Both Plague & War Cut Capital Share?

I just finished reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, and found myself agreeing with Scheidel against his critics. Scheidel is a historian who says that inequality has mainly risen in history when income increased, making more inequality physically possible, and when scale and complexity increased, creating more and bigger chokepoints (e.g., CEO, king) whose controllers can demand more rents.

Big falls in inequality have mainly come from big collapses, such as big wars, revolutions, plagues, and state collapses, which are usually associated with violence. This suggests that a big inequality fall is unlikely anytime soon, and we shouldn’t wish for it, as it would likely come from vast destruction and violence. All of which I find very plausible.

While usually big wars via mass mobilization didn’t change inequality much, in the mid 1900s such wars seemed to have gone along with a big taste for redistribution and revolution. This happened to a lesser extent in Ancient Greece and Rome, and fits a story wherein more forager-like cultures care more about redistribution, especially when primed by visible mass sacrifice.

I noticed one puzzling pattern, however. Income in the world goes to owners of capital, to owners of labor, and to those who can take without contributing to production. As the rich usually get more of their income from capital, compared to labor, one thing that can cause less inequality is a change that makes capital earn a smaller share of total income. The puzzling pattern I noticed is that even though big plagues and big wars should have opposite affects on the capital share, both of them seem to have cut inequality, and both apparently in part via cutting the capital share of income! Let me explain.

Big plagues cut the number of workers without doing much to capital, while big wars like WWI & WWII destroy a much larger fraction of capital than they do of labor. Which event, big plague or big war, reduces the share that capital earns? The answer depends on whether capital and labor are complements or substitutes. If they are substitutes, then destroying capital should cut the capital share of income. But when they are complements, it is destroying labor that should cut the capital share.

The simple middle position between complements and substitutes is the power law (a.k.a. “Cobb-Douglas”) production function, where output Y = La*K1-a, for Labor L, capital K, and constant a in (0,1). (Partial derivatives set wages w = dY/dL and capital rent r = dY/dK.) In this situation, the capital share of income r*K/(r*K+w*L) = 1-a, and so never changes.

If, for example, labor L falls by a factor of 2, while capital K stays the same, then wages rise by the factor 21-a while rents fall by the factor 2a, with the product of these factors being 2. Compared to this simple middle position, if labor and capital are instead complements, then in this example wages would rise and rents would fall by larger factors. If labor and capital are instead substitutes, the factors would be smaller.

Economic papers based on data over the last century usually find labor and capital to be complements, though there are notable exceptions such as Thomas Pietty’s blockbuster book. That fits with data on the Black Death. In the century from 1330 to 1430, Europe’s population fell roughly in half, wages doubled, and rents fell a lot. In England, wages tripled. Similar behavior is seen in other large ancient plagues – wages rose by a factor of four in Mexico! This looks more like what you’d see with complementarity than with a simple power law.

World War I (WWI) killed about 1% of the world population, while the concurrent 1918 flu killed about 4%. World War II (WWII) killed about 3%. But capital was cut much more. The ratio of private wealth to national income fell by a factor of two world wide, and by even larger factors in the main warring nations (source):
WealthToIncomeNow for the puzzle. If capital and labor were still complements during WWI & WWII, then destroying a lot more capital than labor should have resulted in rents on capital rising by a factor so big that product of the two factors increases the capital share of income. Is that what happened? Consider Japan, where 5% of the population died:

Real [Japanese] farm rents fell by four-fifths between 1941 and 1945, and from 4.4% of national income in the mid 1930s to 0.3% in 1946. .. By September 1945, a quarter of the country’s physical capital stock had been wiped out. Japan lost 80% of its merchant ships, 25% of all buildings, 21% of household furnishings and personal effects, 34% of factory equipment, and 24% of finished products. The number of factories in operations and the size of the workforce they employed nearly halved during the final year of the war. p.121

Gains from capital almost disappeared during the war years: the share of rent and interest income in total national income fell from a sixth in the mid-1930s to only 3% in 1946. In 1938, dividends, interest, and rental income together had accounted for about a third of the income of the top 1%, with the remainder divided between business and employment income. By 1945, the share of capital income had dropped to less than an eighth and that of wages to a tenth; business income was the only significant revenue source left to the (formerly) wealthy. p.122

In 1946, real GNP was 45% lower than it had been in 1937. p.124

The sharp drop in top income shares .. were caused above all by a decline in the return on capital. .. Most of these changes occurred during the war itself. p.128

Consider also France and Germany (which lost 2% & 11% of people in WWII, respectively):

During WWI, .. a third of the French capital stock was destroyed, the share of capital income in national household income fell by a third, and GDP contracted by the same proportion. ..In WWII, .. two-thirds of the capital stock was wiped out. .. real rents fell by 90% between 1913 and 1950. p.147

[German] rentiers lost the most: their share of national income plummeted from 15% to 3% even as entrepreneurs were able to maintain their share .. real national income was a quarter to a third lower in 1923 than it had been in 1913. p.152

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how this is remotely consistent with labor and capital being complements. Yet complementarity seems a good fit to big ancient plagues and more recent empirical studies. What gives?

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Neglected Big Problems

Some problems are often mentioned in media, such as global warming, war, medical funding, political conflicts. Some problems are less often mentioned in media, but still often discussed in academic publications: encouraging innovation, managing large organizations, extending lifespans, and setting the right amount of regulation. But some problems are obviously big, yet rarely much discussed in media or academia as problems to solve. They are neglected. Oh people on occasion lament such problems, but they don’t often talk seriously about how we might think systematically about solving or mitigating them.

In this post I’d just like to remind folks of a few big neglected problems. I’m not going to propose solutions to them here, though I wouldn’t mind inspiring others to think more about them. Most of them have to do with ancient inherited habits that don’t seem to work that well in the modern world.

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. And it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations. We could also do a lot better at predicting the future, to better inform our commitment choices.

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Surprising Popularity

This week Nature published some empirical data on a surprising-popularity consensus mechanism (a previously published mechanism, e.g., Science in 2004, with variations going by the name “Bayesian Truth Serum”). The idea is to ask people to pick from several options, and also to have each person forecast the distribution of opinion among others. The options that are picked surprisingly often, compared to what participants on average expected, are suggested as more likely true, and those who pick such options as better informed.

Compared to prediction markets, this mechanism doesn’t require that those who run the mechanism actually know the truth later. Which is indeed a big advantage. This mechanism can thus be applied to most any topic, such as the morality of abortion, the existence of God, or the location of space aliens. Also, incentives can be tied to this method, as you can pay people based on how well they predict the distribution of opinion. The big problem with this method, however, is that it requires that learning the truth be the cheapest way to coordinate opinion. Let me explain.

When you pay people for better predicting the distribution of opinion, one way they can do this prediction task is to each look for and report their best estimate of the truth. If everyone does this, and if participant errors and mistakes are pretty random, then those who do this task better will in fact have a better estimate of the distribution of opinion.

For example, imagine you are asked which city is the the capital of a particular state. Imagine you are part of a low-incentive one-time survey, and you don’t have an easy way to find and communicate with other survey participants. In this case, your best strategy may well be to think about which city is actually the capital.

Of course even in this case your incentive is to report the city that most sources would say is the capital. If you (and a few others) in fact know that according to the detailed legal history another city is rightfully the capital, not the city that the usual records give, your incentive is still to go with usual records.

More generally, you want to join the largest coalition who can effectively coordinate to give the same answers. If you can directly talk with each other, then you can agree on a common answer and report that. If not, you can try to use prearranged Schelling points to figure out your common answer from the context.

If this mechanism were repeated, say daily, then a safe way to coordinate would be to report the same answer as yesterday. But since everyone can easily do this too, it doesn’t give your coalition much of a relative advantage. You only win against those who make mistakes in implementing this obvious strategy. So you might instead coordinate to change your group’s answer each day based on some commonly observed changing signal.

To encourage this mechanism to better track truth, you’d want to make it harder for participants to coordinate their answers. You might ask random people at random times to answer quickly, put them in isolated rooms where they can’t talk to others, and ask your questions in varying and unusual styles that make it hard to guess how others will frame those questions. Prefer participants with more direct personal reasons to care about telling related truth, and prefer those who used different ways to learn about a topic. Perhaps ask different people for different overlapping parts and then put the final answer together yourself from those parts. I’m not sure how far you could get with these tricks, but they seem worth a try.

Or course these tricks are nothing like the way most of us actually consult experts. We are usually eager to ask standard questions to standard experts who coordinate heavily with each other. This is plausibly because we usually care much more to get the answers that others will also get, so that we don’t look foolish when we parrot those answers to others. That is, we care more about getting a coordinated standard answer than a truthful answer.

Thus I actually see a pretty bright future for this surprisingly-popular mechanism. I can see variations on it being used much more widely to generate standard safe answers that people can adopt with less fear of seeming strange or ignorant. But those who actually want to find true answers even when such answers are contrarian, they will need something closer to prediction markets.

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Status Hypocrisy

Humans (and some other animals) recognize two kinds of status: good and bad. Good status is “prestige” while bad status is “dominance.” Here is Trump today saying the US wants to be high status in the world, but only via good status:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. (more)

Many animals have a local “pecking order” set by winners of pair-wise physical fights. In some animals, rank is also influenced via prestige elements. For example, babbler birds rise in rank by doing good things for their local group, such as by sharing food and warning against predators. These things count for rank even when gained via violence, such as by fighting other birds for the best places to look out for predators, and by forcing food down the throat of other birds.

Human foragers have strong norms against using or threatening force, and even against bragging about such serious abilities. Hunters may exchange arrows to disguise who deserves credit for good hunts. But foragers are okay with communities having a shared sense of who are better sources of advice, and who are better to emulate and associate with. And it can be okay, in play mode, to brag about play abilities like singing or joking. In The Secret Of Our Success, Joseph Henrich says human cultural evolution was promoted by our tendency to copy behaviors of prestigious people.

Today we tend to say that our leaders have prestige, while their leaders have dominance. That is, their leaders hold power via personal connections and the threat and practice of violence, bribes, sex, gossip, and conformity pressures. Our leaders, instead, mainly just have whatever abilities follow from our deepest respect and admiration regarding their wisdom and efforts on serious topics that matter for us all. Their leaders more seek power, while ours more have leadership thrust upon them. Because of this us/them split, we tend to try to use persuasion on us, but force on them, when seeking to to change behaviors.

You can see this split in typical motives of heroes and villains in fiction, and in how such characters treat their subordinates. It also appears often in war propaganda, such as in accusations about different leadership styles of Trump and Clinton in the US last election.

Firm bosses today tend to be reluctant to give direct orders to subordinates, and prefer a general impression that they have their position mainly because of how much everyone respects their wisdom and effort. Bosses also prefer the impression that their main task is to collect information, apply wisdom, and make good decisions in the firm interest. Subordinates often go along with this story, as they don’t like to publicly accept domination. Employees can just conveniently decide that they respect their boss, and are persuaded by his or her arguments. And firms pay extra for the pretty dynamic bosses to which employees less mind submitting, even if those are worse at making key decisions.

Modern folk often don’t understand how the ancients could have tolerated not having democracy, as we us tell ourselves today that democracy is why we are not dominated by leaders. But while the ancients saw rival nations as under the thumb of tyrants, they themselves had kings whose virtues proved that they deserved their position. And we today look away from evidence that our leaders win elections via illicit means (such as personal connections etc.); our elected leaders are often far from the most prestigious people available. Even if we see most politicians as corrupt, we see our personal politicians as much less so. US residents look away from evidence that the US is not just high status in the world due to its good advice and general helpfulness; the US also uses force, bribes, etc.

Clearly, while there is some fact of the matter about how much a person gains their status via licit or illicit means, there is also a lot of impression management going on. We like to give others the impression that we personally mainly want prestige in ourselves and our associates, and that we only grant others status via the prestige they have earned. But let me suggest that, compared to this ideal, we actually want more dominance in ourselves and our associates than we like to admit, and we submit more often to dominance.

In the following, I’ll offer three lines of evidence for this claim. First consider that we like to copy the consumer purchases of people that we envy, but not of people we admire for being “warm” and socially responsible. I suggest that relative to us, the latter group has prestige while the former has dominance.

Second, consider the fact that when our bosses or presidents retire and leave office, their legitimate prestige should not have diminished much. That is, such people have about the same wisdom and good advice, and they remain as useful a model for copying behavior. Yet others usually show far less interest in associating with such retirees. This suggests that what people really want in associating with bosses is their dominance powers, not their prestigious advice.

For my third line of evidence, consider our differing preferences for short vs. long term mates. We are much more publicly associated with our long term mates, and so we naturally care more about what other people think of them. Their prestige will bleed over onto us. In contrast, short term mating is often done in secret. Thus we should care more about prestige in long term mates, and dominance in short term mates, even if we don’t admit this consciously.

For short term mates, humans seem to mainly care about physical attractiveness. This is in contrast to long term mates and non-sexual short term associates. Women also care about men having a deep voice, and if men are relatively attractive, women like them to show off luxury goods. Women may like creative intelligence in men, but while we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces, that just doesn’t much influence how attractive they seem.

While there is a lot of complexity in mating preferences, and we still don’t understand it all, it seems to me that one important component is that for long term mates we more care about prestige features that are good for the group, but for short term mates, we care more about dominance features that are more directly useful to us personally. Physical attractiveness (and a deep voice) shows off capacities for violence and fertility, both of which are useful powers.

Overall intelligence can be good for the group, but for our ancestors it was much less useful to individuals. This may be part of why IQ matters more for national than individual income. We humans may have long known that smarts is good for our groups, and yet made it less of a priority in our selfish choices of associates.

Added 21Jan: The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

Added 22Jan: This can help explain why smart & sincere tend to go together.

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Future Gender Is Far

What’s the worst systematic bias in thinking on the future? My guess: too much abstraction. The far vs. near mode distinction was first noticed in future thinking, because the effect is so big there.

I posted a few weeks ago that the problem with the word “posthuman” is that it assumes our descendants will differ somehow in a way to make them “other,” without specifying any a particular change to do that. It abstracts from particular changes to just embody the abstract idea of othering-change. And I’ve previously noted there are taboos against assuming that something we see as a problem won’t be solved, and even against presenting such a problem without proposing a solution.

In this post let me point out that a related problem plagues future gender relation thoughts. While many hope that future gender relations will be “better”, most aren’t at all clear on what specifically that entails. For some, all differing behaviors and expectations about genders should disappear, while for others only “legitimate” differences remain, with little agreement on which are legitimate. This makes it hard to describe any concrete future of gender relations without violating our taboo against failing to solve problems.

For example, at The Good Men Project, Joseph Gelfer discusses the Age of Em. He seems to like or respect the book overall:

Fascinating exploration of what the world may look like once large numbers of computer-based brain emulations are a reality.

But he less likes what he reads on gender:

Hanson sees a future where an em workforce mirrors the most useful and productive forms of workforce that we experience today. .. likely choose [to scan] workaholic competitive types. Because such types tend to be male, Hanson imagines an em workforce that is disproportionately male (these workers also tend to rise early, work alone and use stimulants).

This disproportionately male workforce has implications for how sexuality manifests in em society. First, because the reproductive impetus of sex is erased in the world of ems, sexual desire will be seen as less compelling. In turn, this could lead to “mind tweaks” that have the effect of castration, .. [or] greater cultural acceptance of non-hetero forms of sexual orientation, or software that make ems of the same sex appear as the opposite sex. .. [or] paying professional em sex workers.

It is important to note that Hanson does not argue that this is the way em society should look, rather how he imagines it will look by extrapolating what he identifies in society both today and through the arc of human history. So, if we can identify certain male traits that stretch back to the beginning of the agricultural era, we should also be able to locate those same traits in the em era. What might be missing in this methodology is a full application of exponential change. In other words, Hanson rightly notes how population, technology and so forth have evolved with increasing speed throughout history, yet does not apply that same speed of evolution to attitudes towards gender. Given how much perceptions around gender have changed in the past 50 years, if we accept a pattern of exponential development in such perceptions, the minds that are scanned for first generation ems will likely have a very different attitude toward gender than today, let alone thousands of years past. (more)

Obviously Gelfer doesn’t like something about the scenario I describe, but he doesn’t identify anything particular he disagrees with, nor offer any particular arguments. His only contrary argument is a maximally abstract “exponential” trend, whereby everything gets better. Therefore gender relations must get better, therefore any future gender relations feature that he or anyone doesn’t like is doubtful.

For the record, I didn’t say the em world selects for “competitive types”, that people would work alone, or that there’d be more men. Instead I have a whole section on a likely “Gender Imbalance”:

Although it is hard to predict which gender will be more in demand in the em world, one gender might end up supplying proportionally more workers than the other.

Though I doubt Gelfer is any happier with a future with may more women than men; any big imbalance probably sounds worse to most people, and thus can’t happen according to the better future gender relations principle.

I suspect Gelfer’s errors about my book are consistently in the direction of incorrectly attributing features to the scenario that he likes less. People usually paint the future as a heaven or a hell, and so if my scenario isn’t Gelfer’s heaven, it must be his hell.

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Dream Themes

The following are the twenty most frequent dream themes recalled by 1181 Canadian and 1186 Hong Kong college freshmen (most frequent first):

dreams2dreams1

Note that these vary greatly in realism. Some are common events, and some are rare events that were were important for our ancestors. Some are about events that never actually happen: flying, being a child again, person now dead as alive, being in a story. Many of these are tied to rare extremes, especially negative extremes. The themes of arriving too late and failing exams are strikingly modern, and suggest that we industrial folks are often quite traumatized by our era’s event timing and school exam requirements.

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Trade Engagement?

First, let me invite readers, especially longtime/frequent readers, to suggest topics for me to blog on. I try to pick topics that are important, neglected, and where I can find something original and insightful to say. But I also like to please readers, and maybe I’m forgetting/missing topics that you could point out.

Second, many of my intellectual projects remain limited by a lack of engagement. I can write books, papers, and blog posts, but to have larger intellectual impact I need people to engage my ideas. Not to agree or disagree with them, but to dive into and critique the details of my arguments, and then publicly describe their findings. (Yes, journal referees engage submissions to some extent, but it isn’t remotely enough.)

This is more useful to me when such engagers have more relevant ability, popularity, and/or status. Since I also have modest ability, popularity, and status, at least in some areas, this suggests the possibility of mutually beneficial trade. I engage your neglected ideas and you engage mine. Of course there are many details to work out to arrange such trade.

First, there’s timing. I don’t want to put in lots of work engaging your ideas based on a promise that you’ll later engage mine, and then have you renege. So we may need to start small, back and forth. Or you can go first.

Second, there’s the issue of relative price. If we have differing levels of ability, popularity, and status, then we should agree to differing relative efforts to reflect those differences. If you are more able than I, maybe I should engage several ideas of yours in trade for your only engaging one of mine.

Third, we may disagree about our relevant differences. While it may be easy to quickly demonstrate one’s popularity, status, and overall intelligence, it can be harder to demonstrate one’s other abilities relevant to a particular topic. Yes if I read a bunch of your papers I might be able to see that your ability is higher than your status would suggest, but I might not have time for that.

Fourth, we may each fear adverse selection. Why should I be so stupid as to join a club that would stoop so low as to consider me as a member? The fact that you are seeking to trade for engagement, and willing to consider me as a trading partner, makes me suspect that your ideas, ability, and status are worse than they appear.

Fifth, we might prefer to disguise our engagement trade. When engagement is often a side effect of other processes, then it might look bad to go out of your way to trade engagements. (Trading engagement for money or sex probably looks even worse.) So people may prefer to hide their engagement trades within other process that give plausible deniability about such trades. I just happened to invite you to talk at my seminar series after you invited me to talk at yours; move along, no trade to see here.

These are substantial obstacles, and may together explain the lack of observed engagement trades. Even so, I suspect people haven’t tried very hard to overcome such obstacles, and in the spirit of innovation I’m willing to explore such possibilities, at least a bit. My neglected ideas include em futures, hidden motives, decision markets, irrational disagreement, mangled worlds, and more.

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Avoid “Posthuman” Label

Philosophy is mainly useful in inoculating you against other philosophy. Else you’ll be vulnerable to the first coherent philosophy you hear. (source)

Long ago (’81-83 at U Chicago) I studied Conceptual Foundations of Science (mainly philosophy of science) because I wanted to really understand this “science” thing, and the main thing I learned was to avoid the word “science”. If necessary, the word can refer to obvious social groups and how they maintain boundaries, but beyond that other words and concepts are more useful.

I’ve always felt similarly wary of “transhuman” and “posthuman”, because it isn’t clear what they can or do mean. In the latest Bioethics, David Lawrence elaborates an argument for such wariness:

Human is itself a greatly abused term, especially in the context of the enhancement/posthuman debate, and the myriad of meanings ascribed to it could give posthuman a very different slant depending on ones understanding. .. There are, perhaps, three main senses in which the term human is frequently employed- the biological, the moral, and the self- (or other-) idealizing. In the first of these, human .. refer[s] to our taxonomic species, In the second sense, human generally refers to a community of beings which qualify as having a certain moral value or status; and the third .. denoting .. what matters about those who matter. ..

It is a mistake to envisage the posthuman as a different species. It is a mistake to imagine traits such as immortality or godlike powers as being changes that indicate a significant discontinuity. .. The mere act of assigning terminology is inherently one of division. .. The use of these terms is designed to classify and separate. As I hope to have shown, this is precisely the problem with the notional posthuman. ..

The commentators on both sides of the debate concerning the meaning of posthuman do so as if it had currency. .. To use the term to imply species or value change, or a radical transition (the meaning of which is unclear in any case), there needs to be justification in a way which does not seem to have been delivered within the existing dialogue. Here, I have argued that this is not a plausible understanding, and furthermore that it is based in error. The analogous changes we have undergone throughout our history have not been thought to signal a qualitative change, or at least, not to any significant degree. We are, today, post-internet age humans; we are post-neolithic, post-bronze age, post-iron age. These transitions have not changed our value or the nature of our being: machine-age man, Homo augmentus, is still man. The touted posthuman is, in general, overhyped and unwarranted by the evidence – either factual, or conceptual – and does not seem to have been subject to a close analysis until now.

Here’s what Lawrence suggests we say instead:

Enhancement technologies exist, are used, and will continue to develop; and it is idle to claim that we ought avoid them wholesale. .. It is important that we find a way to reconcile ourselves with the beings we may become, since they and we are products of the same process. .. To be posthuman is in truth to be more human than human – more successful at embodying these traits than we, who consider ourselves the model of humanity, do. It is not, as critics may claim, to be beyond, to be something to fear, something fundamentally different.

A habit of talking as if there will be a natural progression from “human” to “transhuman” to “posthuman” makes our descendants by default into “others” less worthy of our help and allegiance, without specifying the key traits on which they will be deficient. Yes, it is possible that our descendants will in fact have traits we dislike so much as to make us reject them as no longer part of the “us” that matters. But this is hardly inevitable, and those who argue that it will happen should have to specify the particular key traits they expect will cause such a divergence.

Only half those who imagine entering a star trek transporter see the person who exits as themselves, but all those who imagine exiting see the person entering as themselves. Similarly, we tend to see all our ancestors for the last million years as part of the “us” that matters, even though many of them might reject us as being part of the “us” that matters to them. And so our descendants are more likely to see us today as part of the “us” that matters to them, compared to our seeing them in that way.

So let us talk first of the various kinds of descendants we may have, the traits by which they may differ from us, and which of those traits matter most to us in deciding who matters. After that, perhaps, we might argue about which descendants will become a “them” who matter much less to us. We could perhaps call such folks “posthuman,” but know that they will probably reject such a label.

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Missing Credentials

The typical modern credential (i.e., standard worker quality sign of widely understood significance) is based on a narrow written declared test of knowledge given early in one’s career on a pre-announced date at a quiet location. In this test, there is a list of questions to which one gives answers, answers then graded by independent judges who supposedly look only at the answers, and don’t take into account other things they know about the testee. In this post I want to point out that a much larger space of credentials are possible.

For example, you could be evaluated on actual products and contributions, based on your efforts over a long period, instead of being evaluated on short tests. You could be tested via tasks you must perform, instead of questions you must answer. After all, mostly we want to know what workers can do, not what questions they can answer. Since much of real question answering in the world is done verbally, test question-answering could also be done verbally, instead of in writing. And it could be done with frequent distractions and interruptions, as with most real question-answering.

However expressed, judges could take your first response as a starting point to ask you more questions (or give you more tasks), and dig deeper into your understanding. Judges could know you well, and choose questions specifically for you, and interpret your answers given all they know about you. This is, after all, closer to how most question-answering in the world actually goes.

Tests could be done at random days and times, and spread all through your career. Tests might be disguised as ordinary interactions, and not revealed to be tests until afterward. These approaches could discourage cramming for tests and other strategies that makes you good only at tests, and not so much at remembering or using your knowledge at other times.

Finally, you could be tested on your ability to integrate knowledge from a wide range of topic areas, instead of on your knowledge of a narrow topic area. Yes you could show that you know many areas via passing tests for many areas, but that won’t show that you have integrated these diverse areas usefully together in your mind.

Of course I’m not saying that these variations are never explored, just that they are used much less often than the standard credential test. This vast space of possible credentials suggests that a lot of innovation may be possible, and I’m naturally especially interested in helping to develop better credentials for abilities that I have which are neglected by the usual credentials. For example, I’d love to see a polymath credential, for those who can integrate understanding of many fields, and a conversation credential, on one’s ability to get to the bottom of topics via a back & forth interaction.

The narrow range of most credentials compared to the vast possible space also seems to confirm Bryan Caplan’s emphasis on school as emphasizing and screening conformity. Yes the the usual kinds of tests can often be cheaper in many ways, but the lack of much variation even when credentials are very important, and so worth spending a bit more on, suggests that conformity is also an issue. It really does seem that people see non-standard tests as illicit in many ways.

The dominance of the usual credential test can also be seen as a way our society is unfairly dominated by the sort of writing-focused book-smart narrowly-skilled people who happen to be especially good at such tests. These people are in fact usually in charge of designing such tests.

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When Is Talk Meddling Okay?

“How dare X meddle in Y’s business on Z?! Yes, X only tried to influence Y people on Z by talking, and said nothing false. But X talked selectively, favoring one position over another!”

Consider some possible triples X,Y,Z:

  • How dare my wife’s friend meddle in my marriage by telling my wife I treat her poorly?
  • How dare John try to tempt my girlfriend away from me by flirting with her?
  • How dare my neighbors tell my kids that they don’t make their kids do as many chores?
  • How dare Sue from another division suggest I ask too much overtime of my employees?
  • How dare V8 try to tempt cola buyers to switch by dissing cola ingredients?
  • How dare economists say that sociologists keep PhD students around too long?
  • How dare New York based media meddle in North Carolina’s transexual bathroom policy?
  • How dare westerners tell North Koreans that their government treats them badly?
  • How dare Russia tell US voters unflattering things about Hillary Clinton?

We do sometimes feel justly indignant at outsiders interfering in our “internal” affairs. In such cases, we prefer equilibria where we each stay out of others’ families, professions, or nations. But in many other contexts we embrace social norms that accept and even encourage criticism from a wide range of sources.

The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources. Yes, it would be even better if each source fairly told everything relevant it knew, or at least didn’t select what it said to favor some views. But we usually think it infeasible to enforce norms against selectivity, and so limit ourselves to more enforceable norms against lying. As we can each adjust our response to sources based on our estimates of their selectivity, reasonable people can be better informed via having more sources to hear from, even when those sources are selective.

So why do we sometimes oppose such free hearing? Paternalism seems one possible explanation – we think many of us are unreasonable. But this fits awkwardly, as most expect themselves to be better informed if able to choose from more sources. More plausibly, we often don’t expect that we can limit retaliation against talk to other talk. For example, if you may respond with violence to someone overtly flirting with your girlfriend, we may prefer a norm against such overt flirting. Similarly, if nations may respond with war to other nations weighing in on their internal elections, we may prefer a norm of nations staying out of other nations’ internal affairs.

Of course the US has for many decades been quite involved in the internal affairs of many nations, including via assassination, funding rebel armies, bribery, academic and media lecturing, and selective information revelation. Some say Putin focused on embarrassing Clinton in retaliation for her previously supporting the anti-Putin side in Russian internal affairs. Thus it is hard to believe we really risk more US-Russian war if these two nations overtly talk about the others’ internal affairs.

Yes, we should consider the possibility that retaliation against talk will be more destructive than talk, and be ready to forgo the potentially large info gains from wider talk and criticism to push a norm against meddling in others’ internal affairs. But the international stage at the moment doesn’t seem close to such a situation. We’ve long since tolerated lots of such meddling, and the world is probably better for it. We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

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