Friday, October 03, 2003

Don't Call of Cthulhu

The Don’t Call debate has reared its ugly head once again. The latest manifestation is a brouhaha about freedom of speech (rather than regulation of commerce). The argument here is better, I think, and that’s probably why a couple of federal judges have bought it. The essence of the challenge is that the DNC list improperly discriminates against commercial speech. As Jacob Sullum notes, the DNC list prevents the purveyors of most products and services from calling those who ask not to be called, but leaves a gaping loophole for equally annoying calls from charitable solicitors, political groups, and pollsters.

I find the free-speech argument intriguing but ultimately unpersuasive. The libertarian understanding of free speech rights is that they are just another species of property right. No one has a right to give a speech on your front lawn if you don’t want to listen; no one has a right to publish an op-ed in your newsletter if you don’t want to publish it. But oddly, Sullum (a libertarian) musters a straight-up free speech argument: “Once you think of telemarketing as a form of speech that people are free to accept or reject—in contrast with, say, an assault or a burglary—you have to wonder whether the government has any business trying to stop it in the first place.” But why should we think of it that way? If telemarketing is unlike assault and burglary, it is very much like trespassing or breaking and entering. If I’ve told you in advance that I don’t want you on my property, and you do it anyway, that’s a violation of my property rights. The same goes for making my phone ring if I’ve told you not to call me. (And that’s true even if I have decided to allow other people to call me, just as I can allow some people into my dining room while barring others.)

The better speech-based argument against the DNC list is that it unfairly discriminates between commercial and non-commercial speech. Most libertarians (myself included) think the commercial speech doctrine – which gives commercial communication second-class First Amendment status – is wrong-headed. But if you take the libertarian speech-rights-as-property-rights position, then it’s apparent that the DNC list would be perfectly fine if you could prevent both commercial and non-commercial soliciting. In either case, the government would just be helping you to enforce your property rights. By leaving a loophole for non-commercial speech, the government essentially said, “We’ll help you protect yourself against undesired commercial intrusions into your home, but you’ll have to defend yourself against undesired non-commercial intrusions.”

Why should the government make that distinction? Well, it shouldn’t. But I’d rather have some protection than no protection at all. When commercial telemarketers claim their free speech rights are being violated, they are effectively saying, “Hey, other people get to trespass – we should be able to trespass, too!” That argument doesn’t fly, because they had no fundamental right to trespass in the first place.

P.S. Apologies to H. P. Lovecraft fans for not weaving Cthulhu references throughout the post.


SAT Scores, cont.

In case you missed it: my Dad posted a reply to my post about the SAT in the comments box. In his words, "Since its inception, SAT scores have always been multiples of 10. Therefore, anybody who says that he made something like 1206 or 1355 is either lying or has a faulty memory." People in the lying-or-forgetful category include GWB, Al Gore, Ben Stein, and Bill Bradley. Since my Dad is in the same generation as GWB and Al Gore, I'm trusting his accuracy on the matter of whether it was possible at the time to get a non-multiple-of-10 score.

In a related matter, Dad notes that SAT scoring did change in 1995, but not in a way that affected the multiples-of-10 issue. The "recentering" of 1995 was designed to "correct" for the gradual decline in SAT scores that began in the 1960s. The result is that pre-1995 and post-1995 scores are not strictly comparable; the post-1995 scores are (at least for the upper end of the range) higher. For more details, read Dad's comment.

One last complaint. Am I the only one who's tired of people referring to the "SATs," plural? My understanding is that the SAT is conceived as one test with multiple parts, not multiple tests.


Thursday, October 02, 2003

Blind Man's Bluff

If you dig casual game theory, read Andrew Chamberlain’s game theoretic analysis of opening and closing your window blinds. I couldn’t help but add another layer of complexity in a couple of messages in his comments box. One additional comment: wonder why Andrew didn’t identify his dilemma as an example of the classic game of “Chicken"? (Thanks to Julian for the pointer.)


Wednesday, October 01, 2003

And Yet More Rational Curmudgeonry

Here is yet another theory about why people tend to become resistant to change as they age (go here for my first theory, and here for Jim’s). This one relies on the desire of rational people to conserve their limited mental space and time. If one has only a finite amount of mental resources to spend in thinking about stuff, it’s rational to allocate less time to those subjects on which new information or discussion is unlikely to generate change.

Consider, for example, my attitude about communism. I have been told once or twice that I am “closed-minded” about communism (and certain other subjects) because I’m resistant to having debates on the matter -- I reject the viability of communism out of hand. But when I was a freshman in college, I had many long discussions with communists and their leftist allies. I considered communism, and rejected it. I considered it again, and rejected it. I considered it a dozen more times, and rejected it. After a sufficient number of iterations, I began to doubt I would hear any argument that I hadn’t already found wanting. It’s difficult to imagine, at this point in my life, that any new debate on communism will bring me any great new insights. While I admit there’s some non-zero probability of a new argument or piece of evidence that changes my mind, the probability is small, and thus the expected return from my mental investment is tiny relative to the expected return from a debate on (say) intellectual property, a subject on which I remain ambivalent. I have only so much time and mental energy to expend thinking about such questions; why would I waste time on one where the effort expended is unlikely to make a difference? If that makes me closed-minded, then I contend that I am rationally closed-minded.

If other people are like me in this regard, then people will tend to become more set in their views as time passes. For most of us, there are diminishing returns to added investment in any given subject area. (An exception is the academic whose initial investments in thinking and learning about a particular subject allow him to create a “gravy train” of publications with extensions and applications of his ideas.) If we’re talking about politics and economics, the effect should be especially pronounced among people who (unlike me) find such topics incredibly boring. When the psychic benefits of thinking about something are small, the mind rationally closes on that subject after a smaller amount of mental effort, thereby leaving more time for thinking about sports, women, beer, and so on.


More Rational Curmudgeonry

As Glen mentions below, it does seem that people become less flexible as they get older. One reason might be Bayesian updating. An alternate reason is that often skills are specific to a certain task or way of doing things, and each new skill is costly to acquire. Most people have made a substantial investment learning to do things one way. If a better way comes along, it may be optimal to stick with the old not-quite-as-good way and not pay the cost of learning something new. A young person faces the same cost (learning to do it) either way, and so might as well pick the new way.

Magnifying this effect is that the benefits of learning something new are lower the older you get. There is less time to get a payoff from new knowledge. Why learn the latest computer software for your job when retirement is three years away?

This is one reason that intellectual revolutions are often led by the young. Older scholars have skills invested in the established paradigm which gives them an advantage as long as that paradigm is dominant. They understand it better and are better at applying it. Furthermore, they would have to learn a new way of thinking about things, and why learn the latest theory when retirement is three years away?


Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Department of Duh

Turns out that aging really does cause cancer. Just in case you hadn't guessed that already. Apparently it has something to do with an increase in genetic instability that occurs as one approaches middle age.


Monday, September 29, 2003

SAT Scores

This feature shows the self-reported test scores of several famous people. Now, my SAT score was a multiple of 10, and so was everybody else's SAT score I can remember seeing or hearing. But several of the celebrities in the feature, including both George W. Bush and Al Gore, report numbers that are not multiples of ten (1206 and 1355 for George and Al, respectively). Any idea what's going on here? Is it just a coincidence that I've only seen scores that are multiples of 10? Did they change the scoring system at some point in time, so that people who took the test before a certain date could get scores that were not multiples of 10? Or should we conclude that these folks have faulty memories?

BTW, make sure you check out J.Lo's score. Very funny.


The Rational Curmudgeon

Why do people become more set in their ways (or more conservative, in the non-political sense of the term) as they get older? I think the popular explanation is the “rusty brain” theory: people’s minds just start to get crusty and hard to move as time passes, like rusty machines in need of oil. They resist change because friction in the gears impedes free thinking and hence the acceptance of new ideas. Perceived this way, resistance to change is a form of irrationality that derives from inefficient mental processes.

Naturally, I have an alternative theory. Resistance to change is the outcome of rational information processing. Think of people as Bayesian updaters: they have prior beliefs about the world -- essentially probability estimates -- which they update on the basis of a stream of new information they receive from their environment. They engage in hypothesis testing, and whether any given hypothesis is accepted or rejected depends on the data set. A young person has a small data set, because he has had few experiences and less time to observe the world. Consequently, the marginal impact of any new observation is larger. An older person, on the other hand, has a large data set, and therefore the marginal impact of one additional data point is likely very small. (If I’ve only had nine experiences of a particular kind so far, one new event constitutes 10% of my experiences of that kind, and the effect on my beliefs could be quite dramatic. If I’ve had 99 experiences of a particular kind, one new event constitutes a mere 1% of my experiences of that kind, so radical shifts are unlikely.) It follows that rational people will tend to become more obstinate in their beliefs over time.

Of course, I’m leaving out many potential sources of irrationality here. For example, it is entirely possible -- likely, even -- that one’s current beliefs shape both the collection and interpretation of new observations. The result is a path-dependent process in which new observations systematically tend to reinforce the conclusions that resulted from old observations. I’m not saying this doesn’t occur; I’m merely pointing out that irrationality is not necessary to explain the resistance of the older people to change.

I have another, complementary theory of the same phenomenon, but I’ll wait until later to post it. Jim also has a theory that he described at lunch today -- something about human capital -- so maybe this post will prod him to post his ideas as well. (When I invited Mike and Jim to join the blog, we agreed not to put each other on the spot like this, but this time Jim gave me permission to do so.)