Framing Beeminder goals as Pigouvian taxes

Danny’s recent blog post, “Beeminder As Your Personal Pigouvian Tax” isn’t a new idea around here, but today for some reason it really resonated with me!

I had two thoughts about my goals, from this PoV:

  1. It made me ask myself: what negative externality on my future-self am I trying to avoid with this goal? Does that framing work? For example, for my chess practice goal, it’s the externality of my future self still being bad at chess. For my gym goal, it’s the externality of poor health in old age.
  2. The second thought was: Does this actually mean I should be happy to move to “no excuses” for these goals? I think it moves me a lot closer! Even if (say) I was injured so couldn’t do my gym goals, I am still incurring the negative externality on my future self - it may be the reason I couldn’t do the gym, but it should still be taxed under this logic. The only exception would be “I did it, but I forgot/was unable to enter the datapoint”. Then - under this logic - I shouldn’t be taxed.

So my question for anyone else interested is maybe: where does this framing of goals as a tax to steer away from a negative externality not hold, in your goals? Where is it particularly weak?


I think there’s a couple of cases where it falls down for me and doesn’t convince me emotionally (not really talking about logic here). The biggie is my reading goals.

There are basically two scenarios where I don’t do my reading goals:

  1. I’m generally overscheduled and overwhelmed, e.g. it’s raid night but also I need to do the chores and also there was a sudden work thing that took loads of time. I could still read, but instead I pick the other options because those are the ones where other people depend on it, or that’s a healthier living environment, or whatever. In that case, I’ve sacrificed some of my longer-term well-being by doing something that increases my stress, and that’s my own choice. A “tax” on this choice makes sense: it has a purpose, it provides another stimulus to reduce my future stress.
  2. I physically cannot – with the most salient example recently being the injury to my eye. In this case, there’s no volition here, and the fact that I can’t complete the goal is itself stressful. It feels bad to me that I then get an additional stress in the form of a tax for not working to reduce my future stress. I couldn’t! The way to reduce my current and future stress is to take a darn minute.

I think my issue with these goals (and a couple of my others) is that they’re a proxy for reducing my stress levels (in short and long term). Reading today is about reducing my stress today, reading every day is about reducing my stress permanently through making it a habit to make the time, and through the cumulative lower stress of having made time for myself each day. Viewed from that angle, the short and long-term aims of the goal kind of go into conflict when situation #2 arises: my short-term stress would be alleviated by just accepting that I can’t do it, calling non-legit, and getting a break. The long-term need there is still served by getting charged anyway, but that isn’t as salient as my feelings of overwhelm in the moment. Which I think is probably a reasonable argument that I should still be charged in situation #2, but darn it, it feels bad.

My line is usually drawn around when I’ve made a choice. I could’ve done the thing, and I chose not to, even if that choice was made under some constraints. I can see the value of “it doesn’t matter why the thing didn’t get done, you need to externalise the consequences of the thing not getting done” – but sometimes the situation itself is consequence enough to make that clear, and anything else feels like overload.

I suppose a further concern for me is when the situation means that lots of goals would derail, as in that very salient example of my eye injury. I’d probably have been okay with paying one of those derailments, in return for Beeminder hitting an “oh shit!” button and preventing the others from inevitably following… Like in the example of the injury, if I’d let the first goal derail, and then asked for breaks on the others. I’d have gone along with that quite happily, I think. So I guess it’s not so much that I totally mind being charged in that situation, it’s just there’s a point beyond which the charge feels useful.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot here and probably still not hit the target I was trying to hit, but it’s been useful to write it down and puzzle about it!

Bottom line is, I don’t know what I’ll decide in future for my goals, but I’d say that I’ve been swayed somewhat toward accepting charges more often than I was.


Ah, thanks so much, you two! First, to @clivemeister’s point, forgetting to enter data does feel different. In no-excuses mode you’d pay for the derailment in that case but maybe there wants to be an intermediate “taxing mode” where you always pay for crossing the bright red line, whatever the reason, but only if the actual data crossed the line.

I also like @shanaqui’s distinction of physically having a choice or not.

Could it possibly make sense to turn the current binary no-excuses mode yes/no into a spectrum?

  1. Strictly Punishment. A more human-powered Beeminder where you’re free to discuss every derailment and only pay when condign.
  2. Traditional partially human-powered Beeminder where we have rules of thumb about leaning on support sparingly.
  3. Limited-Excuses Mode. Strict fine print with only a force majeure clause?
  4. Taxing Quantified Self. No excuses except for forgetting to enter data.
  5. Strict No-Excuses Mode.

I’m not sure we actually want to add more tiers or more complexity but maybe something like this helps clarify what we’re aiming for or what use cases we want to focus on.


@dreev that’s a good framing, I think! After this discussion I’m leaning more towards #4, Taxing the Quantified Self. That wouldn’t allow for @shanaqui 's injury example, though, so how to deal with that? Anyway, it is perhaps not practical to impose this on Support, but it maybe should go in the fine print (or just my mental considerations before hitting the Reply button on the legit-check email).

I also need to think through whether all my goals would sit at the same place on this continuum. And if it would affect the pledge I’d select if I, say, select #4 for everything for elegance and lack of wiggle room.

PS: bonus points for the use of the word “condign”, which in British English I’ve only ever seen in jurisprudence to talk about if a punishment is fitting!


I thought the question of “what negative externality on my future-self am I trying to avoid with this goal?” was interesting and tried to write them down for all 30 of my goals. It was an interesting exercise!

This doesn’t cover quite everything but the major common features were:

  • a. it’ll stop me getting stressed
  • b. it puts me in the habit of doing a bit of something (nearly always with the intention that it’ll make it easier to do more of it later)
  • c. it’ll stop me wasting money
  • d. it’ll stop me from having an unfinished project (generally something that takes up excess mental or physical space)
  • e. it’ll stop me from being my best self

(Edited to add: I just realised I turned some of those into positives while summarising, the negatives were “get stressed” etc.)

It was also obvious that some goals operate on different time scales to others and that affects how I think of them:

  • short - if i derail on these the consequences pile up quickly in days/weeks
  • medium - if i derail on these the consequences aren’t immediate but start to be felt in weeks/months,
  • long - these are ones where derailing has little effect but keeping at them for months/years has benefits.

Some observations:

  • most short term goals are (a) “don’t get stressed” but some of the long term ones are too.

  • pretty much all the (e) “be your best self” goals are long term ones

  • the (e) “be your best self” feature the most ill-defined of the features above but might also be the most important to me - it’s inherent in every goal but a more obvious feature of some than others

  • some goals have confused intentions - e.g. am I concerned about the short-term problem of getting value out of a fitness subscription or the long-term problem of staying healthy as I get older?

  • I think I have my view of beeminder pretty much firmly in the “taxes not punishment” framing anyway but

    • derailing on a short term goal feels like the higher price you pay for consuming from the in room mini-bar rather than going down to the bar (or the grocery store)

    • derailing on a long term goal feels more like putting a purchase I can’t afford on a credit card and I’m going to pay extra interest for it in the end but for today-me it makes no difference.

    • an aside that I thought was irrelevant until I thought a bit more - both of the above analogies are things I avoid doing in real life but I have a much stronger aversion to the credit card scenario than the mini-bar one because I think today-me better understands the short term trade-off.

  • at the moment I have most of my goals at a flat $5 derailment charge which is enough to motivate me most of the time and not enough to make me stop beeminding lots of things or worrying about the fine print of why I derailed, I just pay up, but I think my conclusion here should be that I should make my short-term goals be taxed at a higher rate. For long term goals keeping the goal going is more important, for short term ones doing it today rather than tomorrow is generally the priority.

  • I don’t have no excuses mode switched on but I think I generally treat derailments as type 4 “Taxing Quantified Self. No excuses except for forgetting to enter data.”. I try to keep everything over the akrasia horizon in order that “injury mode” is already built in and I feel like I’d only want a get-out clause in case of something that prevented me from amending my beeminder goals to reflect reality. I guess that would be “coma mode”. I could take my 30 goals all derailing once but I’d hope beeminder would realise something was up at that point and stop charging me! (And I think that definitely falls in the “opposite of what your phone company would do”.)