Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Missing Status Move

People who have status can use it to raise or lower the status of others. But they aren’t supposed to do this arbitrarily. Instead, we have social norms about how status is supposed to change. And our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit. So if you see someone whose status deviates from their merit, you are supposed help correct that deviation, at least when doing so is consistent with other norms.

For example, if you edit an academic journal, you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of high status academics and reject the papers of low status academics. And you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of your allies and reject those of your rivals. You are supposed to instead evaluate the merit of submitted papers, and publish the high merit papers. It is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the surface and come from low status people. But when you have a private signal of merit, as might come from actually reading a paper, you are supposed to act on that signal.

This isn’t to say you should rudely force your private evaluations of merit on audiences who haven’t asked for them. If an audience treats a speaker with  respect, maybe you shouldn’t interrupt that speech to express your low evaluation. But neither should you praise that speaker just to gain favor with the audience, if you’ve been directly asked for your independent evaluation.

If you act to change someone’s status, that person might have a higher or lower status than you, and your act might raise or lower their status. This gives four possible situations. And in three of them, you have pretty plausible selfish motives for your actions. For example, because status is in part relative, any act to lower the status of others can plausibly be seen as selfishly trying to lower others to make more status room to raise you and your allies. Also, a bid to raise the status of someone above you can be seen as an attempt to associate with them, and as flattery, i.e., a gift to them in the hope they will reciprocate and raise your status.

The fourth possibility is where you act to raise the status of someone lower than you. Such an act would plausibly be selfish if that other person were an ally or minion of yours, or a rising star with a plausibly high future status. But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime. Especially if you try to raise their status to be above you.

Since trying to raise the status of an unaffiliated person below you is the least selfish looking way to try to change the status of others, we might expect this to be the least common variation observed. But we might also expect some people to go out of their way to do it, and to call attention to their act, in order to signal their devotion to the merit principle of status – the idea that we should all work to help make status better track merit. But I hardly ever hear of this.

So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals.  But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

Added 29DecInstapundit cited this post.

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Rejection Via Advice

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?

Added 27Dec: A similar strategy would be useful if your status were to rise, and you wanted to drop associates in order make room for more higher status associates.

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Next Step, Exogamy?

Integration seems one of the great political issues of our era. That is, people express great concern about factional favoritism based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, age, etc., and push for laws and policies to prevent it, or to encourage mixing and ties across factional boundaries. I’ve tended to assume that such policies have been sufficient, and perhaps even excessive.

But a student, Randall McElroy, wrote a paper for my grad law & econ class, that got me thinking. He wrote about how the Hopi indians dealt with mass immigration in part by defining newcomers as a new clan, and then forbidding within-clan marriage. Such “exogamy” has apparently been a common strategy in history: force mixing and friendly ties between factions by requiring all marriages to be between factions.

I was reminded of Cleisthenes redesigning the political system of ancient Athens to break up the power of region-based alliances that had caused endemic political conflict. He created ten equal tribes, where a third of each tribe was taken from a different type of region, plain, coast, or hills, and made these tribes the main unit of political organization.

Cleisthenes’ approach had seemed drastic to me, but its costs were small compared to the Hopi approach. After all, the costs of substantially limiting who people can marry must be very high. So many societies must have perceived even higher costs from factional divisions. Which makes sense if, as I’ve suggested, coalition politics is central to human sociality. So I’ve raised my estimate of the costs induced by factional favoritism.

I still expect that our factional divisions are mild enough for mild policies to be sufficient. But if I’m wrong, we might consider at least a mild form of exogamy: financially subsidizing marriages between distinct defined factions. We could similarly subsidize other close relations that mix factions, such as roommates, or interacting closely in the same church or workplace.

How would people would react to such suggestions? I see very different reactions depending on the faction in question. Many are quite ok today with requiring marriages to be between genders, but not out of concern for factional politics. Many would be ok with subsidizing marriages between races and ethnicities. But many would object to subsidizing marriages between ages or classes, as they see existing examples of this as exploitive or disgusting, and try to discourage them via informal social pressures.

Many would object to subsidizing marriages between religions, seeing it important for couples to share a common religion. Relatedly, the US today is becoming increasingly split geographically by a “red vs. blue” ideological divide, and I’d expect many would object to subsidizing marriages across this divide. After all, many live where they do because they want to live with their own kind, and don’t like to mix with “those people.”

Our lack of interest so far in exogamy solutions makes me suspect people don’t think our factionalism problem is especially serious. Expressing concern about ethnic or religious factionalism is probably often used as a way to say “rah the liberal faction,” as that faction is seen as caring less about ethnic or religious factions. I suspect this is a general pattern: policies to reduce factionalism along some dimensions are usually pushed because they favor particular factions along other dimensions. Which doesn’t mean such policies can’t have net benefits.

Overall, my guess is that factionalism in our society will have to get a lot worse before we are willing to consider solutions like exogamy that other societies have used to deal with such problems. We don’t now see a big problem.

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Who Care About Econ Errors?

An economist would rightly lambasted for writing a popular article where perpetual motion machines, or anti-gravity, were central elements. Especially if that economist didn’t even notice that these violate well-established scientific consensus.

But famed Princeton neuroscientist, novelist, and composer Michael Graziano has a popular article that errs nearly as badly in its economics. And, alas, I doubt many will consider that worthy of lambasting, or that Graziano will feel embarrassed by it. Or even consider the issue worthy of comment.

Graziano’s economics error is to focus entirely on demand-side effects, and completely ignore supply-side effects, when summarizing the social implications of brain emulations. That is, he apparently can only see using brain emulations as a way to make a “virtual afterlife” vacation-land. So he talks only about who gets in and what they do there. He can’t even seem to imagine that emulated brains might be useful workers, and so drastically change the world outside of virtual heavens. (A subject I’ve analyzed in depth.) Read for yourself:

Endless fun  The question is not whether we can upload our brains onto a computer, but what will become of us when we do. …

For nearly 30 years, I’ve studied how sensory information gets taken in and processed, how movements are controlled and, lately, how networks of neurons might compute the spooky property of awareness. I find myself asking, given what we know about the brain, whether we really could upload someone’s mind to a computer. And my best guess is: yes, almost certainly. That raises a host of further questions, not least: what will this technology do to us psychologically and culturally? Here, the answer seems just as emphatic, if necessarily murky in the details. …

People … don’t like to die. … Some of them already pay enormous sums to freeze themselves. … These kinds of people will certainly pay for a spot in a virtual afterlife. … Think of the fun to be had as a simulated you in a simulated environment. You could go on a safari through Middle Earth. You could live in Hogwarts. … You could keep in touch with your living friends through all the usual social media. …

We will tend to treat human life and death much more casually. People will be more willing to put themselves and others in danger. … Will simulated people, living in an artificial world, have the same human rights as the rest of us? … Who decides who gets in? … issues … will arise if people deliberately run multiple copies of themselves at the same time. … Do [married couples] stay together? …

Two people will be able to join thoughts directly with each other. … Pretty soon everyone is linked mind-to-mind. The concept of separate identity is lost. The need for simulated bodies walking in a simulated world is lost. The need for simulated food and simulated landscapes and simulated voices disappears. Instead, a single platform of thought, knowledge, and constant realisation emerges. … Real life, our life, will shrink in importance until it becomes a kind of larval phase … I am not talking about utopia. To me, this prospect is three parts intriguing and seven parts horrifying. I am genuinely glad I won’t be around. (more)

So why won’t Graziano won’t be embarrassed by this? Because his colleagues won’t see it as valid criticism, because most don’t think economics really exists as a source of reliable insight.

Btw, I doubt that even in a virtual heaven most people would want to spend much time hooked up directly to share each other’s thoughts in depth. Our minds aren’t designed for that, and i doubt simple modifications can make that work well. And I’m even more skeptical that productive working ems would typically be hooked up this way.

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Me in The Futurist

The Jan/Feb ’14 issue of The Futurist has an article by me on “When the Economy Transcends Humanity”:

What will our economy, workplaces, and society look like when we can copy our brains and build virtual workers to do our jobs? An economist looks at the next great era, a world dominated by robots. (more; ungated)

It doesn’t break new ground, but may be more accessible. You’ll notice the editor liked to sprinkle popular movie references movies; does that really help accessibility?

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The Need To Believe

When a man loves a woman, …. if she is bad, he can’t see it. She can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend, if he puts her down. (Lyrics to “When a Man Loves A Woman”)

Kristeva analyzes our “incredible need to believe”–the inexorable push toward faith that … lies at the heart of the psyche and the history of society. … Human beings are formed by their need to believe, beginning with our first attempts at speech and following through to our adolescent search for identity and meaning. (more)

This “to believe” … is that of Montaigne … when he writes, “For Christians, recounting something incredible is an occasion for belief”; or the “to believe” of Pascal: “The mind naturally believes and the will naturally loves; so that if lacking true objects, they must attach themselves to false ones.” (more)

We often shake our heads at the gullibility of others. We hear a preacher’s sermon, a politician’s speech, a salesperson’s pitch, or a flatter’s sweet talk, and we think:

Why do they fall for that? Can’t they see this advocate’s obvious vested interest, and transparent use of standard unfair rhetorical tricks? I must be be more perceptive, thoughtful, rational, and reality-based than they. Guess that justifies my disagreeing with them.

Problem is, like the classic man who loves a woman, we find hard to see flaws in what we love. That is, it is easier to see flaws when we aren’t attached. When we “buy” we more easily see the flaws in the products we reject, and when we “sell” we can often ignore criticisms by those who don’t buy.

Why? Because we have near and far reasons to like things. And while we might actually choose for near reasons, we want to believe that we choose for far reasons. We have a deep hunger to love some things, and to believe that we love them for the ideal reasons we most respect for loving things. This applies not only to other people, but to politicians, to writers, actors, ideas.

For the options we reject, however, we can see more easily the near reasons that might induce others to choose them. We can see pandering and flimsy excuses that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. We can see forced smiles, implausible flattery, slavishly following fashion, and unthinking confirmation bias. We can see politicians who hold ambiguous positions on purpose.

Because of all this, we are the most vulnerable to not seeing the construction of and the low motives behind the stuff we most love. This can be functional in that we can gain from seeming to honestly sincerely and deeply love some things. This can make others that we love or who love the same things feel more bonded to us. But it also means we mistake why we love things. For example, academics are usually less interesting or insightful when researching topics where they feel the strongest; they do better on topics of only moderate interest to them.

This also explains why sellers tend to ignore critiques of their products as not idealistic enough. They know that if they can just get good enough on base features, we’ll suddenly forget our idealism critiques. For example, a movie maker can ignore criticisms that her movie is trite, unrealistic, and without social commentary. She knows that if she can make the actors pretty enough, or the action engaging enough, we may love the movie enough to tell ourselves it is realistic, or has important social commentary. Similarly, most actors don’t really need to learn how to express deep or realistic emotions. They know that if they can make their skin smooth enough, or their figure tone enough, we may want to believe their smile is sincere and their feelings deep.

Same for us academics. We can ignore critiques of our research not having important implications. We know that if we can include impressive enough techniques, clever enough data, and describe it all with a pompous enough tone, our audiences may be impressed enough to tell themselves that our trivial extension of previous ideas are deep and original.

Beware your tendency to overlook flaws in things you love.

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Wyden Puff Piece Errors

In the latest New Yorker, Ryan Lizza writes on “State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?” Which would be an interesting topic. Alas Lizza says little about it. Instead he summarizes the history of NSA spying on US citizens, supported via misleading statements and tortured legal interpretations, and talks the most about one Senator Ron Wyden’s heroic fight against the NSA.

Even though Wyden hasn’t actually succeeded at much. Lizza tells us that Wyden attached sunset provisions to the Patriot Act (which he supported), and asked the question at a Senate hearing where the NSA head’s answer was later shown to be misleading. Lizza speculates that Wyden’s many secret memos “repeatedly challenging the NSA’s contention that [a particular] program was effective” caused the NSA to drop that program. Oh and Wyden voted against some bills that passed, introduced bills that didn’t pass, and argued with Obama.

Here is the concrete Wyden accomplishement for which Lizza gives the most detail:

Three months later, the Defense Department started a new program with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness. T.I.A. was based inside the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office, which was headed by Admiral John Poindexter. In the nineteen-eighties, Poindexter had been convicted, and then acquitted, of perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He wanted to create a system that could mine a seemingly infinite number of government and private-sector databases in order to detect suspicious activity and preëmpt attacks. The T.I.A. system was intended to collect information about the faces, fingerprints, irises, and even the gait of suspicious people. In 2002 and 2003, Wyden attacked the program as a major affront to privacy rights and urged that it be shut down.

In the summer of 2003, while Congress debated a crucial vote on the future of the plan, Wyden instructed an intern to sift through the Pentagon’s documents about T.I.A. The intern discovered that one of the program’s ideas was to create a futures market in which anonymous users could place bets on events such as assassinations and terrorist attacks, and get paid on the basis of whether the events occurred. Wyden called Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, who was also working to kill the program. “Byron, we’ve got what we need to win this,” he told him. “You and I should make this public.” Twenty-four hours after they exposed the futures-market idea at a press conference, Total Information Awareness was dead. Poindexter soon resigned.

It was Wyden’s first real victory on the Intelligence Committee. (more)

That “futures market” program mentioned was called the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). As I was a chief architect, I happen to know that this discussion is quite misleading:

  1. TIA was a DARPA research project to develop methods for integrating masses of info; it wasn’t an actual program to handle such info masses.
  2. I’ve been told by several sources that TIA research didn’t stop, it just moved elsewhere. PAM, in contrast, did stop.
  3. PAM was not part of TIA; the only relation is that both were among the score of research programs under Poindexter in the DARPA management hierarchy.
  4. Though Wyden called it “Terrorism Futures,” PAM was mainly about forecasting geopolitical instability in the MidEast. The basis for the claim that it was about terrorism was a single website background screen containing a concept sample screen which included a small miscellaneous section listing the events “Arafat assassinated” and “North Korea missile strike.”

All those errors in just two paragraphs of a 12,500 word article. Makes me wonder how many more errors are in the rest.

It is hard to believe that Lizza’s article didn’t get a lot of input from Wyden. So Wyden is likely responsible for most of these errors. Thus to fight the NSA’s spying supported by lying, Wyden eagerly lied about an unrelated research program, in order to kill a research program with a symbolic tangential relation to NSA spying. Which wasn’t actually killed. Seems a bit underwhelming as a reason to make Wyden the main actor in a story on NSA spying. I see better candidates.

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Comics Vs. Cases

Most of you have probably seen typical “comic book” style stories. Or action movies, which usually have a related style. I’m not saying all graphic novels or active movies follow the same style or all bad styles. I’m just saying there is a recognizable trend among typical popular stories with dramatic settings. Stories that try hard to engage wide audiences differ from reality in consistent ways.

A different style of settings and events are found in histories and other case studies. Of course such writings are not always accurate, and they often focus on the real events that are most like dramatic stories. Even so, if you read a lot of case studies you’ll notice that their settings and events differ consistently from those in comic stories. Which shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

The more surprising thing is that I consistently see “futurists” touting best guess future scenarios that sound more like comics than cases. Not that their scenarios are exactly like typical comics. But if you had to judge which they were more like, typical comics or typical cases, you’d have to say they sounded more like typical comics. Worse, these futurists don’t seem embarrassed by this appearance, or go out of their way to excuse it. It is as if they don’t expect their readers to notice or care.

To me, these are very bad signs. Yes real events can sometimes be so dramatic that they seem in some ways like comics. But even then most of the details aren’t very comic-like. And the lack of embarrassment or excuses seems especially an bad sign. You should always be suspicious of folks who target their arguments at  the ignorant, instead of at those who know enough to criticize effectively.

For example, if you proposed a new energy source, and it looked on the surface like a perpetual motion machine, it would look bad if you didn’t at some point say “yes I know this looks like perpetual motion machine, but here’s why it really isn’t.” Ignoring the issue would suggest you don’t expect your audience to know enough to worry about it. When should make those of us who do know wonder why you aren’t making your case to a wiser audience.

Now if you’ve read a lot of a futurists and never noticed that many of their scenarios sound a lot like comics, let me suggest that you stop reading futurists for a while and start reading case studies. You really have no business trying to evaluate the accuracy of future scenarios if you don’t have a decent grasp on the difference between engaging fiction and typical boring facts.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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