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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Things We Cannot Get Wrong

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Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, and the Andromeda Strain, along with a bunch of other great books, and who, for my money, died too soon at the age of 66 from lymphoma, said many very astute things (and probably some dumb ones as well) and I’d like begin this post by relating something he said about the limits of expertise, what he labeled Gell-Mann Amnesia:


Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)


Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.


In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.


That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…


I have certainly experienced this effect and I imagine the rest of my readers have as well to one extent or another. Crichton’s larger point is about the danger of speculation, but for our purposes the key takeaway is that no matter how authoritative something sounds, there’s a better chance than you think of it being mostly wrong and it may, in fact, advance a point which is the exact opposite of the truth.


I bring this up because we appear to have an example of this happening, and in an area I’m very much interested in. Just recently a Detailed Critique of the “Existential Threats” chapter of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now was posted online. It was written by Phil Torres, a noted scholar of existential risk, and having spent several of the last few posts discussing the book, and in particular Pinker’s dismissal of existential threats (combined with my larger interest in that topic). This seemed right up my alley. The critique is quite long, so I’m mostly going to focus on areas where I have something to add, or where I disagree. In particular, though this may not be an addition or a disagreement, I want to emphasis, that of all the subjects Pinker discusses, the one he (and really all of humanity) can least afford to be wrong about is the subject of existential risk. We can survive if the murder rate is much higher than he thinks, or if we got it wrong on same sex marriage, we can even survive most of the predicted outcomes of climate change, but if we get existential risk wrong, nothing else we got right is ever going to matter.


The key findings of this critique are:


  • Two quotes being used by Pinker in the chapter are in the “wet streets cause rain”
    category (my words) in that, their original meaning is not what Pinker claims and ma
    in fact be “outright contradictory”.


  • The chapter spends most of its time attacking straw men.


  • Pinker’s citations are poorly vetted, and largely non-scholarly, but presented as scholarly.


  • And from those sources, Pinker ignores content which undercuts his arguments. Meaning
    the sources themselves are far more equivocal than Pinker represents.


  • Finally:


Overall, the assessment presented below leads me to conclude that it would be unfortunate if this chapter were to significantly shape the public and academic discussions surrounding “existential risks.” In the harshest terms, the chapter is guilty of misrepresenting ideas, cherry-picking data, misquoting sources, and ignoring contradictory evidence… Because, so far as I can tell, almost every paragraph of the chapter contains at least one misleading claim, problematic quote, false assertion, or selective presentation of the evidence.


Torres then goes on for an additional 20,000 words, and yet, in the end, Pinker’s errors are so dense, at least in this chapter, that he only manages to cover the first third of it. Obviously I have even less space available, so to start with I’d like to focus on the role of pessimism and religion. And to do that I need to identify some of the different groups in this debate.


Pinker opens the chapter by framing things as a battle between those who are entirely optimistic (like himself) and those who are entirely pessimistic. These are the first two categories. What’s interesting is that for all Pinker disparages religion, believers technically don’t fall into the category of those who are entirely pessimistic. To find people who are entirely pessimistic you have to look at people like the antinatalists, who I recently discussed or really hard-core environmentalists. Believers are optimistic about the future, particularly over a very long time horizon, they may just be pessimistic in the short term.


Torres takes immediate issue with framing the issue of existential risks in this fashion, and he points out that many of the people Pinker talks about are very optimistic about the future:


Pinker’s reference to “pessimists” is quite misleading. Many of the scholars who are the most concerned about existential risks are also pro-technology “transhumanists” and “techno-progressives”—in some cases, even Kurzweilian “singularitarians


In other words these people all firmly believe that a technological utopia is not only possible but likely. They just believe it’s even more likely if we can eliminate potential existential threats.


The fact that Pinker simplifies things in this fashion is emblematic of his entire approach to this subject. And frankly represents some pretty appalling shoddiness on his part, but that’s not the point I want to get at.


As I said I want to identify the various groups, so let’s get back to that.


As I pointed out, the first group is composed of the entirely or mostly optimistic, and I think it’s fair to put Pinker in this category. The group of people who believe that things have never been better and in all probability these improvements are going to continue. To put it in terms of my overarching theme, these are people who believe that technology and progress have definitely saved us.


Our second group is the entirely or mostly pessimistic. I already mentioned the antinatalists, but I would also include people who are convinced that the earth will be made uninhabitable by climate change, or that the holocene extinction could lead to some sort of global tipping point. Pinker puts people concerned with AI Risk and those concerned with the possibility that genetic engineering could make it easy to create superbugs in this category, though Torres argues he probably shouldn’t. That said, there are certainly people who believe that technology has definitely doomed us (and that there is no religious salvation around to mitigate this doom) it’s just not clear how large this group is.


As Torres points out in the quote above, there is a third group which contains those who experience a mix of optimism and pessimism. Those who feel that the future is incredibly promising, but caution must be exercised. They believe that technology can save us and hopefully will, but that if we’re not careful it could also doom us. Given that the majority of these people don’t expect any religious salvation you could see why they’re particularly worried about getting it right. For myself, despite not falling into this group it seems clearly superior to group one.


The fourth and final group also contains those who see reasons for both optimism and pessimism, but in this category the optimism is primarily based on faith in a divine being rather than being based on faith in technology and progress. Here, I imagine that Torres and Pinker might set aside their disagreements to declare this group the worst of all. Obviously I disagree with this. And before the end of this post I’ll get around to explaining why.


I suppose it’s not entirely accurate to label that last category as the final group, since there is, of course, the largest group of all: people who never really give much thought as to whether they should be optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Or rather, they may give some degree of thought to their own future, but very little to humanity's future. The big question is how much influence do they wield? Part of the reason why Pinker writes books and why Torres writes rebuttals, is that it’s hoped that the future will not be determined by this group, that it will be determined by people who have taken the time to read books like Enlightenment Now (and even better people who might have read rebuttals like Torres’) though that’s by no means certain. Still, I guess I too will make the same assumption as Pinker and Torres and say no more about this group.


Pinker wants to frame things as a battle between groups one and two, and while I agree that there is a group of hardcore technology pessimists, I don’t think they’re that large. Also, all (or at least the majority) of the people Pinker call out more accurately belong in group three. Which is another way of saying that this is a good example of the strawmanning Torres is complaining about.


If we set group two aside, both because it’s too small, and also because of its relative lack of influence then we end up with most of the attention being focused on the contest between groups one and three. As I said I think group three is clearly superior to group one, but it’s useful to spend a moment examining why this is.


The first big question is what are the risks? I mentioned that this is one thing I want to focus on, in fact it’s the point of the title. The risk of being wrong about existential hazards, are, from a certain perspective, infinite. If we make a mistake and overlook some risk which wipes out humanity, that’s basically an infinite risk, at least from the standpoint of humans. If you’re not comfortable with calling it an infinite risk, then it’s still an enormous risk as Torres points out:


...This is not an either/or situation—and this is why Pinker framing the issue as an intellectual battle between optimists and pessimists distorts the “debate” from the start.


(i) given the astronomical potential value of the future (literally trillions and trillions and trillions of humans living worthwhile lives throughout the universe), and (ii) the growing ability for humanity to destroy itself through error, terror, global coordination failures, and so on, (iii) it would be extremely imprudent not to have an ongoing public and academic discussion about the number and nature of existential hazards and the various mechanisms by which we could prevent such risks from occurring. That’s not pessimism! It’s realism combined with the virtues of wisdom and deep-future foresight.


This is the position of group 3, and as I said I think it’s pretty solid. The risks of not paying attention to existential hazards is enormous. On the other side what is the argument for group one? What are the risks of paying too much attention to existential hazards? Here’s Pinker explaining those risks:


But apocalyptic thinking has serious downsides. One is that false alarms to catastrophic risks can themselves be catastrophic. The nuclear arms race of the 1960s, for example, was set off by fears of a mythical “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by the uncertain but catastrophic possibility that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons and planning to use them against the United States. (As George W. Bush put it, “We cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”) And as we shall see, one of the reasons the great powers refuse to take the common-sense pledge that they won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons is that they want to reserve the right to use them against other supposed existential threats such as bioterror and cyberattacks. Sowing fear about hypothetical disasters, far from safeguarding the future of humanity, can endanger it.


Honestly this seems like a pretty weak argument. And Torres points out several problems with it, which I’ll briefly recap here:


  1. There’s a big difference between, for example, the warnings about AI provided by Elon
    Musk and Stephen Hawking and whatever it was Bush was doing.
  2. This overlooks all the times when people warned of catastrophe, and it turns out we should
    have listened. Exhibit 1 for this is always Hitler, but I’m sure I could come up with half a
    dozen others.
  3. This also overlooks times when warnings were acted upon, and the problem was fixed,
    sometimes so well that people now dismiss the idea that there was ever a problem in the
    first place. Pinker offers the Y2K bug as an example of techno-panic, and Torres goes to
    show it really wasn’t, I don’t have to time to get into that, but Pinker seems to assume that
    warnings of catastrophe are never appropriate and always bad, which is almost certainly
    not the case.


To this list I’ll point out that neither of his examples are particularly good.


  1. The Iraq War was bad, and in hindsight, almost certainly a mistake. But it wasn’t a
    catastrophe, certainly not compared with other potential catastrophes throughout history.
    Perhaps when considered only from the perspective of the Iraqis themselves, it might be,
    but I’m not sure even then.
  2. If the nuclear arms race had lead to World War III, then Pinker would certainly have a
    point, but it didn’t. However mistaken you think the arms race was, we avoided actual war.
    This despite the fact that many people were pushing for it. (I think the number of people
    who thought it might be okay went down as the numbers of nukes went up.) How sure are
    we really, that a world where the arms race never happened would be better than the
    world we currently have?


Pinker brings up other risks, which Torres covers as well, but none of them, when set in the balance, outweigh the colossal risks of potential existential hazards.


Before we move on there’s another argument Pinker makes that deserves to be mentioned. One of the key points which determines how risky technology has made things, is the ease with which an individual or a small group can use it to cause massive harm. Pinker claims that technology’s interconnectedness has made it harder. He makes this claim primarily based on the increase in the number of intersecting technologies, all of which would require separate areas of expertise in order for an individual to cause any harm. He concludes that this makes harm less likely than in the past, and that we have been mislead in this respect by the hollywood image of a loan genius. That, rather, it would take a whole “team of scientists” and that maybe they wouldn’t be able to do it either.


This certainly doesn’t match my experience of things, and Torres take serious issue with it as well and goes on to provide nine counter-examples of small groups either causing massive harm or having done all of the work necessary to cause massive harm but stopping in advance of any actual harm. If you read nothing else from the original paper, I would at least review these nine examples. (They start on page 31 and go through page 33.) They’re quite chilling.


The overall feeling I came away with after reading Pinker’s chapter on existential risks, a feeling Torres appears to share, is that Pinker thinks that people who are pessimistic about technology aren’t acting in good faith to prevent some disaster, but rather they’re doing it as part of some strange intellectual exercise, a weird game perhaps. Here’s an example of Pinker expressing this sentiment:


The sentinels for the [old] horsemen [famine, war, etc.] tended to be romantics and Luddites. But those who warn of the [new] higher-tech dangers are often scientists and technologists who have deployed their ingenuity to identify ever more ways in which the world will soon end.


Torres joins me in thinking that this makes it sound like people who are concerned with existential risk, are: “devising new doomsday scenarios [as] a hobby: something done for the fun of it, for its own sake.” and goes on to state, “That’s not the case.” So far Torres and I are in agreement, but I would venture to say that Torres makes a similar claim about people who are worried about some sort of apocalypse for religious reasons, and in a couple of places in his paper he goes out of his way to put as much distance as possible between his worries about existential risk and the apocalyptic worries of traditional religions. And here’s where we finally turn to group four: the religious pessimists (who nevertheless hope for divine salvation).


I’m not an expert on the status of apocalyptic beliefs among all the world’s religions, but I get the impression that it’s pretty widespread. Certainly it’s a major element Christianity, the religion I am the most familiar with, but regardless of how widespread it is, Torres wants to make sure that his worries about existential risk are not lumped in with the apocalyptic concerns of the religious.


The question is why? Why are the religious fears of an apocalypse different than the fears Torres is defending? Torres takes objection to the idea that researchers in existential risk, are “devising new doomsday scenarios [as] a hobby” but where does he suppose that religious apocalyptic fears come from? Is he copying Pinker now, and assuming that this was the hobby of early Christians? Something to spend their free-time on while undergoing persecution and attempting to spread the gospel?


I suppose that’s possible. That if it was, not exactly a hobby, that it at least, served no useful purpose, that it was just pointless baggage which for some reason accumulated within Christianity and did nothing for either the religion in which these ideas accumulated or for the followers of that religion. As I said, this is possible, but it seems unlikely.


Another possibility is the Talebian possibility, that there was something in these beliefs which made those who held them less fragile. It’s not hard to imagine how this could be the case, if apocalyptic beliefs led those who held them to be more prepared for eventual (and historically inevitable) disaster, then it’s easy to see where those beliefs came from and how they might have persisted. This possibility would appear to make a lot more sense than the first possibility.


Of course there’s one final possibility, that there is in fact a religious apocalypse on it’s way, and John of Patmos was actually warning us of something real. But if you reject this possibility, as I assume Torres does, then the second possibility still makes a lot more sense than the first. Which is to say, that it could be argued that it’s a huge support for Torres’ point.


The central argument between Torres and Pinker boils down to a question of whether it’s a net negative to worry about future apocalypses (Pinker’s view) or whether it’s a net positive (Torres’ view). To which I would argue that historical evidence suggests that it’s definitely a net positive, because that’s basically what people have been doing for thousands of years, and it’s safest to assume that they had a reason for doing it. Particularly given the fact that, as I’ve been saying, this is one of those things we cannot get wrong.


In closing I have two final thoughts. First, I think one of the benefits of bringing religion into the discussion, is that it allows us to tap into thousands of years worth of experience. Contrast this with Pinker (and to a lesser extent Torres), who are arguing about a world that has only existed for the last few decades. It’s really difficult to know if we’ve recently reached some new plateau where existential risk is so low that worrying about it causes more harm than good. But if you bring in religion and tradition more broadly the answer to the question is, “probably not”. We probably haven’t reached some new plateau. There probably is reason for concern. The last 70 or so years are probably an anomaly.


Second, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Torres ends his paper by referencing The Great Silence, which is another name for Fermi’s Paradox, and points out, as I have on many occasions, that if we don’t have to worry about existential risk, then where is everyone else? Sure, we all agree that there are lots of potential explanations for the silence, but one of them, to which we have no counterfactual, is that Pinker is horribly, fantastically wrong, and that technology introduces a level of fragility which will ultimately and inevitably lead to our extinction, or in any case will be inadequate to save us.






If you think there’s some point to religion, consider donating. If you think there’s some point to being worried about existential risk, consider donating. If you think Pinker could use more humility consider donating. And finally if you think it’s a tragedy that the Netherlands is not in the World Cup, consider donating. Because it is...

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Crime in 2018 (Or Why Are There so Many Homeless People?)

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Last week I decided to order some pizza for the family to eat while we watched Touching the Void. Before going any further I should say that Touching the Void is far and away my favorite documentary, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, though there is a significant amount of swearing, albeit in contexts where swearing is entirely appropriate. In any case the pizza…


I ordered pizza from Papa John’s (not sure in this day and age if that’s important or not.) When it arrived I took the pizzas from the delivery driver and handed them to my son. From there he handed me the credit card slip so that I could sign it. As I was signing it I noticed that a car had pulled up next to the car of the delivery driver (who had parked across the end of my driveway). I didn’t think much of it, there was another car parked across the street and I assumed the recently arrived car was just squeezing in between the two before parking in the driveway across from me.


When I next glanced up the car of the delivery driver was in motion, at which point I figured something weird had to be happening and I said, motioning towards the car, “What the heck is happening there!” The delivery driver turned and said something along the lines of “Hey bro! Don’t steal my car!” and began running after him. A second earlier and he might have got in front of him because the thief had to turn the car around to get out of my neighborhood, but by the time I pointed it out the thief had already backed into my driveway and from there he roared off. (I wonder what would have happened if I’d paid with cash? Maybe the delivery guy could have stopped it, or maybe he just would have gotten run over?)


I assume the delivery driver left his keys in the car or left it running, I honestly don’t remember if it was the latter. He also left his phone in the car, along with another order of pizzas he was supposed to deliver after mine. Anyway, I lent him my phone and he called the police. He unfortunately couldn’t remember his license plate number, and I assume one of the first things the thief did was take off the Papa John’s topper, since if he had left that on he would have been pretty easy to catch.


A police officer showed up pretty quickly, fast enough that the driver was still on the phone with Papa John’s explaining to them that they were going to have to make some more pizzas. But once he got off the call and gave me my phone back the policeman told me I was good and I went back inside to eat. I’m a little bit annoyed that I’m not in the loop on things. I’d like to know how it ends up getting resolved, though I’ll definitely be asking the next Papa John’s driver who shows up about it. (Assuming they don’t put me on some kind of blacklist.)


In any event all of this got me to wondering about the state of crime and other social indicators, like the number of homeless people. This particular crime seemed fairly brazen and unusual, and also the delivery driver assured me that he had been doing pizza delivery for a long time (though to be fair he looked like he was at most in his late 20s) and had never heard of this sort of thing happening. And one assumes that if he had, he wouldn’t have left himself in a position for it to happen to him. I had certainly never heard of it happening, nor do I know anyone who’s even had their car stolen, period, that I can think of, at least not anyone I know well.


In other words you have an unusually brazen crime, happening right in front of my house. Is it just an exceptionally rare thing that I just happened to witness by chance? Or is it part of some larger trend of increasing lawlessness. You probably already know where my biases lay: towards it being part of some larger trend. And, of course being biased, I immediately started looking for something else that might be an example of that trend. The thing that immediately came to mind was homelessness. Which seems to be getting worse and worse despite the New York Times apparently running out of words to describe how good the jobs numbers are.


Most of the time when I start one of these posts I have a pretty good idea of what my conclusion is. Either because I’ve already come across some piece of evidence which represents a smoking gun, or I have some point of my own that I’m hoping to arrive at. That is not the case with this post. Having just read Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I’m predisposed to think that crime, like most things has been getting better. (I’m guessing that the hapless delivery driver would disagree with me.) Is crime getting better along with everything else? If so, then what’s up with the increasing number of homeless people? And shouldn’t homelessness and crime track pretty closely? These are the questions I’m setting out to answer, and at the moment I’m not sure how it’s going to fall.


Speaking of Pinker, I thought I might as well start with him, and I would have thought that among his 75 figures that there would be one on the decrease in crime, though I had no specific memory of one. And it turns out the reason that I have no specific memory of one is because he didn’t include one. He covers murder, but he doesn’t get into property crime. In fact there is no entry for crime in the index at all. I’m not sure if I should be surprised by this or not. The graphs one does find in this area definitely show a decrease in all sorts of property crime, though since Pinker likes to credit “enlightenment values” with the decrease I think he prefers to be able to show that the decrease started at around the time of the enlightenment. As such many of his graphs start in the 1700 and 1800’s, with some going back much further (with one graph on GDP going all the way back to 1 AD).


Of course not all of the things he wants to talk about have data available going that far back so oftentimes his graphs start much later, but only because he doesn’t have the data to go back any further. In this case he has the data, but it doesn’t show the nice smooth downward slope of most of his charts, a chart of property crimes starts off really low in 1960, then rises steadily before reaching and staying at a peak through the 80’s and then starting to decrease around 1990, though even after a decrease of over two and a half decades things are still not to the level they were in 1960. In other words, this graph does not quite fit the narrative Pinker is going for in his book, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he didn’t include it.


Besides not fitting his narrative, one additional reason for not including it might be that no one is entirely sure why crime has been falling since 1990. Certainly Pinker can’t easily map “enlightenment values” to this data as an explanation, though that may be only explanation that hasn’t been offered. Vox.com ran an article listing 16 possible reasons for the decline in crime everything from an aging population, to video games, to abortion, and lead are suggested. I know that lead has been a favorite of many people, though just recently someone pointed out that despite horrible lead pollution in Eastern Europe under communism there appears to be no evidence of increased criminality there.


In any case, whatever the cause for the decrease in crime, the graph doesn’t fit Pinker’s narrative, but it also doesn’t fit my narrative very well either. I find no evidence that there has been a recent surge in car thefts, Car thefts have in fact been falling, though at this point it’s important to talk about the role of technology in preventing car thefts. Cars are, in general, much more difficult to steal these days than they have been in the past. With stuff like locking steering wheels, immobilizers, GPS tracking, and similar, the only way they were able to steal the delivery drivers’ car is that they had the keys. So technology has made car theft much more difficult, but that may have nothing to do with the “base rate” of criminality in society.


Okay, so it appears, despite the dramatic nature of my own experience, that there hasn’t been any increase in property crimes, or car theft. Which takes us to the next questions, has there been an increase in the number of homeless people and if so why has there been no corresponding increase in the amount of crime?


Here again, I’ll once again start out by describing my own experience. My memory is that homeless individuals and panhandlers in general were pretty rare when I was growing up. In 2000 I moved into my current house, and I don’t remember seeing any homeless panhandlers in the area, that is until the financial crisis of 2007-2008, at which point I started seeing them everywhere, especially on a particular corner near my house. My initial assumption was that the sudden increase was due to the housing crisis and the economy cratering. This would make sense of course, if unemployment shoots up and people find themselves suddenly unable to make their mortgage payments, then it’s only to be expected that the number of homeless would increase. But when the economy improved, there didn’t appear to be any corresponding decrease in the number of homeless. Just this month the current period of economic expansion hit nine years, and on top of that I recently saw that the number of job openings exceeds the number of people looking for employment for the first time since 2000. And yet, despite all this, there appear to be as many homeless people and panhandlers as ever, if not more. Why is that?


Of course the first step is to see if my observations match reality. It’s entirely possible that I’m just suffering from confirmation bias, that I’ve developed this theory of an increase in the number of homeless people and consequently I pay particular attention to them. Or maybe Salt Lake City just has it especially bad for some reason. Obviously we need some hard numbers, but as it turns out even when we look at the data the picture is mixed.


First up we have a report from HUD which says that the number of homeless, after falling from 650,000 in 2007 to 550,000 in 2016, rose for the first time in 2017. (Good summary here from BBC.) And apparently much of the gain is in LA because a booming economy has increased the cost of housing. Unfortunately the numbers only go back to 2007, so it’s impossible to say if the numbers are still historically high, or if we’re back to the level of homelessness which existed in say the mid 90s…


On the other side there are reports of homelessness increasing among children and students. We could certainly reconcile the decrease mentioned above with these numbers, but only by assuming that children and students are becoming a greater percentage of the total homeless population, while the number of homeless adults is declining, which isn’t exactly great news.


New York City appears to have the best data on homelessness of any source and here the situation is unambiguous. The rate of homelessness in New York is skyrocketing. There were 12,000 homeless people in NYC in 1984 and now there’s 63,000. Five times as many, even though 1984 was in the middle of New York’s crime and murder epidemic. Additionally much of that increase has come just since 2012, when we were already three years into the recovery. Now of course when speaking of New York (or anywhere really) you can have an argument about to what extent the leadership at the time was responsible. Many people feel that Bloomberg was horrible for the homeless and De Blasio has done much better. But you’re still looking at a huge increase in the numbers no matter how you slice it.


Moving farther afield there are numerous stories about the increasing problems with homelessness from all over the country:

Starting in my own backyard, we have conflicting reports:

Here’s an article saying that Salt Lake City has reached a critical mass of homeless people and wonders how we got into this state. This was written in 2016.

Here’s another article written 10 months before the first one, claiming that SLC had reduced the population of the chronically homeless by 91 percent. (Certainly that’s not my impression, though the chronically homeless are only 20% of total homeless.)

Then we turn to an article about Anchorage’s homeless problem. One feels like Anchorage could just buy all their homeless people a bus ticket,
and have that problem solved, who wants to be homeless in Alaska, particularly in the winter?


Next, here’s an article from just this week about a neighborhood in Las Vegas that’s overrun by homeless people, despite numerous attempts
to deal with the problem.


Speaking of stories from this week I found the following stories about Seattle. First Seattle voters are fed up with homeless spending,
homelessness in Seattle is increasing and it has reached a horrific tipping point. Perhaps voters are fed up with spending because it doesn’t appear
to be doing anything to solve the problem?


Finally there’s the situation in LA. The report I mentioned earlier, about homelessness increasing for the first time in 2017, placed much of the
blame on LA. The number of homeless in LA jumped a
staggering 23% in just the last year, and this is despite billions in taxes which have
been earmarked to fight the problem.

After working through all of the above, it would appear that the only real outlier to a picture of increasing homelessness is the HUD report, and even it shows a recent uptick. What would have been really useful is if their data went back farther than 2007. Is the 2016 number of 550,000 still really high from a historical perspective, or is that number actually as low as it has ever been? If so homelessness should be added to Steven Pinker’s list of things that are perpetually improving, but all of the other evidence suggests that this is probably not the case. That whatever else can be said about the number of homeless people in 2016, one can not say that it represents some sort of historical nadir.

This seems particularly borne out by the NYC data, which has the advantage of going all the way back to the end of 1984. Having this additional historic data, allows us to see not only that the current rate is five time the rate back then, but also that the “Great Recession” didn’t seem to have much of an effect on homeless rates. That rather than going up during that time and then falling back down once the economy improve that instead, homeless rates, for some reason have skyrocketed during the last few years even though the economy has been expanding.

Pulling this all together it appears that it’s going to be difficult to say what the true number of homeless people is, and whether that number has recently increased slightly, increased dramatically, or decreased slightly (I see no reason to believe it’s decreased dramatically). That said, it does seem safe to conclude that it’s extremely high. Certainly higher than it’s been for many decades. (I could certainly imagine that it was higher during the Great Depression.) And this is all happening during a time with very low unemployment, an expanding economy, and presumably, more money being spent directly on the problem than at any point in history (and this does include the Great Depression.) How do we explain this apparent paradox?

Honestly I don’t know. Though I can certainly speculate. Here are some possibilities:

Maybe homelessness is inversely correlated with the economy. Homelessness isn’t bad in spite of a good economy it’s bad because of a good economy. As I mentioned with respect to LA, some people think that this is the problem. That robust economic growth has increased the cost of housing. So, perhaps homelessness always increases when the economy is booming because “homes” are more expensive. Certainly this could be a contributing factor, but if you look at the New York numbers, I don’t see any obvious correlation between, for instance, the annual increase in GDP and the homelessness rate.

Alternatively, perhaps this is just the far left end of the advancing spread in inequality. That, yes the economy is doing well, and there are lots of job openings, but that most of the economic gains and most of the jobs have gone to the top 5% and things just keep getting worse for the bottom 5%, which is reflected by the increase in the number of homeless people. That not only are the poor getting poorer, but also, despite more jobs than job seekers, there are no entry level jobs. There is some marginal evidence for a decline in entry level jobs, but as far as I can tell McDonald’s is almost always hiring. At least in my neck of the woods.

Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the opiate crisis. Perhaps the increase in the homeless rate is just an increase in the number of people who are addicted to heroin or meth and consequently can’t hold down a job. Once again I’m sure it’s a factor, but I’m also not sure how big of a factor it is. This page claims that only 26% of homeless people abuse a drug other than alcohol. (To be honest that sounds low.) If the number of homeless people had only increased by 26% over the last few years and previously no homeless people were addicted to drugs other than alcohol, then this might make sense, but neither of those things are very likely to be true. The homeless rate in NYC more than doubled from 2006 to today, and I’m reasonably certain that the homeless have have been abusing drugs as long as there have been drugs and homeless people.

Finally, it may just be that people don’t have the support structure they used to. Families are smaller, single mothers are more common. All of this means that there are fewer people to catch you “on the way down.” I saw this process play out with my college roommate. He had bad health and couldn’t keep a job. This was unfortunate, but on top of that he was an orphan with no siblings. He stayed with some friends for awhile, and he stayed with his uncle for awhile, he even got the Mormon Church to pay for his apartment for a while (despite not being Mormon). Somewhat tragically, he actually died of alcoholic hepatitis before actually becoming homeless, but my guess is that at that point it was only a few months away, and even if it had taken longer, I think he surely would have eventually ended up homeless if he hadn’t died. I think if his parents had still been alive, or if he had had any brothers and sisters, the story would have been quite a bit different.

To conclude, I’ll repeat again, I don’t know why homelessness is so high despite an economy that by all appearances is doing great. Of the four things I mentioned, I suspect that inequality, the opiate crisis, and lack of support all contribute, but I don’t think they’re sufficient. Also I’m going to say it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the strength of the economy and high housing costs. And I’m willing to predict that if the economy does start tanking, that the situation will only get much worse.



I am not in any danger of becoming homeless, but if you want to help me avoid that danger anyway, no matter how tiny it is, consider donating.