Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Firms Are Under-Trusted

Tyler’s new book Big Business is out next week. I haven’t read it – won’t get access until you do. But in an excerpt he just posted from his final chapter, Tyler considers a big question I’ve pondered before:

Think[ing] of corporations as people … is probably also necessary for social cohesion. … Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly. … Consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. … positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. …

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations … you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, … people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople. … it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior. (more)

I’m just not seeing the problem that Tyler sees. We humans do not simply trust everyone; we are quite aware that the interests of others may not align with ours, and that they may betray our trust. We are suspicious of each other, and in fact we are built to be as selfish as we can get away with; when we are trusting and trustworthy it is because our evolved instincts estimate that to be in our interest.

We sometimes misjudge who to trust how much, but such errors do not at all tend to favor for-profit firms. Our egalitarian forager instincts make us especially distrusting of powerful humans and large organizations, especially when it seems logically possible that they may profit by hurting us. Our evolved instincts don’t seem to sufficiently appreciate how competition disciplines for-profit firms today, probably because competition was a less effective force for our distant ancestors.

Compared to ordinary humans that we distrust to a similar degree, for-profit firms actually tend to be much more well-behaved and helpful. So I don’t see us as under an illusion here.

In the above Tyler sounds a lot like what I often hear from AI risk people, who worry that we will trust AIs as if human, and be cut down by AI alien indifference to our plight. I hear similar fears from an overlapping group that fears selfish capitalist firms will eventually destroy us all. I’m much less worried than they.

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Champions Show War Ability

Sports make sense as a way for individuals to develop and show off certain packages of physical and mental abilities. Team sports make sense as a way to show off such abilities in contexts of team production, which have long been especially relevant to human success. Of course we need not be consciously aware of this function; genetic and cultural evolution needed only make us inclined to do sports when that might make us get and look good.

When two teams play each other, the final score is a good summary about the relative abilities of the two teams. Of course there’s more info to be gleaned from game details, but not that much more. And if you can’t study those game details well yourself, but must instead rely on the judgments of others, a final score is admirably resistant to bias and lobbying.

Many sports have a regular season of games, following by a championship round designed to select a tree of “champions”, a tree whose root is the uber-champion of all. Often a “world champion”. This is somewhat puzzling, as individual championship games are not that much more diagnostic about team abilities than are regular season games, and there are far fewer championship games. Why count these games so much more than others?

One could use an elo-rating type system to estimate the abilities of each team based on their pairwise scores. Or one could use even fancier statistical systems to estimate distributions over team abilities, using scores and other data. Within such systems, championship games would be just a few more games, and not be given extra weight. If we just want to know about team abilities, why put so much weight on championships?

Arguably, through most of ancient history the main abilities that observers were interested in inferring and developing via sporting contests were war abilities. This is plausibly why most sports have long been team sports focused on war-like contests, relative to more common social contests. And in war, one mainly cares about abilities displayed in contexts where stakes are very high: hard battles where a large fraction of combatants die, as opposed to practice battles where at most a few are injured.

So championships plausibly exist as a way to focus sporting displays on high stakes contexts. The closer a team gets to the root of the championship tree, the more is at stake in each game, and the better that game’s score becomes as a measure of player abilities in high stakes contexts.

Yes, outside of sports the stakes do vary over contexts, and observers should want to see how individuals perform across a range of stake sizes. But as war is rare today, in our world success mostly comes from consistent quality over many low stakes contests, not from a few super-battles. Designing sporting contests to instead maximize an emphasis on the highest stakes possible seems better explained as a heritage of war. As are many other features of modern human attitudes and behaviors.

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Explaining Sex Rate Changes

According to the Post, polls say 28% of US men age 18-30 report not having sex in the last year, almost 3 times as many as a decade ago. Women that age show a much smaller increase, and other ages don’t show noticeable changes:

Even if much of this change is due to random polling error, I’d bet there is still a real effect here to explain. I asked via a Twitter poll if the young women switched to sex with older men, or with more desirable younger men, and by 3-2 (out of 11,456!), they favored the latter theory. Yes, in principle women could be switching to sex with other women, but I’d bet that’s not the biggest effect here.

So there’s probably a real effect here to explain: regarding heterosexual sex, over the last decade many more young men are having no sex, compared to other ages and genders, and with their potential partners switching to more desirable young men and older men. That’s a pattern we might want to explain.

If we think of sex as a mating market, using simple supply and demand concepts, then the (quality weighted) quantity of sex that each person gets should depend on 1) how much they value sex, 2) how much they have to offer potential partners, and 3) how much those partners value them. In addition, 4) search and other deal frictions can make it harder to find and sustain pairings.

So the young men who have less to offer, relative to average young men, might get even less sex over time because they become even less desirable in the eyes of women, because those women now find other options more attractive, because these young men are less eager for sex, or because of increased costs to find and proposition well-matched women.

These are categories of proximate causes, and are consistently with many distal causes. For example, longer lifespans could cause changes in youthful desire, or changes in outside options. Yes, each of these categories can be broken down further. For example, young men might be less eager for sex either because young women have changed and become less desirable to them, or because those men now find other activities more enjoyable.

In one of my most popular Twitter polls to date (with 4940 responses), I asked people to pick from three cause categories:

While there is no strong consensus, respondents did favor pickier young women by almost 2-1 over each of the other two options (less male desire and less desirable men). The stories of pickier women and less desirable men will in practice be pretty hard to distinguish, especially as there can be feedback loops, such as where men who succeed less get discouraged and try less hard. So let us just bundle these stories together into: PW+LDM. In my poll, that bundle is favored 3-1 over the men want sex less story.

While my poll induced many commenters to offer theories, most did not think very carefully about how to explain social changes. So let me elaborate here on that. If real, this particular pattern is regarding one particular subset of people, less-desirable young men (LDYM), who are losing out over a particular decade to another particular subset, young more-desirable men, for a particular thing, sex. So any explanation of this pattern needs to be specific to these two groups, this outcome (sex), and this time period.

Thus it won’t at all do to point to effects that are constant in time, such as people not always telling the truth in polls, or men having lower standards for sex partners. It also won’t do to point to changes over this time period that effected all ages and genders similarly, such as obesity, porn, video games, social media, dating apps, and wariness re harassment claims. They might be part of an answer, but can’t explain all by themselves. To explain an unusual burst over the last decade, it is also problematic to point to factors (e.g., computing power) that changed over the last decade, but changed just as much over prior decades.

A good theory instead needs to identify why its favored effect was much stronger in this past decade, especially for the package of LDYM. Consider the explanations mentioned by the Post:

There are several potential explanations … Labor force participation among young men has fallen, particularly in the aftermath of the last recession. … 54% of unemployed Americans didn’t have a steady romantic partner, compared with 32% among the employed. … Young men also are more likely to be living with their parents than young women: In 2014, for instance, 35% of men age 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ home, compared with 29% of women in that age group. …

One final factor that may be affecting Americans’ sexual habits at all ages is technology. “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago,… Streaming video, social media, console games, everything else.” (more)

But streaming video and social media effect all ages, genders, and desirability levels, not just LDYM. The other two effects are at least specific to LDYM, but there’s no mention of just how much living at home has changed among young men, and the drop in labor force participation (e.g., 79.6-73.0% for men age 20-24 from ’06-’16) seems much less than increase in the sexless.

A related effect the Post didn’t mention is women going further in school than men now, and women being reluctant to date men with less school. There’s been a big change in that over the last 15 years:

Note that these 3 possible causes, schooling differences, labor force participation declines, and living at home, all more plausibly act through the PW+LDM channel, relative to less male desire or higher deal frictions channels.

In December, the Atlantic outlined a great many possible theories:

Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. … But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with. …

It might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido. …

Rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time. …

In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. … Unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. … Tinder … logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. … overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex. … #MeToo movement … less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. … Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. … porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. … Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping. …

Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift … Designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” … May also be newly worried about what they look like naked. … Social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. … a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. … Women will say … ‘It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ “ …

There may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80% will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. (more)

Note that many of these channels result in women being less interested in or open to male sex proposals, and are thus within the PW+LDM channel. These include less child sex abuse, feeling less pressured, prioritizing careers, women feeling more anxious about their bodies, and more #MeToo disapproval of sex proposals. (Though that last one can also be seen as higher deal frictions.) Overall, both my polls and MSM stories seem to agree that PW+LDM is the most likely channel of change here.

Note also that the “waiting too long” problem can contribute to cohort specific sex cultures. That is, age cohorts often generate distinct tastes in music, food, and hobbies, tastes which can last a lifetime. Similarly, age cohorts can generate distinct lasting sex cultures, cultures that are especially sensitive to the conditions around when that cohort first started to have sex. In general, age cohorts seem eager to change from the fashions of prior cohorts, to define themselves via distinct music, etc. And in addition, dramatic events like 9-11, the great recession, and #MeToo could help push a new age cohort to switch to a new cultural equilibrium, which might then stick around for a while, at least until the next such disruption.

It seems that, whether due to recent cultural events or random cultural drift, the latest age cohort has switched to a new sex culture wherein the less desirable half of young men are now seen as even less desirable by young women than previous cohorts would have seen them. And within this culture it is seen as more acceptable for young women to share the more desirable half of young men, relative to the higher (but never maximal) priority previous cohorts put on more monogamous ties.

Random future cultural changes could of course move back the other way. But my increasing-wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager story about the direction of modern cultural changes predicts otherwise for the long run. Via marriage, foragers were more promiscuous and less monogamous than farmers, and this recent age cohort sex culture change continues this predicted farmer-to-forager movement.

Added 10p: Some evidence against the porn story.

Added 10Apr: TGGP reviews data & concludes:

Between the two explanations, I would thus conclude that a shift toward older men relative to the 18-29 group fits better than an increase in variance within 18-29.

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Best Cause: New Institution Field Trials

“Altruist” is not one of my core identities, though many identities that I cherish (e.g., “accurate”, “innovator”) have altruistic effects. But over the last decade I’ve met many who identify directly as altruists. If you are such a person, this post is for you. In it, I will make the case for a particular altruistic cause, a cause that combines two big altruism levers: innovation and institutions.

Innovation: If you care about helping people, you should care a lot about the future, because most of the people you could help live there. In addition, typical interest rates put less weight on future consequences, compared to consequences today, which means that all else equal you can buy future help at a much lower cost.

The main reason that our world today is better off than past worlds is innovation; we have accumulated more better ways to do many things. This strongly suggests that innovation is the main way that people today will help the future. Which suggest that this is how you should also try to help. In addition, there seems to be too little innovation today because many innovations are hard to own, and even when owned most of their value leaks out to folks who pay little for them.

Many steps are typically required for successful innovation. A problem must be perceived, solutions invented, trials test, and winners diffused out to new contexts. Usually a lot of adaptation detail is required to enable a simple elegant idea to actually be useful in complex contexts, and also to readapt solutions that worked well in some contexts to new differing contexts. The most effective way to help innovation is to subsidize the steps that are now currently neglected. Our world typically offers larger rewards for generating simple ideas, and for adopting into ordinary practice well adapted and tested solutions. Thus one can help most by subsidizing the neglected efforts to adapt and readapt, especially in contexts where it is hard to own or sell an innovation. Such as:

Institutions: We each make many choices in our lives. And you can help others by advising their choices. However, when people are directly subject to the consequences of their choices, they tend to have good incentives to figure out their best choices. You can help more by subsidizing the individual choices that tend more to benefit others. This can include the choice to collect more decision related info, when that info could benefit many others with similar choices.

Most individual choices are made within larger social equilibria over which each person has little personal influence. For example, we each drive on the right side of the road mainly because everyone else drives on the right. That is, we tend to take larger equilibria and systems as given when making our individual choices. Yes we can try to coordinate to change these systems, but coordination is hard, most of benefits go to others, and it is hard to own most systems.

Collecting info to advise an effort to coordinate to change equilibria is especially neglected, as we tend to neglect both info and coordination. Info collection efforts are especially neglected when it is hard to claim person altruistic credit for the info that one has contributed, either because that effort gets mixed up with the efforts of others, or because non-altruistic motives are plausible.

Each social equilibria can be thought of a combination of a set of visible and relatively formal rules, together with other less visible “cultural” factors that produce matching expectations and behaviors. That first more visible part we call “institutions” or “mechanisms”. Useful changes of social equilibria require not just changes in visible institutions, but also well-matching changes to local culture.

It is easier to change systems when the new system that one might want to create is already working well in other social contexts. In such cases, we must only work to adapt existing systems into our new context, via some combination of analysis and trial and error, and also work to coordinate to actually make this change. It is easier to work explicitly and analytically on the more visible institutional parts; for the less visible cultural parts one is forced more to rely on simple trial and error. It is hardest to change systems when the desired new system is not already working well somewhere, and so it must be invented, adapted, and tested before it can be applied.

Innovating Institutions: You can gain especially strong altruism leverage by combining these two levers, innovation and institutions. That is, you can help to collect and share info to allow innovation of shared social systems. As the most neglected step in the innovation process is context-specific adaptation and re-adaptation, that is the highest leverage place to help. As social systems are very important but hardest for individuals to own or choose, innovators neglected these the most. And as institutions are the visible part of social systems that one can actually work on, that is where visible efforts must focus.

Back in 1993, at the age of 34, I started a Ph.D. program to study institution and mechanism design, exactly because I had come to this conclusion, that institution innovation had a huge neglected potential. I spent many years studying this academic area, and I can tell you now with confidence: academics know many useful things about institutions, and have many good elegant simple ideas for institution change, ideas that they have explored in math and lab experiments.

Some say that while past social innovations were important, future ones are not, because there is little left to learn about social systems; we know most all worth knowing. But that’s just very wrong. The space of possible social systems is vast, and we’ve hardly explored but a tiny corner of that vast space.

I can also tell you with confidence: academics usually drop the innovation ball after they’ve extracted the academic rewards that they can from an institution idea. Academics can be rewarded for studying existing social systems, including both institutional and cultural elements. They can also be rewarded for proving theorems about new institution ideas, and for testing predictions of these theorems in highly-abstracted lab experiments. Sometimes even in simple well-controlled field experiments. But academics are not rewarded for further efforts to adapt promising ideas to messy social worlds, and so they do little of this.

Business people are often willing to take a social innovation that has mostly been adapted well and do the last few adaptation steps, if those last steps are cheap enough and if they think they can own something about it (e.g. software), or if they can gain direct value from its application. However, business people are far less eager to contribute to earlier steps of the innovation process. Thus it is the intermediate innovation steps, of adaptation and re-adaptation, that are neglected by both academics and business.

As charities claim to be altruistic, you might think they would step in to pay for these key high leverage missing steps. But while many charities pay for academic research, and some pay to apply mostly-worked-out new institution ideas in charity contexts, almost none pay for the neglected adaptation of social innovation ideas in other contexts. Charity patrons either don’t understand why that would be helpful, or don’t think that the audience they seek to impress with their charity efforts would understand. But if you really are a direct altruist, who cares more about helping than about getting others to think you are helping, then this cause might be the one for you.

While money can help, the key resource needed for institution adaptation efforts is actually real organizations willing to risk disruption and distraction to work on adapting promising institution ideas. This is where I’m stuck with decision markets. There’s lots of money for abstract academic work, and many businesses ready to apply mostly-proven mechanisms. But organizations willing to do trial and error to search for less disruptive variations, those are hard to find. If you have or can create such an organization, you are sitting on altruism gold, if only you will dig it up.

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Revolt of The Public

Martin Gurri’ book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium has gotten *lots of praise. For example, Tyler:

I am reading this splendid book for the first time. It basically explains why Brexit and Trump won, and what will happen next. Due to social media, we are disillusioned with our elites, and that will prove hard to reverse. (more)

Here is a summary by Arnold Kling:

The insiders operate within formal organizational structures, such as corporations, universities, and government agencies. These organizations have regular processes for setting goals and making decisions. There is a formal hierarchy, … The outsiders operate without formal organizational structures. They have no planning process. Their tactics are ad hoc. … The outsiders’ credentials, if they even have any, have little relevance. …

Activists who wanted to foment demonstrations against the government had to form organizations and distribute newsletters, where today they can instigate flash mobs using text messages. … Insiders see the existing order as something to preserve and improve upon. Their proposals for reform are limited and specific. They take into account constraints imposed by economic and political realities. …

Outsiders can only articulate what they are against. They can identify flaws in the existing order. But they lack a vision for reform or the skills to govern. … the dominant strategies of insiders and outsiders will lead to an outcome in which government performance worsens, legitimacy declines, and conflict increases. (more)

And one by Noah Smith:

Social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack – but not to replace – the dominant institutions of society. … Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. … Social media, … freeing [public] from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. …

The newly empowered public, he argues, has not focused on building things up, but on breaking them down. The public’s goal is negation – denunciation of respected leaders, derailment of political programs, overthrow of parties or governments, discrediting of institutions, etc. Gurri worries that this constant anti-everything attitude will descend into “nihilism”, and that weakened institutions will be trapped in an eternal stalemate with an eternally raging public. (more)

Here is Gurri himself:

We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies: the fifth wave. … The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media. Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public. … That has changed forever. … The public … has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back. …

The question is what happens … fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration. The mass public was an invention of the mass media. What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups … Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences. In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural: many publics, speaking with many voices. …

Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs. … The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, … the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space. … It’s early days. … Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites. (more)

The meat of the book is a half dozen case studies of protest movements in the early 2010s, from around the world, wherein vocal & active but otherwise ordinary people complained loudly about a failure they attributed to official institutions. As such protesters were reluctant to create or endorse formal organizations or parties, and were much less interested in policy details, they mostly had limited impacts such as getting people to quit or reversing recent policy changes.

Gurri’s day job is intelligence analyst, and he seems good at that. That is, he’s good at describing concrete events in ways that give the impression that he understands what is going on and could roughly predict what will happen next. Though hard to be sure of that, as he offers no track record of predictions. But the more Gurri generalizes, the more doubts I have. And as the above quotes suggest, he goes quite far in generalization.

First, Gurri claims that the pattern of these early 2010s events shows a fundamental social change from previous decades. But he doesn’t actually show this. He only discusses one prior event, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs scandal, where he notes that the media and public mostly forgave Kennedy. Yet the public doesn’t scream about most things authorities do today; that doesn’t show a change.

Second, Gurri attributes the changes he sees to lower costs of sharing information. Clearly this is right at the finest scales, in the sense that in these events social media often allowed a very rapid transition from a few people complaining online to large groups shouting in big plazas together. But it is much less obvious that cheaper info is the key cause of a less docile, more complainy, less organized public that is less supportive of formal hierarchies. I do find it plausible that the public is getting more polarized, egalitarian, and complainy over decades, but I see other plausible causes of such trends, if in fact these are real trends. Gurri didn’t convince me that info costs are more than a minor contributing factor here.

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Speculator-Chosen Immigrants

On immigration, the big political tug-o-war axis today is: more or less immigrants. But if you want tug the rope sideways, both to oppose polarization and to have a better chance of adding value, you might do better to focus on a perpendicular axis. Such as transferable citizenship, crime liability insurance for immigrants, or the topic of this post: who exactly to admit.

Even if we disagree on how many immigrants we want, we should agree that we want better immigrants. For example, good immigrants pay lots of taxes, volunteer to help their communities, don’t greatly harm our political or social equilibria, are not criminals, and impose fewer burdens on government benefit systems. Yes, we may disagree on the relative weights to assign to such features, but these disagreements seem relatively modest; there’s plenty of room here to work together to make better choices.

Note that, for the foreseeable future, we aren’t likely to approve for immigration more than a small fraction of all the outsiders who’d be willing to apply, if we were likely to accept them. So as a practical matter our efforts to pick candidates should focus on estimating well at the high tail of the distribution, for the candidates most likely to be best.

Note also that while a better way to select immigrants might induce us to accept more immigrants, those who are wary of this outcome tend to feel risk averse about such changes. Thus we should be looking for ways to pick immigrants that seem especially good at assuring skeptics that any one person is a good candidate.

To achieve all this, I suggest that we look at the prices of new financial assets that we can create to track the net tax revenue from each immigrant, conditional on their being admitted. Let me explain.

For every immigrant that we admit, the government could track how much that person pays in taxes each year, and also how much the government spends on that person via benefits whose costs can be measured individually. We could probably assign individual costs for schools, Medicare and Medicaid, prison, etc. For types of costs or benefits that can’t be measured individually, we’d could attribute to each immigrant some average value across citizens of their location and demographic type. When there are doubts, let us err in the direction of estimating higher costs, so that our measures are biased against immigrants adding value.

Okay, so now we have a conservative net financial value number for each immigrant for each year, a number that can be positive or negative. From these numbers we can create financial assets that pay annual dividends proportional to these numbers. If we let many people trade such assets, their market prices should give us decent estimates of the current present financial value of this stream of future revenue. And if we allow trading in such assets regarding people who apply to immigrate, with those trades being conditional on that person being admitted and coming, then such prices would estimate the net financial value of an immigration candidate conditional on their immigrating.

We could then admit the candidates for whom such estimates are highest; using a high threshold could ensure a high confidence that each immigrant is a net financial advantage. Those who are skeptical about particular immigrants, or about immigration in general, could insure themselves against bad immigration choices via trades in these markets, trades from which they expect to profit if their skepticism is accurate.

As usual, there are some subtitles to consider. For example, traders must be given some info on each candidate, and market estimates are more accurate the more info that traders are given. While I see no obvious legal requirement to do so, candidates could be assured some privacy. Immigration skeptics, however, might want to limit such privacy, to better ensure that each immigrant is a net gain.

Once immigrants become citizens, they of course have stronger privacy rights. While the government-calculated dividend values on them each year would reveal some info, there’s no need to reveal details of how that number was computed. To cut info revealed further, we might even wait and pay dividends as a single lump every five years.

In principle, a trader might acquire a large enough net negative stake in a particular immigrant that they have an incentive to hurt that immigrant, or at least to hurt that immigrant’s chances of achieving high net value. We might thus want to limit the size of negative stakes, at least after the immigrant comes, and among traders with opaque abilities to cause such harms.

The fact that net financial revenue can be both positive and negative complicates the asset creation. We might add some large constant to the financial numbers, to ensure that dividends paid have a positive sign. Or we might create two assets, one that pays dividends for the positive amounts, and one that pays for the negative amounts.

Some groups of candidates, such as a church, family, or firm, might be worth more if admitted as a unit together. We might then have trades on packages of assets for a whole group of candidates, trades conditional on their all being admitted as a unit. With a high enough estimated value of the group, we might then just admit such groups as units, even when we have doubts about individual members.

And that’s it, another pull-the-rope-sideways proposal designed to improve policy on a hot-button topic without taking a side on topic’s main dispute. Whether you want more or fewer immigrants, you should want better immigrants.

Added 1p 25Mar: If we could design individual measures of cultural assimilation and impact on cultural change, and assign dollar values to those measures, then we could include them in this proposed system.

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Can We Trust Deliberation Priests?

In Science, academic “deliberation” experts offer a fix for our political ills:

Citizens to express their views … overabundance [of] … has been accompanied by marked decline in civility and argumentative complexity. Uncivil behavior by elites and pathological mass communication reinforce each other. How do we break this vicious cycle? …

All survey research … obtains evidence only about the capacity of the individual in isolation to reason about politics. … [But] even if people are bad solitary reasoners, they can be good group problem-solvers … Deliberative experimentation has generated empirical research that refutes many of the more pessimistic claims about the citizenry’s ability to make sound judgments.

Great huh? But there’s a catch:

Especially when deliberative processes are well-arranged: when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and oversight by a facilitator … These effects are not necessarily easy to achieve; good deliberation takes time and effort. Many positive effects are demonstrated most easily in face-to-face assemblies and gatherings, which can be expensive and logistically challenging at scale. Careful institutional design involv[es] participant diversity, facilitation, and civility norms …

A major improvement … might involve a randomly selected citizens’ panel deliberating a referendum question and then publicizing its assessments for and against a measure … problem is not social media per se but how it is implemented and organized. Algorithms for ranking sources that recognize that social media is a political sphere and not merely a social one could help. …

It is important to remain vigilant against incentives for governments to use them as symbolic cover for business as usual, or for well-financed lobby groups to subvert their operation and sideline their recommendations. These problems are recognized and in many cases overcome by deliberative practitioners and practice. … The prospects for benign deployment are good to the degree that deliberative scholars and practitioners have established relationships with political leaders and publics—as opposed to being turned to in desperation in a crisis.

So ordinary people are capable of fair and thoughtful deliberation, but only via expensive processes carefully managed in detail by, and designed well in advance by, proper deliberation experts with “established relationships with political leaders and publics.” That is, these experts must be free to pick the “balance” of info, experts, and participants included, and even who speaks when how, and these experts must be treated with proper respect and deference by the public and by political authorities.

No, they aren’t offering a simple well-tested mechanism (e.g., an auction) that we can apply elsewhere with great confidence that the deployed mechanism is the same as the one that they tested. Because what they tested instead was a mechanism with a lot of “knobs” that need context-specific turning; they tested the result of having particular experts use a lot of discretion to make particular political and info choices in particular contexts. They say that went well, and their academic peer reviewers (mostly the same people) agreed. So we shouldn’t worry that such experts would become corrupted if we gave them a lot more power.

This sure sounds like a priesthood to me. If we greatly empower and trust a deliberation priesthood, presumably overseen by these 20 high priest authors and their associates, they promise to create events wherein ordinary people talk much more reasonably, outputting policy recommendations that we could then all defer to with more confidence. At least if we trust them.

In contrast, I’ve been suggesting that we empower and trust prediction markets on key policy outcomes. We’ve tested such mechanisms a lot, including in contexts with strong incentives to corrupt them, and these mechanisms have far fewer knobs that must be set by experts with discretion. Which seems more trustworthy to me.

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To Oppose Polarization, Tug Sideways

Just over 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” … nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” … “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” Some 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans do think [so]. … “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said [between] “a little” to “a lot.” (more)

Pundits keep lamenting our increasing political polarization. And their preferred fix seems to be to write more tsk-tsk op-eds. But I can suggest a stronger fix: pull policy ropes sideways. Let me explain.

Pundit writings typically recommend some policies relative to others. In polarized times such as ours, these policy positions tend to be relatively predictable given a pundit’s political value positions, i.e., the positions they share with their political allies relative to their political enemies. And much of the content of their writings work to clarify any remaining ambiguities, i.e., to explain why their policy position is in fact a natural result of political positions they share with their allies. So only people with evil values would oppose it. So readers can say “yay us, boo them”.

Twelve years ago I described this as a huge tug-o-war:

The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War “ropes” set up in [a] high dimensional policy space. If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are “one of them,” you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions. That is, pick a rope and pull on it. (more)

To oppose this tendency, one idea is to encourage pundits to sometimes recommend policies that are surprising or the opposite of what their political positions might suggest. That is, go pull on the opposite side of a rope sometimes, to show us that you think for yourself, and aren’t driven only by political loyalty. And yes doing this may help. But as the space of political values that we fight over is multi-dimensional, surprising pundit positions can often be framed as a choice to prioritize some values over others, i.e., as a bid to realign the existing political coalitions in value space. Yes, this may weakens the existing dominant political axis, but it may not do much to make our overall conversation less political.

Instead, I suggest that we encourage pundits to grab a policy tug-o-war rope and pull it sideways. That is, take positions that are perpendicular to the usual political value axes, in areas where one has not yet taken explicit value-oriented positions. For example, a pundit who has not yet taken a position on whether we should have more or less military spending might argue for more navy relative to army, and then insist that this is not a covert way to push a larger or smaller military. Most credibly by continuing to not take a position on overall military spending. (And by not coming from a navy family, for whom navy is a key value.)

Similarly, someone with no position on if we should punish crime more or less than we currently do might argue for replacing jail-based punishments with fines, torture, or exile. Or, given no position on more or less immigration, argue for a particular new system to decide which candidates are more worthy of admission. Or given no position on how hard we should work to compensate for past racism, argue for cash reparations relative to affirmative action.

Tugging policy ropes sideways will frustrate and infuriate loyalists who seek mainly to praise their political allies and criticize their enemies. Such loyalists will be tempted to assume the worse about you, and claim that you are trying to covertly promote enemy positions. And so they may impose a price on you for this stance. But to the extent that observers respect you, loyalists will pay a price for attacking you in this way, and raising their overall costs of making everything political. And so on average by paying this price you can buy an overall intellectual conversation that’s a bit less political. Which is the goal here.

In addition, pulling ropes sideways is on average just a better way to improve policy. As I said twelve years ago:

If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy. On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled. (more)

Yes, there is a sense in which arguments for “sideways” choices do typically appeal to a shared value: “efficiency”. For example, one would typically argue for navy over army spending in terms of cost-effectiveness in military conflicts and deterrence. Or might argue for punishment via fines in terms of cost-effectiveness for the goals of deterrence or rehabilitation. But all else equal we all like cost-effectiveness; political coalitions rarely want to embrace blatant anti-efficiency positions. So the more our policy debates emphasize efficiency, the less political polarized they should be.

Of course my suggestion here isn’t especially novel; most pundits are aware that they have the option to take the sort of sideways positions that I’ve recommended. Most are also aware that by doing so, they’d less enflame the usual political battles. Yet how often have you heard pundits protest that others falsely attributed larger value positions to them, when they really just tried to argue for cost-effectiveness of A over B using widely shared effectiveness concepts? That scenario seems quite rare to me.

So the main hope I can see here is of a new signaling equilibria where people tug sideways and brag about it, or have others brag on their behalf, to show their support for cutting political polarization. And thereby gain support from an audience who wants to reward cutters. Which of course only works if enough pundits actually believe a substantial such audience exists. So what do you say, is there much of an audience who wants to cut political polarization?

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Why Grievances Grow

We have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity. (more)

A full 80% [of US] believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” … The woke are in a clear minority across all ages. … Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30% see it as a problem. … Compared with the rest of the [nation], progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. … What people mean by “political correctness.” … [is] their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them. (more)

While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems [with transit construction], especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope. (more)

Chronic Complainers: These folks live in a constant state of complaint. If they’re not voicing about their “woe is me” attitude, they’re probably thinking about it. Psychologists term this compulsory behavior rumination, defined as “repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.” Rumination is, unfortunately, directly relayed to the depressed and anxious brain. (more)

Customers with high status tended to register more service failures and to complain more frequently than customers of lower social status. All three social status distinctions explored in this study (gender, education, and age) correlated negatively with formal complaint, but only age correlated negatively with informal complaint. … Two cultural dimensions [power distance and uncertainty avoidance] had the expected negative effect on intention to complain, and moderated the relationship between social status and intention to complain. (more)

My favorite one-factor theory of social attitude (and value) change over the last few centuries is that increasing wealth has induced a drift from farmer back to forager attitude (and values). (A theory I also outline in Age of Em.) Which plausibly helps explains changing attitudes toward fertility, gender, slavery, crime, democracy, war, leisure, art, and travel. In this post I want to suggest a (to me) new hypothesis about forager attitudes, which could help explain some recent attitude trends.

Foragers are fiercely egalitarian. They share many kinds of food and other resources, and enforce a norm of quickly and aggressively squashing any signs of attempts to use or threaten to use force, or any inclinations to do so. In fact, this is probably the uber-norm that drove the evolution of norms in the first place. Bragging about your physical strength is a no-no, as that can be interpreted as an implicit threat to use that strength. Even bragging about your intelligence or other resources is discouraged, as those might also be seen as threats, or as attempts to form coalitions that might threaten. Forager group decisions are to be made by consensus, after everyone has had a chance to weigh in.

Now consider foragers attitudes about complaining. When someone more dominant makes a complaint to someone less dominant, that can often be interpreted as a threat to use power if the complaint isn’t fixed. Which is a big forager no-no. But when a less dominant person complains to a more dominant person, it is harder to see that as a threat to use power. So complaints down are discouraged more than complaints up, just as punching down is more of a no-no than punching up. And we’ll tend to interpret complaints as a pro-down positions.

A complaint that is made to third parties fits the standard norm-enforcement pattern, a pattern of which foragers greatly approve. Thus having A complain to B about how a more dominant person C is treating a less dominant person D badly should generally meet with approval. This is A helping out with norm enforcement, and can be seen as “speaking truth to power.” If A is a high prestige person, and B is a wise and moral audience, this pattern should be especially approved. After all, we naturally believe prestigious people more than others. And if a complaint leads to action of which we later approve, that can increase the prestige of the complainers.

Yes, people who complain a lot tend to seem unhealthy, and we tend to think less of frequent complainers. Even so, foragers likely a big soft spot in their hearts for prestigious people who complain to the whole group that some low dominance people are being treated badly by high dominance people. Those complaints, foragers respected.

In our society today, we tend to frame big firms, governments, rich folks, and larger demographic groups as more dominant actors. So when a local neighborhood group complains about a government plan for a transit construction project, we tend to see that as a low dominance actor complaining about a high dominance actor, and habitually sympathize. And to the extent that we have forager-like attitudes about such situations, this increases the political negotiating power of such complainers, inducing governments to give in to them, and raising the costs of transit construction projects. Similar processes likely increase the power of neighborhood groups who demand rent, zoning, and private construction restrictions, resulting in less new buildings and housing.

Forager-like attitudes similarly prime us to favor ordinary consumers or employees who complain about big firms, and this encourages regulations focused mostly on consumer and employee welfare, relative to the welfare of investors, who are framed as rich and thus dominators. Even rich high status people feel comfortable complaining about how big firms treat them, and in fact they feel more comfortable than low status folks. Their higher prestige can make them feel like respected moral crusaders for all.

As larger race/ethnicities are framed as dominators relative to smaller ones, forager-like attitudes prime us to sympathize with complaints that the former mistreat the latter. Similarly for complaints on how the larger groups who have more standard gender and sexual preferences treat the smaller groups who have more deviant genders and sexual preferences. Men’s higher physical strength and participation in war, and higher percentage among top positions at most organizations, has long induced us to frame men as more dominant relative to women.

Thus when we have more forager-like attitudes, we naturally sympathize when high prestige people complain that these more dominant groups are mistreating the less dominant groups. And in fact people with the potential for high prestige can seek to cement and increase their prestige via such complaints. Which is plausibly why it is high prestige folks who participate most in “grievance studies” type complaining.

Forager-like attitudes should make us sympathize with most any complaint about how rich people treat less rich people. Including how they conspire to mess up markets, political systems, or legal systems. Also, when criminals are committing crimes, they can seem like illicit dominators relative to ordinary citizens. But police, courts, and prisons can seem like dominators relative to criminals, thus inducing us to sympathize with complaints that criminals are being treated too harshly by the legal system. Perhaps explaining why prestigious folks seem to consistently push for weaker criminal punishments.

My wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager-attitudes story says that this complaint-sympathizing effect has been slowly getting stronger as we’ve been getting richer and more forager-like. It is strongest in the richest nation, which is currently the US, and it will continue to get stronger world-wide as the world gets richer. And these grievances accumulate when we do not use law to try and settle them.

And that’s my story. Hyper-egalitarian foragers were especially sympathetic to complaints by prestigious folks that high-dominance folks were mistreating less-dominant others, and with increasing wealth we’ve been slowly increasing our embrace of this forager attitude. And so we’ve been listening more to such complainers, and giving them more political and social power, which has encouraged more high prestige folks to present themselves as such crusading complainers. Which results in a growing accumulation of such grievances.

What to do about this will have to wait for another post.

Added 10Mar: The conceptual power here is that this theory is more specific than the general idea that we dislike inequality and dominance, and so work consistently to reduce them. A habit of favoring specific complaints against more dominant parties can actually increase inequality and dominance in many cases.

Added 11Mar: Martin Gurri’s book Revolt of the Public can be seen as describing a switch to a focus on popular complaints. He describes many new social movements around 2011 that focused on complaining loudly to an enthusiastic public, but which due to egalitarian ideals weren’t interested in or capable of negotiating concrete demands or working within the usual political systems.

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Reponse to Weyl

To my surprise, thrice in his recent 80,000 hours podcast interview with Robert Wiblin, Glen Weyl seems to point to me to represent a view that he dislikes. Yet, in all three cases, these disliked views aren’t remotely close to views that I hold.

Weyl: The Vickrey Auction, … problem is he had this very general solution, but which doesn’t really make any sense like in any practical case. And he pointed out that that was true. But everybody was so enamored of the fact that his was generally correct, that they didn’t try to find like versions of it that might actually make sense. They basically just said, “Oh, that’s correct in general,” and then either you were like Tyler and you’re like … just dismiss that whole thing and you’re like, “Ah, too abstract.” Or you were like, you know, Robin Hanson and you just said, “Let’s just do it! Let’s just do it!” You know? And like neither of those was really convincing.

The Vickrey auction was taught to me in grad school, but I’ve never been a big fan because it looked vulnerable to collusion (also a concern re Weyl’s quadratic voting proposals), and because I’d heard of problems in related lab experiments. I’ve long argued (e.g. here) for exploring new institution ideas, but via working our way up from smaller to larger scale trials, and then only after we’ve seen success at smaller scales. Theory models are often among the smallest possible trials. 

Weyl: What I definitely am against … is something which builds a politics that only wants to speak or only respects nerdy and mathematically inclined ways of approaching issues. I think that’s a huge mistake. … the rationalist community … has … obsessive focus on communicating primarily with and relating socially primarily to people who also agree that whatever set of practices they think defined rationality are the way to think about everything. And I think that, that is extremely dangerous … because I think A, it’s not actually true that most useful knowledge that we have comes from those methods. … And B, it’s fundamentally anti-democratic as an attitude … because if you think that the only people who have access to the truth are philosopher kings, it becomes hard to escape the conclusion that philosopher kings should rule. …

Weyl: So, Robin Hanson has this book, Elephant In The Brain, which has some interesting things in it, but I think ultimately is a long complaint that people aren’t interested in talking about politics in the way that I am interested in talking about politics. And that really annoys me. I would submit that, to someone that has that attitude, you should say, “Perhaps consider talking about politics in a different way. You might find that other people might find it easier to speak to you that way.” 

Weyl: There’s something called neo-reaction, … a politics that is built around the notion that basically there should be a small elite of people who own property and control power through that property. … Even though most people in this rationalist community would reject that kind of politics, I think there’s a natural tendency, if you have that set of social attitudes, to have your politics drift in that direction.

Our book, The Elephant in the Brain, has ten application chapters, only one of which is on politics, and that chapter compares key patterns of political behavior to two theories of why we are political: to change policy outcomes or to show loyalty to political allies. Neither theory is about being nerdy, mathematical, or “rational”, and most of the evidence we point to is not on styles of talking, nor do we recommend any style of talking.

Furthermore, every style of thinking or talking is compatible with the view that some people think much better than others, and also with the opposite view.  Nerdy or math styles are not different in this regard, so I see no reason to expect people with those styles of thinking to more favor “anti-democratic” views on thinking eliteness.

And of course, it remains possible that some people actually are much better at thinking than others. (See also two posts on my responses to other critics of econ style thinking.)

Wiblin: I guess in that case it seems like Futarchy, like Robin Hanson’s idea where people vote for what they want, but then bet on what the outcomes will be, might work quite well because you would avoid exploitation by having distributed voting power, but then you would have these superhuman minds would predict what the outcomes of different policies or different actions would be. Then they would be able to achieve whatever outcome was specified by a broad population. …

Weyl: I have issues with Futarchy, but I think what I really object to, it’s less even the worldview I’m talking about. I think really, the problem I have is that there is a rhetoric out there of trying to convince people that they’re insufficient and that everything should be the private property of a small number of people for this reason when in fact, if it was really the case that those few people were so important, and great, and powerful, they wouldn’t need to have all this rhetoric to convince other people of it. People would just see it, they would get it. 

Futarchy has nothing to do with the claim that everything should be the private property of a small number of people, nor have I ever made any such claim. Hopefully, this is just a case of a possible misreading of what Weyl said, and he didn’t intend to relate futarchy or myself to such views.

Added 3p: Weyl & I have been having a Twitter conversation on this, which you can find from here.

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