Tag Archives: Coordination

No One Rules The World

I’ve talked on my book Age of Em 79 times so far (#80 comes Saturday in Pisa, Italy). As it relies a lot on economics, while I mostly talk to non-econ audiences, I’ve been exposed a lot to how ordinary people react to economics. As I posted recently, one big thing I see a low confidence in any sort of social science to say anything generalizable about anything.

But the most common error I see is a lack of appreciation that coordination is hard. I hear things like:

If you asked most people today if they want a future like this, they’d say no. So how could it happen if most people don’t like it?

Their model seems to be that social outcomes are a weighted average of individual desires. If so, an outcome most people dislike just can’t happen. If you ask for a mechanism the most common choice is revolution: if there was some feature of the world that most people didn’t like, well of course they’d have a revolution to fix that. And then the world would be fixed. And not just small things: changes as big as the industrial or farming revolutions just wouldn’t happen if most people didn’t want them.

Now people seem to be vaguely aware that revolutions are hard and rare, that many attempted revolutions have failed, or succeeded but failed to achieve its stated aims, and that the world today has many features that majorities dislike. The world today has even more features where majorities feel unsure, not knowing what to think, because things are so complicated that it is hard to understand the feasible options and action consequences. Yet people seem to hold the future to a different standard, especially the far future.

Near-far theory (aka construal level theory) offers a plausible explanation for this different attitude toward the future. As we know a lot less detail about the future, we see it in a far mode, wherein we are more confident in our theories, see fewer relevant distinctions, and emphasize basic moral values relative to practical constraints. Even if the world around us seems too complex to understand and evaluate, issues and choices seem simpler and clearer regarding a distant future where in fact we can barely envision its outlines.

But of course coordination is actually very hard. Not only do most of us only dimly understand the actual range of options and consequences of our actions today, even when we do understand we find it hard to coordinate to achieve such outcomes. It is easier to act locally to achieve our local ends, but the net effect of local actions can result in net outcomes that most of us dislike. Coordination requires that we manage large organizations which are often weak, random, expensive, and out of control.

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

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Tax Coastal Cities?

(Nobel-winner) Thomas Schelling just gave a talk here at GMU Econ on “Two Major Infrastructure Worldwide Projects to Prepare for Global Warming.” He said most work on global warming focuses on how to prevent it, and that there’s been a bit of a taboo on looking at how to mitigate harm if it happens.

He defied that taboo, and talked about two harms from global warming: 1) crop drought due to snowpacks melting earlier in the annual cycle, and 2) sea levels rising if the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets suddenly slip into the sea. For both problems Schelling wants central governments to start planning possible large engineering projects.

On overly-early farm-water, he wants new canals and reservoirs dug to hold water until farmers want it and then deliver that water to them. For rising sea levels he wants dikes etc. to keep coastal cities dry. Such city protection systems could be at the scale of the harbor of a single city, or at the scale of blocking the Strait of Gibraltar to protect the entire Mediterranean Sea.

On protecting coastal cities, John Nye pointed out that if governments are willing to do anything now they should consider taxing coastal cities to collect revenue to pay for future mitigation. This has the further big benefit of discouraging risky coastal development. And if governments aren’t willing to do this obvious easy thing now, what hope is there of them doing much useful later?

Most of the coastal city structures that would be hurt via rising sea levels probably haven’t been built yet. So trying to get governments to start planning to protect coastal cities runs the risk of encouraging too much coastal development, which then becomes insufficiently protected or protected at excess expense.

The fact that central governments are not coordinating much to reduce global warming suggests that they will also fail to coordinate at large scales to mitigate harm from warming. So a simpler safer solution might be to have central governments try to commit to not protect coastal cities in advance. Don’t even start central government initiatives to coordinate and plan for coastal protection, and stop current central government coastal protection programs, such as subsidized hurricane insurance.

If coastal cities want to tax themselves to pay for their own local mitigation, fine, but to the extent we expect that more central governments won’t be able to resist helping later, have them tax low-lying coastal development in advance to pay for that. Let everyone know its time to start focusing new development away from low coasts.

The problem of building reservoirs for farmers seems more easily dealt with via private property in water. If private parties can pay to dig reservoirs to sell water to private farmers at market prices, it isn’t clear why much central government coordination is required.

Added: Seems Glenn Reynolds proposed to tax coastal development a month ago. HT Robert Koslover in the first comment below.

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Tower Of Babel Still

If language evolved to allow us to exchange information, how come most people cannot understand what most other people are saying? This perennial question was famously addressed in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. … The real puzzle is that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together. Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. This linguistic diversity is not the result of migration and physical isolation of different populations. Instead, people living in close quarters seem to have chosen to separate into many distinct societies, leading lives so separate that they have become incapable of talking to one another. Why? …

Languages act as powerful social anchors of our tribal identity. … distinct languages are an effective way to prevent eavesdropping or the loss of important information to a competitor. In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. …

Today, around 1.2 billion people – about 1 in 6 of us – speak Mandarin. Next come Spanish and English with about 400 million speakers each, and Bengali and Hindi follow close behind. (more)

Today much larger communities speak the same “language” in the sense of speaking English or Mandarin. But when it comes to the higher levels of specialized terminologies, styles of analysis, prototypical examples, etc. that naturally arise in different communities, organizations, and disciplines, it seems to me that a Tower of Babel still reigns. People quite often find it prohibitively hard to talk merely because different groups have gotten into the habit of talking differently, even though their concepts could be translated without great difficulty. And members of these groups often go out of their way to signal group loyalty by choosing to talk differently than outsiders.

The world fails dramatically to coordinate on language, both at the basic English-like level, and at these higher levels. Sometimes a nation will push hard to get everyone in the nation to speak the same basic language, in order to strengthen national solidarity. But beyond that, there is very little government effort to try to coordinate on language. Which just shows how hard is coordination, and how little of government is about coordination.

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The Alms Expert Opening

Around 1800 in England and Russia, the three main do-gooder activities were medicine, school, and alms (= food/shelter for the weak, such as the old or crippled). Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. …

Foragers who personally taught kids, cared for sick folks, and gave food/shelter to weak folks, credibly signaled their loyalty to allies, at least when such needy were allies. Weak group selection helped encourage such aid as ways to signal loyalty. … [Today,] votes supporting spending taxes on medicine, school and alms are interpreted as showing loyal “caring” for one’s community. (more)

Today, two of these three classic charities have very powerful associated “professions”: doctors and teachers. These professions are powerful because they are seen as representing the good in those causes – doctors are our official authorities on what is good for patients, and teachers are our official authorities on what is good for students. So we tend to back these experts when they fight with other related organizations, such as when docs fight with insurance companies, or when teachers fight with mayors. This allows such experts to be very well paid and pampered relative to other professionals.

The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc. While there are of course people who specialize in such roles, they are not united together under a single recognized label to leverage public sympathy, and they do not speak as a unit, or negotiate as a unit with related organizations.

But, given the example of docs and teachers, it seems plausible that if alms experts were to create an encompassing profession of “feeders”, and if they as a unit publicly challenged other related organizations, like charities or government funders, this feeding profession could often get their way. Of course they’d probably mostly use their power to benefit themselves. To guess if they would help the world, ask yourself if organized docs and teachers help the world.

Even so, there does seem to be an as yet largely unused opening for a feeding profession.

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Hail John Watkins

In the 1900 Ladies Home Journal, railroad engineer John Watkins offered unusually insightful predictions for a hundred years hence. His example seems a great place to learn lessons on sources of insight, and systematic biases, in forecasting. Yet while many have commented recently on Watkin’s forecasts, I haven’t seen any drawing lessons.

I see these as Watkins main mistakes:

  1. Overestimating coordination capacities. Watkins said we’d cut underused letters like C,X,Q from our alphabet, eliminate mosquitoes and house-flies by ending their breeding grounds, put all city traffic below or above ground, and accept many American republics into the USA union. All of these require far more coordination than we seem capable of.
  2. Underestimating wealth indulgence and signaling. Watkins said we’d adopt an engineer’s efficiency attitude toward food preparation and personal fitness. People unable to walk ten miles at a stretch would be weaklings, and we’d use central cooking instead of personal kitchens. But rich folks don’t want to work that hard, and humans have long asserted wealth and autonomy via personalized vs. communal dining. Institutional communal food, such as in dorms, ships, military bases, boarding-house, etc., has long been avoided a sign of low status.

Added 10a: The institutional food that is cheapest, and lowest in status, makes you eat where they say, when they say, and what they say. Yes of course a restaurant is “institutional” in some ways, but it costs more because it offers customers more flexibility in time, location, and food.

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Shulman On Superorgs

It has come to my attention that some think that by now I should have commented on Carl Shulman’s em paper Whole Brain Emulation and the Evolution of Superorganisms. I’ll comment now in this (long) post.

The undated paper is posted at the Singularity Institute, my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky’s organization dedicated to the proposition that the world will soon be ruled by a single powerful mind (with well integrated beliefs, values, and actions), so we need to quick figure out how to design values for a mind we’d like. The main argument is that someone will soon design an architecture to let an artificial mind quickly grow from seriously stupid to super wicked smart. (Yudkowsky and I debated that recently.) Shulman’s paper offers an auxiliary argument, that whole brain emulations would also quickly lead to one or a few such powerful integrated “superorganisms.”

It seems to me that Shulman actually offers two somewhat different arguments, 1) an abstract argument that future evolution generically leads to superorganisms, because their costs are generally less than their benefits, and 2) a more concrete argument, that emulations in particular have especially low costs and high benefits. Continue reading "Shulman On Superorgs" »

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