comment by Xachariah ·
2012-07-28T08:15:23.197Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
(Under the Politics is the Mindkiller test post. Incoming WALL of an argument.)
The typical view of capital punishment by the American right wing voter is correct. I'm speaking of the view that "we damn well know s/he's guilty so don't bother putting them in jail just give 'em a bullet to the head." I will argue that this is the correct course of action for running a justice system under uncertainty.
I'll be crystal clear. I am advocating execution of convicted persons without the special protections traditionally afforded to death penalty cases and without mandatory appeals which reach state supreme courts. I am not advocating for the current system of death penalty, which I consider worse than having no death penalty. "We know they're guilty so lets just kill 'em" can be considered an accurate description of my viewpoint. Also, getting this out of the way, the death penalty does nothing to deter crime more than threat of life imprisonment, and this argument does not rely on any special deterrence properties from capital punishment.
((Lets define some facts so we're working with mutual data. Since 1973, 1267 convicts have been executed, 140 death row inmates have been pardoned or otherwise exonerated. About ~140,000 inmates are currently serving life in prison. For ballpark averages, the cost to house an average inmate is ~$35,000 a year, the cost to house an inmate over 50 years old is ~$100,000 per year, the cost to house a death row inmate ~$125,000 per year (though interestingly this study linked to from the ACLU's case against the death penalty claims death row incarceration costs were practically identical to non-deathrow inmates convicted of similar crimes). The actual execution costs are trivial; one Texas paper was complaining that the cost of injection drugs jumped over 2000%... from about ~$80 to ~$1800. The primary cost increase (approx 85%) of death penalty cases is due to the trial process: death penalty dual trials, mandatory appeals, and increased likelyhood of appeals being granted and the level of those appeals.))
First, I hold that life in prison without parole is not an efficient use of resources. In Efficient Charity, Yvain talks about how money, being fungible, can be used to save 1 painting or 110 children via medicine or 1,100 children via nets. You may argue about the merits of saving lives vs eyeglasses vs paintings, but whichever charity you choose, there is one which does the job best. If the ACLU is to be trusted, we're spending $125,000 per year for death row inmate or LWOP. We value keeping someone locked up in Azkaban for a year more than we care about saving 250 African lives per year, or hiring 2 teachers full time, or funding x-risk charities, or covering 4000 people for cryonics so they'll live forever in case they die that year. If we want to save lives, keeping people in prison is the wrong choice. Hell, for the price of one year of incarceration, we could kill them and freeze them cryonically, hire a teacher for a year, save 20 African lives, AND have $30,000 to give to x-risk research. And that's just one year's savings, we get even more value each year thereafter.
((Yes, I'm aware that if we just pumped funds into malarial nets it would quickly lose low-hanging fruit to target (in fact, by being givewell's top charity it already passed the marginal point into 2nd place, and IIRC is now hovering around $2000 per life saved but I'm not certain on that so I'll stick with Yvain's numbers), and you couldn't just directly trade lives saved. But it's psychologically easier to compare lives with lives, than lives with money. If you don't like African lives, trade some other unit of terminal value. Anyhow I digress.))
Wouldn't we be killing innocent people? Yes. We will get it wrong and kill some innocent person. They won't deserve it and that will be sad. People like Amanda Knox will die just because we want to save money. However, just like the FDA prevents 5,000 casualties per year but causes at least 20,000-120,000 casualties by delaying approval of beneficial medications, our justice system is trading fewer visible, blamable deaths for more deaths that are harder to see.
Wait, doesn't the death penalty costs more because of trials? It does, and that's why I suggest dropping death penalty trials to the same standard as LWOP trials. I hold that extra-stringent trials are not an efficient use of resources to save innocent lives. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, non-death penalty murder trials average $1.1 million, while death penalty trials cost $3 million before appeals. That means we're spending $1.9 million to maybe save one life from wrongful execution (instead of false imprisonment for life). Vaniver's value of information has an illuminating insight (which Elizier also wrote about in Scientific Evidence, Legal Evidence, Rational Evidence): When Bayesian evidence is good enough, requiring legal evidence can be costly. In this case, it's ~3,800 Africans costly. I sincerely doubt this information really has a value more than 3.8 thousand African lives, or sending a couple of doctors through medical school who otherwise couldn't pay for it, or funding 3 Singularity Institutes for a year. LWOP trials are already decently accurate, and death penalty trials aren't significantly more accurate to justify the expense. At some point we have to say that the evidence is "good enough" and make our decision, and I hold that the existing trial cost for LWOP is, if not optimal, a good schelling point.
I'd also like to note that this is essentially paying for a dust spec removal program, and all it costs is some torture (well, execution). In a way, I consider it a repugnant conclusion of the dust spec line of thought, except this one's actually correct (though I'm not prepared to prove that at this moment).
So the question is, are we justified in making life or death choices based on Bayesian evidence instead of legal evidence? I posit that we already do. Supporters of SIAI give over $500,000 each year because we think it's more worthwhile than 1,000 Africans. After the matching drive finishes, we'll have 'killed' more people than there have been capital punishment executions since 1976 when the constitutionality of it was affirmed. There are people who would be alive if we donated one way instead of another, and yet we do it because our reasoning told us that the greater good weighed on the side of SIAI. And yes, SIAI is the right choice. We made a decision under uncertainty that costs lives. We're rationalists; decision making under uncertainty is what we do; our uncertain decision making has mortal consequences whether we recognize it or not. The death penalty is no different.
There are many counterarguments. Some would argue that a guilty LWOP person's life is still worth living even in prison, and I'm neglecting the value that I'm destroying there. Hanson might argue that execution to free up funds would lead to inevitable unintended consequences. Eliezer would probably counter with something regarding Ethical Injuctions, which is a great mini-sequence. Or even "for the good of the tribe, do not execute people even for the good of the tribe". Yet I still find these objections unsatisfying. If I randomly found a Death Note binder that would only work on people convicted of murderer (Is that how it works anyway? I haven't actually seen that anime)... I would start writing down names and hoping our government used the savings to spend more on teachers, R&D, and health care. And even though I'd be sad about each potential innocent I'd killed, I'd keep doing it because it balances out to the right thing.
The right wing ideal of Capital Punishment is correct. "We know they're guilty well enough so lets just kill them" is the correct action for a justice system to take until we reach the singularity and can afford better options.
(NB: You should note, this logic has a flip side. Why not set them free? The answer is that we should iff the expected damage they do is less than the expected cost of enforcement (taking into account non-enforcement encouraging more law breaking). Murderers cost more than this value but a lot of crimes are under this value. Since we're not following politics is the mindkiller here, I'll just flat out state that I think this line of logic explicitly requires legalization of drugs and certain other offenses. However, this thread seems best for political arguments that people find offensive and not for those which everyone, I suspect, agrees with)
Replies from: Unnamed, CarlShulman, None, steven0461, Douglas_Knight
↑ comment by Unnamed ·
2012-07-28T19:36:13.175Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
'Bednets would be a more efficient use of those resources' is a nearly-fully-generalizable argument against the vast majority of spending within the United States. Reducing US government spending on X by $2 million and increasing spending on bednets by $2 million would be an improvement for nearly all values of X, even if X is something that you support like scientific research, hiring police officers, repairing roads, lead abatement, or early childhood education.
Spending the money on optimal philanthropy is the wrong counterfactual to consider because the money that will be saved, if your proposed capital punishment reform is enacted, will not be spent on optimal philanthropy. My guess at the 4 most likely places where that money would go are:
- Other criminal justice spending (e.g. incarcerating more people for other offenses)
- General government spending (increasing the amount of spending on whatever policies the government is actually considering on the margin, not the ones that you think would be most valuable)
- Reducing the government's debt (or slowing the rate at which the debt increases)
- Lowering taxes (or reducing the extent to which taxes are raised), leaving the money in the hands of specific Americans to use however they use their marginal disposable income
None of which are especially high-value.
Your proposal, to kill murderers after a quick trial, is basically optimized for saving money. You are vastly overstating the value of those savings, by valuing them based on the best possible use of any dollar, rather than on their actual likely use.
Replies from: Xachariah
↑ comment by Xachariah ·
2012-07-28T23:41:05.654Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
'Bednets would be a more efficient use of those resources' is a nearly-fully-generalizable argument against the vast majority of spending within the United States.
You are correct on many of your objections, though I disagree on this point.
Levels of action, talks about how we can either do something, or increase the rate at which we do something, or increase the rate at which we increase the rate... ad infinitum. It's basically the difference from increasing a number directly, or increasing it's 1st/2nd/3rd/etc derivative.
To do lives saved, we can give children bed nets to directly save lives. Or we can build factories to build bed net to save lives faster. Or we can invest in automated technologies to build faster factories. Or we can invest in general AI research to build automated technologies faster (eg, the singularity). By devoting resources to bed nets directly we save lives now, but by going up each level we save way more lives later. Thus, things like donating to SIAI, are saving more lives eventually than bed nets directly. But if you're here, you probably already agree with SIAI above bed nets.
For example with the government's case, scientific research eventually speeds up the rate at which we do everything, and education eventually speeds up the rate of the rate at which we do everything. In this manner, I wouldn't consider bed nets better than sci research or education. And there are a lot of other programs that provide similar benefits. However, I don't think imprisonment is one of those things where more funding gets us better meta-improvements.
You are vastly overstating the value of those savings, by valuing them based on the best possible use of any dollar, rather than on their actual likely use.
These inefficient programs should also get cut until their marginal utility is comparable. If they start wasting the money that was saved to imprison other people, then we fight that inefficient practice too. There are millions of ways in which our government is wasteful and inefficient. It's the job of us voters to try and constantly push it to be less so.
↑ comment by CarlShulman ·
2012-07-28T16:27:59.881Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
it's more worthwhile than 1,000 Africans
This is an implicit rate of $500 per life. GiveWell claims less efficiency than that for their top charities now, more like $1,600 to $4,000 (not including example effects of promoting efficiency or transparency and distant indirect effects).
Their number is probably better than Yvain's for talking about available marginal opportunities.
Replies from: None, Xachariah
↑ comment by [deleted] ·
2012-07-29T12:41:19.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Are you nitpicking for nitpicking's sake, or do you really think that what the SIAI does with $500,000 is more worthwhile than 125 or 312 Africans but not as worthwhile as 1000 Africans, so that being off by a factor of 3 to 8 makes that part of Xachariah's argument invalid?
Replies from: CarlShulman, gwern
↑ comment by CarlShulman ·
2012-07-29T17:50:31.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Mainly, I think it's bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don't correct them, then the community's credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened. This is why GiveWell goes ballistic on people who go around quoting its old cost-effectiveness estimates rather than more recent ones (revisions tend to be towards less cost-effectiveness).
↑ comment by gwern ·
2012-07-29T16:59:01.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
There has to be some factor where money sent to SIAI stops being worth more than money sent to Africans, no? If you don't like a 0-10x range, what is your interval?
Replies from: None
↑ comment by [deleted] ·
2012-07-30T07:38:01.838Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I don't know, but I think it's unlikely a priori to be within an order of magnitude of the actual present-day effectiveness of the AMF. So I thought it was more likely that there was another reason for pointing that out, and indeed CarlShulman confirmed that.
Replies from: CarlShulman
↑ comment by Xachariah ·
2012-07-31T22:42:47.181Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I noted this in my post, but it's so long it's understandable if one missed it.
Yes, I'm aware that if we just pumped funds into malarial nets it would quickly lose low-hanging fruit to target (in fact, by being givewell's top charity it already passed the marginal point into 2nd place, and IIRC is now hovering around $2000 per life saved but I'm not certain on that so I'll stick with Yvain's numbers)
I'm not sure if malarial nets were never at 500/life efficiency, or if they were at 500/life at the start of their operation, then the charity got so much funding that all the low hanging fruit was picked and the price increased to 2000/life. My source was based on 'things I sorta half-remember from a newer Givewell interview' whereas Yvain had a concrete number written down, so I used that.
↑ comment by [deleted] ·
2012-07-28T08:54:32.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Until the last paragraph, you only made the case that death penalty is better than life imprisonment, not that it is good. So I suggest moving that last paragraph higher up. Also, you suggest the only alternative to life imprisonment or death penalty is setting them free; how about fines, penal labour, torture à la A Clockwork Orange, pillory, etc.?
Replies from: Xachariah
↑ comment by Xachariah ·
2012-07-28T09:21:12.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I realized now that I hadn't made a sufficient argument for execution specifically. I left out quite a few things, but It's such a monolith I'm not sure where to add things in.
There's a few competing options. A non-exhaustive list includes imprisonment (status quo), execution, legalization, rehabilitation, and fines/labor.
Imprisonment is bad and because it's the status quo I focused on it entirely. I consider it the worst of all options except fines/labor. Execution is a terrible option but, as I argue above, better than imprisonment. Fines/labor is the worst because it could incentivize people to increase the number of people who commit crimes in order to get free money/labor, as is already happening with red light cameras causing accidents just to generate more money. Legalization or setting them free is the best option for several classes of crime, but as I mentioned murder isn't one of them.
Rehabilitation / Clockwork Orange's system seems interesting depending on the data. Not the torture part; torture is something I don't condone since it would be expensive and ineffectual. However, ignoring Clockwork Orange's implementation, the idea of perfect rehabilitation is a powerful one. I know of an experiment with Norway's Halden Prison. It seems promising for a wide variety of criminals, though I'm curious about how they would deal with people who cannot be rehabilitated (eg, brain damaged). This approach is IIRC fairly new and I'm interested in what time will make of it.
I could very well see myself becoming an advocate of a pure rehabilitation system if it turns out to be successful.
Replies from: bogdanb, prase, None
↑ comment by bogdanb ·
2012-08-04T11:31:55.234Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
One traditional punishment that I don’t see being explicitly discussed much is exile.
I.e., we don’t want you here. You have a month to find somewhere else to go, then we shoot you on sight.
It’s got quite a few good points for it:
The convict is responsible for his maintenance, so it’s him/her that must put a price on his/her life;
Even if we pay for his/her air fare it’s cheaper than permanent incarceration;
It’s not permanent (if the convict picks exile), so it can be reversed if new evidence comes up in a decade;
With modern communications the family can interact the convict without leaving the country, or they can choose to leave at the same time if they wish;
If no other country (or abandoned island) can be found to admit the exiled, that’s a pretty good justification for not accepting the cost of their upkeep;
If it so happens that Norway takes them in and rehabilitates them, so much the better; if it happens enough we might copy the experiment, or at least put in place a procedure to “parole” rehabilitated exiles;
Noncompliance is handled quite differently from things like illegal immigration and escape from prison: Next time you’re found (and we can confirm identity pretty well these days if we have the person before and after) you get executed within a couple of days, without the years of appeals and waiting in death row, and a much lesser chance to escape;
It’s pretty clear that people prefer it to prison, death row, and even persecution, given how many self-exile (e.g., run to Mexico) and claim political asylum; wouldn’t it be much simpler to just let someone go wherever someone’ll take them (remember, they get shot if they try to get back) than chase them all across the country just to drag them back, put them in prison, and pay for their upkeep for decades?
↑ comment by prase ·
2012-07-31T17:06:46.264Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
red light cameras causing accidents just to generate more money
Could you describe the mechanism by which this happens? The link seems to include statistical studies showing correlation between cameras and accidents, but I can't imagine how this works causally.
Replies from: Xachariah, gwern
↑ comment by Xachariah ·
2012-07-31T19:49:25.784Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Well, there is the government's FHWA study. There are a couple mechanisms.
The first is that sometimes running a red light is safer. People normally don't think about red light cameras and thus their impact on behavior only comes into play when after the driver is already in a position to get caught. This leads to people making unsafe stops when it would be otherwise more advisable to just go through the light. The link above shows an increase in rear-end collisions.
More relevant to the original point is how the city reacts. The city council enjoys money and shortens yellow light timings or blocks lengthening of yellow light timings, causing more crashes.
↑ comment by gwern ·
2012-07-31T17:29:31.526Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Looking briefly, they're all before-after correlational studies (longitudinal). These are not as good as randomized experiments, but they're still much better than a cross-sectional correlation (eg. "we looked at all traffic lights; ones with cameras have higher accident rates p=0.xyz").
For example, given a cross-sectional correlation result like that, there's a very easy retort: "people only install cameras at dangerous intersections!" The longitudinal design deals with that: "but they weren't so dangerous before the cameras were installed!"
Now a critic must look to less likely explanations: "maybe there has been a traffic-crime wave whose early phases caused both the installation and later increased traffic rates" (or something like that, I don't know much about the issue). It is to deal with all these more exotic variants that one wants to step up a level and add randomization.
Replies from: prase
↑ comment by [deleted] ·
2012-07-29T12:52:12.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
I agree about fines (though that could in principle be fixed by specifying beforehand a very narrow range of things fine money can be spent on); but as for forced labour, your point only applies if the value produced by the prisoners substantially exceeds the cost to house them; if the cost to house them exceeds the value produced by them, your point about regular imprisonment applies instead, and if the two are about the same you deter people without either of those drawbacks. (But yeah, an idea requiring fine tuning is probably not a very good idea.)
Anyway, maybe the best possible solution is something that neither of us could imagine.
↑ comment by Douglas_Knight ·
2012-07-30T03:32:26.590Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Hanson might argue that execution to free up funds would lead to inevitable unintended consequences.
If you have a more specific version of this objection, could you spell it out?
We know that the current way of spending this money is corrupting: both prison guard unions and private prison corporations lobby for stricter sentences. Taking money from a specific use to the general fund seems to me less corrupting than spending money in any particular place. Of course, loss aversion may cause existing interests to react badly to the removal of money.