arrangement, since the social esteem that was once accorded to it — which helped reinforce men’s and women’s confidence in their traditional roles within it — has largely dissipated.

I don't know what Will was thinking of when he wrote this. Maybe he just hasn't watched enough episodes yet? The overall point he is trying to make is a fine one, but Mad Men displays exactly the opposite of what he is trying to express.

What I see when I watch Mad Men is a bunch of privileged dominant white males - and their trophy wives - who are absolutely miserable, partly ( largely?) because they can see their privilege and dominance cracking under the weight of inexorable social change.

That's why Peggy seems to creep everyone out except Don, who is too busy trying to juggle all of the various lies he has made to his wife, kids, coworkers, mistresses, and clients to care that Peggy is breaking the glass ceiling, getting impregnated out of wedlock, and doing all of the things a woman of her station in life shouldn't be doing. Don sees himself reflected in Peggy, as a rule breaker and successful social status climber who has to navigate a new, false identity.

No one is truly happy in the show, and we the audience, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, know that things are only going to get worse for those characters desperately trying to clutch onto some romanticized, illusory past.

Notice the title sequence of a businessman falling from the top of a skyscraper, eliciting a sense of vertigo? It's not that subtle Will, and you were an art major!

The action begins as he enters his office in black silhouette, puts down his briefcase, and watches as his furniture begins to implode, almost melting. A small rotating fan spins in an open window, but we never see how the silhouetted man ends up outside the building; we just see him in a graceful freefall for over half of the sequence tumbling past seductive images of women, a glass of whiskey, advertising slogans (“Enjoy the Best America Has to Offer”; “It’s the Gift That Never Fails”), two hands wearing wedding rings, a couple kissing, a smiling nuclear family, and four old vintage photographs.

This is why Mad Men is such a great liberal response to conservative 50's ideal worship of the Kay Hymowitz variety; it's definitely not an attractive example of the reactionary ideal. If that's what viewers are seeing when they watch it, they're doing it wrong.