The Shape of Things

19 May 2017

There is a stock formula for political action that says that If the state may X for Y, then the state may X for Z! Usually, the state is euphemistically called we; sometimes the person using the formula is instead honest enough instead to say the government.

Often, the X refers to spending. (Taxation is then only mentioned when the spending immediately involves continuation of a tax that was supposed to be temporary.) For example, after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, after the Paris Peace Treaty of the Viet-Nam War, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the claims were that, since the United States could previously afford to spend as much money as it had on the military, now it could afford to spend that much money on expansion or introduction of welfare programmes of various sorts. However, sometimes there has been a different X. For example, within the movie Scarface (1932), it is declared that if the Governor of Oklahoma could declare military law to cartelize the petroleum industry forcibly, then military law could be used to effect extensive gun control through-out the nation.

There has been rather a lot of talk, since even before he took office, to the effect that Donald Joseph Trump were a dictator. I don't think that it's necessarily unreasonable to assert that he were just that, though he took office with exactly the powers that he'd inheritted from his immediate predecessor, which is to say that if President Trump were a dictator then so were President Obama. The Office of the President has become increasingly powerful over time, with each strong President picking-up where the last one left-off, and adding to the power of the Office, establishing precedents which the other branches have seldom effectively undone. But, whether the refrain is technically correct or not, it is that President Trump be a dictator. If Trump should leave office before the end of his term, then the refrain will become that President Michael Richard Pence were a dictator, as quite possibly he might be.

And if-and-when the Democrats retake the White House, the formula that I noted above will be used. It will more specifically be of the form If we could have a dictator who did Y, then we can have a dictator who does Z! where Y will correspond to the policies and programmes of the Trump or Pence Administration as refracted through the progressive lens, and Z will correspond to progressive policies and programmes, described in terms of their presumed outcomes. This formula will not be used much if at all before the General Election, but it will be used gleefully and self-righteously beginning on the very next day.

(I think it grossly implausible that the Republicans should hold the White House indefinitely; but the public is ever more disgusted with the results of a two-party system, so a Republican loss is not inevitably a Democratic victory.)

On the Meaning of Sexism

11 May 2017

In a previous entry, I noted that the original definition of racism was a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race. It was exactly by analogy with the word racism that the word sexism was introduced in 1968, thus referring to a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of sex.

Now, here is where matters get tricky. In any case in which one rejects sexism, it is regarded as an inappropriate response to the sex of people; and, in particular, the treatment is likely to be seen as unethical. A very great many folk employ the concept of unethical response to the sex of people as if that were the very definition of sexism. That notion is going to operationalize very much like the actual definition whenever and wherever the issue at hand is one of ethics and ethics actually call for neutrality — for a rejection of the relevance of sex to the issue. But nearly all of us regard people of one sex as better suited to some rôles that are of importance. For example, if I presume that sexism must refer to something unethical, then I am compelled either to associate sexism with something other than neutrality of a sort, or as a matter of justice to try to entertain thoughts of accepting a man as a potential spouse for myself. (People are led astray by the analogy with racism; the cases in which sex is relevant to selection loom larger because of the importance of reproduction.) And the substituted notion is not going to operationalize at all like the original definition exactly when someone believes that merit is a function of sex in a far wider range of cases than do folk such as I; then the substitution is going to get things almost perfectly twisted around. He or she will label anti-sexism as sexism and will label some sort of sexism — perhaps quite an intense sexism — as anti-sexism.

The spurning of a claim of relevance is the maintenance or adoption of indifference. This indifference is an equality of one sort — and we often see the words equal and equality used in antonymy to sexism — but it is not an equality of various other sorts. Advancement of a conflicting equality would itself be sexist. Such conflicting equalities can arise when the equality sought is equality of outcome. If people, regardless of sex, may be presumed to respond to a framework in essentially identical ways, and we observe markèdly different outcomes for one sex compared to those for another, then this difference is prima facie evidence that the framework is sexist. But if it is recognized that people of one sex behave differently in that framework, then the presumption that the framework is sexist does not follow from the mere presence of a difference. If we say that the different behaviors must be treated as of equal merit because otherwise a difference in outcomes emerges, then the merit that is ascribed to the behavior is treated as a function of the sex of the people who engage in that behavior; that prescription is itself intrinsically sexist.

For example, the rates at which men are arrested for, charged with, and convicted of criminal behavior of various sorts are much higher than the corresponding rates at which women are arrested, charged, and convicted. We cannot conclude simply from these differences that the system of criminal law is sexist, because it may be that men simply engage in that behavior more often; indeed, most of us are fairly sure that this latter case holds. If we insist that the behaviors themselves must be decriminalized in order to reduce the rates at which men are arrested, charged, and convicted, then we are inferring the relative merit of the behavior from the sexes of those who engage in it. The very same sort of analysis would apply to hiring practices and to the wages or salaries paid to those in various occupations.[1]

(Many people, including certainly me, would argue that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the legal system is one factor contributing to greater criminality by men, but few-if-any people propose that part of an appropriate response would be an adjustive sexism, giving more tolerance to male criminalized behavior than to female criminalized behavior. Likewise, some of us assert that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the jobs market is one factor leading to different career outcomes for women, but we don't propose an adjustive sexism attempting to compel employers to pay women more than the expected values of their marginal products.)

The confused presumptions that only an unethical discrimination can count as sexism and that sexism is found where there is some sort of inequality other than non-neutralityan attention to sex — causes people in all sincerity to misapply the word sexism and to fail to see legitimate application of the word, perhaps to their own attitudes and actions. If substitutions of these sorts are not recognized by those who use the word sexism in accordance with its definition, then interactions will be characterized by mutual incomprehension, quite possibly enraged. Attempts to employ logic and facts won't be persuasive because one of the two groups will actively misunderstand a word central to any communication. Additionally, there are people who implicitly believe that ethical significance clings to symbols, such that by changing labels what was wrong may be made to be right and vice versa. In dealing with them, the principal point that ought to be made is not that words cannot be redefined, but that, if we should for any reason redefine sexism, then whatever case was made against what was originally called sexism isn't thereby logomantically transformed into a case against whatever is now to be called sexism, nor is a case against something that was originally called sexism somehow invalidated by ceasing to call it by that name.[2] Of course, there are also those who effect the substitution as a device of unconscious projection, and others who opportunistically seek to sow further confusion.


[1] In the absence of a coherent explanation otherwise, if any population really could be hired at bargain rates, then not only should we expect all members of that population to be hired before any members of any other population; we should expect employers to bid-up the wages and salaries of this less expensive population to the point that they matched those of other populations, before hiring any members of those other populations. If there is some occupation such that the cost of hiring workers for it is notably less than the expected values of their marginal products, then we should expect employers to increase their hirings for those occupations, and in doing so (each in competition with the others and in the face of otherwise ever more reluctant workers) to bid-up the wages or salaries of those workers until the difference disappears.

[2] The same principle of course applies to efforts to redefine racism.

On Deductibility of Local Taxes

8 May 2017

In my field of awareness, there has recently been more discussion than usual about deductibility of constituent-state taxes and of municipal taxes from income computed for purposed of Federal taxation. I think that most of the discussion has been fundamentally wrong-headed.

In the textbooks of middle-schools, of high-schools, and of introductory courses in college on civics, on politics, or on economics, there are discussions of various proposed guidelines for taxation, based on ostensible or insinuated theories of justice. One commonly offered theory is that people should be compelled to pay based upon supposed ability; another is that they should be compelled to pay based upon the amount of services that they receive from the state.[1] I've yet to see such a discussion in such a textbook that could withstanding much critical examination.

In any case, these homilies don't serve to explain how-and-why taxation is effected in the real world, except in-so-far as some of their prescriptions are invoked to argue for a tax of one sort, even as conflicting rationalizations are offered (often by the very same people) to argue for taxes of other sorts. Historically and to the present day, taxation has been fundamentally opportunistic. That which has been taxed is whatever seemed to be most readily taxable. Targets of convenience have been wealth or income that has been thought to be easily tracked and measured, difficult to relocate outside of the jurisdiction, or for the taxation of which there is wide-spread acquiescence if not support within the community. (It is with respect to that last aspect that textbook theories have their real relevance.)

The state is not satiated by some steady extraction of wealth from the community. When extractions are greater than were expected, the state will not return the surplus to the taxpayer as such, except under extraordinary pressure; and, here-to-fore, states have always moved towards attempting to extract as much tax from their communities as the communities will suffer. This tendency is natural, as the people who make-up the state generally see their positions within society improve as they have increasing command over resources; mechanisms that exist in sectors whose rewards are determined by markets which cause participants to identify and pursue efficiencies simply have no correspondents within the state; the state is able to cultivate dependencies in the wider population; and many people imagine a very extensive rôle for the state within society (especially those people who lose sight of the distinction between the state and its subjects). The state grows ever larger and becomes ever worse at the allocation of resources, and so seeks ever greater extractions.

When, within the jurisdiction of a constituent state or within a municipality, there is greater community resistance than elsewhere to taxation, there is less taxation than there otherwise might be. That difference is a target of opportunity for a federal state, whose jurisdiction encompasses a wider community. There is a mechanism for obtaining the acquiescence of that wider community without typically triggering a significantly intensified resistance on the part of the communities subjected to a federal surtax in the face of lower taxes by other entities. That mechanism involves allowing taxpayers to deduct what taxes they pay to those other entities from the calculated worth of something that the federal state taxes; because, in the face of those deductions, parts of the wider community become less resistant to rate increases.

Let's say that people in jurisdictions A, B, and C, which are all of roughly the same size, face a federal tax of 30% on income, and that people in jurisdictions A and B face a more local 10% tax on pre-tax income, while people in jurisdiction C face a no such tax. If the federal tax is increased to 1/3 on taxable income, but local income taxes are made fully deductible, then the people of jurisdictions A and B face no net increase in income tax, and so may acquiesce; the people in jurisdiction C may thus find themselves out-voted and their taxes increased by about 3%.

A great many people imagine what thus happens is that, given deductibility of more local taxes, people in jurisdictions with lower local taxes are force to subsidize those in jurisdictions with higher local taxes; but that conclusion is spurious. It would in some sense follow if the quantity or quality of goods and services delivered by the state were well correlated with the amount of resources that it extracts from the community, but there is no such correlation, except in transitory cases in which the state deliberately impairs performance to provoke acquiescence to greater extractions. The people paying lower taxes than they otherwise might are not getting something from those paying higher taxes than would be tolerated without the mechanism of deductibility. They are simply less victimized. One would be no less mistaken in claiming that people who live in other nations with lower income taxes are ipso facto subsidized by American taxpayers.

(For purposes of economic analysis of some sorts, tax-cuts and subsidies are equivalent, but those in the jurisdictions that are less taxed by the federal state have not received a tax cut, they have instead not been subjected to tax increases imposed elsewhere. And the aforementioned equivalence holds only if either there is no prior property in resources, or the state has a prior claim on whatever resources are involved. If no one has a claim prior to taxation and subsidization, then no one is paying taxes; they are being extracted from resources that are un-owned. If the state has a prior claim, then there are again no tax-payers; there are people who are granted more or less wealth or income belonging to the state. And, if there are no tax-payers, then the tax-payers subsidize no one.)

Eliminating the deductibility of other taxes would create greater resistance to federal taxes, as some who had previously not been subjected to higher levels then would be. But not everyone thus penalized would previously have been a supporter of imposing those levels on others. Innocent by-standers would be dragged into a fight; there could not be justice in that.


[1] When I say state, I don't necessarily mean one of the constituent states of a federation such as the United States. I certainly don't mean the jurisdicational area of one of those states, nor the inhabitants of such an area. A state is an organization that successfully claims an effective monopoly of some sort in the control of violence.

The Way that I Roll

2 May 2017

The state of California has introduced a raft of new taxes associated with motor vehicles. These include an increase of the tax on gasoline (which increase alone is expected to cost the typical driver an additional $280 per year), a general increase in vehicle registration fees, and a new tax of $100 per annum on ULEVs. That last tax is advocated on a theory that, since they travel more miles per gallon of gasoline, ULEVs put more wear-and-tear on the roads with each gallon consumed. I very much doubt that, even on average, the difference comes to about $100; and of course drivers with ULEVs who do very little driving will be disproportionately taxed.

I drive a 2012 Honda CR-Z. It is a hybrid whose design alludes to that of the Honda Civic CR-X (aka CRX) much as the modern Volkswagen Beetle, Cooper S Mini, and Fiat 500 allude to models of the past. (Honda was well-advised not to name this successor CRY.)

The first- and second-generations of CR-X came in three basic varieties: the HF, which was designed for fuel economy; the DX, which offered a bit more performance; and the Si, which was a genuine sports car. (The CR-X originated in an effort to design a vehicle with superior fuel economy, but this naturally led to a streamlined body and limited seating, as with a sports car.) The CR-Z combines three analogous varieties into one, by having three operating modes: an Econ mode, a Normal mode, and a Sport mode. (There is also a special hill-climbing mode.)

I had no desire for the Normal or Sport mode. I'm never in the latter, and only in the former when a mechanic switches modes and I travel a few yards before realizing what has happened. (I've used the hill-climbing mode briefly just a very few times, to deal with especially steep inclines).

In the Econ mode, the CR-Z functions as a ULEV, but the model has not been classified as a ULEV, because there is no politically practical way of ensuring that CR-Z drivers are operating them in that mode. Here-to-fore, the implication for me has been that I cannot legally use car-pool lanes without having a passenger, whereäs those with recognized ULEVs can. But now, unless the state engages in hypocrisy (which is quite plausible), I will dodge that $100 tax.

I don't do a great deal of driving; I've had the car since the start of summer in 2012, but my odometer only recently passed 9000 miles (14484 km). And a significant part of what little driving I do is to visit my family in another state jurisdiction. Most of my recent driving has been primarily to ensure that the twelve-volt battery stays charged and that gaskets don't dry-out. My insurance company has repeatedly demanded to know why I drive so little. On the first few occasions, I explained that driving has become expensive; more recently I've just told them to shut-up and simply be happy that I drive far fewer miles than my policy covers.

Theories of Probability — Perfectly Fair and Perfectly Awful

11 April 2017

I've not heard nor read anyone remarking about a particular contrast between the classical approach to probability theory and the Bayesian subjectivist approach. The classical approach began with a presumption that the formal mathematical principles of probability could be discovered by considering situations that were impossibly good; the Bayesian subjectivist approach was founded on a presumption that those principles could be discovered by considered situations that were implausibly bad.


The classical development of probability theory began in 1654, when Fermat and Pascal took-up a problem of gambling on dice. At that time, the word probability and its cognates from the Latin probabilitas meant plausibility.

Fermat and Pascal developed a theory of the relative plausibility of various sequences of dice-throws. They worked from significant presumptions, including that the dice had a perfect symmetry (except in-so-far as one side could be distinguished from another), so that, with any given throw, it were no more plausible that one face should be upper-most than that any other face should be upper-most. A model of this sort could be be reworked for various other devices. Coins, wheels, and cards could be imagined as perfectly symmetrical. More generally, very similar outcomes could be imagined as each no more probable than any other. If one presumes that to be no more probable is to be equally probable, then a natural quantification arises.

Now, the preceptors did understand that most or all of the things that they were treating as perfectly symmetrical were no such thing. Even the most sincere efforts wouldn't produce a perfectly balanced die, coin, or roulette wheel, and so forth. But these theorists were very sure that consideration of these idealized cases had revealed the proper mathematics for use across all cases. Some were so sure of that mathematics that they inferred that it must be possible to describe the world in terms of cases that were somehow equally likely, without prior investigation positively revealing them as such. (The problem for this theory was that different descriptions divide the world into different cases; it would take some sort of investigation to reveal which of these descriptions, if any, results in division into cases of equal likelihood. Indeed, even with the notion of perfectly balanced dice, one is implicitly calling upon experience to understand what it means for a die to be more or less balanced; likewise for other devices.)


As subjectivists have it, to say that one thing is more probable than another is to say that that first thing is more believed than is the other. (GLS Shackle proposed that the probability of something might be measured by how surprised one would be if that something were discovered not to be true.)

But most subjectivists insist that there are rationality constraints that must be followed in forming these beliefs, so that for example if X is more probable than Y and Y more probable than Z, then X must be more probable than Z. And the Bayesian subjectivists make a particular demand for what they call coherence. These subjectivists imagine that one assigns quantifications of belief to outcomes; the quantifications are coherent if they could be used as gambling ratios without an opponent finding some combination of gambles with those ratios that would guarantee that one suffered a net loss. Such a combination is known as a Dutch book.

But, while quantifications can in theory be chosen that insulate one against the possibility of a Dutch book, it would only be under extraordinary circumstances that one could not avoid a Dutch book by some other means, such as simply rejecting complex contracts to gamble, and instead deciding on gambles one-at-a-time, without losing sight of the gambles to which one had already agreed. In the absence of complex contracts or something like them, it is not clear that one would need a preëstablished set of quantifications or even could justify committing to such a set. (It is also not clear why, if one's beliefs correspond to measures, one may not use different measures for gambling ratios.) Indeed, it is only under rather unusual circumstances that one is confronted by opponents who would attempt to get one to agree to a Dutch book. (I don't believe that anyone has ever tried to present me with such a combination, except hypothetically.) None-the-less, these theorists have been very sure that consideration of antagonistic cases of this class has revealed the proper mathematics for use across all cases.


The impossible goodness imagined by the classical theorists was of a different aspect than is the implausible badness of the Bayesian subjectivists. A fair coin is not a friendly coin. Still, one framework is that of the Ivory Tower, and the other is that of Murphy's Law.

Spurious Invocations and Socialized Medicine

19 March 2017

Advocates for funding or for in-kind provision of medical services through the state — some degree of socialization of medicine — frequently assert that there is a basic human right to health or to medical services. But there is invariably a bait-and-switch, because health cannot be provided as a right, basic or otherwise, universal to human beings or even held by all members of a large, naturally formed community such as a nation; and a right to medical services gauged in terms other than consequences for health would be grossly implausible and otherwise unappealing.

It should be immediately obvious that there cannot be a basic right to medical services, because a basic right exists in any context in which there is a person, even when that person is in isolation. One cannot make a claim to the services of others if there are no others, nor can one make a claim to the use of technologies that simply don't exist. That's why genuine liberalism understands that basic rights aren't claims to the services of others, but instead are claims to be free from various sorts of interference by others. Robinson Crusoe cannot see a doctor when he is alone on the island, yet can speak his mind whether he is alone or has neighbors.

Derived rights are another matter. Derived rights are founded upon basic rights, but may emerge in a social context and be informed by the available resources, including technology. And there might even be a derived right that, though only emerging in some context, were universal to some population and involved positive claims to goods or to services. To provide an argument that health or medical care were just such a right, advocates of socialized medicine would have to identify and explain a process of derivation. While some persons making the assertion that there were instead a basic right to health or to medical care are simply swept-up by emotion, doing so also short-circuits a recognition of responsibility for that identification and for its explanation.

There are advocates who speak and write of the social contract and propose to find support thereïn for socialized medicine at present levels, and perhaps at still greater levels. But what is here called the social contract is not the contract that Hobbesians or liberals once imagined to be adopted at the beginnings of civil society; rather, a set of expectations held by some members of a society is being called a contract, as if such expectations alone could somehow contractually bind everyone within that society. The need to identify and explain the derivation of an ostensible right to medical care remains unmet by the use of the misleading metaphor of a contract. (Perhaps Mr Crusoe expects Friday to begin studying medicine upon arrival, but what of it?) It might also be noted that reference of this sort to a social contract is profoundly conservative — in the original sense of conservative — because the principal informant of expectations about social outcomes is tradition. And, if such expectations did have the sort of moral force that is imputed to them by the invocation of the social contract, then practices such as the subordination of women in various societies could be defended by reference to the social contracts of those societies. Even if such defense is somehow progressive, it is utterly illiberal.

In any case, health itself cannot be delivered as a right universal to human beings nor within some smaller but still large and naturally formed community. Some people have dire medical conditions for which there is no effective treatment, so there is no right to health itself. One might acknowledge that indeed there is no right to health yet assert that there were still a right to medical care; but others have conditions that could be corrected only by diverting resources that would otherwise be used to provide medical treatment to different people; and it is incoherent to speak of rights as things that may be in conflict — indeed, the point of insisting that health or medical care were a right (as opposed to a lesser desideratum) is to make an over-riding claim. One might finally punt to an assertion that everyone simply had a right to medical care regardless of need; but, thus unlinked, there is no more reason to suppose an entitlement to some allotment of adhesive bandages and of aspirin tablets than to suppose an entitlement to an allotment of bubble gum.

The actual provision of medical goods and services under socialized medicine cannot be about rights, and so it isn't about rights; it is instead a matter of politicized collectivist calculations. Essentially, popular opinion is motivated by a naïve and incoherent utilitarianism — trying somehow to maximize an implicitly quantified sum of human well-being (with perhaps odd lexicographical properties), but making exceptions here and there driven by pity or by respect for some people and enabled by blindness to the costs to others; and officials of various sorts try to keep some share of the public happy but more generally pursue their own interests. Those who are not served under the programme or who find their access to medical care reduced or even effectively ended by socialism are waved-away as unfortunate victims of practical limitations, previous talk of rights not-withstanding.

I'm not at all a fan of collectivist calculations; typically they assume quantifications that don't hold, and otherwise they seem arbitrary in what they seek to maximize. But, if those calculations truly made sense, then one would want to consider the long run, to include the well-being of people in the future in one's aggregation; and thereïn lies the rub. Unless one assumes that humankind is fairly soon to come to an end, there are more people yet to be born than are alive to-day. If there truly were a collective aggregate to maximize, then anything done to-day that impaired economic development in the future would be counter-indicated. If people in the future were generally wealthier, then they would enjoy better medical care and almost surely better health. If we allow for considerations beyond the medical, the case for economic development is greater still. And, because it cannot allocate resources with economic efficiency, socialized medicine is ultimately a drag on economic development and thus on medical progress.

Socialized medicine doesn't deliver a basic right; it doesn't deliver a derived right; in the long run, it means that more people suffer (though suffering itself has no aggregate across persons) and that at any given age a greater share of people die. Refusing to face these points doesn't make one a nicer person; accepting the truth doesn't make one uncaring. Forcing the innocent to swallow bad medicine is not kindness.

The Hate Show

24 February 2017

In George Orwell's novel 1984, people assembled each day for The Two Minute Hate. For two minutes, those gathered would feel and express their hatred of those whom they had been led to hate, by those whom they regarded as their guides. Orwell did not invent the idea of an interval or gathering for the purpose of hating. Such things are probably ancient, and were certainly called hates earlier in the 20th Century. Orwell hypothesized the formal institutionalization of scheduled rallies whose sole purpose was for hating.

Such gatherings are now routine, normalized. Some take place on a national or international level, on weekly or even daily bases. Others are smaller or less frequent. People collect in theaters or around television sets, and they hate. But few observers or participants see these gatherings for what they are, because the hatred is packaged as comedy. During these gatherings, there is very little in the way of clever violation of expectation, which is essential to intelligent comedy. Instead, there is ventilation — of disdain, of anger, of hatred, sometimes of fury — at those outside that group with whom the performers and audience identify. Treatment of hatred as comedy is not something new, but the acceptance of unacknowledged hatred as comedy has become commonplace. Gatherings for what most of us once would have called comedy have been increasingly displaced; our comedy shows have been replaced by Hates. We have Thirty Minute Hates, Sixty Minute Hates, Ninety Minute Hates.

The institutionalization has largely been private, but it has had something degree of state sponsorship, as when President Obama grinned broadly in response to Wanda Sykes' expressed wish that the kidneys of Rush Limbaugh should fail, during the 2009 White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

When I last visited my parents, who willfully live in an ideological echo chamber, they made a point each week of sitting together and watching Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. They laughed at nothing; they smiled at nothing; because nothing on it was funny. Nor did it deliver any fresh insights. What it delivered was hatred. But that was apparently what my parents wanted — a Twenty One Minute Hate.

Lotteries as Cost-Saving Mechanisms

23 February 2017

In decision theory, it's useful to conceptualize all choices as amongst lotteries. Even a choice that has an absolutely certain outcome may be imagined as a sort of trivial lottery, where one outcome had the equivalent of a 100% probability and all other outcomes had the equivalent of a 0% probability. But most of the choices that people typically imagine may be made with certainty cannot, and things that actually can be chosen with certainty are not things to which people give much conscious thought. For example, in a restaurant. one cannot choose tea with certainty; one cannot even choose to order tea with certainty. One can chose to try to order tea; however, whether one's language-processing centers and apparatus of speech will do what one wants is somewhat in doubt. But most people don't recognize the vast majority of their choices as amongst lotteries because it isn't particularly useful for them to make the recognition.

That said, it's still interesting (to me at least!) to note how people respond to the things that nearly everyone does recognize as lotteries. If Group A wants the m members of Group B to do something for them, they can pay D to them each, for a total cost of m · D, or they can offer a prize P; and if m is a moderate-to-large number then almost always the least value of P that will motivate the group is rather less than the the value of m · D, even when there is no sense of supporting a worthy cause. In the clearest illustration, what Group A want of Group B is just money. Most people will give you a five-dollar bill for five one-dollar bills, but few will ordinarily give you that five-dollar bill for four one-dollar bills. However, perhaps a million people will give you five dollars for a one-in-a-million chance at four million dollars.

In the context of various social confusions, there are restrictions on selling chances at money in exchange for money.[1] But chances at money or at other prizes are fairly freely traded for information that is worth money. Think of how many times you are offered a chance at a large sum of money or at a valuable commodity (such as a vehicle) in exchange for taking a consumer survey or for providing contact information. You might refuse — I do — but a lottery is offered because information is provided by more people than could be motivated to do so for the same sum divided into simple payments.

It's often claimed that people are irrational to make bets in which the price of participation exceeds the probability of the payoff times the size of the payoff. I don't want to claim that; the issue is actually very nuanced. (There have been studies that attempt to estimate the extent to which a systemic misappraisal of probabilities affect behavior, but most or all of these studies are hopelessly tainted by the active desire to find irrational behavior and by some questionable presumptions concerning how uncertainty ought to be handled.) But, in any case, it's interesting that a group can conserve its resources by using a lottery to motivate behavior. And, returning to the point that in reality almost everything is a lottery, one has to wonder to what extent the world more generally is getting us to do things on the cheap.


[1] The inescapability of lotteries is fatal to ordinary attempts to condemn gambling as immoral. That something were immoral or unwise would not ipso facto be sufficient to justify outlawing it. And outlawing payment in money while allowing payment in commodities is absurd.

Again Valentine's Day

14 February 2017

A Minor Note on the Myth of admin

12 February 2017

This evening, I was looking at a record of recent failed attempts to log into this 'blog. I found that relatively few attempts tried to do so with the popular username of admin, whereäs by far the majority were with the username oeconomist (that it to say with the second-level domain name). There is not and never has been an account here with username oeconomist; the would-be intruder was guessing mistakenly — but not unreasonably. If my logs are representative, then having an account name match a second-level domain name is less secure than having it be admin. With people avoiding admin, it is natural for crackers to try other likely candidates, including candidates whose probabilities are conditional upon the domain names.

Mind you that the reasoning of my earlier explanation of why the avoidance of admin doesn't add a discernible amount of security if passcodes are properly selected can be applied to avoiding a username that matches a domain name. An account with a known username and a well-chosen password of m+n characters is more secure than an account with a secret m-character username and an n-character password.

Choose a username that pleases you. Choose a password that is long and that looks like chaos, and make occasional changes to it.