What Speaks Silence?

I joined 23 economists more distinguished than I to make a joint statement in support of legalizing certain kinds of prediction markets.   Freakonomics author Steven Levitt explains why he didn’t sign:

I never sign any letter of this kind. … If you sign one them, it becomes harder to say no to [others] … I didn’t think the letter went far enough. It attempts to draw a sharp distinction between prediction markets created by academics for research and other kinds of markets. A subtle implication of that distinction is that the government has some legitimate role in restricting access to prediction/gambling markets more generally.

I replied:

Signing a statement in favor of legalizing A, when both A and B are now illegal, does not mean that one favors keeping B illegal. Not every statement can or should address every issue.

Fear of meta-signals clearly adds noise to such signals.  Perhaps we need a website full of statements which we can each browse at our leisure to choose the ones we will publicly endorse or oppose. 

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Or allow people to add a public caveat/clarification to an petition, somewhere online (a short sentence or three). It also gives them more of an inpression of participating, and might make them more willing to sign these things (also a bias, but probably making the signal more reliable, on balance).

    Incidentaly,

    I never sign any letter of this kind. … If you sign one them, it becomes harder to say no to [others]

    is an example of future self paternalism – “I won’t have the will power later to turn down a letter from a friend just on merits, so I have to build up an excuse now.”

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Perhaps we need a website full of statements which we can each browse at our leisure to choose the ones we will publicly endorse or oppose.

    That would be superbe, if it could be implemented – and if it kept track of past opinions, it would provide insights into why and when people change their opinions (caveated by all those things about “in the public eye”, etc…).

    Anyone interested in building this website for real? I’m willing to work at it.

  • eddie

    I too support legalizing those certain kinds of prediction markets, but oddly enough nobody asked me to sign the letter.

    That merely shows that the letter is not simply an opportunity for individuals to register certain subsets of their preferences. It is an act of political marketing, an effort to sway public opinion and legislation. If it were the former, then Levitt could very rationally sign the letter, and perhaps put up a note on his website explaining that not only does he support what the letter advocates but in fact has many other opinions as well which don’t strictly speaking in any way conflict with those in the letter. And the letter would be posted someplace where anyone who wanted to could register their endorsement – or for that matter, their disagreement.

    But since it is in fact a piece of marketing, not only are the signatories restricted to notable economists (considerably more notable than me, for example), it’s also quite rational for Levitt to believe that his signing the letter will make it less likely, not more likely, that his preferred policy choice will ever come to pass. “If this letter is taken seriously, then the discussion will remain centered on academic prediction markets rather than the proper role of government, and some people who might eventually have been persuaded that gambling should be legalized will never be exposed to the requisite persuasion.”

    In matters of politics, silence speaks very loudly. It says “You have my consent to do as you wish.” Perhaps Levitt would rather not contribute scarce political resources to speaking up about prediction markets while staying silent about online poker.

  • Tom

    “Perhaps we need a website full of statements which we can each browse at our leisure to choose the ones we will publicly endorse or oppose.”

    This is an excellent idea. You could keep all of your opinions in one place and paste a link to your profile whenever it was needed. Also, imgine all the data you could harvest about people’s preferences and how they change over time, espiecally if you included social networking tools to see how individuals were linked.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I don’t think Levitt was engaging in future self paternalism–he was protecting himself from being nagged.

    It might not work–even giving an interesting answer might be an incentive for more requests.

  • http://fieldandgarden.blogspot.com/ serapio

    “Perhaps we need a website full of statements which we can each browse at our leisure to choose the ones we will publicly endorse or oppose.”

    You mean like Jyte?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Serapio, Jyte looks like a start, though it wasn’t seeded very well for my purpose.

  • Ian Stuart

    I propose an alternate, or possibly supplementary suggestion. I would like to see an overcoming bias version of an argument diagramming website. Something like what Argunet has done here http://www.denkartist.de/argunet/ (Select the Climate Policy debate in the upper left and then view the entire debate in the drop-down to the right.)

    I see this as providing a means to revisit an old debate more easily while limiting the rehash of already exhausted points. It also alleviates some of the problems with using plain English for debates as it visually clarifies exactly which premise is being attacked and for what reasons.

    Argunet is promising an open source version release this month, but perhaps something already exists.

  • http://www.optimizelife.com Gustavo Lacerda

    Shameless self-plug, specifying what such a system should be:
    http://optimizelife.com/wiki/TrustOPedia