Tag Archives: Medicine

Why Does Govt Do Stuff?

Looking across the many different activities and sectors of society, how well can we predict where governments get more vs. less involved?

Though this is an oft discussed topic, I can’t recall seeing an overall theory summary. So I thought I’d write one up. Here are some big relevant factors, and areas they may explain. Most are tentative; you may well convince me to move/change/add them.

Control – Whomever runs the government prefers to control areas that can be used to prevent and resist opposition and rivals.
Predicts more: religion, military, police, law, news, schools, disaster response, electricity, energy, banking.

Scale – If supplying a product or service has strong economies of scale, network, or coordination, it can be cheaper to use one integrated organization, who if private may demand excessive prices and thereby threaten control.
Predicts more: military, “roads” (including air, boat travel support), social media, money, language, electricity, telecom, water, sewer, trash, parks, fire, software, fashion, prestige
Predicts less: housing, food, medicine, art, entertainment, news, police, jail.

Innovation – As governments seem less able to encourage or accommodate effective innovation, governments tend to be less involved in rapidly evolving sectors.
Predicts more: roads, water, sewer, track, parks.
Predicts less: military hardware, vehicles, tech/computers, entertainment, social networks.

Variety – Governments tend to encourage and be better at relatively standardized products and services, done with fewer versions, more the same for everyone everywhere at all times.
Predicts more: war, medicine, schools, disaster response, roads.
Predicts less: housing, food, entertainment, romance, parenting, friendship, humor.

Norms – Norms are shared, and we like to enforce them together, officially.
Predicts more: religion, law, war, romance, parenting, medicine, drugs, gambling, slavery, language, manners, sports.

Show Unity – As we want to show that we are together, and care about each other, we like to do the things we to do to show such care together in a unified way.
Predicts more: religion, poverty/unemployment/health insurance, school, medicine, fire, parks, housing, food, disaster response, trash/sewer, coverage expansion subsidies.

Show Off – We want to impress outsiders with our tastes, abilities.
Predicts more: research, schools, high art, high sport, roads, parks, shared space architecture, trash/sewer.
Predicts less: low art/entertainment, low sport, gossip.

Hypocrisy – When we profess some motives, but others are stronger, the opacity and slack of government agencies, and better ability to suppress critiques, makes them better able to hide such differences.
Predicts more: medicine, drugs, gambling, schools, police, jail, courts, romance, zoning, building codes, war, banking.
Predicts less: water, sewers, electricity.

If we could collect even crude stats on how often or far govt is involved in each area, and crudely rate each area-factor combo for how strongly that factor applies to that area, we could do a more formal analysis of which of factors predict better where.

Note that scale is the strongest factor suggesting that govt does more when more govt helps more. Innovation and variety suggest that also when those factors are the cause of govt involvement, but much less so if those features are the result. While norms are on average valuable, it is much less clear when govt support improves them. Most signaling likely helps each society that does it, but is done too much for the good of the world overall.

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Vouching Fights Pandemics

As I’ve pitched vouching as a general solution to both law and medicine, the looming coronavirus pandemic offers a good and challenging concrete test; how well could vouching handle that?

If you recall, under a law vouching system, each person is required to get a voucher who stands ready to cover them for any large legal liability, including fines as punishment for crimes. Under a medical vouching system, each person gets a voucher to pay for all their medical treatments, and also to pay large amounts to a third party when that person becomes disabled, in pain, or dead. Voucher-client contracts can specific physical punishments like torture or jail, co-liability with associates, and limits on freedoms, such as re travel, privacy, or risky behaviors. 

Regarding a looming pandemic, your voucher would know that it must pay for your medical treatment, your lost salary if you stop working, and large fines if you die or get hurt. So it would offer large premium discounts to gain powers to limit your travel and contacts, and to penetrate your privacy enough to see what contagion risks you might incur. And it would have good incentives to make risky medical choices expertly, such as if to try an experimental treatment, or to accept early deliberate exposure. 

When you live with others who you might infect, or who might infect you, you’d probably also be offered premium discounts to let the same voucher cover all of you together. But there would remain key externalities, i.e., risks of infecting or being infected by others who are not covered by the same voucher.

The straightforward legal remedy for such externalities is to let people sue others for infecting them. In the past this remedy has seemed inadequate for two reasons: 

  1. It has often been expensive and hard to learn and prove who infected who, and
  2. Ever since we stopped holding family members liable for each other, and selling debtors into slavery, most folks just can’t pay large legal debts.

The vouching system directly solves (2), as everyone has a voucher who can pay lots. And the key to (1) is ensuring that the right info is collected and saved.

First, consider some new rules that would limit people’s freedoms in some ways. Imagine people were required to keep an RFID tag (or visible QR code) on their person when not at home, and also to save a sample of their spit or skin once a week? Then phones could remember a history of the tags of people near that phone, and lawsuits could subpoena to get surveillance records of possible infection events, and to see if spit/skin samples on nearby dates contain a particular pathogen, and its genetic code if present. We might also adopt a gambled lawsuit system to make it easier to sue for small harms.

Together these changes could make it feasible to, when you discovered you had been infected, sue those who likely infected you. First, your voucher could collaborate with vouchers of others who were infected nearby in space and time, by a pathogen with a similar code. By combining their tag records and local surveillance records, this group of vouchers could collect a set of candidates of who might plausibly have infected you when and where. 

(Yes, collaboration gains from voucher groups might give vouchers more market power, but not too much, as this can work okay even when there are many competing voucher groups.)

You could then sue all these possible infectors via gambled lawsuits. For the winning lawsuits, your voucher could subpoena their split/skin to see if their pathogen codes match the code of the pathogen that infected you. When a match was found, a lawsuit could proceed, unless they settled out of court. Sharing verdict and settlement info with collaborating vouchers could make it easier for them to figure out who to sue.  

Okay, yes, there is the issue of who would agree to keep RFID tags and sufficient spit/skin samples, if this weren’t required by law. I’ve proposed that the amount awarded in a lawsuit be corrected for how the chances of catching someone varies with the freedoms they keep. Such chances would be estimated by prediction markets. The lower the estimated chance of catching a particular harm for a given set of freedoms, then the higher would be the award amount if they are caught. 

So if, given the choice, some people choose not to use RFID tags or keep spit/skin samples, they may be harder to catch, but they would pay more when they do. (Which is part of why most might choose less privacy.) As a result, clients and their vouchers will know that on average they will pay for the full cost of infecting others. Which could be huge amounts if they infect many others with deadly pathogens. Which would push vouchers to work to ensure that their clients take sufficient care to avoid that. 

And that’s my concept. During the early stages of a pandemic, a system of law/med vouchers would have incentives to try the sort of aggressive case tracing that public health professionals now try. And if such professionals existed, they could collaborate with vouchers. Once the pandemic escaped containment, this vouching system would encourage people to isolate themselves to avoid infecting others, and to avoid being infected. Their freedoms of travel and privacy would become more limited, more like the limits that an aggressive government might impose. 

But exceptions would be allowed when other costs loomed larger, just as economic efficiency demands. Compared to a centralized aggressive government, a voucher system could much more easily and flexibly take into account individual differences in inclinations, vulnerability, and preferences. The choice of freedoms would be made more practical and local, and less symbol.

With vouchers and lawsuits for infections working well to get people to internalize the infection externalities, pandemics might be limited and contained at nearly the level that a cost-benefit analysis would suggest. 

Added 07Mar: Early in a pandemic it is easier to trace who infected you, and it would make sense to let you sue someone who infected you not only for the damages you suffered, but also for the damages you had to pay others who you infected. This could create very large incentives to contain pandemics early.

Later in a pandemic people sued might reasonably argue that they should only have to pay for the harm from someone being infected earlier than they would otherwise have been, which might be no harm at all during a period before the peak when medical resources are becoming spread increasingly thin.

Added 10Mar: If later in an infection it becomes too hard to trace who infected who, even with the above reforms, then it might make sense to have more general crime-law-based rules limiting social contact. Vouching can also do well at enforcing such rules.

Added 20Apr: See my more flexible and general approach to requiring that info be collected and saved. Also, if cases are common where you can narrow an infection down to 1 of 5 sources, but can’t prove which one, it makes sense to make them each pay 20% of the damages. This way we don’t need to be >50% confident of each particular infection link.

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Our Prestige Obsession

Long ago our distant ancestors lived through both good times and bad. In bad times, they did their best to survive, while in good times they asked themselves, “What can I invest in now to help me in coming bad times?” The obvious answer was: good relations and reputations. So they had kids, worked to raise their personal status, and worked to collect and maintain good allies.

This has long been my favored explanation for why we now invest so much in medicine and education, and why those investment have risen so much over the last century. We subconsciously treat medicine as a way to show that we care about others, and to let others show they care about us. As we get richer, we devote a larger fraction of our resources to this plan, and to other ways of showing off.

I’d never thought about it until yesterday, but this theory also predicts that, as we get rich, we put an increasing priority on associating with prestigious doctors and teachers. In better times, we focus more on gaining prestige via closer associations with more prestigious people. So as we get rich, we not only spend more on medicine, we more want that spending to connect us to especially prestigious medical professionals.

This increasing-focus-on-prestige effect can also help us to understand some larger economic patterns. Over the last half century, rising wage inequality has been driven to a large extent by a limited number of unusual services, such as medicine, education, law, firm management, management consulting, and investment management. And these services tend to share a common pattern.

As a fraction of the economy, spending on these services has increased greatly over the last half century or so. The public face of each service tends to be key high status individuals, e.g., doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, who are seen as driving key service choices for customers. Customers often interact directly with these faces, and develop personal relations with them. There are an increasing number of these key face individuals, their pay is high, and it has been rising faster than has average pay, contributing to rising wage inequality.

For each of these services, we see customers knowing and caring more about the prestige of key service faces, relative to their service track records. Customers seem surprisingly disinterested in big ways in which these services are inefficient and could be greatly improved, such as via tech. And these services tend to be more highly regulated.

For example, since 1960, the US has roughly doubled its number of doctors and nurses, and their pay has roughly tripled, a far larger increase than seen in median pay. As a result, the fraction of total income spent on medicine has risen greatly. Randomized trials comparing paramedics and nurse practitioners to general practice doctors find that they all produce similar results, even though doctors cost far more. While student health centers often save by having one doctor supervise many nurses who do most of the care, most people dislike this and insist on direct doctor care.

We see very little correlation between having more medicine and more health, suggesting that there is much excess care and inefficiency. Patients prefer expensive complex treatments, and are suspicious of simple cheap treatments. Patients tend to be more aware of and interested in their doctor’s prestigious schools and jobs than of their treatment track record. While medicine is highly regulated overall, the much less regulated world of animal medicine has seen spending rise a similar rate.

In education, since 1960 we’ve seen big rises in the number of students, the number of teachers and other workers per student, and in the wages of teachers relative to worker elsewhere. Teachers make relatively high wages. While most schools are government run, spending at private schools has risen at a similar rate to public schools. We see a strong push for more highly educated teachers, even though teachers with less schooling seem adequate for learning. Students don’t actually remember much of what they are taught, and most of what they do learn isn’t actually useful. Students seem to know and care more about the prestige of their teachers than about their track records at teaching. College students prefer worse teachers who have done more prestigious research.

In law, since 1960 we’ve similarly seen big increases in the number of court cases, the number of lawyers employed, and in lawyer incomes. While two centuries ago most people could go to court without a lawyer, law is now far more complex. Yet it is far from clear whether we are better off with our more complex and expensive legal system. Most customers know far more about the school and job prestige of the lawyers they consider than they do about such lawyers’ court track records.

Management consultants have greatly increased in number and wages. While it is often possible to predict what they would recommend at a lower cost, such consultants are often hired because their prestige can cow internal opponents to not resist proposed changes. Management consultants tend to hire new graduates from top schools to impress clients with their prestige.

People who manage investment funds have greatly increased in number and pay. Once their management fees are taken into account, they tend to give lower returns than simple index funds. Investors seem willing to accept such lower expected returns in trade for a chance to brag about their association should returns happen to be high. They enjoy associating with prestigious fund managers, and tend to insist that such managers take their phone calls, which credibly shows a closer than arms-length relation.

Managers in general have also increased in number and also in pay, relative to median pay. And a key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees.

Taken together, these cases suggest that increasing wage inequality may be caused in part by an increased demand for associating with prestigious service faces. As we get rich, we become willing to spend a larger fraction of our income on showing off via medicine and schooling, and we put higher priority on connecting to more prestigious doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, etc. This increasing demand is what pushes their wages high.

This demand for more prestigious service faces seems to not be driven by a higher productivity that more prestigious workers may be able to provide. Customers seem to pay far less attention to productivity than to prestige; they don’t ask for track records, and they seem to tolerate a great deal of inefficiency. This all suggests that it is prestige more directly that customers seek.

Note that my story is somewhat in conflict with the usual “skill-biased technical change” story, which says that tech changed to make higher-skilled workers more productive relative to lower-skilled workers.

Added 10June: Note that the so-called Baumol “cost disease”, wherein doing some tasks just takes a certain number of hours unaided by tech gains, can only explain spending increases proportional to overall wage increases, and that only if demand is very inelastic. It can’t explain how some wages rise faster than the average, nor big increases in quantity demanded even as prices increases.

Added 12Jun: This post inspired by reading & discussing Why Are the Prices So Damn High?

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Freedom Isn’t Free

The concept of a right to health has been enumerated in international agreements which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. … equitable dissemination of medical knowledge and its benefits; and government-provided social measures to ensure adequate health. …

Everyone has the right to … food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. … “responsibility [that] extends beyond the provision of essential health services to tackling the determinants of health such as, provision of adequate education, housing, food, and favourable working conditions” … right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health … each individual holds an inherent right to the best feasible standard of health. (more)

We might want to say that people have a right to food. And in a place like the Soviet Union, where food was centrality produced and distributed, a right to food might be defined in terms of fixed numbers of particular items. So many loaves of bread, kilos of meat, and bottles of milk per week, for example. Such “rights” would be complex, vary by time and place, and result mostly from complex and changing tradeoffs, as well as politics.

While basic ethical principles might influence such rights, that influence may be hard to discern among so many other influences. If a right to food were enshrined in the text of a constitution, it would be hard for courts to have that text and a few abstract principles strongly determine if any given action is taken to violate that right or not. They might accumulate case law on how to make such decisions, but that would mostly be the court defining the right, not the constitution or abstract principles. The court might delegate many details to government agencies, in which case it would be those agencies deciding most details, not the constitution or abstract principles.

In contrast, in a market economy like ours, where individuals can more easily choose the particular foods that they want, it makes less sense to talk having about having rights to particular baskets of bread, meat, milk, etc. One could instead talk about a right to so many calories or grams of protein, but that might be hard to enforce. It could make more sense to talk about a right to a minimum food budget, and to having foods available to purchase at their real costs. (Such a budget might be set by market prices to get min calories, etc.) And it might be work even better to just focus on general redistribution systems expressed in terms of money, allowing each person to choose their own food priorities.

In a market-based economy where rights are implemented via food budgets or overall redistribution policies, outcomes would be influenced more by the constitution text and abstract principles, and by many individual choices, and less by the courts or government agencies.

Similarly, in a centrally-administered medical system, one could make a long list of the particular medical treatments to which each patient is entitled, if they were diagnosed with particular conditions. This long list of medical rights would be context-dependent and change frequently, and it wouldn’t have any clear relation to basic ethical principles or a constitutional text about a right to medicine. Such a list would mostly reflect many practical tradeoffs as well as politics. It seems quite hard to formally define and enforce any simple general “right to medicine” given all this complex variation and context dependence.

When medicine is allocated more by a competitive market, it can make more sense to try to ensure that people are free to buy medicine, medical insurance, and info on medical quality, all at prices that reflect the real costs of such things. One might try to define medical rights in terms of a minimum budget that each person has to buy medicine or medical insurance or info. Or one might focus on a more general system of redistribution expressed in terms of money, and let each person choose their medical priorities. In either of these last two scenarios, abstract principles and a constitutional text, together with individual choices, could have more influence on outcomes, relative to decisions by courts and government agencies.

In this last scenario, if you saw a case where you felt bad that someone who knew about a particular medical treatment didn’t buy that treatment, you might consider pushing to increase the priority of similar people in your more general system of redistribution. So that they could have more money to buy such treatments. If you gave such people more money, but they chose instead to spend that money on other things, you might accept that they have differing medical priorities from you, or you might try to push them to share your priorities. Either way, that dispute doesn’t really seem to be about a right to medicine.

If you are with me so far regarding food and medicine, then in the rest of this post I want to convince you to think similarly about many formal civil rights and liberties. At least regarding rights and liberties whose limits are set mainly by criminal law enforcement considerations. Today our constitutions and courts try to specify many complex related rights and liberties. I will argue that this complexity is to a large degree due to having a centralized government-run system of criminal law enforcement. This is analogous to the complexity we would have if the government ran the food system or the medical system, wherein rights to food or medicine would consist of long lists of the food you could get each week, or the medical treatments to which you were entitled.

I will suggest that we could instead switch to a much more private, open, and competitive system of criminal law enforcement. In such a system, individuals could buy the particular civil rights and liberties that they wanted. We could then work to ensure that people are free to buy these rights and liberties at prices that reflect their real costs, and that people have a minimum budget to purchase such things. Or we might just focus on a more general system of redistribution expressed in terms of money, and let each person use money to express their priorities for rights and liberties re criminal law enforcement. Let me explain.

Today, we have explicitly declared a great many rather specific rights and liberties on how we are to be treated by our systems of law enforcement. Of course your actual rights and liberties vary according to your exact legal jurisdiction, the legal text there, court interpretations in that jurisdiction, and how local law enforcement agencies actually implement court rulings in their actual policies.

You may have have rights to be silent, and to not talk to police, and exceptions to those rights, such as when you must identify yourself. You may have rights and obligations regarding when you may be detained or arrested, and who must give testimony regarding which kinds things about which kinds of associates, including themself. There are rules on when one must be allowed to consult a lawyer, and rules that require lawyers to be available free of charge. You may have have rights to keep some things private, to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, and there may be exceptions to these based on warrants and on which things are in “plain view” or result from “hot pursuit”. Other exceptions are based on extra powers given to police in certain situations.

You may have rights to assemble with others of your choice, and to travel freely, but these rights may have exceptions limiting where you can go where when, such as curfews and orders to stay away from some places or to stay close enough to other places. You may have a right to speedy trials. Regarding punishment, you may have rights to avoid disproportionate punishment, and cruel and unusual punishments. In prison, you may have rights to minimum qualities of food and medicine, to a lack of racial segregation, to accommodation of your disabilities, to a lack of crowding, and to some kinds of speech, contact with outsiders, and religious activities.

For all of these rights and liberties, you may have complex rights regarding who must monitor to check that they are actually being upheld, and who may sue whom claiming that they are not, and what they would win if they won. Many have claimed that in fact many important groups in our societies don’t actually have many of the rights and liberties that they are supposedly granted on paper. I’m inclined to believe many such claims, which is a big part of why I seek other approaches.

Much of this complexity results from the fact that, in order to enforce criminal law, officials sometimes need to detain, punish, and watch people, and they sometimes need to limit their travel, assemblies, and other activities. Officials sometimes need to collect info about some people from their things and from other people. These many complex rules about rights and liberties are often claimed to be designed to give everyone as many rights and liberties as feasible, while still allowing criminal law officials to do what needs doing to enforce criminal law in a reasonably cost-effective manner. Because the world is complex, these rules must be complex.

But imagine that we replaced our centralized government run system of criminal law enforcement with this:

Consider a fine-insured-bounty (FIB) crime law system. … All (but one) crime is punished officially by fines, everyone is fully insured to pay large fines, and bounty hunters detect and prosecute each crime. In a FIB system, we collectively decide the fine and bounty level for each crime, and manage a judicial system which decides individual cases.

If we set the fine level for each crime to be our best estimate of the social harm produced by one more crime event of that type (divided by the chance that it will be caught, plus enforcement costs), then the insurer-client pair would internalize that social harm, in which case we could leave that pair free to choose punishment types, costs, and levels, as well as (many aspects of) police and prosecutor monitoring and investigative powers. (more)

Within a FIB system, insurer-client pairs choose most details of punishment, including type, size, duration, etc. So within such a system, there’s little need to give people rights to avoid disproportionate, cruel, or unusual punishment. Anyone can choose to avoid any type of punishment, if they are willing to pay associated insurance premiums.

Similarly for monitoring to prevent crime. Insurers will want to promote and enable such monitoring, to avoid having to pay on behalf of clients. So insurers will offer lower premiums to clients who allow more monitoring. No need to guarantee any minimum or maximum monitoring; such levels are chosen by contract. For rights re how one interacts with police, it is possible to not give bounty hunters any more rights than ordinary people have. In which case we’d need no extra rights relative to police interactions.

Now it does seem plausible that the more rights that bounty hunters have to collect evidence, such as by searching places and compelling testimony, the higher the chance that any given crime could be caught, with the criminal’s insurer forced to pay a fine. But what if lowering this chance were the main external cost that resulted from letting a potential criminal choose to make it harder to collect evidence about them? In this case we could correct for this effect via fine amounts. The fine for each crime should depend on an estimate of the chance that crime would have been detected and successfully prosecuted. With decent (and perhaps conservative) estimates of how the chance of catching a crime depends on how open a criminal is to evidence collection, we could adjust fines for this effect, and thus allow insurer-client pairs to choose how open to be to bounty hunters seeking evidence. In which case we don’t need a right against “unreasonable” police searches.

So far I’ve argued that, in a FIB system, we don’t need formal rights and liberties regarding issues where we can just let insurer-client pairs choose, because they internalize the social harm of such choices. I’m not claiming that all civil rights and liberties are of this type, but many are. Creating a more private, open, competitive criminal law system could allow us to greatly simplify civil rights and liberties, and have the results depend a long more on constitutional text and general principles, and on individual choices, and depend less on courts and government agencies. Just as when we have private, open, competitive systems for food or medicine.

What if you felt bad when you saw someone choose fewer civil rights and liberties than you thought right or wise? You might try to persuade them to change their priorities, or you might try to increase the priority that you give to such people in your redistribution system that ensures minimum budgets to buy rights and liberties, or within your more general redistribution system. So that they could more easily afford to buy more rights and liberties if they wanted them. I think this would work better than trying to centrally legislate who exactly should have which particular rights and liberties, as that wouldn’t well take into account individual tastes, costs, and context.

Added 1June: Here’s a way to estimate “how the chance of catching a crime depends on how open a criminal is to evidence collection”. Have the statute of limitations be no shorter than N (=10?) years, and require everyone to keep good private electronic records of their activities for at least that long. Allow L (=4?) different privacy levels that everyone can choose among. Divide the polity into M (=1000?) regions, and every N years force one random region to have the lowest privacy level regarding its last N years of crimes. For each region and privacy level combination, have a prediction market estimating its crime rate (number of crimes weighted by fine level, divided by average-over-period fraction of residents at privacy level) conditional both on being randomly picked, and on not being so picked. That’s 2*L*M/N prices per year. The fine increase factor for each region and privacy level combination is given by a smoothed ratio of the estimated crime rates between the two conditions. Smoothing can take the whole set of prices and find a simpler model that fits them.

Added 5Aug: Here is pdf of slides for talk I gave.

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Sycophantry Masquerading As Bargains

The Catholic Church used to sell “indulgences”; you gave them cash and they gave you the assurance that God would let you sin without punishment. If you are at all suspicious about whether this church can actually deliver on their claim, this seems a bad deal. You give them something tangible and clearly valuable, and they give you a vague promise on something you can’t see, and can’t even check if anyone has ever received.

We make similar bad “bargains” with a few kinds of workers, to whom we grant extraordinary privileges of “self-regulation.” That is, we let certain “professionals” run their own organizations which tell us how their job their job is to be done, and who can do it. In some areas, such as with doctors, these judgements are enforced by law: you can only buy medical services approved by doctors, and can only buy such services from those who the official medical organizations labels “doctors.” In other areas, such as with academics, these judgements are more enforced by our strong eagerness to associate with high prestige professionals: most everyone just accepts the word of key academic organizations on who is a good academic.

There is a literature which frames this as a “grand bargain”. The philosopher Donald Schön says:

In return for access to their extraordinary knowledge in matters of great human importance, society has granted them [professionals] a mandate for social control in their fields of specialization, a high degree of autonomy in their practice, and a license to determine who shall assume the mantle of professional authority.

In their book The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Richard and Daniel Susskind elaborate:

In acknowledgement of and in return for their expertise, experience, and judgement, which they are expected to apply in delivering affordable, accessible, up-to-date, reassuring, and reliable services, and on the understanding that they will curate and update their knowledge and methods, train their members, set and enforce standards for the quality of their work, and that they will only admit appropriately qualified individuals into their ranks, and that they will always act honestly, in good faith, putting the interests of clients ahead of their own, we (society) place our trust in the professions in granting them exclusivity over a wide range of socially significant services and activities, by paying them a fair wage, by conferring upon them independence, autonomy, rights of self-determination, and by according them respect and status.

Notice how in this supposed bargain, what we give the professionals is concrete and clearly valuable, while what they give us (over what we’d get without the deal) is vague and very hard for us to check. Like an indulgence. The Susskinds claim that while this bargain has been a good deal so far, we will soon cancel it:

We predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions. We anticipate an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society. This will lead eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions.

This seems seriously mistaken to me. There is actually no bargain, there is just the rest of us submitting to professionals’ prestige. Cheaper yet outcome-effective substitutes to expensive professionals have long been physically available, and yet we have mostly not chosen those substitutes due to our eagerness to affiliate with prestigious professionals. We don’t choose nurses who can do primary care as well as doctors, and we don’t watch videos of the best professors from which we could learn as much as from attending typical lectures in person. And we aren’t interested in outcome track records for our lawyers. The existence of even more such future substitutes won’t change this situation much.

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Yay Soda Firms

It is usually bad for people to die, and so good for them to keep living. Overall in our society, people who weigh more for their age and gender tend to die more, and so many are concerned about an “obesity epidemic”, and seek ways to reduce people’s weight, such as by getting them to consume fewer calories. Such as from drinking sugary soda.

TIME magazine says that evil soda firms, like evil tobacco firms before them, are lying about science to distract us from their evil:

You may not have noticed it yet, but sodamakers are working hard to get you off your couch. On Aug. 9, a New York Times article revealed that Coca-Cola was quietly funding a group of scientists called Global Energy Balance Network that emphasizes the role of exercise, as opposed to diet, in fighting obesity. … This has some nutrition and obesity experts charging soda companies, whose sales of carbonated soft drinks have hit a 20-year low, with cherry-picking science to make its products more appealing. … Indeed, there isn’t strong evidence to show that exercise alone … can help people shed pounds and keep them off. … It’s not the first time science has been used to sway public perceptions about the health effects of certain behaviors; the tobacco industry famously promoted messaging passed on studies that claimed to prove that “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes were less harmful that regular ones. (more)

Yes, it is true that the literature usually suggests that for most people exercise won’t do much to change their weight. However, another consistent result in the literature (e.g., here, here) is that when we predict health using both weight and exercise, it is mostly exercise that matters. It seems that the main reason that heavy people are less healthy is that they exercise less. Obesity is mainly unhealthy as a sign of a lack of exercise.

So if we cared mainly about people’s health, we should cheer this effort by soda forms to push people to exercise. Even if that also causes people to cut down less on soda. A population that exercises more doesn’t weight much less, but it lives much longer. In fact, exercise seems to be one of the biggest ways we know of by which an individual can influence their health. (Much bigger than medicine, for example.)

I suspect, however, that what bothers most people most about fat people isn’t that they’ll die younger, its instead that they look ugly and low status, and so make them also look low status by association. So we don’t want people near us to look fat. All else equal we might also want them to live longer, but that altruistic motive can’t compete much with our status motive.

So boo soda firms if you want your associates to not seem low status. But yay soda firms if you want people to live and not die (sooner).

Added 11a: The New York Times reports this as the main message:

… Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. Health experts say this message is misleading …

Actually that message seems exactly right to me, and not at all misleading.

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Docs Not So Helpful

In one of my first blog posts back in 2006 I said people overestimate the social value of joining a helping profession, like doctors:

Yes, if you choose to be a doctor, you will spend your time providing services that people perceive to have value, sometimes enormous value. However, you cannot take full credit for this value. (more)

Now 80,000 Hours’ Rob Wiblin, who once blogged here, says “If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not”:

Most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career. The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA. (more)

In contrast, 80,000 Hours is quite bullish on getting an Economics PhD.

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Error Is Not Simple

At her Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia Galef talked to me about signaling as a broad theory of human behavior.

Julia is smart and thoughtful, and fully engaged the idea. Even so, I’m not sure I convinced her. I might have had a better chance if we’d dived quickly into a detailed summaries of related datums. Instead we more talked more abstractly about her concern that signaling seems a complex theory, and shouldn’t we look to simpler theories first. For example, on the datums that we see little correlation between medicine and health, and that people show little interest in private info on medicine effectiveness, Julia said:

Like the fact that humans are bad at probability and are pretty scope insensitive, and don’t really feel the difference between a 5% chance of failure versus an 8% chance of failure. Also the fact that humans are superstitious thinkers, that on some level, it feels like if we don’t think about risks, they can’t hurt us, or something like that. … It feels like that I would have put a significant amount of weigh even in the absence of signaling caring, that people would fail to purchase that useful information.

Yes, the fact that we follow heuristics does predict that our actions deviate from those of perfect rationality agents. It predicts that instead of spending just the right amount on something like medicine, we may spend too much or too little. Similarly, it predicts we might get too much or too little info on medical quality.

But by itself that doesn’t predict that we will spend too much on medicine, and too little on medical quality info. In fact, we see a great many other kinds of areas, such as buying more energy efficient light bulbs, where people seem to spend too little. And we see a great many other areas were people seem too eager to gain and apply quality info; we eagerly consume news media full of info with little practical application.

As I said in the podcast, but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, we are often tempted to explain otherwise-puzzling behaviors in terms of simple error theories; the world is complex so people just can’t get it right. This won’t explain why we tend to do the same things as others who are socially near, but that we often like to explain as social copying and conformity; we try to do what others do so we won’t look weird, and maybe others know something.

But even conformity, by itself, won’t explain the particular choices that a group of socially adjacent people make. It doesn’t predict that elderly women in Miami tend to spend too much on medicine, for example. It is these patterns across space, time, group, industry, etc. that I try to explain via signaling. For example, relative to other products and services, people have consistently spent too much on medicine all through history, especially in rich societies, and for women and the elderly.

I’ve offered a signaling story to try to simultaneously explain these and many other details, and yes it takes a few pages to explain. That may sound more complex than “its all just random mistakes”, but to explain any specific dataset of choices, that basic error story must be augmented with a great many specific ad hoc hypotheses of the form “and in this case, the particular mistake these people tend to make happens to be this.”

The combination of “its just error” and all those specific hypotheses is what makes that total hypothesis actually a lot more complex and a priori unlikely than the sorts of signaling stories that I offer. Which is why I’d say such signaling hypotheses are favored more by the data, at least when they fit reasonably well and are generated by a relatively small set of core hypotheses.

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Dissing Track Records

Years ago I was being surprised to learn that patients usually can’t pick docs based on track records of previous patient outcomes. Because, people say, that would invade privacy and make bad incentives for docs picking patients. They suggest instead relying on personal impressions, wait times, “bedside” manner, and prestige of doc med school or hospital. (Yeah, those couldn’t possibly make bad incentives.) Few ever study if such cues correlate with patient outcomes, and we actively prevent the collection of patient satisfaction track records.

For lawyers, most trials are in the public record, so privacy shouldn’t be an obstacle to getting track records. So people pick lawyers based on track records, right? Actually no. People who ask are repeatedly told: no practically you can’t get lawyer track records, so just pick lawyers based on personal impressions or the prestige of their law firm or school. (Few study if those correlate with client outcomes.)

A new firm Premonition has been trying to change that:

Despite being public record, court data is surprisingly inaccessible in bulk, nor is there a unified system to access it, outside of the Federal Courts. Clerks of courts refused Premonition requests for case data. Resolved to go about it the hard way, Unwin … wrote a web crawler to mine courthouse web sites for the data, read it, then analyze it in a database. …

Many publications run “Top Lawyer” lists, people who are recognized by their peers as being “the best”. Premonition analyzed the win rates of these attorneys, it turned out most were average. The only way that they stood out was a disproportionate number of appealed and re-opened cases, i.e. they were good at dragging out litigation. They discovered that even the law firms themselves were poor at picking litigators. In a study of the United Kingdom Court of Appeals, it found a slight negative correlation of -0.1 between win rates and re-hiring rates, i.e. a barrister 20% better than their peers was actually 2% less likely to be re-hired! … Premonition was formed in March 2014 and expected to find a fertile market for their services amongst the big law firms. They found little appetite and much opposition. …

The system found an attorney with 22 straight wins before the judge – the next person down was 7. A bit of checking revealed the lawyer was actually a criminal defense specialist who operated out of a strip mall. … The firm claims such outliers are far from rare. Their web site … shows an example of an attorney with 32 straight wins before a judge in Orange County, Florida. (more)

As a society we supposedly coordinate in many ways to make medicine and law more effective, such as via funding med research, licensing professionals, and publishing legal precedents. Yet we don’t bother to coordinate to create track records for docs or lawyers, and in fact our public representatives tend to actively block such things. And strikingly: customers don’t much care. A politician who proposed to dump professional licensing would face outrage, and lose. A politician who proposed to post public track records would instead lose by being too boring.

On reflection, these examples are part of a larger pattern. For example, I’ve mentioned before that a media firm had a project to collect track records of media pundits, but then abandoned the project once it realized that this would reduce reader demand for pundits. Readers are instead told to pick pundits based on their wit, fame, and publication prestige. If readers really wanted pundit track records, some publication would offer them, but readers don’t much care.

Attempts to publish track records of school teachers based on students outcomes have produced mostly opposition. Parents are instead encouraged to rely on personal impressions and the prestige of where the person teaches or went to school. No one even considers doing this for college teachers, we at most just survey student satisfaction just after a class ends (and don’t even do that right).

Regarding student evaluations, we coordinate greatly to make standard widely accessible tests for deciding who to admit to schools. But we have almost no such measures of students when they leave school for work. Instead of showing employers a standard measure of what students have learned, we tell employers to rely on personal impressions and the prestige of the school from which the student came. Some have suggested making standard what-I-learned tests, but few are interested, including employers.

For researchers like myself, publications and job position are measures of endorsements by prestigious authorities. Citations are a better measure of the long term impact of research on intellectual progress, but citations get much less attention in evaluations of researchers. Academics don’t put their citation count on their vita (= resume), and when a reporter decides which researcher to call, or a department decides who to hire, they don’t look much at citations. (Yes, I look better by citations than by publications or jobs, and my prestige is based more on the later.)

Related is the phenomenon of people being more interested in others said to have the potential to achieve X, than in people who have actually achieved X. Related also is the phenomenon of firms being reluctant to use formulaic measures of employee performance that aren’t mediated mostly by subjective boss evaluations.

It seems to me that there are striking common patterns here, and I have in mind a common explanation for them. But I’ll wait to explain that in my next post. Till then, how do you explain these patterns? And what other data do we have on how we treat track records elsewhere?

Added 22Mar: Real estate sales are also technically in the public record, and yet it is hard for customers to collect comparable sales track records for real estate agents, and few seem to care enough to ask for them.

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Placebos Show Care

I’ve suggested that the main function of medicine is to show that we care. I’ve suggested that we spend a lot on medicine to signal our care, and that this can explain the placebo effect, wherein the mere appearance of care increases health. Some apparently confirming evidence:

Parkinson’s Disease patients secretly treated with a placebo instead of their regular medication performed better when told they were receiving a more expensive version of the “drug,” … While most people think of a placebo as a sugar pill that replaces a real medication, the impact more commonly comes from “the engagement between patients and clinicians,” in particular the way doctors create expectations that their efforts will help, Kaptchuk said. That includes a good relationship between doctor and patient; certain medical rituals, such as taking blood pressure and a medical history; and the “color, shape, number and cost” of the placebo drug. (more; the study)

Now this study is hardly definitive – it had only twelve subjects, and the placebo difference is only significant at the 3.4% level. But I guess that it will be verified in larger trials.

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