Direct effects matter!

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A strange phenomenon plagues public discourse. Subtle and largely detached from the culture war, it often manages to evade detection. Can you spot it in each of the following arguments or discussion points?

  1. Drugs like cocaine and heroin are bad. They are ruinous to users’ health, and use imposes a large negative externality on society.

  2. We should decriminalize drugs. There is no reason to tear families apart and ruin lives for the sake of regulating consciousness.

  3. Most American adults should exercise more. Exercise has a plethora of mental and physical health benefits, after all, and most adults are sedentary.

  4. This expansion of unemployment insurance is bad. It creates distortionary incentives and will reduce workforce participation.


All four arguments completely ignore the first-order, direct effects of the practice in question!

Drug use and the war on drugs might impose serious costs on society, but we can’t forget that drugs themselves are fun to use! Exercise may be very important to personal wellbeing, but don’t ignore that (for some people, some of the time) exercise sucks! And we can talk about the second-order consequences of any sort of social welfare program, but let’s not neglect that the money directly improves poor people’s lives!

Saying this out loud sounds trivial, almost stupid. But I think “first-order effect neglect,” as I’ll call it, is a serious issue with public discourse.

When was the last time…

When was the last time that you heard a debate over the merits of drug legalization consider the stupidly-obvious fact that drugs make people happy? I don’t know if I ever have! Consider this list from the first result of my Google search for “pros and cons drug decriminalization.”

These are all valid and important points to consider, but nowhere is a mention of the most direct and obvious effect of drug use: if 10% more people smoke weed because of decriminalization, that’s a lot in chemical-induced pleasure!

Some public discussions have only a mild case of the disease. Consider Biden’s COVID relief package, as well as the larger discourse about public assistance in America. I’m sure there are better examples, but I managed to find this tweet pretty quickly.

As an observer of the online liberal-technocrat-effective altruism nexus, I see points like this made on Twitter or elsewhere from time to time. But—as the tweet’s sarcastic tone indicates—the Discourse too often neglects the simple, obvious, and direct positive impacts of giving people money.

Am I being unfair? Take a look at this list from the first result of my Google search for “pros and cons of basic income”

At the risk of beating a dead horse, there is no mention of the fact that money makes people better off, so giving them money is good. This is sort of gestured at in the second benefit listed, “people would have the freedom to return to school or stay home to care for a relative,” but even this point associates the benefit with doing something economically productive (education) or helping someone other than the recipient (caring for a relative). Nowhere on the list does it say “people can now buy things they like.”

What’s going on?

It is important to note that “first-order effect neglect” of some policy or idea is by no means limited to that idea’s opponents. In other words, it can’t be explained solely by ideological incentives. So, what are some other possible explanations?

1. Fish in water (or humans in air)

For one thing, first order effects might seem so obvious that explicit recognition would appear awkward or forced. The “water we swim in” analogy isn’t perfect, since fish (presumably) don’t have any concept of water.

Humans, though, have an understanding of air. We implicitly know that we’re surrounded by a gaseous mix of some sort even when we are not explicitly considering the fact. Nonetheless, it requires some sort of unusual stimulus to regard the air as a thing in and of itself. Ask someone to enumerate the things in a room, and “air” will likely fail to make the list. Even when the air is a vehicle for some physical sensation, such as cold, we still may think of “cold” itself as the relevant object itself instead of as a property of the air.

I think this likely explains a lot of the problem. First-order effects are the air we walk in. Of course drugs feel good. Of course exercise is hard. You don’t need to tell me that.

But banality can beget its own destruction. When everyone knows (or simply believes) that everyone else knows something (who in turn know that everyone else knows, ad infinitum), there is no direct reason for a person to state the fact. Humans, though, aren’t omniscient agents with perfect memories. If some fact remains unstated for too long (because of it’s mutually-understood “obviousness,”) it can drift out of some people’s—or everyone’s—conscious consideration.

2. Signalling

No blog post would be complete without a more cynical explanation. I don’t think this one is entirely disentangled from the former - rather, this might be the mechanism by which the “humans in air” phenomenon occurs. There are couple different points here:

  1. Coming up with indirect, non-obvious effects of some policy or idea signals intelligence or wit.

  2. Explicitly stating obvious, first-order effects might signal social ineptitude and/or lack of wit.

The first point is pretty self-explanatory; you don’t get smart points for saying “money lets people buy things,” but you do get smart points for saying “a basic income decreases downside risk associated with entrepreneurship, so we should expect it to boost socially-productive innovation and risk taking.”

The second is more subtle, For one thing, stating the obvious might indicate that you don’t know the direct effect is “common knowledge.” Think of a math major working on homework with a friend who says out loud “since 3x=15, we can divide both sides by 3 which means that x=5.” Sounds kinda dumb, right? Math majors are *supposed* to know that the mechanics of this operation are trivial and obvious.

This itself can have two implications

  1. A lack of social awareness about what is common knowledge (that ‘everyone knows we can divide both sides by 3’)

  2. A lack of direct knowledge/intelligence/wit (that the operation in question is trivial to the speaker himself).

Countersignaling

My favorite part of our signaling-centric-psychology is countersignaling.

If not stating the obvious signals some amount of wit, stating the obvious might come to signal that a person is so self-assured of his social status and intelligence that he isn’t worried about coming across as dumb or inept. Further, at some point the “obvious” first order effects stop being obvious, so stating them is a sort of direct signal of independent thinking.

That’s what I’m taking advantage of with this blog post! At least consciously, I am intending to do more of the “‘obvious’ things aren’t obvious anymore” thing instead of the “I’m so secure that I can state something that is genuinely obvious to everyone” countersignal, but there might be some of that going on as well.

3. Domains of respectability

A third explanation involves the fact that some types of effects or values are considered more important/legitimate or higher status than others. The pleasure people get from heroin is regarded as lower and less valuable than the social benefits associated with reducing mass-incarceration, regardless of which is larger in an absolute utilitarian sense.

I’m not quite sure why, but it seems that simple, first-order effects are often indeed lower status than higher-order effects. Perhaps it has something to do with direct effects often affecting people at the individual level, whereas secondary effects are more likely to affect communities and societies.

Once again, I am unsure how entangled this is with the last two explanations; it doesn’t seem entirely distinct. Focusing on high status second-order concerns might be a signal that one has lofty, respectable values, but it also might just be a more directly effective argument in favor of one’s point.

Conclusion

I’ve relied heavily on the examples of drug use, exercise, and public cash assistance, but I can think of more.

  1. D.C. statehood being considered solely in terms of its effect on electoral politics rather than in terms of whether its citizens should have political representation, a point made by countersignaling-extraordinaire Ezra Klein.

  2. Universal healthcare being considered in terms of its effect on total healthcare spending, aggregate public health, or labor market fluidity instead of whether it would directly improve people’s lives (proof).

  3. Neglecting the intrinsic value of hobbies/activities of any kind, as with this poster:

Is there any hope that we can elevate the salience of direct effects? I think so!

We’re already seeing some improvements in the “give people cash” discourse as I described above. As folks realize that “obvious,” “common knowledge” things are no longer so obvious, emphasizing direct effects will become more directly appealing as an argumentative device and will come to signal wit instead of ineptitude.

So, take advantage of countersignaling and make some stupidly-obvious points that aren’t getting made!

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