• ## Gas taxes for thee, but not for me

It’s pretty easy to find instances of people claiming to support some goal but opposing Pigovian taxes that work toward that goal. Economists love Pigovian taxes. Why don’t the laity? Some objections seems to be based on a misunderstanding—the distributional impact of a well-designed gas tax, for example—while others—the preference for allowing harm over doing harm—seem to be more dearly held.

Paris and other French cities have recently been the site of large and heated (there were fires) protests. The most prominent symbol of the protests is the high-visibility gilets jaunes which all French motorists are required to own. This symbol is fitting for a series of protests that coalesced in opposition to an increase in the gas tax. While this protest (and any other protest) isn’t about a single grievance, it certainly seems to signify something about the popular opinion of gas taxes.

These protests pair somewhat uncomfortably1 with the popular march against climate change in Paris just three months ago.

This pattern seems common: Acknowledgment that global warming and excessive fossil fuel use are problems which must be addressed followed by reluctance or opposition to concrete responses (Leiserowitz 2006).

Other examples include:

Washington Initiative 732
A 2016 revenue neutral carbon tax that would have used revenues from the tax to reduce the (highly regressive) state sales tax and increase a low-income tax credit. It lost despite Washington’s reputation for environmental concern.
Washington Initiative 1631
A 2018 carbon tax that would have used revenue from the tax to invest in green initiatives and other infrastructure projects. Again, the measure did not pass.2
Australian carbon tax
Introduced in 2012 by the Labor government, it was repealed in 2014 by the Liberal government.

(Carbon taxes aren’t always doomed to failure. British Columbia has had a carbon tax of $35 per tonne in place since 2008. Sweden has the world’s highest carbon tax at about$138 per tonne. California recently voted down a repeal of recent gas tax increases.)

### Pigovian taxes

#### What are Pigovian taxes?

So gas and carbon taxes are controversial with the public. Not so for economists and technocrats. They are both examples of Pigovian taxes. In brief, Pigovian taxes seek to correct market failures arising from negative externalities. A negative externality is any cost generated by a market activity that is not priced into the market exchange.

For example, local air pollution caused by combustion of gasoline harms other nearby people—think especially of those who don’t even own a car—who receive nothing in exchange for bearing this harm. Because these costs aren’t included in the price of gasoline, gas is cheaper than it ought to be, all things considered. This leads to overconsumption of gasoline.

A Pigovian tax tries to remedy this market failure by making the ‘invisible’ costs of externalities manifest via a tax. If the total external costs of driving—due to externalities like greenhouse warming, congestion and local pollution—amount to $1.76 per gallon (an estimate from (Parry, Walls, and Harrington 2007)), a tax of$1.76 on each gallon forces the gasoline purchaser to ‘internalize’ those costs—account for the social harm they are creating with their actions.

#### A tax only an economist could love

“Economists are in almost universal agreement that, in concept, pollution taxes are the most cost-effective means of reducing pollution” (Hsu 2009). In a direct survey, 65% of economists attested that there should be an overall increase in energy taxes (Whaples 2006). Gregory Mankiw keeps a partial list of prominent economists that support Pigovian taxes in the form of the membership rolls of the Pigou Club.

Contrariwise, only 5% of the general public supported a tax on driving in a 2007 survey.

For a (very accessible) fuller discussion in support of Pigovian taxes from an economist, see (Mankiw 2009).

### Reasons to oppose

I’ll confess myself to be on the side of economists when it comes to Pigovian taxes. I’m then left with the question, why are they so unpopular with the general public? There are many possible reasons which we’ll now rehearse (Though we will stick to arguments where there’s something interesting to say about Pigovian taxes specifically; we won’t rehash arguments about whether the government should ever intervene in the market, can be trusted, &c.) . Since the case for Pigovian taxes rests on both positive (these are the effects of Pigovian taxes) and normative (these effects are good) premises, we’ll categorize3 the objections as:

1. Misapprehensions of the positive
2. Disagreements with the positive
3. Misapprehensions of the normative
4. Disagreements with the normative

Nearly all Arabic words consist of a three-consonant root slotted into a pattern of vowels and helper consonants. The root gives the word its base meaning, while the pattern modifies this meaning in a systematic and predictable way. This idea is so cool that you’d think it came from a constructed language, and yet Arabic has actual native speakers who live completely normal lives and will not try to talk to you about Runescape.

[…]

Here are some common patterns using the root k t b, whose basic meaning is ‘writing’:

pattern pattern meaning result
m–a-a place name مكتبة maktaba (library)
-aa-i- active participle كاتب kaatib (writer)
ma–uu- passive participle مكتوب maktuub (written)
-a-a-a basic verb كتب kataba (to write)
a–a-a causative verb أكتب aktaba (to dictate)
-i-aa- noun كتاب kitaab (book)
-u-u- plural noun كتب kutub (books)

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that uncomfortable discussions about questionable [research] practices disproportionately seem to end with a chuckle or shrug, followed by a comment to the effect that we are all extremely sophisticated human beings who recognize the complexity of the world we live in, and sure it would be great if we lived in a world where one didn’t have to occasionally engage in shenanigans, but that would be extremely naive, and after all, we are not naive, are we?

[…]

Imagine if every time you went to your doctor—and I’m aware that this analogy won’t work well for people living outside the United States—she sent you to get a dozen expensive and completely unnecessary medical tests, and then, when prompted for an explanation, simply shrugged and said “I know I’m not an angel—but hey, them’s The Incentives.”

“This prison gives me a sense of freedom,” said Park Hye-ri, a 28-year-old office worker who paid \$90 to spend 24 hours locked up in a mock prison.

[…]

Clients get a blue prison uniform, a yoga mat, tea set, a pen and notebook. They sleep on the floor. There is a small toilet inside the room, but no mirror.

[…] after academic publisher Elsevier applied for an order to ban a series of domain names, including Sci-Hub.

[…]

So, in addition, Bahnhof has gone ahead and banned its visitors from accessing the official Elsevier.com website as well.

• ## Anthropological Clickbait

Curios from (Ember, Ember, and Peregrine 2014) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts. No judgment intended or permitted—we’re all Boasians here.

### Culture change

#### On great men of history

Within 50 years, paper was being made in many places in central China. Although the art of papermaking was kept secret for about 500 years, it was distributed as a commodity to much of the Arab world through the markets at Samarkand. But when Samarkand was attacked by the Chinese in A.D. 751, a Chinese prisoner of war was forced to set up a paper mill. Paper manufacture soon spread to the rest of the Arab world

#### On inventing

In stimulus diffusion, knowledge of a trait belonging to another culture stimulates the invention or development of a local equivalent. A classic example of stimulus diffusion is the Cherokee syllabic writing system created by a Native American named Sequoya so that his people could write down their language. Sequoya got the idea from his contact with Europeans.

### Childhood

#### On the prevalence of infant mortality

cross-culturally, parent–child play is exceedingly rare […] Lack of play with parents may be related to the same factor that probably explains high responsiveness to infant physical needs—high mortality of infants and the psychological need of parents to create emotional distance.

#### On appropriate behavior

Some societies actively encourage children to be aggressive, not only to each other but even to the parents. Among the Xhosa of southern Africa, 2- or 3-year-old boys will be prodded to hit each other in the face while women look on laughing. Similar behavior is described for the Gapun of Papua New Guinea; even raising a knife to an older sibling is rewarded. Yanomamö boys of the Venezuelan-Brazilian Amazon are encouraged to be aggressive and are rarely punished for hitting either their parents or the girls in the village.

[…]

Although Ariwari is only about 4 years old, he has already learned that the appropriate response to a flash of anger is to strike someone with his hand or with an object, and it is not uncommon for him to give his father a healthy smack in the face whenever something displeases him.

### Communication and language

#### On gendered language

In Japan, males and females use entirely different words for numerous concepts (e.g., the male word for water is mizu; the female version is ohiya)

#### On forensic linguistics

Some linguists believe that the approximate location of a protolanguage is suggested by the words for plants and animals in the derived languages. More specifically, among these different languages, the words that are cognates—that is, words that are similar in sound and meaning—presumably refer to plants and animals that were present in the original homeland. So, if we know where those animals and plants were located 5,000 years to 6,000 years ago, we can guess where PIE people lived.

#### On universal grammar

[Bickerton] says that the “errors” children make in speaking are consistent with the grammar of creoles. For example, English-speaking children 3 to 4 years old tend to ask questions by intonation alone, and they tend to use double negatives, such as “I don’t see no dog,” even though the adults around them do not speak that way

• ## YAAS Social Norms

Social norms are collective behaviors conditional on empirical and normative social expectations. We can confirm their existence in the world via carefully constructed measurement, usually in the form of questionnaires. Changing a harmful norm requires not just changing individuals but changing a community and making that change common knowledge. It may also require solving collective action problems.

When agents act or plan to act, they do so on the basis of both beliefs and preferences. Alternatively, we can phrase these as reasons and passions. Or we can say that a reward function and a model of the environment are required for a policy.

### Foundation

Before we can analyze collective behavior, we have to make a few foundational distinctions.

#### Preferences

##### Individual or social

Preferences can be either individual or social preferences. Social preferences are those that “take into account the behavior, beliefs, and outcomes of other people” while individual preferences do not (Bicchieri 2016). (Example to come.) This distinction is important because changing individual preferences can plausibly happen in isolation, one person after another. Changing social preferences on the other hand is more likely to require coordinated group action.

##### Conditional or unconditional

Preferences can also be conditional or unconditional1. Conditional preferences are those that vary with some feature of the environment while unconditional preferences do not. This is an important distinction because a social engineer can change the way conditional preferences manifest by changing the environment while unconditional preferences can only be altered in a direct confrontation.

NitW also draws a distinction between prudential and moral preferences. I think these can be viewed as a special case of conditional and unconditional preferences. It seems we can gloss these to preferences which seek to satisfy instrumental or intrinsic values. Preferring not to cheat out of a fear of getting caught is a prudential preference; preferring not to cheat because it’s an odious breach of faith is a moral preference. This distinction is important because moral preferences are typically more stable—prudential preferences may change with changing circumstances while moral preferences will not.

##### Together

If we put these two axes together, we end up with a classificatory grid like this:

• ## The curse of the altruistic voter

If voters have social preferences (second-order preferences about the preference satisfaction of others) and imperfect information, voting altruistically may produce worse outcomes—for the individual voter and for society at large—than ignoring their social preferences and voting egocentrically. This problem seems like it may actually be common in the real world. While I doubt any voting system can eliminate it, including information about private preferences in polls may ameliorate it.

Broke
Voting on election day
Woke
Advocating for alternative voting systems on election day
Bespoke
Talking about obscure desiderata of voting systems on election day

### Scenario

#### Narrative

Suppose you’re voting on increased funding for the local library. You don’t personally use the library much, but you figure that others in the polity are reliant on the library. Out of a sense of solidarity you vote for increased funding even though, from a purely egocentric perspective, this reduces your welfare (i.e. the increased cost outweighs your private benefit). When results come in, the library funding measure passes in a landslide and you bask in your altruism.

Alas, the voting results are no guarantee that you’ve actually acted altruistically. It’s entirely possible that you misunderstood the preferences of others and that the polity has made a decision that’s net harmful.

#### Numerical

For generality, we’ll call voting for increased library funding option $$\alpha$$ and voting against (the status quo) option $$\beta$$.

The table outlines a scenario in which each of three voters (it’s a small polity) prefers option $$\beta$$. Unfortunately, they’ve each come to the inaccurate belief that each other voter prefers option $$\alpha$$. That is voter A slightly prefers $$\beta$$ but believes voter B and voter C each slightly prefer $$\alpha$$.

If our voters are good utilitarians in a first-past-the-post system, they’ll all vote for $$\alpha$$ (because $$1 + 1 - 1 > 0 + 0 + 0$$) and it will win. The resulting social welfare will be $$-3 = 3 \cdot -1$$. If our voters had voted in a purely egocentric manner—ignoring the preferences of others, they would each pick $$\beta$$ and the social welfare would have been $$0 = 3 \cdot 0$$.

This is pretty perverse—our voters have selected the social welfare minimizing option despite their scrupulous motives and they would have better achieved their altruistic ends by voting selfishly!

Evolving Floor Plans is an experimental research project exploring speculative, optimized floor plan layouts. The rooms and expected flow of people are given to a genetic algorithm which attempts to optimize the layout to minimize walking time, the use of hallways, etc.
Really good ocean. Not the best hurricane basin, but very large and full of swift currents and interesting fauna. If you’re only going to see one ocean, it should be this one. —Kiefer Hicks
One star deducted due to great big garbage patch. One additional star deducted for proximity to California. Try visiting the Atlantic Ocean instead. Pic unrelated. —Edward Drawde

Interesting example of unintended consequences:

So, the potential logic here is that if your parents know you are going to end up living with them (and supporting them—not living in their basement and eating their food), they’ll invest more in your education. […] On average, [after the introduction of a national pension program,] fully treated women experience a 6.7 percentage point (7.6 percent) drop in the likelihood of completing primary school, a 3.3 percentage point (10 percent) drop in secondary, and a 1.1 percentage point (20 percent) drop in attending university.

Vividly illustrates the garden of forking paths (Gelman and Loken 2013):

Twenty-nine teams involving 61 analysts used the same data set to address the same research question: whether soccer referees are more likely to give red cards to dark-skin-toned players than to light-skin-toned players. Analytic approaches varied widely across the teams, and the estimated effect sizes ranged from 0.89 to 2.93 (Mdn = 1.31) in odds-ratio units. Twenty teams (69%) found a statistically significant positive effect, and 9 teams (31%) did not observe a significant relationship. Overall, the 29 different analyses used 21 unique combinations of covariates.

[…]

Analysts’ subjective beliefs about the research hypothesis were assessed four times during the project: at initial registration (i.e., before they had received the data), after they had accessed the data and submitted their analytic approach, at the time final analyses were submitted, and after a group discussion of all the teams’ approaches and results.

More long-term results on direct cash transfers. Also mixed. See earlier discussion. Awaiting GiveWell’s promised update eagerly.

• ## Clickbait from Norms in the Wild

Curios from (Bicchieri 2016) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts.

### On honoring infants

From UNICEF participants in our training program I learned that in many parts of Africa milk is classified as “hot” and water “cold,” that honored guests are given water, and that children are treated like honored guests. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On diarrhetic taxonomies

Norms in the Wild emphasizes that would-be reformers must understand not only local conditions (physical facts) but also local understandings (beliefs about those facts and schema). It illustrates the point with this vivid example:

For example, Yoder (1995) demonstrated that local Zairian understandings of the nature, causes, and appropriate treatment of childhood diarrhea differed considerably from the contemporary biomedical approach. What most Westerners would consider a case of diarrhea could be classified as one of six different diseases by residents of Lubumbashi, Zaire, depending on the perceived symptoms of the sufferer. All of the diseases feature frequent stools as one of their central symptoms, but only Kauhara (one of the local terms for a type of diarrhea) was functionally equated with what a medical practitioner would diagnose as diarrhea. Other diarrheal classifications, such as Lukunga, which featured a “clacking sound” in the mouth as a critical symptom (in addition to frequent stools), was not equated with the typical medical diagnosis. When various organizations tried to inform Zairians about appropriate treatments for diarrhea, many locals likely interpreted the information to be only specific to Kauhara (and not other local disease classifications). In line with this assertion, the sampled Zairians in Yoder’s (1995) study readily *gave the appropriate treatment (e.g., oral rehydration therapy) to their children if they were thought to have Kahuara but not if they were thought to have another diarrheal disease. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On taming poop

Open defecation is the practice of defecating outside in something like a field rather than a toilet. It’s still common in many parts of the world despite being a public health nightmare. When trying to eliminate open defecation:

In some such interventions, facilitators will lead groups of people through the heart of open defecation fields, effectively triggering collective feelings of disgust and embarrassment. Later the facilitators will place feces next to food, and point out how flies will flit back and forth between them, effectively simulating the disease transmission process. Through this example, food that is left out near feces is linked with feelings of disgust. The facilitator can also smear her hands with clay or charcoal, wipe them on a leaf (simulating having fecal matter on one’s hands even after wiping them “clean”), and shake hands with members of the community. The community members will get a little clay or charcoal on their hands, and consequently those who do not adequately wash their hands will be seen as disgusting. (Bicchieri 2016)
All the communities where the practice was successfully abandoned collectively decided to sanction transgressions and closely monitored adherence to the new behavior. Children may go around with whistles drawing attention to the defectors, and elders may take long sticks, ready to “slap the wrists” of anyone who violates the new rule. (Bicchieri 2016)

### On reluctant female genital cutting

Pluralistic ignorance describes scenarios in which group members conform to a norm they each privately reject because each falsely believe that others accept the norm. It seems to sometimes explain the persistence of female genital cutting.

• ## YAAS

The “amateur” part isn’t an entirely false modesty. I am indeed often summarizing works in areas where I have limited experience and I’m certainly not paid for it. As such, despite my best efforts, I will assuredly sometimes mangle the subject matter. Once we both acknowledge this, we’re left with the question: Why bother to read or write these summaries?

### For you

I can think of a few reasons you might like to read these summaries despite those limitations:

#### Curse of expertise

Experts may1 be worse at explaining material than intermediate practitioners due to heuristics like anchoring and availability (Hinds 1999). Anecdotally, it seems like professors who know the material too well to explain it are a common experience. As someone who has just learned the material I’m summarizing, I may be well-positioned to explain it.

#### Length

As the perennial popularity of summarizers attests, there’s an audience for condensed versions of books. Existing summarizers seem to target self-help and management books though. I, on the other hand, expect to target a more niche and academic set of books. I’ll somewhat cheekily summarize that as: If it’s ever been on a best-seller list, don’t expect to see it here.

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