Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Firms & Cities Have Open Borders

Cities usually don’t much limit who can move there. If you can find someone in a city to give you a job, to rent you an apartment, to sell you food and other stuff, and to be your friends, etc. and if you can pay for your move, then you can move to that city from anywhere in a much larger region. Of course individual employers, landlords, and stores are mostly free to reject you, but the city doesn’t add much in the way of additional requirements. Same for other units smaller than a nation, such as counties and states.

Large firms also don’t usually much limit who can work there. Oh each particular small work group is usually particular about who works there, but the larger firm will mostly defer to local decisions about hires. Yes, if the larger firm has made commitments to trying never to fire anyone, but to always find someone another place in the firm when they are no longer wanted in any one part, then that larger firm may put more limits on who and how many folks can be hired by any one small group. But when the larger firm has few obligations to local workers, then local groups are also mostly free to hire who they want.

The obvious analogies between cities, firms and nations make it somewhat puzzling that nations are much more eager to limit who can enter them. The analogy is strongest when those who enter nations can only do so in practice if they can find local employers, landlords, suppliers, friends, etc. willing to deal with them. And when the nation assigns itself few obligations to anyone who happens to live there.

Yes, in principle there can be externalities whereby the people who enter one part of a nation effect the enjoyment and productivity of people in other parts of a nation. But those same sort of effects should also appear within parts of a city or of a firm. So why don’t cities and firms work harder to limit local choices of who can enter them?

You might claim that cities and firms don’t need to attend to limiting entry because nations already do it for them. But most nations already have a lot of internal variation; why is none of that variation of interest to cities and firms, yet the variation between nations would supposedly be of huge interest, if nations were not handling that? And firms and cities within the nations that hold all those bad people that you think good nations are focused on excluding don’t have firm- or city-wide exclusion policies either.

Furthermore, many multinational firms today already have employees who are spread across a great many nations, nations that vary a lot in wealth, development, etc. Yet such multinationals usually don’t have much in the way of centralized limits on who can be hired by their divisions in different firms, nor on who can be transferred between such divisions. These firms may face limits imposed by nations, but they seem to mostly lament such limits, and aren’t eager to add more.

Firms and cities live in more competitive environments than do nations. So we should expect their behavior to be shaped more by competitive pressures. Thus we can conclude that competitive entities tend not to create entity-wide limits on who can enter them; they are mostly content to let smaller parts of them made those decisions.

So if nations act differently from firms and cities, that should be because either:
1) there are big important effects that are quite different at the national level, than at firm and city levels, or
2) nations are failing to adopt policies that competition would induce, if they faced more competition.

My bet is on the latter. In that case, the key question is: is there a market failure that makes the entry policies that competition pushes lamentable? If not, we should lament that competition isn’t inducing more free entry into nations. That is, we should lament that competition isn’t inducing national open borders, like we mostly have for cities and firms.

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Why Not Also Punish False Praise?

I recently read on social media praise for someone I know, someone about whom I know some negative things. I realized that if I posted my negative comments, those would be held to much higher standards than are positive comments. I might be sued for defamation, and many would apply a social norm to me which demands that one defend negative comments with concrete supporting evidence. We don’t have such a norm regarding positive comments.

While the Romans allowed one to sue for damages when someone defamed you even by saying true things, we today only allow that when someone says false negative things, although at common law the burden of proof is on the person accused of defamation to prove their negative claim. The message is: don’t say negative things about others in public if you can’t prove them in court.

Presumably the reason we now allow suits for false defamation is that we see a net social harm there; others are liable to be misled, causing misallocations of resources and relations. In addition, resources may be wasted in back-and-forth defamation battles. But it seems to me that we should also expect similar social harms to result from false positive comments, not just false negative comments. So maybe we should consider having law discourage those as well.

With negative comments it is the defamer who pays the person defamed, even though it is the larger society who in fact suffers the net social harm. The person defamed is just a convenient party we give an incentive to sue. But defamation law would serve a similar social function if we turned it into a bounty, where anyone could sue and collect it. So an obvious option for false positive comments would be to make that into a bounty.

It seems counterproductive to expect the person who is falsely praised to sue someone for doing that. Their incentive can be weak, and if they win they gain twice, from the false claim and from the suit. So my proposal is: let anyone sue re a false positive claim, the first person to succeed gains a bounty amount equal to the court’s estimate of the false gain that resulted. Again put the burden of proof on the person who made the claim. So just as with defamation today, the bounty hunter would have to show some substantial net monetary equivalent gain to the person who was falsely praised, and that could be the amount awarded to that hunter.

Yes, in our world where false praise isn’t punished there’s a lot of it, which isn’t believed so much, and thus each instance causes less harm. But that would also be true if we didn’t allow suing for defamation; a lot more criticism would happen, which would be believed less. If this isn’t a reason to allow defamation, it isn’t a reason not to allow suits against false praise.

Of course, I don’t expect people to leap to implement my proposal. I offer it as a thought experiment, to help us think about *why* we don’t like this, even though its justification seems similarly strong to our usual justification for allowing false defamation lawsuits. Why is false praise seen as so much less harmful than false criticism?

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Rules of Public Evidence?

The United States is perhaps unique among the developed world in that under law, some hate speech is protected. (more)

The United States has a very complicated system of evidentiary rules; for example, John Wigmore’s celebrated treatise on it filled ten volumes. James Bradley Thayer reported in 1898 that even English lawyers were surprised by the complexity of American evidence law. (more)

The main rules of evidence in Sweden are: (i) the principle of free evidence, meaning that there are basically no provisions on what is permitted as evidence as long as it is relevant to the facts to be proven in the case; and (ii) the principle of free evaluation of evidence, meaning that the court evaluates all evidence at its discretion. (more)

On 2 December 1766 Sweden became the first country in the world to have freedom of the press written into the constitution. (more)

Many in the US are proud that the US has weaker limits on speech than do most other nations, especially regarding political speech. However, most in US are not aware that the US also has some of the strongest “rules of evidence” limits on speech in legal courts. These US rules are new; we didn’t have them centuries ago.

Yet the usual arguments used to argue for free political speech can also argue for free court speech, while the usual arguments supporting rules of evidence can also support similar limits on political speech. And the examples of other nations shows that there isn’t a strong world consensus that court limits make more sense than political speech limits. Sweden shows that one can allow free speech in both contexts, while many other nations show that one can also have strong limits in both contexts.

Here are some common rules of evidence limiting trial speech. These are rough guides; the law is quite complex with simple summaries rarely applying exactly.

  • A big clear separation is required between “news” and “editorials”, that is between supporting evidence (most of a trial) and arguments for conclusions (given in closing statements).
  • All witnesses must swear oaths to tell the truth, and are guilty of a crime if they lie.
  • Anyone may be required to testify, except the accused, spouses, docs, therapists, lawyers.
  • One must apply any burdens of proof separately to each element, not just to overall evidence.

All these kinds of evidence are not allowed:

  1. The opinion of a non-expert, unless it is reached unconsciously,
  2. Unauthenticated tangible evidence,
  3. Indirect circumstantial evidence,
  4. Data on similar prior convictions or behavior by the accused,
  5. Hearsay, i.e., what someone heard someone else say,
  6. Simple “naked” statistical evidence, based on relative counts rather than direct observations,
  7. Extrinsic evidence of the contents of a written contract,
  8. Evidence obtained via illegal acts, and
  9. Confessions obtained in an “unreliable” context.

If we wanted, we could eliminate these court rules, and just let everyone say anything relevant that they want in court, as happens now in Sweden.

Or, we might instead apply many of these rules to public political speech. For example, we could require evidence and argument to appear in separate places, we could ban opinions by non-experts, and ban arguments using hearsay or naked statistical evidence. We might even ban irrelevant distracting tangents.

Such rules would require some discretion to enforce, but not much more than judges already use now to apply such rules in courts. Any disputes about excess or misdirected discretion would be judged by those very same legal judges who now make those judgments in courtrooms. And as with most law, minor offenses, which bring small sanctions, may be mostly ignored by both state police and by private suits.

Even in the US, we already apply many limits to business speech. For example, alcohol firms can’t tell the public that most studies find health benefits from modest consumption, anti-discrimination laws limit the kinds of questions one can ask in a job interview, professional licensing limits who you can pay for advice, and some offers are banned by blackmail and wrongful interference with relations rules.

The business world still roughly functions with these rules, as do political worlds in other nations that have strong limits on political speech. And courts could still roughly function without rules of evidence, as happens now in Sweden. These are clearly choices we could make, not clearly forced on us by survival or even wealth considerations.

So what should we choose, more free speech at trials, less free political speech, or a continuation of our inconsistent approach? Here’s a Twitter poll on that:

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The Big Change In Blame

Law is our main system of official blame; it is how we officially blame people for things. So it is a pretty big deal that, over the last few centuries, changes to law have induced big changes in who officially blames who for most things that go wrong. These changes may be having big bad effects.

Long ago most everyone could use law to blame most everyone else. Even though people were poor, the legal process was simple enough for most to use it without needing a lawyer. (Many places actually banned lawyers.) Those found liable could often be sold into slavery to pay their legal debts, and their larger family clans could also be held responsible for their debts. So basically, people blamed people, with families as guarentors.

Over the last few centuries, the legal system has become far more complex and expensive, now requiring people to pay lawyers to sue. But at the same time we’ve made it harder to get people who are found liable to pay. We don’t sell them into slavery or make their families pay, and going bankrupt has become easier and less painful. So when ordinary people suffer a harm and look for someone to sue, their lawyers usually strongly advise that they focus on any deep pockets at all related to their harm.

The law, sympathetic to their plight, has found ways to blame the rich and big firms for most everything that goes wrong. For example, these are all real examples.

  • A rape in an abandoned building is blamed on the building owner.
  • Harassment in a stadium parking lot is blamed on the stadium owner.
  • A student harming another student in an off-campus apartment is blamed on the school.
  • A post-event bad-weather auto-accident is blamed on event host for not cancelling.
  • A harm from using a product bought from a 3rd party is blamed on its manufacturer.

As ordinary people aren’t suing each other much, the government steps in to discipline ordinary folks’ behavior, via regulation and crime law. So, while once people blamed people, law now trains people to blame the rich and big business, and to expect to be blamed by government. So it maybe isn’t so strange that in the recent US Democratic presidential debates, the main parties blamed are the rich and big business. And if ordinary people are seen as doing something wrong (as with guns), regulation or crime law is assumed to be the solution.

When bad things happen in government spaces, like roads, it gets harder to find a rich person or business to blame. So on the roads we have introduced a system of requiring liability insurance, to make sure there’s a big rich business to pay if something goes wrong. As a result, on the road people blame people. That seems a healthier situation to me, and my vouching proposal would try to apply that idea much more widely, to help us return to a world where more often people blame people, rather than people blaming business or government blaming people.

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Joker is Creepy

Joker is a classic villain, opposite the classic hero Batman. The new Joker movie is an origin story that treats him sympathetically. We see how circumstances and personality can combine to turn a sad but loyal citizen into a vicious villain.

The basic formula is simple, but quite well-executed, especially via the remarkable acting performance of Joaquin Phoenix. The formula has two parts. First, there’s a slow steady trajectory. We start Joker out as a pretty ordinary if weak person, hungry for respect that he doesn’t get. We pile on abuses and crises, under which he slowly cracks. We give him the respect and attention he craves only when he is violent, and so tempt him toward more. He starts out admirably restrained in his response to quite unfair abuse, then we slowly ratchet up the size of the abuse, his sometimes out-sized response, and his comfort level with that response. He slowly becomes more confident, graceful, and charismatic, and he is surprised to learn he doesn’t feel so bad about what he’s done. With no clear bright line crossed, the movie dares the viewer to judge when exactly he has gone too far.

The second part of the formula is to subtly make Joker seem creepy, right from the start, to foreshadow the eventual outcome. (“Creepy” = ambiguous threat.) That is, though what he overtly does seems mostly restrained and reasonable, at least for a while, and though we make him understandable and sympathetic, we also pile on subtle and largely unconscious cues that he can’t be trusted. We combine signs that he’s low status and has poor social skills with signs that he’s prone toward physical outbursts. We make sure he seems self-absorbed, and that his gaze and voice seem guarded, i.e., overly controlled and evasive. Joker chain smokes, often laughs uncontrollably, often has his legs shake uncontrollably, lives among garish home furnishings, wears white socks with dark pants and shoes, has an awkward lanky running style, walks into glass doors, and is bad at reading what others will think is funny. He often fails to read or anticipate how others do or will react to what he does.

Audiences love the Joker movie:

After three impressive weekends in a row at the box office, Joker is on track to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

With Democratic candidates competing to advocate unprecedented extreme redistribution schemes, you might think left-leaning movie critics would love a film about a downtrodden guy who, suffering from public service cutbacks, starts a political movement to resist the rich and powerful. But in fact elite critics mostly hate it:

Joker … preview provided social media with the one thing it will not tolerate: moral ambiguity. … What critics … seem to fear is that Arthur Fleck … is also the kind of person we imagine would be very excited about the Joker movie in real life. … He thinks he’s taking revenge on an unjust world. This makes him look like an element of society we associate with senseless violence in real life: lonely, male and emotionally stunted. … David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’ … At Slate, Sam Adams wrote that ‘no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own. … has led reviewers to condemn the kind of moral ambiguity that was supposed to distinguish art from crass commerce in the first place. … won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. … failure to maintain critical distance… projected onto…audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves— insanely more suggestible, almost comically so… critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes. (more).

Apparently Joker being a low status white male who uses a gun to gain respect is a deal-breaker for them – that’s just too much like those incels and Trump supporters.

I’d say the movie actually pretty clearly disapproves of Joker’s actions toward the end; this is the origin story of a famous villain after all. It also disapproves of the rioting mobs that he inspires. Even if the rich and powerful have been mean to the poor and weak, wild angry rioters just make things worse. As Tyler says, “it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever”. Which may also be why left-leaning critics hate it.

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Open Borders

In their new book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith do everything you’d think that good policy pundits should do.

They don’t just track trends or scold rivals, they identify and focus on a feasible positive policy change. They don’t just pick any old change, but focus on one of the biggest possible gains they can identify. And it isn’t a complex fragile proposal that most people couldn’t understand, or that would go badly if not implemented exactly as recommended; their proposal is simple and robust. They don’t pick a topic that has little emotional-resonance, regarding which few would act even if they were persuaded; their topic is quite emotionally-engaging. They don’t pick a change so abstract (like futarchy) that few can concretely imagine it; one can create concrete vivid images of what would happen if their proposal were implemented.

They don’t use complex technical prose, they write in simple clear language, and even add engaging pictures; their book is actually a well-done “graphic novel”. They don’t just present one side of an argument, but instead respond to many major counter arguments. They don’t just use one favored framework of analysis, they consider the issue from many possible frameworks. They don’t just focus on their favorite policy choice, they consider many possible ways to compromise with others. They aren’t overly confident in their claims. And while they consider many possible details and complexities, their main argument, regarding the main effect of their proposal, is simplicity itself.

Most important, their arguments seem solid and correct. Adopting their proposal could in fact plausibly double world product, over and above the growth rate that we might achieve without it. The main obvious effect seems so huge as to overwhelm other considerations. Relative to that huge gain, other costs and risks seem minor and acceptable. Of course, the real world is more complex than are our models of it, and so we can never be very confident that changes which go well in our models will actually go well in the real world. And all the more so when our models are noisy and partial, as in social science. Even so, this is another case I’d call “checkmate”, at least in argument terms.

So, damn it, Caplan and Weinersmith do everything you might think pundits should do. I remain personally persuaded (as I have long been); I’d pull the trigger on doing large broad tests of their plan, and if necessary making big compromises to get a deal that can make these tests happen.

I very much hope that everyone loves this book, and that it is the trigger we needed to start a larger debate that leads eventually to big trials. But alas, I’d bet against this happening, if I had to bet. The large political world isn’t that responsive, at least in the short to medium term, to the world of elite policy debates, and in the elite world people mainly care about signs of status and prestige. Elites loved Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Dubner & Levitt’s Freakonomics, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Bostrom’s Superintelligence not because those offered clear solid arguments that readers understood, but because they came with signs of high status. Many elites talked about them, their style projected prestige, their authors had high status affiliations, and the positions they took were in fashion, at least in elite circles.

I deeply admire my colleague Bryan Caplan, and am proud that he has again gone for the big solid simple intellectual win, as he did before regarding politics, parenting, and school. I hope he can do it another dozen times. I’ll read each one, and usually be persuaded. There’s a small chance he’ll have big effects, and his taking that chance seems a clear win on cost-benefit terms. But I must also be honest; that chance is still low.

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State Rating Agencies

People who buy cars can often get independent evaluations on them from auto mechanics. Same with house inspectors. More generally, consumers can get help in evaluating products from Consumer Reports, while bond investors can get help evaluating bonds via bond rating agencies like Moody’s. Charity donors can use GiveWell.

Such evaluations can be more useful than mere popularity or subjective ratings, as they can be based on relatively objective evaluation criteria. Due to such objectivity, users have to know less about how much the people who create such ratings share their interests and values. Users mainly need to know that creators are expert and mostly independent, not greatly beholden to folks other than users.

Which gives me an idea: Could we create long-lived independent ratings agencies to help voters around the world evaluate their incumbent governments? Truly global organizations with global reputations, so that they are less vulnerable to local pressures than are local media and organized interest groups?

The idea isn’t crazy, but we’d need to find relatively objective things that such agencies could measure and publicize. Not just general good outcomes like GDP or lifespans, as those tend to be hard to change, especially over short timescales. We’d prefer to measure things that are more directly under the control of incumbent governments.

One good cheap measure sometimes used today is transparency, which is the fraction of national statistics requested by the United Nations that this nation actually provides. Related measures might be produced by accountants who just apply standard accounting metrics to government accounting records. Another useful measure is the private income of politicians, beyond what they are paid publicly. Such income most likely comes from corrupt payoffs. Perhaps a fourth would be some measure of the fraction of trade that happens via black market. What more can we find like these?

Some organizations track which governments have which policies like allowing independent media, or making it easier to start a business. But many people dispute whether these policies are in fact better. So ideally we’d like to track things that most everyone can agree is either good or bad.

Most everyone disapproves of corruption, and governments can in fact change that quickly. So it would be great if independent agencies could measure and report on aggregate corruption. There are obviously relatively expensive but effective ways to do this, such as sending in random parties who try to do things and see how often bribes are demanded. But are there cheaper ways?

This isn’t an easy problem, but it also isn’t ridiculously hard, and solving it even partially would seem to offer enormous benefits. Today voters try to evaluate their incumbent governments based on their personal experience and on recommendations by local parties who are typically deeply enmeshed in local alliances. Which makes it hard for voters to know who to trust.

Wouldn’t it make sense to try to create more trustworthy independent global evaluators, like Consumer Reports and Moody’s, but for states? If voters believed such evaluators, then politicians would try to please them, producing less corruption and more of the good things measured. As they say “What gets measured, gets done.” So let’s work to measure more.

Added 19Oct: For some reason the above just doesn’t seem to make it clear that I’m not looking for general stats or indicators about nations, I’m looking for stats on the recent performance of the incumbent administration. That is what can be useful to local voters. So that has to be stuff the incumbent administration could substantially control, and it needs to be relative to what would have happened in a different administration. So that can’t be just local public perceptions or general rankings of nations or general slowly-changing outcomes.

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Let Foreigners Speak

In our ordinary informal lives of leisure, friendship, romance, and entertainment, we mainly regulate and mitigate the harms of speech with the option to use more speech. If we don’t like what someone says, we say something critical of what they said, or of them. We label, index, dissect, and evaluate, but we don’t ban or require any particular speech, other than via the incentives that our speech can produce.

However, as we move into the worlds of business and politics, we more often endorse censorship and forced speech. For example, regarding contracts, we allow lawsuits alleging fraud, and we require disclosure of safety info. Occupational licensing limits from whom you can get legal or medical advice. We let regulators forbid alcohol firms from making ads that say truthfully that teetotalers are less healthy than others, and require that firms disclosure financial info. We allow lawsuits alleging that slander hurt our business revenue, and require that everyone all carry valid ID. In politics, we require that donors disclose themselves, and we ban foreigners from direct participation in domestic election conversations.

It is worth remembering that most of the worse villains in history were famously far into censorship and required speech. The Catholic inquisition required people to agree with their dogma, and tortured and killed those who disagreed. US south slave owners beat slaves for speaking their minds, and prohibited teaching them to read. Nazi and communist regimes required public vows of allegiance, censored art and books, and punished dissidents. For centuries dictators have repressed dissidents, censored speech, and sought to control schools, newspapers, radio, and TV. Oppressive churches, firms, and other orgs have also sought to censor dissent and to require public agreement with their dogmas.

To me the obvious lesson from this history is to be reluctant to endorse banned or required speech; try as much as possible to solve speech problems with more speech. Yes, we might want to limit things like saying “fire” in a crowded theatre, but there’s a vast space of possible added speech solutions to explore, and we’ve seen a lot of innovation there in the last few decades. (Such as search engines and prediction markets.) It seems dangerous to empower some groups to decide what to censor or require; their first priority is too often to censor criticism of them and to require public agreement with them.

Traditionally US courts have declared themselves the most reluctant to regulate election-related speech, as they see promoting effective political competition as the core rationale for free speech. But lately it saddens me to see people especially eager to regulate political speech. People push for such regulation of politically-related “fake news” by our new mass-participation common-carriers like Facebook and Google, even though in past generations related common-carriers like telephones were especially prohibited from regulating political speech.

It also saddens me to see Trump critics focus most on cases where Trump encouraged foreigners to collect and distribute info on Trump’s political rivals. The focus of the Mueller investigation was Trump apparently encouraging Russians to find & distribute true dirt on Hillary Clinton. The focus of the current impeachment process is Trump apparently encouraging Ukrainians to find and distribute true dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m not especially a Trump fan, though I don’t intuitively loathe him remotely as much as so many do. And I understand that his critics see him as having done a great many quite blameworthy things. So it is sad to see this focus on foreign election influence, which will make it harder for us to adopt the global free speech norms that I prefer. I’d rather that everyone in the world was allowed and even encouraged to speak on everything in the world, including everyone’s elections. My reason is just the simple standard free speech arguments outlined above.

I can maybe see limiting the abilities of enemy combatants during wartime to make their case to our citizens that we should quit the war or that we are the morally guilty party. Though even here I’m not very convinced. But outside of war, I’d rather just let foreigners talk as much as they want to our voters. Yes of course they will have agendas they pursue in what they say, but that’s usually true of most everyone not only in election conversations, but in most all kinds of conversations.

Let the listener beware. Don’t believe everything you hear, and if you don’t like what others say, then by all means criticize it. But don’t outlaw it. Or require people to say the opposite. We just shouldn’t consider it treason or espionage to encourage foreigners to influence domestic elections by talking.  (It is fine, of course, to disapprove of assassinations.)

I can see the point of arguing that when a politician tries to negotiate to encourage particular speech, some kinds of pressures or incentives they might offer are legitimate, while others are not. But my understanding is that most backroom politics is largely about offering pressures and incentives to get people to go along with your plans, many of which are driven by selfish career agendas. It is not yet clear to me that Trump’s pressures and incentives in these foreign talk cases were greatly out of line with most politics.

But my main interest here isn’t Trump, it is foreign free speech. Let’s remember the larger lesson of speech in history, that the worst villains ever didn’t like it. So let us be wary of speech bans and requirements, and instead move toward letting everyone talk on everything, and fixing speech problems with more speech.

Added 11Oct: Alas, my Twitter followers don’t agree with me:

Added 13Oct: US law bans on foreigner participation in US elections.

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Separating Redistribution From Hardship Insurance

Today “social insurance” tends to transfer money and other resources to people when they are in relative need, such as when sick, disabled, unemployed, homeless, or too old to work. These policies tend to mix together the functions of redistribution, transferring resources between people, and insurance, for a person transferring resources between different future states of the world.

By mixing up redistribution and insurance, we make it harder for people to get insurance tailored to their individual style, preferences, and circumstances, and we instead push everyone to get the same kind of insurance. Here’s how we could do better.

Imagine that at a standard newly adult age, say 18 years old, everyone makes a big initial payment to gain a long-term hardship insurance contract, covering their future sickness, disability, unemployment, homelessness, retirement, etc. The client who buys this contract can pay more later to upgrade it if they like, but if they do not so upgrade then this contract will cover them for the rest of their life, even if they stop making payments. (Though the contract may specific quality cuts in this case.)

Insurers must be reinsured sufficiently to ensure that they can in fact meet their contractual obligations over a lifetime. And contracts may specify that the client will pay fractions of their future income or wealth to the insurer, to help lower their initial payment. Contracts might also allow groups of new adults to co-insure, in effect agreeing to help each other in the case of hardship.

Those who have larger budgets will of course be able to afford more generous hardship insurance. So the larger society could do a once-per-lifetime redistribution of resources to increase low budgets, enabling those people to buy more generous hardship insurance.

If this once-per-lifetime transfer were this society’s main channel for redistribution, then it would have largely succeeded in separating redistribution from hardship insurance. The rich could help the poor, while also leaving individuals free to choose the details of their hardship insurance to suit their individual concerns, risk-aversion, likely problems, and social resources.

Parents would of course be expected to contribute to their children’s hardship insurance purchase, and redistribution to those with low budgets would in effect be a subsidy paid to parents for having more children. As fertility seems excessively low today, this doesn’t seem such a bad thing now.

When hardships arise later, people may complain about the terms of their hardship insurance if it was chosen by someone else on their behalf, or if they were too young and ill-informed when they made their choice. So hardship insurance should be chosen at the sort of age when it would be legitimate to let someone choose a career or a housing loan, or to choose to get married or emigrate.

Perhaps the choice of hardship insurance should be marked by a solemn ritual, and only done after passing a test showing that one understand the basics of the contract to which one has agreed. And of course regulations might prohibit some hardship contracts terms when authorities believe that such choices would usually be mistakes.

If we also had vouchers for criminal law, it seems natural to consider merging the roles of crime law vouchers and hardship insurer. And if we merged the role of life and health insurer in order to create better medical treatment incentives (an idea I published 25 years ago!), it also seems natural to consider merging in this role as well. Then you’d have a single long-lived organization who vouches not just for your crime, but also for your health and your security.

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Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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