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Intro. [Recording date: August 28th, 2020.]
Russ Roberts: This week's episode is a little different. I think we've mentioned the nonprofit 80,000 Hours on the program before. It's, "Dedicated to helping people have a larger, positive influence on the world with their careers." 80,000 hours being roughly the number of hours a person working full-time spends on the job over their lifetime.
80,000 Hours has a podcast hosted by Rob Wiblin, who happens to be a big EconTalk fan. And, he invited me to their podcast to talk about effective altruism, the empirical side of social science, and utilitarianism. Along with the idea that you should think systematically about how to use your career to make the world a better place. We're releasing that conversation here on EconTalk and on the 80,000 Hours Podcast. I want to thank Rob for a great conversation, which was recorded on August 28th, 2020. I hope you enjoy it and feel free to check out the 80,000 Hours Podcast as well.
Rob Wiblin: Today, I'm speaking with Russ Roberts. Russ is an economist and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He did his economics Ph.D. at the University of Chicago back in 1981, studying government transfer programs under the supervision of Gary Becker. In recent decades Russ has focused on communicating economic ideas to the general public, including through books such as How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness and The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity. But, above all, for me anyway, he's the creator and host of EconTalk, a weekly podcast featuring fairly academic hour-long interviews. And, EconTalk has actually been running since 2006, recently celebrating its 750th episode, and was part of the inspiration for me to create this show.
In fact, I've been a listener to EconTalk, a subscriber, since I started studying economics as an undergrad back in 2008 and have [?] listened to every single one of those interviews, in many cases, more than once. And, yesterday, I calculated that that means I've probably spent 300 to 500 hours listening to Russ's voice, which is 20 days constantly without sleep. Which is surely more than anyone outside my immediate family and friendship group, and probably more than a lot of them as well. So, thanks for coming on the podcast, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Great to be with you, Rob. It's a little frightening, but I appreciate time you've devoted to EconTalk.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I'm sure I'm one of many hundreds, possibly thousands.
I hope to talk about your views on effective altruism, utilitarianism, and empirical social science. But, first off, as I ask almost everyone: What are you working on these days and why do you think it's important work?
Russ Roberts: Well, as it turns out, I'm writing a book on these issues : the question of how do we deal with uncertainty and to what extent does data help us make decisions? And, the answer is, of course, data is often very helpful. But, I think data is often misleading. It's seductive, and in our personal lives where we often have to make decisions facing irreducible uncertainty, what do we do? How do we deal with that? And, I think we have a temptation to use data anyway, and I think that's a mistake.
So, I'm interested in all the issues that I hope we'll be talking about today. How do we make decisions across individuals, how utilitarianism comes into that? How do we decide how to spend our charitable dollars, the question of effective altruism? How do we decide how to spend our lives? So, what should we work on? How should we see our careers, as a mix of our personal fulfillment, or trying to make the world a better place?
So, I know these are things you're deeply interested in and I'm deeply interested in them, too. And, I think we look at them differently. So, I think it should be a good conversation.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Fantastic. It means you have even --I know you have a lot of thoughts on these issues, but I guess if you're writing a book about it, you might have even more than I, even more than I bargained for. Yeah.
So, my plan for this episode is a bit different than what we usually do. Most often, I let guests kind of outline their views on a topic for a while, half an hour, about some book that they've written and then I raise some possible counter-arguments. But, a benefit of having listened to your show so much over the years, is that I have a reasonable idea of some topics where I think we might disagree now, but where I think we could converge at least a bit, if we spoke about the topic for a bit.
And, then there's a bunch of practical issues, like climate change or the impact AI [Artificial Intelligence] might have on the future, or what's the right role for private philanthropy. And, whether people can be happy and satisfied with their lives without having a job at all. And, all those would be exciting, but today I want to kind of focus first on three more fundamental topics.
So, the first of those is effective altruism. And 80,000 Hours is a career-advising project. Which I think you admire in some ways, but also have some reservations about, as you mentioned.
Then the second is yeah, how much we should trust empirical research in economics and medicine and psychology, or I guess I have a somewhat pessimistic take, which is that we should trust it less than most people think; but I think you have maybe an even more, a double pessimistic take.
And, the third is yeah, the ethical theory of utilitarianism, and weighing up welfare between different people. Which I'm pretty enthusiastic about. But, I think both of which you're not sticking on. So, does that sound like a good plan?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, sounds great.
Rob Wiblin:All right. So, first let's chat about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours. And, yeah, those topics have come up on EconTalk a few times over the years in your interviews with Will MacAskill and Peter Singer, and L.A. Paul somewhat recently, and Paul Bloom a couple of years ago. I don't expect you have encyclopedic knowledge of our website, but I think you know a little bit about it. So, yeah: What do you think of as the distinctive parts of effective altruism? I just want to make sure first that we're not talking at cross purposes.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm a big fan of the idea of it. I try to give 10% of my income to charity, my after-tax income, and I think it matters. I think it's important. And, I think it's important that it not just be some form of making yourself feel good, but actually makes the world a better place or at least heads in that direction. So, what I like about effective altruism, and I think it's extremely important, is it's focus on results.
I think it's tempting and easy to give money to charity. You just say, 'Well, I did a good deed. I gave away some money. I made a sacrifice.' And, so I think the focus of the effective altruism on outcomes is really a fantastic idea.
Where I'm more skeptical though, is the idea that we can use science, or statistics, or data to reliably hand out that money effectively. So, while I applaud the idea that we should try to have impact, not just make a sacrifice, I think it's hard to know when that impact is real. And, so while I applaud the focus of the effective altruism movement, I'm not as optimistic that they can be successful.
Rob Wiblin: Nice. So, yeah, there's two aspects there. One is the donating and the other is kind of using data to figure out how that money can go the furthest.
But, I actually agree with you a lot on the second. Effective altruism is potentially a bit broader than what you've been exposed to on EconTalk. There are quite a lot of people who decide to try to have their impact through giving donations.
But, I think that's probably a minority of people now, or at least it's just one approach of many that people in effective altruism take. And, personally, I focus more, I have more of an interest on policy careers or research careers, or ways that people can do good directly, rather than by donating money.
And, on top of that, I'm especially interested in kind of shaping the long-term future of humanity and improving politics and our institutions and things like that. Which is an area where using data might be helpful in some ways, but it's not obvious. You can't really do randomized control experiments on most of these topics. You have to use different methods to figure out what's effective and what works. And, having done an economics degree, I've also been exposed to all of the weaknesses of empirical economics, and I share a bunch of your skepticism about it.
So, while I think there's value that can be gotten from doing randomized trials to figure out which charities have the most impact, I wouldn't say that I'm necessarily, or that many of my colleagues are even more optimistic about that than perhaps the public as a whole.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to challenge that a little bit--even though you're kind of agreeing with me. It seems to me that, you're right obviously that there's more than one piece to it; but a huge part of it is: where should I donate charitable money?
And, there, the overwhelming thrust as I understand--you can correct me if I'm wrong--is that we know, we know what is most effective. And, for example, I haven't looked lately because I don't think it's the right answer; but for a long time, the right answer was we need to buy bed nets to fight malaria for poor people around the world. Or, we need to fight worms, parasites in poor populations in Africa. So, deworming is where you should give all of your charitable dollars to have the largest impact.
And, this is where utilitarianism merges with effective altruism. It underlies effective altruism: that if you want to have the biggest impact of your money, you should be giving it to these things. Only. Nothing else. Because every dollar spent there has such a big bang for the buck.
And, I just think that's--I think it's the wrong way to think about charity, but I do think it's a huge part. So, I think there are two parts. I want to come back to the part that I know you're very focused on, which is career change and career path, and thinking about how analytically or not we should think about our careers.
One other thing I want to add is that I don't think randomized controlled trials are the only measure of efficacy or evidence. I mean they're important, but they can be misleading. They can be poorly done. They can lead us to overconfidence about what works and doesn't work. But, most importantly, they're not the only way we learn about the real world. We learn about the real world in lots and lots of different ways. And, I think that's important to keep in mind in the background.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Might be a quick interview. Or at least a quick section [inaudible 00:09:35], because I couldn't agree with you more on most of these things, to be honest.
I think that the part about giving and giving effectively and giving based on evidence is the part of effective altruism or part of the community that's gotten the most attention in the media or from other groups. And, I guess it was--for various reasons I guess people decided to lead with that topic early on in the early 2010s. I guess because it was easier for people to grasp; you could point to data that made it easier to communicate what you were talking about and communicate the idea of having more a cost-effective impact on things.
Yeah, I think it definitely, it really has shrunk as a fraction of what people are focusing on. And, 80,000 Hours doesn't put any effort in, or we don't do any independent research on what charity is most effective or anything like that.
And, I cringe when people talk about charity as a scientific thing or choosing like, 'We know the best charity.' That's kind of mad. To begin with, we haven't looked at most charities. And, it's so uncertain. It's so incredibly uncertain, all of this stuff, that all you could ever do is have a best guess at something that might be the most effective within a particular area. It is possible that we have a decent guess at what are the best charities within global health and development. I think maybe we could say that, but the idea that we know the best way to have an impact is kind of the opposite of what we think at 80,000 Hours. In some ways I think people in the general public can latch onto specific ideas that they hear about and think that they're very good, but the more you focus on these issues, the more you realize how little we know, just how clueless we are about the effects of our actions. And, how hard it is to work out what's impactful.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mentioned deworming because for a long time it was--I don't know where it is right now, again, because I don't keep up with it day to day--but for a long time it was considered the obvious, only choice to make: If you wanted to make the world a better place with your charitable dollars, you should give it to this handful of organizations that help de-worm folks.
And, that conclusion was based on a randomized control trial--one randomized control trial. And that randomized control trial came into question. And, a meta-analysis of deworming started to suggest that actually, maybe it doesn't work so well. Its impact is quite limited. It may vary by place and time and circumstance.
And, now what? 'You told me I need to give all my money because if I'm a decent human being, I should be utilitarian.' And, to have the biggest impact on the most people was deworming. But, now it turns out, 'Oh, maybe the science was not so scientific.'
So, I don't think that's unimportant, but I take your point that there are other aspects of the movement. I mean, let's turn to those. I'm really interested in the 80,000 Hours project. So, help me understand it better.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So, it's a bit hard to kind of quickly sum up 80,000 Hours' advice, but I guess some of the key aspects are we suggest that people will try to contribute to a particularly pressing global problem. Which I guess, we have various rules of thumb for trying to figure out what global problems are especially pressing, like how many people are affected by the problem and how much. How many people are already trying to solve the problem--so was it neglected and might there be low hanging fruit still there? Does it seem like a problem that's just extremely intractable and hard to solve because there's systemic reasons why it's insoluble, or, does it seem like there's no particular reason why it couldn't be fixed? People will look at other rules of thumb as well, like: Is this a particularly urgent issue or is this maybe a problem that can be left to future generations to fix up?
So, we often suggest that people first think, look out at the world and see what does the world need? What problems are most burning and most desperately needs solving?
Then we also think once people have chosen a problem, they should try to take an approach that gets a lot of leverage on it, that gets a lot of bang for buck out of their time in trying to fix it. So, often that means looking at what is the bottleneck to fixing this problem. Sometimes it's a lack of ideas. Sometimes it's a lack of money. So, people should maybe go earn to give and donate. Other times it's a lack of skills that are needed to build the organizations or the projects that they might fix it.
Often we suggest, for example, going and shaping government policy can get you a lot of leverage--just because government spend so much money. And also sometimes conducting fundamental research can get a lot of leverage because that research can end up influencing what a lot of other people do.
And, then I guess a next step would be to try to find a role that has very good personal fit for you. So, there's no point in saying conducting fundamental research is a really valuable thing in principle if you just don't have the disposition for research. And, it seems like people's suitability for different roles can vary massively. And, you really want to find an area where you can thrive and excel and be especially good, better than other people. Potentially find your kind of comparative advantage.
And, then I guess maybe another distinctive idea or something that we talk about quite a bit is that, especially early on in people's career, they should focus on building up career capital. Try to, think a lot about improving their skills and improving their network and figuring out what they're good at, because they've got decades ahead in their career to potentially use those skills and that knowledge that they build up.
I guess--we don't think that people should focus only on having an impact, but I guess it is part of the message that we think, especially, or at least people in our audience, people who are very educated often, often very privileged, potentially who could have a lot of influence on solving some of these pressing global problems--we think that it would be a good thing, if they spent more time thinking about how could they help others, rather than just, how could they have a career that's enjoyable to them. How does that sound?
Russ Roberts: In principle, that all sounds great. But, I don't really actually think it's the right way to think about how to live your life, or how to live your career. So, let me try to suggest some things I find troubling about it.
So, you mentioned a whole bunch of factors. They're all reasonable. Any one of them is extremely reasonable. You should tackle an important problem. You should tackle a problem that people have not successfully solved, that you might have a chance of improving, that you might have an impact. It's a variation really of expected value theory to me. It's like saying: There's uncertainty about how your life's going to turn out. It's uncertain about what you're good at. It's uncertain about what the impact of your efforts will be. So try to maximize the full impact. So, if you pick a problem that's trivial and that you can't help much, you're not going to have a big expected value. If you pick a problem that's important and you can help a lot, that would seem to be a better problem to devote yourself to.
So, those are all reasonable in describing them. But, in practice when I have multiple factors, like you've laid out, how do I deal with the trade-offs between it?
So, let me give you an example. When I was 19 years old, 18 years old, I guess, 17--some time--I was a freshman in college and I found out I was pretty good at economics. So, I became an economics major; and it ended up pushing me down a road where I became a Ph.D. in economics and [?] carry on, a podcaster, I've made rap videos. I've written novels. None of that was available to me at 17 years old. I had zero idea that was in my future. But it turned out that way. And, I have no idea how much of an impact I've had.
I do know I have a few listeners to EconTalk, and a few people who appear to have watched my rap videos on YouTube, but I don't know what the real impact is. That would be--that's lovely, but I don't really know if I've helped educate anyone. I've provided some entertainment, I think, and some education, but I don't know how much. I don't know what its net impact is: I have no idea. And, it couldn't be measured. You could spend a lifetime trying to measure it and you couldn't measure it.
So, did I make a mistake or did I do the right thing? If, let's say my alternative was to become an English professor, instead of being an economist--of course, I didn't have to go into academic life at all. I could have done something more practical. I could have gone to Wall Street. I could have been an economist for a car company. Those were careers that people talked about. I could've gone into government--at one point I thought about that.
So, when I think about that enormous range of trade-offs within economics, and then I think about, 'Oh, but I didn't have to be an economist. I could have been, say, an English professor,' would you conclude that I did the right thing? I mean, would it really have been so much worse if--I mean, I happen to like economics now, but at the time I also liked fiction. If I had devoted my life to helping 25 students a class and maybe a hundred students a year to become deeply devoted to the fiction of William Faulkner, or to the poetry of Alexander Pope, would that have been an inferior life or a better life to the life I've chosen? And, not literally chosen--that's happened upon me in many ways, as I suggested. I don't know how to answer that question. I don't think anybody could answer that question. Do you?
Rob Wiblin: Well, I think our goal isn't to confidently say exactly--we're not trying to exactly measure how much impact people have had, or run calculations to say, this is exactly how much impact you'll have if you take this path or another path.
Basically, just with all complicated decisions like this, or who to marry, what things to study, what hobbies to take up, there's just enormous uncertainty. And, I think all we're trying to do is provide tools and information that might help people make a marginally, an incrementally better decision than they might otherwise.
And, I think you can say that, for example, there are sometimes young people out there who haven't really thought about the issue of career capital, about building up assets that will allow them to have a bigger impact in the future.
Now we can't exactly say that on average, people will think too much about the long term in their career or that they don't think about it enough. We're not sure about that. But, if someone hasn't really thought about that factor, I think that reflecting on it and thinking about what that might imply for their decisions, will, on the margin, make them more likely than not to make a better decision.
And, so it's not really--it isn't a science. It's just an art. We're just trying to make somewhat better decisions under massive uncertainty and not aim for perfection. So, to begin with, it is potentially a trap that people can fall into--reflecting on these things, trying to measure things, putting numbers on everything, and spending ages making a decision, when really what they should do is just get started and then kind of collect information and cross the river by feeling the stones.
So, I think actually we may agree on how to go about building a career on making these decisions over time, quite a lot. So, I'm kind of wondering, is it that you think that one shouldn't spend too much time in this sort of analysis and one should just go about it and opportunistically do things as they come along? Or is it that you disagree some kind of more fundamentally with the idea of building a career around trying to do as much good as possible or something like that?
Russ Roberts: Well, it's funny because I'm sympathetic to the idea of it, the idea of doing as much good as possible. That's a nice phrase, right?
Rob Wiblin: [crosstalk 00:20:05].
Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. I'm in. But, then the question is: What does that mean?
So, let me take another variant on my problem with this. And, by the way, so, where we agree, which I love, is that we both agree it's a craft. It's an art, it's not science. That is, how to live a good life, where good could mean satisfying to you or good could mean impact on the world at large. Either of those, whether you're a totally self-centered person who just wants to have as satisfying a life as possible, or whether you're an incredible altruist, or in between--you're somebody who gets satisfaction from being generous, and helping other people. In all those cases I think being reflective is a good idea, and we both agree that it's not science.
But, then the question is: Is it useful to think of this as something one masters? Is it useful to think of this as some--let's take golf. I used to play golf about three times a year. Now I play it about once a decade, and that's a stretch. But, golf is something you can get better at. You could get better at it through lessons. You can get better at it through practice. You can get better at it through self-reflection, trying to think about how your game could be improved. So, those kinds of crafts--golf, chess--they're prone to mastery if you devote yourself in the right way.
And, of course you'll never become, you'll never pitch a 27-pitch perfect game in baseball. You'll never have 18 holes in one, or at least it's never been done on a normal golf course. But, you can improve. It would be just a better way I think to capture the craft, art of it. But, you can't "fully master it." You can't perfect it.
Now, I don't think that's the right metaphor for life. I don't think mastery is the right way to think about how to live better. I'm not going to give you a better metaphor yet. I'm not sure what it is. But, let me tell you why I'm not sure that's the right metaphor, even to frame our thinking about it.
So, you started off by saying that the 80,000 Hours project, we talk about taking the most pressing problems. I think that was the opening example you gave. So, reasonable people could disagree about what the most pressing problems are. Right? So, some people would say climate change--that would be easily their first, most pressing problem. Other people might say violence against women. Others would say racism.
These are all things that typically are in the public sphere. They're in the public sphere for a variety of reasons, but they're in the public sphere. They're the subject of public policy issues. They are things that legislation gets passed to try to improve and make them better. They're the source of activism of people who are passionate about change, about improving the world. That's a whole, there's a whole realm of things like that: poverty, clean water, clean air, climate, inequality. Things that most people, not everybody, but most people would agree are things we wish were different than they are.
But, what about things that are at the more micro level, like kindness?
What if I said to you, and I think I could make the case, that kindness--and the lack of kindness--is the thing we ought to be focusing on to make the world a better place. And, so I'm going to devote my life to improving that.
Now, if you said that, you'd say, well, it's clearly a pressing problem. It's clear that you can be a kinder person tomorrow than you were today. But if I said: I want to have that radiate out from my actions to have leverage. I want to do more than just make myself a kinder person. I want to create a kinder world. And, I'd say, boy, that's a tough one. I'd say it's important, but I don't know how to head toward mastery in that.
But, having said that it might be the most important problem. I could argue that it's the most pressing problems, the lack of kindness and human relations.
In fact, the expression, 'Be kind. Everyone is in a battle,' is a motto to live by that most of us, I think, fail to live by. We're inherently self-centered--literally. We're genetically, evolutionarily designed to be self-interested--not necessarily selfish, but self-interested and self-centered. We care a lot about ourselves, inevitably.
And, one could argue that the essential challenge of the good life for the world around us is to temper that self-centeredness, to be kinder to the people around us--our family, our friends, our colleagues at work. And if you said to me, 'So how might a person,' if you're listening you would say, 'Yeah, I kind of agree with that. I'd like to devote my life to that.' What should you do? Should you become a psychotherapist? That would be an interesting way to solve that problem. Well, not solve it: make progress on it. Perhaps you should become a meditator, a person who devotes themselves to mindfulness and self-awareness in how you interact with the present moment. Maybe you should go into religion. And, you could argue that religion is one way in which kindness has been brought into the world. Or you could say the opposite: You can say, 'Well, I think religion is actually a force for unkindness. It tends to lead to seeing people as the other, and we should make the case for atheism.'
I think those are all interesting arguments. I wouldn't know where to start. I have no idea where to start. So, if you're asking me--and I'm going to make it even harder for you, Rob, okay? I'm 65 years old. I have most of my senses about me. I'm not at the top of my game right this minute: I slept about five hours last night. So, I don't feel like I'm a hundred percent. But, I still got some productive thoughts. I got a few. My mind is functioning. And, there's going to be a point where it won't, right? I'm either going to be dead, or my brain is going to start to deteriorate. But, let's say, I've got, if I'm lucky, 10 good years ahead of me--65 to 75 years old. I've noticed some people in their late seventies, they start to get a little slower. Their brain doesn't fire quite as rapidly. They're not quite at the level it used to be, but they can still be pretty effective. But, I think I got maybe 10 good years left.
And, let's say you think I'm making a mistake, staying at the Hoover Institution and doing this EconTalk thing. Or, I'm worried I'm making a mistake, and I come to you and I say, 'Rob, I want to make sure that the last 10 years of my life have the greatest impact that they could possibly have.' What should I do? I could devote myself to my aging mother. Who is 87 and lives on her own. I try to talk to her every day. I'm not always successful, but maybe I ought to make sure I talk to her every day. In fact, maybe I should retire, so I--after all she raised me. Don't I owe her? Don't I have a moral imperative to be kind to her?
Or maybe I should take a different set of skills. You know, I love writing songs. Maybe I should get on YouTube and write songs, anthems for free markets. Something I think would make the world a better place. Or maybe I'm wrong about that.
Maybe I ought to go volunteer at the local food kitchen, and help people get their food there.
I mean, so where do I start? Help me.
Rob Wiblin: Sure. Okay. I think there's three things--
Russ Roberts: A long enough ramp for you?
Rob Wiblin: Well, we might be able to deal with it quickly because we agree so much, at least the first two.
So, yeah, you definitely can't achieve mastery in career choice in the way you can at golf or sports. I mean, for multiple reasons. One is just the problem is harder: there's just so many decisions to make and so hard to optimize and so much uncertainty, much more uncertainty than baseball, for example. Also, the feedback is very bad; and you only get one go. So, yeah, for all of those reasons, mastery is the wrong analogy.
I was trying to think what is a similar analogy? And, then I was like, is it like having a good relationship? And, I was like, 'Well, kind of,' but you actually do get more feedback about that than probably you do about career choice. And, you can maybe have multiple goes at relationships over time and get a lot better at it. I could imagine thinking someone is a master of their marriage, at least to some degree.
I think maybe a better analogy is being a CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of a business. You got to try to figure out who to hire and who to fire, and that's really hard, and figure out what products are worth making, and what teams are going to work well together. You can definitely get a lot better at that really difficult decision-making on the fly, and some people are much better at it than others, but you never master it. Even the very best people make lots of mistakes in those kinds of roles.
Then, I guess, on kindness: I don't think that it's silly at all to think that kindness might be among the most important problems and something that readers of 80000 Hours should potentially focus on improving. We have something very similar in our list of potentially most pressing problems, which is I think positively shaping human values, where I guess we talk about how, over the centuries, over thousands of years, gradually people have come to care more and more about the welfare of others. Initially it was most people only cared about white men; then the women and people of color. We got rid of slavery. You've had kind of an expanding circle of moral consideration. And I think one of the most important things that we could do, or potentially one of the most reliably valuable things that we could do, is to continue expanding that circle, so that all beings that are conscious, and all beings that have welfare get considered, at least in policy, or ideally that we just care about the wellbeing of all and aren't as selfish as we are now.
I think kindness--I might not call it kindness because that's such a broad class. I think at 80000 Hours we would be interested in trying to narrow it down on some smaller part of the problem of kindness, where we think perhaps it's particularly tractable, or people haven't tried this one so much, or that potentially the welfare impacts are especially large--if we can solve this component of increasing kindness. But, yeah, there might not be that that much room between our views on that.
Russ Roberts: Nyeah, I don't know. I think I could--let me try to disagree with--I'm not going to try to disagree. I'm going to disagree with you on the expanding the moral circle. I saw a--there's a show on Broadway--it's in darkness now because of COVID--but there's a show on Broadway called Come From Away. Come From Away is the story of what happened on 9/11 when American airspace was closed, right in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, and a few dozen airplanes had to be diverted to Newfoundland in Canada to a town called Gander. And, Gander used to be a refueling station because planes didn't have enough range to reach long flights, so they'd have to stop somewhere; and they built a big airstrip there for large airplanes. And, that airstrip was still there, even though planes had gotten larger range and didn't need to stop there anymore. But conveniently that strip was there.
So, hundreds and hundreds, thousands of people landed in this tiny town in the middle of Newfoundland. And, these people who lived in this town were suddenly confronted with the fact that these thousands of strangers were there and they didn't have a place to stay. They didn't have food. They didn't have any water.
And, at first it seemed like it was going to be a very short stay--a few hours maybe, or a day or two. But it ended up being quite a long time before that airspace was reopened and before those planes were allowed to take their passengers to where they were eventually wanted to go.
And, the show is quite moving. It's a very, very powerful musical. And, what's moving about it is how these small-town folks rose to the occasion in taking care of these strangers. And in doing so, what was motivating them was a sense that, as a Newfoundlander, somebody from Newfoundland, that's what they did. In the face of crisis, in the face of hardship, you just did your job. You did what you're supposed to do.
And, they had an incredible pride--at least the way it's captured in the musical and I think it's true of many places. They had incredible pride that that was what was appropriate, and that they did that.
And, I would argue that that achievement was partly the result of a narrowness of moral focus, ironically. Ironically. Because they had an identity as a kind of person who would rise to the occasion--a Newfoundlander. And, that comes from place, that comes sometimes from religion, that could come from many, many sources. It could come from secular--again, I don't mean to suggest religion is the only source of it, or that national pride is the only source of it, or regional pride. But it is part of our human makeup, evidently to be motivated by that kind of force.
And, that was glorious. That was a really an incredible achievement. And, it's not obvious to me that that would have been possible in a world where we all were encouraged to think of ourselves as not being rooted, as not having an identity and safe[?] place.
So, when I think of nationalism--I have a lot of negative thoughts about nationalism. But I also have to confront the reality that sometimes nationalism is pretty--is it could be a powerful force for good. And, that's just weird.
So, when you suggest that we should broaden our moral care to as wide as possible, to all sentient, say, or conscious beings, I'm not sure that's going to be effective, given the nature of human beings in the way we've evolved. I would worry about that. It's not obvious to me that we should care, or be encouraged to care, equally about everyone.
I understand the advantage of it. I understand the good part of it. Certainly, the move toward less racism, less sexism, less sexual judgment--that's got many, many wonderful things about it.
But, to extend it infinitely far--that I care about, say, the entire universe and not so much about my family--which by the way is very much a thread in modern utilitarian thought. You know, in modern utilitarian thought, I am told that I should be ashamed of having a fancy birthday party for my four-year old, because that money would be better spent. It would have more good for more people if I bought those bed nets in Africa or de-worm folks in Africa. The marginal benefit to, quote, "humanity" of my child having a fancy birthday party--I'm not a fan of fancy birthday parties, by the way. But, just the claim is that having a fancy birthday party is an immoral act because of the kind of moral calculus you're suggesting we ought to embrace.
And, I think that's wrong. I think that's a fundamental misunderstanding of the human enterprise. I think we were raised in families. We evolved in families. We evolved in small groups. It's just not obvious to me that we can be effective. In other words, I might be much better at giving charity in that world, but I might be a really bad dad. You know? I don't even know actually how I can spend time reading to my kid at night, knowing that I ought to be doing some consulting work at night, raising money and buying more of those bed nets. So, for me, instead of talking to my own kid--because my own kid's probably going to be fine.
So, I think that kind of calculus is just not obviously correct.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, we're kind of the ultimate pragmatists. So, inasmuch as trying to increase concern for everyone is actually going to result in people being more selfish, or not doing more good, that would be a good reason not to pursue that.
And, I guess even the possibility that it could backfire in that way is a mark against it, or at least going that far.
I suppose I'm more hopeful than you that getting people to try to care more, at least in principle about not harming all sentient beings, would be good on balance, in part just because it seems like expanding the moral circle has so far had positive impacts. So, it could be that at some point it would go so far that this would then undermine people's motivations to be good and then make the world worse.
But, I guess it seems to me on the margin that it would still be good if ordinary people cared more about foreigners than they do right now. You know, I've cared more about the welfare of animals than they apparently do now, given how we treat them in farming.
I agree that nationalism--or maybe 'nationalism' isn't quite the right word--but patriotism or the idea of kind of group virtue or the desire to be a particularly virtuous person and you're staking out your identity in that way--it does have positive effects. It just kind of has to then be weighed up against the negatives. And I'd be open to kind of what evidence there is on whether in fact trying to improve kindness in that way would be effective. Or maybe we should try to increase kindness in some other way that is going to be more impactful and more functional.
Russ Roberts: Can we go back to the statement you made about two minutes ago? You said, 'Given how much good we've achieved so far from broadening our moral calculus.' How do you know that?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: How do you know we've--I'm not as sanguine as you are that we've--I mean, again, I feel like an idiot making this clear. But obviously it's a better world without slavery. Obviously it's a better world where women and people of different sexual orientation are respected rather than condemned, or vilified, or abused, or oppressed. But, it's not obvious to me that the larger trends of human history are headed in the right direction. That particular thing I think is probably--those are all good. Not probably, this is certainly good. But, the broader trend, are we doing better than we did 500 years ago, a hundred years ago? We're doing better economically, financially.
Rob Wiblin: Financially. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I don't think--are we really better people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, I've recently been listening to this lecture series, I think called "The Other Side of History," where it goes through from tens of thousands of years ago, what was life like just for an ordinary person. And, trying to set aside rulers and people who usually feature in history and just think about everyday life. I have to say, it's just shocking the cruelty that people meted out to one another. At least according to this lecturer, in the ancient Greek world and ancient Roman world, no one, not even ex-slaves, raised the possibility that slavery was bad and should be abolished. And, you just have like the cruelest punishments meted out to people for relatively minor infractions, just potentially not being Greek, or not being Roman, and being captured in war.
So, there's always tons of uncertainty about whether the world has really gotten better. It could be that it's gotten better or welfare has improved in some ways, but then it's gotten worse in some other ways that we're not counting properly. I guess people could argue that our treatment of the natural environment is now worse and that more than offsets gains that we've had in other ways.
But, I think if I look at the big picture and I think how have human values changed over the last few thousand years, it just does seem to me that they are now more conducive to people being happy and having good lives and not suffering horribly at the hands of other people.
Russ Roberts: Well--
Rob Wiblin: Yeah? Not so sure?
Russ Roberts: It's a great point about the day-to-day cruelty. I agree with that. I think that there was a viciousness and tawdriness to daily life, obviously, and not just along the lines you're talking about, but just from, you know, emotional wellbeing, insecurity, avoiding starvation. There's a lot of--we've made a lot of improvements on those dimensions.
But, you know, when you asked me how much better we are than we were, say, in ancient Greece or Rome, you got to look at the 20th century. Twentieth century is a deeply disturbing counterpoint to your view. You've got the rise of Communism and Fascism, Stalinist Russia, and Hitler's Germany. And we're talking about--a hundred million people dead? That's a level of human cruelty that dwarfs the slavery of the Greeks. I don't know how to think about it. Well, I do know how to think about it. It's horrible. So, I don't know what to--it's hard to make that moral calculation of progress, I think, in the face of that.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, this is another area where we kind of agree with just maybe a slightly different framing.
So, I think that people have become more moral over time, but we've also become technologically much more advanced and our ability to do horrible things has increased much more than say has our wisdom or our kindness. I think we've seen some improvements in kindness, but you know, our ability to destroy the world through nuclear war--it's just like something that's completely unprecedented, completely different than what we had before.
And, so that is one reason or one angle on why it is that I'm especially interested in kind of global catastrophic risks and trying to improve the institutions that we have globally for dealing with catastrophes and trying to foresee them and prevent them, especially catastrophes that are caused by human action, whether it's malice, or negligence. It's like technology has raced ahead of human prudence and human kindness and human moral development. And, I think we really want to push very hard on our ability to work together, our moral values, our ability to make sensible decisions in order to bring them a bit more back into line so that we're not in such a dangerous situation. Does that sound kind of sensible?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, but I don't know how to--I agree with you: those are all good points. But, I know how to work together better with my family, right? My family and I have a very--I have four children. My wife and I have a very complicated dynamic with each other--with each child, when the six of us are together, when subsets of us are together. It's all different. And, it's a great learning experience. Not like golf. It's not to be mastered; it's to be explored, improved on if you can. Again, not obvious how you get better at it, but life does give you lots of data, and it gives you lots of experience in those areas.
So, if you said to me, 'You should devote the rest of your life to getting better at being the father of your children,' and you can debate whether it's important when you're 65 versus when you're 35, 40. But, I have an idea of how to do that. I have an idea. I may not succeed at it. I may struggle at it. I'm sure it's imperfect.
But, if you said to me, 'I think Americans should get along better with Russians, Chinese, and Swedes,' I don't know how to start that. Now we've tried as humanity. We've tried to improve that. We created the League of Nations. We've created the United Nations. I'd say both of those institutions were utter disasters and failures for the most part--some good things, mostly bad. I don't know how to get there from here. I don't even--when you say 'We have to get along better,' of course, that's a nice idea. I don't know how to do that.
And, in particular, I would suggest that maybe the lesson there to be learned is we should do actually fewer things together and more things locally.
So, there's a natural impulse, I think, to say, 'Well climate change, that's a global problem. We can't solve that locally.' Now, I'm not sure that's true. I think it's true at some level. I think if it's true, if the goal is literally to reduce carbon internationally, carbon emissions, probably have to do it as an international project. Although you could make a lot of headway as an individual nation and maybe even a little bit of headway as an individual. And, therefore each individual together combined with others could make some headway when combined. But, there's a whole other question of, 'Well that might be true, but what if by getting together, you create tyranny? You allow someone to totally dominate this world government you think is necessary to fight climate change?' And as a result, you're going to help enslave the world under the dominion of a criminal mastermind.
And, in fact--so what you ought to be doing is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues for often is, de-centralize. We want to be more like Switzerland, where we are going to concede that we can't solve national problems well, but we're also going to make sure that we don't create the kind of national mistakes that come from hubris, from centralization, from the corruption of power being concentrated.
Rob, what do I do? How do I know which of those is the right way to go? I have no idea.
I mean, I actually have an idea; I have a preference. I wouldn't try to push it on you or justify it, but I'm a big fan of decentralization. And, if you'd go that way--let me go down this route a little bit and then I'll let you respond--if you go down that route, basically what you're saying is I'm going to be better at some of these problems, the local ones, and worse at the national ones. And, so therefore, the--so, then what?
Answer: I am going to try to adapt to climate change at the international [?national?--Econlib Ed.] level, because I know I can't fix it internationally. I'm going to do the best I can at the national level, best I can at the individual level. I'm going to proselytize, I'm going to preach. I'm going to encourage people to lead different kinds of lives. I know that's imperfect. I can't do it as well as if I were a good human being, a saint in a position of authority over all the world's citizens. But, since I worry that there aren't going to be any saints in that position--in fact, the worst will rise to the top--I'm going to forego the right solution, which is this international government run by saints. And, I'm going to cope with that by saying, 'Well it's going to be imperfect, I'll have to adapt.'
And, as a result, I won't necessarily love what I get, but I wouldn't like what I get in the other world, either. So, those are to me the tensions that you have to deal with philosophically when you grapple with these kind of insoluble--what are essentially insoluble problems.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think it's interesting that to some--you're kind of portraying, what you're saying is maybe an objection to effective altruism or an objection to our approach. But, I think of this as just part of--what you're saying is kind of like the conversation that we have within 80000 Hours all the time and that you read in blog posts and people speaking to one another at conferences related to effective altruism. It's that: Obviously, figuring out how would you reduce the risk of a war between the United States and China--which I think we would agree it seems like it would be a bad thing on balance. It's a very important issue. It's not going to be easy to figure out how to do that. And, even if you succeeded, you might never really know.
But, I do think that if you had a community of hundreds of people who, you know, were well-meaning and had really thought things through and were concerned about whether they were actually having an impact and are worried about unintended consequences and thought, 'Well, if we tried to fix the problem in this way, would that make international totalitarianism, more likely?' Something we've actually talk to on the show about with Bryan Caplan. I think that that group could make some headway.
It's not a very tractable problem, as we say, but the scale of the issue, the importance of the issue is so great that I think it's worth people potentially having a crack, or dedicating their career to trying to make progress on this issue, knowing that there's a high probability that they won't succeed, but that if they do make progress, that it would just be extremely valuable.
So, I guess we do face this trade-off between: we can do things for our family; I can do things for my housemates that I can be pretty confident has made their life better; but kind of the scale of the benefit there in terms of the number of people affected and how much they benefit just is obviously a lot lower than preventing nuclear war. Whereas if I go for the nuclear war thing, well, the benefit is very large, but it's extremely uncertain what is going to be beneficial. It's very easy for your actions to backfire and make things worse.
But, I think on balance, if you want to help the largest number of people in the biggest way possible, you're better off trying to do something along the lines of preventing nuclear war--trying to find out something like that, that's a good fit for you. And, then just trying to do your best in what is admittedly an extremely difficult situation. What do you make of that?
Russ Roberts: Well, it's a good argument. The problem I have with it is that it can be summed up in the two words: Political Science. I don't know who it was that put the word 'science' after 'political.' I know of a thinker who used to call it 'political--science,' meaning--putting it in scare quotes or sarcasm.
And, we know it's not a science. We all agree with that. It's an art, as you say, or a craft.
But, let's think about the informational side of this. So, if I have to figure out what the biggest problems facing the world are, that's an informationally challenging problem, but can I get started on that pretty quickly, right? And, we've made a list, impromptu, you and I had this conversation: hunger, starvation, poverty, war, cruelty, climate issues, environmental issues--
Rob Wiblin: Development of new weapons--
Russ Roberts: animal welfare, human. It's a long list, but it's not that long. Right? It's not that long. We'd all agree that on many of those--maybe not every single one, but on many of those, some progress would be a good thing. Some progress. Even if you couldn't solve it,
Just ask yourself--well, let's take the China example. That's a great example. I agree with you very much that reducing the risk of a military confrontation with China is a really good idea. I have to say, I don't know where I'd begin to start to think about that and how to actually achieve that. If I devoted my life to Political Science--which I think would be a mistake, even though I respect many of my friends in the field--but for me, it would be a mistake. But let's say I was passionate about that: I agreed with you; I think it's a central problem; and, I want to be aware of the unintended consequences. So, I have to study history and I have to study past failures. I have to understand how political preferences of citizens aggregate. And, this is just the United States, by the way, forget the fact that I also have to master Chinese culture, Chinese politics, Chinese decision-making, which are not the same as ours. All those are going to be a little bit different, maybe a lot different. I mean, that's a lifetime just to get started.
Rob Wiblin: That's why you need a community of people. It's an unfathomably large problem for one person, but by the time you properly understood the issue and had any idea about what you should do next, then your career would already be over. But, I think, if you do have hundreds of people, thousands of people, then you can have some of them spend their time thinking about what is it that we ought to do, studying all of that history, who then write papers or write blog posts that then guide the actions of other people who are more practitioners, who are more in the government, forming policy regarding China; and then potentially they can do a better job and on the margin change the risk of a conflict with China and make it slightly lower.
To some extent, that's the whole reason why we have the effective altruism community and 80000 Hours as a project advising people, is that if you just left people to themselves, they'd have to do all of this research for themselves upfront to try to figure out what are the most pressing problems in the world and which ones are solvable and which ones aren't. And, potentially by pooling our resources and having dedicated people, kind of like me, who try to look into these issues and develop at least a bit of expertise across a few of them, then we can have a research resource that people can turn to, that they can guide them. And, they could potentially make career decisions on a human timescale--within years or 10 years, rather than 50 years when they've already retired.
Russ Roberts: So, I like that point. I think that's a great point, that you need to leverage the knowledge and wisdom of other people.
The challenge is knowing which ones to follow and listen to. You could make the argument--I think it's a bad argument--but you could make the argument that you really shouldn't worry about China: it's not your job, you're not good at it, too much time to master it. That's why we have the State Department in the United States. That's their job.
Now, I mean, that's a reasonable argument. And, I think most people throughout human history live their life that way. 'Oh, that problem, the experts, the elite, they'll fix it, they'll take care of it.' We know, of course, that the State Department and the equivalent bodies outside the United States have failed numerous times and made things worse, as you point out. I know you can see that the law of unintended consequences is as large.
But, the real problem, by the way, isn't just so much that the world is complicated. It's that plus the fact that the people in the State Department have a whole different set of incentives that aren't mine, right? They're not out there trying to figure out what's best for Russ Roberts or Rob Wiblin. They're often worried about what's best for them.
And, I don't think there's a better artful portrayal of this than the TV show The Wire. The Wire, at least the first season--first couple of seasons, especially the first season--the first season of The Wire is about the drug war in Baltimore, Maryland. It's about the fight between the police who are trying to stop drugs from getting to drug users and trying to stop drug dealers from successfully serving their customers, and those drug dealers trying to do their job and do what they think is going to be best for them to make a living.
And, both sides end up morally complicated because they care about their promotion or they care about--the police are not the heroes; the drug dealers are not the villains. But, there's some really heroic police officers and some really villainous drug dealers, just like in real life. And, vice versa: there's some horrible policemen and some drug dealers who are just trying to scrape by and help their family. It is a morally complex show that shows the complexity of those kinds of interactions.
And, I think about, oh I don't need to worry about the drug war, I'll just let the police figure that out. Oh, boy. Is that a bad idea in my view? Others think, 'Absolutely. Yeah, of course. They're the experts, they're really good at it, let them solve it.'
And, of course, I mention that because I don't use drugs; I don't take drugs other than caffeine, big fan of caffeine, but I don't use recreational drugs, so-called recreational drugs. I like penicillin, and antibiotics, also. But, I don't use recreational drugs. But I think people should be free to choose their own, what they ingest. I don't think the government should be involved in that.
And, part of the reason--besides the fact that I think it's important to treat human beings as adults and not as children. But the other part is that giving power to people with guns, to give them the right to break into people's homes to look for these things that we've decided, some people have decided, are not good for you is a really bad set of incentives that gets unleashed. And, I know you probably don't disagree with that. But, I think it captures the challenge of this sort of elite class or educated class that I'm going to leverage.
One more example and then I'll shut up. Sorry, I rambled on here. But, we're at the end of August in 2020 having this conversation. And, the two biggest things going on in the United States right now in the public eye--obviously you'll understand and could argue that the biggest thing going on in my life right now is my relationship with my wife; given the way we've been talking, it's not irrelevant. But, the biggest public challenge--and I get along with my wife, we have a great marriage, I like to think, don't want to get people alarmed. But, the biggest public challenge we have--there's two of them that are in the news constantly right now--it's racial relations, particularly the role of the police in urban areas in the United States. And, the second is the pandemic, the coronavirus. I have a lot of trouble--I'm a pretty educated person; I spend way too much time consuming information about these two things--I have a lot of trouble figuring out what's going on. And, that's just these two things. And, I think that's--by the way, it used to be the case that people knew what was going on. They were often wrong.
Rob Wiblin: Mm, yeah.
Russ Roberts: There was a received wisdom from elites or educated folks or experts. And, a lot of times that was just wrong. Sometimes it was self-centered, the kind of corruption I'm implicitly talking about here that people serve themselves rather than some larger good in their role as members of the elite.
But, now it's just like, I don't even know--there is no consensus anymore about what's going on. There's two consensus, one on each side of the ideological divide, one on each side of the partisan divide, one on each side of the political divide. And, if you said to me, 'Oh, come on think, let's figure it out. Let's figure out what's really going on.' I'd say, 'I don't know where to start.' It's so hard.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, I think that's a good reason to specialize when you're trying to do good. If you try to follow every pressing problem in the world then you're going to end up properly understanding none of them, and not being able to make decisions about what's going to be helpful. But, if you spend decades trying to understand pandemics and preparing for a moment like this one, then potentially you do have expertise staffing, and you can suggest things that will help to reduce the pandemic at better than even odds.
Just taking a step back for a second, I think it's interesting that to make all these arguments about, oh, how hard some of these problems are, how it affects--how easy it is to have unintended consequences or how hard it is to know even where to begin on ways that you could improve something like international relations between the United States and China.
Interestingly, there is quite a big school of thought within effective altruism that kind of takes that view and thinks that they will make the same criticisms of what I think that people should do, that you are.
And, then they tend to fall back and say, 'Well, but at least we can work on global health, say.' At least we can have some confidence that we can save lives in the developing world, or increase people's incomes just by giving them cash, or potentially we could invent alternatives to meat that then people will eat that instead and factory farming will become a smaller industry.
They point to other things that they feel, they have more confidence that they're going to be able to have an impact, because they think that things like international relations, preventing nuclear war, shaping the development of new technologies--that's just too hard. That's beyond the scope of human understanding, to have a predictable influence. It's interesting: I can imagine you as part of as in the effective altruism community, but just so pessimistic about one's ability to predict one's actions that you've gone beyond that where you're not [?eat well?]. I guess [?] don't know where you would stand on donating to global health or going to pursue a career in improving health in really poor countries.
Russ Roberts: Let's take an example from that, and that's really an interesting way to think about it. And I--you won't be surprised, Rob: I don't think those people are right, either. But, let's try to think through why I think that, or why that's my first thought. Maybe I'll change my mind by the end of the conversation. And, my job is to get you to shut down 80,000 Hours to become a gardener, because I think gardening is--no, I'm kidding.
Rob Wiblin: Just because[?] of my housemates.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. You should just spend your time serving those people you live with.
Let me take an interesting--so, let's take alcohol, let's take drink--whiskey, beer, wine, etc. So, I like to drink. I'll have a scotch maybe once or twice a week. I'll sometimes have wine with dinner.
A lot of people think wine and alcohol is really bad for you. Some people think it's good in moderation. Most people are pretty agreed that it's bad in excess.
So, let's say you have a friend who's an alcoholic and you've watched his life fall apart. His wife's left him. His kids won't talk to him. He's on the street because he can't handle alcohol. What do you do for that person?
Now in that situation, I'm trying to leverage, trying to flesh out the way I've been thinking about information in our conversation. That person's a stranger, right? If I meet a homeless person on the street with alcohol on their breath and who appears to be having a hard time, my ability to help that person is pretty small. So, I give him money. I'll give him a dollar, not a lot of money. Maybe I should give them more, but I'll give him a dollar. And, I understand that they'll probably use it to drink. Somebody will say, 'Hey, you should give them food.' Well, that just means they'll take the money they were going to spend on food and spend it on alcohol now. So, giving them food is not as morally, obviously a good thing as giving them money.
And my view is: giving them money shows a sign of respect for them as a human being. It says, I'm not going to treat you like a child. I'm going to let you be autonomous, have agency and responsibility, even though you may not use it in a way that I think is good. And, that in some sense you might yourself struggle with because you have an issue with alcohol.' But I don't know how to do much for that person. So, I just give them money and that's probably the best I can do. And, you could argue, I shouldn't even give them money.
Now, I would make a contrast between that person and a close friend or a brother or a sister who is struggling with those issues, because I might have a much better understanding of where they've been and where they could go. And, I might be more forceful in my intervention with them besides given them money. I'd certainly treat them differently than I would a stranger.
And, then you can step back one more level and say--so let's take the alcoholic issue in the case of a family member. I might not only not serve alcoholic at meals where that family member was at. I might even--this would be a little hard--but I might go to their house and help them make their house alcohol-free. I might do it against their will, if I love them and thought enough about my own confidence that this was good for them.
That wouldn't be an easy thing for me to do as a classical liberal, but I might do that. But I would never do that at the national level. Right? I would never do that at the international level because of the law of unintended consequences, because of all the things we talked about before with the drug war and other things. Even though I understand that even at the personal level, my intervention with a family member might have unintended consequences and might damage my relationship with them. It's complicated, a different micro-textural way. But, it's hard to know how to think about: if I specialize in this and I try to devote my life to it at a large level, it's not obvious that the things that work at the small level are things that work at the large--well, I know they're not the same. It doesn't work that way.
There's a certain kind of an inherent complexity. And, it's partly because I don't have the information I need at the national level to make it work. I don't have the detail of how to structure it. Right?
So, for example, with my, and I'm thinking I'll [?] apologize on--this is not such a logical narrative, but we'll get there, maybe. With a sibling or a friend I might decide to vary my response depending on their relative situation that day. At the national level, it's such a blunter, more blunt type of intervention. That's why I can't tailor it.
So, again, to me, a lot of these problems that we're talking about argue for a more nuanced, customized solution that could never be implemented in a grand way, and could only be implemented in a local way, and sometimes even in a family way. So, I think that's another part of this problem of information.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think--I would completely agree with you in the case where you're comparing helping a family member, or a friend who is struggling with alcoholism versus a stranger in your country who is struggling with alcoholism. In that case, it just seems far more tractable to try to help the person who you already know. You're far more likely to succeed and that's good reason to do it.
I guess that the global health people, I think, would argue that the trade off that we actually faced is something more like deciding whether to help a friend who has alcoholism or a stranger who really needs a measles vaccine, or a stranger who has a bacterial infection and just needs antibiotics that are really cheap to buy for them. They've tried to find remaining issues in the developing world where it does actually seem like there are fixes that can be scaled without having that deep local knowledge. Of course, they do work with local partners to understand the specific situation, but we kind of think that antibiotics help to cure bacterial infections most of the time in most places. It's not super-contextual. And, also just the people over there are so much poorer than other people in your country, in almost all cases, that there's things that they can't buy for themselves that really would be very helpful for them.
Russ Roberts: So, that's a great--thanks for bringing me back to what the real question was. I'd totally forgotten by the time I was musing about my siblings' alcoholsim problems, although they don't have any. I just want to say that publicly. Those of you who know my brother and sister, I think they're fine.
But, I think, again, the where we have a couple of challenge is, one is that the deworming example is a sobering example. That was thought to be a clear public health issue that maybe is more complicated.
Rob Wiblin: Just on the deworming one. Yeah, so there was one study early on it from the 1990s, early 2000s that showed extraordinarily positive results from deworming on income and, and educational achievements.
Russ Roberts: Education, yeah.
Rob Wiblin: I think anyone who really understood statistics or social science would have looked at that and said, 'Well, you know, maybe that's an interesting piece of evidence and it's cool that they did that research. And, there's a good reason to go out and try it again.' Or even, that 'This might fall through or especially if we did it again, because this had such an unusually large positive effect, we would expect that if we did it again, the positive effect that we would find, or the effect we would find will be a lot smaller. But, given that we have this clue, this suggested piece of evidence that the impact might be very good, while we're doing follow-up studies to find out whether this really does pan out, maybe we should start doing more deworming in the meantime'
And, it's interesting: GiveWell is known for having recommended the schistosomiasis control initiative, which does deworming on a big scale in many countries. Something that people don't remember from their recommendation is that they said in their suggestion to donate, 'There's a good probability, there's a high probability that the impact that this has is much smaller than what's suggested in that study and it might even be nothing.' Or, like, there's actually a decent chance that this will just not replicate and in fact, that it won't have any impact at all. Because they've been--these are people who have been through lots of studies and just seen how often things don't pan out when you try to replicate them or try to scale them up.
But, they said: It's so cheap and if it does work, and they said there's a 20% chance that it does work like this and there's another 20% chance that it has a smaller impact--if you do the expected value calculation, given how cheap it is, and given that doesn't really have negative side effects, we think it's good value in expectation, even though there's a good chance that it has no impact at all.
And, I think that's a reasonable way to make decisions. And, in the meantime, you do want to do followup studies to try to see: is this one of the best buys in global health, or is it that a bad initial study was mistaken for some reason? Perhaps they didn't randomize it properly or whatever else. It just seems a kind of sensible way to approach things. And, you're always going to be groping through the darkness, trying to make the best guesses with hazy evidence. But, I think that's a reasonable way to approach kind of global health and that sort of medical research.
Russ Roberts: So, I have a lot of thoughts on that. I'm not sure how to organize, a moment. We could spend the rest of the time just on that.
But, I actually want to pick on a much--tiny little part of that, which is that, you said, 'Actually, their recommendation was much more nuanced and tentative, and it was more like, maybe.'
What's interesting to me is that, that isn't the way it was conveyed. It wasn't conveyed that way to my consciousness. Now, maybe I misread it. Maybe I failed to read between the lines or the footnotes or whatever. But, I remember it being more like: This is a no-brainer. And it might not have been GiveWell that was making that no-brainer claim. It might have been people who were just--maybe it was bed-net manufacturers who were, excuse me, deworming pill makers.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, Big Deworming.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, it's interesting. This is a separate issue we haven't talked about yet, but it is an interesting phenomenon that I think as human beings, we really like certainty. And we're prone to overestimate the confidence that we should have in these kind of findings and conclusions. I remember--my memory might be wrong--but memory is that GiveWell said, 'Here are the three charities you should give to.' Period. It wasn't like, 'Here's our other 100 that might be good at different areas.' It was like, 'Here's the three.' Or maybe it was two. And, of course, 'That's so good: I don't have to think about it much; I can just flip a coin even between the two. I'll split my money and give half to one, half to the other.'
But, it's an interesting side-point that we consume these things with great difficulty--because we like certainty. And, so even if you mention the caveats, it's hard to remember them when it comes time to make a decision.
Rob Wiblin: I mean, there's a lot of different effects that push in that direction. Yet, one thing is you forget the nuance and the subtlety, and you just remember the recommendation. And, then when you repeat it to other people, you don't have that long. So, you just say, 'Oh, it's definitely due deworming.'
And, then there's also kind of that the marketing thing--I think GiveWell are pretty scrupulous: their pages really do lay out all the evidence and they try to be very careful in how they word things. But, then there's other groups that start pushing it, and perhaps they care less about bringing in all of the caveats and all of the uncertainty. And, so people hear that message and maybe they think that giving them a confident message will encourage people to give more. So, there's a bit of a tendency in that direction.
I think people are--the general public is beginning to realize that scientific research, social science research, medical research is perhaps not as consistently reliable as they thought, or at least as the media used to portray. And, people are becoming more skeptic. And I think that's a positive thing. But--
Russ Roberts: A lot of people don't agree, Rob. A lot of people disagree. They think this is really dangerous, because if it's going to make people think that there's no such thing as science, and then next thing you know, they're not going to believe in evolution. And, then next thing you know--I don't know what the next thing you're going to know is. They're not going to teach you [?]. I think it's more worrisome. I think that those people are more worried that people are going to become religious fanatics. But, I think that's a fascinating--
Rob Wiblin: I think the real problem is people trusting something too much. And, then they're let down when it can't deliver on these excessive promises.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree.
Rob Wiblin: I think if people--natural sciences, medicine, social science, all of these things can deliver understanding and knowledge within reason. Sometimes. They can provide us with some knowledge and guidance.
But, you don't want to trust them too much. You want to also give weight to common sense and your priors and look at a big body of literature, consider what the other fields have to say about this. It's all about aggregating lots of different pieces of evidence because you just so rarely get any one smack-down piece of evidence in those domains. It's not like physics.
Russ Roberts: I'm not sure. I think physicists [?physicians?] say, it looks like physics.
Rob Wiblin: [?]. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have [?]--
Russ Roberts: It's not the way we think about physics. We think about physics as truth and falsity. It's all very black and white. It probably isn't.
Rob Wiblin: It's not our fantasy about physics, yeah?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It's such a--maybe let's push into the section about empirical research. We've spent quite a bit of time on the effective altruism and I think we've reached--well, we've found that we agree maybe more than we thought.
Russ Roberts: Ye p, I agree. And, I love what you just said. I thought that was very well summarized. And I agree with it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, studying economics and then afterwards doing this job where I have to look into evidence and scrutinize claims and see whether, you know, advocates are really telling the truth: Like you, I've become more pessimistic about what empirical research shows.
But, interestingly, I think I've also over time become more skeptical about careful theory and reasoning. And, I guess if I think about that there's different ways you can try to understand the world, right? It's your prior beliefs and kind of common sense of reasoning and intuitions. Then a second one might be careful theorizing and reasoning about a problem, kind of economic micro-economic textbook. And, then the third one would be these formal empirical research: just let the data speak.
I think all of these have had major problems. Common sense is sometimes just completely off base. You can build elaborate theories that just don't resemble reality at all. Randomized controlled trials can be done improperly and there's lots of just incredibly low quality empirical research.
One thing I'm suggesting is I feel you pick on the empirical research a lot. And, I'd be interested to hear you talk more about doubts that you have about theory and about common sense. And, maybe try to weigh up the weaknesses that all of these different approaches have, rather than focusing on just the weaknesses of empirical research in particular.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'll start with a confession since I haven't done much of that in this conversation. So, a lot of times I see empirical work and I go, 'That doesn't even pass the sniff test for me.' And, the sniff test is like common sense, right? It's exactly what you're talking about. It's like when I do a little armchair theorizing about this, it's just not plausible that, say, when people hear the word 'Florida,' they think of senior citizens and therefore they walk more slowly--to pick on a particular psychological study that I thought never pass the sniff test. This idea that when people hear words associated with the elderly, they move more slowly. When you look at the data in that study--people tried to replicate it. They couldn't.
So, it was clear, in my view, it was a mistake. It was not science. It wasn't truth. It was just a particular finding not reliable. Not something you could count on. This is a so-called framing problem.
So, that didn't pass the sniff test for me. It seemed implausible to start with. When you looked at the magnitudes, they weren't plausible. So, I think I have a really good nose. After a while, I start to think a lot of these studies that I didn't believe in fact, didn't hold up when subject to replication and testing. So, I start to think, 'I'm really good at the sniff thing. I got really good common sense.' And, I think it's possible that there are people who have better common sense, better intuition, better drugs with than others.
But, at the same time, I'm aware that, I maybe I overestimate my sniff ability and I'm going to give you an example.
So, there's a famous study, which I'm not going to describe in exact detail, but it's a test of perception. It asks you--many listeners will have read about this or actually seen it. And, I suggest you go to YouTube. Rob, you can put up a link I'm sure to this actual experiment. It's an experiment about counting. You have to watch a bunch of people playing basketball and they pass the basketball around among themselves and you're supposed to count how many passes they make. It turns out that after you've done that you may have missed something that also happened in the video besides basketball passes. I'm not going to mention what it is, so you could go do this yourself.
And, when I read about that study, I'm thinking, 'You know, I don't think that's really plausible. Would you really not see that because you're so focused on counting the basketball passes?' And, then again, I remember I thought, 'Didn't I try that the first time and didn't I--wasn't I fooled? I'm not sure. Oh, I wouldn't have been fooled. That's ridiculous.' So, I'm thinking that in my head, right? I'm thinking--because when you go and watch the video the second time then you already know about what you're supposed to look for, you see it right away. And, so maybe that's just a place where my sniff test was right as usual. 'This is absurd. Nobody really is fooled by this.'
So, the other day I was--I live in Maryland. It's really warm here this summer. And I keep a fan in my office, but occasionally I move it out onto the back porch because I'm sitting outside, it's warm out there; but we're sitting outside having lunch, say, my wife and I, and I have the fan going.
So, the other day I wanted to get the fan and I went to the end of my office to get it because it wasn't on the back porch and I couldn't find it. And, I said to my wife, 'Have you seen the fan?' Because there are only two places to have it. It's either on the back porch or it's at my office. And, she said, 'Well, I think it's over there.' And, we know we're over there was? It was right in front of the door to the back porch. So when I came off the back porch, I actually had--it's a big fan, by the way. It's a stand-up, six-foot tall fan--I had to go around it. Literally. It's not like, 'Oh, I could see it.' I had to avoid, I didn't walk into it. I avoided it successfully on my quest to the office to pick it up.
And, when I got to the office, I didn't see it. I said to my wife, 'Where is it?' And, I had literally almost banged into it. And, I had seen it clearly with my eyes, but I never perceived it.
So, that experience has gotten me to be a little bit more skeptical about the power of common sense, and my sniff test, and armchair theorizing.
So, in truth, I think all those things are valuable. I think--after that long story which you enjoyed--all those things are important. It's important to have a framework for thinking about the world to help you organize your thinking, organize the facts--that's called theory--because the world's complicated. There's a lot of stuff going on and you can't absorb and process everything. And, either way you think about what you should be processing, what you should be thinking about. What's important?
So, theory is important--or worldview, or a framework, or a lens. At the same time, common sense is important. The lessons you've learned from life and things that can't be measured or easily quantified, and then facts are really important, too.
So, for all my skepticism about empirical research, I have never claimed that facts are irrelevant. Facts are huge; and science underlies 99.9% of the things that make our life pleasant. My iPhone, this conversation, the ability to podcast--they're all the results of science, and the analytical approach and the use of empirical data and studies. So, I never want people to think that, 'Oh, he just thinks anything goes.' It doesn't. A lot of these are ridiculous and facts can disprove them, they're just[?] really important.
So, certainly all three things matter. But, even when you combine all three--I guess part of my lesson and approach is to say, 'Well, you should still be somewhat agnostic about what you know, and you don't, and be aware what you don't know. Is that what you asked me?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, kind of. I think--in my head I have these different dials of the different kinds of evidence and I try to kind of like weight them appropriately. And, I guess sometimes you end up in a situation where you're just like, 'Well, common sense isn't going to be very reliable here and theory probably won't work either, and empirical information is also kind of bad.' And, then you're like, 'Well, I guess I'm giving equal weight to all of them,' and the end result is going to be I'm going to be pretty agnostic because I'm just not going to be able to figure this out because all of these sources of evidence too unreliable.
I feel like you brought down the empirial research thing. And, I wonder whether--you talk a lot, for example, about how a macroeconomics is not a science and we just don't really have very reliable knowledge in macroeconomics at all, because it's based so much on theoretical reasoning. But then there's other cases where you really do put a lot of weight on theory. And I wonder whether you've fully thought through about whether it's consistent.
Actually, a neat example here is the minimum wage. So, there's, two things here. One is that for many people, they have a common sense notion that increasing the minimum wage will increase the incomes of poor people, which is, I think a common sense that you think is mistaken. So you're not super keen on the minimum wage.
And, then we've got--kind of the economic theory would suggest that increasing the minimum wage will increase unemployment among people who are earning low salaries.
And, then we've got some formal, empirical research in the United States suggesting that maybe in fact it doesn't cause people to lose their jobs all that much.
But, I think, when this has come up on EconTalk before, how you talked quite a lot about how you don't really trust the empirical research suggesting that increasing the minimum wage doesn't cause disemployment effects. But, do you also think that maybe you should place a bit less weight on common sense? Because--well, to agree with you, you're arguing that we should, to some extent, throw out most people's common sense on this issue to begin with. And, then maybe also just we should trust economic theory, macroeconomic theory a little bit less. Not assume that's spitting out the right answer, just because, in general, people are bad at doing theoretical reasoning and figuring out whether arguments are right. And, especially figuring out whether they translate to the real world. [More to come, 1:17:38]
Russ Roberts: So, there's a lot there. And, I'm going to try to remember a bunch of things I want to clarify, and then I'll try to answer your question. First, I don't like macroeconomics, not because the theories are complex, but because I think the--or too mathematical. I think it's because the data are not detailed enough. And, I don't think the aggregate ways that we look at the world using microeconomics are reliable enough.
On the point about the minimum wage and common sense: Absolutely, the minimum wage can raise the wages of low-income people. Just not enough of them. That's the crucial question, right? So, I don't disagree with that point: that, if you keep your job after the minimum wage is increased, it can be good for your income. Assuming you don't have to work a lot harder. And, assuming you're not, then, giving up, say, training that was going to be given to you before.
So, it is a little more complicated than maybe the common sense thought it is. But, certainly I think that the idea that the raise in minimum wage has helped some workers is a hundred percent true, at least in the financial sense. The real question is: At what costs?
So, I want to come to that, but before I do, can I backtrack for a minute?
Rob Wiblin: Sure.
Russ Roberts: Because, you said there are three things we use to make decisions. There's common sense; there's empirical analysis; and there's theory.
There's a fourth way we use to make decisions, and it's out of fashion, which is: Tradition. We used to say, 'Should I have a child or not?' Most people through most of human history would say, 'It's not a decision. Of course, you should have children.' It's not even in the choice set, if you're married, of course you should try. You may not be able to biologically, but of course, being a parent--it's what you do. Your religion tells you to, your family, your parents.
So, we have unmoored a lot of our decisions from those traditional ways of thinking. You have to [?] interesting conversation about whether those traditional ways of thinking represent the wisdom of crowds or the stupidity of crowds.
But, many of us in modern times have said, 'I don't truck with that. It's not my--I don't believe in tradition. I don't believe in authority. I don't believe in those kind of norms. I'm just going to make my own decisions for myself using those other three things that you mentioned.'
So, I just want to mention that because I just think that's interesting.
But, to go back to the minimum wage: So, here's the problem. The problem is there's probably been--not probably. There have been hundreds of studies of the impact of the minimum wage on employment. I do want to emphasize that unemployment is not the only thing we care about. It's weird that that's the thing that we've relentlessly focused on. And you know why? We've focused on it because you don't just want what the person--
Rob Wiblin: Measurable--
Russ Roberts: Yep, measurable. A person has a job or doesn't. Not exactly, because you can have 0.7 of a job if you only work a certain number of hours. But in general, it's somewhat observable how the impact of the minimum wage on hours of work and whether you have a job or not.
So, that's what we've focused on. We have not focused on the other things I mentioned--whether your boss is nice to you on the job, whether you get training, whether it leads to other opportunities, and so on. So, those that are harder to measure, tend to be ignored.
Put that to the side for the moment. It's still the case that there've been hundreds of studies on whether the minimum wage increases or decreases employment or leaves it unchanged.
Early days of that literature, meaning 1950s, 1960s to about early 1990s, that evidence overwhelming. The minimum wage has a big negative effect on the employment opportunities of low-skilled workers.
Since then, it's more mixed, but there are a lot of studies that say, 'No.' It doesn't hurt him hardly at all, if at all.'
And, now the question is, do I say, 'Okay. Why is that change different?' Is it because there's something fundamentally different about the American economy? Possible. Or is it because there's something fundamentally different about the people doing the studies? Also possible.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Or is the data--etc.
Now, the people who advocate on this issue tend to make the claim that, 'Well, we have new kinds of data. It's not just that we have new studies, we have better data.' And, I would argue that's probably not true. But, I think there's an interesting case to be made that the minimum wage question is more open than it was, say, in 1970, when I think it was, quote, "open and shut."
Now, confronted with that reality--the fact that there are more studies now lately that tend to show that it's relatively harmless, although again, there are many that show that it's still harmful to the people it's trying to help, the lower skilled people. Then I have to[?] ask the question, 'Okay, so let's suppose you're right. Let's suppose that the minimum wage studies are better now because they have better data, better econometric techniques, better empirical analysis, and I'm going to ignore, let's say, all the other things[?] that I raised a minute ago are really relevant about training, and how you're treated on the job, and so on, and in fact that the economy is different in everything. People don't respond to those incentives the way they used, to employers don't. So, that's a common claim.
And, I look at that and I say, 'Well, what about all the other claims that you make,' same person, 'about how employers respond?' So, the people who tend to think that the minimum wage is a really good idea and who argue that the empirical work supports that claim because it shows that firms don't respond as negatively as often you might think, they also claimed that firms relentlessly pursue profit and will move a business to Asia in a minute, or to Mexico, to save a little bit of money. That is, they're very sensitive, in this worldview, to the wages that they have to pay. And, if they think the wages are too high here, they're going to move. They're going to move their factory or plant to Mexico, or Indonesia, or China. And, yet somehow, when the minimum wage goes up, they don't respond?
So, I find that troubling. That's a case where that kind of evidence about how, say, what motivates a firm, or how firms respond to change in the environment, I'm going to use some of that intuition from those examples in both cases. And, I think that's a problem.
So, that's, I would say, the way I ground my skepticism.
Now, I have to say, that as a non-interventionist generally, and a person who likes free markets, I'm extremely biased in favor of free markets. I'm going to be naturally prone to disregarding evidence that goes against my worldview, and I just did that.
So, I have to take that claim with a grain of salt and my own skepticism that maybe it's not really motivated by looking at the data, and looking at the evidence, and weighing the common sense versus the empirical analysis versus the theory. Maybe it's just my philosophical outlook imposing a conclusion that's biased. But, it could be true of the other people, too. So, you know, it's hard to know.
Rob Wiblin: All right, let's turn to a different example, a more maybe practical day-to-day example that people might be used to. I think last year, you and Julia Galef had this conversation on Twitter about how much we should use empirical research when deciding whether to have kids.
She suggested she would really love to see this study run where you recruited 10,000 people who are unsure if they wanted to have kids, then you asked them a bunch of questions like, 'Do you enjoy being around kids? Are you already enjoying your life?' What do you think of the pros and cons of having kids?
And, then 20 years later, you followed up and asked, 'Did you have kids? And, are you glad whether you did?' And, then, you looked at, say, the relationship between those questions about whether they expected to enjoy kids and whether they were already enjoying their life and their satisfaction with their decision to have kids. And, you--yeah, you hated this idea.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I was skeptical.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do you want to explain why you think that just wouldn't be helpful in making a decision?
Russ Roberts: Well, it's an interesting example now, given our previous conversation, because one way to think about it is, over the next 20 years, you'll wait for this data to come out, and then when you're 45, you'll know whether you should have kids or not, and then maybe it's too late.
Or, worse: It turns out everybody had kids, didn't like it so much, but by the time 20 years have passed there are all these wonderful policies in place to make it easier to have kids, or more pleasant to have kids, or the world has changed.
Rob Wiblin: We've invented external wombs. You don't even have to get pregnant anymore.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Who knows? So, that's relevant, given our previous conversation
But, the other things I think are more interesting, which have to do with just trying to measure satisfaction or happiness. We want to think of happiness as a--in math, we call it a scalar, a number. Seven. Seven on a scale of 1 to 10.
Like, if you ask me right now, 'How glad are you that you have four children?' Actually, I would say 11 on a scale of one to 10. But some people might, if they were honest, and that's one of the challenges of survey data--are people really going to be honest to the surveyor person to answer the questions? Are they going to be honest with themselves? Do they really want to admit that it was a terrible mistake to have kids? Do they really want to--who knows whether that's honest or now? But, inevitably in a survey like that, it's either--often, not always, you can make it a little more nuanced--but it's often a yes/no question. Are you glad you had kids? Or, on a scale of one to 10, how happy are you that you had kids?
And, I would argue that that sterility of reducing something as complicated as being a parent to a number--it's not so much trying to measure, it's that what you're trying to measure is so much more complicated than a point estimate like that, a scalar, a single number.
It's a giant--in fact, it's a giant matrix. There are some glorious things about having children and some not so glorious things. And, fundamentally, I believe that the reason most people are glad that they had kids has nothing to do with day-to-day satisfaction and what they put on a scale of one to 10. It has to do with their identity: who they became after they had children. For me, that's the essence of that decision. It's not like, 'Oh, was it worth it? All those diapers you changed, the vomit you cleaned up. The whining, the wailing, the tragedy, the wounds, the stitches.' There's a lot of negatives. 'The carpooling.' Those are the negatives, okay?
Then you have the glorious highs, the wondrous things, the deep satisfactions, the emotional joy that you feel, and delight in having children. It's not about comparing those two things. It just isn't what it's about. It's about who you've become.
And, so, to me, the whole idea of the survey--now, I don't want to totally denigrate the idea of a survey. I think there is a survey. It's called literature. There's an enormous amount of evidence about what it's like to be a parent in the world's literature. In the poems, in the plays, in the fiction. So, if you want to find out what it's like to be a parent, you have no hope, by the way, none, if you're not a parent now. You have no way of knowing. But, if you want to get a taste of it, instead of babysitting, which gives you a little bit of a taste, you'd be better off reading books about people who are parents. And, I don't mean non-fictional accounts. Fictional accounts that try to distill that identity change that I'm talking about.
So, I don't think L.A. Paul--you mentioned her at the beginning of our conversation, a guest I had on EconTalk. She has a wonderful book called Transformative Experiences, where she compares a lot of these choices to the choice to become a vampire--tongue in cheek--but it's quite a useful way to think about it.
Before you're a vampire, vampiring looks vile and disgusting. After you're a vampire, it looks fantastic. What were you doing before, out the daytime all the time? Vampiring is wonderful. Sleeping in a coffin is delightful.
I'm a very dated vampire, as vampires go. I go back to the original Bram Stoker's Dracula version. I'm sure Twilight and others have more sophisticated versions of vampires. So, I'm probably making a fool of myself.
But, but the point is, is that until you've made the leap, you can't know what it's like, and therefore you are in the darkness. You are facing irreducible uncertainty. And, so if you've never had kids before and you look at parents hauling around diaper bags, and driving a minivan, and having lousy vacations because they can't go anywhere without their kids, and therefore they have to choose some options that you'd never choose if you didn't have kids--childless people look at parents and are like, 'Well, I don't want to ever be that.'
And, then, parents somehow look back at those childless people and say, 'Boy, I'm sure glad I left that state behind.'
Now, it could be both sides are fooling themselves, but my guess is that both sides are both correct. Before you've had kids, it doesn't look appealing, and after you have kids, it looks pretty good. And, now what?
Are you going to be one of those people before you have kids who turns into one of those people who is satisfied, even though ex-ante, even before the fact, looking ahead, it looks miserable to you? What do you do?
Rob Wiblin: So, those all seem like good reasons to put less weight on this study. And, I think it would be insane to take a study like this, a survey of a bunch of people, and then decide whether to have kids based just on that. But, I've got to say I don't have kids myself, and I think I would find this study helpful to some extent, especially if there was a striking result where you found that the answers to some questions were, like, 'Are you already enjoying your life,' or 'what are the main things that you enjoy doing now,' or 'do you already enjoy being around kids?' If one of those had a really strong correlation with then[?] how much people liked, how much they enjoyed having kids ex-post, then I think that could help give me some idea of what reference class am I in? Am I in the reference class of people who say that they are super glad that they had kids and they have no regrets? Or maybe I'm more in the class of people who, say, have more of a mixed response. Who are like, 'Well, it made my life better in some ways and I really value my kids, but there was also some significant downsides.'
But, before we go to that, in the interview with L.A. Paul, you said this: 'Not everyone should have children, not everyone can, of course, but for those who can, it's a good idea because it's part of the human experience. It's something to experience. And, you could argue that it's harmful. You could argue that you might not like it, but it's part of what most people through human history have experienced; and it will change you. You'll explore it, and you'll become a new person.'
I guess, not to be facetious, but it seems like most people through history were also farmers, say, and many of them got smallpox and things like that, and those experiences also changed them. But, I doubt you would say that that kind of demonstrates that it's good to be a farmer, or to get smallpox, or to have all of these other negative experiences that were, for almost all of history, part of the human experience.
So, yeah, why does something being part of the common historical experience show that it's a good thing to do, or usually a good thing to do?
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm going to try to answer that, but I want to go back to your point about, you'd learned something from that survey about the reference class, because I remember when that Twitter discussion was going on and somebody said to me, 'Well, if it turned out that 92% of their parents were satisfied and glad they had kids that would tell you something.'
Well, what it would tell you is that 92% of the people who answered that survey answered it with a yes--assuming it was accurately transcribed, there weren't errors, etc. And, you forgot about the fact to ask, often when you see all that headline, you forgot to ask, 'I wonder, who did the survey? When they asked the reference group, how many things did they include? Did they exclude anything? Were some of those correlations just random given that they had so many variables and all they did was eventually, by definition, you're going to find at least 5% that are just purely random?' So, I would caution you there on that issue.
But, on this human experience thing, I hadn't thought about it. That was just my first thought. It's a great point to challenge because I'm not a big fan of smallpox. But I do think it's interesting that a lot of people would argue, you should be a farmer. You should, for example, be close to your food. It's a better world. It was a better world when we were close to nature, close to the ground, and we had to see the animals we killed, for example, and therefore you might decide to be a vegetarian, if you couldn't buy your chicken in that plastic Perdue package that makes it look like something other than a chicken.
So, that's a whole interesting question. You could argue that a lot of those things--it could go the other way, but I'm with you.
I don't think it's a compelling argument to say, 'Well, it's part of the human experience.' I would say there's something a little different about having children than smallpox, but maybe I can't make that case.
I guess I'm thinking--I'd have to answer that in a more spiritual way, which is that I really see myself as an extension of my parents and my grandparents, and not in the reincarnation sense, but just in the pure--maybe it's not so spiritual, maybe it's much more scientific--I see myself as a genetic extension of them and, in particular, I'm the genetic extension of my parents that they also shaped through their environment.
So, I feel like my mom is still physically alive, but my dad is still alive in me, and I see things in my children that were in my dad that he passed on genetically and environmentally to me that I in turn passed on environmentally to my kids. So, I think this whole human, longevity, generational thing is kind of nontrivial.
So, I don't know. But it's a good challenge. And, I will be writing about this, I hope, in my new book, and I have to think about it some more. It's a good challenge.
Rob Wiblin: We've only got 10 minutes left, but I'm keen talk a little bit about utilitarianism. I think, yeah, one--
Russ Roberts: It won't take us 10 minutes to totally refute it.
Rob Wiblin: I think we could wrap it up.
Russ Roberts: We don't need 10 minutes. We can do it in seven.
Rob Wiblin: I'm sure [crosstalk 01:33:51] the same view. Yeah. So, let's see. I think maybe one of the things that surprises me most about your view on utilitarianism, or at least on wellbeing as a moral factor, because it seems like sometimes you suggest that it's just not possible to compare welfare differences or welfare effects on different people. Not just like: in practice, it's hard to measure--which is obviously true and we have no kind of scientific way of quantifying it.
Sometimes it seems like you suggest that just in principle there's no way of weighing these things up. But, then, that would seem to have this kind of crazy implication that, say, if I stubbed my toe and someone else was catastrophically injured in a car accident, we just couldn't say which of these things, from a consequence or wellbeing point of view, was worse?
And, I guess my mind revolts at that idea. It's like maybe that there's cases where it's close and you can't say whether this effect on Person A is bigger or smaller than the effect on Person B. But, it seems like at the extremes, you can. And that to me then suggests that in principle, we can say things about welfare impacts across people. What would you make of that?
Russ Roberts: At the personal level, I would certainly prefer stubbing my toe to being in a traffic accident. Okay? I think every human being would. Every human being.
So, does that imply that I should stub my toe to prevent you from having an auto accident? And, I think the answer is probably, yes. I think if I can--this is a little bit like the Peter Singer example of which he opens his--
Rob Wiblin: Child in the pond.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, the child in the pond. So, there's a child drowning in the pond, and I'm in my nice shoes and suit on the way to work. I don't have a nice suit, really, but okay, we'll pretend. I do have some nice shoes, though. I like shoes.
So, I'm on my way to, let's say, to work and I see this kid struggling in the pond; and if I save them, I will ruin my shoes. And, is it possible to argue that it is moral to walk on by?
And, I think the answer is no. Not possible. I think it's a moral imperative to ruin your shoes. I think that's a no-brainer. So, then, the question is--
Rob Wiblin: Why?
Russ Roberts: No--no. Well, you're going to push me to the why because you've got this nice calculus thing working. I like that. I'm going in a different direction now, because I've got to save my argument.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I think the argument, then is: Now what? What's the implication of that for the rest of my life? for the rest of my behavior? Does it mean I should walk by the pond every day on the way to work to make sure I keep people from drowning? If I did, and if people drowned there often, I might start wearing a different pair of shoes every morning and change into my shoes later, my fancy shoes.
And, then, you'd ask the question, 'Well, why are people drowning in the pond? Are their parents not taking care of them? If they know that strangers are there to save them all the time, are people going to be as careful taking care of their kids to teach them lessons about risk?' And so on?
So, you start--even in this silly, contrived example--you'd have to think about: 'Does that really imply I have to give money to bed nets instead of throwing a birthday party for my kid, if I live in a Western, relatively wealthy country?'
And, you know, to come back to my point earlier, obviously I think there's a lot to be said for giving money to charity. I didn't say that clearly; I just mentioned it in passing. I try to give 10% of my after income [after-tax income?--Econlib Ed.] to charity. I think it's a really good idea. I think it's really good to help other people. I think it's not just rewarding personally--which I think it can be--but it's also, quote, "the right thing to do." And I don't have any problem with making a sacrifice to help someone else because I think their gain is so large that it's worth me incurring a cost, whether that's financial, or ruining my shoes, or being late for work and telling my boss, 'I'm sorry I'm late. I had to go save a kid.' I don't think anybody would say, 'Well, you're fired. Sorry: you're late.'
But, then, the question is, what else beside that? And, does that justify progressive taxation of a confiscatory sort? Does it justify--what other interventions does it justify?
I think each person has to make their own call about how to make the world a better place and those interpersonal comparisons we're talking about. But, I don't know what else to make of it.
So, I don't have any problem--I have to confess, I hadn't thought about your point. I think it's a great point. And, then, thinking about it as a personal thing. As an armchair theorist for myself, it's not like, 'Oh, some days I'd rather be in a car accident than stub my toe.'
So, I agree with your basic point. I think what is hard, then is: Now what? I don't accept the argument that we can then aggregate across people in cases where it's more complicated. And, I don't know how to think about that. And, I think there's a risk of the temptation to aggregate like that, so--
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It's interesting. I guess, I agree that--so there is something that's a bit odd about saying, 'Oh, the happiness of a country is 8 for this one and 8.2 for that one.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: I agree that's something that's counterintuitive, and you're like, 'Yeah, can that really be true? Can we aggregate in this way, or has this just become a nonsense?'
But, then, I guess, when I think about the--like, the clear examples in my own life, something from my own experience where I'm like, 'I'm a pretty cheerful person,' and then I have some friends who are extremely anxious or depressed or something like that. And, I'm, like, 'I think that I can say with some confidence that I'm happier. My subjective experience is better than someone who has, like, major depression.' Or--because there's these two different things that can happen or a terrible accident or stubbing your toe--I think I can say that one of those is going to have a more negative effect on someone's subjective wellbeing than the other one.
And, then, I'm inclined to go from that, and then aggregate up, and say that that shows that, at least in principle, in some sense, we could talk about the aggregate happiness of a country. Because I've already conceded that I can make comparisons of wellbeing, and differences of wellbeings, and levels of wellbeings across people--that in principle, one could do this even if the measurement would be exceedingly difficult or unreliable.
But, I guess you're more inclined to say that, at the macro level, the idea of talking about an aggregate wellbeing of[?] a country sounds crazy, and you're not convinced by the local small cases. Yeah. Do you think that is part of what's going on?
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm really not convinced that you can therefore design policy to make the nation happier. And that really gets to, I think, what is the key point.
So, I love your point that you feel pretty confident, say, that you're happier than some of your friends. And by 'happier,' by the way, what exactly do you mean by that? I think you mean your demeanor is more cheerful, your average level of delight in daily life.
But, of course, happiness isn't all we care about. We care about meaning, and serenity, and some more complicated, subtler things. That's part of it.
But, I think the deeper problem is that--and the reason is I think a lot of this utilitarian calculus issue is a bit of a red herring; I think it's missing some of the hard problems.
I agree with a lot of the things you've said. I think I agree with all of them. But then the question is: Now what?
And, in particular, the real issue, the real place it gets hard is: If I execute this person in a public square in a really gruesome way that's humiliating to them, but I give a hundred million people a thrill of watching it on TV, I think most of us would say that's not moral, even though the happiness and joy of the sadists outweighs one single person's embarrassment in death. I'd say we'd say, 'That's a bad road to go down.' no "we." Lose the "we,"' he says. There's no 'we' as a nation who benefits from x, unless it's nuclear extermination; then it's generally better to avoid nuclear extermination.
But, most public policies helped some groups at the expense of others. And, I'm not really comfortable saying--let's go back to the minimum wage. If I can help the highest-skilled low-skilled workers through a minimum wage by punishing the least-skilled--because they're going to be the ones who lose their jobs--that strikes me as fundamentally immoral. And, so, to me, those are the harder questions. And those aren't going to be adjudicated and measured in any successful way.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. There's a lot to tackle there. I mean, I think when people consider the example of unjustly executing one person to benefit lots of other people, there's like many reasons why people just find that morally repugnant. One is that the idea of a country of people who enjoy watching executions is very disturbing.
Russ Roberts: Yes. Correct.
Rob Wiblin: And, I think that doesn't suggest that things are going to go well.
Then I think--I completely share the intuition that it's just wrong because it's unjust to murder someone even if it would provide that all of these other benefits.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, nothing to do with the calculus. Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Obviously that intuition as well.
I guess you also might think that a society that just randomly executes people--like, if you realize that, or people are eventually going to figure out that their society is run in this unjust, capricious way and that is going to reduce people's welfare in the bigger picture--so that, yeah, there's also all kinds of consequentialist arguments that one could give for why this is a bad path to go down, even if in some narrow sense it seems like it's raising welfare just during the period of this television program. But yeah, so--
Russ Roberts: Exactly.
Rob Wiblin: A lot of different issues there. I guess--
Russ Roberts: Can I just mention? I want to mention that there's a short story called, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," by Ursula LeGuin, that looks at some of these issues. Listeners may find that of interest. You can find it online. She wrote--it's collected in her collection. I think it's called, The Wind's Twelve Quarters. You can find it online in violation of copyright, but if that's your style, you can find it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: So, I'm inclined with these policy decisions, and maybe we just don't really have time for this, but with these policy decisions, I'm kind of inclined to try to do the best that I can to weigh up the pros and conservatives. And, I think that we should have a presumption in favor of inaction, because I also care about autonomy. And, if the positives and negatives from a consequentialist or utilitarian point of view are very finely balanced, then it seems like you should just leave people alone and not force them to do anything.
But, then, in the cases where it seems like the welfare gains would be enormous relative to the costs, then in those cases potentially I'm willing to accept that we could tax people, or we could pass a regulation, this or that. And I think that's where most people are at.
And, it's interesting. I think you can see it in some cases that you can do these comparisons. But then you become very suspicious at the big level. But I wonder whether it's important to distinguish between kind of the philosophical issue here about the nature of wellbeing and subjectivity, and the practical political concern of, like: How will these ideas be abused, and what negative policy consequences can they have if people take these numbers too literally rather than using other ways to make decisions about what public policy should be, like saying, 'Well, maybe we should leave people alone unless there's a really compelling reason not to'?
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it's all the above. I think it's--it's not one reason. I think it's important to remember, to avoid downside, the worst downsides. If I thought a policy was going to lead to tyranny or oppression, I would stay away from it even though it might look like in the short run, or if the numbers looked good--I'd want to worry about the worst outcomes, not just, say, the average outcome.
So, you're right. I think most people are comfortable with that kind of calculus, but maybe they're wrong. Maybe they shouldn't be. Maybe the tolerance for intervention, like you're talking about--that makes even, most of the time, yeah, pretty much a lot of people better off and only a few people a little worse off--that that's maybe not the best policy to go for.
But, I think that's why, in some sense, I was making fun of myself earlier about my biases causing me to assess data in a certain way. I think in a lot of ways for me sometimes it just comes down to that. Which is, most of human history is ugly. We're living in a particularly pleasant time where democracy is fairly widespread and economic freedom is somewhat widespread.
And, I think they're both at risk right now. And, so, I'm looking right now at things that are to push us away from the brink. We started this conversation about: What are the biggest problems that we need to fix? That might be the biggest one--the fact that our public discourse is so vitriolic and our perception of reality is so skewed by our political and ideological lenses. And, that's what I'm thinking about, for what it's worth. I don't know if I can dent it, but it's deeply disturbing to me.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I'm not based in United States anymore, but watching the news coming out of the United States, I really do worry about civil society in the United States.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: So, is this country going to hold together? And, does it form a natural country that can get along with itself?
Russ Roberts: Not clear.
Rob Wiblin: And, it is really alarming. You wonder, where does that go? It's very concerning.
Yeah. Well, I've got so many more questions and there's so many other things that we could talk about, but unfortunately--
Russ Roberts: You can have me on again, Rob.
Rob Wiblin: I would love to. I would love to. Maybe you could become the Mike Munger of the 80,000 Hours podcast.
Russ Roberts: There you go, there you go.
Rob Wiblin: One day, we'll have you on your 37th appearance, or whatever it is.
Well, my guest today has been Russ Roberts. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours podcasts, Russ.
Russ Roberts: It was great fun, Rob. Really loved the conversation.