Rationalising Asylum Laws

Our asylum laws are inefficient and harmful. We want to help people who are in desperate need, who risk being killed in their own countries. We cannot take in every person who needs help. We can only take in some number due to having limited space, money, ability to integrate new arrivals etc… Let’s say that number is X per year. Rationally, we should take in the X people who are most in need. Perhaps we would compose this with some other criteria like cultural fit, dessert (bad people deserve to be saved less than good people), risk of diplomatic damage, cost of supporting them (24 year old doctor = tax positive, 50 year old illiterate diabetic = tax negative) etc… Instead of allocating asylum spots to people based on these criteria, we allocate them based on ability to set foot in our borders. The moment someone sets foot in a western nations borders, they can claim asylum and spend at least a few year living in that nation until their claim is processed.  This is unjust for a number of reasons:

  • It privileges richer people who are more likely to successfully reach the west as they are better able to afford to pay smugglers, buy plane tickets, chart boats, support themselves on a long journey etc…
  • It privileges people who live closer to a western nation and can thus get to use more easily.
  • It privileges people who are more physically fit and don’t have young children as they can travel more easily.
  • It privileges people who access to have cars, planes or boats. A fisherman is more likely to gain asylum than a farmer.
  • It privileges people who have sufficient political connections enough to secure passage out of a closed country.

All of these criteria are morally irrelevant and should not affect a persons chance of gaining asylum. In the current system, they do. What more, many of these criteria are correlated with being better able to endure hardship/war. For example, being richer/politically well connected means being able to buy food/bribe officials/get exemption from the draft. Not having young children means being able to spend more of your meagre income on your own survival. By privileging these criteria, the current policy is also likely helping the people who are in less need than their poorer, sicker countrymen who could not make the journey.

Our current system also produces a plethora of perverse incentives which have bad consequences. It

  • Encourages human trafficking and black markets. These:
    • Further destabilise weak states in which they operate
    • Systematically abuse and prey on people who seek to migrate to the west
  • Encourages governments to manage refugee numbers through more indirect means than deportation. These other means are usually less effective and less just. For example:
    • Imposing harsh conditions on those who claim refugee status in the hope that they will break those conditions and can then be deported. For example, potential refugees in the UK not being allowed to work and having to survive on £50 a week of government handouts.
    • Making claiming refugee status a difficult and arduous legal process.
  • Encourages far greater numbers of people to try to gain refugee status than would ever be accepted as they know that setting foot in a country guarantee a few years of safety. This is bad as most refugees will spend time and resource and risk death on journeys which end with them being sent home.

Our current policy is unfair and harmful. Even worse, it’s inefficient. It should be changed.

Why only hire the best?


http://paulgraham.com/startupmistakes.html  (N. 6)


Every piece of startup advice I’ve read has said the same thing: don’t compromise on hiring. Only hire the best of the best. Hire people who are smart, get stuff done and are a good cultural fit. If you’re unsure about someone, pass. Etc… The more time I spend in the working world, the more I think this is true. Most of the articles I’ve seen fail to explain why hiring sub-par people is so bad. After all, they do the job and that’s enough, right? Here’s why:

  • Your employees recruit your future employees. Mediocre employees multiply over time.
  • Your employees determine your culture. Mediocre people make your culture worse. This is a global negative modifier to everyone in your firm.
  • Your employees, eventually and after enough promotions, determine your strategy. Mediocre people lead to bad strategy. Bad strategy sinks your business
  • People like to work with people like them. Have lots of mediocre employees and you’ll drive away smart people. Even worse, they’ll attract other mediocre people (see point 1)
  • Your employees decide who to promote. Bad people promote bad people.


context warning: this advice may well be highly specific to a certain economic niche/industry/knowledge workers. The further your business is from a high tech, knowledge intense startup, the less this advice, and my experience in general, is reliable.


It’s the evening. I’m home. It’s strange. I had a conversation after work today. They said they liked working as a contractor because it meant not needing to get involved in office politics. I asked what they meant by office politics. They said having drinks with people who you didn’t like so that you could get promoted. It scares me that this may be normal, something most people do. To me is seems manipulative, dishonest and weak. Lying is a betrayal of your principles. If your morals are worth so little to you that you’d trade them away for a promotion, you have no morals.

Counterpoint: You do. In a prisoners dilemma choosing to always cooperate ensures that the defector wins. Choosing to loose is not noble. Victimhood is not good. If everyone manipulates to get promotions and you don’t, you choose to allow the worse people to gain more power faster. Engaging in manipulation denies their comparative advantage. Punishing the unjust is just. Putting yourself in a position where you can do more good is just. Choosing to win is, in this case, just.

Counter-Counter point: It’s funny how the better you are at reasoning/arguing/telling stories, the more you can justify any conclusion. Is reason really a better guide to ethics then intuition? The above is wrong. You’re not a machine. You can’t decide on a case by case basis when to lie and cheat and steal and when not to. You’re an animal, hardwired to do what you need to to survive by millennia of evolution. There’s a monster in the back of your head and it wants you to do whatever you need to to win and pass on your genes. The strict moral rules we impose on ourselves are the bars of it’s cage. As are the system of incentives and disincentives we call a society. Explicit, clear rules are hard for the beast to trick you into crossing. If your moral rule is “never lie”, it’s fairly obvious when you do. If your rule is “only lie when doing so does more good than harm”, your ability to lie is only limited by the beasts ability to generate stories justifying that lie. Our perceptions are skewed by self-interest. Our minds have been honed by evolution into storytelling machines. Hence why in reality most good people have strict moral rules and most bad people have lax ones which allow a great deal of discretion.

Why Evernote won’t die

Evernote is interesting. It’s a bad product. It’s UI is both non-functional and ugly. It’s expensive and makes it difficult to cancel a subscription. It’s advertising is lacklustre and generic. I would expect it to have been wiped out. Instead, instead it has millions of users. Why? Maybe it’s because a monopoly position is difficult to upend? Problem is, it really doesn’t look like Evernote has a hard monopoly. It’s software. Barriers to entry are low, anyone can make a note-taking app, regulation is non-existent and there are no network effects or other enablers of natural monopoly which lock in customers or limit competition. Even the sunk costs of having your notes in Evernote isn’t really a sunk costs as notes can be transferred across platforms. Why then are there no good alternatives smashing Evernote into the ground? I think it’s because making a better Evernote is easy but making a much better Evernote is very, very hard and as Peter Thiel said, new products can’t be just a bit better than what’s out there, they have to be drastically better. Anything less and customers have too little incentive to switch. Anything less and your growth cure isn’t steep enough to overtake the big players before they wise up and eat you alive.

Pocket represents a revolutionary improvement on evernotes web-clipping feature and for the “save interesting articles to read later, share with friends and archive to look back on in years time” use case it’s a revolutionary improvement on Evernote. For the “Writing stuff down and organising it so that you can actually find it later” use case, Evernote’s competitors are better, but not better enough. Bear is good, but it’s fundamentally the same idea and flow with only UI tweaks setting it apart. Ditto for simpleNote and the like. I think a good note-taking app is a startup idea worth exploring further, especially given the size and stagnation of the market. I’m not sure entering a crowded market is a good thing but hey, neither is entering one where no one wants to be

A better solution to gender pronoun disagreement

Person A wants to be addressed by the pronoun Z and feels disrespected if they are not.

Person B want to address A by the pronoun Y and feels disrespected if forced to do otherwise.

When I wrote about David Mackereth, I said that resolving these kind of disagreements is very difficult. Giving it some more thought, I think it’s actually quite easy. There’s a means of addressing people which conflicts with neither Person A or Person B’s preferences: calling a person by their name. Instead of using the gender pronoun Y, person B can simply call A by their name.

It’s interesting how seemingly difficult problems often have obvious solutions.

Against the American Conservative, The Sun and The Daily Mail on David Mackereth

A refutation of:

The articles above assume that the DWP’s decision to deny David Mackereth employment was unjust and constitutes an unacceptable restriction of speech. I’m not so sure.

Some restrictions on speech are acceptable. Let’s say a hard right white nationalist who refuses to refer to black people by any other word than n***** applies to a government job that requires interacting with citizens. Few of us would have a problem with them being rejected on the grounds that civil servants must refer to people in a respectful manner. The principle at work here is that while the government should not deny a person a job on the basis of their beliefs, it can and should deny employment to people who are unable to do a job, regardless of whether their inability is down to their beliefs or some other reason. Just as denying a pacifist a position in a frontline military unit is acceptable, so the white nationalists inability to respectfully interact with black people makes them unable to do the job, justifying the decision to not employ them. It is a restriction of speech, but one that is justified as the intent is not to silence but to hire the best person for the job.

Moving to the case of David Mackereth, the first question is whether his inability to use a persons chosen gender pronouns renders him unable to do his job. This boils down to whether we expect government employees to use people’s preferred gender pronouns. That boils down to where we draw the line of what constitutes disrespect. That line is devilishly tricky to draw because it is heavily based on cultural norms as opposed to universal, rational moral principles. Act’s which may constitute an offence grave enough for murder in one culture mean nothing in another. That’s why I’m not going to try and directly argue whether or not using someone’s chosen pronoun is a reasonable expectation or requirement for respect. I don’t think that argument is necessarily possible to make, it may well be a matter of axiomatic intuitions, or can be made in a reasonable amount of time. Instead, I’ll try and present another case. How you feel about it should tell you a lot about how you should feel about the case of Dr Mackereth.

Lets say there’s transgender hard left activist who, believing that gender is an oppressive construct which should be destroyed, refuses to use people’s given pronouns and instead refers to everyone as “ze”. They apply for the same position in the DWP and are rejected because they refuse to refer to people by their chosen gender. Would this also constitute an unacceptable restriction on free speech? There are three positions you can take

  1. Civil servants should refer to anyone however they want (Both Dr Mackereth and the activist can get a job)
  2. Civil servants should be required to refer to people by their chosen pronoun (Neither Dr Mackereth nor the activist can get a job)
  3. Civil servants should refer to strigh/cisgender people by their chosen pronoun, but have no obligation to refer to non-cisgender people by their chosen pronoun. (Dr Mackereth can get a job, the activist cannot)

If you believe 1 or 2, your beliefs are consistent and, while I may disagree with them, they are not in my eyes immoral.  If you believe 3, which I assume is the position these publications would take, I think there’s a burden you have to meet to justify the double standard. I don’t think these articles, nor any other I’ve seen, have attempted to do so.

Obvious improvements #1: The state, not firms, should pay for maternity leave

Image result for crying baby

In the status quo, employers have to give maternity leave. They also have to pay workers while they are on leave. The latter is bad.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women. Losing a worker for months is already costly. Having to pay them while they’re away is even more costly.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers unequally. In a just society, we all have an equal responsibility to support those who deserve help. Maternity pay disproportionately and unfairly falls on employers more likely to employ young women. This allocation is unjust.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave unequally. In a just society, all women would have the same allowance for maternity leave. In an employer funded system, women on maternity leave who’s employers go bankrupt loose their pay. This is morally arbitrary and unfair.

Full government funding is a better alternative.

  • It disincentivises hiring young women less. Employers still risk loosing a worker for months, but no longer have to pay them during the absence.
  • It allocates the burden of supporting young mothers equally. Tax is paid by all employers equally. A tax funded system of maternity pay ensures all employers share the burden of supporting young mothers equally.
  • It allocates the benefits of maternity leave equally. As long as the state is solvent, all mothers get their maternity pay regardless of the financial solvency of their employers.