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Pragmatic utilitarianism?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/06/2021 - 11:01pm in

I have been a utilitarian for about 30 years now and am seen in my academic work as an extreme version of the genre. I did my Phd on the topic. I do not merely say that governments should make policy for the benefit of the wellbeing of the population, but have spent years in the weeds of government bureaucracies to help them figure out how to do it. I just published the first real Handbook on that subject, almost 500 pages long, which is already heavily used as a reference work by the UK bureaucracy. I set up and still co-organise the World Wellbeing Panel, dedicated to finding out what the wellbeing experts around the world think is the policy and behaviour that optimises wellbeing. After that effort, I feel I co-own the term utilitarianism and am allowed to say some unusual things about it.

Mainly, I think most philosophical discussions of utilitarianism – for or against – are irrelevant to decision making in this world. My own take on what utilitarianism is about and why one should be one differs from most takes I read on the subject. Let’s go over the three crucial issues.


Idea 1: a utilitarian in his/her own life pursues the wellbeing of humanity.

You hear a lot that a utilitarian should be the ultimate do-gooder in his or her private life. The effective altruist bunch are like this.

Well, I certainly am no angel of that type. Utilitarianism is the decision criterion I advocate as a decision-making principle for society, which is not the same as my personal decision criterion. So I want society to adopt the rule to save the whole population of Boston over any random person in the world. But if that random person is my wife and I would have to personally choose, then it is just bad luck for Boston.

Also, like anybody else, I do not make decisions solely on the basis of a calm considered calculus. If an adult hits my child in my presence, my first reaction is to hit back hard and wonder later about the calculus of utility that might or might not rationalise it. Afterwards, I would feel nothing but pride that I defended my child in the moment itself, not even needing the pretence that it was somehow utilitarian as well. That is healthy normal behaviour and an outcome of quicker systems of decision making than considered action.

Indeed, no one is as rational, as consistent, or as observant as a ‘utilitarian in private life’ would have to be if you took the principle as an actual command. It simply can’t be done. The strain of observing and analysing the world as it is, a necessary ingredient for deciding what is optimal, would already be far too much for anyone to achieve. We humans are not capable of observing reality or ourselves as we truly are, no matter how much we try. We are not the type of animal that could be a totally truthful decider.

Importantly, I have the same reaction to all other systems of ethics I read about, like liberalism, Christian ethics, situational ethics, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They are just as impossible to actually be in both a procedural sense and a human sense. Most of them for instance include the idea that one should start with seeing the world as it is, which I regard as a complete impossibility for anyone to achieve more than to a very faint degree. So, for instance, anyone swearing to speak ‘the whole truth’ is simply engaging in a lie. In any actual human society you’d be an outcast if you didn’t brazenly lie a fair percentage of the time. Also, like utilitarianism, the other ‘systems of ethics’ require a super-human psychology.

So what does it then mean to be an avowed utilitarian? Principally, it means one professes utilitarianism as the preferred system of ethics for society, and that one uses whatever political power one has towards that idea. One advocates it, votes accordingly, and in representative roles tries to decide accordingly.

So I premarily regard any avowed system of ethics as a public stance, a kind of political clothing. I see all such ‘philosophies’ as attributes of societies in which people are supposed to have public stances, hence societies in which some kind of public clothing is deemed important. I don’t think hunter gatherer society, in which humans lived for most of evolution, was like that at all: then humans lived with their friends and family their whole life, so there was no-one to have a public versus private stance towards. To have an ethical stance at all is playing along with a game societies demand some of us play. As a result, I look in bemusement at people who stolidly claim their system of ethics has something timeless about it, as if I am watching an actor who doesn’t realise she is in a play. I find the question why some people latch on to a particular ethical story much deeper than the story itself.


Idea 2: a utilitarian government calculates all effects of all possible actions for a population from now till ever, choosing the one with the highest sum of ‘utils’.

This one is particularly important because it goes to the heart of my own academic work and the way in which utilitarianism is depicted in many textbooks. The picture painted is that of a super-calculator working out all effects of all possible actions over time, choosing the action that has the highest sum of outcomes. Economic journals are full of such fantasies.

No-one has actually ever done this, could ever do this, or should be trusted with the power to do this. Hence the central problem with the claim is that it involves a god of sorts, namely someone or some single unit with the actual ability to make these impossibly complex calculations and then the power to decide on such a basis. That whole depiction falls apart on many counts.

For one, the depiction, if taken to its logical consequences, requires the possibility of making all relevant decisions about the far future at one supreme moment in time at which in essence all future decisions of everyone else get set in stone. The problem is not so much that there are uncertainties, but much more importantly that the future has no say in anything: all those yet to be born or everyone yet to change their minds has their futures set in stone by this mythical utilitarian optimiser that sets everything involving the future on an optimal setting. That is undemocratic, impossible, megalomaniac, and all the rest of it. There is a hidden vision of an omnipotent god in that depiction.

Second is the fantastic amount of knowledge needed, invariably depicted as a kind of rational centre on top of a more automatic measuring and obeying population. There is the assumption of unlimited intelligence, zero costs of information, and absolute unquestioning loyalty in that description. Even as a stylised description that one finds in economic textbooks, it is the stylised vision of extreme fascism, with the hyper-intelligent expert on top. It is a horrifying image when one reflects on it, dismissive about the agency and limitations of humanity.

I have a similar problem with nearly all other systems of ethics that yield some decision about the far future of humanity based on zero costs of information and computation, combined with implicit total obedience: it is pure hubris and a power fantasy to engage in that type of view of ethics. It is neither possible not ethical at all to give oneself, or anyone else, that actual power in reality. Surely one can do better, as fantasies go.

I know that some people then try to rescue the argument by saying one should see the depiction as an ‘in principle goal’ or a ‘unanimous agreement by humanity if they could all live at this moment and think just like me’ point of view, but that is really just a higher level power fantasy. Consider the elements of this kind of ‘the whole of humanity choosing from the veil of ignorance’ fantasy.

In what imagined world does it makes sense to speak of the whole of humanity from now till the infinite future as being present to agree to some set of principles or future actions? It slips in very weird notions of humanity. As if humanity remains the same species over time. As if real cultural disagreements can be overcome by the right argument. As if people in their actual lives could be represented by themselves at some particular moment, locking all other selves into obedience. As if people have or could be a kind of all-understanding presence capable of grand decisions about their whole lives. Etc.

So from start to finish, the whole notion of timeless ethics and decisions made for the whole of humanity over time is preposterous, requiring some god-like entity somewhere in the depiction. In that sense, Thomas of Aquinas was quite right: any notion of choosing the ‘Good’ begets a god-like entity somewhere in the argument.

I knew all this 30 years ago but I am still a utilitarian, so what does that then mean? What decision scenario do I have in mind for utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism as a public stance to me means that the wellbeing of the population should be the joint goal of those with some power over what a group does to try to make decisions on the basis of how decisions will work out for the sum of utils of that whole group. That means utilitarianism is what I advocate as the joint responsibility of those with some group power, a joint quest. So when asked what is good for society, I myself respond in keeping to that quest with the answer that I personally believe would lead to the highest utils.

I accept that it is impossible for anyone to know what the ‘optimal’ decision truly is, but take the essence of pragmatic utilitarianism to run with what one thinks is the optimal decision anyway. One runs with what one thinks is best until one discovers something even better after which one should run with that. In that sense I am a practising utilitarian, willing to be counted. It forces one in many cases to have no opinion on what is optimal, and to look around widely before having an opinion on important matters, precisely because to be pragmatic requires one to run with what one has come up with.

Note that the means of ‘trying’ can be varied and do not actually need a computation except in rare circumstances. After all, families can pursue the wellbeing of a family without anyone measuring those utils openly. They use theories, implicit measures, introspection, conversations, and other methods to tell them what is good for the family as a whole.

So trying also allows for the possibility that in many cases people have no idea what would be good for the utils of some group and that they apply various heuristics for which they have no better justification at that moment than ‘well, this seems to have worked out in the past’. It thus allows for a whole environment in which lots of people make decisions on the basis of lots of rules, habits, and guesses which lack a utilitarian calculus. A utilitarian tries in important cases to make some reasoned guess as to whether or not the laws and customs in place are moving in roughly the right direction from a utility point of view, nudging the system towards better customs and laws if that then is required. Numbers and formulas can certainly help, but not always. Indeed, not all that often.

Crucially, it is not utilitarian at all to presume that to try and openly measure and calculate everything is necessarily the best in all decision circumstances. That is a control fantasy that falls apart as soon as one realises there are costs to gathering information and analysing anything. Indeed, it is downright uneconomic to envisage a utilitarianism without costs of information and calculation. It slips in a good with a zero price.

Pragmatic utilitarianism is thus about trying to move the dial of decision making somewhat towards the notion that the overall goal is the utils of society and that ‘we’ have choices to make that either help or hinder that goal. How to help and what the best strategy is, is then not up to some central god-like character, but the joint quest of many, requiring lots of rules of thumb that hopefully become better.

This stance also brings very different requirements for what a utilitarian should be spending time on. They should, in my opinion, spend far less time wondering about the perfect measure for a util and far more about the decision system that is there and that needs improving. In effect, I accuse most utilitarians of not caring at all about the utils of the population because they want to sit on cloud cookoo and waste their time dreaming of perfect systems in which effort and measurement is costless, with all power bundled in their hands. That is not utilitarianism but a form of narcissism.

Over time, pragmatic utilitarians thus need to learn such things as to whether in fact the system is better off without any open calculations at all, or whether it is better off with lots of local deciders determining their own use for numbers. Hence I can easily imagine a society of with lots of utilitarian policy Mandarins but with no calculations or powerful centres at all.

Why did I then spend years of my life trying to figure out how to do calculations and adjust government decision making systems? Because my judgment at the time was that in the society I found myself in, that was a sensible way forward, ie that enough big mistakes were made right now that would be avoided with more knowledge of reasonable measures somewhere in the system. The point of counting and calculus is that it reveals things one truly wouldn’t know or be convinced of unless one did some measuring and counting. It can thus itself be useful. I did not advocate things any classic utilitarian would recognise as 100% what utopian utilitarian had in mind, but I hope many will see why I think my suggestions are improvements upon the current system towards the joint goal.

This then brings us to the third idea.


Idea 3: a utilitarian deeply believes in the foundational assumptions, such as a deep convictions on the equal innate value of all humans.

There are many variations of this idea, but they all boil down to the notion that people are utilitarians because they ‘in their soul’ believe strongly in something. They have axioms or convictions.

I have always found such arguments extremely weird, bizarre even. As if any of us believe anything deeply in our souls. Laughable. Asking me to fully sign up to axioms is like asking me to join the ‘pantomime of deep convictions’.

Myself, I am more or less a utilitarian by accident.

I first became a utilitarian 30 years ago, when confronted with the different ethical systems around me, largely out of mental laziness. It sort of seemed right to me and I liked the fact that utilitarianism allowed me to have lots of strong opinions on lots of topics without needing to put in much effort to rationalise them. Utilitarianism was intellectually very easy for me and I felt I was supposed to have a system of ethics. I can pretend I had utilitarian convictions at that time, but my truly deep convictions at that age (around 20) were confined to sex.

Over the years, it mainly kept feeling right to me. The story that people were equal fit my culture that celebrated democratic values, and I liked the mythology of rational choice. It was the system that fit my education and how decision making in my society was depicted to me. As a result it seemed to be the long-run winning view to me, even more so because so many people were always bitching about it. I reasoned that the philosophy everyone loves to hate must be the one that everyone actually believes will win in the long run. I definitely wanted to be with the long-run winning team.

I think I also liked the god-view implicit in how utilitarianism was described to me at that time, ie the idea that I could decide everything for the whole of humanity. For their own benefit, of course. And yes, you might say that that is not a noble motivation, but, well, guilty as charged: young men will dream of power, one way or the other!

Over time, I started to see it more and more as a means of relating to people, just like any clothes make one part of a club. As a recognised ‘philosophy’ my efforts towards making utilitarianism a reality made it possible to relate to many others with similar quests. It also in my own mind allowed me to feel I was being the ‘good shepherd’ that my family wanted me to be. It furthermore allowed me to feel connected to thinkers and populations long dead or yet to come. It is a pleasant feeling to have that sense of recognition with others in time and place on the basis of what one works towards, even if the words used are different. I thus still wear the utilitarian clothes gladly and rejoice in meeting others wearing the same gowns.

Indeed, many of the people I regard as ‘the most utilitarian’ don’t think of themselves like that at all, including pastors and parents just looking after their local flock. I for instance see many sex-workers who get pleasure out of pleasing and connecting with their clients as a kind of ultimate applied utilitarians, bringing more total utils to the population than most supposedly dedicated effective altruists I know.

So, my sales pitch to all you non-decided seekers of some ethical clothing out there: become a pragmatic utilitarian. It’s good fun, easy, winning, and gets you around.

Book Launch of the Handbook for Wellbeing Policy-Making July 1st

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/06/2021 - 7:44pm in

Wellbeing & Policy Making Book Launch Event on 1st July 5-6.30pm London Time. Attending the Launch is Free, the book is not!

[blurb from Nancy Hey, director of the WW Centre for Wellbeing]:
The What Works Centre for Wellbeing, and our commissioning partners at the ESRC: Economic and Social Research Council have been working with colleagues at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for the last four years to bring the science of wellbeing economics into policy making so that it can be used consistently and with confidence. This groundwork is summarised from an academic perspective in a new book from Prof Paul Frijters and Dr Christian Krekel.

Join me on 1st July 5-6.30pm for the launch of their new book and to hear from our superb panel of scholars and practitioners Prof Lord Richard LayardThe Brookings Institution‘s Carol Graham , Government Economic Service‘s Sara MacLennan , Prof Andrew Oswald from University of WarwickMcKinsey & Company‘s Tera Allas Prof Liam Delaney from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) on their perspectives on wellbeing and policy making past, present and future and around the world.

Please register here:

#research #science #future #economics #wellbeing #policy #publicpolicy

#policymaking #WellbeingEconomics #WellbeingEconomy #BookLaunch


Peace, food prices, (hunger?) deaths and inequality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 19/05/2021 - 9:50pm in

Now and then one should look up and see if there are any trends that are not usually talked about in the media but that say something big about how humanity is going. I here want to briefly discuss the latest data on four big trends: war, food, (hunger?) deaths, and inequality.

Ongoing armed conflicts

On the question of the severity of current conflicts, wikipedia is pretty good as its entries seem to get populated by the right people (peace institutes and conflict monitors). The key graph on what has happened in the last 6 years, including 2020 is here on the left.

This graph shows you the estimated number of conflict-related fatalities in the world’s 17 deadliest conflicts. So the colours in each bar tell you the total number of deaths that year from a particular conflict that has made that year’s top 17. Of course the number of different conflicts that made it in the top 17 is larger in the 6 years depicted because some conflicts were not in the top 17 in each year, meaning there are close to 30 conflicts shown in this graph (which makes the colour scheme difficult!).

The key take-away is that the number of fatalities has halved the last 5 years and was down around 25% in 2020 versus 2019. That is undoubtedly good news. Indeed, historically speaking the last 5 years saw very low war fatalities anyway compared to previous decades and centuries, so we are living in extraordinarily peaceful times. That might change soon, but good news so far is good news so far!

World food prices and hunger (?) deaths

The place to look for world food prices is the FAO, which produces indices for many types of food. The key graph on what has happened the last 15 months is to the left which show you the movement in real terms of food prices for particular types of food.

The graph tells an alarming, but not unexpected story. Food prices have gone up: the ‘aggregate index’ rose 30% the last 15 months. The rapid rise the last few months is particularly worrying, even more so since the fastest growing prices are those that are relevant for the poorest in the world: those relying on cereals (up 20%), vegetable oils (up 100% relative to the index april 2020), and sugar (up 60%).

This really is a dramatic development, heralding the potential deaths of tens of millions of poor people around the world (as the FAO itself started warning about since late 2020 and again warned about recently). Think of this graph in the light that the economic recession caused by covid-policies is, according to the IMF, turning particularly uncertain for the poorest countries. It is absolutely gut-wrenching to think what this graph means for the plight of the poorest in the world.

On March 18th 2020 here on Troppo I warned how the economic recession due to the panic then was condemning 10 million poor people to death. This FAO graph makes grim reading in that light. Indeed, the large excess death not explained by covid in poor countries the last 12 months makes one fear those foretold 10 million deaths might have already happened and be a vast underestimate. The Economist magazine recently estimated that developing countries already lost up to 10 million more people than covid explained. There are of course lots of conflicting claims what these 5-10 million died of and whether the statistics are good enough for poor countries anyway. So there will undoubtedly be much false claims and political posturing in coming months and years before it truly becomes clear whether the world has already lost 10 million people due to collapsing from malnutrition and poor health, or whether it didn not happen at all, or whether it happened but was due to other causes (including covid). I personally fear that the calamity I anticipated last March has been happening the last 6 months and is accelerating right now (there in that regard many worrying in depth reports from India). The FAO food price graph makes me fear the worst.

The nightmare is thus that the world is thus in these very months losing tens of millions of poor people due the economic disruption from all the severed economic networks due to the lockdowns combined with increased authoritarianism that is making movement and health care difficult (which is what causes famines): as the UN just said, “People are not starving – they are being starved”. If it is clear in hindsight that those political choices, copied in other countries when the West instigated them, lead to disrupted food production and an inability of the poor to buy food, then I fear the current period may well be remembered in the West by our grandchildren as “Our Great Shame”. But let’s hope for the best. The increasing food prices are a huge worry, particularly combined with that IMF data on what is projected for the economies of the poor world.

Increasing inequality


The Financial Times is always a good place to look for interesting stories on growing inequality. The graph to the left is what they reported on the growing amount of wealth owned by the billionaires.

The underlying FT story effectively says much of the money printed by central banks has ended up with the billionaires, and that the various avenues in which that has happened have had different effects in different places. The graph essentially tells you that, whilst the world economy shrank 3% in 2020 according to the IMF (a decrease they call the Great Lockdown, making it clear what they think caused the downturn), the billionaires gained some 30-50% wealth.

As I recently said, barons with huge political power and wealth are rising. A kind of new feudal system is taking shape under our very noses, something you can also tell from the stock markets. The world’s poorest are worst hit whilst the rich are getting richer. But at least in 2020 that hasn’t yet lead to more wars. 30,000 less dead from wars than a year earlier is something to celebrate, though 5-10 million more dead from causes yet to be convincingly (though a famine and general health crisis is underway right now as the UN is documenting) shown is a tragedy. It might get much worse if one reflects on the rapidly rising prices for basic foods whilst the poorest are getting poorer. Awful things are afoot and should be lamented.

Vale Ed Diener, Mr Happiness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 04/05/2021 - 10:54pm in


Dance, life, Science

Positive psychology 11.06.10Ed Diener, one of the best-known scholars of happiness died this week at the age of 76. He was known as Dr Happiness in the United States, well-known for his 7-item scale on wellbeing and his constant refrain that the secret to happiness is in warm social relations.

 When Doing More Means Achieving LessI met Ed a few years ago in Utah, where he was running a center on wellbeing, trying to keep the flame of wellbeing going in the United States. You would think that in a country that has “the pursuit of happiness” in its constitution, policy interest in happiness would be rife, but the opposite is true. People like Ed were very much needed and he worked tirelessly for the cause.

You can get the measure of Ed by looking at what he wrote in 2020, at the age of 75/76, a year before his death. Not only did he publish almost 20 studies with something like 30 different co-authors, but he also published on important questions. He documented how the Syrian civil war had dramatically reduced the wellbeing of its people. He gathered evidence on how it is the happier people that take up good causes more than unhappy people. He wrote on how volunteering helps people get over trauma and on how happiness improved later health. He still pushed questions of wellbeing methodology and of world-wide data, even writing on major outstanding questions in the field. In short, he died in the saddle.

Ed truly practiced what he preached, leaving behind very warm relations with both the academics and family he spent time with. Together with his wife Carol he raised many children and young scholars, who were all infected with the idea that emotional skills and making time for relationships is the smart thing to do. Ed championed group-based programs that gave participants the idea that working on one’s emotional skills and happiness was worthwhile and rather easy once one got the knack. Ed leaves behind many friends, many books, and many good memories.

Australia or Sweden: which has had the better 2020?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/04/2021 - 12:04am in

Compared to the trends on January 2020, has Australia or Sweden lost more wellbeing in 2020? And which has seen the greater damage to expected future wellbeing years for after 2020? The Table below summarizes the answers to this.

For the first calculation, let us only count the main elements going into the wellbeing of these two countries in 2020: the experienced wellbeing of the population in 2020 and the excess deaths in 2020. Lots of the other things we normally look at in these covid-calculations, such as changes to GDP, will show up in the anticipated effects for after 2020.

Lost Wellbeing years in Sweden and Australia due to covid and lockdowns

in 2020

beyond 2020


Lockdown Misery

Excess deaths

Future debt repayment


Loss per million



First, what was the wellbeing drop in Australia? Well, an ANU-sponsored longitudinal panel found a drop from 6.9 to 6.5 in their life-satisfaction poll from January to April, a huge decline that is similar to the drop in the UK. This panel is based on over 3,000 individuals, which is why this drop is strongly statistically significant.

What about the rest of 2020 in Australia though? The same ANU team, headed by Professor Biddle said at the end of 2020 about the lockdowns in Australia that they were “a massive hit to happiness, experienced by Australians from all walks of life”. They document the increased inequality and how things are particularly bad among the young and the vulnerable in general. Their key graph for the whole of 2020 is above.

This graph aggregates the changes in Australia in the various states, though the ANU team found one can clearly see that life satisfaction plummets in every state during a lockdown but recovers very quickly afterwards, so the top graph is essentially directly related to the average severity of lockdowns in Australia. Now, in terms of actual numbers, we should note that relative to December 2019-Jan 2020, (6.95 on average), Australia from March onwards had an average of around 6.8: the country was right back at the end of 2020 when there almost no lockdowns anywhere, but experiencing various degrees of suffering at other periods.

Now, how bad is an average loss of 0.15 for 9 months, ie a loss of 0.1 for the whole of 2020? A loss of 0.1 means a loss for the 25.4 million Australians of 2.54 million units of wellbeing (called WELLBYs). Since a wellbeing level of 2 is when individuals are, roughly speaking, indifferent between continued living or not, and a regular wellbeing year is spent at level 7, a regular year of life in Australia is worth 5 units of wellbeing. So the 2.54 million lost units are equivalent to 510,000 lost years of wellbeing in Australia in 2020.

In that 510,000 wellbeing years is all the misery caused by lockdowns and social distancing: all the cancelled weddings, all the additional cases of depression, all the extra anxiety, all the worry about unemployment, all the loneliness, all the abused women who could not escape, all the people who were not helped at hospitals, all the people whose IVF treatments were cancelled, etc. These numbers are also born out by other Australian surveys, such as on the strongly worsened mental health situation of Australia’s youth due to barred access to school, evidenced in official reports. The fact that the media does not talk about these lockdowns-victims much doesn’t mean this suffering does not exist.

One can note, btw, that the data just released by the World Happiness Report 2021 fits in perfectly with this picture in that the drop reported there for Australia since 2019 of about 0.1 refers to data gathered in February to mid-March 2020, so largely before the drop but just nipping its first beginnings, hence the drop you expect you see for that period.

And wellbeing in Sweden? Unfortunately for Sweden, there is no neat large panel gathered during the whole year like there is for Australia to base the numbers on, but we do have some comparable data. What we know for Sweden is that, unlike in strong lockdown-countries like the UK or Victoria in Australia, there was no drop in the main wellbeing indicator (life-satisfaction) in the first weeks of the panic in Sweden: Kivi et al. (2020) found among the group one expects to see a drop (the 65-75 year olds) no change in their life satisfaction in early April relative to the previous year, just as, by the way, found in places like the Netherlands which in that period had very light lockdowns.

For the rest of the year, the data for Sweden is patchy. An imperial college panel covering the period after the initial lockdowns(so not the early change) found no significant drop in life satisfaction over time in Sweden for the rest of 2020, but that is essentially because that panel is extremely small (50-100 observations per two-week period). Yet, if we aggregate that data over three month periods, we see that there was a drop in the last 6 months of 2020 relative to the April-June period of 2020. Not a significant drop, but the drop was concentrated in the last 3 months which was when the Swedish government was over-riding its health authority with more restrictions, so exactly the period you do expect to see a drop. So on the balance of probabilities, Sweden probably did have a slight drop in 2020, concentrated in the last 3 months, amounting to a drop over the whole year of 0.03 (this is very close btw, to the insignificant small drop found for the 2020 Gallup data for Sweden underlying the World Happiness Report).

Does this make sense if you look at the policies?. Sweden did not close the schools, which is the thing that has been found to cause massive wellbeing losses among the young and their parents in other countries. Sweden also did not prevent the generations from mixing or friends and workers socialising, which are the big elements in the drop elsewhere. So the lack of a big drop fits with what we know does the damage to wellbeing in strong lockdown places. But the government in Sweden did become more difficult about travel and socialising at the end of 2020. If we go with the data we have available then one should say wellbeing remained constant in Sweden for most of 2020 but probably did drop in the last few months.

Then the excess deaths in Australia and Sweden. The notion of excess deaths depends on what one counts as expected deaths, which is not so easy to say and on which reasonable people can disagree. Yet, the simplest thing to do is to just look at how many deaths there were in 2020 more than the average of 2015-2019. The Oxford group looking into this found that, at the time of recording, there were 112 less deaths in Australia in 2020. In comparison, in Sweden there were 5983 more deaths in 2020. So here we see the benefits of Australia having avoided a large glut of covid deaths, and perhaps also less traffic deaths, less flu deaths, and other sources of death. Sweden too will probably have avoided some traffic deaths and of course many who died of covid would have died in 2020 anyway, reducing the Swedish measured excess deaths to well below their reported number of covid-deaths.

On the other hand, the breakdown in the functioning of much of the health system in Australia during local lockdowns will have meant more cancer deaths and deaths from other preventable health problems. The balance seems to be 112 less deaths in total. Note that these numbers are relatively small. The 6000 extra deaths in Sweden in 2020 means a loss of around 3000 wellbeing years in 2020 (because people on average died in the middle of the year and thus lost 6 months in 2020), whilst the 112 less deaths in Australia meant a gain of 56 wellbeing years.

So Australia in 2020 lost 510,000 wellbeing years, but did gain 56 wellbeing years at the same time because of those 112 less excess deaths. Sweden lost 3000 wellbeing years because of their excess 6000 deaths and 62,400 lost wellbeing years from the probable drop at the end of 2020. This comes with a very simple conclusion: 2020 was a relatively horrible year for Australia. Per one million citizens, Australians lost 3 times more wellbeing than Sweden. The fact that the media chooses to focus on the minuscule gains and not the enormous losses is essentially a form of dismissal of the misery of those who have lost. As if they don’t exist.

So Australia compared to Sweden has had a terrible 2020. But, you might wonder, how about losses yet to come after 2020 because of the things that happened in 2020. How about the lost years of life of those who died in 2020? And how about government debt, employment, and all that?

Well, the key statistic there is that Sweden has already absorbed the small peak of unemployment mid-2020 and has ended the year with 3% less GDP at the end of 2019, expected to rebound fully by the end of 2021. The extra government debt in 2020 was 6% of GDP, but the country had stopped running a deficit by the end of 2020. Now, that extra debt really matters because it means reductions in future government expenditure in order to pay back this debt. Equivalently, you might say that money could have been spent in 2020 to fund things that would have increased future wellbeing, such as via setting up mental health programs or improving the health service. As a rule of thumb, based on the finding that governments buy a wellbeing year for around 30,000 Euro (5 WELLBY which are generated by 6000 euro of government spending on average), 1% GDP debt in Sweden (which has 10 million inhabitants) costs Sweden 0.15 million wellbeing years in terms of the effect of those lower future government expenditure, so the extra debt will cost Sweden 886,340 wellbeing years.

How is Australia looking in this regard? Well, the surging iron ore prices have helped keep the 2020 GDP drop to around the same 3% in Australia in 2020, though it has to be said that the expected growth for 2020 was higher than in Sweden, so the drop is relatively bigger. The more relevant difference is the increase in debt: already 10% of GDP has been added to government debt in 2020, but unlike in Sweden, that debt is still climbing fast because of the closed borders and the extremely costly recurrent lockdowns. So the RBA expects the debt to climb at least another 10%. Paying back that debt will involve huge future wellbeing costs, as we are already starting to see with the announced cut-backs.

Per person, Australia and Sweden have essentially the same GDP. So the 10% additional debt in Australia of 2020 will cost Australia 3.9 million wellbeing years. The projected further debt of another 10% will cost another 3.9 million wellbeing years. That is 7.88 million lost wellbeing years in Australia in total.

The 6,000 extra deaths in Sweden of 2020 will going forward mean around 2.5 years of lost life each after 2020, meaning 15,000 lost wellbeing years in the future from those higher excess deaths. By the same token the 112 less excess deaths in Australia mean 288 gained wellbeing years to come.

Summarising just these basic effects, per 1 million inhabitants, in 2020 Sweden lost 6288 wellbeing years, made up of their higher excess deaths and a probable drop at the end of 2020. Australia lost 20,077 wellbeing years per million citizens in 2020, due to the misery of its much harsher intermittent lockdowns. Australians thus experienced a wellbeing drop of 3 times the Swedish wellbeing drop in 2020.

In terms of losses going forward, Sweden’s additional debt and higher excess deaths mean a loss of about 89 thousand wellbeing years per million Swedes. In contrast, the much higher and continuing government debt in Australia means a loss of about 306 thousand wellbeing years per million Australians. Australians thus should expect to lose 3.5 times as much wellbeing going forward as the average Swede.

I can mention that if I add disrupted IVF services, loss of child education, sectoral disruption, and loss of basic freedoms into this calculation, that Australia’s losses loom much worse still than Sweden since all these were much worse affected in Australia than Sweden. So you should see the calculations above as rigged to look good for Australia. I intend to do another post with an extended comparison when some of the key data on other effects, like the covid baby bust and the extent of unemployment in Australia, have become clear.

The conclusion is inescapable: in terms of the wellbeing of the population, which counts everything that makes life worthwhile, 2020 was a much worse year for Australia than Sweden, with the events of 2020 also blighting the future much more for Australia than for Sweden. The fact that much of its media and commentariat do not seem to realise this, tells you how abandoned the many victims of lockdown policies in Australia must feel.

[This post was updated on 17-18/04 after a commenter convinced me it was more reasonable to say Sweden did see a drop in wellbeing in the last 3 months of 2020 that should be reflected in the numbers. That of course changed the ratio of losses between Sweden and Australia because that is almost entirely related to the wellbeing drop among the general population in 2020.

I also took the opportunity to make the definition of a wellbeing year equal to 5 WELLBY for both countries (previously I used a lower number for Australia because Sweden is happier, but that just leads to confusion). For the GDP baseline I used 2019 GDP figures.]

Meditations On US Forces Firing A Howitzer Into The Empty Desert “Just To Say We’re Here”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/04/2021 - 11:31pm in

I saw a line in a recent New Yorker article about America’s endless wars, and it’s been been rattling around in my head ever since:

“In Syria, McKenzie visited the Green Village, a community of decrepit apartment blocks near a bombed-out oil facility that served as the operational headquarters for the final push to erase the caliphate, in 2019. These days, the only military action there is from U.S. forces firing a 155-millimetre howitzer twice a week into the surrounding desert, at no specific target, ‘just to say we’re here,’ one officer told me.”

U.S. forces firing a 155-millimetre howitzer twice a week into the surrounding desert, at no specific target, “just to say we’re here.”

Tell me that’s not the sexiest line you have ever read in your entire life. The poetical beauty! The ennui! The oh-so-relatable existential ache! Oh God, I need a cigarette.

I mean it just hits on so many different levels. Could you ask for a better snapshot of life within the soulless US war machine than a small cast of Beckettian soldiers, waiting around near a bombed-out oil facility for a Godot who never arrives, firing heavy artillery rounds into the desert twice a week for no reason whatsoever? You just want to hang it in an ornate wooden frame with the caption “YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK, LADIES AND GENTS” and then shove it so far up Tom Cotton’s personal anatomy that it takes an entire emergency room team to extract it.

And isn’t it such a wonderfully concrete, in-your-face iteration of the meaningless struggle so many of us are going through in this decaying fustercluck of end-stage metastatic global capitalism? Firing a 155-millimetre howitzer twice a week into the surrounding desert at no specific target “just to say we’re here” is simply the military’s version of working at a desk forty hours a week doing essentially nothing other than making the boss and the shareholders a tiny bit richer than they already were. Working to pay the bills so you can afford the car you drive to work and the food and shelter which sustains your ability to work is no less pointless and absurd than what those soldiers were doing in the Green Village in 2019.

If you think about it, aren’t we all in our own way firing a 155-millimetre howitzer twice a week into the surrounding desert at no specific target “just to say we’re here”? Lost and despondent in the wilderness, boxing with shadows, firing giant guns at imaginary enemies, watching our expensive artillery shells disappear into the emptiness and wondering why it hurts to live? Screaming a loud, violent noise into the abyss just to show we exist, and then seeing the abyss roll its eyes like an annoyed teenager and return its attention to its iPhone?

We are such silly, confused little ape mutants. We could be using these giant brains we just evolved to create a chill, harmonious world where everyone has enough and we work in collaboration with each other and our ecosystem, where creativity has space to flourish and art gushes from our heads like the air we exhale. Instead we’re coasting to armageddon under the thumb of an empire that pours its wealth and resources into an endlessly expanding worldwide military campaign while impoverishing its people at home and keeping them in line with an increasingly violent and militarized police force.

We could have paradise on earth; there’s not one single valid reason why we cannot. Instead we’re letting governments controlled by a few idiotic sociopaths wave nuclear weapons at one another in the name of an imaginary god called unipolarity. Instead we’re letting ourselves be pressed into an absurd competition-based model where we must step on our neighbor’s head just to keep our own above water while destroying the environment we depend on for survival. Instead we’re firing a 155-millimetre howitzer twice a week into the surrounding desert, at no specific target, “just to say we’re here.”

This world is so silly. So beautifully, insanely, bittersweet cup of extinction noodles silly. We hurdle on a spinning rock we do not understand, through a universe we do not understand, made of particles we do not understand, and we behold one another in a field of consciousness we do not understand, and we shrug.

God I love us. I love us so much.

I really hope we make it.


New book: Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix.

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Uncertainty, Part 1: McGurk

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/03/2021 - 1:23am in

As one the best illustrations of the way our minds deal with uncertainty, consider the following video. Please listen and watch at least 30 seconds so you can experience the three sequences of spoken words.

Pretty much all humans who watch the video will first hear “ba ba” in the first sequence, then “da da” in the second sequence, and “va va” in the third sequence. Yet if you play the video but close your eyes, everyone will hear only “ba ba” in any of the sequences. Hearing “da da” or “va va” is an illusion caused by the fact that the video shows the lips moving as if “da da” or “va va” is said, but the actual sound is “ba ba” throughout.

It is a wonderful example of how the human subconscious recognises uncertainty and resolves it without the conscious being involved at all: in the second sequence the auditory part of the brain deduces that what is said is “ba ba”, whilst the visual part of the brain deduces that what is said starts with a “d”. These conflicting pieces of information are then combined such that the visual information dominates and the conscious is told the sound is “da da”. The conscious brain is not even alerted to the uncertainty as the sound “da da” is relayed in real time with no hesitation.

What makes the example especially interesting is that conscious awareness of what is going on does not change what the brain tells us about the sound: you can watch the video thousands of times and try and train yourself to hear “ba ba” all the time, but even scientists who studied the illusion for decades still hear “da da” when seeing the mouth move as if a “d” is uttered. The subconscious resolves the uncertainty in the same way regardless of how the conscious mind tries to direct it.

This “McGurk effect” is also a case of where more information actually leads to the wrong perception. Normally, visual information adds to auditory information to improve the processing of spoken language, but on this occasion more information leads to a conflict between information at which point the “correct” information gets disregarded.

It turns out that our subconscious does something similar with everything we see and hear (or sense in any other way): uncertainty about what is sensed is resolved many thousands of times every second to produce a sensation of certainty around what is going on. I am at this very moment hence “seeing” a room with chairs, a bench, a clock, a labtop, a tv, etc. There is no hint at all of uncertainty, such as whether I am seeing a pen or a chopstick, a chair leg or a lamppost, the side of a window glass or the side of a piece of paper stuck on the window glass: my subconscious simply paints a picture of what I am seeing, with no role for uncertainty whatsoever.

The pretense of certainty in what is seen and heard thus occurs entirely automatically and is the case for every normal human: we have a brain equipped to deduce certainty, not to live with radical uncertainty on everything we see and hear. What is amazing is that that ‘certain’ view emerges even though in actuality my eyes scan but a very tiny amount of the true visual field: nearly everything I think I see is made up from extrapolation, involving lots of little uncertainties. The brain thus deduces something is “a table” from a few glimpses, combined with the expectation that there is a table, culminating in a picture in our minds full of details that are not really seen at all (like the contours of the whole thing).

There seems an obvious reason for this penchant of our subconscious to present our conscious mind with the pretense of certainty: it allows for quick decision making without distractions. I don’t need to spend energy on the tiny probability that the house cat is actually a devouring tiger and can concentrate on my typing because my subconscious mind rejects out of hand that the house cat is a devouring tiger. My conscious mind can tell me there might be an escaped tiger from the zoo nearby (which then creates a hint of anxiety) but in the normal cause of events such thoughts never enter the mind for the excellent reason that it wastes time and distracts from what we are doing.

Our self-pretense of certainty is thus evolutionary efficient, a ‘hack’ you might say: by simply not even alerting our consciousness of the thousand and one uncertainties, our conscious mind is kept in reserve for more rewarding problems to think about. Being aware of uncertainty slows our decision making down immensely and thus needs to be particularly rewarding to even contemplate.

Let me give two more example of how our mind “fills in the blanks” in a way that is efficient but strictly speaking totally wrong. Read the following sentence as quick as you can:

“Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale.”

Now, with this ‘illusion’ it turns out not everyone reacts the same, unlike the McGurk effect above which pretty much 100% succumbs to. Still, the majority, me included, will be able to read the sentence above very quickly and ‘see’ that the sentence is meant to say

“According to a research at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place.”

This example is illustrative of the fact that the majority of people do not truly read every letter of a word but essentially guess at the order of the letters in the word on the basis of what the mind expects to read, helped with some information on the more important parts of the word (like the start and the finish). Our minds simply fill in lots of the blanks, partly on the basis of the overall shape of the word (ie we do not truly look hard at the individual letters either but make them up from more limited information too), and even because of what we expect to read in that part of a sentence. So after deducing in the sentence above that we read “Cambridge”, any subsequent word starting with “U” is going to almost automatically be guessed to be “University”.

Once again, filling in the blanks on the basis of deductions so far is efficient, even though the deductions are strictly speaking untrue. Our minds are not truly reading “Cambridge University” when the letters are “Cmabrigde Uinervtisy”. Yet, once again, our consciousness is not told to worry about the actual information even though in this case our conscious mind does get alerted that something is not quite right, which is probably because a bit of higher-order reasoning is needed to unscramble the words quickly. Yet, since there is no obvious alternative candidate way in which the sentence was “supposed” to be read, our conscious mind is not told there is a problem and is kept in a state of blissful certainty: we are not motivated to ‘check’ whether there is another possible sentence hidden in the same letters. All this happens at pretty high speed (I read the sentence above in 3-5 seconds).

A third example goes into the question of how our minds deal with uncertainty about the future. Consider the following survey question on which many macro-economic forecasts are based:

“Do you think your business will expand or contract the next 3 months?”

Note how this question only allows answers to be a definitive expectation of “expand” or “contract”. To a purist statistician this question is nonsense because one cannot know what is going to happen the next 3 months and one thus “should” have a “probability distribution” in mind on all the events that might cause the business to expand and contract. A statistician would thus like to ask business leaders questions like

“what probability do you assign to the event that your business will expand 10% or more in the next three months”.

The problem with such probabilistic questions is that many respondents will not be able to answer. Most people do not think in terms of probabilities of future events, let alone probabilities of broad categories like “10% or more”: it takes enormous training to think that way about something. That’s why the ‘incorrect’ version of questions about the future dominate surveys.

The question on business expansion thus divides neatly into two scenarios: up or down, and simply asks people to say which one they believe holds. This is how people think about the future: in terms of storylines, ie scenarios. Most of us do not really think in terms of uncertainties but more in terms of competing “scenarios”, where everything within each scenario is taken to be certain. A statistician would call a single scenario a “point estimate”. So via allowing multiple scenarios people can grasp a few point estimates. To a purist statistician any exact scenario occurs with a probability of zero and is thus useless, yet in politics and business, having several scenarios to mull over is about as sophisticated as one can talk about the future.

The general insight is hence that our very thought processes are set up to resolve uncertainty such that the conscious mind deals mainly in total certainties, even when considering the future. That appears to be an evolutionary optimal strategy: allowing more than a tiny bit of uncertainty about the present or more than a few scenarios for the future just distracts us too much and paralyses our ability to take action. In order to be decisive, we are set up to be extremely bad at openly thinking in terms of uncertainty.

This is also how we should think of uncertainty-resolution in social groups: as something that usually is efficient and necessary to be able to decide quickly. No politician can afford to sound uncertain, let alone say something as scientific as “With my policies there is a 5% higher chance of economic growth”. Group leaders must exude certainty lest they be seen as weak and not leaders at all. The inability of individuals and groups to live with much uncertainty is then not a sign of how backwards they are, but a ‘hack’ that allows faster decision making.  This is even more true in a crisis: the more that humans sense quick decisions need to be taken, the less able they as individuals or group can allow for the possibility of uncertainty. They need ‘to run’ with whatever presents itself as the certainty of that moment.

A major question for large groups is then how to avoid the trap of having the group as a whole become totally certain about something that just isn’t so. In terms of the McGurk effect, the question is how the group as a whole can have mechanisms to ensure that the “truth” about the sound is recognised by some people, combined with some mechanism to convince the others despite conflicting information. One obvious answer is that you want some people in the group as a whole that only listen (and do not use their eyes), for they will then hear something totally different in the McGurk video to what those who see as well as listen think they hear. So one answer to the trap of certainty is organised radical diversity in perception.

This and many other group considerations around uncertainty are for a future part though. They involve the issue of how emotions lead to the search for agency stories in situations of uncertainty. They involve the issue of how a leader must respond to the demand to exude certainty and control. They involve mechanisms like independence, public inquiries, and ‘conscience’ that very large groups develop to maintain and reward diversity of perspective. They involve the impossibility of representative leaders to openly maintain perspective if very strong group emotions get involved. The bigger idea in the background is thus that our societies need and already have lots of ‘counter-hacks’ to limit the damage of the many “usually efficient hacks” we as individuals and social groups have.

FRIGHT Friday - Stretched to Breaking Point

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/12/2016 - 1:20am in


fear, life, death

Dan Holloway gives a talk for the FRIGHT Friday series of talks, held in the Ashmolean Museum on 25th November 2016.

FRIGHT Friday - Parenting, Fear, Hope and Salvation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/12/2016 - 12:57am in


parenting, life, death

Dr Joshua Hordern gives a talk for the FRIGHT Friday series of talks, held in the Ashmolean Museum on 25th November 2016.

FRIGHT Friday - Embodying Life and Death

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/12/2016 - 12:54am in


death, life

Professor Cathy Morgan gives a talk for the FRIGHT Friday series of talks, held in the Ashmolean Museum on 25th November 2016.