Tag Archives: Politics

Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy

Many people analyze and discuss the policies that might be chosen by organizations such as governments, charities, clubs, and firms. We economists have a standard set of tools to help with such analysis, and in many contexts a good economist can use such tools to recommend particular policy options. However, many have criticized these economic tools as representing overly naive and simplistic theories of morality. In response I’ve said: policy conversations don’t have to be about morality. Let me explain.

A great many people presume that policy conversations are of course mainly about what actions and outcomes are morally better; which actions do we most admire and approve of ethically? If you accept this framing, and if you see human morality as complex, then it is reasonable to be wary of mathematical frameworks for policy analysis; any analysis of morality simple enough to be put into math could lead to quite misleading conclusions. One can point to many factors, given little attention by economists, but which are often considered relevant for moral analysis.

However, we don’t have to see policy conversations as being mainly about morality. We can instead look at them as being more about people trying to get what they want, and using shared advisors to help. We economists make great use of the concept of “revealed preference”; we infer what people want from what they do, and we expect people to continue to act to get what they want. Part of what people want is to be moral, and to be seen as moral. But people also want other things, and sometimes they make tradeoffs, choosing to get less morality and more of these other things. Continue reading "Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy" »

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Harnessing Polarization

Human status competition can be wasteful. For example, often many athletes all work hard to win a contest, yet if they had all worked only half as hard, the best one could still have won. Many human societies, however, have found ways to channel status efforts into more useful directions, by awarding high status for types of effort of which there might otherwise be too little. For example, societies have given status to successful peace-makers, explorers, and innovators.

Relative to history and the world, the US today has unusual high levels of political polarization. A great deal of effort is going into people showing loyalty to their side and dissing the opposing side. Which leads me to wonder: could we harness all this political energy for something more useful?

Traditionally in a two party system, each party competes for the endorsement of marginal undecided voters, and so partisans can be enticed to work to produce better outcomes when their party is in power. But random variation in context makes it harder to see partisan quality from outcomes. And in a hyper partisan world, there aren’t many undecided voters left to impress.

Perhaps we could create more clear and direct contests, where the two political sides could compete to do something good. For example, divide Detroit or Puerto Rico into two dozen regions, give each side the same financial budget, political power, and a random half of the regions to manage. Then let us see which side creates better regions.

Political decision markets might also create more clear and direct contests. It is hard to control for local random factors in making statistical comparisons of polities governed by different sides. But market estimates of polity outcomes conditional on who is elected should correct for most local context, leaving a clearer signal of who is better.

These are just two ideas off the top of my head; who can find more ways that we might harness political polarization energy?

Added 28Sep: Notice that these contests don’t have to actually be fair. They just have to induce high efforts to win them. For that, merely believing that others may see them as fair could be enough.

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Forager v Farmer, Elaborated

Seven years ago, after a year of reading up on forager lives, I first started to explore a forager vs. farmer axis:

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. (more)

Recently I decided to revisit the idea, to see if I could find a clearer story that accounts better for many related patterns. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Our primate ancestors lived in a complex Machiavellian social world, with many nested levels of allies each coordinating to oppose outside rival groups of allies, often via violence. Humans, however, managed to collapse most of those levels into one: what Boehm has called a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Human bands were mostly on good terms with neighboring bands, who they met infrequently. Inside each band, the whole group used weapons and language to coordinate to enforce shared social norms, to create a peaceful egalitarian safe space.

Individuals who saw a norm violation could tell others, and then the whole band could discuss what to do about it. Once a consensus formed, the band could use weapons to enforce their collective decision. As needed, punishments could escalate from scolding to shunning to exile to death. Common norms included requirements to share food and protection, and bans on violence, giving orders, bragging, and creating subgroup factions.

This worked often, but not always. People retained general Machiavellian social abilities, and usually used them covertly, just out of view of group norm enforcement. But sometimes the power of the collective waned, and then many would switch to acting more overtly Machiavellian. For example, an individual or a pair of allies might become so powerful that they could openly defy the group’s disapproval. Or such a pair might violate norms semi-privately, and use a threat of strong retaliation to dissuade others from openly decrying their violations. Or a nearby rival group might threaten to attack. Or a famine or flood might threaten mass mortality.

In the absence of such threats, the talky collective was the main arena that mattered. Everyone worked hard to look good by the far-view idealistic and empathy-based norms usually favored in collective views. They behaved well when observed, learned to talk persuasively to the group, and made sure to have friends to watch and talk for them. They expressed their emotions, and acted like they cared about others.

When they felt on good terms with the group, people could relax and feel safe. They then become more playful, and acted like animals generally do when playful. Within a bounded safe space, behavior becomes more varied, stylized, artistic, humorous, teasing, self-indulgent, and emotionally expressive. For example, there is more, and more varied, music and dance. New possibilities are explored.

A feeling of safety includes feeling safe to form more distinct subgroups, without others seeing such subgroups as threatening factions. And that includes feeling safe to form groups that tend to argue together for similar positions within talky collective discussions, and to disagree with the larger group. After all, it is hard for a talky collective to function well unless members are allowed to openly disagree with one another.

But when the group was stressed and threatened by dominators, outsiders, or famine, the collective view mattered less, and people reverted to more general Machiavellian social strategies. Then it mattered more who had what physical resources and strength, and what personal allies. People leaned toward projecting toughness instead of empathy. And they demanded stronger signals of loyalty, such as conformity, and were more willing to suspect people of disloyalty. Subgroups and non-conformity became more suspect, including subgroups that consistently argued together for unpopular positions.

And here is the key idea: individuals vary in the thresholds they use to switch between focusing on dealing with issues via an all-encompassing norm-enforcing talky collective, and or via general Machiavellian social skills, mediated by personal resources and allies. Everyone tends to switch together to a collective focus as the environment becomes richer and safer. (This is one of the many ways that behaviors and values consistently change with wealth.) But some switch sooner: those better at working the collective, such as being better at talking and empathy, and those who gain more from collective choices, such as physically weaker folks who can’t hunt or gather as well. And also people just generally less prone to feeling afraid as a result of ambiguous cues.

People who feel less safe are more afraid of changing whatever has worked in the past, and so hold on more tightly to typical past behaviors and practices. They are more worried about the group damaging the talky collective, via tolerating free riders, allowing more distinct subgroups, and by demanding too much from members who might just up and leave. Also, those who feel less able to influence communal discussions prefer groups norms to be enforced more simply and mechanically, without as many exceptions that will be more influenced by those who are good at talking.

I argue that this key “left vs. right” inclination to focus more vs less on a talky collective is the main parameter that consistently determines who people tend to ally with in large scale political coalitions. Other parameters can matter a lot in different times and places, but this is the one that consistently matters. This parameter doesn’t matter much for how individuals relate to each other personally, and at smaller social scales like clubs or firms, coalitions form more via our general Machiavellian abilities, based on parameters than matter directly in those contexts. But everyone has an intuitive sense for how much we all expect and want big issues to be handled by a talky collective of “everyone” with any power. The first and primary political question is how much to try to resolve issues via a big talky collective, or to let smaller groups decide for themselves.

This account that I’ve just outline does reasonably well at accounting for many known left-right patterns. For example, the right is more conscientious, while the left is more open to experience. The left prefers more varied niche types of sports, movies, and music, while the right prefers fewer standardized types. Artists, musicians, and comedians tend to be on the left. Right sports focus more on physical strength and combat, stronger men have stronger political opinions, and when low status they favor more redistribution. People on the right are less reflective, prefer simpler arguments, are more sensitive to disgust, and startle more easily.

Education elites are more left than business elites. In romance and spirituality, the left tends to favor authentic feelings while the right cares more about standards of behavior. The left is more spiritual while right is more religious. Left jobs focused more on talking and on a high tail of great outcomes, while right jobs focus more on avoiding a low tail of bad outcomes.

The left is more okay with people forming distinct subgroups, even as it thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally, even across very wide scopes, and including wide scopes in more divisive debates. The right wants to make redistribution more conditional, more wants to punish free riders, and wants norm violators to be more consistently punished. The left tends to presume large scale cooperation is feasible, while right tends to presume competition more. The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.

Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world get richer. Left versus right isn’t very useful for predicting individual behavior outside of politics, even as it is the main parameter that robustly determines large scale political inclinations. People tend to think differently about politics on what they see as the largest scales; for example, there are whole separate fields of political science and political philosophy, which don’t overlap much with fields dealing with smaller scale politics, such as in clubs and firms.

I shouldn’t need to say it but I will anyway: it is obvious that a safe playful talky collective is sometimes but not always the best way to deal with things. Its value varies with context. So sometimes those who are more reluctant to invoke it are right to be wary, while at other times those who are eager to apply it are right to push for it. It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.

I’ve noted before that if one frames left attitudes as better when the world is safe, while right attitudes as better when world is harsh, the longer is the timescale on which you evaluate outcomes, the harsher is the world.

Added 9Sept: This post didn’t say much directly about farmers. In the much larger farmer social groups, simple one layer talky collectives were much less feasible. Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and neighboring groups were more threatening. The farmer world more supported property in spouses and material goods and had more social hierarchies, farmer law less relied on a general discussion of each accused, and more reliable food meant there was less call for redistribution. Farmers worked more and had less time for play.  Together, these tended to reduce the scope of safe playful talky collectives, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

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Why Ethnicity, Class, & Ideology? 

Individual humans can be described via many individual features that are useful in predicting what they do. Such features include gender, age, personality, intelligence, ethnicity, income, education, profession, height, geographic location, and so on. Different features are more useful for predicting different kinds of behavior.

One kind of human behavior is coalition politics; we join together into coalitions within political and other larger institutions. People in the same coalition tend to have features in common, though which exact features varies by time and place. But while in principle the features that describe coalitions could vary arbitrarily by time and place, we in actual fact see more consistent patterns.

Now when forming groups based on shared features, it make senses to choose features that matter more in individual lives. The more life decisions a feature influences, the more those who share this feature may plausibly share desired policies, policies that their coalition could advocate. So you might expect political coalitions to be mostly based on individual features that are very useful for predicting individual behavior.

You might be right about small scale coalitions, such as cliques, gangs, and clubs. And you might even be right about larger scale political coalitions in the ancient world. But you’d be wrong about our larger scale political coalitions today. While there are often weak correlations with such features, larger scale political coalitions are not mainly based on the main individual features of gender, age, etc. Instead, they are more often based on ethnicity, class, and “political ideology” preferences. While ideology is famously difficult to characterize, and it does vary by time and place, it is also somewhat consistent across time and space.

In this post, I just want to highlight this puzzle, not solve it: why are these the most common individual features on which large scale political coalitions are based? Yes, in some times and places ethnicity and class matter so much that they strongly predict individual behavior. But even when they don’t matter much for policy preferences, they are still often the basis of coalitions. And why is political ideology so attractive a basis for coalitions, when it matters so little in individual lives?

I see two plausible types of theories here. One is a theory of current functionality; somehow these features actually do capture the individual features that best predict member positions on typical issues. Another is a theory of past functionality; perhaps in long-past forager environments, something like these features were the most relevant. I now lean toward this second type of theory.

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Beware The Moral Spotlight

Imagine a large theatre with a singer at center stage. A single bright spotlight illuminates this singer, and the rest of the crowded theatre is as dark as can be, given this arrangement. Morality can do the same thing in the theatre of our mind. Once one issue or choice gets a strong moral color, we can focus on it so much that we just don’t see a much larger theatre of action. This is fine when our moral sense works well. If one murder were happening in a stadium of 50,000 people, it could make sense for the Jumbotron to project it onto the big screen, and for the whole stadium to focus on it, to help them do something about it.

But our moral sense often doesn’t work well. We are so obsessed with showing off our moral feelings and inclinations, relative to being useful to a larger world, that we neglect large theatres where we could be useful, to obsess with a small circle highlighted by our moral spotlight, where we can’t actually do much. Let me give three examples.

1. Some friends were recently arguing about the motives of CEOs, relative to politicians and heads of government agencies. One person was arguing that people go into government in order to help others, but go into business to make money. Thus it is better, all else equal, for activities to be run by government. Another person argued that real business people have a wide range of motives, as do real government people. But first person pointed to official statements of purpose, claiming that governments say on paper that they are to help people, while businesses say on paper that they are to make money.

But even if business and government people do differ on average in their motives, you don’t get to elite positions in either area without paying close attention to the great many practical constraints that each area imposes. Business people must attend to customer reactions, employee moral, media coverage, etc. Government people must attend to official procedures, voter sentiment, rival factions maneuvering, etc. Elites must usually navigate such treacherous shoals successfully for decades before they are allowed to make big decisions on behalf of any organization.

Those selection pressures are what determine most behavior in both areas. If business or government is better at running activities, it is mostly because of differences in those pressures. Any remaining behavior differences due to fundamental motives being influenced by official statements of purpose must be small by comparison. While your moral spotlight might want to focus on purpose-statement-induced-motives, most of what matters is elsewhere.

2. I recently watched the documentary The Red Pill, which mostly reviewed Men’s Rights Movement arguments that I had encountered decades before in the book The Myth of Male Power. They point out that many official rules and widely held expectations, as well as many concrete typical outcomes, are unfavorable to men. Their talks and meetings have faced rude and violent interference by those who see this as undermining feminist consciousness-raising regarding areas where official rules and widely held expectations have been and to some extent continue to be unfavorable to women.

The conflict seems to come down emotionally to a perception of which sex is getting the worse deal overall. And there may in fact be some truth of that matter; maybe one sex does have a worse deal. But many seem eager to infer the existence of an entire system, e.g., “patriarchy”, designed in detail to achieve this worse-for-one-sex outcome, entrenched via the direct support of malicious people from the favored sex, and implicit support from most of the rest of that sex.

This seems to me to mostly result from a moral spotlight in overdrive. Yes one sex may have a worse deal overall. But most of the ways in which we’ve had sex-assymetric official rules and widely held expectations did not result from a conspiracy by one sex to repress the other. They were mostly reasonable responses to sex differences relevant in ancient societies. We may have failed to adapt them quickly enough to our new modern context. But many of them are still complex and difficult issues. We’d do better to roll up our sleeves and deal with each one, than to obsess over which sex has the worse overall deal.

3. When people think about changes they’d like in the world one of their first thoughts, and one they return to often, is wanting more democracy. It’s their first knee-jerk agenda for China, North Korea, ISIS, and so on. Surely with more democracy all the other problems would sort themselves out.

But in fact scholars can find few consistent difference in the outcomes of nations that depend much on their degree of democracy. Democracy doesn’t seem to cause differences in wealth, or even in most specific policies. Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others. Democracies have less political repression, and our moral spotlight finds that fact to be of endless fascination. But it is in fact a relatively small effect on nations overall.

Nations today have huge differences in outcomes, and we are starting to understand some of them. But most of them have little to do with democracy. Plausibly larger issues include urbanization, immigration, foreign trade, regulation, culture, rule of law, corruption, suppression or encouragement of family clans or religion, etc. If you want to help nations, you’ll have to look outside the moral spotlight on democracy.

Yes, why should you personally sacrifice to help the world? The world will reward you for taking a clear moral stance regarding whatever is in the shared moral spotlight. And it will suspect you of immorality and disloyalty if you pay too little attention to that spotlight. So why should you look elsewhere? I think you know.

Added 3 July: Bryan Caplan points out that democracy can reduce the worst excesses of totalitarian governments. I accept that point; I had in mind less extreme variations, so North Korea was a poor choice on my part.

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Intellectuals as Artists

Consider some related phenomena:

  1. Casual conversation norms say to wander across many topics, with each person staying relevant to each current topic. This functions well to test individual impressiveness. Today, academic and mass media conversations today follow similar norms, though they did this much less in the ancient world.
  2. While ancient artists and musicians tried to perfect common styles, modern artists and musicians seek more distinctive personal styles. For example, while songs were once designed to sound good when ordinary folks sang them, now songs are designed to create a unique impressive performance by one artist.
  3. Politicians often go out of their way to do “position taking” on many issues, even on issues they have little chance of influencing policy while in office. Voters prefer systems like proportional representation where voters can identify more closely with particular representatives, even if this doesn’t give voters better outcomes overall. Knowing many of a politician’s positions helps voters to identify with them.
  4. “Sophomoric” thinkers, typically college sophomores, are eager to take positions on as many common topics as possible, even if this means taking poorly consider positions. They don’t feel they are adult until they have an opinion ready for most common intellectual conversations. This is more feasible when opinions on each topic area are reduced to choices between a small number of standard “isms”, offering integrated packages of answers. Sophomoric thinkers love isms.
  5. We often try to extract “isms” out of individuals, such as my colleagues Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan. We might ask “What is the Caplanian position on X?” That is, we wonder how they would answer random questions, presuming that we can infer a coherent style from past positions that would answer all future questions, at least within some wide scope. Intellectuals who desire wider attention often go out of their way to express opinions on many topics, chosen via a distinctive personal style.

We pretend that we search only for truth, picking each specific position only via the strongest specific evidence and arguments. And in many mundane contexts that’s not a bad approximation. But in many other grander contexts we seek more to become and associate with distinctive intellectual artists. Such artists are impressive both via the wide range of topics on which they can be impressive, and via having a distinctive personal style that they can bring to bear on this range of topics.

This all makes complete sense as an impressiveness contest, but far less sense as a way for the world to jointly estimate accurate Bayesian estimates on each topic. I’m sure you can make up reasons why distinctive intellectual styles that imply positions on wide ranges of topics are really great ways to produce accuracy. But they will mostly sound like excuses to me.

Sophomoric thinkers often retain for a lifetime the random opinions they quickly generate without much thought. Yet they don’t want to just inherit their parents positions; they need to generate their own new opinions. I wonder which effect will dominate when young ems choose opinions; will they tend to adopt standard positions of prior clan members, or generate their own new individual opinions?

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Forget The Maine

I often write about situations where we say something is about X, but it is actually more than we admit about Y. In some cases, this is mostly unconscious, and most people are surprised to hear what is going on. In other cases most people kind of know it, even if they don’t tend to talk about it. So if what I’m about to tell you seems obvious, well just stop reading.

I spent the last few days touring monuments near Washington D.C. A great many of them come with the explicit message “Remember.” As if to say “Big things once happened, or nearly happened. If enough of us remember them, we can do better in the future to avoid bad things, and encourage good things.” When your choice is data vs. ignorance, you know what you are supposed to choose.

Except, if that were the goal we might do better to have big pretty places organized around categories of events, each with statistics on that type of event. The monument for wars might show stats on what kinds of wars went better. The monument for floods might show stats relating efforts to prevent floods to later consequences.

But what we actually have are monuments for particular events, and particular people. In reality, these events and people are very complex. Depending on your assumptions and perspectives, you can draw a great many contradictory lessons from them. And usually experts do in fact hold a wide range of conflicting views. Especially if we include experts from other nations, etc.

But monuments usually show little of this wide range of interpretations. Instead, the basic context usually gives visitors a pretty good idea of preferred interpretations. So the monument itself doesn’t have to belabor the point – just a few choice quotes and items selected for presentation in particular contexts are enough. Treating the monument respectfully can then function as a way to signal one’s respect for these usual interpretations.

If monuments gave explicit ideological sermons, visitors who disagreed might try to refute the arguments given. Out loud, on the spot. And many others would have a plausible reason to not want to go there. But if there are only a bunch of artifacts in a beautiful setting, a reminder that people died, and an exhortation to “remember”, what can anyone rebut, and what excuse is there not to go? Even though going there will be on average interpreted as support for the usual interpretation.

For example, Arlington National Cemetery prominently displays the mast of The Maine, a ship sunk in 1898 in Havana harbor. The Spanish were blamed, “Remember the Maine” became a battle cry, and the U.S. had an excuse to start the Spanish-American war. Though today it seems more likely that the explosion was accidental.

A world intent on not forgetting and learning from key data might have a monument to events that start wars, and present stats on the fraction of wars that were started on fake pretexts. And perhaps summarize key arguments on the causes of wars and ways to prevent wars. But in our world there are mainly monuments that, in a pretty, solemn, and patriotic context, remind visitors that people died, and that others uttered the phrase “Remember the Maine.” Damn Spaniards ..

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I’m Not Seaing It

Imagine you run a small business in an area where a criminal organization runs a protection racket. “Nice shop here, shame if something were to happen to it.” So you pay.

Someone tells you that they’ve never seen payment demanded from the homeless guy who sells pencils on the corner. Nor the shady guy who sells watches in the alley. And maybe not even from food trucks.

So this person suggests that you relocate your small business to a truck. Or at least a trailer park. Because then criminals might not bother you. And if they do you can more easily move to another town. You should also move your home to an RV, or a trailer park, for the same reason.

Enough of you together might even create whole mobile towns that better evade both local criminals and local governments. If locals don’t treat you right, you’ll be outta there. Your group could then govern itself more, instead of having to do what locals say. And that would create more experiments in governance, which would help the world to innovate and improve our mechanisms of governance.

This isn’t fantasy because trucks, RVs, and trailer parks already exist. Oh and have you heard of all the great ideas for improving trucks? There are ideas for how trucks could be used to make energy, food, and potable water, and how they could clean up pollution and pull CO2 from the air. Anything you think is expensive on a truck might soon be cheap. What are you waiting for!?

Not persuaded? That’s how I feel about Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman’s new book Seasteading: How Floating Nations will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.

They argue that cruise ships and oil rig platforms prove that we already know how to live on the ocean. And we have so many great new related ideas — there are ways to make ocean houses, things ocean machines could do, and products and services that ocean living people could sell. The book is mostly about all those great ocean ideas, for food, energy, clean water, CO2, etc.

Presumably, in time the usual profit motives would get all that ocean tech developed without your help. The reason Quirk and Freidman say they wrote this book, to entice you to help, is because they think sea-living folks could create more experiments in governance, because nations don’t officially claim control over people far from shore. And offshore mobility would enable a different better set of experiments. They are hoping you care enough about that to go live on the ocean.

In 366 pages the authors are careful to never say which particular governance variations they are so eager to try, variations that are today blocked by all land governments everywhere. Somewhat suspiciously like blockchain folks eager for “commerce” without government interference. (They just want to trade “stuff,” okay?)

The book talks about seeking approval from governments for early experiments, and wanting to keep good relations with neighboring nations. Seasteads won’t be used to evade taxes, they say. And whatever products and services they sell to land-based customers must meet regulations that those customers must live by.

Long ago people who didn’t like local governments tended to head for mountains and jungles, where they were harder to find and tax. That doesn’t work as well today, as governments can now find people much more easily, even on the ocean.

The book suggests that seastead mobility would make governance different and better for them. But one must pay a big added cost for mobility, both on land and sea. And the cost of moving large seasteads seems to me comparable to the cost to move a home or business located in a trailer on land. Yet the existence of trailer parks hasn’t obviously unleashed much great land governance.

The book claims that nations won’t interfere w/ seasteads because “China has not invaded Hong Kong. Malaysia has not invaded Singapore .. The Cayman Islands .. adopts a spiteful stance toward US and EU regulator policies” (p.270). Yet as recently as 1982 an international treaty UNCLOS extended national powers out to 200+ miles, within which nations “reserve the right to regulate `artificial islands, installations, and structures.’” (p.13) It seems to me that when there is enough economic activity in the oceans, nations would get around to trying to control it.

Yeah nations can be slow to act, so maybe there’d be some interim period when seasteads could experiment. But even then I find it hard to imagine that seasteads would substantially increase the total governance experimentation on Earth, even for an interim.

The world is full of families, firms, clubs, churches, group homes able to try many governance variations. Apparently, “there are close to 600,000 cities, towns, villages, hamlets etc. in the world.” Some of these are “intentional communities” that experiment with many social variations, in far easier environments than the ocean.

Yes, many governance variations do not seem to have been tried much, but that seems mostly due to a lack of interest. I can’t get people to do futarchy experiments, even though it could be tried in organizations of most any size. Scholars have proposed many as-yet-untried governance mechanisms, such as voting rules, that could also be tried in organizations of any size. US libertarians can’t even get enough of them to move to New Hampshire to make a big governance difference there.

Yes, there are far fewer such polities in the world that could try experiments on governance issues that only apply to polities containing at least a million people. But I find it hard to imagine a million people all going to live on the sea just so they can do experiments at that scale. And even if they did, it would only create a small percentage change in the number of such polities.

Maybe if ocean tech advances as fast as some hope, many will eventually live on the ocean, just for the economic benefits. But in that case I expect the usual nations to extend control over this new activity. And any new governance units that do form would only add a small fraction to Earth entities able to experiment with governance variations.

My guess is that the real appeal here is related to why people find pirate stories “romantic.” They just like the abstract idea that pirates are “free”, even if they don’t have any particular forbidden action in mind to do as a pirate. And just as most who enjoy reading pirates stories would never actually choose to be a pirate, most seastead supporters like the idea of supporting sea “freedom”, even if no way they’d go live on the ocean, and even if they have no particular usually-forbidden thing they want “free” sea folks to try.

Seasteading, I’m just not seaing it.

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What TED Needs

Most people want, and gain value from, religious-like communities, strongly bonded by rituals, mutual aid, and implausible beliefs. (Patriotism and political ideologies can count here.) I once embraced that deeply and fully. But then I acquired a strong self-identity as an honest intellectual, which often conflicts with common religious practices. However, I get that my sort of intellectual identity is never going to be common. So religion will continue, even with ems. Realistically, the best widespread religion I’m going to get is one that at least celebrates intellectuals and their ideals, even if it doesn’t fully embrace them, and does so in a form that is accessible to a wide public.

I’ve given four TEDx talks so far, and will give another in two weeks. Ten days ago I had the honor of giving a talk on Age of Em at the annual TED conference in Vancouver (video not yet posted). And I have to say that the TED community seems to come about as as close as I can realistically expect to my ideal religion. It is high status, accessible to a wide public, and has a strong sense of a shared community, and of self-sacrifice for community ideals. It has lots of ritual, music, and art, and it celebrates innovation and intellectuals. It even gives lip service to many intellectual virtues. If borderline religious elements sometimes make me uncomfortable, well that’s my fault, not theirs.

The main TED event differs from other TEDx events. Next year the price will be near $10K just for registration, and even then you have to submit an application, and some are rejected. At that high price the main attendees are investors and CEOs looking to network with each other. As a result, it isn’t really a place to geek out talking ideas. But that seems mainly a result of TED’s great success, and overall it does seem to help the larger TED enterprise. Chris Anderson deserves enormous credit for shepherding all this success.

The most encouraging talk I heard at TED 2017 was by David Brenner on his efforts to disinfect human spaces. Apparently there are frequencies of ultraviolet (UV) light that don’t penetrate skin past the top layer of dead skin cells, but still penetrate all the way through almost all bacteria and viruses in the air and on smooth-enough surfaces. So we should be able to use special UV lights to easily disinfect surfaces around humans. For example, we might cheaply sterilize whole hospitals. And maybe also airports during pandemics. This seems an obvious no brainer that should have been possible anytime in the last century (assuming they’ve done penetration-depth vs. frequency measurements right). Yet Brenner has been working on this for five years and still seems far from getting regulatory approval. This seems to me a bad case of civilization and regulatory failure. Even so, the potential remains great.

The most discouraging talk I heard was by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. He talked about how he fought the World Bank for years, because they insisted on using cost-effectiveness criteria to pick medical investments. He showed us pictures of particular people helped by less cost-effective treatments, daring us to say they were not worth helping. And he said people in poor nations have status-based “aspirations” for the same sort of hospitals and schools found in rich nations, even if they aren’t cost-effective, and who are we to tell them no. Now that he runs the World Bank (nominated by Obama in 2012), his priorities can now win more. The audience cheered. 🙁

All strong religions seem to need some implausible beliefs, and perhaps for TED one of them is the idea we need only point out problems to good people, to have those problems solved. But if not, then what I think TED audiences most need to hear are basic reviews on the topics of market failure and regulatory costs.

At TED 2017 I heard many talks where speakers point out a way that our world is not ideal. For example, speakers talked about how tech firms compete to entice users to just pay attention to them, how cities seem to be spread out more than is ideal, and how inner city grocery stores have less fresh food. But speakers never attributed problems to a particular standard kind of market failure, much less suggest a particular institutional solution because it matched the kind of market failure it was to address. While speakers tend to imply government regulation and redistribution as solutions, they never consider the many ways that regulation and redistribution can go wrong and be costly.

It is as if TED audiences, who hear talks on a great specialized many areas of science and tech, were completely unaware of key long-established and strongly-relevant areas of scholarship. If TED audiences were instead well informed about institution design, market failures, and regulatory costs, then a speaker who pointed out a problem would be expected to place it within our standard classifications of ways that things can go wrong. They’d be expected to pick the standard kind of institutional solution to each kind of problem, or explain why their particular problem needs an unusual solution. And they’d be expected to address the standard ways that such a solution could be costly or go wrong. Perhaps even adjust their solution to deal with case-specific costs and failure modes.

None of this is about left vs. right, it is just about good policy analysis. But perhaps this is just a bridge too far. Until the wider public becomes informed about these things, maybe TED speakers must also assume that their audience is ignorant of them as well. But if TED wants to better help the world to actually solve its problems, this is what its audience most needs to hear.

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Imagine Philosopher Kings

I just read Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 (reviewed here by Alex). Heath is a philosopher who is a big fan of “reason,” which he sees as an accidentally-created uniquely-human mental capacity offering great gains in generality and accuracy over our other mental capacities. However, reason comes at the costs of being slow and difficult, requiring fragile social and environmental supports, and going against our nature.

Heath sees a recent decline in reliance on reason within our political system, which he blames much more on the right than the left, and he has a few suggestions for improvement. He wants the political process to take longer to consider each choice, to focus more on writing relative to sound and images, and to focus more on longer essays instead of shorter quips. Instead of people just presenting views, he wants more more cross-examination and debate. Media coverage should focus more on experts than on journalists. (Supporting quotes below.)

It seems to me that academic philosopher Heath’s ideal of reason is the style of conversation that academic philosophers now use among themselves, in journals, peer review, and in symposia. Heath basically wishes that political conversations could be more like the academic philosophy conversations of his world. And I expect many others share his wish; there is after all the ancient ideal of the “philosopher king.”

It would be interesting if someone would explore this idea in detail, by trying to imagine just what governance would look like if it were run similar to how academic philosophers now run their seminars, conferences, journals, and departments. For example, imagine requiring a Ph.D. in philosophy to run for political office, and that the only political arguments that one could make in public were long written essays that had passed a slow process of peer review for cogency by professional philosophers. Bills sent to legislatures also require such a peer-reviewed supporting essay. Imagine further incentives to write essays responding to others, rather than just presenting one’s one view. For example, one might have to publish two response essays before being allowed to publish one non-response essay.

Assume that this new peer review process managed to uphold intellectual standards roughly as well as does the typical philosophy subfield journal today. Even then, I don’t have much confidence that this would go well. But I’m not sure, and I’d love to see someone who knows the internal processes of academic philosophy in some detail, and also knows common governance processes in some detail, work out a plausible guess for what a direct combination of these processes would look like. Perhaps in the form of a novel. I think we might learn quite a lot about what exactly can go right and wrong with reason.

Other professions might plausibly also wish that we ran the government more according to the standards that they use internally. It could also be interesting to imagine a government that was run more like how an engineering community is run, or how a community of physicists is run. Or even a community of spiritualists. Such scenarios could be both entertaining and informative.

Those promised quotes from Enlightenment 2.0: Continue reading "Imagine Philosopher Kings" »

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