Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Why-Policy-Wiki

“Normative as positive” (NAP) — explaining that the [education] policies actually chosen were chosen because they maximize an individualized social welfare function — fails as a useful general positive model of schooling. While NAP can perhaps accommodate the fact of some direct production of schooling by some governments, the reality is that (nearly) all governments produce education and that, by and large, this is their only support to education. Moreover, NAP fails not just in the large but also the small: there are six additional common facts about educational policies inconsistent with NAP. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

That is Lant Pritchett, and I share his frustration. People usually explain their government’s policies via scenarios wherein such policies would help the world, or at least their local region. But when you point out details at odds with such simple stories, such people are usually uninterested in the subject. They switch to suggesting other scenarios or problems where policy might help, also with little interest in the details.

This evasive style, i.e., the habit of pointing to a diffuse space of possible scenarios and problems instead of particular ones, is a huge obstacle to critics. If you put a lot of time in critiquing one story, people just note that there are lots of other possible stories you didn’t critique.

This style helps people maintain idealist attitudes toward institutions they like. In contrast, people do the opposite for institutions they dislike, such as rival foreign governments or profit-making firms. In those cases, people prefer cynical explanations. For example, people say that firms advertise mainly to fool folks into buying products they don’t need. But the evasion remains; if you critique one cynical explanation they switch to others, avoiding discussing details about any one.

To solve this evasion problem, I propose we create a new kind of wiki that surveys opinions on policy explanations. In this new wiki readers could find items like ” 68% (162/238) of college graduates say the best explanation of government running schools, instead of subsidizing them, is because educated citizens can pay more taxes to benefit other citizens. 54% (7/13) of economics PhDs surveyed say it is to push propaganda.”

Here is how it would work. There would be three category hierarchies: of policies, of policy explanations, and of people with opinions on policy explanations. Each hierarchy would include a few very general categories near the top, and lots of much more specific categories toward the bottom.

Anyone could come to the wiki to contribute opinions on policy explanations. They would first give some demographic info on themselves, and that info would put them somewhere in the category hierarchy of people. They could then browse the category hierarchy of policies, picking a policy to explain. Finally, they could browse the category hierarchy of explanations, picking their favored explanation of that policy.

Users could start by being shown the most common explanation offered so far for similar policies by similar people, and then browsing away from that. Users could also expand the category hierarchies, to add more specific policies and explanations. For particular policy explanation pairs, users might add links to relevant theory, evidence, and arguments. Users might also upvote links added by others. This would help later readers search for well-voted evidence and theory close in the hierarchies to any given policy explanation.

By using category hierarchies, a wide range of people could express a wide range of opinions. Experts could dive into details while those who can barely understand the most basic categories could gesture crudely in their favored directions. Given such a wiki, a critic could focus their efforts on the most popular explanations for a policy by their target audience, and avoid the usual quick evasion to other explanations. Prediction markets tied to this wiki could let people bet that particular explanations won’t hold up well to criticism, or that popular opinion on a topic will drift toward a certain sort of expert opinion.

Of course this wiki could and should also be used to explain common policies of firms, clubs, families, and even individuals. I expect some editorial work to be needed, to organize sensible category hierarchies. But if good editors start the system with good starting hierarchies, the continuing editorial work probably wouldn’t be prohibitive.

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Teaching Ignorance

It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings

Economics is important. So the world could use more of it. In the same sense, ignorance of economics is even more important. That is, the world could even more use a better understanding of how ignorant it is about economics. Let me explain.

Lately I’ve had a chance to see how folks like computer scientists, philosophers, futurists, and novelists think (in separate situations) when their work overlaps with areas where economists have great expertise. And what usually happens is that such folks just apply their ordinary intuitions on social behavior, without even noticing that they could ask or read economists to get more expert views. Which often leads them to make big avoidable mistakes, as these intuitions are often badly mistaken.

Yes, even folks who do realize that economists know more may not have the time to ask about or learn economics. But it seems that usually most people don’t even notice that they don’t know. Their subconscious quickly and naturally supplies them with subtly varying expectations on a wide range of social behaviors, and they don’t even notice that these intuitions might be wrong or incomplete. Which leads me to wonder: how do people ever realize that they don’t know physics, or accounting, or medicine?

Most people throw and move objects often, and have strong intuitions about such things. And if physics was only about such mechanics, I’d guess most people also wouldn’t realize that they don’t know physics. So it seems that a key is that “physics” is also associated with a bunch of big words and strange complex objects with which people don’t feel familiar. People hear words like “voltage” or “momentum”, or see inside cars or refrigerators, and they realize they don’t know what these words mean, or what how those devices work.

Similarly for accounting and medicine, I’d guess that it is a wide use and awareness of strange and complex accounting terms and calculations, and strange and complex medical devices and treatments, that suggest to people that there must be experts in those fields. And even in economics, when people realize that they don’t know where money comes from, or which of many possible auction designs is better, they do turn to economists to learn more.

Kids often learn early on of the existence of specialized knowledge, from the existence of specialized language and complex devices. Kids like to show off by finding excuses to use specialized words, and showing that they can do unusual things with complex devices. And then other kids learn to see the related areas as those with specialized expertise.

So I’d guess that what the world most needs on economics is to get more kids to show off by using specialized concepts like “diminishing returns” and complex devices like auctions. And then they need to hear that this same “economics” can be used to work out good way to do lots of social things, from buying and selling to voting to law to marriage. It is not so much that the world actually needs more kids using these concepts and devices. The important thing is to create a general impression that there are specialists for these topics.

The biggest obstacle to this plan, I’d guess, is that naive social science infuses too much of the rest of what kids are taught. Various history and “social studies” classes use naive social intuitions to explain major world events, and novels are read and discussed as if the naive social science they use is reasonable. Those who like using these things to push social agendas would object strongly to teaching instead that, e.g., you usually can’t figure out who are the bad guys in key historical events without complex economic analysis.

So the bottom line is that people don’t use enough econ because econ tends to conflict with the things people want to believe about the social world. Even teaching people that they are ignorant of econ conflicts, alas.

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Math: Useful & Over-Used

Paul Krugman:

Noah Smith … on the role of math in economics … suggests that it’s mainly about doing hard stuff to prove that you’re smart. I share much of his cynicism about the profession, but I think he’s missing the main way (in my experience) that mathematical models are useful in economics: used properly, they help you think clearly, in a way that unaided words can’t. Take the centerpiece of my early career, the work on increasing returns and trade. The models … involved a fair bit of work to arrive at what sounds in retrospect like a fairly obvious point. … But this point was only obvious in retrospect. … I … went through a number of seminar experiences in which I had to bring an uncomprehending audience through until they saw the light.

Bryan Caplan:

I am convinced that most economath badly fails the cost-benefit test. … Out of the people interested in economics, 95% clearly have a comparative advantage in economic intuition, because they can’t understand mathematical economics at all. …. Even the 5% gain most of their economic understanding via intuition. .. Show a typical economist a theory article, and watch how he “reads” it: … If math is so enlightening, why do even the mathematically able routinely skip the math? .. When mathematical economics contradicts common sense, there’s almost always mathematical sleight of hand at work – a sneaky assumption, a stilted formalization, or bad back-translation from economath to English. … Paul[‘s] … seminar audiences needed the economath because their economic intuition was atrophied from disuse. I can explain Paul’s models to intelligent laymen in a matter of minutes.

Krugman replies:

Yes, there’s a lot of excessive and/or misused math in economics; plus the habit of thinking only in terms of what you can model creates blind spots. … So yes, let’s critique the excessive math, and fight the tendency to equate hard math with quality. But in the course of various projects, I’ve seen quite a lot of what economics without math and models looks like — and it’s not good.

For most questions, the right answer has a simple intuitive explanation. The problem is: so do many wrong answers. Yes we also have intuitions for resolving conflicting intuitions, but we find it relatively easy to self-deceive about such things. Intuitions help people who do not think or argue in good faith to hold to conclusions that fit their ideology, and to not admit they were wrong.

People who instead argue using math are more often forced to admit when they were wrong, or that the best arguments they can muster only support weaker claims than those they made. Similarly, students who enter a field with mistaken intuitions often just do not learn better intuitions unless they are forced to learn to express related views in math. Yes, this typically comes at a huge cost, but it does often work.

We wouldn’t need as much to pay this cost if we were part of communities who argued in good faith. And students (like maybe Bryan) who enter a field with good intuitions may not need as much math to learn more good intuitions from teachers who have them. So for the purpose of drawing accurate and useful conclusions on economics, we could use less math if academics had better incentives for accuracy, such as via prediction markets. Similarly, we could use less math in teaching economics if we better selected students and teachers for good intuitions.

But  in fact academia research and teaching put a low priority on accurate useful conclusions, relative to showing off, and math is very helpful for that purpose. So the math stays. In fact, I find it plausible, though hardly obvious, that moving to less math would increase useful accuracy even without better academic incentives or student selection. But groups who do this are likely to lose out in the contest to seem impressive.

A corollary is that if you personally just want to better understand some particular area of economics where you think your intuitions are roughly trustworthy, you are probably better off mostly skipping the math and instead reasoning intuitively. And that is exactly what I’ve found myself doing in my latest project to foresee the rough outlines of the social implications of brain emulations. But once you find your conclusions, then if you want to seem impressive, or to convince those with poor intuitions to accept your conclusions, you may need to put in more math.

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Silent Line-Videos Pick Music Winners

[In] classical music competitions, … nearly all participants — including highly trained musicians — were better able to identify the winners of competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings. … The effect held up even in high-level international competitions, which often feature not only top performers, but also highly trained musicians as judges. (more; HT Hugh Parsonage)

I give lots of quotes from the original study below the fold. Ordinary people and classical piano experts were rewarded for picking the winner from the top three candidates in ten prestigious international classical music competitions. People said and bet that they would guess better using sound only, but they in fact guessed better using video only, even when the video was reduced to line drawings like:


They guessed worse when they had both audio and video. When they rated videos on various keywords, the word that best predicted winners was “passion.”

This strongly suggests that people are reluctant to admit to themselves how much the passion and energy of motion of pianists influences their evaluation of such pianists. I recently puzzled over why people pay so much more attention to lead singers relative to backup singers when by most accounts the musical skill difference, if any, is very small. (Here’s a recent movie on this.) This new result suggests those usual musical skills are only a minor part of what people want from a singer — lead singers get most of the attention because they give most of what folks want – a vivid passionate attractive character to relate to.

I suspect we’d find similar results hold for novelists and academics – people think they rate them mostly on content, but even experts usually put more weight on style, i.e., on energy and control relative to plot, setting, characters, problem choice, analysis, etc.

Overall this fits into the homo hypocritus framework, as it seems less licit or admirable to like musicians, novelists, or academics mainly because we like to affiliate with people with lots of energy and control. We prefer instead to think that what we like is nice music or words, and that artists are just instruments to get us those things.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Silent Line-Videos Pick Music Winners" »

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Why Is Law Fertile For Econ?

I’m about to teach graduate law & econ for the first time, after teaching the undergrad version five times. Going over my new text (Shavell) I’m struck by a difference between law & econ and other areas of applied econ, like labor econ, enviro econ, defense econ, managerial econ, public choice, econ of the family, etc. Relative to these other areas, it seems to me law & econ has more non-obvious insights that can be explained with very little econ machinery, usually in just a paragraph or two of text. Yes most areas have some of these, but in law they just seems to go on and on. Why is law so fertile for economics this way?

You might say that law & econ started recently, but in many other areas we learned most of what we know after law & econ work started. You might say that law & econ has participation by law specialists and it helps to have simple arguments to be able to explain insights to them. But most of these other areas also have specialists who appreciate simple arguments.

You might say that law typically deals with interactions in pairs, which are intrinsically simpler than interactions between many parties. But when supply and demand applies it is also a pretty simple interaction, and many other areas like family econ also deal with pairs a lot.

Another explanation is that for most of us the usual heavy moral coloring of law blocks our simple understanding of consequential arguments in law. In other areas of econ application that lack such mental blocks, most people would already understand the simple consequences of simple actions, and so economics couldn’t get credit for those as insights. But in law economics can get credit for explaining simple consequences that many folks would have already understood in other areas without such mental blocks.

This last explanation is my tentative favorite, though I’m open to other suggestions. It says law is an area where most folks are especially reluctant to let themselves appreciate simple consequences, most likely because they prefer to hold onto standard far ideals about law, and try not to see consequences that might conflict with such ideals. For example, seeing contract breach as immoral promise breaking makes it hard to see how good breaches happen when damages for contract violation equal the value the other party places on non-breach.

Of course this explanation also suggests it will be particularly hard to get the actual law to change much in response to good economic arguments about law. Which is roughly what we see.

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Political System Change Is Weird

Why do we have the political systems that we do? Back in the farming era, regimes competed militarily. Winners had more militarily effective total systems on average, and part their total system was their political system, which was therefore plausibly militarily effective.

Over the last seventy years, however, the selection power of military competition has been very weak. And it was somewhat weak for a while before then. If we ignore external conquest, political systems might be explained as the conscious choice of rulers: the systems are those that rulers (including voters) choose. But political systems have changed only modestly, even when there has been a lot of change in who runs them or what policies they implement, and lots of change in the rest of society.

You might say that our political systems are so stable because they are near perfect – rulers can’t imagine any better systems. But then why do systems vary so much around the world. And given the vast space of possible political systems, it isn’t plausible that we’ve explored more than a tiny corner of that space.

You might say that each local system is perfectly adapted to its local circumstances. But situations don’t seem that different. You might say that change in political systems is very expensive, so expensive that change is almost never worth the cost. But then why did systems ever change in the past? It is hard to see change being less expensive then.

It seems to me that the main reason political systems change so little these days is that it just seems weird to seriously suggest such changes. And not a good kind of weird. You can’t plausibly pose yoursel as a revolutionary martyr; people won’t actively stop you; they’ll just yawn and think you boring. And proposing to change the system isn’t a good way to show loyalty to existing political teams; even if your change clearly favors a team, it still seems needlessly round-about, relative to winning the usual way.

It isn’t clear to me exactly what processes make proposing changes to the political system seems so weird and boring to most folks today. But what does seem clearer to me is that variations in such processes are probably the main cause of variations today in political system change.

That is, while political systems vary in the outcomes they produce for people, and people vary in their opinions about such outcomes, such variations usually seem a pretty weak force today. A much stronger force seems to be whatever makes people look bad by even discussing the topic. It seems that political systems are stable more because they push folks to avoid discussing change than because they make people like the outcomes that such systems produce.

Until we return to an era when there is strong military competition, or until some big cultural change somehow makes discussing political system change cool, the political systems that we will have will mostly be the ones that somehow make folks look or feel bad to discuss changes, instead of the systems that most make people happy via their outcomes. Today, we are mostly selecting for political systems that tend to make discussing them seem weird.

Added 9p: What changes we have seen in political systems in the last seventy years have mainly been convergent – one place switching to the system of another place. There has been almost no exploring of the large space of possibilities.

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`Best’ Is About `Us’

Why don’t we express and follow clear principles on what sort of inequality is how bad? Last week I suggested that we want the flexibility to use inequality as an excuse to grab resources when grabbing is easy, but don’t want to obligate ourselves to grab when grabbing is hard.

It seems we prefer similar flexibility on who are the “best” students to admit to elite colleges. Not only do inside views of the admission process seem to show careful efforts to avoid clarity on criteria, ordinary people seem to support such flexibility:

Half [of whites surveyed] were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state. When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions—apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (more)

Matt Yglesias agrees:

This is further evidence that there’s no stable underlying concept of “meritocracy” undergirding the system. But rather than dedicating the most resources to the “best” students and then fighting over who’s the best, we should be allocating resources to the people who are mostly likely to benefit from additional instructional resources.

But this seems an unlikely strategy for an elite coalition to use to entrench itself. If we were willing to admit the students who would benefit most by objective criteria like income or career success, we could use prediction markets. The complete lack of interest in this suggests that isn’t really the agenda.

Much of law is like this, complex and ambiguous enough to let judges usually draw their desired conclusions. People often say the law needs this flexibility to adapt to complex local conditions. I’m skeptical.

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Em- vs Non-Em- AGI Bet

Joshua Fox and I have agreed to a bet:

We, Robin Hanson and Joshua Fox, agree to bet on which kind of artificial general intelligence (AGI) will dominate first, once some kind of AGI dominates humans. If the AGI are closely based on or derived from emulations of human brains, Robin wins, otherwise Joshua wins. To be precise, we focus on the first point in time when more computing power (gate-operations-per-second) is (routinely, typically) controlled relatively-directly by non-biological human-level-or-higher general intelligence than by ordinary biological humans. (Human brains have gate-operation equivalents.)

If at that time more of that computing power is controlled by emulation-based AGI, Joshua owes Robin whatever $3000 invested today in S&P500-like funds is worth then. If more is controlled by AGI not closely based on emulations, Robin owes Joshua that amount. The bet is void if the terms of this bet make little sense then, such as if it becomes too hard to say if capable non-biological intelligence is general or human-level, if AGI is emulation-based, what devices contain computing power, or what devices control what other devices. But we intend to tolerate modest levels of ambiguity in such things.

[Added 16Aug:] To judge if “AGI are closely based on or derived from emulations of human brains,” judge which end of the following spectrum is closer to the actual outcome. The two ends are 1) an emulation of the specific cell connections in a particular human brain, and 2) general algorithms of the sort that typically appear in AI journals today.

We bet at even odds, but of course the main benefit of having more folks bet on such things is to discover market odds to match the willingness to bet on the two sides. Toward that end, who else will declare a willingness to take a side of this bet? At what odds and amount?

My reasoning is based mainly on the huge costs to create new complex adapted systems from scratch when existing systems embody great intricately-coordinated and adapted detail. In such cases there are huge gains to instead adapting existing systems, or to creating new frameworks to allow the transfer of most detail from old systems.

Consider, for example, complex adapted systems like bacteria, cities, languages, and legal codes. The more that such systems have accumulated detailed adaptations to the detail of other complex systems and environments, the less it makes sense to redesign them from scratch. The human mind is one of the most complex and intricately adapted systems we know, and our rich and powerful world economy is adapted in great detail to many details of those human minds. I thus expect a strong competitive advantage from new mind systems which can inherit most of that detail wholesale, instead of forcing the wholesale reinvention of substitutes.

Added 16Aug: Note that Joshua and I have agreed on a clarifying paragraph.

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Seven Million Visits

According to the Sitemeter figure on the lower right hand side of this page, there have now been seven million visits to Overcoming Bias since it began in November 2006. Of course many folks read this blog in ways that don’t trigger such counts, but this still seems a reasonable time to pause and take stock. THANK YOU to all you readers, and to all the other authors who have contributed over the years.

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Inequality Talk Is About Grabbing

The US today has about 425 billionaires, over 1/3 of the world’s total. Many folks say these billionaires are unfairly unequal, and so we should tax them lots more.

People usually become billionaires via having “super-powers,” i.e., very unusual abilities, at least within some context. But what if most billionaires had super-powers of the traditional comic book sort, like x-ray vision or an ability to fly, etc.? That is, what if people with physical super-powers earned billions in the labor market by selling the use of these powers? Would folks be just as eager to tax them to reduce unfair inequality?

My guess is no, most would be less eager to tax billionaires with physical super-powers. And I offer this prediction as a test of my favored theory of expressed inequality concerns: that inequality talk is usually a covert way of coordinating who to maybe grab stuff from. Let me explain.

As I’ve discussed before, while people usually justify their inequality concerns by noting that inequality can make lower folks feel bad, that justification can apply equally to a great many sorts of inequality. Yet concern is actually only voiced about a very particular sort: financial inequality at a given time between the families of a nation. The puzzle in need of explaining is: why is so little concern expressed about all the other sorts of inequality?

My favored theory is an application of homo hypocritus: our forager ancestors developed the ability to express and enforce social norms, and then developed rich and subtle abilities to coordinate to evade those norms. One of those norms was that foragers weren’t supposed to grab stuff from each other just because they wanted the stuff, or just because that stuff was easy to grab. But they did have norms favoring sharing and equal treatment, and so it was ok to talk about who might be violating such norms, and what punishments to apply to violators.

But they all knew, at least subconsciously, that some groups would be quite effective at retaliating against such suggestions. The accused might physically resist the attempted punishment, or might retaliate with contrary accusations. So foragers needed ways not only to overtly accuse folks of violating norms, and to officially propose to take stuff away as punishment, but also to covertly discuss who might have especially nice stuff to take, and who they could most easily get away with grabbing from.

I suggest that most talk about the problems of inequality actually invokes this ancient hypocritical ability to covertly discuss where to find lots of nice easy-to-grab stuff. We don’t discuss inequalities across time, because it is hard to grab much more than we do from the past or the future. We don’t much discuss the inequality of rich foreigners, because it is much harder to grab their stuff. We don’t much discuss inequality of those with unusual artistic abilities or sexual attractiveness, because we can’t directly grab their advantages and while we might try to grab their material goods to compensate, they don’t have that much, and the grabbing would be hard. (Also, such folks have more social status to resist with. For foragers, status counted lots more than material goods for influence.)

A few people within our nation who each have lots and lots of material goods, however, seem to make a great target for grabbing. So people discover they have a deep moral concern about that particular inequality, and ponder what oh what could we possibly do to rectify this situation? Anyone have an idea? Anyone?

But if those few very rich folks had real physical super-powers, we would be a lot more afraid of their simple physical retaliation. They might be very effective at physically resisting our attempts to take their stuff. So somehow, conveniently, we just wouldn’t find that their unequal wealth evoked as much deeply felt important-social-issue-in-need-of-discussing moral concern in us. Because, I hypothesize, in reality those feelings only arise as a cover to excuse our grabbing, when such grabs seem worth the bother.

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