Tag Archives: Politics

Rules of Public Evidence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these kinds of evidence are not allowed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let Foreigners Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yay Democracy Dollars

My proposal is that we give every American 100 democracy dollars that you can only give to candidates and causes that you like. This would washout the lobbyist cash by a factor of eight to one. (Yang in Thursday debate)

Gillibrand proposed this also, as have some law profs, and its been tried in Seattle. In my Twitter poll, the main concern people express re private firms doing things instead of government is that firms might lobby to change policy. I’m personally not so concerned about firm lobbying, as public employees and agencies also lobby, and as academics find it hard to see any substantial effects of lobbying. But there does seem to be a perception problem and $100 a person per year seems to me a small price to pay to address it.

Reading up on this idea, I see that many try to tie it to other policies they want, and so try to require politicians to accept no other money if they accept this, or only allow it to be spent in your state or only at particular points in the election cycle. Yang seems to have it right; spending constraints are mistakes. As Yang says, let people use the money at any time for any political organization, lobbyist, or candidate.

The only criticism I can find online, beyond harms from spending constraints, is this complaint that it might make politicians listen more to the public:

It would simply multiply the amount of money in politics by an order of magnitude, with effects that wouldn’t be good for the political system at large, but would be good for ad buyers and PR flacks and political operatives. … Citizens have no reason to think too hard about how they spend. … Will politicians get more populist or less? Will voters gravitate towards visionary leaders making hard decisions about confounding policy issues? Or will they pick whoever tells the most flattering lies in the most entertaining way? Because we know what that looks like. It’s ugly, and it’s orange. (More)

Yes, overall I might rather slant the system toward the better informed, and elite money in politics might be seen as doing that. But if that’s going to push people to avoid substituting firms for government, I’d rather use some other method to promote informed voters.

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10% Less Democracy

My GMU econ colleague Garett Jones has a book coming out in February: 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less. I just read it, and found it so engaging that I’ll respond now, even though Jones’ publisher surely prefers book publicity nearer its publication date.

Regarding to the vast space of possible governments, it seems to me that Jones uses “more democratic” to describe situations closer to a 100% democracy ideal, wherein all citizens have an equal say and can vote directly on all government choices, with government able to control all other choices. In this framing, anything that makes it harder for voters to simply and directly choose the options they understand and prefer makes a system less democratic.

That includes electing representatives instead of directly voting on policy, and also logrolling, divided government, and other complexities that make it harder for citizens to tell what is going on and to assign responsibility. It includes any limits on who can vote, and any ties to outsiders that limit internal discretion, like treaties with other nations or selling debt to bondholders. And it includes longer terms for the elected, and more indirection, such as when politicians appoint other officials instead of directly electing those other officials.

By these standards, our current system obviously deviates greatly from a fully democratic ideal, and Jones approves of most of these deviations, especially ones that result in longer term views and in more informed voters and officials. And he’d like to move modestly further in such less-democracy directions, though not too far, as he accepts that strong autocrats tend much more to kill their citizens, allow famines, and create more economic growth volatility (though similar average levels of war and growth). Jones musters a lot of data in support of his modestly-cut-democracy view.

I did a few surveys yesterday which suggest that overall my Twitter followers find the existing degree of democracy pretty close to their ideal, though a majority would also prefer a reduction. So, for them, Jones’ position doesn’t seem at all controversial:

In the past I’ve tended to think about all this in terms of principal-agent problems. It doesn’t always make sense to make all decisions yourself, if you can instead consult an agent who does or could know more than you. But you must be careful to keep such agents under sufficient control. So if they are careful, voters may reasonably gain by delegating to experts. However, the reason I found Jones’ book so engaging is that I found a lot of the data Jones presented to be challenging to understand from this principal-agent view. (And also, it was a pleasure to engage such fundamental issues.)

For example, politicians with longer terms but without safe districts act at the end of their term more like politicians who have shorter terms. They pass fewer bills, make more pork projects, more trade protection, more labor market regulation, more environmental reforms, have optimistic budget forecasts, and support fewer currency devaluations. Apparently, voters don’t remember much of what politicians do beyond the last years or so.

Cities with appointed (vs elected) city treasurers pay 0.7% lower interest rates. Central bankers who are more independent produce lower inflation and fewer financial crises, at no overall cost to unemployment or real growth rates. Elected judges give more awards to in-state folks at the expense of out of state folks, and their legal opinions are less often cited as precedent. Nations with more independent judges have stronger property rights, less red tape to start a business, fewer employment regulations, and less government ownership of banks.

In general, elected regulators allow utilities to pass fewer costs on to customers, resulting in both lower prices but also in less investment and worse service. Electric utilities regulated by elected officials have lower consumer prices, pay higher interest rates, and more blackouts. Elected telecom regulators oversee lower capacity services, and independent telecom regulators gave in less to demands by government telecom organizations.

Jones is inspired by these examples to support Alan Blinder’s proposal to create an independent central-bank-like expert body to set tax policy, with Congress deciding only broad parameters like total take, progressively, and corporate fraction.

Some of these patterns can be understood in terms of commitment problems. When there is a temptation for politicians to renege on prior commitments, it can help to let them commit via choosing appointees who are out of their control at the crucial moments of temptation. Commitment problems seem especially important for city treasurers, central bankers, and utility regulators. And law court decisions are a classic commitment problem.

These results can also be somewhat understood in terms of the advantages of retrospective relative to prospective voting, and of aggregation in retrospective voting. That is, if voters are impatient and can better judge how their life has gone in the past than they can judge the effects of policies on the future, then voters can be better off when politicians are judged more on their past accomplishments, which happens more with longer terms. And if voters find it hard to attribute responsibility to specific officials, it can be better if they they focus on electing fewer bigger politicians (like mayors) who appoint more other officials.

However, I’m not sure that commitment problems and retrospective voting actually account for most of these patterns. Jones’ book subtitle talks instead about trusting elites, and do note that there is a much more widespread pattern of governments authorizing high status experts in each area to decide key results in their area, including who are to be considered the next generation of experts.

Consider how much we defer to military experts on defense, police on crime, medical experts on health, academics on research, lawyers on law, etc. Yes, in principle we could punish them if past outcomes in their area were bad, but we rarely do this. And professional licensing is a more general policy by which government authorizes control by the high status people in each area. These policies seem less like clever indirect ways to commit or to enable retrospective voting, and more like a simple status effect, wherein voters and politicians want to be seen as respecting and not opposing those high in status.

While all these examples that Jones didn’t include seem to be examples of less democracy, they seem to me to less clearly support his position that this kind of less democracy is good. Excess professional licensing does a lot of harm. The military seems to overemphasize things that high status leaders like more, like fighter planes and aircraft carriers. Medicine seems to overemphasize high status doctors over other medical professionals. Education and research seems to overemphasize the topics by which academics gain the highest status. Law seems overly complex and to overemphasize the need for expensive lawyers. And so on.

Compared to arguing over specific policies, I very much appreciate Jones calling our attention to larger more general issues regarding the design of our political system. But I prefer to generalize even further, via something like futarchy. I can support futarchy without needing opinions on whether tax policy should be run by a panel of independent experts, nor even whether it is in general better or worse to let high status experts in each area control those areas. As long as we use some reasonable (broad retrospective) national welfare measure, with futarchy I could instead trust a general mechanism to make good choices about such things.

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Grabbing Now Versus Later

Today and yesterday’s Democratic debates suggests a big recent bump in tastes for regulation and redistribution, in order to lower the status of big business and the rich, and to spend more on the needy and worthy causes. South Korea, which I’ve just visited, sees a similar trend, as does Europe:

Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s. In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations. It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades. (more)

While I often hear arguments on the moral and economic wisdom of grabbing to redistribute, I rarely hear about the choice of whether to grab now versus later. The issues here are similar to those for the related choice in charity, of whether to give now versus later:

Then Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias got up and just started Robin Hansonning at everybody. First he gave a long list of things that people could do to improve the effectiveness of their charitable donations. Then he declared that since almost no one does any of these, people don’t really care about charity, they’re just trying to look good. … he made some genuinely unsettling points.

One of his claims that generated the most controversy was that instead of donating money to charity, you should invest the money at compound interest, then donate it to charity later after your investment has paid off – preferably just before you die. … He said that the reason people didn’t do this was that they wanted the social benefits of having given money away, which are unavailable if you wait until just before you die to do so. And darn it, he was totally right. Not about the math – there are severe complications which I’ll bring up later – but about the psychology. (more)

Others … argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But … if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need [for waiting to be better] are positive interest rates. (more)

You may be tempted to move resources from the rich and business profits to the poor and worthy projects, because you see business exploitation, you see low value in the rich buying mansions and yachts, you see others in great need, and you see great value in many worthy projects. But big business doesn’t actually exploit much, the consumption of the rich is less of real resources, and the rich tend to consume less relative to investing and donating.

So instead of grabbing stuff from the rich and businesses today, consider the option of waiting, to grab later. If you don’t grab stuff from them today, these actors will invest much of that stuff, producing a lot more stuff later. Yes, you might think some of your favorite projects are good investments, but let’s be honest; most of the stuff you grab won’t be invested, and the investments that do happen will be driven more by political than rate-of-return considerations. Furthermore, if you grab a lot today, news of that event will discourage future folks from generating stuff, and encourage those folks to move and hide it better.

Also, the rich put much of what they don’t invest into charity. And there’s good reason to think they do a decent job with their charity efforts. Most have impressive management abilities, access to skilled associates, and a willingness to take risks. And they can more effectively resist political pressures that typically mess up government-managed projects.

Finally, when the rich do spend money on themselves, much of that goes to paying for positional and status goods that generate much less in the way of real wastes. When they bid up the price of prestigious clubs, real estate, colleges, first-class seats, vanity books and conference talks, etc., real resources are transferred to those who get less prestigious versions. And our best model of status inequality says that allowing more of this doesn’t cause net harm.

So the longer you wait to grab from the rich, the longer they will grow wealth, donate it well, and transfer via status goods. Just as it is dangerous to borrow too much, because you may face big future crises, it can be unwise to grab from the rich today, when you could grow and farm them to create a crop available to harvest tomorrow. South Korea would have been much worse off doing big grabs in 1955, relative to waiting until today to grab.

Added 29June: Some people ask “wait how long?” One strategy would be to wait for a serious crisis. This is in fact when the rich have lost most of their wealth in history, in disasters like wars, pandemics, and civilization collapse. Another strategy would be to wait until there’s so much capital that market rates of return fall to very low levels.

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Libertarian Varieties

Here at GMU Econ we tend to lean libertarian, but in a wide range of ways. For example, here are two recent posts by colleagues:

Don Boudreaux:

The economy is an emergent and dynamic order that was not, and could not possibly be, designed – and, hence, that cannot possibly be successfully engineered. … the economy is not a device or an organization with a purpose. It is, instead, the result of the multitude of interactions of hundreds of millions of diverse individual entities – persons, households, firms, and governments – each pursuing its own purposes. …

Competent intro-economics professors keep their aspirations modest. In my case, these are two. The first is to impress upon my students the full weight of the fact that the economy is an inconceivably complex order of interactions that cannot possibly be engineered. The second is to inspire students always to ask questions that too often go unasked – questions such as “From where will the resources come to provide that service?” “Why should Sam’s assessment of Sally’s choices be regarded more highly than Sally’s own assessment?” “What consequences beyond the obvious ones might result from that government action?” And, most importantly of all, “As compared to what?”

Students who successfully complete any well-taught economics course do not have their egos inflated with delusions that they can advise Leviathan to engineer improvements in society. Quite the opposite. But these students do emerge with the too-rare humility that marks those who understand that the best service they can offer is to ask penetrating and pertinent questions that are asked by almost no others. (more)

I’m a big fan of learning to ask good questions; it is great to be able to see puzzles, and to resist the temptation to explain them away too quickly. However, I’m less enamored of teaching people to “ask questions” when they are supposed to see certain answers as obvious.

And the fact that a system is complex doesn’t imply that one cannot usefully “engineer” connections to it. For example, the human body is complex, and yet we can usefully engineer our diets, views, clothes, furniture, air input/outputs, sanitation, and medical interventions.

Yes, most students are overly prone to endorse simple-minded policies with large side effects that they do not understand. But I attribute this less to a lack of awareness of complexity, and more to an eagerness to show values; they care less about the effects of polices than about the values they signal by supporting them. After all, people are also prone to offer overly simple-minded advise to the individual people around them, for similar reasons.

Dan Klein:

Government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs [= classical liberals] and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic. …
But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. (more)

Along with Dan, I only lean against government intervention; that presumption can be and is often overcome. But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

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Understandable Social Systems

Brennan and Magness’ book Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education reviews many ways that colleges overpromise, and fail to deliver. It confirms (with Caplan’s Case Against Education) a picture wherein ordinary people are pretty clueless about a big institution in their lives. This cluelessness also seems to apply to many other life areas, such as medicine, charity, politics, etc. In each area, most people don’t seem to understand very basic things, like what exactly is the product, and what are the incentives of professionals?

That is, we each live in many complex social systems, such as political, transport, medical, religious, food, and school systems. Due to our poor understanding of such systems, we have low abilities to make intelligent personal choices about them, and even worse abilities to usefully contribute to efforts to reform them. This suggests a key criteria for evaluating social systems: understandability.

When we don’t understand our social systems, we can be seen as having little agency regarding them. They are like the weather; they exist, and may be good or bad, but we are too ignorant to do much about them. If a situation is bad, we can’t work to make it better. Some elites might have agency re such institutions, but not the rest of us. So a key question is: can we reform or create social institutions that are more understandable, to allow ordinary people to have more agency regarding the institutions in their lives?

One possible solution is to use meta-institutions, like academia, news media, or government regulators, that we may better understand and trust. We might, for example, support a particular reform to our medical system based on the recommendation of an academic institution. Our understanding of academia as a meta-institution could give us agency, even when we were ignorant of the institutions of medicine.

As an analogy, imagine that someone visits a wild life refuge. If this visitor does not understand the plants and animals in this area, they might reasonably fear the consequences of interacting with any given plant or animal, or of entering any given region. In contrast, when accompanied by a tour guide who can advise on what is safe versus dangerous, they might relax. But only if they have good reason to think this guide roughly shares their interests.  If your guide is a nephew who inherits your fortune if you die, you may be much less relaxed.

So here’s a key question: is there, at some level of abstraction, a key understandable institution by which we can usefully choose and influence many other parts of our social world? If we think we understand this meta institution well enough to trust it, that could give us substantial agency regarding key large scale features of our social worlds. For example, we could add our weight to particular reform efforts, because we had good reasons to expect such reforms to on average help.

Alas, academia, news media, and government regulators all seem too complex and opaque to serve in this key meta role. But three other widely used and simpler social mechanisms may be better candidates.

  1. Go with the majority. Buy the product that most other people buy, use the social habits that most others use, and have everyone vote on key big decisions. When some people know what’s best, and others abstain or pick randomly, then the majority will pick what’s best. Yes, there are many topic areas where people don’t abstain or pick randomly when they don’t know what’s best. But if we can roughly guess which are the problematic topics, then in other areas we may gain at least rough agency by going with the crowd.
  2. Follow prestige. Humans have rich ancient intuitive mechanisms for coordinating on who we find impressive. These mechanisms actually scale pretty well, allowing us to form consensus on the relative prestige of nations, professions, schools, cities, etc., and via these proxies, of individuals. Related ancient mechanisms let us form consensus on elite opinion, i.e., on what prestigious people tend to think on any given topic. Yes, elites are biased toward themselves, and to express opinions that make them seem impressive. Still, we can do worse than to follow our best.
  3. Embrace Winners. Nations, cities, firms, professions, teams, media, clubs, lovers, etc. often compete, in the sense that some grow at the expense of others that shrink or disappear. Often they compete for our personal support. And often we see judge that the competition is roughly “fair” and open to many potential competitors. In such cases, we may embrace the winners. For example, we may try many competitors, and stick with those we like best. Or we may go with the lowest price offer, if we can control well enough for quality variations.

Each of these big three mechanisms has limits, but they do seem to satisfy the requirement that they are very simple and many ordinary people can at least roughly understand why they work, and where they run into problems. Together they may cover a pretty wide range of cases. In addition, we can augment them with many other approaches. For example, we can just expose ourselves to choices and follow our intuitions on which are best. We can follow choices by those we know and trust well, those who seem to know more about a topic, and those who seem more honest in their evaluations. Together all these tricks may give us substantial agency re the social institutions in our lives.

Yet those examples of how badly most people misunderstand school, medicine, etc. suggest there is vast room for improvement. And so I look for ways to do better. Not just at designing institutions that actually work, in the sense of producing efficiency, equity, generality, robustness, evolvability, etc. Not just at designing meta-institutions with these features. And not just at gaining the support of majorities or elites, or at winning many fair competitions in the world. I seek meta-mechanisms that can also be simple and clear enough to their advantages be understandable to many ordinary people.

This is the context in which I’d like you to see my highest hopes for prediction markets. I offer them not just as mechanisms that actually work, producing and aggregating info at a low cost. After all, there may be other complex and subtle mechanisms that experts expect to achieve similar or even somewhat better results. But the problem in that case is that ordinary people may wonder how well they can trust such expert judgements.

No, I’m interested in the potential for prediction markets to serve as a simple understandable meta-institution, on par with and at the level of going with the majority, following prestige, and embracing winners. Simple enough that many ordinary people can directly understand why they should work well in many applications, and also to understand roughly where their limitations lie. Yes, not everyone can understand this, but maybe most everyone could know and trust someone who does understand.

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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Expand vs Fight in Social Justice, Fertility, Bioconservatism, & AI Risk

Most people talk too much about values relative to facts, as they care more about showing off their values than about learning facts. So I usually avoid talking values. But I’ll make an exception today for this value: expanding rather than fighting about possibilities.

Consider the following graph. On the x-axis you, or your group, get more of what you want. On the y-axis, others get more of what they want. (Of course each axis really represents a high dimensional space.) The blue region is a space of possibilities, the blue curve is the frontier of best possibilities, and the blue dot is the status quo, which happens if no one tries to change it.

In this graph, there are two basic ways to work to get more of what you want: move along the frontier (FIGHT), or expand it (EXPAND). While expanding the frontier helps both you and others, moving along the frontier helps you at others’ expense.

All else equal, I prefer expanding over fighting, and I want stronger norms for this. That is, I want our norms to, all else equal, more praise expansion and shame fighting. This isn’t to say I want all forms of fighting to be shamed, or shamed equally, or want all kinds of expansion to get equal praise. For example, it makes sense to support some level of “fighting back” in response to fights initiated by others. But on average, we should all expect to be better off when our efforts are on averaged directed more toward expanding than fighting. Fighting should be suspicious, and need justification, relative to expansion.

This distinction between expanding and fighting is central to standard economic analysis. We economists distinguish “efficiency improving” policies that expand possibilities from “redistribution” policies that take from some to give to others, and also from “rent-seeking” efforts that actually cut possibilities. Economists focus on promoting efficiency and discouraging rent-seeking. If we take positions on redistribution, we tend to call those “non-economic” positions.

We economists can imagine an ideal competitive market world. The world we live in is not such a world, at least not exactly, but it helps to see what would happen in such a world. In this ideal world, property rights are strong, we each own stuff, and we trade with each other to get more of what we want. The firms that exist are the ones that are most effective at turning inputs into desired outputs. The most cost-effective person is assigned to each job, and each customer buys from their most cost-effective supplier. Consumers, investors, and workers can make trades across time, and innovations happen at the most cost-effective moment.

In this ideal world, we maximize the space of possibilities by allowing all possible competition and all possible trades. In that case, all expansions are realized, and only fights remain. But in other more realistic worlds many “market failures” (and also government failures) pull back the frontier of possibilities. So we economists focus on finding actions and policies that can help fix such failures. And in some sense, I want everyone to share this pro-expansion anti-fight norm of economists.

Described in this abstract way, few may object to what I’ve said so far. But in fact most people find a lot more emotional energy in fights. Most people are quickly bored with proposals that purport to help everyone without helping any particular groups more than others. They get similarly bored with conversations framed as collecting and sharing relevant information. They instead get far more energized by efforts to help us win against them, including conversations framed as arguing with and even yelling at enemies. We actually tend to frame most politics and morality as fights, and we like it that way.

For example, much “social justice” energy is directed toward finding, outing, and “deplatforming” enemies. Yes, when social norms are efficient, enforcing such norms against violators can enhance efficiency. But our passions are nearly as strong when enforcing inefficient norms or norm-like agendas, just as a crime dramas are nearly as exciting when depicting the enforcement of bad crime laws or non-law vendettas. Our energy comes from the fights, not some indirect social benefit resulting from such fights. And we find it way too easy to just presume that the goals of our social factions are very widely shared and efficient norms.

Consider fertility and education. Many people get quite energized on the topic of whether others are having too many or not enough kids, and on whether they are raising those kids correctly. We worry about which nations, religions, classes, intelligence levels, mental illness categories, or political allegiances are having more kids, or getting more kids to be educated or trained in their favored way. And we often seek government policies to push our favored outcomes. Such as sterilizing the mentally ill, or requiring schools to teach our favored ideologies.

But in an ideal competitive world, each family picks how many kids to have and how to raise them. If other people have too many kids and and have trouble feeding them, that’s their problem, not yours. Same for if they choose to train their kids badly, or if those kids are mentally ill. Unless you can identify concrete and substantial market failures that tend to induce the choices you don’t like, and which are plausibly the actual reason for your concerns here, you should admit you are more likely engaged in fights, not in expansion efforts, when arguing on fertility and education.

And it isn’t enough to note that we are often inclined to supply medicine, education, or food collectively. If such collective actions are your main excuse for trying to control other folks’ related choices, maybe you should consider not supplying such things collectively. It also isn’t enough to note the possibility of meddling preferences, wherein you care directly about others’ choices. Not only is evidence of such preferences often weak, but meddling preferences don’t usually change the possibility frontier, and thus don’t change which policies are efficient. Beware the usual human bias to try to frame fighting efforts as more pro-social expansion efforts, and to make up market failure explanations in justification.

Consider bioconservatism. Some look forward to a future where they’ll be able to change the human body, adding extra senses, and modifying people to be smarter, stronger, more moral, and even immortal. Others are horrified by and want to prevent such changes, fearing that such “post-humans” would no longer be human, and seeing societies of such creatures as “repugnant” and having lost essential “dignities”. But again, unless you can identify concrete and substantial market failures that would result from such modifications, and that plausibly drive your concern, you should admit that you are engaged in a fight here.

It seems to me that the same critique applies to most current AI risk concerns. Back when my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky and I discussed his AI risk concerns here on this blog (concerns that got much wider attention via Nick Bostrom’s book), those concerns were plausibly about a huge market failure. Just as there’s an obvious market failure in letting someone experiment with nuclear weapons in their home basement near a crowded city (without holding sufficient liability insurance), there’d be an obvious market failure from letting a small AI team experiment with software that might, in a weekend, explode to become a superintelligence that enslaved or destroyed the world. While I see that scenario as pretty unlikely, I grant that it is a market failure scenario. Yudkowsky and Bostrom aren’t fighting there.

But when I read and talk to people today about AI risk, I mostly hear people worried about local failures to control local AIs, in a roughly competitive world full of many AI systems with reasonably strong property rights. In this sort of scenario, each person or firm that loses control of an AI would directly suffer from that loss, while others would suffer far less or not at all. Yet AI risk folks say that they fear that many or even most individuals won’t care enough to try hard enough to keep sufficient control of their AIs, or to prevent those AIs from letting their expressed priorities drift as contexts change over the long run. Even though such AI risk folks don’t point to particular market failures here. And even though such advanced AI systems are still a long ways off, and we’ll likely know a lot more about, and have plenty of time to deal with, AI control problems when such systems actually arrive.

Thus most current AI risk concerns sound to me a lot like fertility, education, and bioconservatism concerns. People say that it is not enough to control their own fertility, the education of their own kids, the modifications of their own bodies, and the control of their own AIs. They worry instead about what others may do with such choices, and seek ways to prevent the “risk” of others making bad choices. And in the absence of identified concrete and substantial market failures associated with such choices, I have to frame this as an urge to fight, instead of to expand the space of possibilities. And so according to the norms I favor, I’m suspicious of this activity, and not that eager to promote it.

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Identity Norms

Over the weekend I did a series of Twitter polls on identity. Seeing a survey showing that 74% of blacks but only 15% of whites find race to be central to their identity, I asked if this attitude is good for either group, and found that 83% saw it as bad for both groups. Asking a similar question on sex, answers were more split, with 50% saying it is bad for both and 43% saying it is good for both. In both the race and sex cases, less than 8% said it was good for one group but bad for the other.

I then picked 16 features and asked which one is best for most people to treat as most central to their identity. I got these relative weights: personality 28%, family 14%, smarts 8%, fav hobby 8%, ideology 7%, job 7%, age 6%, religion 5%. gender 4%, class 3%, race 2.2%, urban area 1.6%, fav fiction 0.7%, looks 0.7%.

Finally, I asked if seeing someone else treating a feature as a central to their identity tempts you more (or less) to treat it as central to your identity, and how that depends on if they have same or different value of that feature from you. I found that for features we approve of for identity, like personality, family, or favorite hobby, people think they’ll make a feature more central when they see others treat it as central, and that happens more when those others share their feature value. But for features we disapprove of for identity, like race, gender, or class, it was the opposite; seeing others treat it as central makes them less likely to treat it as central, an effect that is stronger when those others have a different feature value.

To make sense of these results, let me invoke two theories of identity, and two relevant social norms.

One theory is that identity is a way to simplify ourselves to be more easily understood and predicted:

We are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well. This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on. Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details. … Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities. In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.

Another theory is that identity is a way to coordinate on our social/political coalitions; we ally with folks like us. Sarah Constantin:

Dasein is … self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type? “Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein. But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. …

One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to. … Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. … Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

One common human norm is that sub-group coalitions are mildly illicit. We aren’t supposed to break into factions that fight other factions; we are supposed to all work together toward common goals, and treat each other as individuals. As with other norms against fighting, it is more okay for a group to defend itself against attacks from others, but you aren’t supposed to start a fight.

This norm against factions explains a lot of the above poll data. Regarding what features to have as central to your identity, we approve of features which are actually useful to predict individual behavior, features where people with different feature values tend to complement each other, and features which are hard to use for coalitions because they are too granular (e.g., families). In contrast, we disapprove of features that could more easily be used, and that have recently been used, as the basis of factional fights.

People who treat less approved features as more central to their identity compensate by claiming that there is already a pre-existing faction fight along that feature in which they are they underdogs; the other side started the fight, and isn’t fighting fair (e.g, via dominance and not prestige). They invoke our common human norm that requires independent observers to support the side of a fight that is favored by justice and fairness.

Combining these theories and norms we can say that we have a licit and an illicit reason to choose identities: simplifying ourselves and joining coalitions. We often pretend to do the former while we actually do the latter. And when it gets too obvious that we are doing the latter, we try the excuses that they started it or that they aren’t fighting fair.

From all this I conclude that we have a limited tolerance for identity politics. The more different features that become a basis for explicit coalitional fights, the less happy we will all become, and the less tolerance we will have for each fight. We can together only handle a few big factional fights at any one time, and so we’ll have to set a high bar for how clear is the evidence in each case that they started it and are not fighting fair. And when we do see justice and fairness as clearly favoring one side of a fight, we’ll want to aid that side, make justice happen, and then end the fight.

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