steuard: (lake)
Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 11:48 pm
I want the whole concept of "juvenile charged as an adult" to be eliminated from the American legal system. (Maybe the US could then stop being the only UN nation other than Somalia not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)

I want police officers to be trained under the assumption that protecting innocent civilian lives is even more important than their own safety. (And reminded that our society believes in a presumption of innocence.)

I want police officers and departments to consider any death (or injury) at police hands to reflect a failure. Officers should be trained to prioritize deescalation whenever possible. (Among other reasons, many violent or threatening individuals are mentally ill.)

I want black people carrying fake guns to be treated with at least as many rights as white people carrying real ones.

I want law enforcement officers to be legally classified as ordinary civilians under all circumstances unless their actions are recorded by a body camera and successfully uploaded to a public server. (Live wireless backup could be an important part of this.) (Any recording relevant to an actual civil or criminal trial should be publicly viewable, but I could accept restrictions on general access to all recorded footage.)

I want statistics to be kept on every police officer and every police department, including counts of officer-involved deaths, major injuries and minor injuries, as well as percentage of encounters that escalate to violence, all annotated with race and gender. Departmental statistics should be public, and tracked at the state and federal level. Individual officer's statistics should be confidential but regularly reviewed at the local and state levels. (For both individuals and departments, careful statistical analysis is of course necessary: some outliers are statistically inevitable even under normal behaviors and conditions, and careful attention would be necessary to develop proper apples-to-apples comparison groups. Statistics alone should never lead to censure or punishment, but they could prompt a more individual review, including recordings of the incidents in question.)

I want police officers (and society at large) to recognize that one bad apple ruins the bunch, and that their fellow officers must be held to standards at least as high as the general population.

I want a guarantee that the proceeds of civil forfeiture will never be shared with the officers, department, or local government directly responsible for confiscating the property in question. (Proceeds could be given to local community service organizations, or to state or federal governments.)

I want a (low) nationwide cap on the fraction of a municipality's revenue that can come from fines. (Excess could be returned to local citizens as some sort of tax rebate or given to local non-profits.)

I want a ban on military-style equipment for most police officers and departments. The use of such tools should be limited to small, highly trained teams to be deployed only in the most dangerous situations, and whose numbers are subject to strict caps based on local/regional population and violent crime rates. (Note that British police are almost entirely unarmed, and overwhelmingly want it to stay that way. That might not work here, today, but clearly our current model isn't the only way.)

I want the importance of affirmative, active consent to be taught in every school (and discussed as explicitly applying to sexual activity beginning at least by middle school).

I want drug possession to be treated as a public health issue rather than a crime. (Retroactive reductions in prison sentences to match would be a good corollary.)

I want the sale of any drug whose likely harm to the individual and to society is no worse than tobacco's (or maybe even alcohol's) to be legalized, taxed, and carefully regulated for safety. (More nuanced updates of that Lancet study would of course be very welcome.)

I want the US population to collectively decide that convicts deserve humane conditions and that rape and assault are just as important to prevent in prison as they are outside of it. (And that it's worth the investment of money and attention to ensure all that. I'm willing to accept a lot of cameras for this one.)

I (probably) want most of our national social safety net programs to be replaced by a universal basic income (along with some sort of access to Medicare/Medicaid or a similar program), too, but that's a more complex issue than most of these.

There's probably a lot more that should be on this list, but that's a start.
steuard: (physics)
Saturday, May 24th, 2014 04:19 am
We live in a remarkable era. If you brought an ancient Greek astronomer to the present day and dropped him off in a field somewhere, he would be awestruck, and maybe terrified. (Heck, it probably wouldn't even need to be an astronomer: I think that most people were quite familiar with the night sky until recent times.)

The meteor shower was pretty much a bust: I was outside for a decent stretch and only saw two for sure, plus a couple more "maybes" that were too brief and dim for me to judge whether they came from the expected radiant point. (To be fair, from where I was in our backyard I was seeing far less than the full sky.)

But in the same time, I saw at least half a dozen satellites, ranging from "almost too dim to see" to "easily the brightest object in the sky". It's obviously been too long since I just lay back to watch the stars: those things are now a near-constant presence. So I really do wonder how that Greek time traveler would react to the modern sky: what would those swift-moving, variable brightness points of light mean to him? What would Plato make of it? What stories would Homer tell?

For that matter, I'm sure that there are still plenty of societies and communities today that have little knowledge of high technology, from isolated tribes to rural villages. What do *they* make of the satellites that now pass constantly over their heads? This is a recent phenomenon: its origin is easily within living memory, and it has only gradually become as frequent as it is today. What stories do those people tell? Do they know or guess that these are the work of human beings? Do they fear that the newly mobile stars are an omen of some approaching doom?

And what stories might we tell about ourselves, as we alter the face of the heavens so deeply without ever pausing to think what an astounding achievement that is?
steuard: (physics)
Sunday, January 16th, 2011 09:22 pm

Brian Greene wrote a NY Times op-ed about the implications of the accelerating expansion of the universe. As he says,

Because of this, when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness.

If astronomers in the far future have records handed down from our era, attesting to an expanding cosmos filled with galaxies, they will face a peculiar choice: Should they believe “primitive” knowledge that speaks of a cosmos very much at odds with what anyone has seen for billions and billions of years? Or should they focus on their own observations and valiantly seek explanations for an island universe containing a small cluster of galaxies floating within an unchanging sea of darkness — a conception of the cosmos that we know definitively to be wrong?

I'd thought before of the implications for scientists from future races that never had the chance to see other galaxies at all. Before reading this I'd always just assumed that we humans would be okay (assuming we survived that long) because we'd been lucky enough to see the truth. But now I worry that he has a point: assuming we survive that long, how much will those future scientists really trust our observations, so at odds with what they can see for themselves?

That's related to one of the philosophical realizations I've had about studying things like string theory and cosmology: Some true things are simply impossible for us to observe or measure, and many more are just not the sort of thing one can predict. It's hard to be comfortable with that: I'd like to imagine that I live in a universe that's not just understandable but verifiably so, but there is no guarantee that our universe will cooperate with that desire. The thought that it might cooperate for a while and then stop is especially uncomfortable: what might we miss if we don't develop the technology to observe it fast enough?

steuard: (Default)
Saturday, August 7th, 2010 11:37 pm
The comments on my last post have helped me better understand my reaction to the mosque protests, so I thought I'd promote some of that to a followup post. (But this will be the last one, really!)

First, an important point that I hadn't thought about when writing my last post: whatever their ultimate cause, some people have very real feelings of pain and anger at the thought of a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero. Sure, the basis for those feelings is probably an irrational but very human generalization of negative feelings toward "Muslim terrorists" to "all Muslims" (much as I described before), but we all find emotions clouding our logic at times. Looking at it that way, some of my earlier comments were harsher than they ought to have been.

And in fact, I'd be more sympathetic to the folks objecting to this mosque if their emphasis were on their own feelings and their own limitations rather than on the "offensive" actions of the Muslims involved. I'd feel much more comfortable if everyone who objected simply said, "I'm sorry, I hate to admit this, but in this place I still have strong negative associations with the Muslim terrorists who caused me such pain. I know it's unfair, but I'm not ready to cope with a Muslim community center so close just yet." But that's not the majority of what I've heard.

What I've heard (as previously quoted) is that building a mosque there would be "offensive", as if the Muslims planning it were the ones responsible for the pain. They're not! It might be more sensitive of them to refrain from building there (particularly if the objections had mostly been made in the way I described above), but the underlying problem is not of their making. Holding rallies to tell the Muslims they're not wanted (to the extent of driving away fellow Christian protesters if they happen to be Arabs) isn't a way of saying, "This is about my feelings." And it certainly isn't a way of saying, "...and I know those feelings aren't fair and I'm working to get over them."

That is why all these protests and objections bother me so much (and, I think, why I don't accept the word "offensive" as remotely appropriate in this context). If there is a valid reason to ask that the mosque not be built near Ground Zero, it must be made clear by everyone that even making such a request is an imposition on the innocent Muslims who are entirely within their legal and moral rights planning the project. But I don't think that's the spirit behind these protests. (And backing that up, the NY Times just published an article about opposition to new mosques all over the nation, most in "far less hallowed locations" than the general vicinity of Ground Zero.)

As a final thought, it's important to remember that the unfair mistreatment of Muslims in our society causes pain and humiliation and harm, too. We have to balance two types of undeniably real pain: the feelings of those for whom Muslims evoke the specter of terror, and the feelings of those innocents who face daily suspicion because of it. I don't know the best way to handle that. It may or may not be right, but I tend to have more sympathy with those who are being unjustly vilified than with those whose (real!) feelings are based on a flawed generalization.

False associations like "the terrorists were Muslim, so all Muslims are terrorists" are responsible for some of the darkest aspects of human nature. I think it's healthiest for everyone if we as a society work to recognize and reject them. And that's why I find it so upsetting when public figures who make these statements are taken seriously by society and the media rather than being condemned.
steuard: (Default)
Friday, August 6th, 2010 06:31 pm
I'm clearly naive and idealistic, but I continue to be astounded when I see mainstream public figures spewing blatant bigotry and hate and fear. I'm not talking Mel Gibson here: his racist outbursts have generally been publicly condemned by just about everyone (including himself, in a series of increasingly threadbare attempts to apologize). I'm not even talking about the gay marriage debate for the most part: most mainstream opponents of gay rights at least make some attempt to hide their prejudice behind rational-sounding arguments. I'm talking about cases where someone makes overtly bigoted statements and substantial fractions of the public and the media nod and murmur "good point".

I probably see this sort of blatant bigotry most often in discussions of immigration, but the example that's currently making me shake my head in disbelief is the controversy about building a mosque in New York City near the World Trade Center site. Apparently (and yes, I'm sure this is old news), "National Republican leaders, like the former House speaker, Newt Gringrich, and Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, assailed the proposal, calling it offensive." Their objection, as far as I can tell, is simply that because the Sept. 11 terrorists were crazy, fanatical Muslims, we shouldn't... er... let any Muslims congregate near the site? Or something?

I'll be honest: I don't even follow the supposed logic here. I have not come up with any way of understanding this position that doesn't boil down to the twin claims that "We think all Muslims are the same" and "Muslims do not deserve full citizenship in this country." The former is based on an egregious logical error. The latter is based on an astounding failure to understand our nation's bedrock principles. And both very openly reflect an unfounded hate for a specific group of people.

I do not comprehend how a mature person with any sense of public decorum would be willing to make this sort of statement repeatedly. I do not comprehend how a mature person can listen to these statements and not immediately think, "Whoa, that's over the line," the same way they do about Mel Gibson. But as noted, I'm naive and idealistic. So you jaded folks out there: how can this possibly be seen as acceptable in a civil society?
steuard: (Default)
Friday, July 2nd, 2010 08:37 am
Claim: Ethical systems (religious or otherwise) are heuristics adopted by societies to cope with the intractable complexity of computing moral actions.

A bit of justification:

Ethical dilemmas come up all the time in our lives (both in principle and in practice). We need some standard by which to judge and compare competing solutions, but even that starting point is difficult to pin down. (I've tended to opt for something along the lines of "maximize the space-time integral of good" or "...the space-time integral of joy", but it's hard to make that well-defined.)

But that's the easy part. Once you sit down with some criterion in mind, you quickly realize that predicting and calculating the consequences of any action well enough to apply the criterion is essentially impossible. You need to consider not just the immediate impact of each choice but also the ripple effects of those choices as they spread throughout the world. Given that it's a chaotic system, it's probably provable that you can never really know what final effect your actions would have. ("If a time machine took you to 1935, should you kill Hitler?" "No, killing is bad." "But you might avert the holocaust, so do it." "But what if that changed the outcome Cold War and led to nuclear annihilation?" ...)

We clearly can't demand that every individual foresee and be responsible for the consequences of their actions to the umteenth degree. So instead, society adopts ethical systems (via religions, legal systems, or whatever else) that provide rough but easily understood guidance. The heuristics are chosen so that they lead to pretty good solutions most of the time, but their real importance is that society also indemnifies individuals against negative consequences that might occur despite following those rules. As long as you follow the heuristics as best you can, you won't be punished harshly if things go badly as a result.

This obviously leads to sub-optimal decisions in many cases (and can lead to truly terrible ones at times) and the heuristics still don't always make the "allowed" course(s) of action clear, but given the difficulty of the problem a system like this may be the best that we can do. So then the question is, how and when do societies update and improve their heuristics?
steuard: (physics)
Thursday, June 24th, 2010 09:06 am
Even back when I wasn't happy about quantum mechanics, I recognized a significant point: it provided perhaps the only way for traditional notions of free will to sneak into our description of the universe. Before quantum mechanics, the universe seemed to run like clockwork: once you'd set up the initial conditions, every moment of the future was uniquely determined.

But quantum mechanics brings fundamental uncertainty into the mix: only probabilities could be predicted, so one could hope that "free will" could somehow slip into the picture. In particular, as I've discussed before, quantum mechanics implies that every possible history "happens" and gets an equal vote to determine the probabilities of what we'll actually observe. One could imagine that what we see as free will is the branching of the wave function at each moment of decision: when we decide "Should I flip this switch or not?", both histories "happen" and both have some chance of being observed. It's not entirely comforting, but it better than clockwork.

Shifting gears, I've also at times contemplated how time travel would fit into physics if it were actually possible. The framework for thinking about questions of time is general relativity, since the ability to loop back to an earlier time would imply specific things about the structure of space-time. Relativity is a classical (i.e. pre-quantum) theory, and in it one should view all of space-time as a single four dimensional object. If "loops" in time are possible, those must be built in to the structure of space-time from the start. In practice, that means that time travel paradoxes from sci-fi simply aren't possible: "If something happened, it happened", as Sean Carroll puts it. In other words, history will automatically and by definition be self-consistent. You can't specify a single space-time object that includes a person murdering their own grandfather as a child, so that can't happen. But again, that's a classical theory, so we wouldn't necessarily expect to have free will in that context. What happens when we bring quantum mechanics back into the mix?

Sadly, that still doesn't save the day. The "quantum histories" that we're summing over in this case must be self-consistent space-times! Yes, we still have a chance of seeing any possible history actually occur, but if the switch you're considering flipping would kill Grandpa, you simply don't have that option no matter how easy the action itself might be. So the comforting notion that free will is hidden within quantum mechanics doesn't hold up in a world with time travel: quantum histories have to be defined globally, not locally.

In fact, even if time travel isn't possible, I suspect that conclusion holds: the idea that every moment and every decision spawns a branching tree of quantum histories doesn't quite capture all of physics. There are global effects that give important contributions to quantum calculations, quite apart from time travel (I study some of those in my research). So if there is free will out there, we probably shouldn't look to quantum histories to provide it. I'm not sure that we're left with much wiggle room, though: perhaps traditional notions of what free will really means just aren't right.
steuard: (physics)
Monday, June 21st, 2010 08:16 pm

A recent SMBC comic featured "Polish hand magic", a rather remarkable mathematical trick for multiplying on your fingers. I want to talk a bit about the trick, and maybe a little bit about the broader philosophical idea involved. So go read the comic, and then I'll babble a little.

Read it? Okay then... )

The broader issue that this touches on is our scientific desire for a satisfying explanation of the workings of the universe. I've always hoped that once we really understand the foundations of physics, we'll know the reasons behind all of the seemingly random patterns in particle physics and astronomy and cosmology. ("Why are there four fundamental forces? Why are some of them so much stronger than others? Why are there three copies of the fundamental particle multiplet, with such different masses?" And so on.) It would seem almost cruel if there weren't some deeply satisfying structure beneath it all, and one big hope for string theory has been that it will provide those answers.

Or at least, it was. These days, people have come to realize that no matter how unique the basic structure of string theory may be, the connection between those immutable laws and the particle physics we actually observe depends on many details of how the universe happens to be shaped here where we live. I didn't want to accept that at first, but it wouldn't be the first time science turned out that way. Kepler's early attempts to explain the orbits of the planets in terms of nested Platonic solids seem almost laughable now that we know the true history of the solar system: at this point, asking for a fundamental reason why we have the planets we do doesn't even make sense. So while there's still some hope that string theory will pick out our particular universe as uniquely preferred, it doesn't have to be that way.

So there's the question: When is it reasonable to hope for a deeply satisfying answer, and when should we expect that much of even a beautiful pattern is just due to random chance? Is there any way to guess in advance?

steuard: (Default)
Friday, May 28th, 2010 08:53 pm
I've followed most of the news about the oil leak in the Gulf, but I haven't read much commentary or analysis about it lately (too many guests and travel). So perhaps those of you who have been following the discussion can answer a question that's come to my mind:

Is there any reason at all that the hard-core environmental activists don't have every right to say "I told you so" to the rest of us after this? (Not that they should...) After all, given the likely enormous economic impact of the disaster (let alone the environmental consequences) this seems like exactly the sort of scenario they've been warning about for years (and in very much the way they might have predicted, with the government complacently believing the oil industry's rosy assurances that nothing could go wrong).
steuard: (Default)
Friday, May 28th, 2010 12:42 am
My earliest memory is actually almost the memory of a memory: my fifth grade teacher had us write the story of our earliest memories, and I've remembered what I wrote even as the memory itself became less and less vivid. I was three years old sitting behind my mother on her bike as she sped down the steep hills of our neighborhood, and it was terrifying. She went so fast, and all I could do was watch helplessly as she whizzed around corners and parked cars. I still remember the images and feel of it a little, but I know that when I first wrote the story it was crystal clear. I've often thought about that change and what it might imply about memory in general.

Flash forward to two days ago. While sorting through boxes of old papers, I actually found the fifth grade story itself. It was almost exactly as I remembered it, except for one crucial change: I wasn't scared at all. The story said a lot about how exciting it was, but there wasn't the slightest suggestion of fear or helplessness. Now I really want to know what happened (and when) to transform that memory from positive to negative. (For that matter, I want to know when I went from enjoying that sort of thrill to disliking it. And I wonder if the two are related.)
steuard: (physics)
Friday, April 2nd, 2010 11:21 am

A few weeks ago, my friend and former colleague Sean Carroll was a guest on the Colbert Report to promote his book about the nature of time. Toward the end of the interview, they discussed the idea of the "multiverse", which Sean uses to refer to the (possibly) infinite number of "universe-sized" regions within the vast web of space and time where we live. The notion is that if we could somehow travel far enough (faster than light) to regions many times more distant than our telescopes can see, we could find countless independent "universes" that can never talk to each other at all. Some of them would be much like our own but others could be very different, maybe even with different laws of physics. Steven Colbert seemed quite interested:

Colbert: Am I in these other universes?

Carroll: There will be people very much like you.

Colbert: In these other universes, is it possible that my show's on at 11 and John Stewart is at 11:30?

Carroll: Maybe more often!

It's a cute exchange, and it's a variant on the old idea that "in an infinitely big universe, everything that could possibly happen must happen somewhere."

Trouble is, I don't know that I buy that argument, for rather subtle reasons. However we define them, the number of "independent universe-sized regions" of space and time is countably infinite: we could in principle come up with some way of labeling each one by an integer. But many sets (like the real numbers) are uncountably infinite: no matter how you try to label each real number by an integer, you'll miss the vast majority of them. The real numbers are just a much bigger infinity than the integers are. Going on, the set of all possible curves in space is a yet larger infinity. (Assuming space and time are continuous! If they turn out to be discrete, then the set of curves has the same infinite size as the real numbers.)

The thing is, the set of "everything that could possibly happen" is a lot more like the set of all curves than like the set of integers: if anything, it's a still larger infinity. So no matter how large our multiverse may be, it's mathematically impossible for every possible history to occur somewhere. Does that mean that our Steven Colbert (on at 11:30) is the only one? Quite possibly so. I'm not convinced that the multiverse idea opens up as many possibilities as people sometimes think.

steuard: (Default)
Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 07:50 pm
On my way home from work today, I saw that H&R Block will fill out your 1040EZ for "just" $39. My first reaction was a sort of confused disbelief: I was able to use a 1040EZ a few times and it was really, really easy. It's basically one side of one page, just thirteen lines. You add some things, then you add some other things, then you look up a number in a table, then you subtract once.

So what's that $39 for? You'd need to look up and write down most of the same numbers on some sort of form to give to the folks at H&R Block so they'd know what to fill out for you. Is the going rate for addition and subtraction really that high? It's entirely possible that yes, it is, and I'm just way too far removed from average people to understand how intimidating math can be to them. But this math is so basic that this would really disturb me: this feels like the mathematical equivalent of paying somebody $39 to read the Denny's menu out loud for you. If that's not it, maybr people treat it as insurance, to have help in case of an audit... but what fraction of 1040EZs get audited?

I know there are some accounting folks out there, and presumably lots of people who've had more experience using accountants than I have. Do you have a sense of what the real answer is?

[Possible subtext for all of this: Kim and I have just changed jobs, moved across the country, and bought a house. We've always done our own taxes, and Kim's very thorough about checking the details and actually seems to enjoy the process at least a little. Is there any compelling reason to pay a professional help out this time?]
steuard: (Default)
Sunday, December 27th, 2009 01:52 am
I just got a letter from Duke University. Apparently, they want my DNA.

Years ago, Duke arranged for me (and many other 7th graders) to take the SAT. I did pretty well (very well, for a 7th grader). Now, some researchers there(?) are doing a study looking for "genetic markers of intellectual functioning" and they tell me that "There is probably no group of individuals in this country who possess higher measured cognitive abilities than the Duke TIP group to which you belong." (That's just one example of the flattery they've used.)

I'm not sure whether to participate. Being used as a genetic exemplar of brilliance sounds great and all, but I find the premise of the study to be pretty cheesy. They apparently believe that my ability to take standardized tests way back in 7th grade is supposed to correlate significantly with intelligence. That was probably a factor, but especially at that early age I'd think that my parents' habit of reading to me (and encouraging me to read grown-up books) contributed at least as much, to say nothing of the Lincoln public school system's fantastic gifted program (I had already had personal math mentors for several years at that point). It's hard for me to believe that "good 7th grade SAT score" will correlate clearly with anything but "white upper-middle class background".

So, what do you think: should I give them my genes or not?

[Edit: Just to be clear (since [ profile] patrissimo seems to have missed my point a bit), I recognize that intelligence is a part of why I did well on the test. The genetic markers they identify may well correspond roughly to "smart white upper-middle class" kids. But I have serious doubts about their ability to disentangle those factors.]
steuard: (Default)
Monday, June 29th, 2009 06:26 am

I'm apparently still on Eastern time, so here are two entirely unrelated notes on psychology inspired by our recent house hunting trip:

  • I seem to have no intuitive sense of the value of money in amounts over a few thousand dollars. Amounts up to $100 or so are fine: I have at least a rough feel for how many books or CDs I could buy for that, or how nice of a meal. I can extrapolate up to a few hundred reasonably well. Above that I start relying on travel to give me a sense of scale, but travel prices vary wildly from year to year and thus don't help as much. Above a couple thousand dollars, I completely lose track.

    In particular, amounts $10,000 and up feel basically like play money to me: I recognize intellectually that they're huge and important, but pricing anything at that point feels more like a game than an actual computation of value. Negotiating for a salary or a house becomes just a matter of maximizing my score. If the starting point of the overall market had been $10,000 higher or lower, I don't know that I'd recognize the difference (but I'd still play the negotiation game). Maybe in poker it's a good thing to "play the person, not the cards", but it always feels like a crazy way to interact with such significant amounts of money.

  • Small, rural towns in America have been struggling for a long time, and that leads to a much stronger dedication to the local community than I'm used to in larger cities. Whether in conversations about banking or on signs in downtown stores, people from the area clearly disapprove of dealing with national chains if there's a local alternative. And the owners of our B&B were glad that we were moving into town; they said that on occasions when a new professor came to the college and opted to commute in from one of the bigger cities 45 minutes away, those folks seemed to be saying "we're too good for you". I certainly sympathize, but it will take some getting used to: you don't see many people here in Upland with that perspective. (Even growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska didn't really have that feel, though I was very aware of it in the smaller towns nearby.)

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Sunday, April 19th, 2009 07:42 pm
A conversation [locked post] over on [ profile] akiko's journal has me thinking about taxation, particularly taxation of the very wealthiest people in our society. In this post I'm not interested in most of the arguments about what tax rates are appropriate or fair for various income groups, but I need to describe one argument for context. One major argument against higher tax rates for the very rich is that people who earn large incomes tend to be the most productive as well: taxing them too heavily would reduce their incentive to work and thus hurt society as a whole.

But that got me thinking: when you're already earning many times as much each year as you need not just to support yourself but to purchase almost any luxury[1], what is the incentive to work harder? (Heck, what's the incentive not to slack off?) I see a few possibilities, but I'm not sure that any of them would be affected by even a moderate increase in marginal tax rate:
  • A desire for the next super-luxury item. There are always things that you don't quite have the money to buy; maybe the person's eye is always on that next goal that's just out of reach. But if this is the motivating factor, it would be just as true regardless of marginal tax rate.

  • A means of keeping score. Some people may want to earn more to prove to themselves and to the world how valuable they are (either directly via their salary or indirectly by being able to afford more visible luxuries than their peer group). But it seems like any monotonic function of raw salary would have the same score-keeping benefit in principle. As long as the marginal tax rate isn't so close to 100% that nobody can tell you're earning more, it shouldn't much matter.

  • A plan to pass wealth to the next generation. Some people want to earn lots of money so their children won't have to worry about money. But this isn't all that different than the points above (as noted in [1], every two years' salary could set up a kid in reasonable comfort for life). Past a certain point, your kids' wealth is pretty much guaranteed, too (and your grandkids', for that matter).
So what's the actual reason that a higher marginal tax rate on the super-rich would discourage them from working more? I'm sure I'm missing something. Any thoughts?

[1] According to this data, the top 1% of earners in the US make an average of $1 million each year: that means that every two years they could set up an endowment to support Kim and me at more than our current standard of living basically forever.
steuard: (physics)
Friday, February 27th, 2009 01:52 pm
Pitzer college and the Joint Science Department brought a bunch of middle school kids to campus today to give them a taste of college, and I ran an activity where they could experiment with various kinds of waves. To introduce the topic I asked the whole group to make a circle and link hands: we "did the wave" by raising and lowering our hands as the wave moved around the group. It's a nice hands-on introduction to the concept.

But I'd overlooked a crucial issue: these kids did NOT want to hold each others' hands. Most of them came around pretty quickly, but a few of the boys held out for ages against touching each other. (We even had a minor "teachable moment" when our wave reached a boy who had refused: the wave stopped, with everybody staring at him. He did link up after that.)

My best guess is that the boys were trying to avoid looking "gay". I'd honestly forgotten how pervasive homophobia is at that age, and I probably underestimate it in our culture in general. Most of the people I spend time with strongly favor gay rights: it's easy to forget about the others until they vote for Proposition 8. But as usual, the silent prejudices embedded in the culture become overt and magnified in kids: they've figured out what they're supposed to dislike but not that they're supposed to be subtle about it.

Along similar lines, it also failed to cross my mind that one of my student assistants for the day might strike the kids as a bit unusual: they probably don't see many guys wearing skirts (much less ex-military guys). I didn't notice their reactions myself, but the student commented that the second group of kids had been less mature about it than the first. Once again, I think that's a sign that I've acclimated to an awfully diverse crowd. I like to think that's a good thing, but it pays to be aware that campus communities are far from typical.
steuard: (Default)
Friday, September 19th, 2008 06:20 pm
I've had trouble looking away from the turmoil in the financial markets this week. Between the possibility that the economy could plunge down a cliff and the possibility that we're going to be collectively saddled with a trillion dollars of new debt, it's awfully likely that something tremendously significant is happening. Unfortunately, I don't know nearly enough about the underlying issues to have any good sense of what the "right" response might be, individually or as a society. A couple of thoughts, in no particular order:
  • I am surprisingly bothered by the notion that when the dust settles, some people will have gotten rich off of these subprime loans. I can accept that the government may have to step in and bail out the economy in this situation, but if the corporate executives who made these high stakes gambles waltz off into happy retirements with golden parachutes I know that I'll resent it. Perhaps the right way to handle that is to combine extreme government spending with extreme government enforcement: have federal, state, and local law enforcement go over every aspect of the subprime mess with a fine toothed comb and throw the book at people for every little infraction that contributed to the disaster. I'm a little disturbed to realize that I'd feel better about those golden parachutes if the profiteering executives and predatory lenders had to enjoy them from prison.

  • This is sort of situation is precisely why I've long been skeptical of extreme privatization and deregulation. The government is going to stick its nose into issues like banking and retirement, we just have a choice of when and how. If we leave markets entirely free without regulation, we'll get occasional major busts when competition for the highest immediate profit leads to erosion of standards and collective stupidity, and the government will be politically forced to step in to bail the rest of us out. If we privatize retirement investing, there will come a time when a major market drop leaves half a generation of the elderly destitute, and the government will be forced to step in to make sure the elderly don't have to live on cat food. The alternative is to set up some level of government involvement in advance, in the hopes of making government involvement more predictable and more fair. It's a tough balancing act to do that without stifling the positive effects of free markets, but I think it's still a better choice.
steuard: (physics)
Saturday, September 13th, 2008 01:32 am
All the talk of LHC doomsday scenarios can get you thinking (even though it may be more likely that the LHC will produce dragons than Earth-swallowing black holes or strange matter), and the HTML source of has reminded me of an incredible paragraph from a paper by Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia ("Gravitational effects on and of vacuum decay". Physical Review D21 (1980) p. 3305).

In the paper, Coleman and De Luccia studied implications of "vacuum decay", the suggestion that the laws of nature that we know have not settled into their final form. Instead, the idea goes, perhaps the laws of physics got "stuck" as the universe cooled down from the Big Bang much a rock falling down a cliff might get caught on a ledge partway down. The rock is likely to be knocked loose in the next big storm or sooner, perhaps with no apparent cause at all. The same thing could happen to physics if we really are stuck in a "false vacuum": whether caused by a specific event or just bad quantum luck, our seemingly eternal laws of physics could come loose ("decay") and fall into a totally different state. Coleman and De Luccia analyzed what might be left after such an event happened, and had this to say about their results:
This is disheartening. The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate. Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in the new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it. However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy. This possibility has now been eliminated.

With that quote in mind, it may be disquieting to realize that a fair number of physicists have come to believe that string theory predicts that the universe has something like 10500 different choices of "vacuum" and that we might be living in any of them. I don't think we know anywhere near enough to say how likely they are to decay.
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Friday, May 9th, 2008 04:38 pm
At lunch today, one of my colleagues posed an intriguing puzzle. You are lost in a desert, and you have to choose one of three items to help you get out alive: an egg, a banana, or a can of beer. What do you choose?

(If there's interest, I'll provide his answer in the comments.)
steuard: (Default)
Thursday, January 24th, 2008 05:33 pm
There was an article in the LA Times today about Hamas breaking down the barrier wall separating Egypt and the Gaza Strip. I haven't followed the recent details of the conflict enough to have a clear opinion on the event, but nevertheless there were points raised in the article that just increased my frustration with the situation in the region.

It was mentioned several times that a number of top officials in Israel are actually coming to the conclusion that an open border there will be a good thing overall. The border wasn't ever that secure in the first place (too many tunnels, among other things), and access to Egyptian goods will relieve a lot of the pressure on Israel from humanitarian groups.

And that's what's crushingly disappointing about the way this went down. The population of Gaza in general is extraordinarily grateful and the Israeli leadership thinks it's a good thing (at least off the record). It's a win-win situation that improves life for everyone. And friggin' Hamas gets the credit. They let Hamas get the credit. The stubborn uncompromising, right-wing-hobbled idiots let Hamas get the credit. I'm not saying that the Palestinian population would have been singing Israel's praises the same way if the action had come from the other side, but this has all the appearance of a huge moral victory for Hamas.