What are the most powerful lotuses?

post by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-20T19:05:59.899Z · LW · GW · 3 comments

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    remizidae
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Bryan Caplan writes an argument against Universal Basic Income: https://www.econlib.org/from-ubi-to-anomia/.

To sum up, the majority of the people not in the labor force spend most of their time on screens, and this is bad for their health and their wellness. If more people were to exit the labor force, many of them would presumably behave the same way, therefore UBI is a bad idea.

I am not sure of the validity of the object-level argument (the causal link could be in the other way: maybe people who spend their entire day scrolling their Facebook feed are more likely to become NEET, and not the reverse).

However, on a more abstract level, this hit me as an uncommonly Puritan argument. If people did not have the need to work, many of them would end up living a miserable life, pursuing short-term petty pleasures. This rings true to me, it somewhat resonates with my "high-level generators of disagreement". So my brain is trying to find ways to defend this argument.

Is it reasonable to think that, if relieved from the necessity to work, the majority of people would just procastinate all day? But I guess it is possible to conceive a model in which lotuses [LW · GW] tend to trap men, and if you decrease the incentive to getting things done (in the example of this article, if you decrease the reward from green circles [LW · GW]), more people will spend more times eating lotuses. There are many social incentives to work, which would not disappear if we remove the economic incentive to work; but it is also true that social rewards are often easy to pursue on social network. 

So we should expect an increase the mean time that the population spends on activities that we might judge as "lotuses". But on what lotuses in particular? Is procastinating on the Internet the most brain-gripping short-term reward of this age, or there are other competing lotuses?

Answers

answer by remizidae · 2021-02-20T19:29:58.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Drugs, alcohol and porn. How many people have a preexisting tendency towards overuse of these substances that is kept in check by the need to get up on time for work and be reasonably productive and presentable at work? This is no limit to the amount of time an addicted person can spend pursuing their addiction.

You could extend this to other potentially addictive activities, like shopping, video games, and social media.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-21T03:49:23.270Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone that has had surveillance capabilities at work, let me assure you that a huge chunk of the workforce is drunk, high, and either jerking off or fucking. You only have to be slightly above terrible and causing few issues to remain employed (at least where I am. We have laws that make firing difficult).

The fundamental question is whether society has an interest or onus in policing sin. If people want to kick their addictions that's one thing, but it's quite another to say here's some busywork because we don't want you touching yourself too much.

If people aren't causing problems, and aren't asking for addiction intervention, then why shouldn't their agency and privacy be respected?

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T08:29:40.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

 If people aren't causing problems, and aren't asking for addiction intervention, then why shouldn't their agency and privacy be respected?

i agree on this principle: making people work to avoid them falling in vice seems definitely an exceedingly patronizing position for the State. However, I can think to two possible answers to your question:

    - many addicted people are not really happy with their addiction, and do not ask for help for pride or because they are costantly believing that are quitting (like the stereotypical smoker that decides avery day to quit smoking). So it would be a net utilitarian harm if more people were addicted.

    - maybe the society could have a legitimate interest in preventing the spreading of addictions. Maybe there are no problems if 10% is high, but there could be trouble on the streets if 80% of the populations was high.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-21T13:22:29.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many people are perfectly fine with their addictions. Barring harms to others It is the consenting individual that should decide whether they have a problem or not, and what they want to do about it.

The same argument against addiction also applies to other things. I would offer obesity as an example. If the state can control what you put in your body then what greater utility than stopping you from getting fat?

Society isn't a machine that is meant to promote optimum human efficiency. 

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T16:08:07.104Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I agree that the state can not prevent you from becoming obese or drunk (mush less sure about, say, heroine), I think it is legitimate to apply economic incentives to decrease the expected number of people engaging in a given activity. 

Many states apply taxes on tobacco and sugar, and there are advertising and sale restrictions on cigarettes and alcohol.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-21T23:44:31.860Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anything you tax you have little incentive to decrease.

You want to stop people from doing something? Make it legal and boring/embarrassing.

comment by gjm · 2021-02-21T23:53:12.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you (= the government) tax something, then you (i.e., the government) have little incentive to decrease it, but the people doing it have a clear financial incentive to decrease it.

So a government that puts a big tax on whatever-it-is gives up its own ability (or at least motivation) to decrease the thing directly, while giving the people who actually do it an incentive to do so. It's reasonable, at least in some cases, to hope that those people are better placed to decrease the thing than the government is.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-23T02:49:20.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except we know that's not how addiction works for individuals. We also know that increasing the expense of drugs generally moves the addiction rather than quells it (for example, the oxy to heroin pipeline). As I stated, people still smoke here, and when they can't smoke tobacco for financial reasons the most common alternative is marijuana. 

The results of actions here are measurable. We know this doesn't work, and we know the reason for that is that people want to get intoxicated so badly that they'll huff solvents. If you know that you cannot stop a behaviour but you might be able to reduce the harm involved then doesn't that tell you the experiment you ought to be trying?

comment by gjm · 2021-02-23T11:54:57.460Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First of all, this isn't only about literal drug addictions; other examples mentioned in the subthread are eating too much sugar (which surely has some addiction-like qualities but I wouldn't bet heavily that it works just the same way) and advertising (where the people who might be deterred by taxation are the advertisers, whose relationship to advertising is surely not one of addiction). Even for drug addiction, the relevant taxes might reduce profits for the sellers who are generally not addicted, whether or not they affect the behaviour of the buyers.

Second, I dispute that we "know" that increasing incentives not to take some addictive drug consistently does nothing to reduce addictive-drug-taking. Maybe I'm just not aware of some relevant evidence; would you like to give me a pointer to, say, the two things that you think are the strongest evidence for that proposition? (As opposed to weaker ones like "sometimes if you deter people from using one drug they switch to another", which I'm sure is true.)

For the avoidance of doubt, I entirely agree that governments should be trying much harder to reduce the harm done by drug addiction and trying much less hard to punish people for getting addicted to drugs. I'm just not at all convinced by one specific argument you made, namely that taxing "lotuses" can't reduce how much they're used because it decreases the government's incentive to do it.

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-23T08:51:09.210Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not really into the studies, but I know that in 1950/1960 virtually everyone smoked (also, if you read books from that period, is it taken as given that everyone smokes), while now it is quite uncommon for a young person in Italy to smoke.

I think that also in the USA tobacco consumption rate is plummeting, so why are you saying that it does not work?

It may be misleading to conflate all "addictions" together. I can see how this can not work with heroine, but addiction to candies is a different thing.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-23T02:50:25.433Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except we know that's not how addiction works for individuals. We also know that increasing the expense of drugs generally moves the addiction rather than quells it (for example, the oxy to heroin pipeline). As I stated, people still smoke here, and when they can't smoke tobacco for financial reasons the most common alternative is marijuana. 

The results of actions here are measurable. We know this doesn't work, and we know the reason for that is that people want to get intoxicated so badly that they'll huff solvents. If you know that you cannot stop a behaviour but you might be able to reduce the harm involved then doesn't that tell you the experiment you ought to be trying?

comment by Viliam · 2021-02-22T13:03:47.616Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

here's some busywork because we don't want you touching yourself too much.

This, and even more monstrous when you put it into context that maybe part of the population would spend their time touching themselves, but another part would spend their time doing something amazing... but we will sacrifice the possibility of the latter, just to make 100% sure no one touches themselves too much.

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T08:45:51.730Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a slightly unrelated question, I would be very interested to hear if you think that the quality of the work you watch over is somehow affected by the workers being addicted, and how much.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-21T13:57:45.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you can work a day when you're sick then you can probably work a day intoxicated too. 

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T15:59:04.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I definitely can not work when I am sick. Can I ask what kind of job are you overseeing?

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-22T00:29:57.953Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was running the backend of a call centre. 

I've worked drunk before (not my choice), I've worked ill, sleep deprived, etc. Most jobs aren't hard, and even within that subset most of any given role isn't hard either. This is Pareto territory: 80% of your job doesn't matter that much, so if you can sustain a burst of 1/5th of your capacity you'll be okay for the day.

I can guarantee that you can work a day when you're sick. I'm not telling you that you'll enjoy it, that it will be your best work, or that it won't have consequences, but you most certainly can do more than you think you can. 

If the first thing to go in a given domain of labour is your brain saying I can't then you can. When it is your body giving you pain that is at the point where you think you must stop that means you have 30-50% more left in the tank. 

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-22T08:44:02.924Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe I am making confusion between two claims: 

      A) If it happens that you are sick one day, you can still (with pain) carry out an acceptable amount of work for that day.

      B) You can work in a decent way, in the long run, while being sick most of the time.

Are you saying that (B) is true, or just (A)? I fully concede (A) - I also did it. But (A) does not imply (B). I work as a PhD student (which in Europe is a job: you do not have to attend lessons, but you have to do research), and I am sure that (B) is false for me.

Maybe there are jobs for which (A) implies (B), but my intuition is that they are not the majority. 

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-02-23T02:28:36.653Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All of this is contingent on what you are being asked to do, and to what standard. How much error can a given task endure before you not working is the optimal strategy?

Business (and life) favours completion over perfection. You might have a feel for whether you are underperforming at work but the question is whether others can see that (and especially whether they can quantify it). The vast majority of work is not on the critical path or a showstopper. If your work isn't urgent it can be deferred.

People are sick all the time. A third of the population is on antidepressants or other psych meds, and script drug addiction is massive. Work still gets done. 

In regards to you and B: If you haven't worked at breaking point then you don't know what you're capable of. B isn't long term sustainable, and it will hurt you in some manner (because that's what overwork does), but you can do it. 

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-23T09:03:46.100Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Business (and life) favours completion over perfection. You might have a feel for whether you are underperforming at work but the question is whether others can see that (and especially whether they can quantify it). 

So you are saying that you can still pretend to do a good work if many people do a work just a bat as yours. This is different from saying that your work is decent. 

In the town I grew up in, it is common for people to do not work at all (not because they are sick, but because they do not care). They "can" do it in the sense that they do it and they face no consequences - but we all pay the price, for our public services are terrible to nonexistent.

People are sick all the time. A third of the population is on antidepressants or other psych meds, and script drug addiction is massive. Work still gets done. 

Do you think that the performance of a workforce on antidepressants would be the same as the performance of a drunk workforce? 

In regards to you and B: If you haven't worked at breaking point then you don't know what you're capable of. 

I do not know, but neither do you. I mantain that my output would be terrible (I would not be fired, because of my contract, but it still would be terrible).

comment by DanArmak · 2021-02-21T19:44:22.366Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How many people have a preexisting tendency towards overuse of these substances that is kept in check by the need to get up on time for work and be reasonably productive and presentable at work?

This implies that rich people who don't (or don't need to) work for their living will spend much more time on drugs, alcohol and porn, because they can afford to. Is that the case?

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T20:02:05.645Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Probably some of them do (at least in the popular imagination); I do not know if this can be checked.

Maybe it is possible estimate drug consumption in a geographical area by enviromental data, for example the amount of cocaine retrieved in the water, and attempt to infer a correlation with income. But I do not know if there is sufficient data available.

Surely not everyone would be like Ogodei Khan.

comment by remizidae · 2021-02-20T19:33:16.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, some people would devote themselves to caretaking activities: lots of kids incl. foster kids, lots of dogs or cats. I’m not saying this is exactly bad, in some cases it’s good, but at extremes it can become hoarding, when the impulse to collect kids/pets overwhelms the motivation to adequately care for them.

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T08:07:35.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand how this can be very rewarding, but it is also an activity which requires mental effort (you do not just look after a kid the way you can drink a bottle or the way you can scroll your Facebook feed).

 It does not feel to me like the sort of activity in which you can just fall into, while you are planned to do other things. Are there documented cases of pathological dependence by caretaking?

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comment by Viliam · 2021-02-21T00:21:13.384Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

UBI is the modern Rorschach test -- everyone sees a different result when they look at the (few and usually flawed) experiments with UBI. I guess I am not different. Anyway, here is an obvious problem I see with the article:

[prime-age men who are not in labor force] report much less paid work than their peers—an average of just 12 minutes per day, nearly six hours a day less than employed men, and almost five hours a day less than employed women, but also close to an hour a day less than unemployed men. Perhaps more surprisingly, their time freed from work is not repurposed into helping out around the home, such as doing housework, cooking, and other tasks of home maintenance. In fact, they devote significantly less time to such home chores than unemployed men—less, too, than women with jobs. NILF men also spend much less time helping to care for other household members than working women—less time, as well, than unemployed men. Apart from work, by far the biggest difference between the daily schedules of NILF men and everyone else comes in what the ATUS calls “socializing, relaxing, and leisure,” a category that encompasses a range of activities, from listening to music to visiting a museum to attending a party. [...] The overwhelming majority of this “leisure” is screen time: television, internet, DVDs, and all the rest. [...] almost half of NILF men reported taking some form of pain medication every day.

The first impression is quite damning: The lazy voluntarily unemployed men don't do any productive work, don't even help at home, spend most of their time looking at screens... and for some weird reason take a lot of pain pills.

Ignoring the last part, it is exactly what the model "job is the source of all virtues" would make you predict. UBI would remove the need to work, then humanity would lose all its virtues, and we would all wirehead. Thank God for bullshit jobs that saved us from the threat of too much free time because of automation!

What about those pain pills, though?

So, here is another explanation that seems to fit the same data, and provides a different picture. Suppose you have a fraction of population that suffers from incurable chronic pain. It probably makes sense if they work less than healthy people. It could even explain why they help less at home. If you think about what such person could do -- lay in their bed, watch TV or listen to radio, talk to someone, take a walk -- depending on what categories are available in the questionnaire, it could fit under "socializing, relaxing, and leisure". It would definitely explain the taking of pain medication every day. And if these people realize they are unable to keep a job, so they stop actively trying to find one... then they get classified as "people who don't have a job and are not even trying to find one", duh.

Hey, I am not trying to say here that everyone who avoids job is actually a disabled person. Healthy lazy bums definitely exist, too. And I have no idea what is the actual proportion of these two groups in population. I just see an obvious alternative explanation that the article completely missed, because it automatically assumed the "job = source of all virtues" model. Makes me wonder what else they missed.

Yet another alternative explanation: Assume there are by nature two kinds of people: lazy and non-lazy. In a society where everyone must have a job or face serious consequences, the non-lazy people will have a job, and the lazy will be jobless. If you mistake correlation for causation, it is easy to conclude that the job makes people non-lazy (rather than the non-laziness making people employed). Essentially, you take a selection of people who are too lazy to get a job even in situation where not having a job seriously reduces the quality of your life, include the observation that they are also lazy in non-job aspects of their lives... and conclude that everyone is like that, only the jobs magically transform us into something better.

EDIT: To make my objection more simple -- It is statistically shown that in USA people without jobs are more likely to be black than people who have jobs. Conclusion: UBI will make you black. Discuss.

comment by ejacob · 2021-02-21T16:51:05.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there evidence that giving people a UBI would actually result in significantly more lotus-consumption activity? My understanding is that giving most people in the US an extra $1000/month, for example, would mostly go toward covering expenses, buying higher quality goods, or working slightly less to spend more time with family. 

comment by ForensicOceanography · 2021-02-21T19:02:22.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that Caplan is referring to a scenario in which the UBI is high enough to cause a significant reduction of the employment rate.

1000 $ per month would not achieve this effect.

By the way, here in Italy the state has recently enacted a law to give 780 € per month to unemployed people. The party which proposed this law has been mostly voted by southern Italy, whose ruling classes correctly predicted that it would have had the effect of increasing undeclared work.