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Ever had a long term goal you wanted to achieve, like publishing a paper, getting fit or maintaining a blog, that you always put off and never actually got done? You and me both!

I’m not sure whether it’s because I have more ambitious goals than others or just less discipline, but I only rarely feel I’m using my spare time as well as I could. I spend too much time on easy things like reading and talking and too little doing substantive research.

Why is this akrasia such a common experience? If you’ll permit me some evolutionary ‘just-so story’ telling, and I know you will, my guess is that hunter-gatherers did not have to deal with many far off goals that required the determination to stick with unrewarding, difficult or tedious tasks. Hunting, gathering and socialising all offered pretty immediate payoffs so humans are not programmed to do the things the modern world requires of us. As a result discipline – who has it and how to achieve it – is a huge concern through farmer and industrial culture.

Whatever the cause, I think I have found a partial cure. For the last month I’ve been using the website Beeminder to set myself goals and stay on track to meet them. I signed up on the recommendation of two close friends who said it had dramatically enhanced their lives and it has had a similar impact for me.

The strategy of Beeminder is to remove procrastination as an option. Beeminder takes whatever long term goal you are aspring towards and sets out a linear trajectory until it is reached. If you ever fall below that trajectory you have failed at your goal. As a result you regularly face days when you must make some progress towards your goal, or lose. If you do extra today, then you build up a buffer that takes the pressure off tomorrow. The system does rely on you being honest about what you have done, though you could give your account to a friend and let them enter the data for you. It’s very satisfying to see your graph grow as you inch towards your goal, and once you have made some progress, it feels tragic to let your graph get frozen and have to start from scratch.

The first time you attempt a task there is no penalty for failure – apart from whatever disappointment and shame you happen to feel – but if you want to reattempt it Beeminder prompts you to put some money on the line. That money is taken from you if you fail and choose to attempt again. The financial penalty grows three-fold for each subsequent attempt, so you can pretty quickly end up with a lot of cash on the line, if you weren’t otherwise sufficiently motivated. These penalties are how the Beeminder folks hope to make money.

I now approach my evenings and weekends in a much more structured way. On Saturday morning I knew for example, that I had to work-out twice, write two blog posts and get at least three unreplied emails out of my backlog before the weekend was over. Rather than drift through until the early afternoon, as I often used to do, I mentally set out a schedule that allowed me to achieve all of those things. When I’m not working on Beeminder tasks I get to enjoy true ‘down-time’ and the fact that I have ‘things to get done’ means that I treasure and use that time much more effectively than I otherwise would. The fact that I have satisfied my pre-defined targets also means I don’t feel guilty when I do relax.

Some people who hear about Beeminder are nervous about the apparent loss of control over their lives. While it is true that the ‘momentary you’ loses some control, it is only giving up control to your ‘past self’. You can always change your goals with a week’s notice, so you are only ever a slave to a very recent past ‘you’. And while it can be a pain to have to complete a task on a particular day, once you notice that, you will naturally work up a buffer so you can always take the day off if something urgent does come up.

Other people feel that Beeminder will crowd-out their ‘true’ discipline, which is what they should be relying on. If you care about outcomes the proof will be in the pudding; for now at least this tool has enhanced my apparent discipline. The immediacy Beeminder creates does mean I need less willpower to motivate myself to do some things, but I see that as a postive rather than a negative. Drawing on willpower is exhausting.

Others value carefree spontaneity over the kind of focus Beeminder is designed to foster. Certainly a Beeminder task mandating that you ‘relax and enjoy the moment’ would have a touch of irony – though if I ever do a PhD I think I’ll need one. If you are comfortable with how much you satisfy your second-order desires or your first-order and second-order desires coincide – lucky you – then feel free to ignore this post.

But for the rest of us there’s now Beeminder.

I wrote this for the Alternative Law Journal some time ago:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society. Why is the audience intended to admire the Na’vi’s complete self-satisfaction and unwillingness to deal with humans despite the fact that it is Na’vi isolationism and idealism as much as human avarice which drive the two groups into conflict?

Thinking about it I realised it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds. But if we were to encounter such uncompromising characters in our families or offices they would strike us as unreasonable lunatics. I am reminded of what Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, was reported to have thought we would call an archetypical, vengeance-fuelled vigilante like Batman in the real world: ‘in short, a nutcase’.

Why is it that rather than celebrate the values of conflict resolution, tolerance and deal-making, which make our advanced societies function so effectively, our favourite stories continue to be about zero-sum conflicts that are impossible to resolve peaceably? From afar, the kind of conflict found in Avatar seems noble. We can easily imagine one side to be all good and the other all bad. There is no need to dwell on the suffering of those extras who die in battle or the problems that go unsolved back on Earth for want of ‘unobtainium’. A quick cut to the next scene is always just seconds away! But in real life, conflict is painful and messy and something we work hard to avoid.

In fact we are so used to finding compromises in our everyday lives that to make his conflict story hang together, writer and director James Cameron is forced to pile absurdity upon absurdity: an intelligent species totally disinterested in trade with aliens and the magical technology they bring; a business that sees fighting interstellar war as a cheaper way to access ‘unobtainium’ than a peace treaty; a race of people willing to reveal all their secrets to conspicuous spies, but unwilling to negotiate or make concessions to humans even in the face of a catastrophic defeat. The crazy plot twists used to make compromise impossible result in a world unlike anything on Earth and as a result the movie is unable to teach us anything useful about how we ought to live.

Finally, we are led to a deus ex machina moment in which the megafauna of Pandora rise up to repel the human colonisers. To my knowledge, a revolt of Gaia is beyond the powers of the hunter gatherer tribes today struggling to coexist with industrial society, so I’m not sure what they can hope to take away from Avatar. The apparent moral of Avatar, ‘fight hard if you’re in the right and Gaia will provide’, is one only someone very isolated from the real challenges of hunter gatherers could put forward. Why does popular fiction so often favour staunch idealism over the central wisdom embodied in modern political systems and their laws: ‘dealism’? We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

An Australian movie with a very similar plot to Avatar is The Castle, in which the Kerrigan family fights the compulsory acquisition of their home for the expansion of Melbourne Airport. Audiences were predictably united in their support for the charming Kerrigan family in their struggle against big business. In real life, I suspect the public would be strongly divided on the fairness of the acquisition, especially if sticking up for the Kerrigan family meant airport delays and fewer discount airlines. We would want to find a deal which left both the Kerrigans better off and allowed for a larger airport by offering them more and more compensation until they voluntarily moved.

Why split our values like this, some for our stories and others for our own lives? I suspect the answer lies in what we subconsciously want our taste in fiction to say about us. Celebrating the Na’vi allows us to signal how much we value loyalty and justice. Denigrating Melbourne Airport allows us to show our suspicion of greedy and powerful people. In real life, when defending our stated values requires that we make serious sacrifices whether or not we are likely to win, we sensibly value the opportunity to compromise. But when a fictional character will do all the fighting for you, why compromise on anything? Though popular fiction will never say it, we know the best fight is not that won by the righteous but the one nobody needed fight in the first place.

When resources are scarce they must be rationed somehow. Most frequently today resources are rationed by price. But some services, most noticeably subsidised public services like healthcare and (at my university) peak-hour parking, are rationed by one’s willingness to wait around in a line. Both ‘willingness to pay’ and ‘willingness to endure a queue’ are signals that someone really wants something. In that respect both rationing systems help move goods and services to their most valued uses. But whereas willingness to pay biases distribution towards the rich, willingness to wait does the opposite, ensuring the poor get more because they lose less in wages when they stand in a line. For this reason and because time is more equally distributed than income, queue rationing is favoured by some egalitarians.

The problem with queue rationing is the incentive it creates or more precisely the incentive it doesn’t create. If everything were rationed by queues, nobody would have any reason to work and create wealth. The road to riches would not be providing services others want, it would be standing in a queue somewhere achieving nothing. Everyone would be impoverished because you would have to wait forever in queues for increasingly scarce goods nobody has a reason to make. This isn’t so much a problem when only a few goods or services are rationed with queues, but the time people waste waiting in lines and the reduced incentive they face to work and produce wealth is still totally unnecessary. Why motivate people to spend half an hour pointlessly driving around a parking lot when you can instead motivate them to stay back and work for another half an hour?

When queues are just waiting lists that don’t actually require you to stand around somewhere (like waiting lists for some types of surgery in Australia) you avoid wasting people’s time but lose any redistribution to the poor and no longer prioritise people who are willing to endure the most queuing. If the resource is needed urgently by some, the unavoidable wait can be very costly to them.

Rather than redistibute resources to the poor by expanding the use of queues, we would do better to price ration everything and deal with equality using cash transfers to the poor. At my university for example, we could raise the price of peak hour parking until queues were eliminated and compensate all students equally by using the extra revenue to offset compulsory student amenity fees.

Israel recently forged Australian passports to perform an assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai. Australia has expelled an Israeli embassy official in protest. If Australia thought assassinating that person was a bad thing to do, obviously we ought to punish Israel both for harming us like this and performing an assassination we disapprove of. But if, like most Australians,  you are broadly supportive of Israel compared with Hamas or Hezbollah a case can be made that the assassination was the right thing to do. Should Australia then punish Israel even if we think they did the right thing by forging our passports? What if we care about Israel fully as much as we care about ourselves?

By punishing them regardless, we preserve the value of our passports and appear to be less slavishly supportive of Israel than we would otherwise. Any harm we dish out to Israel in response probably proportionally reduces the harm to us from our passports losing credibility by discouraging other countries from forging them. We give them good reason to ensure that any use of Australian passports does not become public (which is the only time when it harms Australia). Punishment also means that they will be less inclined to use the passports frivolously, but rather only when truly necessary. In fact, even if we cared as much about Israel’s interests as much we did about our own, it would be optimal if we could transfer all the costs we incur from their abuse of our passports onto the Israelis, so long as punishment were free. Then they would only use the passports when the total benefit outweighed the total cost, or to put it another way, they would only exploit our passports in ways we would approve of them doing so if they asked.

If transferring the harm to Israel is costly to us (that is, it is not offset by reduced harm to us), the optimal amount of punishment is less than the harm we incur. This is simply because when the price of something (in this case passing on the right incentives to people) goes up you should use it less.

If Israel already cares about Australia’s welfare and the punishment is costly, then punishing them with the full amount of harm that we suffer would result in a suboptimal exploitation of Australian passports from our perspective. This is because Israel would ‘double count’ the harm: once when we suffer it, and again when we suffer the costs of imposing the punishment. The more they already care about us, the lower is the optimal amount of costly punishment. Finally, if they care about us as much as about themselves and punishment is free, it doesn’t matter what we do.

In a similar analysis punishing BP for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can be a good idea, even if it were an accident.

Most traits we signal are continuous variables: attractiveness, diligence, intelligence, loyalty etc. However, often the signals onlookers receive about our traits are binary, as are the rewards: did we get a job or scholarship, did we meet a deadline or arrive on time, did that girl reject your advances, etc? When there is a threshold like this it is especially desirable to fall on the good side. Let’s say you get a job if you look 5/10 or better to the selectors. The difference in effort required to move from 4.9 to 5.1 is small, but the difference in how you look to distant others can be large. If the onlooker knows nothing about you, if you don’t get the job you look on average like a 2.5 but if you do get it you look on average like a 7.5.

If the process is competitive, as is the case for most job selections, this means everyone tries very hard to signal effectively and the threshold for apparent competence rises. This is an arms war so overall nobody benefits except the employer who get a more credible signal of dedication and interest in the job. When a process is not competitive, as where people work to meet a deadline in order to seem competent, lots of people will work hard to finish something just before a deadline to avoid looking like they couldn’t do so. If deadlines make it easier for a group to coordinate or you need to overcome personal time inconsistency, this is useful.

This helps explains our caution in telling others about the things we apply for. If we fall on the bad side of the threshold we don’t want them to know we even tried. If we are risk averse with our reputations, this helps explain our reluctance to apply for jobs that we might not get or flirt with people who might reject us, even when we use only a little time and effort in the attempt. It probably contributes to the distress of a divorce or breakup; a marriage that is just short of a divorce can look OK from the outside but if your wife leaves you for all a distant onlooker knows you were a terrible husband. The less effort can substitute for underlying quality when we especially care about the signal we’re going to send, the more threatening a threshold.

These effects should be greater for people who don’t know us well relative to people who do know us well, but in some cases our certification of competence will also be important to our close friends.

Any other consequences of these thresholds you can think of?

Carl Zimmerman forwarded me an interesting article challenging the value of maternity leave in breaking through the glass ceiling:

Harriet Harman’s push for longer maternity leave is undeniably positive for mothers who want to return to the same employer, and it can help women maintain a career foothold after motherhood. But such policies can be harshly counterproductive for women in general, as they prompt employers to avoid hiring or promoting younger women at all.

…if mothers do well out of the current system, their right to take maternity leave can still have a detrimental impact on their employers. Take the example of a London secondary school, which recently appointed an energetic young head with a glowing reputation. But within four years the school was failing so badly that it had to be taken over. Part of the problem was that the new head had had two pregnancies, with two long spells of maternity leave, and then struggled to combine caring for two small children with a demanding full-time job. Although undoubtedly skilled, in practice she was unable to properly perform the role for almost four years. The school had, in effect, been headless.

The strongest evidence of this problem comes from Sweden—often cited by advocates as offering the ideal system, with long parental leave, the right to work part-time, time off for sick children and so forth. Yet several studies by Swedish economists have shown that family-friendly employment policies has been the cause of the glass ceiling for women, not the solution to it. The pay gap in Sweden fell from 33 per cent in 1968, before generous maternity protection was first introduced, to 18 per cent by 1981. But it has been rising gradually ever since then. The reason? Onerous maternity protection leads the private sector to systematically avoid hiring women, who then mostly work in the less well-paid public sector.

The sad result is that the more generous the maternity rights, the less likely women are to reach the top. A 2009 paper by Swedish economist Magnus Henrekson confirms that women are much more likely to reach top executive positions in Anglo-Saxon countries—and especially the US, which has only 12 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave—than in Scandinavia. Other research finds that maternity leave of around three to four months helps women’s employment, but that longer periods lead to what economists call “statistical discrimination” against women collectively. Forcing fathers to take paternity leave, meanwhile, has done little to change sex-roles in Scandinavia, while the vast majority of Swedish mothers were against sharing parental leave with their spouses in surveys carried out before the change was introduced.

The basic problem is that businesses are reluctant to employ women who might have kids because they are then likely to leave the firm or do a lousy job. The result is that women are less likely to be put into important positions where they acquire specialised and hard to replace knowledge and skills. That is to say, most highly valued professions.

Apparently this is bad because it increases the gender wage differential and is ‘unfair’ for women who do not intend to have children but are discriminated against as though they will.

There are two extremes we can use to investigate this dynamic.

If the men and women involved do not have any private knowledge about whether they will want to leave their career to care for children in the future or not and are unwilling to commit right away, then actually there is no problem to correct. It is inefficient for people who might drop their careers soon to be in certain kinds of jobs. At the extreme this is obvious: nobody would suggest NASA should be indifferent to the level of commitment someone has to their career before beginning to train someone as an astronaut. For many positions, a long-term and guaranteed commitment to the position is an important qualification. To ignore commitment, even if it made it easier for some female astronauts to be indecisive about having kids, would just be too costly. If in fact women are much more likely to choose to abandon their careers for children, then it is efficient to employ fewer of them in jobs for which commitment is especially valuable.

If a women values both obtaining such a job and having children (or maintaining the option to do so in the future), she could achieve this by compensating her employer with lower wages than men or childless women. This may go some way to explaining women’s lower wages.

Alternatively, let’s imagine everyone knows perfectly well whether they will want to leave their jobs to raise children or not, but their potential employers do not. In this case we have a problem called ‘asymmetrical information‘ which could lead to ‘adverse selection‘ if employers cannot find a way to distinguish between these two groups. If potential employees cannot credibly signal when they are members of the career-committed group or not, people will end up in jobs mismatched to their level of commitment; the career-committed group will be discouraged from working (they will get lower wages than their productivity would call for); and the uncommited group will be encouraged to work more than they should (because they will over their lives get higher wages than their productivity calls for). Fortunately people who are career committed and do not intend to have children can indeed signal this to potential employers through sterilization or, less drastically, through contractual commitments such as fines for having children while in the employment of a firm. If we don’t see such signalling, this presumably means people don’t know their future plans, can signal their level of commitment effectively in other ways or that such methods are impossible (fines are not possible to recover or sterilization can be undone).

Either way, it seems there is nothing a government or do-gooder could do here to improve the situation except facilitate people’s ability to credibly signal their intention to have children or not.

If the fact that women are more inclined to take time off from their careers to raise children and do other non-market labour is judged an unfortunate burden for them (the opposite of the truth in my view given parents in partnerships report preferring caring for children to work), then the best thing would be to redistribute money to women by charging them lower taxes or offering more generous welfare. To be consistent hopefully though they would also be charged through taxes for their higher life expectancies!

Should we change parenting gender norms?

A friend of mine also suggested this:

It would make sense for the government to offer very generous paternity leave, more generous than anything women got. This would help coax more men into become stay-at -home fathers and to leave women as the bread-winners. This would have two advantages: in the long term breaking down genderstyped contraints about work/parenting in society; secondly making it harder for employers to reject women in lieu of a man, if they suspect the woman’s going to leave to have a baby, because men would be just as likely to do the same.

Assuming this paternity leave were successful at coaxing men into becoming stay-at-home fathers, though the story above suggests this is unlikely, would this be beneficial? If gender stereotypes are such that even women who are committed to their careers or men who are committed to being stay-at-home fathers were unable to do so, it might. The above would suggest that women who are truly sure they don’t want to have children are able to display this to potential employers when it is important. But it’s harder for a woman to prove that her husband will look after the kids until he does so so reducing gender norms could be useful for a women in that situation (though it would also increase their number and perhaps the aggregate cost). Potential stay-at-home fathers could be prevented from following their ambition by the disrespect of  friends and family or being unable to find a partner who wants a career instead. Reducing gender norms helps with the first. But increasing preferences diversity within genders makes finding a compatible partner harder: if all women want children and all men want careers it is easier to find a partner who wants the opposite to you than if half of each gender wants each option.

Making both genders equally likely to care for kids also has the downside that it will increase job-commitment mismatch by making it harder for anyone to guess ahead of time who will be committed and who will not.

Given that both market and non-market work (housework and child rearing) has to be done, it’s possible that we’re better off socialising each gender to enjoy a different job. That way nobody need suffer a task they dislike. While in theory we could pick men and women at random and encourage them to value one or the other task, it is easier to socialise genders as a group; messages are easily targetted and made persuasive for gender groups in a way impossible for randomly chosen groups. This benefit is smaller if innate preferences or aptitude for market and non-market work are strong and cut randomly across gender lines (something I know little about).

All the recent talk about nuclear disarmament reminded me of a paper by Tom Schelling. As described by Dan Cole:

“In the Fall 2009 issue of Daedalus, Tom Schelling explains cogently why a world without nuclear weapons would not necessarily be safer world. After all, we cannot dis-invent nuclear weapons, which means that the possibility of rearming will remain; and existing nuclear powers can be expected to have rapid rearmament plans in place, should conflicts arise, to ensure that they are not left exposed should their adversaries rearm. The first to rearm might, after all, have an incentive to undertake a preemptive nuclear strike in the absence of deterrence. Thus, ironically, complete nuclear disarmament could increase the risk of  nuclear war.

Schelling’s article is a direct and persuasive response to a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, by what Schelling terms the “unexpected combination” of Henry Kissinger, William J. Perry, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn, who advocate for complete nuclear disarmament (see, e.g., here and here).

Schelling’s 2005 Nobel Prize lecture focused on the fortuitous but seemingly durable “taboo” that has surrounded the use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The lecture can be read here, or viewed here.”

This seems an obvious point that someone who has spent their life working on nuclear strategy should be well aware of. My standard explanation for conspicuous oversights like this is that noticing and talking about them makes the speaker look like a cynic, while ignoring the problem and advocating total nuclear disarmament makes them seem nice and idealistic. However, Schelling’s point makes him seem analytical and intelligent. Why would a bunch of generals and international relations gurus want to come across as nice rather than smart?

Alternatively the proponents of nuclear disarmament, even those who understand game theory, might be stuck in fuzzy far mode (primed here by: “self-control; ends; over-confident; theory/trend-following typical unlikely unreal global events; abstract, schematic, context-free, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic ideal moral concerns“) and so prevented from thinking about the situation concretely and strategically.

Is Schelling on to something? If so, why does this problem go ignored?

Added: Maybe there is no first strike advantage for big nations.

Near the end of the affecting documentary The Cove, the activists campaigning to stop the slaughter of dolphins and whales by the Japanese suggest that it is impossible to explain the ongoing slaughter on the basis of economics, science or gastronomy. Rather they put it down to nationalist and imperialist fervor. Put more simply, it looks like the Japanese in a typical display of human tribal pride, don’t want to be bossed around by obnoxious Westerners. If this is correct, the Western activists trying to shame the Japanese into abandoning their admittedly horribly cruel dolphin massacre may actually just be causing the Japanese to dig in their heals and continue something they otherwise wouldn’t care much about either way.

Whether this is really the case or not, I’m not sure. What is interesting is that this possibility goes totally unexamined by the campaigners and the rest of the film.

If the balance of evidence did suggest that this was the situation animal welfare campaigners faced, does anyone think that they (or we) would decide to ignore the issue in the hope that doing so would make the Japanese more likely to abandon the slaughter? Unlikely. Sometimes we want to (be seen to) fight something we dislike more than we actually want it to stop.

Can anyone think of similar examples?

A bunch of people not looking for a light switch.

A major function of a dance floor is to facilitate finding and attracting partners. When we meet new potential friends and lovers we usually want to learn a lot about them quickly in order to determine whether they are people want to bond with and to suss out their intentions towards us. Given how much bars, clubs and dance floors are used to meet new people, it is surprising that they are often poorly lit, crowded and noisy to the point where conversation is impossible. Strobe lights seem purpose built to ration what little we can see of others. This all makes it harder to work out whether another person is attractive to us or not, and to suss out how they feel about us. In other words, a club would be a terrible place to conduct a job interview. Why design them this way when a major purpose of dancing in the first place is in assisting informed mate selection.

Others can’t assess you as closely either. Of course, if you’ve got something to hide this is great, but if your concealed traits are positive this is no good at all. Shouldn’t such an environment attract an undesirable number of people with features they’d like to hide?

Dancing can occur in well lit, low volume, spacious locales, so why the switch to environments that mask our signals?

Such an environment does have the upside of making it possible to inconspicuously approach others; the rest of the dance floor can’t clearly see who you are approach, or if you are rejected, so each approach carries a smaller reputational risk. Perhaps it’s because we drink and spend more when we can’t have conversations, and enough people a just out with familiar friends? Perhaps we specifically want to deaden our standards? The less we know about the other person the more likely we are to find them acceptable partners for a single night at least. Perhaps drunk people are so transparent we hardly need the assistance of good lighting?

What do you think?

Related to: Choosing the best status games for society

Reijo Laukkanen explains the remarkably successful Finnish education system:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What do you think are some of the major reasons for [Finland’s] success?

LAUKKANEN: Teachers. They are the most important [aspect of] Finnish success …

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: We’ve also learned that teachers are very well respected and that in fact many people want to become teachers. Is this true in your experience?

LAUKKANEN: Yes, this is. It is very, very true. Because only a small part of those who apply to teacher education can really get there. [There] was some years ago a poll by the biggest Finnish newspaper that found out that for those in upper secondary education, teacher education was the most popular choice.


LAUKKANEN: Yes. Yes, and it has continued like that. It’s interesting, because I know that in some other countries the situation is such that students first try to have all the other faculties, and those who can’t go to the other faculties, they go to teacher education.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: How do you evaluate teachers in Finland? Is there a strong system for doing this?

LAUKKANEN: No. We don’t have any evaluation of teachers after teachers have been at university…, have their papers and… get their posting in a school. So nobody evaluates teachers. We don’t have that kind of tradition. We had it before, when we had inspectorate in Finland in [the] 1970s and in the beginning of [the] 1980s, but not anymore. Nobody evaluates teachers.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: And this is simply because you trust your teachers.

LAUKKANEN: That’s it. We talk about the culture of trust, and we really can trust [them], because [of] the working morale and the working ethics of the teachers. It’s very high, and we can also trust that they are competent; they know what to do.

In Australia we often hear that education would be better if teachers were more respected (in the view of teachers, starting with higher pay), and judging by the Finnish experience this would indeed lead to smarter and more diligent educators. However, we should look not only at what we immediately see, but also what we don’t. I imagine other fields that in Australia are high status like politics, finance, medicine, law and academia all suffer somewhat in Finland because some very productive people decide to go into education instead. As a general rule it is better to have smart people go into more meta occupations as they can have a bigger impact there. Good teachers can clearly assist many people, but so can good bankers and researchers as long as they have the right incentives. Overall, is it good to have teaching as a high status profession? I have no idea.

I also don’t know whether Australia could get to where Finland is. Status games are hard to change – Finland is in a stable equilibrium and so is Australia. If Australia put in place Finnish requirements (a PhD!), teaching would immediately become more prestigious but we would also lose most of our teachers until bright youngsters entered the profession. The only practical way would be to go slowly, but it’s hard to be consistent in such policies over decades. Making teaching high status would require ruthless elimination of notably stupid or unmotivated teachers who lower everyone’s opinion of the profession. I doubt teacher’s unions will be enthusiastic and incumbents have the most concentrated interest.

Also: Sweden tries education vouchers.

Wild animals can count on human avarice, but not compassion, to end their suffering.

David Pearce endorses reprogramming nature to reduce wild animal suffering:

“A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of human well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionate global ecosystem. Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice whether intelligent moral agents opt to create such a world – or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.

Conversely, members of “prey” species can be bio-engineered to lose their currently well-justified terror of predators. Again, this re-engineering sounds technically daunting. Yet recall how rodents infected with the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii lose their normal fears and actually seek out cat urine-marked areas. Pharmacology, neuroelectrodes and genetic technologies all offer possible solutions to the molecular pathology of fear when its persistence becomes functionally redundant. In the long run, the same kinds of hedonic enrichment, intelligence-amplification and life-extension technologies available to humans later this century can be extended across the phylogenetic tree.

The technical details of such a program are of course challenging, to say the least. Nature has few food chains in the strict sense; complex food webs abound.”

I agree with David that we should worry about the suffering of animals in the wild as much as the suffering of anyone else. David is doing a great service by raising such an ignored issue. However, I think it is exceedingly unlikely that humans or their descendants will ever decide to reengineer nature along these lines.

It would be a hugely expensive engineering project which would mostly benefit animals we do not have much concern for. Humans as we are currently programmed have compassion for specific animals in order to show how empathetic and loyal we are (especially animals which look like human children) and occasionally develop more consistent compassion for animals in general as a way of showing how nice and intelligent we are or to show we identify as members of a specific group (utilitarians, liberals, consistent people).

Our general disregard is shown by the fact that most humans are comfortable torturing animals far away from themselves, merely to make their products especially cheap to eat. We don’t have to worry about looking bad eating factory farmed meat because (i) most people do it so we won’t stick out (ii) are not friends with farm animals, unlike pets, and so don’t need to show we are loyal people by caring for them (iii) we almost never see them, so paying for them to be tortured doesn’t make us look unempathetic (iv) most people are do not reflect on their core values in detail and so don’t notice when they are hypocrites (consistency isn’t a trait much valued by others anyway).

If we care so little for the welfare of animals under our direct control, it is hard to believe we will ever care so much for animals far away that we will dedicate vast resources to reengineering the world’s ecosystem.

Noticing this, we might be optimistic that future humans will reprogram themselves to using either biotechnology or computers if we exist as emulations. Transhumans could choose to become more compassionate or loyal (which is really just extra compassion for people close to us) in order to better succeed in society. More loyalty would work against far away animals, while more raw compassion would work in their favour. Some compassion is useful for helping us to avoid a bad reputation in society, but too much is bad for us because it causes us to sacrifice ourselves for others or at least feel bad about their suffering. Because of this downside, it is unlikely that future humans will choose more empathy than is needed to prevent us breaking the laws and norms of society. If running as emulations makes our character traits more transparent then we will need compassion for animals even less – we mostly use our attitude towards animals as a signal of other traits. Either way, wild animals are unlikely to get much love from future ‘transhumans’ unless we can find no way to make ourselves more desirable to interact with without inadvertently also increasing our compassion for those animals. If we start by increasing our intelligence alone, it is likely that animals will get more compassion because intelligent people worry more about consistency. I expect intelligent people would run themselves in circles trying to consistently implement all of their conflicting values and so would also want to program themselves to become more self serving, but that’s harder to predict.

There is another path to ending animal suffering in nature which is much more likely to predict. We are on track to destroy nature and turn its resources over to beings like humans and their descendants who have the skills needed to create a lot of wealth and buy whatever they need to be happy.

Robin Hanson confident predicts humans will absorb and destroy nature once they work out how to produce for themselves the resources what they currently derive from nature:

“With familiar competitive habits, this growth rate change implies falling wages for intelligent labor, canceling nature’s recent high-wage reprieve.  So if we continue to use all the nature our abilities allow, abilities growing much faster than nature’s abilities to resist us, within ten thousand years at most (and more likely a few centuries) we’ll use pretty much all of nature, with only farms, pets and (economically) small parks remaining.  If we keep growing competitively, nature is doomed.

Of course for we’ll still need some functioning ecosystems to support farming a while longer, until we learn how to make food without farms, or bodies using simpler fuels.  Hopefully we’ll assimilate most innovations worth digging out of nature, and deep underground single cell life will probably last the longest.  But these may be cold comfort to most nature lovers.”

If our descendants ever do get rich enough that reengineering nature is a cheap project they would want to pursue, they will probably already have destroyed most wilderness in the process.

Given the vast suffering that exists in nature, and the fact that our descendants will probably be able to reengineer themselves to be happy even on very low incomes and even replicate the joy they experience when in nature, maybe we shouldn’t be as sad to see it go as most would be today. I would, of course, rather see thriving, happy herbivorous animals in the wilderness. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like the realistic alternative.

There are moral reasons we might think this isn’t the case. Many, if not most people, think that nature has intrinsic value – this would have to be weighed against the suffering in nature. Deontologists may believe that potential future wild animals have a right to exist that we would violate by shrinking the wilderness. There are also practical uncertainties, such as the risk that we will shrink the wilderness while we still need it, and inadvertently destroy ourselves in the process. The quality of life of animals in nature is also uncertain, both because we don’t understand animals’ experiences, and because we don’t know how those translate to sensations. Despite regular risks of hunger and predation, it may nevertheless be the case that wild animals have a good quality of life.

Evaluating these arguments is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I would love to see more debate about them.

“In 1957, after being rejected by several other firms, On the Road was finally purchased by Viking Press, which demanded major revisions prior to publication.[25] Many of the more sexually explicit passages were removed and, fearing libel suits,pseudonyms were used for the books “characters.” These revisions have often led to criticisms as to the actual spontaneity of Kerouac’s style.[24]” Wikipedia

It’s nice that you wrote a classic American novel – but really we’d be more impressed if you did it on the first draft.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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