The People’s Romance

Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way. Daniele Vare

I recently heard several presentations on the ethics of using computers to do things previously done by humans. Across many diverse examples, the method stayed the same: imagine specific scenarios in which bad things might happen with a computer in charge, and then declare “more controls are needed.” There were no attempts to determine if harmful scenarios were common or rare, or how often similar harmful scenarios happen when people instead do things.

Regarding firms having incentives to institute controls for such risks, most said we can’t trust firms because they are loyal to shareholders not us. But these same folks seemed happy if any government had controls, not just their own government, even though other governments were not loyal to them. Apparently they considered most governments more trustworthy than most firms.

It happened that the main audience for these presentations was diplomats and spies, and I realized that diplomats seem to most folks the most respected profession of liars and deceivers. To the extent that we think of salesmen, politicians, executives, ad-men, pickup artists, etc. as deceivers, we tend to think of them as bad. But diplomats (and even spies) seem to be widely considered good respectable people, even when they represent foreign nations.

Both of these seem to me examples of what Dan Klein calls the People’s Romance – where governments and the things they do and the people who help them do them are generally considered more legitimate and respectable.

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  • James Babcock

    It’s not who a corporation or government is loyal to that matters, but what those peoples’ interests are, and how strongly correlated they are with our own. Our interests are much more strongly correlated with other countries’ voters than they are with a typical corporation’s shareholders.

    The reason for this is that shareholder interest is concentrated enough for the corporation to play zero- and negative-sum games against the public as a whole, and have it be in the shareholders’ interests, while on the other hand voters are a diffuse enough group that politicians usually can’t do things that are bad for us without them also being bad for their constituents.

    • Buck Farmer

      Numerous governments behave with little direct regard to their citizenry. We generally respect diplomats from these countries (unless we see the posts as nepotistic sinecures or gave low respect for the country).

      I’d say this has to do with three factors:
      1. Governments in foreign policy are prestigious…Hadrian had to earn his chops by conquering Britain. Governments in domestic policy are not prestigious. I think they are seen as advocating for us in foreign but not domestic affairs.
      2. Corporate sales are seen as trying to win a larger share of the surplus. We think we would buy what we want / need even if sales wasn’t around. They can only get paid by reducing our surplus.
      3. Historically, diplomats and spies were drawn from societies elite. In the Middle Ages diplomats were the moat educated and talented individuals of a court since there was no long-distance communication. Until recently aristocrats served as diplomats since they were already connected to people in power.

  • Lord

    Governments are generally much longer lived and have reputations. Respect them or not, they are fairly predictable. Firms can change with leadership or with circumstance and wil not necessarily be around or behave the same tomorrow.

  • I sort of like the People’s Romance, but in a sense it is laboriously discovering the obvious. Yes, government is a kind of Schelling point with special status and privileges. That is pretty much built into the definition of what a government is. Most obviously, government operatives have license to employ violence that ordinary people don’t, and concomitantly they have something called “authority” that other people don’t — this may be what underlies your observation about diplomats.

    One may think this is a good or bad thing, but mostly it just seems to be a fundamental aspect of how human societies work. Anarchist proposals to dispense with such centralized repositories of power and authority have not been very successful or convincing.

  • Doug

    Hence the demonization of high-frequency trading. For some reason people think computer programs collecting less than a tenth of a cent on automated trades is an outrage and national emergency, yet the previous system of a monopolistic old-boys network of floor traders screaming at each other in floor pits and ripping their clients off for more $0.25 each trade was the “golden age of trading.”

    • anonymous

      Goldman front running trades isn’t fraud? Cheating their own customers is not an outrage? That is occurs with fancier tech makes it a-ok?

      • No, what makes it ok is that Goldman is really really rich, so whatever they do is ok because everyone wants to be just like them. Their customers put up with it because they want to get away with cheating when they are really really rich too. That is the whole point of being rich, you get away with stuff that poor people can’t get away with.

        It is loyalty to the system that lets people who are really really rich get away with stuff that is driving this.

      • Doug

        Goldman front running trades has nothing to do with automated execution. Everyone knows that the cash equity desks at major brokers are the biggest front runners out there. They recruit institutional equity flow pegged to things like the close, then disclose it to their clients in exchange for fat commissions.

        Algo desks in contrast charge razor thin commissions and don’t front run because 1) their customers are much more sophisticated than the cash desks, and 2) unlike doing it over the phone there’s a lot more legal liability when you put the activity in a code base.

        Besides Goldman’s involvement in HFT is only a trivial part of the market. The largest high frequency firms, Renaissance, GETCO, Towers Research, etc. have little to no customer flow. Their activities pale whatever the bulge bracket banks are doing.

        Does anyone, journalists, politicians, commentators though bother to find out this information before making polemics. Or you know, bother to actually *ask* people in the industry, who might know a little bit about the subject?

        No. It’s like just like a combination of things that people have an innate gut response to: speculation, robots, math! Gee whiz, it must be up to something bad!

        In comparison how much media coverage did the price fixing lawsuits against the market making broker dealers from the mid-90s get? They were explicitly colluding to fix spreads and keep competitors out with clear evidence from phone logs. But this was the era before ECNs and decimalization, so definitely let’s go back to that.

  • MadchesterSexPartySocialism

    Robin, mate, come on. Sharpen up. Your wee GPA redistribution analogy doesn’t provide any evidence that people adjust their arguments to suit their opinions.

    Although, of course, people do this – I think quite a lot. The fact that they can’t immediately bring to mind relatively complex reasoned argument to back up their opinions doesn’t mean its not their.

    • It is pretty evident to me how the GPA redistribution argument he made brilliantly exposes, on its face, how people’s rationalization hamsters work overtime to excuse their self-contradictions of principle.

      Sigh… There ain’t anybody dumber than he who refuses to think…

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Courts won’t allow lie detector results in most states because they can be fooled, but witness statements are considered very powerful, even though witnesses can be fooled too.

  • >the ethics of using computers to do things
    >previously done by humans.

    My favorite illustration of this is the landmine treaty, the key provision of which is the “human-in-the-loop” distinction. That is to say, the treaty forbids an automaton (whether it is a tripwire or a sophisticated AI) to kill but allows various types of computer-assisted targeting weapons where an AI presents targets and a human soldier operating the device by remote has veto power over the kill.

    In fairness this is not entirely romanticism as it would be hard to define a sufficiently sophisticated AI in such a way to accomplish the main purpose of the treaty, which is to prevent civilian casualties from profligate use of extremely cheap dumb mines.

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  • Mark Gubrud

    “…governments and the things they do and the people who help them do them are generally considered more legitimate and respectable.”

    ??? On the contrary, you and Dan Klein (in an essay published by a Libertarian think tank) are just repackaging staple trope of the corporate-controlled media, which daily vilifies government as corrupt and inefficient and extols private enterprise as the source of all good things, its decisions guided by the invisible hand of Adam Smith to coincide with the good of all. Which was always baloney, but attained political power in the 1980s, became orthodoxy in the 1990s, and today stands exposed for the ravaging and wholesale destruction of so much of what was once good about the US and increasingly, Europe.

    We don’t know that government can be trusted to pursue the public interest with the growing power provided by computers able to replace people. But we do know that corporations can be trusted to pursue their own private interests, and at least some of us can see clearly enough where that leads.

  • Michael Wengler

    When a business is frozen in inaction because its CEO, chosen by a process that ultimately tracks back to popular votes, wants one thing and its board of directors, chosen by processes that ulimately track back to sets of popular votes, want another, … then I will presume a motive to please the populace from that business.

    Of course government is a a tribe or gang that holds power for its own benefit, but so is a company. The environment in which the government gang thrives has massively more tie-back to broad swathes of population than any business or any other human institution.

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