Ethics of accuracy

Andreas Avester summarized Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. Now, I’m not sure how many readers remember this, but I’m a professional data scientist. Which doesn’t really qualify me as an authority to talk about data science, much less the ethics thereof, but, hey, it’s a thing. I have thoughts.

In my view there are two distinct1 ethical issues with data science: 1) our models might make mistakes, or 2) our models might be too accurate. As I said in Andreas’ comments:

The first problem is obvious, so let me explain the second one. Suppose you found an algorithm that perfectly predicted people’s healthcare expenses, and started using this to price health insurance. Well then, it’s like you might as well not have health insurance, because everyone’s paying the same amount either way. This is “fair” in the sense that everyone’s paying exactly the amount of burden they’re placing on society. But it’s “unfair” in that, the amount of healthcare expenses people have is mostly beyond their control. I think it would be better if our algorithms were actually less accurate, and we just charged everyone the same price–modulo, I don’t know, smoking.

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Intrinsic value of choice

I know that this question has practical and political implications, but for now, I’m treating it as a “just for fun” philosophical question.  Just wanted to be upfront.

What is the value of freedom of choice?  Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

A thing has “intrinsic value” if it is valuable in itself.  It has “instrumental value” if it is valuable because it is a means to get something else of value.  For instance, suppose we have a choice between mushroom and cheese pizza.  This choice has instrumental value, because it’s a means for people to have the kind of pizza they most prefer.  But does the choice also have intrinsic value?

Under an initial analysis, I thought the answer was “no”.  If I’m presented with a one-time choice between A and B, and I choose A, did the other option B do any good?  At least within a consequentialist ethical framework, it sure doesn’t seem like it.  After all, option B had no bearing on the consequences.

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The economic theory of rainbow logos

Let’s talk about these rainbow logos that big companies tend to adopt during Pride month.

Rainbow versions of 15 corporate logos

Source: Buzzfeed

Many people have described rainbow logos as an example of “virtue signalling”.  “Virtue signalling” is a buzzphrase among pundits and internet commentators, used to mean “lip service” or “empty gestures”.

And this is so frustrating, because “virtue signalling” is a legitimate economic concept that legitimately applies to the situation.  But virtue signalling does not mean what people think it means.  What virtue signalling actually refers to is good.  And if people understood virtue signalling correctly then it would provide a useful tool to distinguish gestures that are meaningful, and gestures that are empty.

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Social Reproduction

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, I want to discuss another Marxist idea: the social reproduction of labor.  Basically it refers to a collection of social activities needed to maintain a labor pool.  An introductory article (suggested by Coyote) has a good description of how social reproduction occurs:

1. By activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.

2. By activities that maintain and regenerate non-workers outside the production process–i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.

3. By reproducing fresh workers, meaning childbirth.

It may be noted that social reproduction is essentially unpaid labor, and is disproportionately performed by women.  Thus, social reproduction theory draws a connection between Marxist and feminist theory.

However, I would fault the introductory article for failing to offer any good explanatory narrative.  Why is social reproduction unpaid, as compared to more “ordinary” labor being merely underpaid?  “Capitalism”, “neoliberalism”, and “sexism” don’t cut it as explanations.  So in this post, I’m going to offer a basic explanatory narrative, based on externalized costs.

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Conjugate variables, in thermodynamics and elsewhere

When I wrote an explanation of cap and trade, I had a strong temptation to make a physics analogy, to an idea in thermodynamics. The trouble is nobody would understand the analogy, and I would be obliged to explain the physics instead of the economics. Well I’d still like to explain the physics, but in a separate article.

There are certain thermodynamic quantities that are considered to be paired with one another. For example, pressure and volume, or temperature and entropy. These pairs are called thermodynamic conjugate variables.

The concept of conjugate variables can be challenging for physics students to understand because the examples we use are unintuitive. The connection between pressure and volume is unclear, and most people don’t wholly understand what temperature or entropy even are. Therefore, I’d like to use a more down-to-earth example.

So, let’s consider a pool of water. The pool is described by two conjugate variables: the volume of water, and the height of the water.
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Cap and trade

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, a commenter said that both frameworks have problems with externalized costs.  According to the internet, “Externalized costs are costs generated by producers but carried by society as a whole.”  For example, pollution.

I want to discuss externalized costs through the lens of a specific concrete example: cap and trade policies in California.  I choose this example because I have a friend willing to explain it to me because I live in California and know all about it.

Generally speaking, cap and trade is a policy to reduce carbon emissions (or greenhouse gasses).  The government auctions off “allowances” that give companies permission to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions.  There are a fixed number of allowances available (that’s the “cap” part), and further carbon emissions are restricted.  The companies are free to buy and sell the allowances at prices of their own choosing (that’s the “trade” part).  The number of allowances decrease over time in order to meet the government’s pollution reduction goals.

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Exploitation of labor, part 2

This article is part of a series discussing capitalism and socialism.  Remember, the point isn’t to conclude that socialism or capitalism is good or bad.  The point is to discuss which aspects are good or bad, and why.  Don’t treat me as an authority, tell me how wrong I am, discuss.

Last time, I introduced the idea that labor has a certain maintenance cost, and creates a certain amount of value.  The “surplus” is the difference between the value output and maintenance cost.  In the discussion, we agreed that it’s difficult to define the productivity of each worker.  Usually, many workers are cooperating to make the final product, and you may even have workers who are there to improve the efficiency of other workers.

There are two responses to this.  One response is, even if we can’t define it on an individual basis, we can look at worker productivity and worker pay on a macro scale, and see that workers are getting paid less and less of the surplus.

Another response, is a question.  In the current capitalist system, how do we evaluate worker productivity for the purposes of determining their wages?  The answer lies in the idea of marginal productivity.

A graph whose axes are "number of workers" and "wages". The graph has two curves, labeled "marginal cost" and "marginal revenue". The intersection of the two curves determines the equilibrium wage and workforce size. Two regions of the graph are labeled the employer surplus and worker surplus.

Image mine. Use with permission.

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