All posts by selfish utilitarian

Make Public Education Much Cheaper

I’ve been reading “The Case Against Education” By Bryan Caplan. It makes a convincing argument that most of time spent in school is wasted in a signalling game.  I haven’t gotten to any suggestions to improve the situation, but maybe they are towards the end and this post will just be inferior to the ideas in the book. Whatevs.

Most of the book focuses on higher education, and for that the answer of how to decrease cost/waste is fairly obvious. Colleges could just require fewer pointless courses and let people graduate more quickly or by going part time.

For primary school a big part of value is getting the kids out of the house and under someone else’s care for 7 hours so that solution wouldn’t work. But maybe  we could dramatically decrease the amount of time that children spend in a fully supervised classroom setting where there is a highly trained, highly compensated teacher and only 20-ish students. Instead, break the day up so that 1/3 to 1/2 is that sort of intense and expensive interaction and make the other 2/3 a lower cost more free form experience.

Supposing its 1/3 classroom time then while Group A is getting their time Groups B and C do the free time and then switch off. So each teacher can effectively teach 3 classes or 60-90 total children without having to actually attempt the impossible task of dealing with 60+ children at once.

The “free time” could then be divided between activities that don’t require the same level of adult interaction. There could be “quiet time” where children have to read/do educational stuff on the computer/do art or whatever. And then active times where they can play and/or engage in semi-organized sports. These times could be supervised by a smaller number of educators + community volunteers or school administrators. The point would be to make activities available to the students, but not direct them or force them to engage in them. And then to prevent/break up fights and stuff. The children would direct themselves based on their own interests but they wouldn’t be able to just watch youtube or completely waste time. They would have to actually confront boredom and make decisions about how to use their own time.

Of course with less classroom time there would be less classroom learning for sure. But the learning done in the classroom could be more intense and focused on things that really matter.  For young children there are already lots of breaks that occur during a school day. My daughter has play time, recess, phys ed, library time, lunch etc. But a lot of that still happens in an environment where the teacher is present. There is no real efficiency gain. By segregating the classroom time with teacher from all the breaks and play time, the teacher could be free to teach more kids.

For older children classroom time is focused but often focused on things that are unimportant. Let high school students take a smaller number of important classes and then head to the library to do independent study or online learning. There seems to be very little gain from making children sit through classes that they correctly believe will be of no use to them later in life, so let them follow their own interests or pursue what they think will be valuable and they will enjoy it more and be no worse off than they are now.

This system would not only reduce costs dramatically but it would make children happier and make education work better. It would teach the extremely valuable skill of self-directed learning which is the cornerstone of a successful adult life. Children who are less bored and defeated by endless class time could put more energy into the classes they had. Students old enough to watch themselves could be allowed to leave school and spend time apprenticing. It would be a hybrid between public school as it exists now and the unschooling method championed by David Friedman.

What Do You Even Want?

When I was a kid in the late 80s I had a rattail, possibly the coolest haircut feature ever designed by man.  But at some point I thought to myself, what do I imagine myself looking like as an older person or an adult. Do I ever imagine having a rattail? The answer was no, so I cut it off. If you know where you want to get to, then you can identify the simplest ways to get closer to there. If you never define that ideal then you may miss easy actions that would have a big impact.

A lot of political discussion/argument (especially when it is done on unfriendly terms) is about speculating about people’s true motivations. What ideal are they actually aiming at? The truth is that most people probably don’t even have an ideal in mind. They don’t know what the government should look like in their perfect world. They only know what immediate positions seem right or have the right people endorsing them. Except on the fringes, no one asks about ideal systems so most people simply never give it much thought.

So I thought I would list out a few questions that I think help define an overall view of how an ideal government would look along with my answers, and then anyone else who wants to could leave their answers or thoughts for additional questions in the comments. The goal is to make a comprehensive but short list of questions that everyone could answer as a starting point for any debate about particular issues. Not only would answering the questions clarify an individual’s own beliefs but they would allow people to know very quickly where the other side in a debate is coming from without having to make uncharitable guesses.

In contrast with the usual political quiz like this that is based on giving gut instinct answers to vague questions and getting a position on a political map, these questions are intended to provoke deeper thought and create a clearer vision of what different people really want from the government.

Q1: In an ideal system what percentage of GDP would the government consume/control?

A: Asymptotically approaching 0 as GDP goes to infinity

Q2: What assistance would the government provide to the poor or disabled?

A: Nothing

Q3: How much free education would the government provide? 

A: None

Q4: What would military spending look like? 

A: The minimum necessary to make aggression prohibitively expensive for our enemies.

Q5: What kind of healthcare would the government pay for? 

A: Only for on-the-job injuries for government employees.

Q6: What socially valuable activities would the government subsidize?

A: Only those with clear market-failure/free rider problems.  Like say deflecting giant meteors. Not simply things that take a long time to pay off or require a large investment since ideally the private market would have much more financial resources than the government.

Q7: Should the government be allowed to levy taxes?

A: Yes. free ridership is a genuine problem.

 

Q8: Should taxation fall more heavily on production or consumption?

A: Consumption, since generally production generates positive externalities and consumption generates no or negative externalities.

Q9: In an ideal system how often would people feel the need to engage in physical self-defense?

A: Never

Q10: Would any “victimless crimes” be prohibited? 

A: No

Q11: How would criminal punishments be determined? 

A: To maximize deterrence while minimizing societal cost.

Q12: In an ideal system what groups would be protected from private discrimination? 

A: None

Q13: In an ideal system, what restrictions would their be on political speech or donations?

A: None

Q14: In an ideal system, how common would abortions be? 

A: Rare

Q15: In general how should regulation work?

A: Activities which do not pose a clear systemic risk should be generally unregulated. If an activity ends up causing harm that can be redressed in the court system. There should not be any precautionary regulation except in the case of systemic risk, in which case a high risk/benefit hurdle should have to be overcome.

Q16: How should the government treat citizens and domestic entities vs. noncitizens and foreign entitites? 

A: The government should be a zealous advocate for citizens at all times and grant courtesies to noncitizens only is so far as it is in the best interest of citizens. The government should seek every advantage for its citizens in any dealings with other nations, and have no other agenda.

Q17: Should the government issue fiat currency and if so how should it manage supply? 

A: Yes and it should manage supply to maximize the net present value of seigniorage.

Seeing the Obvious

circulator_system

The first time I can remember hearing of William Harvey was in a history of science class in college. I was blown away to learn that we have only known that blood circulates for 400 years. If you don’t know the history this is a good source but here is the short version:

Ancient people had no idea what blood was doing or what the heart was for but they were able to figure out that arteries and veins are different. Arteries seemed to originate in the heart and veins came from the liver. They also knew that both arteries and veins were filled with blood (but somewhat different blood) and that blood has to be distributed to the whole body through vessels that are too small to see, since if you get a small cut pretty much anywhere it bleeds without any visible blood vessels going to it. They knew that both veins and arteries branched off endlessly into channels too small to see but never considered that they were connected to each other. In the 2nd century AD Galen extended these existing beliefs with more observation and analysis, but didn’t fundamentally challenge them. In his model venous blood originated in the liver and carried nutrition to the body, with the right side of the heart participating in that process. The left side of the heart and arteries and lungs delivered fresh air and cooled the body, and the fact that arteries always seemed to be full of blood rather than air was just kinda brushed off.

Over the next 1000 years apparently very little was done in terms of even dissecting animals or human cadavers, maybe because people figured they knew everything they needed to know, so there was no progress. Between about 1200 and 1600 people started doing observations again and figured out that the sides of the heart weren’t completely separate but that maybe blood was getting from one side to the other across the lungs. And also Da Vinci figured out that the heart was a muscle.  Then William Harvey came around and just figured out how things actually worked. He made a lot of observations and did a lot of thinking but the his two strongest points were as follows: First he pointed out that  if you take arterial blood and venous blood out and let it sit somewhere then it ends up looking just the same, so its probably the same stuff.   Second he pointed out that the speed with which blood seems to move through the body makes it completely implausible that the liver is making it all and then it is just all getting eaten up by the body.   Then he said, well, since its the same stuff and it can’t be being created and destroyed in real time, its probably just going around in a closed loop.

There are a decent number of people who seem to believe that Earth is flat.   And there are tons and tons of people who don’t believe in evolution, but no one questions the idea that blood circulates. Even though Jesus didn’t know about it. Mohammed didn’t know about it. William freaking Shakespeare didn’t know about it. It is just blatantly obvious! There is a giant pump in the middle of the body with tubes filled with blood going in and out. Of course the blood is circulating.  To me the story of William Harvey and circulation, more than any other story in the history of science, is that what is obvious to us was not obvious until some genius put enormous effort into making it obvious. Heliocentrism is not at all obvious. Special relativity is not obvious. Atomic theory and anything related to chemistry are not obvious. Even Newtonian mechanics is not really obvious because most things don’t act like F=ma in our high friction world.

To me the story of circulation is a reminder to not take knowledge for granted. There are most likely obvious facts staring me in the face every day that I can’t see because I am making some dumb assumption that I don’t even know I am making. The hardest intellectual work is often not even to question your assumptions, but to articulate what assumptions you are actually making. Harvey clearly articulated all the assumptions that went into the Galenic model of blood flow and then questioned them and found something that should have been obvious for millennia.

 

The Only Good Idea Is A Bad Idea

I am a mediocre trader. I’m not rich. And yet I have come up with a few good ideas here and there over the years and they have something in common. I always arrived at them by trying to think of something stupid that wouldn’t work. They were all bad ideas that no one thought made any sense.

That is how it has to be. I trade in extremely competitive markets. Every intuitively good idea is done as efficiently as possible by people with tons of experience and resources. Finding ideas with little enough competition for small firms like mine to do profitably requires ideas that people have an aversion to, but which end up working.

I think this is probably true in many activities. In order to make money at a small scale or get attention or interest in your work you need to do something that seems wrong but works somehow. Because then you are competing with a lot fewer people.

But once you have scale or attention then it isn’t as hard to keep it. You just have to do the things that seem right, but require a lot of resources. So it seems like successful people just do things that make sense but it’s not how they got there. They had do something that flew against their instincts and everyone else’s.

What you see with a lot of successful people is that they have one big idea that they milk for all its worth. Nassim Taleb milks the idea of the “black swan” because that is what got him a ton of attention. If “Fooled By Randomness” hadn’t sold he probably would have moved on to something else.  Anyone else could try to expand on the same idea, but they almost certainly won’t be successful. Why would people want to get their black swans from just some random person when they can get them from the guy who invented them?

A lot of famous people don’t even need to milk their one idea anymore. They can just be ordinary and people will continue to like them due to familiarity and that one original thing they did once. Would anyone hire Bruce Willis or Robert Deniro to be in a movie if they were unknowns now? It doesn’t seem likely based on any performance they have given in the last 20 years or so.

There is a big downside for already successful people to come up with new bad but genius ideas. They are likely to fail, and a lot of people are watching. They might expose their earlier genius as just luck. So successful people who continue to take big chances are very rare. Consider Steve Jobs. He consistently took chances, and even though he’s been dead for 7 years, the only new thing that Apple has produced since then is the Apple Watch. What a hit! The only person like that today in the business world seems to be Elon Musk. In the celebrity world Donald Trump also seems to take big risks.

So, if you have few resources and can’t get anywhere by playing it safe, what do you do? There are clearly more bad ideas that are just bad than idea that seem bad but are actually good. How can you separate them? Its really hard. As far as I can tell there are 2 key factors that give an idea potential. One is that there has to be a lot of uncertainty about the outcome. Stubbing your toe is a bad idea, but you know how its going to turn out. There is no uncertainty, so there is no room for it end up working out. The other is that the worst case scenario can’t be that bad. Failure is the most likely outcome, so failure has to be survivable. Then, that’s it. You just have to try things. As long as you have massive uncertainty and limited downside and the feeling like your idea is stupid and doomed, then you are on the right track!

Leaks and Creeps: A Comey/Trump Dialogue

Trump is sitting behind his desk in the oval office. Comey enters and sits.

Trump: Hey Gigantor, how’s your hammer hangin’?

Comey: *silence*

Trump: I wanted to talk to you about this golden shower thing. Its ridiculous. I don’t want Melania to think it might be true. Pee? Its disgusting. Hookers? I don’t need hookers. I got no problem getting women. No problem at all. I could give you some tips sometime. Could you investigate this stuff and prove its fake news?

Comey: Oh no, sir. Its so hard to prove that something is a lie, and besides, we wouldn’t want anyone to think that you were under investigation.

Trump: About that, absolutely everyone thinks that I’m under investigation. Could you tell them I’m not?

Comey: No can do. Get someone else to do it.

Trump: Why the fuck not?

Comey:  (holds up his hands) Wow, look at the size of my hands. They’re enormous. Want to compare hand size?

Trump: Uh, nevermind. I hate all these leaks coming out. Isn’t it terrible. All these leaks?

Comey: It is just terrible. But hey, there’s nothing you can do about it. Leakers gonna leak, you know.

Trump: Maybe we could ask the reporters who is leaking to them. That has worked before.

Comey: I don’t think so.

Trump: You wouldn’t leak on me, would you Jimmy, would ya?

Comey: Never sir. I’m not a leaker. Let me just jot down a note to myself here. (Pulls out notebook with “Future Leaks” written on the cover and writes “loves being peed on, has to pay for sex” in it)

Trump:  Let me ask you about this McCabe guy. He seems pretty conflicted. Shouldn’t we just get rid of him?

Comey: Absolutely not! Andy is a true pro. He’s a man of enormous integrity. Unlike you, you giant spray-tanned turd.

Trump:  I gotta ask you something. I know that everyone in DC hates me with a passion. I know you hate me with every fiber of your being. So, do you think you can be loyal me as the president or will you violated the law and your personal ethics just to try to screw with me?

Comey: Well, frankly I’m a little offended that you would ever think I would be loyal to you, you pudgy fuck.

Trump: Hey, can I fire you?

Comey: Oh yeah, absolutely. I serve at your pleasure. You’re not under investigation or anything. The FBI is full of professionals. No ongoing investigations will be affected if I leave. And hey, there would be no hard feelings at all and I definitely wouldn’t leak anything and everything I can as soon as you do. In a way I wish you would. Just do it. Do it. Do it. DO IT MOTHERFUCKER!

Trump: Ok, I gotta admit, I like being the tallest guy in the room, so you’re fired.

Comey: WAT?!?!? YOU CAN’T FIRE ME! YOU’RE UNDER INVESTIGATION!! THAT’S OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE! ONLY I CAN TAKE YOU DOWN!! I WILL BE THE SAVIOR OF THIS NATION!

Comey storms out.

Trump, to himself: What a dork…Hey, I wonder if they’re talking about me on Fox.

In Praise of David Hogg

I see a lot of right wing people be triggered by David Hogg in general, and particularly now that he is cashing in with a book deal. Why?

What he did was turn lemons into lemonade. He said, oh it sucks that people I know got murdered but how can I get rich and famous out of this. That’s great! Will anything he says or does ever help to prevent a school shooting? Of course not. But that is not the point. The point is for him to take money from suckers. There should always be a constant flow of resources going from suckers to non-suckers. That way the suckers shrink and die and the non-suckers proliferate. David Hogg found a way to fleece suckers and he is going for it! That’s evolution in action.

This is the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that everyone on the right should celebrate. And it doesn’t hurt that he tends to turn off a lot of people on the left, and that gun control is probably a losing issue in the midterms. That’s just a bonus though. The key thing is that David Hogg is living the American Dream. He is using tragedy to separate fools from their money, and thus making the world ever so slightly less foolish.  He should be an inspiration to us all!