Thursday, 28 March 2013

Probability, And The Search For Love

How’s your life, generally?  The reason I ask is that I get the feeling humans have a habit of overestimating the value and quality of important things in life.  I think this is especially true when lots of options are on the table, and people only choose infrequently.  If you only buy one book per year, then you've chosen that particular book over all the other available options, so I would guess that you've overestimated the quality of that book, and that you'll probably enjoy it less than you thought.  If you buy and read three books per week you'll find lots of disappointing books but lots of pleasant surprises too - so the chances of overestimating the quality of one book diminishes.  

If you only had one holiday abroad last year, the chances are you overestimated the quality of that holiday.  You had thousands of possible locations, and you chose that particular one, which, again, means it is likely the destination you opted for after weighing up all the possible destinations is the one you most overestimated.   Conversely, if you went on a one week holiday every fortnight, you'd find your general overestimations would lessen.   

Continuing that logic, and in reference to the last Blog on Iraq, I assume that those who were most keen to mobilise our troops in Iraq were those who most overestimated the success we'd have.  We don't invade many countries, so when it comes to the ones we do invade it's likely that we've done so because we've underestimated the number or lives that would be lost, inflated our chances of success, and overestimated the net value our invasion would bring.

How does this kind of analysis reward us in considering the search for a beloved?  Well, assuming that the beloved you’ve chosen came about after proper consideration of many alternatives, it is likely to be the case that you chose him or her because you thought they would bring to your life the qualities and values you were hoping to have.  So, the chances are that for many people their relationships are not living up to their expectations.  Following the same logic as above, if you chose one person to be your beloved amongst many alternatives, the chances are your beloved is the one in whom you’ve put the highest hopes, which probably means he or she is the person in your life that you’ve most overestimated.

Of course, that doesn’t always apply – some people get together with low hopes and end up being pleasantly surprised, while some settle for less than their optimum choice because of low self esteem or impatience, and others decide that the payoff of a relationship is worth cutting short the lengthier search for their ideal partner. 

But generally, I fancy that big expectations tend to dwarf how those expectations play out in reality – and logic would follow that this is true of relationships.  It’s important to understand what is being said here – this doesn’t mean they are bad, or that they are not worth having, or that they are not often wonderful, or even that you’re consciously aware of how those expectations are dwarfed - after all, we humans are good at suppressing the overall disappointments and making the best out of our life situations.  What’s being said is merely that most people overestimate more than they realise.

So, in the knowledge of the tendency to overestimate, how best should single people search for a beloved?  First, we must recognise that finding love is a matter of probability.  When you were single, or if you are single, and hoping to settle down, you have, in theory, the option of every single person of the opposite sex out there.  You want to know at which point in the dating game you should settle down, how you know who the best one with whom to settle down is, and how many people you will need to date to increase your chances of finding a really good beloved.

Here’s another way of asking the question; say you’ve got plenty of money, and you’ve had a Mercedes for the past seven years and you found it to be reliable and good to drive.  Should you buy a newer Mercedes or should you try other cars?  That all depends on a variety of things; how many times you plan to have new cars, whether you want to stick to what you know is good and reliable or whether you want to try other cars.  You may buy a BMW or a Lexus and find you regret not sticking with the Mercedes, but then again you may find that the BMW is better all round and that you wish you’d have tried it sooner. 

The car analogy is a good illustration for intrinsic choice and preference, but it is only a one way illustration, because car buyers care a lot more about the car enjoyment than sellers do – sellers largely only care about whether you’ve paid for the car.  Given that relationships are a two-way thing, a better analogy would be to consider a landlord and tenant.  A tenant wants to find the optimum place to rent, and the landlord wants to find the best person to whom he can rent his property.  I think this is a good analogy for the probabilistic nature of finding a beloved.

Suppose you are looking to rent a place to live in the centre of London as you begin a new job.  Your criteria for the optimum place is as follows; the most decent property available, as close to the centre as possible, in the nicest area, and within your price range.  In looking for that place you know you have no chance of viewing all the available properties in London, so you are shown around a few, and at some point after assessing what is available you are going to have to decide.  You know that in deciding the chances are you haven’t got the best property in that sample space.  Had you have kept looking for longer it is likely that a more preferable property would come up.  That would be a potential benefit, but all risks have potential costs too – and you may end up regretting not taking the place that initially met much of your criteria. 

So, at the end of the search, in finding a place you like that meets your needs, you want to sign all the paperwork to ensure that your living arrangements are legally bound in a contract.  Now, of course, the landlord has a stake too – he owns the property, he’s advertised it, shown a few people around, and he wants to ensure he gets the best and most reliable tenant.  He also knows that you probably are not the best tenant in the sample space, but he too has to weigh up costs and benefits.  If he takes a liking to you, he may well decide to enter into a landlord/tenant contract with you, rather than see it sit empty for weeks, or risk renting it to greasy Gary who plays in a rock band, has lots of parties, and might wreck the place.

The parallels should be evident; the search for a beloved is like this – you are looking for a contract of romance with someone – a tacit contract in which you invest yourself into the life and future of a beloved, and he or she, you.  Like the landlord and tenant, you both know that your prospective beloved is probably not the best person you could ever meet – there are others out there who will give you more chemistry, pleasure, mental stimulation, laughs, fulfilment, security and happiness.  But you may never meet them – and in holding on in the hope of meeting that ‘ideal‘ person you might strike gold, or you might end up wishing you’d taken up the offer of Peter or Jenny with whom you went on those few dates. Moreover, those who look for the maximally good partner (sometimes called ‘the ideal husband/wife) may be setting themselves up for disappointment.  A maximally good partner for you is likely to be a maximally good partner for many others too, so you might have to work hard to keep yourself happy and secure in such a relationship.

You may also suspect that the contemporary age seems like it presents different challenges to the past.  The causes behind the vast number of modern day break-ups and levels of compatibility are diverse and complex – and too lengthy for this Blog post.  But the fact that contemporary people in the UK treat it more probabilistically is, I think, a contributory factor.  Here’s a simple picture; a man is in the probability game searching for a beloved.  He thinks he has a world full of girls from which to choose – so he tends to opt for the best-looking, funniest, smartest, nicest girl he thinks he can get.  His search space is all about probability and diminishing returns.  If these are the main goals he has then there can rarely be much security (particularly in this country’s post-cultural revolution paradigm) because he may well find a new best-looking, funniest, smartest, nicest girl – one who trumps the last one (this applies to the girl in her search too).  But the laws of probability suggest even when they are in a relationship that throughout anyone’s life they will continually meet people who score more highly on their proprietary rating system – so the probability of the relationship surviving diminishes – hence the perennial insecurities one sees all over the place. 

I can tell you one thing for certain; even when you do commit yourself to one beloved, you are going to continually meet other people who are better looking, wittier, more intelligent, kinder, more generous hearted and more emotionally astute than your partner.  But if one adopts the grass is greener approach then it is going to be a lot tougher, because you will continually be making comparisons and coming home discontent.  This is a prescription for uncertainty and discontentment – and I think one of the big battles humans face is in learning to treasure the intrinsic rewards in isolation from the allure of outside temptations.  To constantly imagine better alternatives will do you no good, because every step of your life will show you better alternatives somewhere outside of your relationship.  

There is, though, you’ll recall, something about love that puts it on a step above searching for a place to rent.  However long you live in the place of your choice, you will never get so emotionally attached to a property that other, better properties should not be embraced.  That is to say, a better property doesn’t stop being better just because you happen to be in a contract situation whereby you’re renting one to which you are less suited or less likely to be happy.  Love, on the other hand, when it is the real thing, is different, because you can, and are expected to, get so emotionally attached to a beloved that other, intrinsically more suitable partners, are not embraced romantically. 

This is the power of love, and the ability it has to unite two people against a backdrop of other (many better) alternatives.  What stops those alternatives seeming like genuine alternatives is that feeling love for a beloved is a more powerful presence in one’s life than any rational justifications towards alternatives.  In love, we find that better isn’t a more attractive alternative – better is the love currently being enjoyed against the alternatives.  That’s probably what Pascal had in mind when he said – “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”.  He was, after all, a mathematician, and consequently very proficient at understanding probability. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Iraq Ten Years On; Success or Failure?

It is ten years since the Iraq war began - and as you’d expect, we’ve heard lots this week from political and social commentators arguing for and against the success of the war.  Add to that the fact that we’re still stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan, and facing lots more unrest in the Middle East, and in parts of Africa, and in North Korea too, and you’ll see the question of success or failure regarding our military mobilisation looms large.

The issue largely boils down to two questions; were the Government members’ intentions wise in the first place, and was what they did a success?  I’ve seen just about everyone asking those questions, but I’ve seen no one come up with what I think are the right answers.

In the case of Iraq, the answer to the question of success is, we just don’t know yet.  Lots of people argue for and against, but the reality is, it’s just far too early to tell.  The reason being; the variables are so diverse and complex that it’s going to take a notable pendulum shift for the outcome to be revealed, and we haven’t had that yet.  There have been big changes in Iraq – but those changes have made things better for many of its citizens and worse for many others.  That’s why when you hear from people who actually live in Iraq (people who have lived there throughout the entire passage of time), you’ll find they are divided in opinion, with a great many more feeling unsure. 

I personally think that with the benefit of longer term considerations and the luxury of lengthier retrospective analysis we will begin to see that the removal of the sadistic dictator Saddam Hussein was one of the catalysts for improvement for the Iraqi citizens– but only more time will give a real indication of this.  It might be the case that the people who most benefit from the invasion haven’t even been born yet –but that is how history must be viewed.  Viewing it any other way is usually (although not always) hasty and frivolous, because when it comes to the planting of fruit trees, at the national level most epoch-changing events take a long time for the fruit to be visible.

Now, regarding the question of whether the Government members’ intentions were wise in the first place – from what I can gather from the continuous rhetoric of Bush and Blair, and more recently, David Cameron, I’d say no, they were misjudged.  The reason for their misjudgement appears to me to rest on not understanding how to achieve their aims – which have always been civil liberty for the citizens under the priority of democracy.  What they should have focused on is economic freedom – that is a much more reliable tool for emancipation. 

Now liberty and democracy are nice things to have – but compared to economic freedom they fall short when it comes to helping people out of quagmires.  India is the world’s largest democracy, and there are plenty of civil liberties there, but it is stricken with some of the worst poverty in the world.  Honk Kong’s institutions are much less democratic than those of India, but it is one of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous countries.  Singapore is politically repressive when compared to some of the freer democracies, but it is more economically prosperous than many of them.  So a nation’s civil liberty and democracy aren’t always good indicators.

When the likes of Bush, Blair and Cameron talk about ‘nation building’ they only seem to mean things like “Giving the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan the ability to vote”.  I’d like to think differently of them, but whenever I see them talking of the success of Iraq, they usually measure it by the fact that its citizens are now voting in free elections.  This success won’t last long if that is the only true measure, because free elections in quagmires are only likely to disenchant once the novelty wears off.  However, free elections in countries with economic freedom are elections worth having. 

While it is true that political freedom and per capita income are closely linked, we’ve seen above that it is not true in all cases – and even in the high end cases, the economic freedom is much more of a prominent factor than political freedom. When you live in a country with free trade, healthy imports/exports, high employment, sensible and equitable Government spending, the repeal of artificial price controls, more moderate marginal tax rates, and monetary policy stability, you find you usually have a nation with a good legal system, cultural plurality, reasonably proficient welfare systems (these things are usually only reasonably proficient), lower tariffs, human rights, property rights, family rights, freer citizens, and a greater sense of care and regard for your global community. 

The fact is that very little the West has done in Iraq and Afghanistan has made this scenario conducive.  At best they have helped nudge in more democratic systems which may or may not last, but which hopefully will in the future lead to the things I mentioned.  Sadly, they’ve taken a slow route by getting their priorities wrong.  Their ‘nation-building’ ideology was misjudged; they should have worked out how to nudge in economy-building rather than nation-building (where nation-building = democracy building), because the only way to build a nation properly is to have its citizens economically free and prosperous.  In almost all cases, citizens with an economically free and prosperous country to uphold won’t need military intervention from the outside, because they will care enough about, and have enough invested in, that country to work very hard to see to it that individual rights, equal opportunities, jurisprudence, civil law and order, cultural and religious plurality, and democratic feeling will prevail. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Potentially Unsolvable Enigma of Life & Love

What is life?
I wrote a thought experiment a while back, which still gives me cause to ponder sometimes. Think of the notion of removing atoms one by one in the physical world, and imagine we have a method of physically doing so with ultimate computational precision and high speed capacity.

If I reduce bit by bit a plane or a car or a microwave to a random aggregation of atoms and then reassemble them exactly as they were, then I would have a fully working plane or a car or a microwave, because neither of these systems is biologically alive. But if I did the same to an insect, a bird or a human (at several trillion atoms at a time), there would come a point when its being 'alive' would cease.

If I reassembled those atoms exactly as they were I would never reconstitute life, because once a thing dies it cannot be brought back to life. At least that is our current understanding of biological systems. But do we believe this only because of our limitations in reassembling the atomic or sub-atomic structure back to full constitution?

In other words, if, when a young bird died by hitting a tree, I had the apparatus to reassemble its structure into the exact atomic form before it flew into the tree, would it be alive as it was before? I think the idea of life as being explicable in terms of matter, information and computation is interesting, because it leads to the question of whether it can be reconstituted with the ability to reassemble matter, or whether there is some law in nature that would preclude this.

What is love?
I also had a similar thought about love in a book on love I work on from time to time.  In the distant future when technology is much more advanced than now - suppose neuroscientists John and Jill work together for 20 years as friends, and in that time they completely map the neuroscientific definitions of love after studying hundreds of couples in love.  At the end of this, with regard to brain states that map feelings and emotions, they find 'love' is entirely reducible to physical neuroscientific descriptions. 

John and Jill have dedicated their lives to this work, and as a consequence, they have never been in love themselves.  Now if one day John and Jill experience a series of events which culminate in their falling in love with each other, they will have experienced something other than the aforementioned feelings and emotions reducible to physical neuroscientific descriptions. 

John and Jill have a complete scientific definition of love in the physical sense, but having now fallen in love with each other they have now experienced something new about love, which causes us to question whether love is more than the physical, as they already have a complete physical description.  Could that suggest that, if what they are experiencing is not amenable to the same physical neuroscientific activity as before, this means love isn't entirely reducible to the physical?  

I'm not sure, but I suspect it doesn't undermine the physical - I would think it simply means that love is still physical, but that the distinction between the conceptual first person perspective is a different (and much more intractable) object of study than the third person physical neuroscientific descriptions that define love from the perspective of the neurological observer, rather than the person experiencing the love.  In other words, when John maps love in his studies of other couples, he is mapping a complete third person physiological description, but not a first personal conceptual description, which is an entirely different lens of physical perspective.

When falling in love on that special day, John may experience some kind of inner 'circuit board of experience' sensation, where lights that had never lit up before, suddenly do so with new connectivity - which makes sense, given that friendship is the natural precursor to love (something he had for 20 years with Jill). 

But on top of that, there is further intractability, because love from the first person perspective isn't a singular fait accompli 'circuit board of experience' sensation - it is a journey of discovery with a beloved over time, in which each learns and grows with the other, and where each conflates that learning and growth with the newness of fresh experiences, changing social climates, and the evolving intellects, emotional wisdom and knowledge of each party.

This suggests that even John and Jill's initial completely mapped physical neuroscientific description of third person love is incomplete, as love is dynamically evolving, not statically reducible to any present tense conjunctions.  So I conclude that love probably is entirely physical, it's just that the 'entirely physical' nature of anything mental is a hugely intractable object of study, not just because there is empirical discontinuity between the first person concepts and the third person neuroscientific mapping, but also because the mind is on the whole probably too complex to reveal all its topographical secrets. 

Saturday, 9 March 2013

A Brilliant Twist On The Blame Game

Every now and then you'll hear an idea that’s so brilliant, succinct and logical you'll wish you'd have thought of it yourself.  Brilliant ideas like the one I’m now going to tell you about are somewhat paradoxical, because their brilliance usually amounts to an observation that can greatly enrich and inform a large number of people, yet on the other hand one wonders why such an idea wasn’t more obvious before.  The idea I want to tell you about is one I learned in my teens when I was studying economics; it’s called the Coase theorem – and it was conceived by Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase in 1960.  It is an observation about what economists call ‘externalities’, which are instances of costs imposed on others in an involuntary manner. 

Here’s a typical example – factories used to escape the costs of their own pollution until they began to feel those costs via liability rules, punitive taxes and fines.  The law works this way too – by incentives.  If you cause £100 worth of damage (or the societal equivalent thereof) then you pay £100 worth of restitution (sometimes more, sometimes less), either with a fine, or community service, or a prison sentence.  If a crime that causes society £25 worth of damage suddenly had a punishment worth £1 million (say a life sentence in prison) you’d see a drastic reduction in £25 crimes.  That is the nature of incentives. 

Externalities are based on incentives too, as was most famously written about by English economist Arthur Cecil Pigou with his standard textbook examples of nineteenth century trains that threw off sparks that frequently ignited the crops on neighbouring farms, and of rabbits that would frequently eat the neighbouring lettuce farmers’ goods.  Quite naturally, or so Pigou (and just about everyone else) thought, the railroad owners and farmers with rabbits had to feel the effects of their actions, so recompense was owed to the farmers with the ignited crops and the diminished lettuce supplies.  However, things change when the Coase theorem is brought to bear on the situation.  This is what Ronald Coase theorised:

"Where there are complete competitive markets with no transactions costs, an efficient set of inputs and outputs to and from production-optimal distribution will be selected, regardless of how property rights are divided."

In other words, the Coase theorem asserts that when rights are involved, parties naturally gravitate toward the most efficient and mutually beneficial outcome, with no prior blame or discrimination being automatically assumed.  This dramatically changes the situations above, because Coase was smart enough to enquire as to why the railroad owners and farmers with rabbits were the ones causing inconvenience – why not the farmers with the ignited crops and the diminished lettuce supplies?  When you think about it, it’s obvious; if your trains set fire to my crops then you have imposed a cost on me, but at the same time I have imposed a cost on you by having my crops near your railroad (which may be in the optimal location for transporting commuters from A to B).  Moreover, I may very well use the train myself.  Your rabbits are annoying me by eating my lettuce, but equally my lettuce is annoying you because it is causing your rabbits to eat them, which incurs the cost you are forced to pay me as compensation.  Your nearby power plant burns fossil fuels and pollutes the air I breathe, but you shouldn’t bear all the pollution costs because you supply electricity to many of the places whose products I buy. 

This logic by Coase is so brilliant and simple you’d think it would have been obvious long ago – but it astounded economists of the sixties with its simplicity and scope for wider insight.  Remember Coase isn’t looking to play the blame game; he is looking for an efficient set of inputs and outputs, regardless of how property rights are divided.  In the case of the railroad and the fires he is looking for a solution that benefits both, not who should reimburse who.  If the farmer plants his crops at an optimal distance from the railtrack then both may enjoy the most efficient outcome.  The town has crops and train journeys, and no one is paying financial restitution or looking for ways to sue.  Similarly the rabbit farmer can keep his rabbits in cages or secure ring-fences, the lettuce farmer could grow other things the rabbits won’t eat, or they could split the costs and build an impenetrable fence between their farms. 

How did so many economists and people in litigation miss the simple elegance of the Coase theorem for so long?  I suspect it was because people are perennially too quick to play the blame game – if something happens it must be someone’s fault.  The railroad/crops example shows a new way of looking at the situation; yes, if there were no railroad tracks there would be no crop fires, but equally if there were no crops that were so close to the tracks there would be no crop fires either.  Apply that brilliant twist to the blame game to your everyday social interactions and the chances are you’ll begin to see the world through a new lens.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ed Miliband: Incompetent & Honest or Clever & Dishonest?

Sometimes I just sit open-mouthed at what political groups come out with - the ideas are so bad that one must conclude that either they are hopelessly incompetent, dreadfully dishonest, or a bit of both.  Some of what we've seen recently can only lead me to believe that they don't have much of a clue about economics, or that they do know their stuff, but they think the general public is utterly clueless about these issues.  Or maybe, just maybe, Ed Miliband has worked out a way to be clever with this one, particularly when one considers that the issue up for discussion here was one of the key factors in Labour doing so poorly in the last election. 

Ed Miliband's 10p proposal is among the many examples of flawed thinking - it is one of those policies that treats the tax system as though it is one singular part, rather than a complex whole (Denis Healey and Gordon Brown anyone?).  Almost any blanket tax initiative is going to be costly somewhere, because in a nation of varying work situations, while some will benefit, others won’t so much.  It’s a bit like a doctor giving everyone viagra in a population where only some people are impotent.  That’s ok if everyone has enough, but when those that need it are short because those that have it needlessly take up supplies, it shows the doctor’s idea to be impotent (pun intended).

Here’s why the viagra analogy is telling; many people on low incomes are not particularly poor – a significant proportion of them are part of a two-income team, with them being the low earner behind a relatively high earner.  Thus it is much more prudent to increase the benefits of the single income low earners, and not simply reinstall a blanket 10p lower rate of income tax, because many ‘beneficiaries’ are having money that the poorer people need more. . 

This is basic GCSE economics – so don’t you think it’s odd that Labour is trying to grab the attention with this obviously ineffectual policy?  I can think of three reasons why Mr Miliband might be trying this:

1) Ed Miliband hasn’t given enough thought to how taxes operate best

2) Ed Miliband has given thought to how taxes operate best, but thinks the lower earning voters are economically illiterate enough to believe they are being targeted favourably

3) Ed Miliband realises that in reinstating something Gordon Brown abolished, he might be able to symbolically distance himself from the much criticised Labour Government that held office for so long in recent years, and brand his current party as being more in touch with the old leftist brands of yesteryear.

None of these seem commendable – but then again, despite deserving the opprobrium of the masses (which is what I hope will happen), one might argue that Ed Miliband is only doing what opposition leaders have to do these days to win elections; criticise the current Government and make their policies seem flawed; announce headline-grabbing policies that sound progressive to those looking for an economic carrot; and distance their party from the legacy of the past failures.  If he genuinely thinks he’s got a good tax policy here, then I suspect he’s probably being incompetent and honest.  If he knows he hasn’t then he’s probably being clever and dishonest.  Were he to increase the benefits of the single income low earners, ditch blanket tax proposals, and employ an intelligent case by case analysis that ensures tax breaks go to those that need it most - he would be doing something both clever and honest.