December 17, 2007

Financial Aid and Financial Independence

Harry Brighouse linked to an interesting paper by Matthew Smith, Michael McPherson, and Sandy Baum, “Financial Independence and Age: Distributive Justice in the Case of Adult Education” (pdf). I think this paper asks important questions about the distributive consequences of financial aid, and how they can reinforce class structures, but that it buries its more important proposal. My comment at Crooked Timber below:

On a quick reading, it seems to me that SM&B are focusing on the wrong part of the financial independence rule, even given their own examples.

A quick recap: They discuss two 25-year-olds, Mary and Mark. Mary comes from a wealthy family; she made very little money last year because her parents were subsidizing her artistic pursuits; since she is considered financially independent and has no income, she gets a generous grant. Mark comes from a poor family; he has been working full-time in his own business for seven years before deciding to go back to college; because his income from last year is very high, he gets no funding, even though he's not going to be making nearly as much (since he has to give up his business to return to college).

It seems pretty clear to me that the treatment of Mark is much more unjust than the treatment of Mary. And it seems to me that the problem with the treatment of Mark is not that he is declared financially independent (which the SM&B proposal won't change), but that his financial aid calculation is based on his last year's income rather than on the amount he can reasonably expect to make while a full-time student. So the fix is not to tweak the criteria of financial independence, but to calculate financially independent students' contributions based on the expectation that they'll be working part-time. (So Mark's contribution would be calculated as if his income were $8000 or so, rather than the $30000 he made the year before.)

And SM&B seem to basically concede the point; on p. 26, when they discuss how their proposal would help Mark, they say that it would've helped him go to college earlier (but he didn't), and that an "independent reform could also be applied to the percentage independent students are expected to contribute"; which I agree with, but it's independent of the age-limit proposal.

So, as I said, I think that the focus on the age limit and the criteria for financial independence misses the main point.

....Adding to that comment, I'd like to see some numbers for how these scenaris actually work out in practice. If a huge proportion of the financial aid budget were going to Marys, that would be a problem, but I doubt that it is. And it may be hard to distinguish a Mary from someone whose parents have just cut her off.

The main proposal of their paper addresses the Mary problem, by suggesting that students shouldn't be considered financial independent unless they've been making enough to live on their own. Whether we should try to make Mary pay depends in part on the scale of the Mary problem, and who else would be hurt by this proposal. Consider Maria, who's been desperately poor (or possibly a stay-at-home wife who just got divorced) for a few years, and who doesn't have enough income to qualify as independent; her parents' income may not be princely but it's enough to cut her financial aid. Isn't it unjust to place extra burdens on Maria? Whether the proposal is a good idea depends in part on how many Marys there are and how many Marias.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:10 AM | Comments (4)

December 15, 2007

One Box, Two Box, Red Box, Blue Box

Dan Korman posted on the Newcomb paradox a few days ago, and I just left approximately the following comment there:

At time t0 [now] it's rational to form the intention to one-box if you ever find yourself in this situation, because that can affect what's in the boxes later; at time t3 [when you're faced with the decision problem] it's rational to follow through on your previous intention, because it's rational to follow through on your previous intentions, unless you have a reason not to, and "I knew when I formed the intention that it would be rational to form it even though it would be to my advantage to break it later" isn't a reason not to. (Every part of the last sentence is controversial, I expect, especially the last.) But that reasoning may not help Sally. [Kenny Easwaran, who presented basically the same argument, was asked to consider the Newcomb problem from a third-person perspective; to think about what Sally should do if she's faced with the Newcomb problem right now.]

I also have a persistent little gripe about these kinds of problems, which is that I think they're underspecified: How does the predictor work? If the predictor is able to figure out what Sally will do because it's determined by your brain state at t1, then:

If you're a hard determinist, it doesn't really make any sense to ask what Sally should do. She has no choices.

If you're a compatibilist, then it's not utterly obvious to me that we have to say that Sally can only consider things that her action will effect. The compatibilist is happy to praise Sally for doing the right thing, even though it was determined before she was born that she would do the right thing, because it's good that Sally is the sort of person who is determined to do the right thing. Why can't the compatibilist praise Sally for one-boxing because being the sort of person who is determined to one-box gets her more money?

But there are ways to set up the problem so that it's rational to two-box, though we have to tweak the problem so that the predictor has a lower accuracy. Suppose that there are three kinds of people in the world: People who one-box without thinking hard about it, people who two-box without thinking hard about it, and people who think through these arguments as in the post. The predictor might be very good at guessing which kind of person you are -- say 95% accuracy -- but unable to figure out what reflective people do. Suppose 80% of people fall into the first two camps, and the predictor just flips a coin for the reflective 20%. Then the predictor is right around 83% of the time, which is enough to get the paradox going.

But if you are reflecting about the problem, you already know that the predictor has flipped a coin for you (or guessed wrong about what you are, which amounts to the same thing). So even an evidential decision theorist would say you should two-box. (And, under these circumstances, my initial argument doesn't go through either -- once you start reflecting on the problem, you're already in the coin-flip category, and forming the intention to one-box won't help.)

And, I claim, the scenario I've described is less unrealistic than the perfect predictor scenario by several orders of magnitude. (Which still leaves it pretty unrealistic.)

[Previous related posts here and here. The link to Stalnaker in the second post now should go here.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:55 AM | Comments (3)

December 14, 2007

A Logical Fallacy

Darius Rejali's otherwise excellent "Five Myths about Torture" lists the following as a myth:

3 People will say anything under torture.

Well, no, although this is a favorite chestnut of torture's foes. Think about it: Sure, someone would lie under torture, but wouldn't they also lie if they were being interrogated without coercion?

So, I'm one of torture's foes, but I don't see how the bit after "Think about it" contradicts my favorite chestnut. The idea isn't that people won't lie if they're interrogated without coercion, it's that they will lie if they're tortured. If they're going to lie either way, you should do the thing that doesn't involve torturing anyone. (You shouldn't torture people anyway, but that's for another day.)

What Rejali goes on to say also fails to contradict the "myth":

In fact, the problem of torture does not stem from the prisoner who has information; it stems from the prisoner who doesn't. Such a person is also likely to lie, to say anything, often convincingly. The torture of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation, but the torture of the ignorant and innocent overwhelms investigators with misleading information. In these cases, nothing is indeed preferable to anything. Anything needs to be verified, and the CIA's own 1963 interrogation manual explains that "a time-consuming delay results" -- hardly useful when every moment matters.

I can only conclude that Rejali felt obliged to include a swipe at torture's opponents in deference to the evenhanded Washington Post editorial style that has destroyed our country.

(via Bruce Moomaw in Yglesias's comments)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:16 PM | Comments (2)