Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today’s episode is with Russ Roberts, the host of my favourite podcast, EconTalk.
I was excited to speak to Russ because he has influenced my thinking a lot over the years, but has a somewhat skeptical take on effective altruism and what 80,000 Hours is doing.
Disagreement from smart people who you otherwise often agree with tends to be especially valuable.
I’m happy to say that I think we found that we agree on more than we initially thought, though that’s not true of every topic.
In the first section we talk about effective altruism and our different perceptions of what ideas the associated community actually stands for. We then talk about whether it would actually be good to get people to care about all beings regardless of who or where they are, or good to improve coordination between countries. Next we turn to empirical research and to what extent it can be relied on. And then finally we discuss Russ’ concerns with utilitarianism.
EconTalk is a very educational show which I’ve been listening to for 12 years. Because it’s been running weekly since 2006 there’s a huge back catalogue of 750 episodes you could work through. That makes it hard to find the all-time best episodes.
If you stick around until the end of the episode I’ll let you know how you can get a feed of my recommended top 100 episodes of the show to work though.
Alright, without further ado, here’s my interview with Russ.
The interview begins [00:01:48]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Russ Roberts. Russ is an economist and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He did his economics PhD at the University of Chicago back in 1981, studying government transfer programs under the supervision of Gary Becker. In recent decades, Russ has focused on communicating economic ideas to the general public, including through books such as How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness and The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity. But above all, for me, anyway, he’s the creator and host of EconTalk, a weekly podcast featuring fairly academic hour-long interviews. EconTalk has actually been running since 2006, recently celebrating its 750th episode, and was part of the inspiration for me to create this show. In fact, I’ve been a listener to EconTalk, a subscriber, since I started studying economics as an undergrad back in 2008, and have literally listened to every single one of those interviews, in many cases more than once. Yesterday, I calculated that that means I’ve probably spent 300 to 500 hours listening to Russ’s voice, which is 20 days constantly without sleep, which is surely more than anyone outside my immediate family and friendship group, and probably more than a lot of them as well. So thanks for coming on the podcast, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Great to be with you, Rob. It’s a little frightening, but I appreciate the time you’ve devoted to EconTalk.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I’m sure I’m one of many. Hundreds, possibly thousands. I hope to talk about your views on effective altruism, utilitarianism and empirical social science. But first off, as I ask almost everyone, what are you working on these days and why do you think it’s important work?
Russ Roberts: Well, as it turns out, I’m writing a book on these issues, the question of how do we deal with uncertainty and to what extent does data help us make decisions? And the answer is, of course, data is often very helpful. But I think data’s often misleading. It’s seductive, and in our personal lives, where we often have to make decisions facing irreducible uncertainty, what do we do? How do we deal with that? And I think we have a temptation to use data anyway, and I think that’s a mistake. So I’m interested in all the issues that I hope we’ll be talking about today. How do we make decisions across individuals when utilitarianism comes into that? How do we decide how to spend our charitable dollars, the question of effective altruism? How do we decide how to spend our lives, so what should we work on? How should we see our careers as a mix of our personal fulfillment or trying to make the world a better place? I know these are things you’re deeply interested in and I’m deeply interested in them too, and I think we look at them differently, so I think it should be a good conversation.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Fantastic. I know you have a lot of thoughts on these issues, but I guess if you’re writing a book about it, you might have even more than I bargained for. Yeah, so my plan for this episode is a bit different than what we usually do. Most often, I let guests kind of outline their views on a topic for a while, half an hour, about some book that they’ve written and then I raise some possible counter arguments. But a benefit of having listened to your show so much over the years is that I have a reasonable idea of some topics where I think we might disagree now, but where I think we could converge at least a bit if we spoke about the topic for a bit. And then there’s a bunch of practical issues there, like climate change, or the impact AI might have on the future, or what’s the right role for private philanthropy, and whether people can be happy and satisfied with their lives without having a job at all. And all those will be exciting, but today I want to kind of focus first on three more fundamental topics.
Robert Wiblin: The first of those is effective altruism and 80,000 Hours as a career advising project, which I think you admire in some ways, but also have some reservations about, as you mentioned. Then the second is how much we should trust empirical research in economics and medicine and psychology. I guess I have a somewhat pessimistic take, which is that we should trust it less than most people think, but I think you have maybe an even more pessimistic take. And the third is the ethical theory of utilitarianism and weighing up welfare between different people which I’m pretty enthusiastic about, but I think both of which you’re not so keen on. So does that sound like a good plan?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sounds great.
RCTs and donations [00:05:15]
Robert Wiblin: All right. So first let’s chat about effective altruism and 80,000 Hours. Those topics have come up on EconTalk a few times over the years in your interviews with Will MacAskill and Peter Singer and L.A. Paul somewhat recently, and Paul Bloom a couple of years ago. I don’t expect you’ll have encyclopedic knowledge of our website, but I think you know a little bit about it. What do you think of as the distinctive parts of effective altruism? I just want to kind of make sure first that we’re not talking at cross purposes.
Russ Roberts: I’m a big fan of the idea of it. I try to give 10% of my income to charity, my after-tax income. I think it matters. I think it’s important. And I think it’s important that it not just be some form of making yourself feel good, but actually makes the world a better place, or at least heads in that direction. What I like about effective altruism, and I think is extremely important, is its focus on results. I think it’s tempting and easy to give money to charity you’d say, “Well, I did a good deed. I gave away some money. I made a sacrifice.” And so I think the focus of the effective altruism movement on outcomes is really a fantastic idea.
Russ Roberts: Where I’m more skeptical, though, is the idea that we can use science or statistics or data to reliably hand out that money effectively. So while I applaud the idea that we should try to have impact, not just make a sacrifice, I think it’s hard to know when that impact is real. And so while I applaud the focus of the effective altruism movement, I’m not as optimistic that they can be successful.
Robert Wiblin: Nice. So yeah, there’s two aspects there. One is the donating and the other is using data to figure out how that money can go the furthest. But I actually agree with you a lot on the second; effective altruism is potentially a bit broader than what you’ve been exposed to on EconTalk. There are quire a lot of people who decide to try to have their impact through giving donations, but I think that’s probably a minority of people now, or at least it’s just one approach of many that the people in effective altruism take. And personally, I focus more, I have more of an interest on policy careers or research careers or ways that people can do good directly rather than by donating money. And on top of that, I’m especially interested in kind of shaping the long-term future of humanity and improving politics and our institutions and things like that, which is an area where using data might be helpful in some ways, but it’s not obvious. You can’t really do randomized controlled experiments on most of these topics, you have to use different methods to figure out what’s effective and what works.
Robert Wiblin: Having done an economics degree, I’ve also been exposed to all of the weaknesses of empirical economics and I share a bunch of your skepticism about it. So while I think there’s value that can be gotten from doing randomized trials to figure out which charities have the most impact, I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily, or that many of my colleagues are even more optimistic about that than perhaps the public as a whole.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to challenge that a little bit, even though you’re kind of agreeing with me.
Robert Wiblin: Sure.
Russ Roberts: It seems to me that you’re right, obviously, that there’s more than one piece to it, but a huge part of it is where should I donate charitable money? And there, the overwhelming thrust is, as I understand, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that we know what is most effective. For example, I haven’t looked lately because I don’t think it’s the right answer, but for a long time the right answer was we need to buy bed nets to fight malaria for poor people around the world or we need to fight worms, parasites, in poor populations in Africa, so deworming is where you should give all of your charitable dollars to have the largest impact. This is where utilitarianism merges with effective altruism and underlies effective altruism. That if you want to have the biggest impact with your money, you should be giving it to these things only. Nothing else. Because every dollar spent there is such a big bang for the buck. And I I think it’s the wrong way to think about charity, but I do think it’s a huge part. So I think there are two parts. I want to come back to the part that I know you’re very focused on, which is career change and career path and thinking about how analytically or not we should think about our careers.
Russ Roberts: One other thing I want to add is that I don’t think randomized control trials are the only measure of efficacy or evidence. I mean, they’re important, but they can be misleading. They can be poorly done. They can lead us to overconfidence about what works and doesn’t work. But most importantly, they’re not the only way we learn about the real world. We learn about the real world in lots and lots of different ways. And I think that’s important to keep in mind in the background.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This might be a quick interview, or at least a quick section of this interview because I couldn’t agree with you more on most of these things, to be honest. I think that the part about giving and giving effectively and giving based on evidence is the part of effective altruism or part of the community that’s gotten the most attention in the media, or from other groups, and I guess it was… for various reasons, I guess people decided to lead with that topic early on in the early 2010s. I guess, because it was easier for people to grasp, you could point to data that made it easier to communicate what you were talking about and communicate the idea of having a more cost-effective impact on things. Yeah, I think it really has shrunk as a fraction of what people are focusing on, and 80,000 Hours doesn’t put any effort in, or we don’t do any independent research on what charity’s most effective or anything like that. I cringe when people talk about charity as a scientific thing or choosing, like, “We know the best charity.” That’s kind of mad. To begin with, we haven’t looked at most charities, and it’s so uncertain. It’s so incredibly uncertain all of this stuff. That all you could ever do is kind of have a best guess at something that might be the most effective within a particular area.
Robert Wiblin: It is possible that we have a decent guess at what are the best charities within global health and development. I think maybe we could say that. But the idea that we know the best way to have an impact, it’s kind of the opposite of what we think at 80,000 Hours. And in some ways, I think people in the general public can latch onto specific ideas that they hear about and think that they’re very good, but the more you focus on these issues, the more you realize how little we know, just how clueless we are about the effects of our actions and how hard it is to work out what’s impactful.
Russ Roberts: I mentioned deworming because for a long time it was, I don’t know where it is right now, again, because I don’t keep up with the day-to-day, but for a long time it was considered the obvious, only choice to make if you wanted to make the world a better place with your charitable dollars. You should give it to this handful of organizations that help deworm folks. And that conclusion was based on a randomized control trial, one randomized control trial, and that randomized control trial came into question. And a meta analysis of deworming started to suggest that actually maybe it doesn’t work so well. Its impact is quite limited. It may vary by place and time and circumstance. And now what? You told me I need to give all my money because if I’m a decent human being, I should be utilitarian and to have the biggest impact on the most people was through deworming, but now it turns out, oh, maybe the science was not so scientific. So I don’t think that’s unimportant, but I take your point that there are other aspects of the movement. Let’s turn to those. I’m really interested in the 80,000 Hours project, so help me understand it better.
The 80,000 Hours project [00:12:35]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. It’s a bit hard to quickly sum up 80,000 Hours’ advice, but I guess some of the key aspects are we suggest that people try to contribute to a particularly pressing global problem, which I guess we have various rules of thumb for trying to figure out what global problems are especially pressing, like how many people are affected by the problem and how much, how many people are already trying to solve the problem, so is it neglected and might there by low-hanging fruit still there? Does it seem like a problem that’s just extremely intractable and hard to solve because there’s systemic reasons why it’s insoluble or does it seem like there’s no particular reason why it couldn’t be fixed? People will look at other rules of thumb as well, like is this a particularly urgent issue or is this maybe a problem that can be left to future generations to fix up?
Robert Wiblin: So we often suggest that people first look out at the world and see what does the world need? What problems are most burning and most desperately need solving? Then we also think once people have chosen a problem, they should try to take an approach that gets a lot of leverage on it, that gets a lot of bang for buck out of their time in trying to fix it. So often that means looking at kind of what is the bottleneck to fixing this problem? Sometimes it’s a lack of ideas, sometimes it’s lack of money, so people should maybe go earn to give and donate. Other times it’s a lack of skills that are needed to build the organizations or the projects that might fix it. Often we suggest, for example, going and shaping government policy can get you a lot of leverage just because governments spend so much money, and also sometimes conducting fundamental research can get a lot of leverage because that research can end up influencing what a lot of other people do.
Robert Wiblin: And then I guess a next step would be to try to find a role that has a very good personal fit for you so that… there’s no point in saying conducting fundamental research is a really valuable thing in principle if you just don’t have the disposition for research. It seems like people’s suitability for different roles can vary massively, and you really want to find an area where you can thrive and excel and be especially good, but better than other people, potentially find your kind of comparative advantage. And then I guess maybe another distinctive idea or something that we talk about quite a bit is that especially early on in people’s career, they should focus on building up career capital, try to think a lot about improving their skills and improving their network and figuring out what they’re good at because they’ve got decades ahead in their career to potentially use those skills and that knowledge that they brought up.
Robert Wiblin: We don’t think that people should focus only on having an impact, but I guess it is kind of part of the message that we think, especially, or at least people in our audience, people who are very educated, often very privileged, potentially who could have a lot of influence on solving some of these pressing global problems. We think that that would be a good thing if they spent more time thinking about how could they help others rather than just how could they have a career that’s enjoyable to them? How does that sound?
Russ Roberts: In principle, that all sounds great, but I don’t really actually think it’s the right way to think about how to live your life or how to live your career. So let me try to suggest some things I find troubling about it. You mentioned a whole bunch of factors. They’re all reasonable. Any one of them is extremely reasonable. You should tackle an important problem, you should tackle a problem that people have not successfully solved that you might have a chance of improving, that you might have an impact. It’s a variation really of expected value theory to me. It’s like saying, “There’s uncertainty about how your life’s going to turn out. It’s uncertain about what you’re good at. It’s uncertain about what the impact of your efforts will be, so try to maximize the full impact.” So if you pick a problem that’s trivial and that you can’t help much, you’re not going to have a big expected value. If you pick a problem that’s important and you can help a lot, that would seem to be a better problem to devote yourself to. So those are all reasonable in describing them. But, in practice, I have multiple factors like you’ve laid out, how do I go with the trade-offs between this?
Russ Roberts: So let me give you an example. When I was 19 years old, 18 years old, I guess 17, some time, I was a freshman in college and I found out I was pretty good at economics so I became an economics major and it ended up pushing me down a road where I became a PhD in economics and look, here I am: a podcaster, I’ve made rap videos, I’ve written novels. None of that was available to me at 17 years old. I had zero idea that was in my future, but it turned out that way. I have no idea how much of an impact I’ve had. I do know I have a few listeners to EconTalk and a few people who have appeared to have watched my rap videos on YouTube. But I don’t know what the real impact is. That’s lovely, but I don’t really know if I’ve helped educate anyone. I’ve provided some entertainment, I think, and some education, but I don’t know how much. I don’t know what its net impact is, I have no idea. And I couldn’t be measured. You could spend a lifetime trying to measure it and you couldn’t measure it.
Russ Roberts: Did I make a mistake or did I do the right thing? If, let’s say, my alternative was to become an English professor instead of being an economist, or, of course, I didn’t have to go into academic life at all. I could have done something more practical. I could have gone to Wall Street. I could have been an economist for a car company. Those were careers that people talked about. I could have gone into government. At one point I thought about that. When I think about that enormous range of trade-offs within economics and then I think about, “Oh, but I didn’t have to be an economist, I could have been, say, an English professor”, would you conclude that I did the right thing? I mean, would it really have been so much worse if… I mean, I happen to like economics now, but at the time I also liked fiction. If I had devoted my life to helping 25 students a class and maybe 100 students a year to become deeply devoted to the fiction of William Faulkner or to the poetry of Alexander Pope, would that have been an inferior life or a better life to the life I’ve chosen? And not literally chosen, that’s happened upon me in many ways as I suggested. I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t think anybody can answer that question, do you?
Robert Wiblin: Well, I think our goal isn’t to kind of confidently say… We’re not trying to exactly measure how much impact people have had or run calculations to say, “This is exactly how much impact you’ll have if you take this path or another path.” Basically just with like all complicated decisions like this, or who to marry, or what things to study, what hobbies to take up, there’s just enormous uncertainty and I think all we’re trying to do is provide tools and information that might help people make a marginally and incrementally better decision than they might otherwise. I think you could say that, for example, that there are sometimes young people out there who haven’t really thought about the issue of career capital, about building up assets that will allow them to have a bigger impact in the future. Now, we can’t exactly say that ,on average, people will think too much about the long-term in their career, or that they don’t think about it enough. We’re not sure about that. But if someone hasn’t really thought about that factor, I think that reflecting on it and thinking about what that might imply for their decisions will, on the margin, probably help make them more likely than not to make a better decision.
Robert Wiblin: It isn’t a science, it’s just an art. We’re just trying to make somewhat better decisions under massive uncertainty and not aim for perfection. To begin with, it is potentially a trap that people can fall into, reflecting on these things, trying to measure things like putting numbers on everything and spending ages making a decision, when really what they should do is just get started and then kind of collect information and cross the river by feeling the stones. So I think actually we may agree on how to go about building a career or making these decisions of a time quite a lot. I’m kind of wondering, is it that you think that one shouldn’t spend too much time in this sort of analysis and one should just go about it and opportunistically do things as they come along? Or is it that you do disagree some kind of more fundamentally with the idea of building a career around trying to do as much good as possible or something like that?
Russ Roberts: Well, it’s funny, because I’m sympathetic to the idea of it, the idea of doing as much good as possible. That’s a nice phrase, right?
Robert Wiblin: It’s hard to reject in principle.
Russ Roberts: Can’t be against it. Yeah, exactly. “I’m in.” But then question is, what does that mean? So let me take another variant on my problem with this. By the way, so where we agree, which I love, is that we both agree it’s a craft. It’s an art. It’s not science. That is how to live a good life. Where good could mean satisfying to you or good could mean impact on the world at large. Either of those. Whether you’re a totally self-centered person who just wants to have as satisfying a life as possible, or whether you’re an incredible altruist, or in between, you’re somebody who gets satisfaction from being generous to helping other people. In all those cases, I think being reflective is a good idea and we both agree that it’s not science. But then the question is, is it useful to think of this as something one masters? Is it useful to think of this as some… Let’s take golf.
Russ Roberts: I used to play golf about three times a year. Now I play it about once a decade, and that’s a stretch. But golf is something you can get better at. You could get better at it through lessons. You can get better at it through practice. You can get better at it through self-reflection. Trying to think about how your game could be improved. So those kind of crafts: golf, chess, they’re prone to mastery if you devote yourself in the right way. And of course you’ll never pitch a 27 pitch perfect game in baseball, you’ll never have 18 holes in one, or at least it’s never been done on a normal golf course. But you can improve. That would be just a better way, I think, to capture the art of it. But you can’t “fully” master it. You can’t perfect it. Now, I don’t think that’s the right metaphor for life. I don’t think mastery is the right way to think about how to live better. I’m not going to give you a better metaphor yet, I’m not sure what it is, but let me tell you why I’m not sure that’s the right metaphor even to frame our thinking about it.
Russ Roberts: So you started off by saying that the 80,000 Hours project, we talk about taking the most pressing problems, I think that was the opening example you gave. So reasonable people could disagree about what the most pressing problems are, right? So some people would say climate change. That would be easily their first, most pressing problem. Other people might say violence against women. Others would say racism. These are all things that typically are in the public sphere. They’re in the public sphere for variety of reasons, but they’re in the public sphere. They’re the subject of public policy issues. They’re things that legislation gets passed to try to improve and make them better. They’re the source of activism of people who are passionate about change, about improving the world. There’s a whole realm of things like that. Poverty, clean water, clean air, climate, inequality, things that most people, not everybody, but most people would agree are things we wish were different than they are. But what about things that are at the more micro level, like kindness? What if I said to you, and I think I could make the case, that kindness and the lack of kindness is the thing we ought to be focusing on to make the world a better place? So I’m going to devote my life to improving that.
Russ Roberts: Now, if you said that, you’d say, “Well, it’s clearly a pressing problem. It’s clear that you can be a kinder person tomorrow than you were today.” But if I said, “I want to have that radiate out from my actions to have leverage. I want to do more than just make myself a kinder person, I want to create a kinder world.” And I’d say, “Boy, that’s a tough one.” I’d say it’s important, but I don’t know how to head toward mastery in that. But having said that, it might be the most important problem. I could argue that it’s the most pressing problem, the lack of kindness in human relations. In fact, the expression, “Be kind, everyone is in a battle,” is a motto to live by that most of us I think fail to live by. We’re inherently self-centered. Literally we’re genetically, evolutionarily designed to be self-interesting. Not necessarily selfish, but self-interested and self-centered. We care a lot about ourselves, inevitably. One could argue that the essential challenge of the good life, for the world around us, is to temper that self-centeredness to be kinder to the people around us: our family, our friends, our colleagues at work. And if you said to me, “So how might a person…”
Russ Roberts: If you’re listening and say, “Yeah, I kind of agree with that. I’d like to devote my life to that,” what should you do? Should you become a psychotherapist? That would be an interesting way to solve that problem. Well, not solve it, make progress on it. Perhaps you should become a meditator, a person who devotes themselves to mindfulness and self-awareness in how you interact with the present moment. Maybe you should go into religion, and you could argue that religion is one way in which kindness has been brought into the world. Or you could say the opposite. You could say, “Well, I think religion’s actually a force for unkindness. It tends to lead to seeing people as the other, and we should make the case for atheism.” I think those are all interesting arguments. I wouldn’t know where to start. I have no idea where to start. So if you’re asking me… And I’m going to make it even harder for you, Rob, okay?
Russ Roberts: I’m 65 years old. I have most of my senses about me. I’m not at the top of my game right this minute. I slept about five hours last night, so I don’t feel like I’m a hundred percent, but I still got some productive thoughts. I got a few. My mind is functioning, and there’s going to be a point where it won’t, right? I’m either going to be dead or my brain’s going to start to deteriorate. But let’s say I’ve got, if I’m lucky, 10 good years ahead of me, 65 to 75 years old. I’ve noticed in people in their late 70s, they start to get a little slower, their brain doesn’t fire quite as rapidly, they’re not quite at what level they used to be, but they can still be pretty effective. But I think I got maybe 10 good years left. And let’s say you think I’m making a mistake staying at the Hoover Institution and doing this EconTalk thing, or I’m worried I’m making a mistake and I come to you and I say, “Rob, I want to make sure that the last 10 years of my life have the greatest impact that they could possibly have. What should I do?”
Russ Roberts: I could devote myself to my aging mother, who’s 87 and lives on her own. I try to talk to her every day. I’m not always successful. But maybe I ought to make sure I talk to her every day. In fact, maybe I should retire so… After all, she raised me. Don’t I owe her? Don’t I have a moral imperative to be kind to her? Or maybe I should take a different set of skills. I love writing songs. Maybe I should get on YouTube and write songs, anthems for free markets, something I think would make the world a better place. Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I ought to go volunteer at the local food kitchen and help people get their food here. I mean, so where do I start? Help me.
Robert Wiblin: Sure. Okay. So there’s this–
Russ Roberts: A long enough rant for you?
Robert Wiblin: Well, we might able to deal with it quickly because we agree so much, at least the first two. So yeah, you definitely can’t achieve mastery in career choice in the way you can at golf or sports. I mean, for multiple reasons. One is just the problem is harder. There’s just so many decisions to make and it’s so hard to optimize and so much uncertainty. Much more uncertainty than baseball, for example. And also the feedback is very bad and you only get one go, so yeah, for all of those reasons mastery’s the wrong analogy. I was trying to think, what is a similar analogy? And then I was like, “Is it like having a good relationship?” I was like, “Well, kind of, but you actually do get more feedback about that than probably you do about career choice, and you can maybe have multiple gos at relationships over time and get a lot better at it.” I could imagine thinking someone is a master of their marriage, at least to some degree.
Robert Wiblin: I think maybe a better analogy is being a CEO of a business. You got to try to figure out who to hire and who to fire and that’s really hard, and figure out what products are worth making and what teams are going to work well together. You can definitely get a lot better at that kind of really difficult decision-making on the fly. Some people are much better at it than others, but you never master it. Even the very best people make lots of mistakes in those kinds of roles.
Expanding the moral circle [00:28:37]
Robert Wiblin: Then I guess on kindness, yeah, I don’t think that it’s silly at all to think that kindness might be among the most important problems and something that readers of 80,000 Hours should potentially focus on improving. We have something very similar in our list of potentially most-pressing problems, which is, I think, positively shaping human values, where I guess we talk about how over the centuries, over thousands of years, gradually people have come to care more and more about the welfare of others. Initially it was most people only cared about white men, then women, then people of color, we got rid of slavery; you’ve had a kind of expanding circle of moral consideration.
Robert Wiblin: I think one of the most important things that we could do or potentially one of the most reliably valuable things that we could do is to continue expanding that circle so that all beings that are conscious and all beings that have welfare get considered, at least in policy, or ideally that we just care about the wellbeing of all and aren’t as selfish as we are now. I think kindness, I might not call it kindness because that’s such a broad class. I think at 80,000 Hours, we’d be interested in trying to narrow down on some smaller part of the problem of kindness where we think perhaps it’s particularly tractable or people haven’t tried this one so much, or potentially the welfare impacts are especially large if we can solve this component of increasing kindness. But yeah, there might not be that much room between our views on that.
Russ Roberts: I don’t know.
Robert Wiblin: Okay.
Russ Roberts: Let me try to disagree with… I’m not going to try to disagree–
Robert Wiblin: Just disagree. Yep.
Russ Roberts: I’m going to disagree on expanding the moral circle. There’s a show on Broadway: it’s in darkness now because of COVID. But there’s a show on Broadway called Come From Away. Come From Away is the story of what happened on 9/11 when American airspace was closed right in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers. A few dozen airplanes had to be diverted to Newfoundland in Canada to a town called Gander. Gander used to be a refueling station because planes didn’t have enough range to reach long flights, so they’d have to stop somewhere. They built a big airstrip there for large airplanes, and that airstrip was still there even though planes had gotten larger range and didn’t need to stop there anymore. But conveniently, that strip was there so hundreds and hundreds, thousands of people landed in this tiny town in the middle of Newfoundland, and these people who lived in this town were suddenly confronted with the fact that these thousands of strangers were there and they didn’t have a place to stay, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have any water. At first, it seemed like it was going to be a very short stay, a few hours maybe, or a day or two, but it ended up being quite a long time before that airspace was reopened and before those planes were allowed to take their passengers to where they eventually wanted to go.
Russ Roberts: The show is quite moving. It’s a very, very powerful musical. What’s moving about it is how these small townsfolk rose to the occasion in taking care of these strangers, and in doing so, what was motivating them was a sense that as a Newfoundlander, somebody from Newfoundland, that’s what they did. In the face of crisis, in the face of hardship, you just did your job. You did what you’re supposed to do. They had an incredible pride, at least the way it’s captured in the musical, and I think it’s true of many places, they had an incredible pride that that was what was appropriate and that they did that.
Russ Roberts: I would argue that that achievement was partly the result of a narrowness of moral focus, ironically. Ironically, because they had an identity as a kind of person who would rise to the occasion, a Newfoundlander, and that comes from place, that comes sometimes from religion, that could come from many, many sources. It can come from secular, again, I don’t mean to suggest religion’s the only source of it or that national pride is the only source of it or regional pride, but it is part of our human makeup evidently to be motivated by that kind of force, and that was glorious. That was really an incredible achievement. And it’s not obvious to me that that would have been possible in a world where we all were encouraged to think of ourselves as not being rooted, as not having an identity in, say, place. So when I think of nationalism, I have a lot of negative thoughts about nationalism, but I also have to confront the reality that sometimes nationalism can be a powerful force for good, and that’s just weird.
Russ Roberts: So when you suggest that we should broaden our moral care to as wide as possible, to all sentient, say, or conscious beings, I’m not sure if that’s going to be effective given the nature of human beings and the way we’ve evolved. I would worry about that. It’s not obvious to me that we should care or be encouraged to care equally about everyone. I understand the advantage of it. I understand the good part of it, certainly the move toward less racism, less sexism, less sexual judgment. That’s got many, many wonderful things about it, but to extend it infinitely far that I care about, say, the entire universe and not so much about my family, which by the way, is very much a thread in modern utilitarian thought. Modern utilitarian thought, I am told that I should be ashamed of having a fancy birthday party for my four-year-old because that money would be better spent. It would have more good for more people if I bought those bed nets in Africa or dewormed folks in Africa. The marginal benefit to “humanity” of my child having a fancy birthday party, I’m not a fan of fancy birthday parties, by the way, but just the claim is that having a fancy birthday party is an immoral act because of the kind of moral calculus you’re suggesting we ought to embrace.
Russ Roberts: I think that’s wrong. I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the human enterprise. I think we were raised in families, we evolved in families, we evolved in small groups. It’s just not obvious to me that we can be effective… In other words, I might be much better at giving charity in that world, but I might be a really bad dad. I may not even know actually how I can spend time reading to my kid at night knowing that I ought to be doing some consulting work at night raising money and buying more of those bed nets. So for me, instead of talking to my own kid, because my own kid’s probably going to be fine. So I think that kind of calculus, it’s just not obviously correct.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So we’re kind of the ultimate pragmatists. In as much as trying to increase concern for everyone is actually going to result in people being more selfish or not doing more good. That would be a good reason not to pursue that. And I guess even the possibility that it could backfire in that way is a mark against it, or at least going that far. I suppose I’m more hopeful than you that getting people to try to care more, at least in principle, about not harming all sentient beings would be good, on balance, in part just because it seems like expanding the moral circle so far has positive impacts. So it could be that at some point it would go so far that this would then undermine people’s motivations to be good and then make the world worse. But I guess it seems to me on the margin that it would still be good if ordinary people cared more about foreigners than they do right now, cared more about the welfare of animals than they apparently do now given how we treat them in farming.
Robert Wiblin: I agree that nationalism, or maybe nationalism isn’t quite the right word, but patriotism or the idea of kind of group virtue or the desire to be a particularly virtuous person and you’re staking out your identity in that way, does have positive effects. It just has to then be weighed up against the negatives. I’d be open to what evidence there is on whether in fact trying to improve kindness in that way would be effective, or maybe we should try to increase kindness in some other way that is going to be more impactful and more functional.
Russ Roberts: Can we go back to the statement you made about two minutes ago? You said given how much good we’ve achieved so far from broadening or moral calculus, how do you know that?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I’m not as sanguine as you are that we’ve… Again, you feel like an idiot making this clear, but obviously it’s a better world without slavery. Obviously it’s a better world where women and people of different sexual orientation are respected rather than condemned or vilified or abused or oppressed, but it’s not obvious to me that the larger trends of human history are headed in the right direction. That particular thing I think is probably, those are all good. Not probably, those are certainly good. But the broader trend, are we doing better than we did 500 years ago, 100 years ago? We’re doing better economically, financially.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Financially, yeah.
Russ Roberts: I don’t think we’re… Are we really better people?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So I’ve recently been listening to this lecture series called The Other Side of History, where it goes through from tens of thousands of years ago to what was life like just for an ordinary person? Trying to set aside rulers and people who you usually feature in history and just think about everyday life. I have to say, it’s just shocking the cruelty that people meted out to one another, at least according to this lecturer. In the ancient Greek world, in the ancient Roman world, no one, not even ex-slaves, raised the possibility that slavery was bad and should be abolished. You just have the cruelest punishments meted out to people for relatively minor infractions, just potentially not being Greek, or not being Roman, and being captured in war.
Robert Wiblin: So there’s always tons of uncertainty about whether the world has really gotten better. It could be that it’s gotten better or welfare has improved in some ways, but then it’s gotten worse in some other way that we’re not counting properly. I guess people could argue that our treatment of the natural environment is now worse and that more than offsets gains that we’ve had in other ways. But I think if I look at the big picture and I think how have human values changed over the last few thousand years, it just does seem to me that they are now more conducive to people being happy and having good lives, and not suffering horribly at the hands of other people.
Russ Roberts: Well…
Robert Wiblin: Yeah? Not so sure?
Russ Roberts: It’s a great point about the day-to-day cruelty. I agree with that. I think that there was a viciousness and tawdriness to daily life, obviously, and not just along the lines you’re talking about, but just from emotional wellbeing, insecurity, avoiding starvation, we’ve made a lot of improvements on those dimensions. But when you ask me how much better we are than we were, say, in ancient Greece or Rome, you got to look at the 20th century. 20th century is a deeply disturbing counterpoint to your view. You’ve got the rise of communism and fascism, Stalinist Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. I mean, we’re talking about a hundred million people dead. That’s a level of human cruelty that dwarfs the slavery of the Greeks. I don’t know how to think about that. Well, I do know how to think about it. It’s horrible. It’s hard to make that moral calculation of progress, I think, in the face of that.
Global coordination [00:39:48]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, this is another area where we kind of agree with just maybe a slightly different framing. I think that people have become more moral over time, but we’ve also become technologically much more advanced. Our ability to do horrible things has increased much more than say, has our wisdom or our kindness. I think we’ve seen some improvements in kindness, but our ability to destroy the world through nuclear war, it’s just something that’s completely unprecedented, completely different than what we had before.
Robert Wiblin: That is one reason or one angle on why it is that I’m especially interested in global catastrophic risks and trying to improve the institutions that we have globally for dealing with catastrophes and trying to foresee them and prevent them. Especially catastrophes that are caused by human action, whether it’s malice or negligence. It’s like technology has raced ahead of human prudence and human kindness and human moral development. And I think we really want to push very hard on our ability to work together, our moral values, our ability to make sensible decisions, in order to bring them a bit more back into line so that we’re not in such a dangerous situation. Does that sound kind of sensible?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, but I don’t know how to… I agree with you. Those are all good points. But I know how to work together better with my family. I have four children. My wife and I have a very complicated dynamic with each other, with each child, when the six of us are together, when subsets of us are together, it’s all different. And it’s a great learning experience. Not like golf. It’s not to be mastered. It’s to be explored. Improved on if you can. Again, not obvious how you get better at it, but life does give you lots of data. It gives you lots of experience in those areas.
Russ Roberts: So if you said to me, “You should devote the rest of your life to getting better at being the father of your children.” And you can debate whether it’s important when you’re 65, versus when you’re 35, 40. But I have an idea of how to do that. I have an idea. I may not succeed at it, I may struggle at it, I’m sure it’s imperfect. But if you said to me, “You know, I think Americans should get along better with Russians, Chinese and Swedes.” I don’t know how to start that. Now we’ve tried as humanity, we’ve tried to improve that. We created the League of Nations. We’ve created the United Nations. I’d say both those institutions were utter disasters and failures, for the most part. Some good things, mostly bad.
Russ Roberts: I don’t know how to get there from here. When you say, “We have to get along better.” Of course, that’s a nice idea. I don’t know how to do that. And, in particular, I would suggest that maybe the lesson there to be learned is we should do actually fewer things together and more things locally.
Russ Roberts: There’s a natural impulse, I think, to say, “Well, climate change, that’s a global problem. We can’t solve that locally.” Now, I’m not sure that’s true. I think it’s true at some level. I think it’s true, if the goal is literally to reduce carbon internationally, carbon emissions, probably have to do it as an international project. Although you could makes a lot of headway as an individual nation and maybe even a little bit of headway as an individual. And therefore each individual together combined with others could make some headway when combined.
Russ Roberts: But there’s a whole other question of, “Well, that might be true. But what if by getting together you create tyranny?” You allow someone to totally dominate this world government you think is necessary to fight climate change. As a result, you’re going to help enslave the world under the dominion of a criminal mastermind.
Russ Roberts: In fact, so what you ought to be doing is, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues for often is decentralized. We want to be more like Switzerland, where we’re going to concede that we can’t solve national problems well, but we’re also going to make sure that we don’t create the kind of national mistakes that come from hubris, from centralization, from the corruption of power being concentrated.
Russ Roberts: Rob, what do I do? How do I know which of those is the right way to go? I have no idea. I actually have an idea. I have a preference. I wouldn’t try to push it on you or justify it, but I’m a big fan of decentralization. And if you go that way, let me go down this route a little bit, then I’ll let you respond. If you go down that route, basically what you’re saying is, “I’m going to be better at some of these problems, the local ones, and worse at the national ones.”
Russ Roberts: And so then what? Answer: I’m going to try to adapt to climate change at the international level, because I know I can’t fix it internationally. I’m going to do the best I can at the national level, best I can at the individual level, I’m going to proselytize. I’m going to preach. I’m going to encourage people to lead different kinds of lives. I know that’s imperfect. I can’t do it as well as if I were a good human being, a saint in a position of authority over all the world citizens. But since I worry that there aren’t going to be any saints in that position, in fact, the worst will rise to the top, I’m going to forego the right solution, which is this international government run by saints. And I’m going to cope with that by saying, “Well, it’s going to be imperfect. I’ll have to adapt.”
Russ Roberts: As a result, I won’t necessarily love what I get, but I wouldn’t like what I got in the other world either. So those are, to me, the tensions that you have to deal with philosophically when you grapple with these kind of, essentially insoluble problems.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that what you’re saying is, maybe an objection to effective altruism, or an objection to our approach. What you’re saying is kind of, like the conversation that we have within 80,000 Hours all the time, and that you read in blog posts and people speaking to one another at conferences related to effective altruism.
Robert Wiblin: It’s that obviously figuring out how would you reduce the risk of a war between the United States and China? Which I think we would agree, seems like it would be a bad thing on balance.
Russ Roberts: Huge.
Robert Wiblin: It’s a very important issue. It’s not going to be easy to figure out how to do that. Even if you’d succeeded, you might never really know. But I do think that if you had a community of hundreds of people who were well-meaning and had really thought things through, and were concerned about whether they were actually having an impact, and worried about unintended consequences, and thought, “Well, if we tried to fix the problem in this way, would that make international totalitarianism more likely?” Something that we’ve actually talked on the show about with Bryan Caplan.
Robert Wiblin: I think that that group could make some headway. It’s not a very tractable problem, as we say, but the scale of the issue, the importance of the issue is so great that I think it’s worth people potentially having a crack or dedicating their career to try and make progress on this issue. Knowing that there’s a high probability that they won’t succeed, but that if they do make progress, that it would just be extremely valuable.
Robert Wiblin: So I guess, we do face this trade off between, we can do things for our family, I can do things for my housemates, that I can be pretty confident has made their life better. But the scale of the benefit there, in terms of the number of people affected and how much they benefit, just is obviously a lot lower than preventing nuclear war.
Robert Wiblin: Whereas if I go for the nuclear war thing, well, the benefit is very large, but it’s extremely uncertain what is going to be beneficial. It’s very easy for your actions to backfire and make things worse. But I think, on balance, if you want to help the largest number of people in the biggest way possible, you’re better off trying to do something along the lines of preventing nuclear war. Trying to find something like that, that’s a good fit for you. And there just trying to do your best in what is admittedly, a extremely difficult situation.
Robert Wiblin: What do you make of that?
Russ Roberts: Well, it’s a good argument. The problem I have with it, is that it can be summed up in the two words, “political science”. I don’t know who it was that put the word, “science” after political. I know of a thinker, who used to call it, “political science.” Meaning, putting it in scare quotes or sarcasm. We know it’s not a science. We all agree with that. It’s an art, as you say, or a craft. But let’s think about the informational side of this.
Russ Roberts: If I have to figure out what the biggest problems facing the world are, that’s an informationally challenging problem, but I get started on that pretty quickly. And we’ve made a list impromptu, you and I, in this conversation; hunger, starvation, poverty, war, cruelty, climate issues, environmental issues…
Robert Wiblin: Development of new weapons.
Russ Roberts: Animal welfare, human… it’s a long list, but it’s not that long. We’d all agree that on many of those, maybe not every single one, but on many of those, some progress would be a good thing. Some progress, even if you couldn’t solve it.
Russ Roberts: Just ask yourself, well, let’s take the China example. That’s a great example. I agree with you very much that reducing the risk of a military confrontation with China is a really good idea. I have to say, I don’t know where I begin to start to think about that and how to actually achieve that. If I devoted my life to political science, which I think would be a mistake, even though I respect many of my friends in the field, but for me, it would be a mistake.
Russ Roberts: But let’s say I was passionate about that. I agreed with you. I think it’s a central problem. And I want to be aware of the unintended consequences, so I have to study history and I have to study past failures. I have to understand how political preferences of citizens aggregate. This is just the United States, by the way, forget the fact that I also have to master Chinese culture, Chinese politics, Chinese decision making, which are not the same as ours. All those are going to be a little bit different, maybe a lot different. That’s a lifetime just to get started.
Robert Wiblin: That’s why you need a community of people. It’s unfathomably a large problem for one person, but by the time you properly understood the issue and had any idea about what you should do next, your career would already be over. But I think if you do have hundreds of people, thousands of people, then you can have some of them who spend their time thinking about, “What is it that we ought to do studying all of that history?” Who then, write papers or write blog posts that then guide the actions of other people who are more practitioners, who are more, in the government forming policy regarding China. And then potentially they can do a better job, and on the margin, change the risk of a conflict with China and make it slightly lower.
Robert Wiblin: To some extent, that’s the whole reason why we have the effective altruism community and 80,000 Hours as a project advising people. Is that, if you just left people to themselves, they would have to do all of this research for themselves upfront to try to figure out, “What are the most pressing problems in the world and which ones are solvable and which ones aren’t?”
Robert Wiblin: Potentially by pooling our resources and having dedicated people, I guess kind of like me, who try to look into these issues and develop at least a bit of expertise across a few of them, then we can have a research resource that people can turn to, that can guide them, and they could potentially make career decisions on a human timescale within 10 years, rather than 50 years when they’ve already retired.
Russ Roberts: I like that point. I think that’s a great point. That you need to leverage the knowledge and wisdom of other people. The challenge is knowing which ones to follow and listen to. You could make the argument, I think it’s a bad argument, but you can make the argument that, “You really shouldn’t worry about China. It’s not your job. You’re not good at it. Too much time to master it. That’s why we have the state department, the United States, that’s their job.”
Russ Roberts: That’s a reasonable argument, and I think most people throughout human history lived their life that way, “Oh, that problem, the experts, the elite, they’ll fix it. They’ll take care of it.” We know, of course, that the state department and the equivalent bodies outside the United States, have failed numerous times and made things worse as you point out. I know you can see that. The law of unintended consequences is large.
Russ Roberts: The real problem, by the way, isn’t just so much that the world’s complicated. It’s that, plus the fact that the people in the state department have a whole different set of incentives that aren’t mine. They’re not out there trying to figure out what’s best for Russ Roberts or Rob Wiblin. They’re often worried about what’s best for them.
Russ Roberts: I don’t think there’s a better, artful portrayal of this than the TV show, “The Wire”. “The Wire”, at least the first couple of seasons, especially the first season. The first season of “The Wire” is about the drug war in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s about the fight between the police, who are trying to stop drugs from getting to drug users and trying to stop drug dealers from successfully serving their customers, and those drug dealers trying to do their job and do what they think is going to be best for them to make a living.
Russ Roberts: Both sides end up morally complicated because they care about their promotion or they care about their… The police are not the heroes. The drug dealers are not the villains. But there’s some really heroic police offers, and some really villainous drug dealers, just like in real life. And vice versa, there’s some horrible policemen and some drug dealers, who are just trying to scrape by and help their family. It is a morally complex show that shows the complexity of those kind of interactions.
Russ Roberts: I think about, “Oh, I don’t need to worry about the drug war. I’ll just let the police figure that out.” Oh boy, is that a bad idea in my view? Others think, “Absolutely. Yeah, of course. They’re the experts they’re really good at it. Let them solve it.” Of course, I mention that because I don’t use drugs, other than caffeine, big fan of caffeine, but I don’t use recreational drugs. I like penicillin, antibiotics also. But I don’t use recreational drugs. But I think people should be free to choose what they ingest. I don’t think the government should be involved in that.
Russ Roberts: Part of the reason, besides the fact that I think it’s important to treat human beings as adults and not as children, but the other part is that, giving power to people with guns, to give them the right to break into people’s homes, to look for these things that we’ve decided, some people have decided, are not good for you, is a really bad set of incentives that gets unleashed. I know you probably don’t disagree with that, but I think it captures the challenge of this sort of elite class or educated class that I’m going to leverage…
Russ Roberts: One more example and I’ll shut up. Sorry, I rambled on here. We’re at the end of August in 2020, having this conversation, and the two biggest things going on in the United States right now in the public eye, obviously you’ll understand I could argue that the biggest thing going on in my life right now is my relationship with my wife, given the way we’ve been talking. It’s not irrelevant. But the biggest public challenge… I get along with my wife, we have a great marriage, I like to think. Don’t want to give people alarm. The biggest public challenge we have, there’s two of them that are in the news constantly, right now, it’s racial relations, particularly the role of the police in urban areas of the United States. The second is the pandemic: coronavirus.
Russ Roberts: I have a lot of trouble… I’m a pretty educated person. I spend way too much time consuming information about these two things. I have a lot of trouble figuring out what’s going on, and that’s just these two things. By the way, it used to be the case that people knew what was going on. They were often wrong. There was a received wisdom from leads or educated folks, or experts. A lot of times that was just wrong. Sometimes it was self-centered, the kind of corruption I’m implicitly talking about here. The people serve themselves rather than some larger good in their role as members of the elite. But now, it’s just like, I don’t even know…
Russ Roberts: There is no consensus anymore about what’s going… There’s two consensuses. One on each side of the ideological divide. One on each side of the partisan divide. One on each side of the political divide. If you said to me, “Oh, come on, let’s figure it out. Let’s figure out what’s really going on.” I’d say, “I don’t know where to start.” It’s so hard.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s a good reason to specialize when you’re trying to do good. If you try to follow every pressing problem in the world, then you’re going to end up, probably understanding none of them and not being able to make decisions about what’s going to be helpful. But if you spend decades trying to understand pandemics and preparing for a moment like this one, then potentially you do have expertise, and you can suggest things that will help to reduce the pandemic, at better than even odds.
How to act if you’re pessimistic about improving the long-term future [00:55:49]
Robert Wiblin: Just taking a step back for a second. I think it’s interesting that to make all of these arguments about how hard some of these problems are to fix, how easy it is to have unintended consequences, how hard it is to know, even where to begin on ways that you could improve something like international relations between the US and China. Interestingly, there is quite a big school of thought within effective altruism that kind of takes that view and thinks that they would make the same criticisms of what I think that people should do, that you are. Then they tend to fall back and say, “Well, but at least we can work on global health, say. At least we can have some confidence that we can save lives in the developing world or increase people’s incomes, just by giving them cash. Or potentially, we could invent alternatives to meat. Then people will eat that instead, and factory farming will become a smaller industry.”
Robert Wiblin: They point to other things that they feel they have more confidence that they’re going to be able to have an impact, because they think that things like international relations, preventing nuclear war, shaping the development of new technologies. That’s just too hard. That’s beyond the scope of human understanding to have a predictable influence.
Robert Wiblin: It’s interesting. I can kind of imagine you as in the effective altruism community, but just so pessimistic about one’s ability to predict one’s actions, that you’ve gone beyond that. Where you’re not, well, I don’t know where you would stand on donating to global health or going to pursue a career in improving health in really poor countries.
Russ Roberts: Let’s take an example from that. That’s really an interesting way to think about it. You won’t be surprised, Rob, I don’t think those people are right either.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let’s try to think through why I think that, or why that’s my first thought. Maybe I’ll change my mind by the end of the conversation. My job is to get you to shut down 80,000 Hours and become a gardener, because I think gardening is… No, I’m kidding.
Robert Wiblin: Just be kind to my housemates.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, exactly. You should just spend your time serving those people you live with. So let’s take alcohol. Let’s take drink, whiskey, beer, wine, et cetera. So I like to drink. I’ll have a scotch, maybe once or twice a week. I’ll sometimes have wine with dinner. A lot of people think wine and alcohol is really bad for you. Some people think it’s good in moderation. Most people agree that it’s bad in total.
Robert Wiblin: Excess.
Russ Roberts: In excess. So let’s say you have a friend who’s an alcoholic and you’ve watched his life fall apart. His wife’s left him. His kids won’t talk to him. He’s on the street because he can’t handle alcohol. What do you do for that person? Now, in that situation, I’m trying to flesh out the way I’ve been thinking about information in our conversation. So, if that person’s a stranger, if I meet a homeless person on the street with alcohol on their breath and who appears to be having a hard time, my ability to help that person is pretty small. So I give him money. I give him a dollar, not a lot of money. Maybe I should give him more, but I’ll give him a dollar. And I understand that they’ll probably use it to drink.
Russ Roberts: Some people say, “Yeah, you should give them food.” Well, that just means they’ll take the money they were going to spend on food and spend it on alcohol now. So giving them food is not as obviously a good thing as giving them money. My view is, giving him money shows a sign of respect for him as a human being. It says, “I’m not going to treat you like a child. I’m going to let you be autonomous, have agency and responsibility, even though you may not use it in a way that I think is good. And that, in some sense, you might yourself struggle with because you have an issue with alcohol.”
Russ Roberts: But I don’t know how to do much for that person. So I just give them money and that’s probably the best I can do. You could argue, I shouldn’t even give him money. Now, I would make a contrast between that person and a close friend or a brother or a sister who’s struggling with those issues. Because I might have a much better understanding of where they’ve been and where they could go. I might be more forceful in my intervention with them besides giving them money. I’d certainly treat them differently than I would a stranger.
Russ Roberts: Then you can step back one more level and say, let’s take the alcohol issue in the case of a family member. I might not only not serve alcohol at meals where that family member was at, I might even, this would be a little hard, but I might go to their house and help them make their house alcohol free. I might do it against their will if I loved them and thought enough about my own confidence that this was good for them. That wouldn’t be an easy thing for me to do as a classical liberal, but I might do that. But I would never do that at the national level.
Russ Roberts: I would never do that at the international level because of the law of unintended consequences. Because of all the things we talked about before with the drug war and other things. Even though I understand that even at the personal level, my intervention with a family member might have unintended consequences and might damage my relationship with them. It’s complicated at different micro-textual way, but it’s hard to know how to think about… If I specialize in this and I try to devote my life to it at a large level, it’s not obvious that the things that work at the small level, are things that work at the large…
Russ Roberts: “I know they’re not the same.” It doesn’t work that way. There’s a certain kind of, inherent complexity. It’s partly because I don’t have the information I need at the national level to make it work. I don’t have the detail of how to structure it. For example, I apologize, it’s not such a logical narrative, but we’ll get there maybe. With a sibling or a friend, I might decide to vary my response depending on their relative situation that day. At the national level, it’s a more blunt type of intervention. I can’t tailor it. So again, to me, a lot of these problems that we’re talking about argue for a more nuanced, customized solution that could never be implemented in a grand way and could only be implemented in a local way and sometimes even in a family way. I think that’s another part of this problem of information.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think I would completely agree with you in the case where you’re comparing helping a family member or a friend who’s struggling with alcoholism versus a stranger in your country who’s struggling with alcoholism. In that case, it just seems far more tractable to try to help the person who you already know. You’re far more likely to succeed, and that’s a good reason to do it.
Robert Wiblin: I guess the global health people, I think, would argue that the trade off that we actually face is something more like deciding whether to help a friend who has alcoholism or a stranger who really needs a measles vaccine. Or a stranger who has a bacterial infection and just needs antibiotics that are really cheap to buy for them. They’ve tried to find remaining issues in the developing world where it does actually seem like there are fixes that can be scaled, without having that deep local knowledge. Of course, they do work with local partners to understand the specific situation.
Robert Wiblin: But we kind of think that antibiotics help to cure bacterial infections, most of the time, in most places. It’s not super contextual. So that’s one reason why they think, and also just the people over there are so much poorer than other people in your country in almost all cases, that there’s things that they can’t buy for themselves that really would be very helpful for them.
Russ Roberts: Thanks for bringing me back to what the real question was, I’d totally forgotten by the time I was musing about my sibling’s alcoholism problems, although they don’t have any, I want to say that publicly. For those of you who know my brother and sister, I think they’re fine.
Russ Roberts: I think, again, the challenge there is that… Well, we have a couple challenges. One is the deworming example, which is a sobering example. That that was thought to be a clear public health issue that maybe is more complicated.
Communicating uncertainty [01:03:31]
Robert Wiblin: Just on the deworming one. There was one study early on, from the nineties, early 2000’s, that showed extraordinarily positive results from deworming on income and educational achievements.
Russ Roberts: Education, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I think anyone who really understood statistics or social science would have looked at that and said, “Well, maybe that’s an interesting piece of evidence and it’s cool that they did that research and there’s a good reason to go out and try it again.” Or even, “This might be true that this might fall through.” Or especially, “Because this had such an unusually large positive effect, we would expect that if we did it again, the effect they would find will be a lot smaller. But, given that we have this clue, this suggested piece of evidence that the impact might be very good, while we’re doing followup studies to find out whether this really does pan out, maybe we should start doing more deworming in the meantime.”
Robert Wiblin: It’s interesting, I guess, GiveWell is known for having recommended the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which does deworming on a big scale, many countries. Something that people don’t remember from their recommendation is that they said in their suggestion to donate, “There’s a high probability that the impact that this has is much smaller than what’s suggested in that study. And it might even be nothing.” Or like, “There’s actually a decent chance that this will just not replicate, and in fact, that won’t have any impact at all.”
Robert Wiblin: Because these are people who’ve been through lots of studies and just seeing how often things don’t pan out when you try to replicate them or try to scale them up. But they said, “It’s so cheap, and if it does work, and it says that there’s 20% chance that it does work like this, and there’s another 20% chance that it has a smaller impact, if you do the expected value calculation, given how cheap it is and given that it doesn’t really have negative side effects, we think it’s good value in expectation. Even though there’s a good chance that it has no impact at all.”
Robert Wiblin: I think that’s kind of a reasonable way to make decisions. In the meantime, you do want to do follow up studies to try to see, “Is this one of the best buys in global health, or is it that initial study was mistaken for some reason? Perhaps they didn’t randomize it properly or whatever else.” It just seems like a kind of sensible way to approach things. You’re always going to be kind of groping through the darkness, trying to make best guesses with hazy evidence. I think that’s a reasonable way to approach global health and that sort of medical research.
Russ Roberts: I have a lot of thoughts on that. I’m not sure how to organize them all. Maybe we spend the rest of the time just on that. But I actually want to pick on a much tiny little part of that, which is that, you said “Actually, their recommendation was much more nuanced and tentative and it was more like, “Maybe”.” What’s interesting to me is that that wasn’t the way it was conveyed to my consciousness. Now maybe I misread it. Maybe I failed to read between the lines or the footnotes or whatever, but I remember it being more like, “This is a no brainer.” And it might not have been GiveWell that was making that, “no brainer” claim. It might have been people who were just, maybe it was bed net manufacturers who were, excuse me, deworming pill makers.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, deworming.
Russ Roberts: This is a separate issue we haven’t talked about yet, but it is an interesting phenomenon that I think as human beings, we really like certainty. We’re prone to overestimate the confidence that we should have in these kind of findings and conclusions. My memory might be wrong, but my memory’s that GiveWell said, “Here are the three charities you should give to.” Period. It wasn’t like, “Here’s another hundred that might be good in different areas.” It was like, “Here are the three.” Or maybe it was two. And of course, “That’s so good, I don’t have to think about it much. I’ll just flip a coin even between the two. Or I’ll split my money and give half to one and half to the other.”
Russ Roberts: It’s an interesting side point that we consume these kinds of things with great difficulty, because we like certainty. So even if you mentioned the caveats, it’s kind of hard to remember them when it comes time to make a decision.
Robert Wiblin: There’s a lot of different effects that push in that direction. One thing is you kind of forget the nuance and the subtlety, and you just remember the recommendation. Then when you repeat it to other people, you don’t have that long, so you just say, “Oh, definitely do deworming.” Then there’s also kind of, the marketing thing… I think GiveWell are pretty scrupulous. Their pages really do lay out all of the evidence and they try to be very careful in how they word things. But then there’s other groups that start pushing it and perhaps they care less about bringing in all of the caveats and all of the uncertainty, and so people hear that message. Maybe they think that giving a more confident message will encourage people to give more, so there’s a bit of a tendency in that direction.
Robert Wiblin: I think the general public is beginning to realize that scientific research, social science research, medical research is perhaps not as consistently reliable as they thought. Or at least as the media used to portray. People are becoming more skeptical, and I think that’s a positive thing, but–
Russ Roberts: A lot of people don’t agree, Rob. A lot of people disagree. They think this is really dangerous, because it’s going to make people think that there’s no such thing as science. And the next thing you know, they’re not going to believe in evolution. And the next thing you know, I don’t know what the next thing… who knows what they’re not going to teach your kids is. I think it’s more worrisome. I think that those people are more worried that people are going to become religious fanatics. I think that’s a fascinating–
Robert Wiblin: I think the real problem is people trusting something too much and then they’re let down when it can’t deliver on these excessive promises.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree.
Robert Wiblin: Natural sciences, medicine, social science, all of these things can deliver understanding and knowledge within reason, sometimes. They can provide us with some knowledge and guidance, but you don’t want to trust them too much. You want to also give weight to common sense and your priors. Look at a big body of literature, consider, what do other fields have to say about this?
Robert Wiblin: It’s all about aggregating lots of different pieces of evidence. Because you just so rarely get any one smackdown piece of evidence in those domains. It’s not like physics.
Russ Roberts: I’m not sure. I think physicists would say, “It is like physics.”
Robert Wiblin: Okay, it is like physics. Okay sorry, I shouldn’t… Yeah that’s true.
Russ Roberts: It’s not the way we think about physics. We think about physics as truth and falsity. It’s all very black and white. It probably isn’t.
Robert Wiblin: It’s not our fantasy about physics. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So true-
How much to trust empirical research [01:09:19]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, maybe that let’s push onto the section about empirical research. We’ve spent quite a bit of time on effective altruism and I think we’ve reached… Well we found that we agree maybe more than we thought.
Russ Roberts: Yep, I agree. And I love what you just said. I thought that was very well summarized. I agree with it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So studying economics, and then afterwards doing this job where I have to look at the evidence and scrutinize claims and see whether advocates are really telling the truth. Like you, I’ve become more pessimistic about what empirical research shows, but interestingly, I think, I’ve also over time become more skeptical about careful theory and reasoning. There’s different ways you can try to understand the world, right? It’s kind of your prior beliefs and common sense reasoning and intuitions. Then the second one might be kind of careful theorizing and reasoning about a problem: kind of microeconomic textbook reasoning. And then the third one would be these kind of formal empirical research; just let the data speak. I think all of these have major problems. Common sense is sometimes just completely off base.
Robert Wiblin: You can build elaborate theories that just don’t resemble reality at all. Randomized controlled trials can be done improperly and there’s lots of just incredibly low quality empirical research. One thing that’s interesting is I feel you pick on the empirical research a lot and I’d be interested to hear you talk more about doubts that you have about theory and about common sense and maybe try to weigh up the weaknesses that all of these different approaches have, rather than focusing on just the weaknesses of empirical research in particular.
Russ Roberts: Well, I’ll start with a confession.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Since I haven’t done much of that in this conversation. A lot of times, I see empirical work and I go, “That doesn’t even the pass the sniff test for me.”
Robert Wiblin: Exactly.
Russ Roberts: And the sniff test is kind of like common sense, right? It’s exactly what you’re talking about. When I do a little armchair theorizing about this, it’s just not plausible that say, when people hear the word, ‘Florida’, they think of senior citizens and therefore they walk more slowly. To pick on a particular psychological study that I thought never passed the sniff test. This idea that when people hear words associated with the elderly, they move more slowly. When you look at the data in that study, people tried to replicate it, they couldn’t. So it was clear in my view it was a mistake.
Russ Roberts: It was not science. It wasn’t truth. It was just a particular finding and not reliable, not something you could count on. This so called framing problem. So that didn’t pass the sniff test for me. It seemed implausible to start with. When you looked at the magnitudes, they weren’t plausible. I think I have a really good nose after a while. I start to think, a lot of these studies that I didn’t believe, in fact, didn’t hold up when subject to replication and testing. So I started to think, “I’m really good at this sniff thing. I’ve got really good common sense.” And I think it’s possible that there are people who have better common sense, better intuition, better judgement than others. But at the same time, I’m aware that maybe I kind of overestimate my sniff ability.
Russ Roberts: And I’ll give you an example. So there’s a famous study, which I’m not going to describe in exact detail, but it’s a test of perception. It asks you… Many listeners would have read about this or actually seen it. And I suggest you go to YouTube and you… Rob, you can put up a link, I’m sure, to this actual experiment. It’s an experiment about counting. You have to watch a bunch of people playing basketball and they pass the basketball around among themselves and you’re supposed to count how many passes they make. And it turns out that after you’ve done that, you may have missed something that also happened in the video besides basketball passes. I’m not going to mention what it is, so you could go do this yourself. And when I read about that study, I’m thinking, “You know, I don’t think that’s really plausible.”
Russ Roberts: Would you really not see that because you’re so focused on counting the basketball passes. And then again, I remember, I thought, “Didn’t I try that the first time and wasn’t I fooled? I’m not sure. Oh, I wouldn’t have been fooled. That’s ridiculous.” So I’m thinking that in my head, right? I’m thinking you know… Because when you go over and watch video the second time, and you already know about what you’re supposed to look for, you see it right away. And so maybe that’s just a place where my sniff test was right as usual. This is absurd. Nobody really is fooled by this. So the other day I was… I live in Maryland. It’s really warm here this summer. And I keep a fan in my office, but occasionally move it out onto the back porch because I’m sitting outside, it’s warm out there, but… We’re sitting outside having lunch, my wife and I, and I have the fan going.
Russ Roberts: So the other day I wanted to get the fan and I went into my office to get it, because it wasn’t on the back porch, and I couldn’t find it. And I said to my wife, “Have you seen the fan?” Because there were only two places to have it. It’s either on the back porch or it’s in office. And she said, “Well, I think it’s over there.” And you know what “over there,” was? It was right in front of the door to the back porch. So when I came off the back porch, I had actually had… It’s a big fan, by the way. It’s a, stand up six-foot tall fan. I had to go around it. Literally. It’s not like, “Oh…”, I could see it. I had to avoid it. I didn’t walk into it. I avoided it successfully on my quest to the office to pick it up.
Russ Roberts: And when I got to the office, and I didn’t see it, I said to my wife, “Where is it?” And I had literally almost banged into it. And I had seen it clearly with my eyes, but I never perceived it. So that experience has gotten me to be a little bit more skeptical about the power of common sense and my sniff test and armchair theorizing. So in truth, I think all those things are valuable. I think it’s… After that long story, which you enjoyed, all those things are important. It’s important to have a framework for thinking about the world to help you organize your thinking, organize the facts. That’s called theory. Because the world’s complicated, there’s a lot of stuff going on and you can’t absorb and process everything and you need a way to think about what you should be processing, what you should be thinking about. What’s important?
Russ Roberts: So theory is important or worldview or a framework or a lens. At the same time, common sense is important. The lessons you’ve learned from life and things that can’t be measured easily quantified and then facts are really important too. So for all my skepticism about empirical research, I have never claimed that facts are irrelevant. Facts are huge and science underlies 99.9% of the things that make our life pleasant. My iPhone, this conversation, the ability to podcast, they’re all the results of science and the analytical approach, and the use of empirical data studies. So I never want people to think that, “Oh, he just thinks anything goes.” It doesn’t. A lot of things are ridiculous and facts can disprove them, and that’s really important. Certainly, all three things matter. But even when you combine all three, I guess part of my lesson and approach is to say, “Well, you should still be somewhat agnostic about what you know, and be aware what you don’t know.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Is that what you asked me?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, kind of. In my head, I kind of have these different dials of the different kinds of evidence and I try to weigh them appropriately. And I guess sometimes you end up in a situation where you’re just like, “Well, common sense isn’t going to be very reliable here, and you know, theory probably won’t work either. And empirical information is also kind of bad,” and then you’re like, “Well, I guess, I’m giving equal weight to all of them, and the end result is I’m going to be pretty agnostic because I’m just not going to be able to figure this out because all of these sources of evidence are too unreliable.” You’ve brought down the empirical research thing. You talk a lot, for example, about how macroeconomics is not a science and we just don’t really have very reliable knowledge in macroeconomics at all because it’s based so much on theoretical reasoning.
Robert Wiblin: But then there’s other cases where you really do put a lot of weight on theory. And I wonder whether you fully thought through about whether it’s consistent. I guess actually a neat example here is the minimum wage. I guess two things here; one is that for many people, they have a common sense notion that increasing the minimum wage will increase the incomes of poorer people, which is, I think, a common sense that you think is mistaken. You’re not super keen on the minimum wage. And then we’ve got kind of the economic theory, I guess, would suggest that increasing the minimum wage will increase unemployment among people who are earning low salaries. And then we’ve got some formal empirical research in the United States suggesting that maybe, in fact, it doesn’t cause people to lose their jobs all that much.
Robert Wiblin: But I think when this has come up on EconTalk before, you’ve talked quite a lot about how you don’t really trust the empirical research suggesting that increasing the minimum wage doesn’t cause these employment effects. But do you also think that maybe you should place a bit less weight on common sense? Because well, I guess, to begin with, you’re agreeing that we should, to some extent, throw out most people’s common sense on this issue. And then maybe also just, we should trust microeconomic theory a little bit less. Not assume that that’s spitting out the right answer. Just because, in general, people are bad at doing theoretical reasoning and figuring out whether arguments are right, and especially figuring out whether they translate to the real world.
Russ Roberts: There’s a lot there and I’m going to try to remember a bunch of things I want to clarify, and then I’ll try to answer your question. First, I don’t like macroeconomics, not because the theories are complex, but because I think they are too mathematical. I think it’s because the data is not detailed enough, and I don’t think the aggregate ways that we look at the world using microeconomics are reliable enough. On the point about the minimum wage and common sense, absolutely, the minimum wage can raise the wages of low income people. Just not enough of them. That’s the crucial question, right? So I don’t disagree with that point that if you keep your job after the minimum wage increases, it can be good for your income. Assuming you don’t have to work a lot harder and assuming you’re not then giving up, say, training that was going to be given to you before.
Russ Roberts: So it is a little more complicated than maybe the common sense thought is. But certainly I think that the idea that raising minimum wage has helped some workers is 100% true, at least, in the financial sense. The real question is at what cost? So I want to come to that, but before I do, can I backtrack for a minute?
Robert Wiblin: Sure.
Russ Roberts: Because you said there are three things we use to make decisions; there’s common sense, there’s empirical analysis and there’s theory. There’s a fourth way we used to make decisions and it’s out of fashion, which is tradition. We used to say, “Should I have a child or not?” Most of human history would say, “That’s not a decision. Of course, you should have children. Yeah, it’s not even the choice set if you’re married, of course you should try. You may not be able to biologically, but of course, being a parent is what you do. Your religion tells you to, your family, your parents.” We have unmoored a lot of our decisions from those traditional ways of thinking. You have interesting conversation about whether those traditional ways of thinking represented the wisdom of crowds or the stupidity of crowds.
Russ Roberts: But many of us in modern times have said, “I don’t trek with that. I don’t believe in tradition. I don’t believe in authority. I don’t believe in those kinds of norms. I’m just going to make my own decisions for myself,” using those other three things that you mentioned. So I just want to mention that, because I just think that’s interesting. But to go back to the minimum wage. So here’s the problem. The problem is that there have been hundreds of studies of the impact of the minimum wage unemployment.
Russ Roberts: I do want to emphasize that employment is not the only thing we care about. It’s weird that that’s the thing that we’ve relentlessly focused on. And you know why? We focus on it because you can count what the person–
Robert Wiblin: It’s measurable.
Russ Roberts: Yep, measurable. A person has a job, or doesn’t. Not exactly, because you can have 0.7 of a job if you only work a certain number of hours, but in general, it’s somewhat observable how the impact of the minimum wage on hours of work, and whether you have a job or not. So that’s what we’ve focused on. We’ve not focused on the other things I mentioned; whether your boss is nice to you on the job, whether you get training, whether it leads to other opportunities and so on.
Russ Roberts: So those are harder to measure and tend to be ignored. Put that to the side for the moment. It’s still the case that there have been hundreds of studies on whether the minimum wage increases or decreases employment or leaves it unchanged. Early days of that literature, meaning 1950s/1960s to about early 1990s, that evidence was overwhelming. The minimum wage has a big negative effect on the employment opportunities of low-skilled workers. Since then, it’s more mixed but there are a lot of studies that say, “No, it doesn’t hurt them hardly at all, if at all.” And now the questions is, do I say, “Okay, why is that change different? Is it because there’s something fundamentally different about the American economy?” Possible. “Or is it because there’s something fundamentally different about the people doing the studies?” Also possible. “Or is the data?” Et cetera. Now, the people who advocate on this issue tend to make the claim that, “Well, we have new kinds of data.”
Russ Roberts: It’s not just that we have new studies. We have better data and I would argue that’s probably not true, but I think there’s an interesting case to be made that the minimum wage question is more open than it was, say, in 1970, when I think it was “open and shut”. Now confronted with that reality, the fact that there are more studies now lately that tend to show that it’s relatively harmless. So again, there are many that show that it’s still harmful to the people it’s trying to help, the lower skilled people. Then you can ask the question, “Okay, let’s suppose you’re right. Let’s suppose that the minimum wage studies are better now because they have better data, better kind of metric techniques, better empirical analysis, and I’m going to ignore… Let’s say all the other things should I raised a minute ago are really relevant about training and how you’re treated on the job and so on.
Russ Roberts: And in fact that the economy is different in everything.” People don’t respond to those incentives the way they used to. Employers don’t. So that’s a common claim. And I look at that and I say, “Well, what about all the other claims that you make? Same person about how employers respond. So the people who tend to think that the minimum wage is a really good idea and will argue that the empirical work supports that claim because it shows that firms don’t respond as negatively as often, you might think. They also claim that firms relentlessly pursue profit, and will move a business to Asia in a minute, or to Mexico to save a little bit of money. That is, they’re very sensitive in this worldview to the wages that they have to pay. And if they think the wages are too high here, they’re going to move, they’re going to move their factory or plant to Mexico, or Indonesia or China.
Russ Roberts: And yet somehow, when the minimum wage goes up, they don’t respond. So I find that troubling. That’s a case where that kind of evidence about how, say what motivates a firm or how firms respond to changes in the environment. I’m going to use some of the intuition from that, those examples of both cases. I think that’s a problem. So that’s, I would say, the way I ground my skepticism. Now I have to say that as a non-interventionalist, generally, and a person who likes free markets. I’m extremely biased in favor of free markets. I’m not even to be naturally prone to disregarding evidence that goes against my worldview. And I just did that. So I have to take that claim with a grain of salt and my own skepticism, that maybe it’s not really motivated by looking at the data and looking at the evidence and weighing common sense versus the empirical analysis versus the theory. Maybe just my philosophical outlook, imposing a conclusion that’s biased, but it could be true of the other people too. So, you know, it’s hard to know.
How to decide whether to have kids [01:24:13]
Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s turn to a different example, a more practical day-to-day example that people might be used to. I think last year, you and Julia Galef had this conversation on Twitter about how much we should use empirical research when deciding whether to have kids. She suggested she would really love to see this study run where you recruited 10,000 people who are unsure if they wanted to have kids. Then you ask them a bunch of questions like, “Do enjoy being around kids? Are you already enjoying your life? What do you think are the pros and cons of having kids?” And then 20 years later, you’d follow up and ask, “Did you have kids? And are you glad whether you did?” And then you looked at, say, the relationship between those questions about whether they expected to enjoy kids and whether they were already enjoying their life and their satisfaction with their decision to have kids. And you hated this idea.
Russ Roberts: Yeah I was skeptical.
Robert Wiblin: Do you want to explain why you think that this wouldn’t be helpful in making a decision?
Russ Roberts: Well, it’s an interesting example now, given our previous conversation. Because one way to think about it is over the next 20 years, you’ll wait for this data to come out and then when you’re 45, you’ll know whether you should have kids or not, and maybe it’s too late. Or worse, it turns out everybody had kids. Didn’t like it so much, but by the time 20 years have passed or all these wonderful policies in place to make it easier to have kids or more pleasant to have kids and the world’s changed–
Robert Wiblin: We’ve invented external wombs, you don’t even have to get pregnant anymore.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Who knows? So that’s relevant given our previous conversation. But the other things I think are more interesting, which have to do with just trying to measure satisfaction or happiness. We want to think of happiness as a… In math, we call a ‘scalar’. A number: seven. Seven on a scale of one to 10. If you ask me right now, “How glad are you that you have four children?” Actually I’d say 11 on a scale of one to 10, but some people might… If they were honest and that’s one of the challenges of survey data, are people really going to be honest to the surveyor? The person answering the questions, are they’re going to be honest with themselves? Do they really want to admit that it was a terrible mistake to have kids? Do they really want to…? Who knows whether that’s honest or not?
Russ Roberts: But inevitably in a survey like that, it’s either often, not always, you can make it a little bit more nuanced, but it’s often a yes/no question. “Are you glad you had kids?” Or, “On a scale of one to 10, how happy are you if you had kids?” And I would argue that the sterility of reducing something as complicated as being a parent to a number, it’s not so much trying to measure, it’s that what you’re trying to measure is so much more complicated than a point estimate like that. A scalar, a single number. It’s a giant, in fact, a giant matrix. There are some glorious things about having children and some not so glorious things. And fundamentally, I believe that the reason most people are glad that they had kids has nothing to do with the day-to-day satisfaction and what they put on a scale of one to 10, it has to do with their identity, who they became after they had children.
Russ Roberts: For me, that’s the essence of that decision. It’s not like, “Oh, was it worth it?” All those diapers you changed, the vomit you cleaned up. The whining, the wailing, the tragedy, the wounds, the stitches. There’s a lot of negatives, the carpooling. Those are the negatives, okay? Then you have the glorious highs, the wondrous things, the deep satisfaction, the emotional joy that you feel and delight in having children. It’s not about comparing those two things. I mean, it just isn’t what it’s about. It’s about who you’ve become. And so to me, the whole idea of the survey… Now, I don’t want to totally denigrate the idea of a survey. I think there is a survey, it’s called ‘Literature’. There’s an enormous amount of evidence about what it’s like to be a parent in the world’s literature; in the poems, in the plays, in the fiction.
Russ Roberts: So if you want to find out what it’s like to be a parent, you have no hope by the way, none. If you’re not a parent now. You have no way of knowing. But if you want to get a taste of it, instead of babysitting, which gives you a little bit of a taste, you’ll be better off reading books about people who are parents. And I don’t mean non-fictional accounts, fictional accounts, that try to distill that identity change that I’m talking about. L.A. Paul, you mentioned her at the beginning of our conversation, a guest I had on EconTalk. She has a wonderful book called “Transformative Experience”, where she compares a lot of these choices to the choice to become a vampire. Tongue in cheek, but it’s quite a useful way to think about it.
Russ Roberts: Before you’re a vampire, a vampire looks vile and disgusting. After you’re a vampire, it looks fantastic. What were you doing before out in the daytime all the time? Vampire is wonderful. Sleeping in a coffin is delightful. I’m a very dated vampire fan, by the way. I go back to the original Bram Stoker’s Dracula version. I’m sure Twilight and others have more sophisticated versions of vampires. So I’m probably making a fool of myself, but the point is is that until you’ve made the leap, you can’t know what it’s like, and therefore you are in the darkness. You are facing irreducible uncertainty. So if you’ve never had kids before, and you look at parents hauling around diaper bags and driving a minivan and having lousy vacations because they can’t go anywhere without their kids. And therefore they have to choose some options that you’d never choose if you didn’t have kids.
Russ Roberts: Childless people look at parents and they’re like, “Well, I don’t want to ever be that.” And then parents somehow look back at those childless people and say, “Boy, I’m so glad I left that state behind.” Now, it could be both sides are fooling themselves. But my guess is that both sides are both correct. Before you’ve had kids, it doesn’t look appealing. And after you have kids, it looks pretty good. And now what? Are you going to be one of those people before you have kids, who turns into one of those people who’s satisfied? Even though ex ante, even before the fact looking ahead, it looks miserable to you? What do you do?
Robert Wiblin: So those all seem like good reasons to put less weight on this study. And I think it’d be insane to take a study like this, a survey of a bunch of people, and then decide whether to have kids based just on that. I’ve got to decide whether to have kids myself. And I think I would find this study kind of helpful to some extent, especially if there was a striking result where you found that the answers to some questions were like, “Are you already enjoying your life? What are the main things that you enjoy doing now?” Or, “Do you already enjoy being around kids?” If one of those had a really strong correlation with then how much people liked having… How much they enjoyed having kids ex-post. And I think that could help me give me some idea of what reference class am I in?
Robert Wiblin: Am I in the reference class of people who say that they are super glad that they had kids and they have no regrets? Or am I in the class of people who have more of a mixed response. They’re like, “Well, it made my life better in some ways and I really value my kids, but there was also some significant downsides.” But before we go to that, in the interview with L.A. Paul, you said this, “Not everyone should have children. Not everyone can, of course, but for those who can, it’s a good idea because it’s part of the human experience. It’s something to experience and you could argue that it’s harmful. You could argue they might not like it, but it’s part of what most people through human history have experienced and it will change you. You’ll explore it and you become a new person.”
Robert Wiblin: Not to be facetious, but it seems like most people through history were also farmers say, and many of them got smallpox and things like that. And those experiences also changed them. But I doubt you would say that that kind of demonstrates that it’s good to be a farmer or to get smallpox or that have all of these other negative experiences that were for almost all of history, part of the human experience. So yeah, why does something being part of the common historical experience show that it’s a good thing to do or usually a good thing to do?
Russ Roberts: I’m going to try to answer that, but I want to go back to your point about, you’ve learned something from that survey. About the reference class, because I remember when that Twitter discussion was going on, somebody said to me, “Well, if it turned out that 92% of the parents were satisfied and glad they had kids that would tell you something.” Well, what it would tell you is that 92% of the people who answered that survey, answered it with a yes, assuming it was accurately transcribed, there weren’t errors, et cetera. And you forgot about the fact to ask often when you saw that headline, you forgot to ask, “I wonder who did the survey?” When they asked the reference group, how many things did they include? Did they exclude anything? Were some of those correlations just random? Given that they had so many variables and all they did was eventually, by definition, you’re going to find at least 5% that are just purely random.
Russ Roberts: I would caution you there on that issue. But on this human experience thing, I hadn’t thought about it. I mean, my first thought, it’s a great point to challenge because I’m not a big fan of smallpox, but I do think it’s interesting that a lot of people would argue, “You should be a farmer.” You should, for example, be close to your food. It’s a better world. It was a better world when we were close to nature or close to the ground and we had to see the animals we killed, for example. And therefore you might decide to be a vegetarian if couldn’t buy your chicken in that plastic Purdue package that makes it look like something other than a chicken. So that’s a whole interesting question. And it could go the other way, but I’m with you.
Russ Roberts: I don’t think it’s a compelling argument to say, “Well, it’s part of the human experience.” I would say, there’s something a little different about having children than smallpox, but maybe I can’t make that case. I guess I’m thinking of… I’d have to answer that in a more spiritual way, which is that I really see myself as an extension of my parents and my grandparents and… Not in a reincarnation sense, but just in the pure, maybe it’s not so spiritual. Maybe it’s much more scientific. I see myself as a genetic extension of them and, in particular, I’m the genetic extension of my parents that they also shaped through their environment. So I feel like my mom is still physically alive, but my dad is still alive in me. And I see things in my children that were in my dad that he passed on genetically and environmentally through me that I, in turn, passed on environmentally to my kids.
Russ Roberts: So I think this whole human longevity generational thing is kind of nontrivial. So I don’t know, but it’s a good challenge. And I will be writing about this, I hope, in my new book. And I have to think about it some more. Well, it’s a good challenge.
Robert Wiblin: We’ve only got 10 minutes left, but I’m keen to talk a little bit about utilitarianism.
Russ Roberts: It won’t take us 10 minutes. We don’t need 10 minutes. We’ll do it in 7.
Robert Wiblin: I feel we’ll converge on the same view. Yeah. So let’s see. I think maybe one of the things that surprises me most about your view on utilitarianism, or at least on kind of wellbeing as a moral factor, is it seems like sometimes you suggest that it’s just not possible to compare welfare differences or welfare effects on different people. Not just like in practice, it’s hard to measure, which is obviously true, and we have no kind of scientific way of quantifying it. Sometimes it seems like you suggest that just in principle, there’s no way of weighing these things up. But then that would seem to have this kind of crazy implication that say, “If I stubbed my toe and someone else was catastrophically injured in a car accident, we just couldn’t say which of these things, from a consequence or wellbeing point of view, was worse.
Robert Wiblin: And, I guess my mind revolts at that idea. Maybe there’s cases where it’s close to you and you can’t say whether this effect on person A is bigger or smaller than effect on person B. But it seems like at the extremes, you can. And that to me then suggests that, in principle, we can’t say things about welfare impacts across people. What do you make of that?
Russ Roberts: At a personal level, I would certainly prefer stubbing my toe to being in a traffic accident. Okay? I think every human being would. Every human being. So does that imply that I should stub by toe to prevent you from having an auto accident? And I think the answer is probably yes. This is a little bit like the Peter Singer example, which he opens his–
Robert Wiblin: The child in the pond.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The child in the pond. So there’s a child drowning in the pond, and I’m in my nice shoes and suit on the way to work. I don’t have a nice suit really, but okay, we’ll pretend. I do have some nice shoes though. I like shoes. So I’m on my to work and I see this kid struggling in the pond and if I save him, I will ruin my shoes. And is it possible to argue that it is moral to walk on by?
Russ Roberts: And I think the answer is no, not possible. I think it’s a moral imperative to ruin your shoes. I think that’s a no brainer. So then the question is–
Robert Wiblin: Why?
Russ Roberts: No, no. Well, you’re going to push me to the why because you’ve got this nice calculus thing working, I like that. I’m going in a different direction now because I got to save my argument.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I think the argument then is, now what? What’s the implication of that for the rest of my life, for the rest of my behavior? Does it mean I should walk by the pond every day on the way to work to make sure I keep people from drowning. If I did, and if people drown there often, I might start wearing a different pair of shoes every morning and change into my shoes later, my fancy shoes.
Russ Roberts: And then you’d ask the question, “Well, why are people drowning in the pond? Are their parents not taking care of them? If they know that strangers are there to save them all the time? Are people going to be as careful taking care of their kids and teach them lessons about risk and so on?” Even in this silly contrived example, you’d have to think about, “Does that really imply I have to give money to bed nets, instead of throwing a birthday party for my kid?” If I live in a relatively wealthy country. It comes back to my point earlier, obviously I think there’s a lot to be said for giving money to charity, but I didn’t say that clearly. I just mentioned in passing, I try to give 10% of my after income to charity. I think it’s really good idea.
Russ Roberts: I think it’s really good to help other people. I think it’s not just rewarding personally, which I think it can be, but it’s also “The right thing to do.” And I don’t have any problem with making a sacrifice to help someone else, because I think their gain is so large that it’s worth me incurring the cost. Whether that’s financial, or ruining my shoes, or being late for work and telling my boss, “I’m sorry, I’m late. I had to go save a kid.”, I don’t think anybody would say, “Well, you’re fired. Sorry, you’re late.” But then the question is, what else beside that? And does that justify progressive taxation of a confiscatory sort? What other interventions does it justify? I think each person has to make their own call about how to make the world a better place and those kinds of interpersonal comparisons we’re talking about, but I don’t know what else to make of it.
Russ Roberts: So I don’t have any problem. I have to confess, I hadn’t thought about your point. I think it’s a great point. And then thinking about it as sort of a personal thing, as an armchair theorist for myself, I certainly… It’s not like, “Oh, some days I’d rather be in a car accident than stub my toe.” So I agree with your basic point. I think what is hard then is, now what? I don’t accept the argument that we can then aggregate across people in cases where it’s more complicated. And I don’t know how to think about that. And I think there’s a risk of the temptation to aggregate like that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting. So there is something that’s a bit odd about saying, “Oh, you know, the happiness of a country is eight for this one, and 8.2 for that one.” I agree there’s something that’s counterintuitive. And you’re like, “Yeah, can that really be true? Can we aggregate in this way? Or has this just become nonsense?” But then I guess when I think about like the clear examples in my own life, something from my own experience where I’m like, “I’m a pretty cheerful person.” And then I have some friends who are extremely anxious or depressed or some of that. And I’m like, “I think that I can say with some confidence that I’m happier. My subjective experience is better than someone who has major depression,” or I can say, “There’s these two different things that could happen; a terrible accident or stubbing a toe.”
Robert Wiblin: I think I can say that one of those is going to have a more negative effect on someone’s subjective wellbeing than the other one. And then I’m inclined to go from that and then aggregate up and say, “That shows that, at least in principle, in some sense, we could talk about the aggregate happiness of a country,” because I’ve already conceded that I can make comparisons of wellbeing and differences in wellbeing and levels of wellbeing across people. In principle, one could do this, even if the measurement would be exceedingly difficult or unreliable. But, I guess, you’re more inclined to say, at the macro level, the idea of talking about aggregate wellbeing at a country sounds crazy. And you’re not convinced by the local small cases. Yeah, do you think that is part of what’s going on?
Russ Roberts: Well, I’m really not convinced that you can therefore design policy to make the nation happier. And that really gets it, I think, where this is the key point. So I love your point that you feel pretty confident to say that you’re happier than some of your friends. And by happier, by the way, what exactly do you mean by that? I think you mean your demeanor is more cheerful, your average level of delight in daily life. But of course, happiness isn’t all we care about. We care about meaning and serenity and some more complicated subtler things, that’s part of it. But I think the deeper problem is that… And the reason is, I think a lot of these utilitarian calculus issues is a bit of a red herring. I think it’s missing some of the hard problems. I agree with a lot of with the things you’ve said.
Russ Roberts: I think I agree with all of them. But then the question is, now what? And in particular, the real issue, the real place it gets hard is, if I execute this person in a public square in a really gruesome way that’s humiliating to them, but I give a hundred million people, a thrill watching it on TV, I think most of us would say, “That’s not moral,” even though the happiness and joy of the sadists outweighs one single person’s embarrassment in death. I’d say we’d say that “That’s a bad road to go down.” And so just like most… I like to quote [Arnold Klein , “There is no we. Lose the we”, he says. There’s no we as a nation who benefits from X, unless it’s nuclear extermination. Yeah, then it’s generally better to avoid nuclear extermination. But most public policies help some groups at the expense of others. And I’m not really comfortable saying, “Yeah, let’s go back to the minimum wage.”
Russ Roberts: If I can help the highest skilled low-skilled workers through minimum wage by punishing the least-skilled because they’re going to be the ones who lose their jobs, that strikes me as fundamentally immoral. To me, those are the harder questions and those aren’t going to be adjudicated, measured in any successful way.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. There’s a lot to tackle there. I mean, I think when people consider the example of unjustly executing one person to benefit lots of other people, there’s like many reasons why people just find that morally repugnant. I mean, one is the idea of a country of people who enjoy watching executions is very disturbing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, correct.
Robert Wiblin: And I think that doesn’t suggest that things are going to go well. I completely share the intuition that it’s just wrong because it’s unjust to murder someone, even if it would provide all of these benefits.
Russ Roberts: Nothing to do with the calculus.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, obviously, with intuition as well. I guess you also might think that a society that just randomly executes people… If you realize that or people are eventually going to figure out that their society is running in this capricious way, and that is going to reduce people’s welfare in the bigger picture. There’s also cool kinds of consequentialist arguments that one could give for why this is a bad path to go down even if in some narrow sense, it seems like it’s raising welfare just during the period of this television program.
Russ Roberts: Exactly.
Robert Wiblin: There’s a lot of different issues there. I guess–
Russ Roberts: I want to mention that there’s a short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K Le. Guin that looks at some of these issues. Listeners may find that of interest. You can find it online. It’s collected in her collection. I think it’s called “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”, but you can find it online in violation of copyright. If that’s your style, you can find it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So I’m inclined with these policy decisions. Maybe we just don’t really have time for this, but with these policy decisions, I’m kind of inclined to try to do the best that I can to weigh up the pros and cons. And I think that we should have a presumption in favor of inaction because I also care about autonomy. If the positives and negatives from a consequentialist or utilitarian point of view are very finely balanced, then it seems like you should just leave people alone and not force them to do anything. But then in the cases where it seems like the welfare gains would be enormous relative to the cost, then in those cases I’m willing to accept that we could tax people or we could pass a regulation or this or that.
Robert Wiblin: I think that’s where most people are at. I think you can see it in some cases that you can do these comparisons, but then you become very suspicious at the big level. But I wonder whether it’s important to distinguish between kind of the philosophical issue here about the nature of wellbeing and subjectivity, and the practical political concern of how will these ideas be abused and what negative policy consequences can they have if people take these numbers too literally rather than using other ways to make decisions about what public policy should be. Like saying, “Well, maybe we should leave people alone unless there’s a really compelling reason not to.”
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it’s all the above. I think there’s not one reason. I think it’s important to remember to avoid the worst downsides. If I thought a policy was going to lead to tyranny or oppression, I would stay away from it. Even though it might look like in the short run, or if the numbers looked good. I want to worry about the worst outcomes, not just say the average outcome. So, you’re right, I think most people are comfortable with that kind of calculus, but maybe they’re wrong. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the tolerance for intervention like you’re talking about that makes even most of the time, yeah, pretty much a lot of people better off and only a few people a little worse off. That’s maybe not the best policy to go for, but I think that’s why, in some sense, I was making fun of myself earlier about my biases causing me to assess data in a certain way.
Russ Roberts: I think in a lot of ways for me it sometimes just comes down to that, which is most human history is ugly. We’re living in a particularly pleasant time where democracy is fairly widespread and economic freedom is somewhat widespread. I think they’re both at risk right now. And so I’m looking right now at things that are ten pushes away from the brink. We started this conversation about what are the biggest problems that we need to fix? That might be the biggest one. The fact that our public discourse is so vitriolic and our perception of reality is so skewed by our political and ideological lenses. And that’s what I’m thinking about for what it’s worth. I don’t know if I can dent it, but it’s deeply disturbing to me.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’m not based in United States anymore, but watching the news coming out of United States, I really do worry about civil society in the US. Is this country going to hold together? Does it form a natural country that can get along with itself? And it is really alarming. I mean, you wonder, where does that go? It’s very concerning. Yeah. Well, I’ve got so many more questions and there’s so many other things that we could talk about but unfortunately–
Russ Roberts: You’ll have me on again, Rob!
Robert Wiblin: I would love to. I would love to. Maybe you can become the Mike Munger of The 80,000 Hours Podcast.
Russ Roberts: There you go.
Robert Wiblin: One day we’ll have your 37th appearance or whatever it is. Well, my guest today has been Russ Roberts. Thanks so much for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Russ.
Russ Roberts: It was great fun Rob, really loved the conversation.
Rob’s outro [01:47:06]
I hope you enjoyed that conversation.
EconTalk is a very educational show which I’ve been listening to for 12 years. But because it’s been running weekly since 2006 there’s a huge back catalogue of 750 episodes you could work through. That makes it hard to find the all-time best episodes.
So this is also a great moment to let you know that I’ve put together a list of my favourite 11 episodes of EconTalk, followed by my next favourite 90, which might offer a great place for you all to start listening if you haven’t heard the show before.
To give you a taste my top three episodes of all time are:
First, Brendan O’Donohoe, who works at a potato crisp factory, on how the factory works to produce huge numbers of crisps at low cost, while avoiding allowing any bad ones through. The technology involved is just extraordinary.
Second, Rachel Laudan giving a history of the ideologies people have had about food, since the beginning of civilization. Some of the facts in there are perfect for dinner parties.
And third an interview with Christopher Hitchens about George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, all the way back in 2009. Whatever you think of Hitchens, the way that he can speak off the cuff as though he were dictating a polished essay is quite something.
If you want to learn economics and a tonne about how the world works, you could do worse than to get all 100 interviews and work through them one by one.
That list has been doing the rounds for a few years and many people have told me they really appreciated its existence.
I just today I updated it to include the best episodes of 2019. Due to popular demand I’ve also turned it into an RSS feed which you can use to get a list of all those episodes right in your podcasting software, making it more convenient to work through them.
Naturally we’ll link to that in the show notes and the blog post associated with this episode. It’s also listed on my personal site at robwiblin.com.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Sound editing is by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts are available on our site and compiled by Zakee Ulhaq.
Thanks for joining, talk again soon!