Monthly Archives: January 2018

Privately Enforced & Punished Crime

I’ve been teaching law & economics for many years now, and have slowly settled on the package legal reforms for which I most strongly want to argue. I have chosen a package that seems big enough to inspire excitement and encompass synergies, and yet small enough to allow a compelling analysis of its net benefits.

My proposal is regarding how to detect, prosecute, and punish criminal law. It is not about non-criminal law, and it is not a proposal to change how we decide what acts are crimes, when to be persuaded by a particular crime accusation, how hard to work to discourage each criminal act, nor how hard to work to catch each criminal act. To start, I hold constant how we do these other things. Continue reading "Privately Enforced & Punished Crime" »

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Social Innovation Disinterest Puzzle

Back in 1977, I started out college in engineering, then switched to physics, where I got a BS and MS. After that I spent nine years in computer research, at Lockheed and NASA. In physics, engineering, and software I saw that people are quite eager to find better designs, and that the world often pays a lot for them. As a result, it is usually quite hard to find even modesty better designs, at least for devices and mechanisms with modest switching costs.

Over time, I came to notice that many of our most important problems had cores causes in social arrangements. So I started to study economics, and found many simple proposed social innovations that could plausibly lead to large gains. And trying my own hand at looking for innovations, I found more apparently plausible gains. So in 1993 I switched to social science, and started a PhD program at the late age of 34, then having two kids age 0 and 2. (For over a decade after, I didn’t have much free time.)

I naively assumed that the world was just as eager for better social designs. But in fact, the world shows far less interest in better designs for social arrangements. Which, I should have realized, is a better explanation than my unusual genius for why it seemed so easy to find better social designs. But that raises a fundamental puzzle: why does the world seem so much less interested in social innovation, relative to innovation in physical and software devices and systems?

I’ve proposed the thesis of our new book as one explanation. But as many other explanations often come to people’s minds, I thought I might go over why I find them insufficient. Here goes: Continue reading "Social Innovation Disinterest Puzzle" »

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Our Book’s New Ground

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Matthew Hutson, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, reviews our new book The Elephant in the Brain. He starts and ends with obligatory but irrelevant references to Trump. Quotes from the rest:

The book builds on centuries of writing about self-deception. … I can’t say that the book covers new ground, but it is a smart synthesis and offers several original metaphors. People self-deceive about lots of things. We overestimate our ability to drive. We conveniently forget who started an argument. … Much of what we do, including our most generous behavior, the authors say, is not meant to be helpful. We are, like many other members of the animal kingdom, competitively altruistic—helpful in large part to earn status. … Casual conversations, for instance, often trade in random information. But the point is not to trade facts for facts; what you are actually doing, the book argues, is showing off so people can evaluate your intellectual versatility. …

The authors take particular interest in large-scale social issues and institutions, showing how systems of collective self-deception help explain the odd behavior we see in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Why do people vote? Not to strengthen the republic. …. Instead, we cheer for our team and participate as a signal of loyalty, hoping for the benefits of inclusion. In education, as many economists have argued, learning is ancillary to accreditation and status. … In many areas of medicine, they note, increased care does not improve outcomes. People offer it to broadcast helpfulness, or demand it to demonstrate how much support they have from others.

“The Elephant in the Brain” is refreshingly frank and penetrating, leaving no stone of presumed human virtue unturned. The authors do not even spare themselves. … It is accessibly erudite, deftly deploying essential technical concepts. … Still, the authors urge hope. … There are ways to leverage our hidden motives in the pursuit of our ideals. The authors offer a few suggestions. … Unfortunately, the book devotes only a few pages to such solutions. “The Elephant in the Brain” does not judge us for hiding selfish motives from ourselves. And to my mind, given that we will always have selfish motives, keeping them concealed might even provide a buffer against naked strife. (more)

All reasonable, except maybe for “can’t say that the book covers new ground.” Yes, scholars of self-deception like Hutson will find plausible both our general thesis and most of our claims about particular areas of life. And yes those specific claims have almost all been published before. Even so, I bet most policy experts will call our claims on their particular area “surprising” and even “extraordinary”, and judge that we have not offered sufficiently extraordinary evidence in support. I’ve heard education policy experts say this on Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education. And I’ve heard medicine policy experts say this on our medicine claims, and political system experts say this on our politics claims.

In my view, the key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence sufficient can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims. This is what I suggest is original about our book.

I expect that experts in each policy area X will be much more skeptical about our claims on X than about our claims on the other areas. You might explain this by saying that our arguments are misleading, and only experts can see the holes. But I instead suggest that policy experts in each X are biased because clients prefer them to assume the usual stories. Those who hire education policy experts expect them to talk about better learning the material, and so on. Such biases are weaker for those who study motives and self-deception in general.

Hutson has one specific criticism:

The case for medicine as a hidden act of selfishness may have some truth, but it also has holes. For example, the book does not address why medical spending is so much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere—do Americans care more than others about health care as a status symbol?

We do not offer our thesis as an explanation for all possible variations in these activities! We say that our favored motive is under-acknowledged, but we don’t claim that it is the only motive, nor that motive variations are the only way to explain behavioral variation. The world is far too big and complex for one simple story to explain it all.

Finally, I must point out one error:

“The Elephant in the Brain,” a book about unconscious motives. (The titular pachyderm refers not to the Republican Party but to a metaphor used in 2006 by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in which reason is the rider on the elephant of emotion.)

Actually it is a reference to common idea of “the elephant in the room”, a thing we can all easily see but refuse to admit is there. We say there’s a big one regarding how our brains work.

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When Disciplines Disagree

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, can be seen as taking one side in a disagreement between disciplines. On one side are psychologists (among others) who say of course people try to spin their motives as being higher than they are, especially in public forums. People on this side find our basic book thesis, and our many specific examples, so plausible that they fear our book may be too derivative and unoriginal.

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

My first book The Age of Em can also be seen as expressing disagreement between disciplines. In that book I try to straightforwardly apply standard economics to the scenario where brain emulations are the first kind of AI to displace most all human workers. While the assumption of brain-emulation-based-AI seems completely standard and reasonable among large communities of futurists and technologists, it is seen as radical and doubtful in many other intellectual communities (including economics). And many in disciplines outside of economics are quite skeptical that economists know much of anything that can generalize outside of our particular social world.

Now if you are going to make claims with which whole disciplines of experts disagree, you should probably feel most comfortable doing so when you have at least a whole discipline supporting you. Then it isn’t just you the crazy outlier against a world of experts. Even so, this sort of situation is problematic, in part because disagreements usually don’t become debates. A book on one side of a disagreement between disciplines is usually ignored by the disciplines who disagree. And the disciplines that agree may also ignore it, if the result seems too obvious to them to be worth discussing within their discipline.

This sort of situation seems to me one of the worse failings of our intellectual world. We fail to generate a consistent consensus across the widest scope of topics. Smaller communities of experts often generate a temporary consistent consensus within each community, but these communities often disagree a lot at larger scopes. And then they mostly just ignore each other. Apparently experts and their patrons have little incentive to debate those from other disciplines who disagree.

When two disciplines disagree, you might think they would both turn especially to the people who have become experts in both disciplines. But in fact those people are usually ignored relative to the people who have the highest status within each discipline. If we generated our consensus via prediction markets, it would automatically be consistent across the widest scope of topics. But of course we don’t, and there’s little interest in moving in that direction.

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Elephant in the Brain Reviews

Its now one week after the official hardback release date, and five weeks after the ebook release, of Elephant in the Brain. So I guess its time to respond to the text reviews that have appeared so far. Reviews have appeared at Amazon (9), Goodreads (8), and on individual blogs (5). Most comments expressed are quite positive. But there’s a big selection effect whereby people with negative opinions say nothing, and so readers rationally attend more to explicitly negative comments. And thus so will I. This post is looong. Continue reading "Elephant in the Brain Reviews" »

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Kaczynski’s Collapse Theory

Many people argue that we should beware of foreigners, and people from other ethnicities. Beware of visiting them, trading with them, talking to them, or allowing them to move here. The fact that so many people are willing to argue for such conclusions is some evidence in favor of them. But the fact that the arguments offered are so diverse, and so often contradict one another, takes away somewhat from the strength of this evidence. This pattern looks like people tend to have a preconceived conclusion for which they opportunistically embrace any random arguments they can find.

Similarly, many argue that we should be wary of future competition, especially if that might lead to concentrations of power. I recently posted on my undergrad law & econ students’ largely incoherent fears of one group taking over the entire solar system, and how Frederick Engels expresses related fears back in 1844. And I’ve argued on this blog with my ex-co-blogger regarding his concerns that if future AI results from competing teams, one team might explode to suddenly take over the world. In this post I’ll describe Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski’s rather different theory on why we should fear competition leading to concentration, from his recent book Anti Tech Revolution.

Kaczynski claims that the Fermi paradox, i.e., the fact that the universe looks dead everywhere, is explained by the fact that technological civilizations very reliably destroy themselves. When this destruction happens naturally, it is so thorough that no humans could survive. Which is why his huge priority is to find a way to collapse civilization sooner, so that at least some humans survive. Even a huge nuclear war is preferable, as at least some people survive that.

Why must everything collapse? Because, he says, natural-selection-like competition only works when competing entities have scales of transport and talk that are much less than the scale of the entire system within which they compete. That is, things can work fine when bacteria who each move and talk across only meters compete across an entire planet. The failure of one bacteria doesn’t then threaten the planet. But when competing systems become complex and coupled on global scales, then there are always only a few such systems that matter, and breakdowns often have global scopes.

Kaczynski dismisses the possibility that world-spanning competitors might anticipate the possibility of large correlated disasters, and work to reduce their frequency and mitigate their harms. He says that competitors can’t afford to pay any cost to prepare for infrequent problems, as such costs hurt them in the short run. This seems crazy to me, as most of the large competing systems we know of do in fact pay a lot to prepare for rare disasters. Very few correlated disasters are big enough to threaten to completely destroy the whole world. The world has had global scale correlation for centuries, with the world economy growing enormously over that time. And yet we’ve never even seen a factor of two decline, while at least thirty factors of two would be required for a total collapse. And while it should be easy to test Kaczynski’s claim in small complex systems of competitors, I know of no supporting tests.

Yet all dozen of the reviews I read of Kaczynski’s book found his conclusion here to be obviously correct. Which seems to me evidence that a great many people find the worry about future competitors to be so compelling that they endorse most any vaguely plausible supporting argument. Which I see as weak evidence against that worry.

Yes of course correlated disasters are a concern, even when efforts are made to prepare against them. But its just not remotely obvious that competition makes them worse, or that all civilizations are reliably and completely destroyed by big disasters, so much so that we should prefer to start a big nuclear war now that destroys civilization but leaves a few people alive. Surely if we believed his theory a better solution would be to break the world into a dozen mostly isolated regions.

Kaczynski does deserve credit for avoiding common wishful thinking in some of his other discussion. For example, he says that we can’t much control the trajectory of history, both because it is very hard to coordinate on the largest scales, and because it is hard to estimate the long term consequences of many choices. He sees how hard it is for social movements to actually achieve anything substantial. He notes that futurists who expect to achieve immortality and then live for a thousand years too easily presume that a fast changing competitive world will still have need for them. And while I didn’t see him actually say it, I expect he’s the sort of person who’d make the reasonable argument that individual humans are just happier in a more forager-like world.

Kaczynski isn’t stupid, and he’s more clear-headed than most futurists I read. Too bad his low mood leans him so strongly to embrace a poorly-argued inevitable collapse story.

Some book quotes on his key claim: Continue reading "Kaczynski’s Collapse Theory" »

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Ten Could be Twenty or More

Today is the official release date for our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and I can confirm that a copy sits on the shelf at my local B&N bookstore (across the aisle from where sits Age of Em, still on the shelf after 18 months). A Kindle version can be had for $14, and the hardback for $26 at Alibris.

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 3 reviews have appeared on blogs. And I’ve done 6 podcasts.

Though we see our main thesis as big and radical, so far all reviewers seem to have accepted it! (As did all of our 7 of the academic reviewers our publisher obtained internally a year ago.) That thesis is:

Our main goal is to demonstrate that hidden motives are common and important— that they’re more than a minor correction to the alternate theory that people mostly do things for the reasons that they give. For this purpose, we don’t need to be right about everything. In fact, we expect most readers to buy only about 70 percent of what we’re selling— and we’re OK with that.

We of course hope for more readers and press coverage. But we hope even more for intellectual engagement – people both agreeing and disagreeing with our particular arguments. And our highest hope is to inspire others to continue our research agenda. In our book we give detailed arguments for hidden motives in these ten areas of life:

Body Language, Laughter, Conversation, Consumption, Art, Charity, Education, Medicine, Religion, Politics.

But there are many more areas of life that we didn’t consider, and an awful lot of them are also plausible candidates for hidden motives. So if you have ambitions to be a social analyst who discovers important things about the social world, this seems to be a great opportunity for you. Go take some other area of life full of puzzling behaviors, and see if an alternate account of typical motives could better make sense of those puzzles.

We’ve already shown you how with our ten examples. To join our revolution, you just have to do the additional work in one more area. There’s social analysis gold in them thar hills. With your help, our ten examples could expand to twenty or more. And then we together would have pioneered a new understanding of human behavior.

Added 3 Jan: See my coauthor Kevin Simler’s “Ten Reasons To Read” our book.

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