Archive for the ‘policy’ Category


Causal effects of divorce?

It’s very common for people to cite statistics about how children from divorced families do worse, on average, than children from parents who stayed married. Outcomes for the children from these families might include things like depression, teen pregnancy, high school graduation, college diploma, arrests, or (their own) marital success.

Most of these statistics simply compare children from divorced parents with children whose parents remained married (possibly controlling for some factors, such as SES, age, and race). However, this is really not the right comparison.

Denote by Z the divorce variable. This is just a yes/no indicator function. If Z=1 the couple gets divorced and if Z=0 they don’t get divorced.

Let Y be an outcome of interest. For example, Y could be whether or not the child ends up graduating from HS, income level at age 30, happiness level at age 25, whether or not they get arrested by age 30, etc. Just imagine some kind of thing that we care about that we think might be affected by divorce.

So, typical statistics on outcomes of divorce involve comparing average values of Y|Z=1 with average values of Y|Z=0, where the vertical bar can be read as ‘given’ or ‘conditional on’. But these are two populations, and differences in Y might not have anything to do with divorce (i.e., this is not a causal comparison).

Instead, we might want to consider what would have happened if the people who got divorced did not get divorced. For that, we will need potential outcome notation. Denote by Y(z) the outcome that would have occurred had Z been z. So, we might be interested in average differences between Y(1)|Z=1 and Y(0)|Z=1. The second term is counterfactual in that we do not observe Y(0) for anyone who did get divorced. We could think about ways of estimating it. However, I will argue that this is not what we really want.

Divorce tax

People generally perceive that divorce is a bad thing, especially if the people getting divorced have children. I will focus here strictly on the married/divorced with children scenario.

I sometimes hear people argue that we should make it harder for people to get divorced, that there should be more social stigma attached to it, etc. The collection of penalties for getting divorced might include the following: legal fees; reduction in disposable income (the parents will now likely have to pay for two places to live, rather than one, etc); loss of some relationships (might lose contact with members of your ex’s family; some friends might stop talking to you); the kids might be extra stressed and might act out in various ways, making parenting more difficult; feelings of guilt or shame; stress from divorce and/or custody negotiations/hearings; sadness at loss of relationship. Let’s call this collection of penalties the divorce tax.

The divorce tax can be increased or decreased. Laws could be passed to change how difficult it is to get divorced (making it either more or less difficult). Fees could be changed. The level of social pressure to stay married could change.

Denote by R the divorce tax. For simplicity, think of this as a univariate severity measure (for example, with larger values meaning more of a divorce tax). This is our policy-like variable, as it is something that can be moved. We could increase R by making divorce more shameful, or expensive, or just harder to obtain. We could reduce R by taking away divorce stigma, making it easier, or making it cheaper.

Now consider the effect of R on Z. Using potential outcomes notation, we have Z(r), which is the indicator of divorce if we set R=r. Thus, if Z(r)=Z(r’), then the change in divorce penalty from r to r’ would not affect whether or not the couple got divorced. If, instead, Z(r)=1 and Z(r’)=0, then changing the divorce tax from r to r’ saved this marriage.

The current divorce tax is R=r. Should we change it to r’, where r’>r (i.e., should we make it more difficult to get divorced)? Or should we change it to r*, where r*<r?

Note that, if r’ is close to r, then, for most people Z(r)=Z(r’) (we wouldn’t expect a small change in divorce tax to affect many people). So what we would really like to do is focus on the cases where the change in R does affect Z. That is, a comparison between the average value of Y when we set R=r versus R=r’, among people for which Z(R=r)\ne Z(r’)

In other words, picture the subset of married people who are having problems and would get a divorced under the current divorce tax, but wouldn’t if the tax were at the higher level r’. Would their children fare better under divorce tax r’? Keep in mind that we are restricting to couples who are having serious enough problems that they would get divorced at the current divorce tax level. Is staying together good for those couples?

I made a few simplifications in the above for clarity. I should mention, however, that we would want to capture a time element in several ways. It could be that the higher divorce tax just delays divorce ( for example, think of people who stayed together strictly for the kids, and then got divorced after their youngest turned 18). Is delaying divorce good?

Other effects of divorce tax 

There is an additional challenge that I haven’t yet addressed. The divorce tax itself could directly affect the outcome (not through its effect on divorce).

Consider people who would get divorced under either divorce tax level r or r’. Their outcome Y(Z) might differ, depending on whether R=r or R=r’, even though Z(r)=Z(r’). The higher divorce tax might not prevent the couple from getting divorced, but it might make their lives worse (more stress; bigger financial burden; more shame).

We therefore might expect that lowering R could improve the lives of those who would have gotten divorced anyway. Thus, any discussion of what the right level of R is should consider both the costs and benefits.

Traditional marriage

There seems to be a desire by some to get back to traditional marriage, where divorce was extremely rare and people who did get divorced experienced great shame (i.e., a high level of R). By traditional marriage most people are thinking of farming era up until, say, the early 1900s. However, the purpose of marriage was much different back then. People needed to stay married to survive. They needed children for labor. As Sarah Perry put it

..children were essentially the property of their parents. Their labor could be used for the parents’ good, and they were accustomed to strict and austere treatment. Parents had claims not only to their children’s labor in childhood, but even to their wealth in adulthood. To put it crudely, marrying a wife meant buying a slave factory, and children were valuable slaves.

In situations where spouses and children are not necessary for survival, marriage becomes much more about romance, connectedness, personal growth, amusement, and companionship. For a large part of the population, the commitment is more about assurances of being loved than about assurances of being financially cared for. (although there are still plenty of people who are married only because they can’t afford not to be)

I don’t think people who are sad about the increasing divorce rates are really longing for marriage as it used to be. It seems to me they want the best of both — romantic love that never ends. This, however, would be a new state — not something we would be returning to.

Discourage marriage?

Current US culture is one where marriage is pretty strongly encouraged. When you date someone, it’s not uncommon to get questions about whether and when you will get married. People get very excited about the possibility of planning a wedding celebration. However, if we believe that divorce is bad, then an alternative way to potentially reduce the divorce rate is to discourage marriage (or less strongly encourage it). One could argue that too much divorce just means that too many people got married. I like this idea, because I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of making commitments for your distant future self due to the consent problem.

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Facebook is a great way to see which commonly held beliefs, especially beliefs that are strongly tied to in-group signaling, are important to people.  The image on the left has made the rounds on Facebook.

Jesus saved your soul from sin.

Soldiers fight for freedom, possibly by fighting communists or terrorists.

One thing these statements have in common is they involve sacrifice for vague concepts.  I put the vague concepts in red.


Anyone who has spent time in the United States, knows that America and freedom are synonymous.  When I was young I used to often hear people talk about these other countries, where the government reads your mail and dissident citizens are imprisoned or killed without a trial.  So maybe that’s the sort of thing that is meant by freedom?  But the President of the United States currently claims the right to have American citizens assassinated without judicial process*, and I do not get the impression that many people care.

In general, I think freedom needs to be qualified (freedom for whom to do what).  For example, if people are given the freedom to own land, then they lose the right to roam freely across the land.

And then there is the issue that some people are harmed when they are given more choices.  Sister Y discusses interesting examples of this:

Given the right to die, people who are a burden on their caretakers might choose to die rather than be a burden, even if what they really wanted was to live without having to explicitly choose to live.  Therefore, the freedom to die harms the person.

Given the right to survive (on a respirator, say), people who wish to die will suddenly bear responsibility for choosing death, and may choose to go on suffering in life instead, even though they’d prefer to die, all things considered.  Therefore, the suffering person is harmed by the choice to remain alive.

So, not only is freedom vague, but it is not without tradeoffs.


As Glenn Greenwald put it, “Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.” Like communist before it, as commonly used, the word terrorist basically just means “people (possibly imaginary) that powerful folks want you to be afraid of.”

Soul and sin

I don’t think I need to convince people that soul is a vague term.  As for sin, most human actions involve harm/benefit tradeoffs, much of which is difficult to anticipate.  There are some cases that are not very fuzzy, but in general life just is not black and white.


The image above was pointed out to me while I was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s excellent article on the importance of being specific (link).  From his article:

Cognitive behavioral therapy… talks about using requests for specific details to interrupt thoughts looping around vague but affectively laden centers, like “I am a good husband”, “I am a bad husband”, or “my roommate is a slob”.  How are you a good husband?  How are you a bad husband?  Which specific feature of your roommate are you objecting to?  Taboo the emotionally valent word at the center, like “slob”, and replace it with something that’s specific enough to be testable, or concrete enough to be acted upon.

“I am a good husband” or “my roommate is a slob” is very similar to “I love freedom” or “we need to fight the terrorists.”

Investors aren’t going to fund your startup if you are too vague, but humans will fight in your war if you are equally vague.


*Attorney General Eric Holder distinguishes between due process and judicial process: ” The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”  ‘Due process’ just became vague.

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The Supreme Court recently struck down California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to children (7-2).   While I’m happy with the decision, I can’t help but wonder why the law was passed in the first place.  Why do people think violent video games are bad?

Even this BBC article, which lists video games as a possible reason for the large drop in violent crime over the past 20 years, still made the assumption that violent games encourage violent behavior.  They argued that the “incapacitation effect” of video games might  “offset any direct impact the content of the games may have had in encouraging violent behaviour. ”

Isn’t it possible that getting to live out violent fantasies virtually reduces actual violence?  This is similar to the idea that access to pornography prevents rapes.   I’m not saying that it does, but it seems like a possibility.

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Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.  -Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

We value social skills

Yesterday David Brooks gave a talk at Penn.  He said that he tries to interview 3 politicians a day.  He said one thing that stands out in talking with them is how extraordinary their social skills are.  I’m sure this does not come as a surprise.

It’s clear that we not only value those social skills, but we punish people who do not have them.

Bob Somerby commented:

People frequently make extemporaneous remarks which sound imperfect, odd or unfortunate. If you want to play the fool, you will wait until some such remark is uttered by some pol[itician] you aren’t supporting. You will then rise up in outrage. You will begin to paraphrase freely, mind-reading the speaker’s motive and outlook. You will thus establish yourself as a fool—and you may win a top spot on cable.

One unfortunate extemporaneous remark can ruin a career.  We expect politicians’ social skills to be perfect.  If they ever make a mistake, we mock them until they hide in shame.

Similarly, people with poor social skills are often laughed at and/or taken advantage of, regardless of how honest and talented they might be.  As Robin Hanson theorized, people pretend

“to mainly value overtly useful skills, while really greatly valuing covert conniving skills. Nerds tend to be much better at the former than the latter, and are often unaware that the latter skills exist. So the fact that nerds think well of themselves for their overt skills, but are largely unaware of how poor they are at covert conniving, is just hilarious.”

So, given that people value social skills so much, perhaps we should emphasize the importance of social skills to children.  However, an alternative to the we need to teach kids more social skills movement is to teach kids to value social skills a little less.  Perhaps valuing social skills to the extent we do has been to our detriment.

But should we?

One of my friends says she prefers socially awkward people, because she tends to not trust people who are too polished socially.  People with poor social skills are probably not skilled enough to be successfully manipulative.

The same skills are involved with both positive and negative social contact:

negative social contact takes skill, too. Do you want to intimidate someone? Insult them where it hurts? Figure out what they’re feeling, and how to use that to make them feel horrible? Seduce them into your car and murder them in your basement? You’re still going to need social skills. My stepfather, for example, who is a textbook sociopath…, knows exactly how to “push people’s buttons” to create a great deal of misery in the people around him, to intimidate people. When I lived at home, he was very perceptive that I was frightened of being worthless; so he called me worthless a great deal. When he wanted to be liked, he was. The neighbors thought he was a great guy, because he wanted them to think that. His social skills are highly refined; his morality is not.

Sure, you can accidentally say something that hurts someone. You can accidentally say something amusing that makes them laugh; you can accidentally say something that confuses them, frightens them, or comforts them. I’ve done all of those, purely accidentally. But, if you have clumsy, unpracticed social skills, you’ll have just as much trouble intimidating people deliberately as you have trouble deliberately charming them.

As a society, we seem to not like it when attractive people with fewer job-related skills are hired over less attractive people with more skills.  We know that we are biased in favor of attractive people, and, to some extent, actively try to prevent it.  I don’t see much difference between attractiveness and social skills.   It’s clear to me that we are very strongly biased in favor of people with strong social skills.  Maybe we should actively try to fight that bias.

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Imagine someone set up a gun in a shopping mall (not noticeable to the public) that was programmed to go off at a particular time.  Suppose that, given typical mall traffic at that time of day, the gun will shoot and kill someone with probability 0.1.

If someone ends up dying, the perpetrator would end up with a more severe punishment than if no one was hit. Why?  Essentially, the severity of the penalty was determined by the result of a 10-sided die.  Is it preferable to punish only that which was in the control of the perpetrator?

Imagine penalties based on an estimated probability of death.  If you repeatedly shot someone at point blank range, you could be charged with killing 0.999 people.  A reckless driver would be charged with killing p people, where p is the excepted number of deaths resulting from someone driving that recklessly. In the shopping mall example, you’d be charged with killing 0.1 people. There is a certain fairness with this approach, if the probabilities were known or could be reliably estimated.

However, in most situations, it will be unclear just how at-risk lives were.  We don’t know, for example, whether the mall gunman had done it before.  If someone is driving drunk, we do not know exactly how impaired they are.  However, the bad outcome is more likely to occur for people who have repeatedly driven drunk and/or were severely impaired each time.  It is more likely to occur if this wasn’t the mall gunman’s first attempt.   Thus, unmeasured variables that partially determine the probabilities that we are interested in in an ideal world are correlated with the outcomes.  In that sense, outcome-dependent punishment makes sense.

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Why are recreational drugs illegal? The ban on these drugs leads to organized crime, difficult and expensive law enforcement, a large burden on our court system and a large prison population.  All of this to prevent people from doing what we think is harmful to them (even though they might not think so)?

John Gray argues that it’s because Western humanists believe everyone can be happy:

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth.  For most people happiness is beyond reach.  Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it.  Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away.  Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy.  Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life.  As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.

If people choose to get high from drugs, it is a challenge to the humanist ideal that we all can be happy.  We do not like to see things that make us question our view of the world. We thrive on self-deception, and resent people who show us we are deceived.  For example, we like poor people concentrated into small areas so that we can drive around them without seeing them.  We also convince ourselves that it’s their fault that they are not successful (“if only they had worked hard and cared about their education, they could have been successful.”).  We do not want to admit that success is mostly determined by the birth lottery (both the gene and environment lottery), because then we might have to feel bad about the living conditions of others.

However, this explanation does not seem sufficient.  Why is there such a huge sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine? In August, President Obama signed a new drug law that reduces the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1.  As Robin Hanson points out, bans are often a way to show our disdain for certain groups:

It is common, for example, to require that candidates be locally-resident citizens above a certain age and without felony convictions….This paternalism seems plausibly explained as a status move: we disrespect certain groups by declaring them ineligible to run for office, and we elevate eligible groups in contrast. For this purpose, it doesn’t really matter that there wouldn’t be much chance of us electing the ineligible, even if they were allowed.

This paternalism-as-status-marker story fits with free speech being a status marker, and with many regulatory asymmetries, such as being more concerned about teen pregnancy than 35+ pregnancy, teen drivers more than elderly drivers, and drug/alcohol use of the poor more than the rich.

Since crack use is more prevalent in poorer neighborhoods than in richer neighborhoods, relative to powder cocaine use, the tougher sentences is a way of showing our disdain for poor people.

In addition, upper class drug users are more likely to have the means to hide their drug use from the public (picture rich people doing lines of cocaine at a party).  If people are using drugs to escape from daily life, we’d rather not know about it.  So we have stronger penalties for people who do it in front of us (picture the poor drug addict passed out on the steps of a building).

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As a research assistant, I  analyzed data on South African field workers.  To our surprise, workers were much more likely to get injured or die in a fire if the employer provided protective gear (clothing that was designed to be protective in fires).  We theorized that workers who wore protective gear probably ended up spending more time near the fire (the gear made them fear the fire less, to their detriment).

Similarly, Robin Hanson points out that boxing gloves made the sport of boxing more dangerous (boxers end up taking more hard blows to the head if gloves are worn).

One of his commenters pointed to a Malcolm Gladwell article, which suggests that American football has become more dangerous as helmets have improved:  “..the better helmets have become—and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem—the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.”

I’m sure there are many other examples.

As far as boxing goes, I think people are uncomfortable with the fact that they enjoy watching violence.  Watching a bare knuckled fight would be viewed as barbaric (low status).  But, if they wear gloves and perhaps other protective gear, then it’s just perceived as an athletic competition.  The boxers are worse off, but we feel better about ourselves.

Similarly, I suspect that football would be less dangerous if players didn’t wear pads or helmets.  Tackling would involve technique (see rugby) — the person doing the tackling would have to protect their own body.  Certainly you wouldn’t see men who can run a 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds using their body like a spear.  But, we enjoy the big hits, and the pads and helmets make us feel like we care about the players.

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