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Is Kiryas Joel an Unhappy Place?

20 Post author: gwern 23 April 2011 12:08AM

I was browsing my RSS feed, as one does, and came across a New York Times article, "A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place", about the Satmar Hasidic Jews of Kiryas Joel (NY).

Their interest lies in their extraordinarily high birthrate & population growth, and their poverty - which are connected. From the article:

"...officially, at least, none of the nation’s 3,700 villages, towns or cities with more than 10,000 people has a higher proportion of its population living in poverty than Kiryas Joel, N.Y., a community of mostly garden apartments and town houses 50 miles northwest of New York City in suburban Orange County.

About 70 percent of the village’s 21,000 residents live in households whose income falls below the federal poverty threshold, according to the Census Bureau. Median family income ($17,929) and per capita income ($4,494) rank lower than any other comparable place in the country. Nearly half of the village’s households reported less than $15,000 in annual income. About half of the residents receive food stamps, and one-third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs.

Kiryas Joel’s unlikely ranking results largely from religious and cultural factors. Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews predominate in the village; many of them moved there from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, beginning in the 1970s to accommodate a population that was growing geometrically. Women marry young, remain in the village to raise their families and, according to religious strictures, do not use birth control. As a result, the median age (under 12) is the lowest in the country and the household size (nearly six) is the highest. Mothers rarely work outside the home while their children are young. Most residents, raised as Yiddish speakers, do not speak much English. And most men devote themselves to Torah and Talmud studies rather than academic training — only 39 percent of the residents are high school graduates, and less than 5 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Several hundred adults study full time at religious institutions.

...Because the community typically votes as a bloc, it wields disproportionate political influence, which enables it to meet those challenges creatively. A luxurious 60-bed postnatal maternal care center was built with $10 million in state and federal grants. Mothers can recuperate there for two weeks away from their large families. Rates, which begin at $120 a day, are not covered by Medicaid, although, Mr. Szegedin said, poorer women are typically subsidized by wealthier ones.

...The village does aggressively pursue economic opportunities. A kosher poultry slaughterhouse, which processes 40,000 chickens a day, is community owned and considered a nonprofit organization. A bakery that produces 800 pounds of matzo daily is owned by one of the village’s synagogues.

Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

... Still, poverty is largely invisible in the village. Parking lots are full, but strollers and tricycles seem to outnumber cars. A jeweler shares a storefront with a check-cashing office. To avoid stigmatizing poorer young couples or instilling guilt in parents, the chief rabbi recently decreed that diamond rings were not acceptable as engagement gifts and that one-man bands would suffice at weddings. Many residents who were approached by a reporter said they did not want to talk about their finances.

...Are as many as 7 in 10 Kiryas Joel residents really poor? “It is, in a sense, a statistical anomaly,” Professor Helmreich said. “They are clearly not wealthy, and they do have a lot of children. They spend whatever discretionary income they have on clothing, food and baby carriages. They don’t belong to country clubs or go to movies or go on trips to Aruba.

...David Jolly, the social services commissioner for Orange County, also said that while the number of people receiving benefits seemed disproportionately high, the number of caseloads — a family considered as a unit — was much less aberrant. A family of eight who reports as much as $48,156 in income is still eligible for food stamps, although the threshold for cash assistance ($37,010), which relatively few village residents receive, is lower....“You also have no drug-treatment programs, no juvenile delinquency program, we’re not clogging the court system with criminal cases, you’re not running programs for AIDS or teen pregnancy,” he [Mr. Szegedin, the village administrator] said. “I haven’t run the numbers, but I think it’s a wash.”

From Wikipedia:

The land for Kiryas Joel was purchased in 1977, and fourteen Satmar families settled there. By 2006, there were over 3,000...In 1990, there were 7,400 people in Kiryas Joel; in 2000, 13,100, nearly doubling the population. In 2005, the population had risen to 18,300, a rate of growth suggesting it will double again in the ten years between 2000 and 2010.

Robin Hanson has argued that uploaded/emulated minds will establish a new Malthusian/Darwinian equilibrium in "IF UPLOADS COME FIRST: The crack of a future dawn" - an equilibrium in comparison to which our own economy will look like a delusive dreamtime of impossibly unfit and libertine behavior. The demographic transition will not last forever. But despite our own distaste for countless lives living at near-subsistence rather than our own extreme per-capita wealth (see the Repugnant Conclusion), those many lives will be happy ones (even amidst disaster).

So. Are the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel unhappy?

Comments (186)

Comment author: dspeyer 23 April 2011 06:02:50AM 26 points [-]

The poverty may be partly illusory. It sounds like a lot of their economy is not money-mediated (inside the family or work done for social recognition). This means that their wealth is underreported by money-based statistics like median income. A common risk when comparing differently structured societies.

Comment author: brazil84 25 April 2011 01:41:29PM 18 points [-]

I think that's probably correct. According to rumors I hear, the leadership of the community structures everything so that the rank and file will be poor and therefore entitled to the maximum amount of public assistance.

For example, suppose you teach 30 hours a week at the local religious school. In a free market, you might get paid $25k a year for this work and spend $10,000 a year to rent your nearby apartment. But if it's the same organization which runs the religious school and is also your landlord, you can have an arrangement with a nod and a wink in which you get paid only $15k a year and pay only $4k a year in rent for your apartment.

That way, you show much less income for purposes of taxes and government benefits. Technically this is fraud since you really should be reporting your effective rent subsidy as income. However it would be really difficult for the authorities to actually prove this is what is going on. Especially if all the important communications involved are in Yiddish.

Anyway, I don't know if this is what happens in KJ but I wouldn't be surprised at all if they have a million little scams like this going on.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 April 2011 01:44:09PM 14 points [-]

Especially if all the important communications involved are in Yiddish.

The communications don't even need to be spoken. This is exactly the kind of thing Robin Hanson keeps telling us our brains are built for.

Comment author: gwern 26 May 2011 08:06:46PM 14 points [-]

I recently ran into an interesting description of the Ik people in Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies (copy):

"The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared.

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live I side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as asocial unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don't form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can't build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child's food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978)."

From Wikipedia:

Children by age three are at least sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group. The 'Junior Group' consists of children from the ages of three to eight and the 'Senior Group' consists of those between eight and thirteen. No adults look after the children, who teach each other the basics of survival. However, it is not certain whether this practice is typical Ik tradition or merely triggered by unusual famine conditions.

...Turnbull clearly became very involved with the Ik people, and openly writes about his horror at many of the events he witnessed, most notably total disregard for familial bonds leading to the death of children and the elderly by starvation. He does speak warmly about certain Ik, and describes his "misguided" efforts to give food and water to those too weak to provide for themselves, standing guard over them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and makes constant reference to "goodness" and "virtue" being cast aside when there is nothing left but a need to survive (even going so far as to draw parallels to the individualism of 'civilized' society). Overall, living with the Ik seems to have afflicted Turnbull more with melancholy and depression than anger, and he dedicated his work "to the Ik, whom I learned not to hate".

On the other hand: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ik_people#Criticism_of_Turnbull.27s_work

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 03:02:13AM *  25 points [-]

Am I misreading you, or are you actually comparing the living standards of Kiryas Joel with a Malthusian equilibrium?!

These people are as far from a Malthusian bare-subsistence situation as the regular developed world middle classes. The only essential difference is that their culture has solved the problem of collective action when it comes to various burdensome signaling arms races that are de rigueur in the mainstream society, so they don't bother to keep up with those. (That said, I don't know how onerous their own peculiar signaling arms races are. It does seem to me like they have it better, but maybe it's just that the grass looks greener on the other side.)

There is of course the issue that they seem to live off rent-seeking to a large degree. However, nowadays the same can be said for a considerable proportion (arguably a majority) of high-status people. The Kiryas Joel folks at least mind their own business and do nothing destructive, unlike so many prestigious rent-seekers who enjoy public accolades. 

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2011 05:46:55PM *  9 points [-]

Am I misreading you, or are you actually comparing the living standards of Kiryas Joel with a Malthusian equilibrium?!

Kiryas Joel is, by definition, not in a Malthusian equilibrium because their population is expanding.*

However, they are far closer to Hanson's future Malthusian equilibrium than your average American community; probably they are the closest**. And so they are interesting from the utilitarian welfare point of view.

I'm not sure you understand Malthusian economics very well. A 'subsistence wage' is an arbitrary culturally set wage anywhere above whatever amount is required to not starve to death. Subsistence wages can vary dramatically, and can even fall over time. (Gregory Clark in Farewell to Alms points out that some African countries are actually worse off in per-capita wealth than they were millennia ago because modern medicine let their subsistence wage fall even further.) If I may quote one of the experts, David Ricardo, on what a subsistence wage is:

It is not to be understood that the natural price of labor, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. It varies at different times in the same country, and very materially differs in different countries. It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English laborer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where 'man's life is cheap', and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries in an earlier period of our history.

The inhabitants of Kiryas Joel clearly have a different subsistence wage than surrounding middle-class citizens because children are not a productive investment, and children use up resources that could go to the parents' subsistence.

Their salaries and wealth are not considered enough - by the outsiders - to raise a family properly, hence the whole discussion about whether Something Ought To Be Done and whether they are really that poor. Pace Ricardo, we are the English laborers who consider the Kiryas Joel incomes too potatoey to raise a family - yet manifestly, they are doing so.

* Caveat: if I understand the models right, there are ways involving the death rate that a population can be temporarily expanding but still in an equilibrium. They wouldn't apply here.

** I wouldn't be surprised if a polygamous Mormon sect somewhere was beating Kiryas Joel. But there are better stats and articles on them.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 09:48:44PM *  18 points [-]

However, they are far closer to Hanson's future Malthusian equilibrium than your average American community; probably they are the closest**. And so they are interesting from the utilitarian welfare point of view.

Looking for a community in modern-day U.S. that is the closest to a Malthusian equilibrium is kind of like looking at the members of a billionaire country club and asking whose circumstances are closest to those of a homeless beggar. Technically, the question might have a well-defined answer, but it won't give you any insight into the life of actual beggars.

Hell, I've lived in circumstances that make Kiryas Joel look like a billionaire country club in comparison, and it would be delusional for me to draw conclusions about Malthusian life based on my experiences.

I'm not sure you understand Malthusian economics very well. A 'subsistence wage' is an arbitrary culturally set wage anywhere above whatever amount is required to not starve to death.

I understand that. (In fact, the insight goes back even before Ricardo and Malthus, at least back to Adam Smith's concept of "the lowest [wage] rate which is consistent with common humanity.")

However, this wage is "culturally set" insofar as people may limit their reproduction because they have a culturally set minimum standard for forming families. Theoretically, it is possible that a wealthy society might be in a Malthusian equilibrium because people would like to reproduce more but have very high minimum standards for per-capita family wealth. (Note that this is distinct from the still largely mysterious reasons for the modern demographic transition.) However, in practice, every historical society stuck in a Malthusian equilibrium has been unspeakably poor by the modern developed world standards, and the future Hansonian uploads would be in an even worse situation, given the incentive to multiply them to use up every bit of the available resources. (As John Derbyshire once quipped, "The past was pretty awful; the future will be far worse. Enjoy!")

Thus, looking for someone in modern-day U.S. whose experience might give you insight into the historical Malthusian life, let alone the Malthusian life of future uploads, really is like looking for that poorest billionaire in a country club when you want insight into the life of beggars.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 23 April 2011 10:09:06PM *  4 points [-]

Theoretically, it is possible that a wealthy society might be in a Malthusian equilibrium because people would like to reproduce more but have very high minimum standards for per-capita family wealth.

This society would not be evolutionarily stable since the members with the lowest standards will reproduce more causing the minimum standard to decrease. This process will continue until it reaches the point where standards are so low that any additional children would simply starve to death.

Comment author: [deleted] 01 August 2012 12:47:24PM 2 points [-]

I can't see anything obviously wrong in that reasoning, but in Italy that situation has more-or-less obtained for decades and I can't see any sign of such a process happening.

I guess what's happening is some process preventing the standards of some members to fall much below the standards of the rest of the society. (If you know your children will be ostracized by their peers, making their life much harder, unless they wear expensive clothes, have expensive toys, etc., then you might not want your children to wear cheap clothes and have cheap toys, even if in isolation they'd enjoy them just as much as expensive ones.)

Comment author: gwern 01 August 2012 04:19:20PM 2 points [-]

It'd be interesting to know what is going on. If you argue from a sort of Malthusian ideological-lowering-of-subsistence-wages, that doesn't explain it since the subsistence wage is still way below the regular wage and ought to allow indefinite over-reproduction of the subpopulation. And these subpopulations often isolate themselves from the world and denigrate it as much as possible, so the world's standards shouldn't matter too much to them.

My own suspicion is that there's some sort of diseconomy of scale to these subpopulations: they grow like gangbusters but the growth tapers off until total retention rate matches overall population growth rate.

But I don't know this for sure. I don't know that members start leaving the large subpopulation for the main population at sufficient rates to offset the fertility, or why the leaving rates would change as the group grows. Certainly the Amish seem to be continuing to grow without a problem. It may be that there's a certain formula (decentralization?) which only a few have hit upon recently.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 10:20:58PM *  1 point [-]

Yes, but evolution is much slower than cultural change. In principle, it is possible that a society might have very high and very uniform standards for the minimum wealth per child, so that it would take a very long time before evolution undermined these standards noticeably. In the meantime, it would make sense to speak of a Malthusian equilibrium.

In reality, of course, such a situation is highly improbable and (to my knowledge) not attested historically. So it's not really a mistake to equate a Malthusian equilibrium with awful poverty and constant threat of famine. (The latter would of course also have its analogues in a Malthusian upload society, which are not hard to imagine.)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 23 April 2011 10:28:53PM 1 point [-]

I wasn't referring simply to biological evolution.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 10:42:56PM 2 points [-]

Fair enough, but that's basically what I also mean when I say that the scenario is possible in principle but extremely unlikely in practice.

Comment author: lessdazed 23 April 2011 04:49:27AM 3 points [-]

The only essential difference is that their culture has solved the problem of collective action when it comes to various burdensome signaling arms races that are de rigueur in the mainstream society, so they don't bother to keep up with those.

Ever shopped for an esrog?

Even that has some parallels, such as thousand dollar melons in Japan.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 09:03:51PM *  9 points [-]

Ever shopped for an esrog?

I did write that I don't know how burdensome their own peculiar signaling competitions are in comparison. The important point is that a lot of what seems like poverty and low living standards in the lives of these people is not actual deprivation, but a genuine lack of incentive to acquire the things in question, since they are not locked in the signaling arms race that motivates acquiring them in the mainstream. When it comes to things they care about, they're not any worse off than the regular middle classes.

Comment author: lessdazed 26 April 2011 02:29:50AM *  4 points [-]

A few details leave them worse off, as far as I can tell.

First, the items Chassidim use as signals are almost all consumable or have their costs over the long term, in contrast to the middle class. Weddings and kosher food are examples of the first type, number of children and isolation from secular knowledge/intensive religious schooling for young men are of the second. The middle class has expensive weddings and vacations, but primarily is enslaved to owned cars/houses or educations that merely fail to be fully worth their opportunity cost.

Second, having religious values in addition to other values deemphasizes the focus one can put on the other values. E.g., if I value my happiness, family, career, etc., I will put effort into each of them. If in addition I value baseball cards, I do so by taking money and attention from the other categories. It is true that one who only values happiness is unlikely to achieve it, and that valuing additional things such as the Yankees' winning would or does make some people happier. Nonetheless, the body of ordinances, injunctions, and so forth that these people are expected to follow is amazingly comprehensive and capable of crowding out much having to do with happiness.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 April 2011 05:47:10AM *  14 points [-]

The middle class has expensive weddings and vacations, but primarily is enslaved to owned cars/houses or educations that merely fail to be fully worth their opportunity cost.

I see quite a bit more stuff among the regular middle classes that looks like pure signaling waste, though you're clearly more knowledgeable how this compares with the analogous phenomena among orthodox Jews.

However, one very important issue you're not taking into account is that the primary objective that drives the North American middle classes to work their asses off is the need to afford living in an expensive enough neighborhood to insulate oneself and one's family from the underclass. (Clearly, various signaling and purely instrumental goals are entangled here.) With some luck and creativity, you can skimp on all kinds of signaling consumerism, but with this issue there's no joking, and it keeps imposing a horrible threat should you ever slack off. The lack of this pressure seems to me like a major point in favor of life in a deeply traditionalist community, so I think it counts in favor of the KJ setup.

Nonetheless, the body of ordinances, injunctions, and so forth that these people are expected to follow is amazingly comprehensive and capable of crowding out much having to do with happiness.

I find the orthodox Jewish observances a puzzling question: is it a matter of extreme runaway signaling that imposes excruciating burdens on these people, or are these just their natural folkways that merely look strange and arbitrary due to cultural distances? (Of course, it's a complex question whether and how these two things can even be distinguished in some objective sense. Many modern middle-class Americans would claim that they are more free than any other people in human history, and many of them undoubtedly really feel that way, even though from an outside perspective their lives can look frightfully regimented and devoid of any meaningful personal freedom.)

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 28 April 2011 04:15:18PM 5 points [-]

even though from an outside perspective [the lives of modern middle-class Americans] can look frightfully regimented and devoid of any meaningful personal freedom [emphasis added].

I find this claim surprising. I could just be ethnocentric, but it genuinely seems to me that modern middle-class Americans have significantly more personal freedom (of speech, of belief, of dress, of diet, of sexuality, &c.) than members of ultraorthodox communities. Is there any chance you could try to explain the outside perspective of which you speak?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 April 2011 10:21:47PM *  13 points [-]

My wording wasn't very clear here -- I didn't mean to compare middle-class Americans with ultra-Ortodox communities specifically, but to make a more general point about how people can consider themselves very free and really feel that way, even though things may look very different from an outside perspective.

Generally speaking, people feel unfree when they're suddenly constrained from doing something that they're used to and care about, or when constraints lower their status. In contrast, constraints that are ingrained in a culture are often not even noticed consciously by its people, or they are seen as self-evidently reasonable and necessary, since people are used to living under them, and are also at peace with the existing status hierarchy. However, this won't seem so to an outsider who is used to a different way of life and who perhaps derives status in his own community from some freedoms that are absent in their culture. Similarly, the level of discipline and regimentation (in both scope and intensity) is perceived subjectively depending on what one is used to.

So, ultimately, it depends on how you choose to measure freedom. In some extreme cases, it may be that one society is freer than another across the board, or very nearly so, for example if you compare modern-day U.S. with North Korea. [1] But usually, the impression greatly depends on what regime of constraints one is used to seeing as natural, and on one's subjective evaluation of the trade-offs involved. For example, many of those modern freedoms you mention are due to disappearance of strong informal communal norms that restrained people's behavior in the past, but as these social structures broke down, the necessary trade-off was the establishment and growth of impersonal bureaucracies that took over their necessary functions, and which now regulate, micromanage, and re-engineer practically all aspects of life and society. Whether you like this trade-off, and what you think of communities that preserved the older traditional modes of social organization, is of course your call.


[1] Though even this case might not be so clear-cut. Once I saw a documentary showing some illegal recordings of everyday life smuggled out of North Korea, and one of those showed a lady getting into a shouting match with a policeman, who eventually relented! In the U.S. this would be an invitation to get tazered, arrested, and likely charged. This of course doesn't mean that North Korea is not every bit as awful as people imagine -- if anything, it's probably even worse -- but this does suggest that some aspects of social regimentation may be more relaxed over there.

Comment author: lessdazed 28 April 2011 09:59:40PM 0 points [-]

I partially agree with this Vladmir's statement. I doubt that modern middle-class Americans feel significantly more personally free or unfree than many other historical groups, despite being more free.

Comment author: lessdazed 28 April 2011 10:06:08PM 1 point [-]

I see quite a bit more stuff among the regular middle classes that looks like pure signaling waste...

To take another angle on this, assume for simplicity that anything not wasted is "reinvested" in signaling. E.g. a Prius is somewhat practical and not just a signal, so more is spent on lawn care than if an SUV was purchased.

An important factor will then be willingness to borrow and be in debt, and Orthodox societies have a very, very high tolerance for this. One explanation would be the prominence of the LORD as provider.

There is one major signaling factor that the middle class does "spend" far more on, and that is aversion to certain government benefits (but not others, such as mortgage based tax benefits).

Comment author: [deleted] 12 November 2011 05:09:37AM 0 points [-]

I see quite a bit more stuff among the regular middle classes that looks like pure signaling waste

Could you please list some examples? I've been trying to think of some myself, and I came up with things like gift-based holidays (Christmas, Father's day, birthdays, etc...), brand-name color-and-style-matching clothes, and the search for high status jobs (there is a reason "flipping burgers" is an insult). But it feels like there is so much difference between a homeless man living in a shelter with cheap food/clothing/electronics and a typical middle class man that I fear I might be missing something big, even after reading all the things you and lessdazed already mentioned. Which would bother me, because if it means I am unable to see the middle class as a special case of how to live a life.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 26 April 2011 02:33:40AM 4 points [-]

Yet for some reason religious people seem to put more effort into family then atheists.

Comment author: lessdazed 26 April 2011 05:19:26AM 2 points [-]

I lack the context in which your comment makes sense as a counterargument or response to what I said. My argument is that they are worse off. You imply otherwise on the basis that they seem to try harder at one facet of life.

Assuming that: religious people not only seem to put more effort into family, but do, and assuming this is true either on average, as a non-binary sliding correlation, or in some other significant way, and assuming that religiosity drives this, rather than this correlation being driven by a third factor, and assuming that it isn't having kids that causes religiosity, and assuming that the effort spent into family produces happiness at least as effectively than atheists produce it through their sundry efforts...why also assume that religious people would only (seem to) put that effort into family if it made them at least as happy as atheists when their religion itself is demanding that they do so on pain of ostracization and hellfire?

Comment author: shokwave 26 April 2011 02:42:38AM 2 points [-]

Citation needed, I think. Also separate "seem to put more effort" from "have better family life"; seeming to put more effort in doesn't always means getting better results, but in your sentence it still appears to score points.

Comment author: JohnH 23 April 2011 02:56:45PM 5 points [-]

Are the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel unhappy?

The best way to know that is to ask them if they are happy/unhappy. The next best way is to look at proxy measures of happiness or unhappiness.

Money is an extremely poor proxy measure of happiness. In fact the amount of money that one has is almost completely unimportant to ones happiness (with some obvious exceptions). Ones beliefs about the direction ones money is heading is however fairly important for most peoples happiness, if one is or one thinks that one will be gaining more then one is happier, but once one has that extra money then one is just about as happy as one was before one knew that one might get that money.

The divorce rate and the suicide rate are the two best proxies that I am aware of for unhappiness. Knowing that when compared to the rest of the nation should roughly tell us if they are happier or unhappier then anyone else.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 23 April 2011 10:01:06PM 2 points [-]

Although as Robin Hanson was just pointing out, suicide rates may not mean what we would expect...

Comment author: Marius 29 April 2011 08:33:18PM 5 points [-]

Surely suicide rate is a much more trustworthy marker for (un)happiness than "numerical response to a survey question". So it is our previous flimsy understandings of what areas are happy (based only on the highly suspect methodology of surveys) that is wiped out by the new data regarding suicide rates.

As gwern points out, divorce is a poor marker; suicide remains a useful marker because it is nearly-univerally forbidden.

Comment author: Nornagest 29 April 2011 08:41:56PM *  2 points [-]

I actually don't think I'd consider suicide rates a very reliable proxy for the average happiness of a population, although I'm not sure if a numerical response to a survey question would be better or worse. They might easily end up having more to do with rates of mental illness, or with sudden changes in individual happiness rather than its base rate; even if the absolute value of happiness does turn out to dominate, its variance over a given culture might be more significant to suicide rates than its mean. And then there are culture-bound attitudes to deal with, which grow considerably in importance when dealing with highly heterodox subcultures like Kiryas Joel.

Self-reporting does have its own issues, though.

Comment author: Marius 29 April 2011 09:24:49PM 1 point [-]

I don't mean to overstate the reliability of suicide rates for happiness. A variety of factors may influence them. However, there are reasons to believe they correlate with happiness.

What is a good measure of happiness? Virtually all measures are deeply flawed, but the most reliable is probably: Intra-observer self-report in situations when signalling is unlikely. People are probably decent at knowing when they were happier or less happy within their own lives. Inter-observer reports are far harder to justify.

People report being happier when they live in places with adequate sunshine; inadequate sunshine correlates with increased suicide rates. People report being happier when they are not facing loss of job, public humiliation, divorce, and a number of other events; these events correlate with increase suicide rates. People report being happier when mental illness symptoms are reduced (particularly depression); people with mental illness (particularly depression) have a higher suicide rate.

Obviously, suicide rates are not a perfect proxy for happiness... but I cannot find a more reliable easily-measured statistic.

Comment author: JohnH 23 April 2011 11:37:28PM 2 points [-]

Thank you for that link, it was interesting.

Did they take into account that Utah is an outlier within the US in the Religion aspect? Not that I expect that to be influential in the slightest.

So then suicides are a strong indicator of personal unhappiness but a potential indicator of overall social happiness. That is very interesting.

I know a decent portion of people on Less Wrong are utilitarians/consequentialists what are the implications of the results of this study from that perspective?

Comment author: spriteless 22 December 2013 06:16:39PM 0 points [-]

My first thought was that if everyone with a low happiness level had already committed suicide it would bump up the average happiness. I mean, the dead don't answer those polls.

Killing the unhappy to make sure everyone is happy is an amoral solution, is my conclusion from a utilitarian perspective. Yep. Don't do that. Engineering peeps with higher happiness set points seems the moral counterpart, but we can't do that yet.

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2011 06:02:42PM 4 points [-]

The divorce rate and the suicide rate are the two best proxies that I am aware of for unhappiness.

And not especially useful proxies in this case; while divorce is permitted, I would be deeply surprised if it did not come with huge social sanctions and other deterrents in Kiryas Joel. Suicide is outright forbidden.

Finally, JoshuaZ points out that the ultra-Orthodox generally lie/under-report about that sort of thing.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 23 April 2011 12:37:19AM 18 points [-]

Kiryas Joel functions to some extent in a model much like the charedim in Israel, relying on the outside world to provide necessary economic infrastructure and support. The most relevant example paragraphs in that article are:

.Because the community typically votes as a bloc, it wields disproportionate political influence, which enables it to meet those challenges creatively. A luxurious 60-bed postnatal maternal care center was built with $10 million in state and federal grants

and

Most children attend religious schools, but transportation and textbooks are publicly financed. Several hundred handicapped students are educated by the village’s own public school district, which, because virtually all the students are poor and disabled, is eligible for sizable state and federal government grants.

I'm not sure their happiness is terribly relevant, even if they are happy, it is a deeply unsustainable situation.

I'm not sure that this is at all similar to Hanson's hypothetical. In his hypothetical the uploads don't have any rights or recourse. Here the people have political pull. The situation for uploads could be much worse.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 03:31:39AM *  10 points [-]

I like to look at this as a vindication of efficient markets. As the Times reporter shrewdly remarks, democracy offers profit opportunities for groups that can coordinate to form disciplined voting blocks. The coordination problem here is very difficult, but we nevertheless see an example of a group that has solved it with amazing success, so that the profit opportunities are not left unexploited despite the collective action problem!

As for the unsustainability, well, a whole lot of high-status people live off rent-seeking these days, except that it tends to be couched in elaborate rationalizations and smug moralizing. The Kiryas Joel folks are just specializing in a form of rent-seeking where their culture gives them a strong competitive advantage (since it solves the coordination problem). If that source of income dried up, I have no doubt that they'd be smart and enterprising enough to come up with something else -- which might well be some productive work, as it probably would be even nowadays in a society where rent-seeking is harder and less lucrative.

(Besides, as the article suggests, the lack of social pathologies in their community means that they might not be such devourers of public funds after all, and they do some productive work, so the net balance isn't that clear.)

Comment author: JoshuaZ 23 April 2011 03:48:11AM 13 points [-]

. The Kiryas Joel folks are just specializing in a form of rent-seeking where their culture gives them a strong competitive advantage (since it solves the coordination problem). If that source of income dried up, I have no doubt that they'd be smart and enterprising enough to come up with something else -- which might well be some productive work, as it probably would be even nowadays in a society where rent-seeking is harder and less lucrative.

I don't think we're seeing anything that smart going on here. They are essentially just adopting that the MO the charedim use in Israel to the United States.

(Besides, as the article suggests, the lack of social pathologies in their community means that they might not be such devourers of public funds after all, and they do some productive work, so the net balance isn't that clear.)

The social pathology is there, it just is getting covered up and not addressed. Among the ultra-Orthodox there are terrible stigmas associated with mental illness for example. Similarly, spousal abuse is just not discussed. They try to cover up these issues since they can hurt status in the community and ruin the chances for arranged marriages. The evidence is that everything is underreported among the ultra-Orthodox, from eating disorders to child abuse. It is true that they aren't using up public resources when those events aren't reported, but that's a small comfort.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 08:45:20PM *  7 points [-]

I don't think we're seeing anything that smart going on here. They are essentially just adopting that the MO the charedim use in Israel to the United States.

Well, yes, I don't think that their rabbis have studied The Encyclopedia of Public Choice and gleefully deduced an ingenious plan for hacking the American political system. However, even though their MO has had a complex and curious cultural evolution and draws on prior art from Israel, it works in both countries because the relevant aspects of their political systems are similar. It really is a workable plan for rent-seeking in any system that values disciplined voting blocks.

Also, do you think these ultra-Orthodox groups would not be able to adapt to participation in the regular economy if their sources of government support dried up? I have the impression that they would be able to adapt very well, and are presently just taking advantage of their exceptionally favorable position to take advantage of government support. However, I'm sure you know more about them than I do, so I'd be curious to hear what you think.

The social pathology is there, it just is getting covered up and not addressed.

Obviously, they don't live in a utopia; some pathologies are the inevitable lot of every human society. However, when it comes to those measures of social pathology that do vary a lot among different communities, most notably violent crime and breakdown of public order, it seems like they are doing exceptionally well.

Also, I should note that when it comes to some kinds of inevitable social pathologies, I have a very unfavorable view of the ways they are handled by modern institutions, so this could make me biased in favor of more traditional communities. But these are complex and difficult issues.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 24 April 2011 01:30:12AM *  8 points [-]

Also, do you think these ultra-Orthodox groups would not be able to adapt to participation in the regular economy if their sources of government support dried up? I have the impression that they would be able to adapt very well, and are presently just taking advantage of their exceptionally favorable position to take advantage of government support. However, I'm sure you know more about them than I do, so I'd be curious to hear what you think.

The short answer to this is I don't know. Over the last hundred years the ultra-orthodox have adopted a set of attitudes that has little in the way of historical precursors. Those attitudes include 1) a much more negative attitude towards secular schooling than existed previously and 2) an attitude that any line of work other than constant study of religious texts is bad 3) a strong aversion to interacting with people outside their own groups, even for business purposes. This makes it very difficult for them to do much other than this sort of rent-seeking behavior. However, in the other direction the more moderate end of the charedim have had some success getting jobs. A fair number are now doing work in IT or some actuarial jobs that minimize interaction with other people, and there are some lawyers as well. They actually have some advantages in that regard, in that the constant study of classical Jewish legal texts has trained their minds to think precisely given specific sets of constraints. But that's the moderate end of the ultra-Orthodox and you won't find almost any of them in a place like Kiryas Joel. Many people in places like Kiryas Joel consider such people to be borderline heretics.

Note that I'm glossing over here some complicating issues. The Kiryas Joel community is chassidic which is a proper subset, not a synomym, for ultra-orthodox. The specific group that controls Kiryas Joel and makes up the majority of the population are the Satmar chassidim, which are seen by many as more reactionary and conservative than most of the other chassidic sects or any non-chassidic charedi group. Moreover, the Satmars have had a complicated schism in the last few years which I don't understand in detail but my impression is that the less moderate faction is the one which ended up with control over Kiryas Joel, while the more moderate Satmars are in Williamsburg and Borough Park (which while largely Orthodox are both much more diverse areas among the Orthodox population than Kiryat Joel, and have some non-Orthodox population).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 24 April 2011 04:55:51AM 5 points [-]

Thanks for the answer! Looking at your comment and googling around a bit, it seems like I may have some significant misconceptions about various groups within the contemporary Judaism and their relations between each other and the wider world, especially on the Orthodox end of the spectrum. (For example, I just realized that my imagined Venn diagram of several of the groups you've mentioned was flawed.) Do you maybe know of some good book that has a comprehensive explanation of these divisions, preferably with reference to the historical context of their development, and also their ancestral geographic origins?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 24 April 2011 10:58:45PM *  10 points [-]

Do you maybe know of some good book that has a comprehensive explanation of these divisions, preferably with reference to the historical context of their development, and also their ancestral geographic origins?

Not really. As far as I'm aware most of the history books on this sort of thing are either books which focus on a specific group, or are books about the history of Jews from a very long time, and thus don't have as much focus on the last few hundred years when the modern divisions have arose. I've been told that Hayim Ben-Sasson's "A History of the Jewish People" is in general a good book written from a modern, scholarly perspective. It has a section on the modern era which should be good. I haven't read it myself though. I'm not aware of any book that focuses specifically on the chassidim which is what one would probably want. I suspect such books exist, but you can do a Google search as easily as I can, and I'm not going to be able to evaluate the books in any useful way.

However, the main divisions aren't that complicated to summarize, and one doesn't need much detail to have the context to follow things like New York Times articles about them. Data dump follows:

In the late 1700s, the Ba'al Shem Tov started the chassidic movement. The movement initially emphasized song, dance and prayer over religious study. This was a big deal because it gave the regular Jews, not just the bright scholars, something to do. The movement also had a strong mystical element and a focus on charismatic leaders. The movement quickly split into groups based on separate charismatic leaders whom the members would refer to as "Rebbe" (which literally means "my Rabbi"). The different groups were divided up by essentially geographic lines, and became named after the various cities where they were centered. Lubavitch had the Lubavitchers, Satu Mare had the Satmars, etc. A humorous aside is to note that the very late formed Boston chassidim are stuck with a very American sounding name; that is sometimes made up for by calling them "Bostoners" with a heavy Yiddish accent.

There was a strong reaction against chassidic movement which disrupted the pre-existing social norms, and power struggles. Moreover, there was perception (of some but not much justification) that the chassidim were ideological descendants of Sabbatai Zevi, an extremely disruptive individual who claimed to be the messiah about a hundred and fifty years before. The people against the chassidim were often called "misnagdim" from the Hebrew word for "against", and a complicating factor arose that some people used misnagid to mean non-chassic (and chassidim still use it that way sometimes with very negative connotations).

This all took place during the general emancipation of Jews in Europe. Restrictions on their businesses and where they could live were dropped. The rise of the chassidic movement was thus one of a number of factors which severely disrupted the pre-existing social structure. In that chaos, other groups arose also, including Reform Judaism (around 1900 the Conservative movement would break off from the Reform, trying to return to more strict beliefs and practices but not nearly as strict as the Orthodox). At around this era, the notion of Orthodox started to arise as a separate term (prior to that no one needed a separate notion).

At the same time, in reaction to the Reform movement, the so called "ultra-Orthodox" or "charedi" arose becoming more religious and increasing how strict their observances were. At the same time, this group sort of pulled the chassidim along in some ways, making the chassidim more focused on learning and studying of classical texts, and at the same time, the chassidic movement started producing its own texts which became very important for each of the corresponding chassidic groups. Thus the chassidic groups as they exist today are more intellectual than classical chassidim. At the same time, some of the ideas that the chassidim had (especially about singing and dancing being fun things that are good in religious settings) became more common among the general Orthodox population. In that sense, the original chassidim in many ways won, in a similar way to how over time the Catholic church has adopted many ideas that the early Protestants were calling for.

The modern Orthodox also arose, which believed in keeping the classical laws while interacting with the secular world. In principle, this meant also accepting scientific knowledge about things like the age of the earth, however, studies (especially those by Alexander Nussbaum) show that among Orthodox students at secular universities, the acceptance of evolution, or the age of the Earth and similar issues is surprisingly low. The so-called "Modern Orthodox" have been more or less pulled in the last few years to the right in many ways, and attitudes about science is only one aspect. To complicate matters further, many Orthodox people don't like the large set of connotations that either "modern Orthodox" or "charedi/ultra-Orthodox" brings (the issues are similar to those of what constitutes a blegg) and so self-identify as only Orthodox or observant. Some sometimes use the Yiddish word "frum" or occasionally "shomer mitzvot" which is Hebrew for "guards the commandments". Also, some people when they hear the word "charedi" think one means non-chassidic ultra-Orthodox, this is especially true in Israel. And this can lead to some confusion if one isn't careful.

And now that I've typed all this I've realized that I haven't dealt with any of the different groups' attitudes towards the State of Israel, which is actually really important to understanding them in any modern context. So, um yeah, I guess this is a lot more complicated than I realized and I've just internalized it. If there's a real need I can explain that (there are a lot of misconceptions about this among both non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews. In particular, the ultra-Orthodox are not generally the people who are pushing for right-wing policies in Israel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Comment author: Vladimir_M 25 April 2011 08:07:28AM *  5 points [-]

Thanks for the informative reply! As you note, however, the topic really is too complex to address in a single comment. For one, if I understand correctly, you're writing only about various Ashkenazi groups -- and one of the issues I find most puzzling is how they relate to the other geographic/linguistic/ethnic Jewish groups and their subdivisions. Another question where I can't find a clear answer is the relationship of various local Jewish groups with national governments, both in Israel and in other countries. In particular, in many countries there is the institution of "Chief Rabbi" that enjoys some government recognition, but which Jewish groups stand behind those?

As for the attitude towards the State of Israel, my understanding is that religious Jews generally support it, except for an ultra-Orthodox fringe who believe that Zionism is an irreverent mockery, since it lacks explicit (Messianic?) signs of support from God, and it has created a secular state, which they dislike for obvious reasons. However, I have no idea where exactly on the Orthodox spectrum these ideas become prevalent, and I also don't know whether there is a significant opposition between more moderate anti-Zionist Orthodox groups and Neturei Karta (and perhaps other such groups that I don't know about?).

Of course, I'm sure all these questions are further complicated by the contrast between the official leadership proclamations and the situation on the ground, just like it is for various conflicts between Christian denominations.

Comment author: lessdazed 26 April 2011 10:10:32AM *  10 points [-]

As for the attitude towards the State of Israel, my understanding is that religious Jews generally support it, except for an ultra-Orthodox fringe who believe that Zionism is an irreverent mockery...

This is a good (even the best) first step in the process of going from confusion to knowledge, but it's mostly wrong, somewhat less enlightening than replacing the concept of a banana with the concept of molecules, while ignoring atoms and quarks.

"Support [Israel]" doesn't mean only one thing without more context, even in most people's minds, any more than "like people" would if I asked if you "like people". About half the self-identifying Orthodox Jews in Israel and far fewer than that in America do not find any religious justification or basis for the modern state of Israel and are the Chareidim. This includes almost all Chasidim. Worse than not finding warrant for it, there is Talmudic justification for opposing its creation, while reactions to finding it created predictably differ.

The most noticeable members of this group are the dozen or hundred or so portion of the Neturei Karta who spend a lot of time and effort seeking to replace the state with another state, any other state, even an Arab one, at any cost. They are better known in the West than influential or representative people for the same reason an Afghan might be more likely to know about the Westboro Baptist Church than the Anglicans.

The reaction of most Chareidi Jews to the state is more similar to their reaction to most things without scriptural warrant, such as glasses or air conditioning, i.e. little concern. At least, it would likely be so, if not for a few other important factors.

Sticking with religious issues for now, it is a largely secular state. It is not obvious how religious or coercive any religious person should want their government, but it's easy to see why autocratically minded theocrats could reach a (deceptively unanimous) consensus that the current state isn't religious enough, details aside. This widespread opinion is a theoretically defeasible concern, unlike the narrowly-held pure religious opposition to any non-Messianic state.

The next issue is a social reaction to the rest of the Jewish world, particularly the Religious Zionists but more broadly the Modern Orthodox in general. Religious Zionists find that the current state meets their religious criteria to deserve their full backing. This position is more popular among the less religiously extreme. Reaching it requires a more expedient and flexible reading of religious texts and understanding of what the tradition entails. The conclusion that Israel is A-OK is what the judge should feel in his heart before inquiring into the religious texts. To quote Barack Obama, "We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old - and that's the criterion by which I'll be selecting my judges." It is no coincidence that the "living constitution" branch of Judaism that decided to go along with what the other Jews were doing had previously decided that it wasn't necessary to wear fur hats in the summer.

The identification of the secular state of Israel as religiously significant is regarded by Chareidim as akin to idol worship, a reductio ad absurdum of deciding what the tradition says before examining it, and it is to Religious Zionism that the Chareidim are opposed, along with their opposition to the domestic policies of the state.

It is these less extreme religious Jews who are the "settlers", attempting to graft biblical injunctions of foreign policy to Israel. Interpretations of these vary widely, perhaps the most widespread interpretation absolutely forbids surrendering territory but is very lenient and practical regarding how hard one must try to conquer all of the designated land. Relatively fewer of these live in America, as they see it as necessary to dwell in the state, particularly where it advances Israel's strategic interests.

Less literal and more liberal Jews who are still Orthodox are more likely to have a standard set of liberal positions, including regarding Israel and church-state separation.

It is in one sense very unfair to call extremists more religious than non-extremists. Many self-identifying Orthodox Jews might even assert and/or believe that the greatest rabbis of the other camps are more religious than they are, even for less extreme camps. In another sense, it is of course quite fair.

So we see the flexibility of interpretation has led to the centrists being the most irredentist, a position one expects to find religious extremists occupying. It is generally false that the extremists compensate by having logically irreconcilable differences with the state, though this notion can be forgiven since the most visible do and the rest have practically irreconcilable differences with the state as it is.

Demographically, Chareidim in America are less extreme than those in Israel, particularly among the non-Chassidim. Religious Zionists are far fewer, and the Modern Orthodox form a solid continuum from Religious Zionists to the secular American left. The mainstream Israeli left is probably to the right of the American left's statements, though perhaps not to its actions, if you consider Obama representative or if you think important the left's non-response to Guantanamo staying open, drone strikes in Pakistan continuing, undeclared action in Libya, etc. American non-Chassidic Chareidim are somewhat more pro-Israel than one would expect from the extent to which they are less extreme than Israeli non-Chassidic Chareidim, and are probably less cheated by conflation with Chrisitian fundamentalists than any other Jewish group regarding their beliefs and degree of nationalism.

Sephardim never collectively went through the shock of the enlightenment and have more traditional social forces, such as social cohesion around place of origin rather than level of observance and extended families with all levels of observance represented. Even the less religious are generally unlikely to see Reform or Conservative as at all valid and consider Judaism as degrees of Orthodoxy, and Israeli Ashkenazim are similar in this respect. Sephardim generally have little sympathy for active anti--Zionism and behave more like liberal somewhat nationalistic Modern Orthodox Jews with mildly Religious Zionist Rabbis, the top leaders of whom are actually mildly anti-Zionist and confederate with Chareidim.

This is all intended to be an enlightenment for those who know only of bananas as fruit, in which I explain bananas are made of little bricks called molecules. If anyone wants to correct or add anything, or take this as a starting point for explaining how bananas are really made of quarks (but first we really must teach you atoms as if they were billiard balls...) feel free. This isn't the type of thing I have done any formal study of but it's the type of thing one develops a perspective on, however biased, and I find that regarding this topic there is so much confusion that I think reading this will help many.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 April 2011 05:20:51AM 1 point [-]

So we see the flexibility of interpretation has led to the centrists being the most irredentist, a position one expects to find religious extremists occupying.

This is actually more or less how I imagined it (though of course I'm nowhere as familiar with all the details). Thanks for the very informative comments.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 April 2011 10:31:34AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the details. It's unnerving to think that there's drastically more detail behind the details, but I'm interested in whatever you want to write about them.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 27 April 2011 01:34:50AM *  3 points [-]

Lessdazed gave what seems to me to be a good answer to most of these questions so I'll just address the remaining one (which unfortunately is one of the one's I don't know as much about.)

In particular, in many countries there is the institution of "Chief Rabbi" that enjoys some government recognition, but which Jewish groups stand behind those?

The Chief Rabbi as a separate institution evolved when in the late Middle Ages the various European states wanted official representatives of the Jewish population to talk to the government. Since for many purposes Jews were often autonomous groups this was the primary method of interaction. Somewhat similarly, in some places such as England, all recognized religions had to have a recognized chief clergy member who was actually considered to serve the monarch. For essentially historical reasons, this job has been generally taken up by a prominent Orthodox Rabbi in most countries where the title exists. In some countries with small Jewish populations (such as Norway and New Zealand) there's very rarely more than one Orthodox Rabbi and so this individual becomes the Chief Rabbi more or less by default. In countries with larger Jewish communities this position can be surrounded by heavy politics and other considerations. Also in some countries the Chief Rabbi is not actually a government recognized position but is the term used to refer to a certain position overseeing some large organization of shulls.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 April 2011 05:12:27AM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for all the info. For whatever reason, even though I usually have no problem finding and sorting out information about complicated and controversial topics, I find this one (i.e. the general topic of Jewish religious and ethnic divisions) very difficult to systematize, and your comments have clarified a lot. Of course, even I was much more knowledgeable about the topic, I'd still consider it a valuable opportunity to hear the perspective of someone who has some insider knowledge but nevertheless strives for objectivity.

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2011 05:52:14PM *  9 points [-]

it is a deeply unsustainable situation.

It's deeply unsustainable in the sense that geometric population growth of any kind is unsustainable in the long run, yes. I don't know if it's unsustainable in the sense you seem to mean it.

Every community is in a sense free-riding off of other communities (public goods in general); no complete accounting exists for Kiryas Joel, although the last quarter of the NYT article is basically discussing whether Kiryas Joel is a drain or not, with no clear conclusion.

And the question strikes me as pretty much a distraction; if you don't like Kiryas Joel, one could look at more 'respectable' high-growth groups and ask the same Hansonian questions; the Amish and Mennonites come to mind as groups rarely criticized for being welfare queens and with high growth rates (sufficiently so that they keep spreading out and moving out of Pennsylvania to find farmland). Unfortunately, their rates are not so high as to be as dramatic as Kiryas Joel.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 April 2011 06:45:42PM 7 points [-]

I find the second parenthetical statement deeply, viscerally terrifying. I'm going to tap out in terms of my personal rationality on this issue, but I would just like to ask all the interesting questions this raises:

Will significant human natural selection happen before the extinction of the human race? If it were to happen, would it be a very bad thing?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 09:59:57PM 10 points [-]

I find the second parenthetical statement deeply, viscerally terrifying.

Relax. These are genuinely nice people, even though they dress funny.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2011 08:37:27PM *  6 points [-]

They're genuinely nice... aside from the Meidung, the restricted life opportunities and lack of many freedoms, whatever sexual (rape & incest, sometimes enabled by anesthetic) abuses are covered up by social structures, and all the other problems they have from our perspective. Let's not idealize them.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 25 April 2011 06:18:25AM *  9 points [-]

Indeed, but even if you take the worst imaginable view of them, you still have to admit that they respect the "good fences -- good neighbors" principle. I see no prospect that they might cease doing so in the foreseeable future, even if they expand greatly.

I sure won't be joining them anytime soon, but this still makes it irrational for me to be frightened by them, considering all the the high-status mainstream people whose Meidung I have to fear if I speak my mind with too much liberty, who limit my freedoms and opportunities in ways I find suffocating and frustrating, and who run the presently powerful institutions with an incomparably worse record of abuses. (The latter often aren't even covered up in an active and planned way, but rather kept from scrutiny merely by the high status of the institutions in question, making it a self-destructive status-lowering move just to start arguing against them.)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 April 2011 10:28:17PM 10 points [-]

Genuinely nice people who still prevent people who, like me and (presumably) you, are cognitively atypical, from finding similar people across the world to socialize with.

and the thousand other awesome things about the world we have created for ourselves.

and the thousand other awesome things about the world we will create.

I don't want to tile the world with tiny genuinely nice people.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 10:38:22PM 13 points [-]

Consider various other groups that are presently in the process of demographic and migratory expansion, and whose typical members are similarly different from you, but whom it is low-status to rail against (and apt to invoke accusations of bigotry and extremism), unlike when it comes to fringe Christian groups. Does contemplating them fill you with similar fear and hostility?

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 April 2011 10:56:18PM 1 point [-]

I can think of groups but I am not sure if they count as similarly different from me.

I experience fear and hostility but it is dissimilar and weaker. I consciously suppress it because I am aware that it is silly. It sometimes takes me a period of time to realize that a specific instance is silly.

It seems like the question at issue is whether fringe Christian groups are different enough that it is right to fear them or whether they are similar enough that it is wrong to fear them.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 23 April 2011 11:15:17PM *  18 points [-]

So when you catch yourself feeling fear and hostility towards some demographically expanding group that is not a fringe Christian group, so that in polite society it would be seen as disreputable and extremist to dislike and fear them, you start with the a priori assumption that it is silly and wrong to fear them and you try to suppress your fear consciously. In contrast, when it comes to demographically expanding fringe Christian groups, you start with the a priori assumption that it is eminently reasonable to dislike and fear them. And it doesn't seem to you like there might be some slight bias there?

(I tried to come up with a more charitable interpretation of your comment, but this looks like the plain meaning of what you wrote.)

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 April 2011 11:58:35PM 5 points [-]

I object to your use of "a priori". I am aware of ironclad arguments that it is incorrect to dislike and fear certain groups. These arguments are not fully general - they do not apply to all groups.

Is it obvious to you that these cases are symmetrical? It is not obvious to me.

I never claimed to be unbiased. I, in fact, went out of the way to state a lack of confidence in my local rationality.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 25 April 2011 06:29:39AM 5 points [-]

Seeing your reply to Eugine Nier, I must admit that your position is more thought out than I had assumed. I still disagree with your view, and I think your arguments are significantly biased. However, as much as I'd like to try and straighten out the issue, I think getting into this discussion would lead too far into problematic ideologically sensitive topics. So I guess it would be best if we could respectfully agree to disagree at this point.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 24 April 2011 06:22:11PM *  5 points [-]

I am aware of ironclad arguments that it is incorrect to dislike and fear certain groups. These arguments are not fully general - they do not apply to all groups.

Really, I'm skeptical. Can we hear them?

Comment author: lessdazed 29 April 2011 01:42:33AM 2 points [-]

I would like to "flag" this post as the point where "experienc[ing] fear and hostility" was warped into "feeling fear and hostility towards". That makes comments below subject to equivocation. It does not mean anything, at least not any one thing, to "[feel] fear and hostility towards" anything. The fear and hostility are in the brain and do not emanate therefrom.

This is more than a semantic quibble. Consider the fallacy of composition. It is possible for a liberal to hate all poor people and love the poor, and for a Confederate soldier to have hated blacks and loved all blacks.

I don't think "dislike and fear certain groups" is precise enough to have an non-careful conversation about because it is more than one thing.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 01 May 2011 04:15:52AM 2 points [-]

I don't understand the relevant linguistic distinction here; it might be some finesse of English grammar that eludes me. Does saying "fear and hostility towards X" imply some observable action motivated by these feelings?

The sort of "fear and hostility" I had in mind is of the same sort as your hypothetical liberal's love of the poor.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 April 2011 08:57:07PM 8 points [-]

I don't want to tile the world with tiny genuinely nice people.

Beats the word eventually being tiled with very genuinely not nice people.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 24 April 2011 09:01:15PM 1 point [-]

That is a true moral statement.

Comment author: brazil84 25 April 2011 03:11:03PM 1 point [-]

What exactly is "natural selection" in this context? For example, smallpox is no longer part of our environment. Surely the absence of smallpox will have some effect on the gene pool. Would this count as natural selection?

By the way, I also find it a bit troubling that at least for the time being, secularism seems to be on track to extinction.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 25 April 2011 03:14:15PM 0 points [-]

Yes, but not significant in the sense I am using it here.

Natural selection is changes in the frequency of genes not planned by wise and well-intentioned humans.

Significant natural selection is when this leads to a shift in the fundamental values of the human race.

Comment author: brazil84 25 April 2011 03:23:54PM 2 points [-]

In that case, I would say that the answer is clearly "yes," in the sense that significant natural selection is taking place at a rapid clip in the present day. For example, the percentage of people in the world with blue eyes has surely dropped significantly over the last 100 years.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 26 April 2011 01:29:11AM 0 points [-]

Technically using my odd definitions the debate on blue eyes is irrelevant because:

Blue eyes do not shift the fundamental values of the human race. I think.

Comment author: brazil84 26 April 2011 01:39:05AM 3 points [-]

Blue eyes do not shift the fundamental values of the human race

Fine, but now you need to specify what you mean by "fundamental values of the human race." :)

(By the way, I recall that there are studies out there corellating eye color with personality traits. I'm not sure if this affects the example I gave, but surely there are other genes which affect personality traits in subtle ways. And it seems likely that some of those personality traits affect a person's fertility given that a lot of people in the West flat out decide not to reproduce. So it's reasonable to suppose that natural selection, as you have defined it, continues in the present and affects human attributes less superficial than eye color.)

Comment author: FAWS 25 April 2011 08:08:01PM 0 points [-]

Because blue eyes are recessive and blue and brown eyed populations have mixed more than they used to? How is that an example of natural selection in progress?

Comment author: brazil84 25 April 2011 09:25:28PM 3 points [-]

Because blue eyes are found mainly in people of European descent and the percentage of world population of European descent has dropped quite a bit with the population booms in Asia and Africa.

Comment author: FAWS 25 April 2011 10:09:33PM 0 points [-]

Ok, but that's mostly because you use that particular cutoff point, European decended populations just have gone through the demographic transition earlier and their share of world population is similar to what it was in 1750. It has nothing to do with any selection against blue eyes in the usual sense.

Comment author: brazil84 25 April 2011 10:28:50PM 3 points [-]

Well that brings us back to the question of what you mean by "natural selection" which you defined earlier as

changes in the frequency of genes not planned by wise and well-intentioned humans.

It sounds like you are limiting natural selection to frequency changes which are a direct result of the effects of the genes in question. Is that right?

Comment author: gwern 23 April 2011 06:55:41PM 1 point [-]

Will significant human natural selection happen before the extinction of the human race?

In the absence of a Singularity? Who knows. Evolution wins eventually, somehow, but the details matter a great deal.

If it were to happen, would it be a very bad thing?

That is the fundamental question of this post. Kevin Kelly argues in a somewhat related essay, http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/11/the_origins_of.php , that evolution winning might not even stop progress.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 April 2011 07:32:49PM 4 points [-]

There are plausible scenarios for a singleton control without singularity. Our institutions could outpace evolution at the rate they get smarter and eventually decide to stop it. You'd just need to build some highly stable, global architecture.

But nothing is perfectly stable. So I'm going to agree with your contention that Who, in fact, knows.

Genetic evolution winning causes irreversible negative progress. If human value is complex, then genetic evolution necessarily destroys information about human value - information that will not be replaced because our descendants will not want to replace it.

The question is how much value?

Comment author: [deleted] 25 April 2011 10:15:37PM 0 points [-]

Genetic evolution winning causes irreversible negative progress. If human value is complex, then genetic evolution necessarily destroys information about human value - information that will not be replaced because our descendants will not want to replace it.

The question is how much value?

Indeed.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 April 2011 03:02:33AM 1 point [-]

Has the article been withdrawn? The link to it doesn't work, and searching on Kiryas Joel doesn't turn up anything.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 23 April 2011 03:20:43AM 0 points [-]

Huh? Which article? Gwern's article is here. Do you mean the NYT article?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 April 2011 04:19:44AM 0 points [-]

No, the post to LW.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 23 April 2011 04:24:53AM 0 points [-]

Right here. Note also that you can click from a comment to the general thread by clicking on the name of the thread at the way top of the comment.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 April 2011 04:40:23AM 1 point [-]

Thanks. Your link worked. Clicking on the name of the thread at the top of the comment led to a "this page does not exist" notification.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 23 April 2011 06:34:32PM 15 points [-]

The likely outcome of a Malthusian/Darwinian upload scenario isn't many near-subsistence human-like lives, it's something seriously inhuman and probably valueless. The analogy is incredibly weak.

Comment author: bokov 26 September 2013 03:26:42PM 2 points [-]

You know, his scenario of erasing humanity as a byproduct of an optimization process indifferent to human values amounts to the unfriendly AI scenarios we discuss, just relaxing the requirement that the optimization process be sentient.

I wonder if the following is a valid generalization of the specific problem that motivates the MIRI folks:

Our ability to scale up and speed up achievement of goals has outpaced or will soon outpace our ability to find goals that we won't regret.

Comment author: torekp 23 April 2011 07:33:22PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the link to that Nick Bostrom paper. It's the best writing I've yet seen on the posthuman prospect.

Comment author: bokov 26 September 2013 03:31:08PM 0 points [-]

Or, more succinctly, if we don't solve coherent extraoplated volition, we are screwed regardless of whether Kruel or Yudkowski is right about the specific threat of unfriendly AI.

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2012 08:52:16PM 3 points [-]

Unexpected consequences of the Orthodox growth: Unz points out an apparent massive fall in Jewish academic achievement:

For example, consider California, second only to New York in the total number of its Jews, and with its Jewish percentage far above the national average. Over the last couple of years, blogger Steve Sailer and some of his commenters have examined the complete 2010 and 2012 NMS semifinalist lists of the 2000 or so top-scoring California high school seniors for ethnicity, and discovered that as few as 4–5 percent of the names seem to be Jewish, a figure not so dramatically different than the state’s 3.3 percent Jewish population, and an estimate which I have personally confirmed.54 Meanwhile, the state’s 13 percent Asians account for over 57 percent of the top performing students. Thus, it appears that California Asians are perhaps three times as likely as Jews to do extremely well on academic tests, and this result remains unchanged if we adjust for the age distributions of the two populations...When we consider the apparent number of Jewish students across the NMS semifinalist lists of other major states, we get roughly similar results. New York has always been the center of the American Jewish community, and at 8.4 percent is half again as heavily Jewish as any other state, while probably containing a large fraction of America’s Jewish financial and intellectual elite. Just as we might expect, the 2011 roster of New York NMS semifinalists is disproportionately filled with Jewish names, constituting about 21 percent of the total, a ratio twice as high as for any other state whose figures are available. But even here, New York’s smaller and much less affluent Asian population is far better represented, providing around 34 percent of the top scoring students. Jews and Asians are today about equal in number within New York City but whereas a generation ago, elite local public schools such as Stuyvesant were very heavily Jewish, today Jews are outnumbered at least several times over by Asians.55...Earlier we had noted that the tests used to select NMS semifinalists actually tilted substantially against Asian students by double-weighting verbal skills and excluding visuospatial ability, but in the case of Jews this same testing-bias has exactly the opposite impact. Jewish ability tends to be exceptionally strong in its verbal component and mediocre at best in the visuospatial,57 so the NMS semifinalist selection methodology would seem ideally designed to absolutely maximize the number of high-scoring Jews compared to other whites or (especially) East Asians. Thus, the number of high-ability Jews we are finding should be regarded as an extreme upper bound to a more neutrally-derived total...But today, MIT’s enrollment is just 9 percent Jewish, a figure lower than that anywhere in the Ivy League, while Asians are nearly three times as numerous, despite the school being located in one of the most heavily Jewish parts of the country...The U.S. Math Olympiad began in 1974, and all the names of the top scoring students are easily available on the Internet. During the 1970s, well over 40 percent of the total were Jewish, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the fraction averaged about one-third. However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish. The Putnam Exam is the most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition for American college students, with five or six Putnam winners having been selected each year since 1938. Over 40 percent of the Putnam winners prior to 1950 were Jewish, and during every decade from the 1950s through the 1990s, between 22 percent and 31 percent of the winners seem to have come from that same ethnic background. But since 2000, the percentage has dropped to under 10 percent, without a single likely Jewish name in the last seven years. This consistent picture of stark ethnic decline recurs when we examine the statistics for the Science Talent Search, which has been selecting 40 students as national finalists for America’s most prestigious high school science award since 1942, thus providing a huge statistical dataset of over 2800 top science students. During every decade from the 1950s through the 1980s, Jewish students were consistently 22–23 percent of the recipients, with the percentage then declining to 17 percent in the 1990s, 15 percent in the 2000s, and just 7 percent since 2010. Indeed, of the thirty top ranked students over the last three years, only a single one seems likely to have been Jewish. Similarly, Jews were over one-quarter of the top students in the Physics Olympiad from 1986 to 1997, but have fallen to just 5 percent over the last decade, a result which must surely send Richard Feynman spinning in his grave. Other science competitions provide generally consistent recent results, though without the long track record allowing useful historical comparisons. Over the last dozen years, just 8 percent of the top students in the Biology Olympiad have been Jewish, with none in the last three years. Between 1992 and 2012, only 11 percent of the winners of the Computing Olympiad had Jewish names, as did just 8 percent of the Siemens AP Award winners. And although I have only managed to locate the last two years of Chemistry Olympiad winners, these lists of 40 top students contained not a single probable Jewish name. Further evidence is supplied by Weyl, who estimated that over 8 percent of the 1987 NMS semifinalists were Jewish,60 a figure 35 percent higher than found in today’s results.

Why?

Finally, in the case of Jews, these assimilation- or environment-related declines in relative academic performance may have been reinforced by powerful demographic trends. For the last generation or two, typical Jewish women from successful or even ordinary families have married very late and averaged little more than a single child, while the small fraction of Jewish women who are ultra-Orthodox often marry in their teens and then produce seven or eight children.69 As a consequence, this extremely religious subpopulation has been doubling in size every twenty years, and now easily exceeds 10 percent of the total, including a far higher percentage of younger Jews. But ultra-Orthodox Jews have generally been academically mediocre, often with enormously high rates of poverty and government dependency.70 Therefore, the combination of these two radically different trends of Jewish reproduction has acted to stabilize the total number of Jewish youngsters, while probably producing a sharp drop in their average academic achievement.

Comment author: gwern 31 July 2012 01:45:18PM *  2 points [-]

A new census of the Amish population in the United States estimates that a new Amish community is founded, on average, about every 3 ½ weeks, and shows that more than 60 percent of all existing Amish settlements have been founded since 1990. This pattern suggests the Amish are growing more rapidly than most other religions in the United States, researchers say. Unlike other religious groups, however, the growth is not driven by converts joining the faith, but instead can be attributed to large families and high rates of baptism. In all, the census counts almost 251,000 Amish in the United States and Ontario, Canada, dispersed among 456 settlements, the communities in which members live and worship. The 1990 census estimated that there were 179 settlements in the United States. If the growth of the Amish population continues at its current rate, the Ohio State University researchers predict that the census could exceed 1 million Amish and 1,000 settlements shortly after 2050, and these numbers will bring economic, cultural, social and religious change to the rural areas that attract Amish settlement....No state has seen more recent growth in settlements than New York, where 15 new settlements have been established since 2010. But 34 of Ohio's 54 settlements have been founded since 1990, a trend that contributes to the state's large Amish population, Donnermeyer said. Ohio is also home to Holmes County, the U.S. county housing the highest percentage of Amish, with 42 percent. The Greater Holmes County settlement, which sprawls across six counties (Holmes, Wayne, Tuscarawas, Coshocton, Stark and Ashland), is the largest settlement, with nearly 30,000 Amish, followed by the Lancaster/Chester County settlement in southeastern Pennsylvania. "My guess is that in 15 years, we'll witness a county whose population is majority Amish, and Holmes County is likely to gain that distinction first. Perhaps LaGrange County in Indiana will not be far behind," Donnermeyer said

--"Estimate: A new Amish community is founded every 3 and a half weeks in US"; see also the CSM's http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2012/1130/For-Amish-fastest-growing-faith-group-in-US-life-is-changing/%28page%29/2 "For Amish, fastest-growing faith group in US, life is changing: As the Amish population in the US grows – forecast to hit 1 million by 2050 – the decline of farmland is forcing the community to spread to new areas and to evolve its agrarian culture."

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 24 September 2013 08:58:32PM *  5 points [-]

I recently became aware of some news stories that shed some additional light on this debate:

Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

Sex abuse victim driven out of shull

Yeshiva U sex abuse extended beyond high school for boys, probe Finds

This is also relevant to the discussion Vladimir_M and and JoshuaZ had about whether or not the community had the ability to control social pathologies better than mainstream society (specifically it supports JoshuaZ's position).

My own view on the overall debate is that it doesn't matter if Kiryas Joel is happy or not. Happiness that comes from having mistaken beliefs isn't valuable. The majority of Ultra-orthodox Jews hold a false belief that they are giving up a normal life in order to serve a supernatural creature. Since the creature they are serving isn't real, their lives are much, much worse than they think they are. An analogous situation might be a person who gains happiness from donating money to help starving refugees, without knowing that the refugees were made up by a con-man who is really lining his own pockets with the donations.

This sex-abuse scandal means that the inhabitants of Kiryas Joel are even worse off than I previously thought. It's bad enough they're denying themselves the pleasures of mainstream out of fealty to a fiction. If they're allowing themselves to be tortured, or to allow torturers to get away with their crimes, they are truly leading terrible lives. To use the fake refugee analogy again, suppose the donor starts mugging people to get more money to donate to the fictional refugees.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 September 2013 09:03:50PM 3 points [-]

Happiness that comes from having mistaken beliefs isn't valuable.

Why not? Or, rather, in which sense do you use the word "valuable" here?

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 24 September 2013 09:45:54PM *  0 points [-]

I mean that people in general do not value happiness that comes from mistaken beliefs. For instance, people generally want to know the answer to questions like "Is my spouse cheating on me?" "Has my child been kidnapped?" and "Do the refugees I'm donating money to really exist?" They want to know the answer to these questions even if the answer will make them unhappy.

There are people who engage in acts of denial. But when encountering and reading about these people I am not given the impression that they are acting out of a rational and coherent desire to feel good by holding false beliefs. Rather, they are acting out of an irrational and incoherent desire to somehow stop the bad things from happening by denying their existence.

Of course, it would be theoretically possible to create some sort of creature that did value the happiness caused by mistaken beliefs. But it seems to me that creating such a creature would be a bad thing. Creatures with such inhuman, ignoble desires should not come into existence (although it may be wrong to kill one if you screw up and create it).

I am also not saying there is never any reason to believe comforting falsehoods. If a mad scientist threatened to torture me for decades unless I pressed a button that would cause me to believe some comforting falsehood I'd do it. The disvalue of the torture, in that case, outweighs the disvalue of holding a mistaken belief.

Similarly, it may be that some people cannot properly control their emotional responses to certain knowledge, and will end up an emotional wreck who cannot function if they find out some horrible truth. In that case it may be better to believe a comforting falsehood. However, that is not because the happiness from the falsehood is valuable, rather it is because the disvalue of becoming an emotional wreck who cannot function outweighs the disvalue of having a mistaken belief. This is analogous to the torture situation, except in this case the torturer is your own emotional systems, rather than another person.

And, of course, while happiness from having mistaken beliefs is bad, sadness from having mistaken beliefs is even worse. If I had a choice between telling someone a comforting lie and a distressing lie, all other things being equal I'd pick the comforting one.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 September 2013 01:48:46AM 3 points [-]

I mean that people in general do not value happiness that comes from mistaken beliefs.

Mistaken from whose point of view? For example, you think religious people don't value their happiness that comes from their religious beliefs? I would think that they do, very much so. Would you say that they all engage in denial?

I am not speaking of the cases where you deliberately close your eyes and, basically, block off certain truths from your mind. I am speaking of sincerely believing things which other people think are mistaken or wrong.

Comment author: CCC 25 September 2013 07:41:34AM *  1 point [-]

For example, you think religious people don't value their happiness that comes from their religious beliefs?

This doesn't seem to follow. Ghatanathoah says that "...people in general do not value happiness that comes from mistaken beliefs." A religious person will not consider their religious beliefs mistaken, and will therefore value any happiness that comes from them; even if they do not value happiness that comes from mistaken beliefs.

If they, at some point, decide that those beliefs were mistaken, then that will of course change; but in making that decision, the person no longer holds those beliefs in any case.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 25 September 2013 06:46:00AM *  -2 points [-]

For example, you think religious people don't value their happiness that comes from their religious beliefs? I would think that they do, very much so.

In the case of the "fictional refugees" that I mentioned earlier the person donating money to the conman certainly valued the happiness it gave him very much. But he was mistaken to value that happiness, because it came from a mistaken belief (namely, that the money he was giving the conman was benefiting refugees). It's possible to attach a mistaken value to something, if you hold mistaken beliefs about it.

There are some teachings of religion that are good things to follow regardless of whether or not you believe in the religion, these being basic moral lessons like "don't hurt people." But there are other teachings religions have that are only justified by the belief that there exists a supernatural creature who wants us to follow them, and we have a duty to obey that creature.

The lifestyle the people of Kiryas Joel lead is based on the second type of teachings. I explicitly think these teachings are wrong, that such a supernatural creature doesn't exist, and that we wouldn't necessarily be obligated to obey it if it did exist. If these precepts are false, than any happiness those people derive from their piety is based on mistaken beliefs.

Would you say that they all engage in denial?..... I am speaking of sincerely believing things which other people think are mistaken or wrong.

In that case it would be better to call their beliefs mistaken or deluded than in denial. But yes, I basically do believe that all religious beliefs are mistaken, deluded, or in denial. How could I believe otherwise without becoming religious myself?

Comment author: Lumifer 25 September 2013 02:36:11PM 2 points [-]

I am still confused.

Let's take a person, say, Alice. Alice believes in Jesus. In fact, she believes in Jesus with all her heart and Jesus' love is the bright spot in her otherwise dreary life of quiet desperation. She gets a lot of happiness from her religious beliefs.

You think that she is mistaken and deluded, Christianity's teachings are wrong, and her happiness is based on mistaken beliefs.

Given all this, what does your phrase "happiness that comes from having mistaken beliefs isn't valuable" mean in this context?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 25 September 2013 02:46:36PM 2 points [-]

One thing it could mean is that if Alice came to believe her beliefs were mistaken, she would no longer value the happiness that they engendered; she would not willingly choose to return to her old confidence in those beliefs, for example, in exchange for getting that happiness back.
That said, I expect this is simply false for most Alice.

Comment author: Lumifer 25 September 2013 02:55:57PM 0 points [-]

One thing it could mean is that if Alice came to believe her beliefs were mistaken, she would no longer value the happiness that they engendered;

First, this is true regardless of whether Alice's original beliefs were mistaken or not. It's quite possible for Alice to hold true beliefs and then wrongly decide they were not correct.

Second, the phrase says "is not" using unconditional present tense. It does not say "might not be in the future".

Comment author: TheOtherDave 25 September 2013 03:44:47PM 2 points [-]

Re: first point, yes, that's true. "we don't value happiness that comes from having mistaken beliefs" does not imply "we always value happiness that comes from having true beliefs".

Re: point 2... I'm probably misunderstanding you.

Consider the following dialog: A: "Drinking poison isn't valuable"
B: "But if I give Alice poison and she believes that it's medicine, then she will value drinking poison"
A: "Well, I suppose, but if she knew what it was, she wouldn't"
B: "But you didn't say 'Drinking poison might not be valuable if you know it's poison.' You just said 'Drinking poison isn't valuable.'"

I don't mean to put words in your mouth here... if that's not analogous what you're saying, that's great! I'm misunderstanding you, and hopefully we can identify and address the causes of that misunderstanding.

As it is, though, I'm at a loss for how to move forward. What I'm hearing you say is very much analogous to B's position here, which I think is just goofy. We don't value drinking poison, and the fact that we can be mistaken about whether we're drinking poison or not doesn't change that fact.

(In local parlance, this is sometimes referred to as the distinction between "desire" and "volition"... Alice might desire to drink poison in this case, but her volition is to drink medicine. I'm not crazy about that language choice, but the distinction itself is important, whatever words we use.)

Comment author: Lumifer 25 September 2013 04:24:48PM 4 points [-]

"Drinking poison" is an action with clear and unambiguous consequences. "Happiness" is a personal emotional state. I don't feel the analogy works well.

Consider someone looking at his newborn daughter and feeling great happiness that she is the best, prettiest, most awesome child in the world. Oh, hey, that's technically a mistaken belief, the happiness is not valuable!

Consider a medieval European society where life is nasty, brutal, and short, not to mention muddy and itchy. But on Sundays you go to the cathedral, a beautiful building with awe-inspiring stained glass windows and open your heart to unconditional love, forgiveness, and promise of eternal happiness. It makes life worth living -- but, sorry, that's not valuable, your beliefs are wrong even though you don't really have a choice about them (remember, medieval Europe).

I think ultimately what ticked me off was the readiness to judge the value of other people's subjective emotional experiences. I am not a fan of such approaches.

Comment author: linkhyrule5 25 September 2013 03:16:33PM 1 point [-]

Formulated another way: happiness that comes from mistaken beliefs is not only unstable, it also prevents you from attaining greater happiness elsewhere.

The idea of reflective consistency is relevant, here. If you possessed all relevant true beliefs, you would not be happy in that situation.

(And if you disagree, please note that wireheading is very similar to this situation: you've taken control of your reward button and are pushing it without much change to your actual situation. If your utility system doesn't exclude solutions like this, you're going to have trouble when someone figures out a harmless euphoric...)

Comment author: Lumifer 25 September 2013 03:34:16PM *  1 point [-]

it also prevents you from attaining greater happiness elsewhere

Do you imply "always prevents", "sometimes prevents", or "could possibly prevent"?

wireheading is very similar to this situation

Hm. So the equivalent statement would be "Happiness produced by wireheading is not valuable". Two things pop into my head: first, happiness and pleasure are different, wireheading produces the latter but not the former; and second, I still don't understand what does "is not valuable" mean.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 26 September 2013 10:46:19PM 0 points [-]

I read your entire discussion the TheOtherDave and everyone else before replying. He said pretty much everything I would have said in these replies.

Reading further through the discussion I found this statement by you:

Consider a medieval European society where life is nasty, brutal, and short, not to mention muddy and itchy. But on Sundays you go to the cathedral, a beautiful building with awe-inspiring stained glass windows and open your heart to unconditional love, forgiveness, and promise of eternal happiness. It makes life worth living -- but, sorry, that's not valuable, your beliefs are wrong even though you don't really have a choice about them (remember, medieval Europe).

Remember that here I argued that, while happiness based on false beliefs isn't valuable, it isn't necessarily as bad as other negative things. For instance, I pointed out that if a mad scientist offered me a choice between decades of torture, or pressing a button that would alter my memory to make me hold a false belief, I would pick the button. Similarly, if the act of worship prevents someone's life from being utterly miserable (or from being tortured by the Inquisition), it may be the lesser of two evils.

Consider someone looking at his newborn daughter and feeling great happiness that she is the best, prettiest, most awesome child in the world. Oh, hey, that's technically a mistaken belief, the happiness is not valuable!

I'm pretty sure most people don't literally believe that their child is the best child ever by some objective measure. I think that those are phatic statements, they are meant to express emotions rather than convey factual information. In this case the emotion being expressed is "I really love my daughter."

I think ultimately what ticked me off was the readiness to judge the value of other people's subjective emotional experiences. I am not a fan of such approaches

I certainly understand the tremendous moral hazard that comes with attempting to judge how much other people value things. But I don't think I'm out of line in stating that people generally don't place value on happiness that comes from falsehoods. Pretty much all people hate being lied to.

Comment author: Lumifer 27 September 2013 02:19:13PM 1 point [-]

people generally don't place value on happiness that comes from falsehoods

People generally don't place value on happiness that they believe comes from falsehoods.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 27 September 2013 05:39:02PM *  2 points [-]

Just to make sure I understand your position... consider two hypothetical instances of happiness, H1 and H2:
* H1is my happiness at believing my relationship with my husband is a loving, honest, open one in which we don't deceive one another, which it in fact is.
* H2 is my happiness at believing my relationship with my husband is a loving, honest, open one in which we don't deceive one another, which it in fact isn't.

The following seems clear, given that context:
* H1 is happiness that comes from truth.
* H2 is happiness that comes from falsehood.
* Neither H1 nor H2 is happiness that I believe comes from falsehoods... in both cases, my happiness comes from believing the proposition "my relationship with my husband is a loving, honest, open one in which we don't deceive one another" to be truth.

Would you disagree with any of the above?
If so, we can stop here and address the disagreement.
If not, continuing...

Suppose hypothetically that I don't value happiness that comes from falsehood, but I otherwise value happiness.
In this case, it follows that I value H1 but don't value H2.
For example, in this case if after ten years I discovered he'd been lying to me all along, I might feel cheated... I've spent ten years enjoying this happiness that I thought was valuable, when it turns out it wasn't valuable at all, since it came from falsehood. At that point, I'd regret those ten years, and wish I'd known how valueless my happiness was so I could make informed choices about it.
Yes? (Again, if you disagree, we can stop here and address it.)

Conversely, suppose hypothetically I don't value happiness that I believe comes from falsehood, but I otherwise value happiness.
In this case, it follows that I value both H1 and H2.
For example, in this case if after ten years I discovered he'd been lying to me all along, I might feel relieved that I hadn't discovered that sooner, because that would have ruined ten years of perfectly valuable happiness.
Yes? (Again, if you disagree, we can stop here and address it.)

So, to put that differently:
* If I don't value happiness that I believe comes from falsehood, I should prefer to remain deceived, since that way I can keep getting valuable happiness.
* If I don't value happiness that comes from falsehoods, I should prefer to know the truth, since that way I can correctly evaluate whether the happiness I'm getting is valuable.

...and your position is that the former, but not the latter, is generally true of people.
Yes?

Comment author: brazil84 23 April 2011 02:33:23PM 5 points [-]

Another question is whether the residents of Kiryas Joel are rational. On the one hand, their beliefs and practices seem pretty ridiculous. On the other hand, they seem to be doing a good job of achieving their goals, i.e. to preserve themselves and grow in numbers and influence.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 November 2011 09:31:11PM 2 points [-]

They seem to have instrumental rationality in spades. Epistemic? Not so much.

Comment author: Hyena 24 April 2011 12:42:56AM *  4 points [-]

If you're living near Malthusian equilibrium, there's probably no smiling involved. Not even the poorest people on Earth are usually living close to that point. In fact, I'm not really sure any modern humans ever have.

Frankly, I doubt the emulated brains would be sentient. Turning that off would make them far more productive, so that would be a logical early development. Happiness is probably a non-question in that case.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2011 08:34:07PM 2 points [-]

If you're living near Malthusian equilibrium, there's probably no smiling involved. Not even the poorest people on Earth are usually living close to that point. In fact, I'm not really sure any modern humans ever have.

You seem to be interpreting Malthusian equilibrium in an odd way, as being at starvation or something. An equilibrium is simply when the population is not growing, when deaths equal births, with many possible permutations and variations. Why aren't the poorest people either currently or historically at equilibriums? In Farewell to Alms, Clark cites examples of how societies can raise per capita welfare in an equilibrium through methods like infanticide (China and the Polynesian islands) or poor sanitation & public health (England).

Comment author: Hyena 29 April 2011 08:46:46AM 1 point [-]

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that a specifically <i>Malthusian</i> equilibrium attains only at carrying capacity. Though it would be interesting to argue that human carrying capacity is multidimensional and so can be reached without starvation. That's a different argument, though.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 April 2011 08:53:19AM 2 points [-]

<i>Malthusian</i>

The syntax is *Malthusian* or _Malthusian_. See 'Help' at the bottom right of the comment box.

Comment author: gwern 29 April 2011 06:56:03PM 1 point [-]

Though it would be interesting to argue that human carrying capacity is multidimensional and so can be reached without starvation.

It can. This isn't at issue (see elsewhere on this page). Carrying capacity is defined by subsistence wage, with starvation as the lower bound, and subsistence wages can vary quite a bit. So carrying capacity will vary from time to place to culture to tech level.

Comment author: abramdemski 24 April 2011 01:00:00AM 3 points [-]

Explain your concept of sentience. It seems implausible to me that sentience could be removed without harming productivity, particularly in a realm of existence in which intellectual labour is the only labour.

Comment author: Cyan 24 April 2011 01:26:51AM 10 points [-]

Read Blindsight.

...OK, so it's a 380-page novel. Still, it's a ripping good read, and it will give you an intuition about why sentience isn't necessary for "intelligence" in the sense of effective goal-oriented behavior.

Comment author: hwc 24 April 2011 01:30:17AM 7 points [-]

I'm not certain that that book made a good argument for that position. It was after all, fiction.

Is there a serious non-fiction treatment of the question?

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2011 08:30:09PM *  8 points [-]

Is there a serious non-fiction treatment of the question?

Fortunately, Watts shows his homework and provides an entire appendix explaining the science he is drawing on (as one would expect from a scientist): http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm#Notes

I've read through a number of his references and a few things on his blog like PRISMs, although his main source, philosopher Thomas Metzinger's Being No One, kicked my ass. You want 'serious non-fiction'? Go to.

Comment author: badger 24 April 2011 09:09:15PM 2 points [-]

I also had my ass kicked by Being No One.

To anyone interested, the book is worth picking up for the chapters on neuro-phenomenological case studies alone, even if the rest of the book is liable to melt your brain. Metzinger has another book on the subject, The Ego Tunnel, that is supposedly more accessible, but I haven't read it.

Comment author: hwc 24 April 2011 10:20:53PM 0 points [-]

In Blindsight, a close relative of Homo sapiens sapiens is described as not consciously sentient but able to intelligently interact socially with humans. This seems unlikely.

The not-conscious ET aliens were much more believable, since they were not a close relative. You got the feeling that their interactions with humans had a Chinese room feel to them.

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2011 10:26:35PM -2 points [-]

a close relative of Homo sapiens sapiens is described as not consciously sentient but able to intelligently interact socially with humans. This seems unlikely.

Why? Already non-conscious animals like dogs, chimpanzees, and parrots are capable of some fairly sophisticated social interaction; dogs even understand gestures like pointing.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 April 2011 10:45:12PM 7 points [-]

Already non-conscious animals like dogs, chimpanzees, and parrots

They're not conscious? I must have been in bed with the flu when this was explained to the class.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 24 April 2011 10:56:33PM 2 points [-]

Yeah this looks like the old conscious/sentient/intelligent conflation (where the middle word seems to serve no purpose but to enable confusing the two on either sides of it...)

Comment author: gwern 25 April 2011 12:19:28AM 0 points [-]

I plead guilty to perpetuating the confusion. If I try to be more correct and say something like 'Already non-self-conscious animals like...', then it looks like I have some complex idiosyncratic classification in mind and I mean something more sophisticated than what I do. There's no real good solution here.

Comment author: hwc 24 April 2011 10:36:36PM *  0 points [-]

I wonder when consciousness evolved in our ancestors? 4 Mya? 2Mya? 500 kya?

Comment author: gwern 24 April 2011 10:44:20PM 2 points [-]

An excellent question. I've always enjoyed Julian Jaynes's theory of bicameralism where consciousness only truly developed ~3kya or so.

Comment author: hwc 24 April 2011 10:46:30PM *  0 points [-]

It makes for a good story, but I really doubt that's the case.

Comment author: Cyan 24 April 2011 01:42:32AM 1 point [-]

It was after all, fiction.

A fair point. Still, it blew my fragile little mind the first time I read it (this being prior to EY's sequences, which IIRC treat the point somewhere).

Comment author: [deleted] 24 April 2011 10:34:22PM 1 point [-]

I did. It was pretty good, man.

Comment author: Hyena 24 April 2011 01:26:59AM 6 points [-]

Comprehensive self-awareness that we're familiar with as humans.

In fact, turning this off is one of the first things we do, we just tend to call it "the zone" or whatever else. We're actually much more productive without it. Nick Bostrom actually posited a world wherein this dynamic prevails in his outsourcing scenario.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 24 April 2011 03:32:16AM *  4 points [-]

In fact, turning [comprehensive self-awareness ] off is one of the first things we do, we just tend to call it "the zone" or whatever else. We're actually much more productive without it.

I think flow is the technical term.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 24 April 2011 12:58:49AM *  1 point [-]

If you're living near Malthusian equilibrium, there's probably no smiling involved.

Yes there is. Moping around about how miserable your life is wastes resources and is in general not productive.

Comment author: Hyena 24 April 2011 01:28:41AM 5 points [-]

My mop doesn't mope but it's excellent for mopping and a smile is likewise useless on tile. There's no reason to presume that we couldn't have emotionally dead producers, there just may be no value to anything they do. But they're grandly productive.

Comment author: gwern 24 August 2011 04:54:09PM 1 point [-]

Info on the leadership struggles involving Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg: http://www.txtpost.com/hats-on-gloves-off/

Comment author: Unknowns 15 April 2015 06:20:52AM 0 points [-]

I completely disagree with the position argued by some here that "happiness that comes from having mistaken beliefs isn't valuable." I think that such happiness is a good and valuable thing. I do not think it is merely "less bad" than other things; I think it is good. The false belief is bad, but the happiness that comes from it is good.

I do not think that my position about this is an unusual position for people to hold. It is fairly common for me not to correct someone's false belief because I think they are happier and better off with the false belief than without it, and this is something that many other people do as well. Likewise, I know of a number of formerly religious people who explicitly envy their formerly religious self; if they could push a button to get back their false belief and the happiness it caused, they would push it. But they do not think there is such a button.