Monthly Archives: March 2018

Growth Is Change. So Is Death.

The very readable book The Wizard and the Prophet tells the story of environmental prophet William Vogt investigating the apocalypse-level deaths of guano-making birds near Peru. When he discovered the cause in the El Nino weather cycle, his policy recommendations were to do nothing to mitigate this natural cause; he instead railed against many much smaller human influences, demanding their reversal. A few years later his classic 1948 screed Road To Survival, which contained pretty much all the standard environmental advice and concepts used today, continued to warn against any but small human-caused changes to the environment, while remaining largely indifferent to even huge natural changes.

I see the same pattern when people consider long term futures. People can be quite philosophical about the extinction of humanity, as long as this is due to natural causes. Every species dies; why should humans be different? And few get bothered by humans making modest small-scale short-term modifications to their own lives or environment. We are mostly okay with people using umbrellas when it rains, moving to new towns to take new jobs, etc., digging a flood ditch after our yard floods, and so on. And the net social effect of many small changes is technological progress, economic growth, new fashions, and new social attitudes, all of which we tend to endorse in the short run.

Even regarding big human-caused changes, most don’t worry if changes happen far enough in the future. Few actually care much about the future past the lives of people they’ll meet in their own life. But for changes that happen within someone’s time horizon of caring, the bigger that changes get, and the longer they are expected to last, the more that people worry. And when we get to huge changes, such as taking apart the sun, a population of trillions, lifetimes of millennia, massive genetic modification of humans, robots replacing people, a complete loss of privacy, or revolutions in social attitudes, few are blasé, and most are quite wary.

This differing attitude regarding small local changes versus large global changes makes sense for parameters that tend to revert back to a mean. Extreme values then do justify extra caution, while changes within the usual range don’t merit much notice, and can be safely left to local choice. But many parameters of our world do not mostly revert back to a mean. They drift long distances over long times, in hard to predict ways that can be reasonably modeled as a basic trend plus a random walk.

This different attitude can also make sense for parameters that have two or more very different causes of change, one which creates frequent small changes, and another which creates rare huge changes. (Or perhaps a continuum between such extremes.) If larger sudden changes tend to cause more problems, it can make sense to be more wary of them. However, for most parameters most change results from many small changes, and even then many are quite wary of this accumulating into big change.

For people with a sharp time horizon of caring, they should be more wary of long-drifting parameters the larger the changes that would happen within their horizon time. This perspective predicts that the people who are most wary of big future changes are those with the longest time horizons, and who more expect lumpier change processes. This prediction doesn’t seem to fit well with my experience, however.

Those who most worry about big long term changes usually seem okay with small short term changes. Even when they accept that most change is small and that it accumulates into big change. This seems incoherent to me. It seems like many other near versus far incoherences, like expecting things to be simpler when you are far away from them, and more complex when you are closer. You should either become more wary of short term changes, knowing that this is how big longer term change happens, or you should be more okay with big long term change, seeing that as the legitimate result of the small short term changes you accept.

But of course few are very good at resolving their near versus far incoherences. And so the positions people take end up depending a lot on how they first framed the key issues, as in terms of short or long term changes.

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Study Resistance To Widened Political Polarization

Tyler Cowen today:

Consider how an economy might work if buying decisions were made on a consistently ideological basis. Imagine a “right-wing” supermarket chain and a “left-wing” alternative. … The history of Northern Ireland shows a great many retailers, from funeral parlors to bars, that served either a largely Protestant or a largely Catholic clientele. Maybe people felt better about these exclusive commercial affiliations, but it didn’t do the economy any favors to stifle competition, and it may have helped drive political polarization too.

Two days ago an economics professor mentioned to me that he was taking a class on how to mix drinks in part because that is a relatively unpoliticized sphere of life. While there are different drink philosophies, so far none have obtained strong political connotations. It seemed to him, and to me, that in many areas of life substantial fractions of people actively resist allowing different standard views there to collect political connotations.

Of course in a rising tide of polarization, more and more spheres of life may drown in political floods. Once major divisions within an area are seen as political, outside political allies may be drawn into a bitter fight, which one political side may win, enabling it to take over that area of life. But it is worth noticing that some social processes actively resist such widened polarization. (Or more precisely “pillarisation“.)

We would do well to study such processes. To identify which areas of life are now fighting how hard to resist being caught up in political polarization. Then to theorize on what causes this extra willingness to resist. Such theories may help resisting areas to better coordinate to resist polarization. Yes, many political groups are now organizing to infect more areas with political polarization. But there seems room for more coordination against such widened polarization. If only we understood at least the basics of what is going on here.

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The Model to Beat: Status Rank

There’s been much discussion of income inequality over the last few years. However, I just randomly came across what should be a seminal related result, published in 2010 but mostly ignored. Let me do my bit to fix that.

People often presume that policy can mostly ignore income inequality if key individual outcomes like health or happiness depend mainly on individual income. Yes, there may be some room for promoting insurance against income risk, but not much room. However, people often presume that policy should pay a lot more attention to inequality if individual outcomes depend more directly on the income of others, such as via envy or discouragement.

However, there’s a simple and plausible income interdependence scenario where inequality matters little for policy: when outcomes depend on rank. If individual outcomes are a function of each person’s percentile income rank, and if social welfare just adds up those individual outcomes, then income policy becomes irrelevant, because this social welfare sum is guaranteed to always add up to the same constant. Income-related policy may influence outcomes via other channels, but not via this channel. This applies whether the relevant rank is global, comparing each person to the entire world, or local, comparing each person only to a local community.

That 2010 paper, by Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, makes a strong case that in fact the outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (Two followup papers find the same result for outcomes of psychological distress and nine measures of health.) They looked at 87,000 Brits, and found that while income rank strongly predicted outcomes, neither individual (log) income nor an average (log) income of their reference group predicted outcomes, after controlling for rank (and also for age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities). These seem to me remarkably strong and robust results. (Confirmed here.)

The irrelevance of individual income and reference group income remained true whether the group within which a person was ranked was the entire sample, one of 19 geographic regions, one of 12 age groups, or one of six gender-schooling groups. This suggests that the actual relevant comparison group is relatively narrow. If people cared mainly about their global rank in the whole sample, then analyses of rank within groups should have missed an effect of the rank of the group, which should have appeared as an effect of reference group income. But such effects weren’t seen.

It these statistical models were the correct model of the world, then income policy could only include influence social welfare via the control variables of age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities. You couldn’t improve social welfare directly by redistributing income, though redistribution or taxation might help by changing control variables.

But even that conclusion seems premature. The key idea here is that people care about their social status rank, and income should only be one of many factors contributing to social status. So we should really be looking at models where all of a person’s observable features can contribute to their status. For each feature, such as personality or marital status, we should ask if our data is best described as that factor contributing directly to social status, which is then ranked to produce individual outcomes, or whether that factor also influences individual outcomes via some other channel, that doesn’t pass through social status. It is only effects via those other channels that might change overall social welfare.

This seems a straightforward statistical exercise, at least for someone with access to relevant data. Who’s up for it?

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Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more) Continue reading "Beware Covert War Morality Tales" »

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