Category Archives: ethics

Pandemic blog 41: dream

I’m in New York City. An app on my phone shows me when anyone in my contact list comes nearby, and I see that my friend Mark Poirier is just a block away — I haven’t seen him in years, what a treat! So I go meet up with him. We’re hungry so we go to an underground food court to get doner kebab. But suddenly I realize, I’m not wearing a mask, nobody‘s wearing a mask, what am I doing inside in a crowded place unmasked? Fortunately I have one with me, so I put it on; but a woman in a block-print T-shirt first glares at me, then gets into it with me, insisting that I shouldn’t wear one. I don’t know how to respond; I feel chastened, even though I know I’m in the right.

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If you build it they will come and exploit it

There’s no way to build a program for people in need that can’t be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who aren’t in need. I have a friend, an attorney, who used to work cases involving people who defrauded the foster care system, taking state money for the care of children who didn’t exist, or who weren’t really in their care. It’s maddening. She eventually quit that job, partially because it was so dispiriting to come in daily contact with people being awful. But what can you do? You can’t build a fence strong enough to keep out all fraud without making the administrative burden impossibly high for the many honest people doing the hard, humane work of raising kids who need parents. There’s some optimal level of vigilance that leads to some optimal level of fraud and that optimal level of fraud isn’t zero.

I thought of my friend when I read this story, about developer Dan Gilbert getting an “opportunity zone” tax break officially intended for spurring development in impoverished areas:

Gilbert’s relationship with the White House helped him win his desired tax break, an email obtained by ProPublica suggests. In February 2018, as the selection process was underway, a top Michigan economic development official asked her colleague to call Quicken’s executive vice president for government affairs about opportunity zones.

“They worked with the White House on it and want to be sure we are coordinated,” wrote the official, Christine Roeder, in an email with the subject line “Quicken.”

The exact role of the White House is not clear. But less than two weeks after the email was written, the Trump administration revised its list of census tracts that were eligible for the tax break. New to the list? One of the downtown Detroit tracts dominated by Gilbert that had not previously been included. And the area made the cut even though it did not meet the poverty requirements of the program. The Gilbert opportunity zone is one of a handful around the country that were included despite not meeting the eligibility criteria, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

Maybe there’s no way to design a program like this without billionaires with phalanxes of lawyers and friends in high places being able to sop up some of the money. Even before the “opportunity zones,” Jared Kushner was able to game a similar program by drawing a gerrymandered “low-income district” that snaked its way through Jersey City to include the site of his luxury skyscraper and also some poor neighborhoods miles away. But I have to believe the optimal enforcement level is higher and the optimal malfeasance level lower than what we have now.

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Snappy comeback

AB has curly hair, really curly hair, and strangers comment on it all the time. My stance on this is to tell her “it’s not really polite for people to randomly comment on your appearance, but it’s not impolite enough for you to be impolite back — just say thanks and move on.” Is that the right stance?

Anyway, though, today someone at the farmer’s market said “I would die to have hair like yours” and AB said, in a non-combative, sunny way, “How would that help you if you were dead?” and I was super proud.

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Unitarians, legislative districting, and fairness

I gave a talk about gerrymandering at the Prairie Unitarian Universalist society.  As usual, I showed how you can pretty easily district a state with a 60-40 partisan split to give the popular majority party 60% of the seats, 40% of the seats, or 100% of the seats.  After I do that, I ask the audience which map they consider the most fair and which they consider the least fair.  Usually, people rate the proportional representation map the fairest, and the map where the popular minority controls the legislature the least fair.

But not this time!  The Unitarians, almost to a one, thought the districting where the popular majority controlled all the seats was the least fair.  I take from this that the Unitarian ethos rates “the minority rules over the majority” as a lesser evil than “the minority is given no voice at all.”




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In which South Dakota can’t actually do that

Voters in South Dakota approved a sweeping new government ethics law by referendum in November.  The South Dakota state legislature just overruled them.

Can they do that?

Yes and no.  A law passed by referendum is, in the end, a law; and laws can be repealed by the legislature.  A lot of states have protections against this practice, which is called “legislative tampering.”  South Dakota is one of 12 states that doesn’t.  So if you think the people can band together and pass a law by ballot measure there, you’re only sort of right; if the people’s will goes against the will of the legislative majority, as in this case, right out the window goes the popular vote.

But the legislature did more.  The bill, HB 1069, finishes off with the following language:

Section 35. Whereas, this Act is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, and this Act shall be in
full force and effect from and after its passage and approval.

The declaration of an “emergency” does two things:  it makes the bill active immediately upon passage, thus preventing the ethics commission from coming into existence even temporarily, and it prevents the people of South Dakota from launching a new referendum to veto the repeal and restore the ethics law.

I don’t think they can do this.

Under the South Dakota Constitution, some kinds of laws are subject to veto by popular referendum and some are not.  Those laws protected from referendum are categorized as follows:

However, the people expressly reserve to themselves the right to propose measures, which shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state, and also the right to require that any laws which the Legislature may have enacted shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state before going into effect, except such laws as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions.

The legislature doesn’t have the power to protect a law from referendum just by declaring an emergency.  It has to fall under one of the two protected categories delineated in Section 1 above.  This was laid out in Lindstrom v. Goetz (1951):

 Only those laws which are not subject to the referendum, according to § 1 are subject to the emergency clause authorized by § 22. State ex rel. Richards v. Whisman, 36 S.D. 260, 154 N.W. 707, L.R.A. 1917B, 1. The same rule applies to municipalities. City of Colome v. Von Seggern Bros. Ludden, 56 S.D. 390, 228 N.W. 800. Whether a law or ordinance is subject to the referendum is a judicial question. If it is found that the law is not subject to the referendum, the legislative declaration of an emergency is conclusive. If it be found that the law is subject to the referendum, the declaration of an emergency is void, for then no emergency could exist.

The Legislature, in HB 1069,  invoked the second category of protection.  That’s what I don’t think they can do.  The interpretation of what counts as “necessary for … support of state government” in South Dakota has traditionally been pretty broad, encompassing laws designed to enhance or even redistribute state revenue.  But it’s not unlimited.  Check this out, from “Restrictions on Initiative and Referendum Powers in South Dakota,” Lowe, Chip J., 28 S.D. L. Rev. 53 (1982-1983), p.61:


I don’t think you can say, with a straight face, that eliminating the independent ethics commission is an appropriation bill or a taxing measure.  So their claim dies here:  they can overrule the referendum, but they can’t prevent the public from overruling them right back.

Update: (July 2017)  The South Dakota legislature has passed a law bringing a state ethics board into existence, but one much weaker than the one the referendum was going to enact.  Good-government groups in SD are preparing a new referendum for the 2018 ballot; I guess, even if the legislature claims it can keep the public from vetoing its law, it can’t keep the public from bringing into existence an entirely new oversight body, which they’ll no doubt kill in its crib in January 2019, and so on, and so on….

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Vampire post gets Brooksed

A while ago I read a great paper by the philosopher L. A. Paul and wrote this post about it, asking:  is the experience of becoming a vampire analogous in important ways to the experience of becoming a parent?  When deciding whether to become a vampire, is it relevant what human you thinks about being a vampire, or only what future vampire you would think about being a vampire?

Paul liked the example and was kind enough to include (her much deeper and more fully worked-out version of) it in her book, Transformative Experience.

And now David Brooks, the official public philosopher de nous jours, has devoted a whole column to Paul’s book!  And he leads with the vampires!

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

Brooks punts on the actually difficult questions raised by Paul’s book, counseling you to cast aside contemplation of your various selves’ preferences and do as objective moral standards demand.  But Paul makes it clear (p.19) that “in the circumstances I am considering… there are no moral or religious rules that determine just which act you should choose.”

Note well, buried in the last paragraph:

When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that.

Choosing children, spouses, and vocations are discussed elsewhere in the piece, but choosing a religion is not.  And yet there it is in the summation.  The column is yet more evidence for my claim that David Brooks will shortly announce — let’s say within a year — that he’s converting to Christianity.  Controversial predictions!  And vampires!  All part of the Quomodocumque brand.


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Silence: an experiment

Just back from the NICAR, the tribal gathering of all data-oriented journalists, where I gave a talk about the importance of talking openly about uncertainty.

Last night at the conference there was a moment which, for reasons having to do with the demographics of mathematics, was unusual for me:  I was standing in a circle of five people, talking about a technical subject, centered on a talk I hadn’t attended, and the four people other than me were all women.  And it occurred to me:  this is actually a situation where it would be totally natural and appropriate for me not to contribute to the conversation.  So let me try.  Let me try to actually let this discussion go on for five minutes without opening my mouth.

And first of all let me say that I successfully did it.  But it was hard.  I felt twitchy and uncomfortable, just standing there silently.  And it was hard for me to learn about the topic being discussed, because some portion of my mind was still working hard at autogenerating answers to “What could I say now?”, interfering with my ability to listen.

I’m not proud of this.  I think when you’re a man, and you get older and acquire some amount of professional status, you start to feel like it is a kind of universal physical fact that people need to hear your view about the topic under discussion.  Whatever topic it is!  Whether you actually know anything about it or not!

Or maybe it has nothing to do with general social forces, and it’s just me.  In either case, I’m going to try being silent more often and see if I can get used to it.



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Bad lesson

From the New York Times, “Why You Should Tell Your Children How Much You Make”:

When Scott Parker wanted his six offspring to know more about the value of money, he decided to do something that many parents would consider radical: show them exactly what he earned.

One day, he stopped by his local Wells Fargo branch in Encinitas, Calif., and asked to withdraw his entire monthly salary in cash. In singles. It took 24 hours for the tellers to round up that many bills, so he returned the next day and took away the $100 stacks in a canvas bag.

His oldest son, Daniel, who was 15 at the time, remembers the moment his father walked into the house and dumped the $10,000 or so on a table. “It looked like he had robbed a bank,” he said.

Parker was trying to teach his kids a lesson about the value of money.  But the lesson I would learn from this is “If somebody, like a bank teller, works in a service job, and makes a lot less money than I do, I can make them spend a full day of their life carrying out an incredibly tedious task without thinking about whether this is a reasonable way for them to spend their time.”





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Logical endpoints

More on Aaronson (see previous post for context):

I was struck by this commment Scott made on Gil Kalai’s blog:

Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?

and this reddit comment he quotes approvingly:

I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.

For my own part, I find this idea of taking political and moral principles to their logical conclusions to be very weird.  And I don’t think it’s “the mathematician’s habit,” as Scott says.  At least, it’s not this mathematician’s habit.  Being a mathematician doesn’t incline me to apply Boolean operations to ethical principles; on the contrary, I think being a mathematician makes me more alive than the average person to the difference between mathematical assertions (which do behave really well under logical operations) and every other kind.

In particular, I don’t find the argument by the reddit commenter very compelling.  There are lots of feminists (I think almost all feminists!) who sound nothing like Andrea Dworkin, and who pretty obviously think that there exists sex between men and women that isn’t rape.  Is that because they can’t do logic?  I am a STEM person and a feminist and I think systematic sexism exists in the world and I don’t think heterosexual sex is rape.  Is that because I can’t do logic?

No — it’s because I think there are very few assertions about sex, power and feminism which stand in a relation of authentic logical entailment.

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The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.

Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.”  He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged.  I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote.  It must have been pretty hard to do.

Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

But here’s the thing.  Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman?  Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.

So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault?  That’s patriarchy talking.  It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.

Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.”  To which I can only say:  yep.  When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life.  If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.”  But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne?  That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.

It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott.  He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being.  He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man.  But it wasn’t.  Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do.  And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.

That first line again:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.

He was both!  You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism.  Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation.  They are both there, and they both count.

Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup.  But:  when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.”  They are still beans.  Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.

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