Tag Archives: Politics

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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Revolt of The Public

Martin Gurri’ book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium has gotten *lots of praise. For example, Tyler:

I am reading this splendid book for the first time. It basically explains why Brexit and Trump won, and what will happen next. Due to social media, we are disillusioned with our elites, and that will prove hard to reverse. (more)

Here is a summary by Arnold Kling:

The insiders operate within formal organizational structures, such as corporations, universities, and government agencies. These organizations have regular processes for setting goals and making decisions. There is a formal hierarchy, … The outsiders operate without formal organizational structures. They have no planning process. Their tactics are ad hoc. … The outsiders’ credentials, if they even have any, have little relevance. …

Activists who wanted to foment demonstrations against the government had to form organizations and distribute newsletters, where today they can instigate flash mobs using text messages. … Insiders see the existing order as something to preserve and improve upon. Their proposals for reform are limited and specific. They take into account constraints imposed by economic and political realities. …

Outsiders can only articulate what they are against. They can identify flaws in the existing order. But they lack a vision for reform or the skills to govern. … the dominant strategies of insiders and outsiders will lead to an outcome in which government performance worsens, legitimacy declines, and conflict increases. (more)

And one by Noah Smith:

Social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack – but not to replace – the dominant institutions of society. … Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. … Social media, … freeing [public] from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. …

The newly empowered public, he argues, has not focused on building things up, but on breaking them down. The public’s goal is negation – denunciation of respected leaders, derailment of political programs, overthrow of parties or governments, discrediting of institutions, etc. Gurri worries that this constant anti-everything attitude will descend into “nihilism”, and that weakened institutions will be trapped in an eternal stalemate with an eternally raging public. (more)

Here is Gurri himself:

We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies: the fifth wave. … The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media. Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public. … That has changed forever. … The public … has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back. …

The question is what happens … fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration. The mass public was an invention of the mass media. What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups … Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences. In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural: many publics, speaking with many voices. …

Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs. … The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, … the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space. … It’s early days. … Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites. (more)

The meat of the book is a half dozen case studies of protest movements in the early 2010s, from around the world, wherein vocal & active but otherwise ordinary people complained loudly about a failure they attributed to official institutions. As such protesters were reluctant to create or endorse formal organizations or parties, and were much less interested in policy details, they mostly had limited impacts such as getting people to quit or reversing recent policy changes.

Gurri’s day job is intelligence analyst, and he seems good at that. That is, he’s good at describing concrete events in ways that give the impression that he understands what is going on and could roughly predict what will happen next. Though hard to be sure of that, as he offers no track record of predictions. But the more Gurri generalizes, the more doubts I have. And as the above quotes suggest, he goes quite far in generalization.

First, Gurri claims that the pattern of these early 2010s events shows a fundamental social change from previous decades. But he doesn’t actually show this. He only discusses one prior event, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs scandal, where he notes that the media and public mostly forgave Kennedy. Yet the public doesn’t scream about most things authorities do today; that doesn’t show a change.

Second, Gurri attributes the changes he sees to lower costs of sharing information. Clearly this is right at the finest scales, in the sense that in these events social media often allowed a very rapid transition from a few people complaining online to large groups shouting in big plazas together. But it is much less obvious that cheaper info is the key cause of a less docile, more complainy, less organized public that is less supportive of formal hierarchies. I do find it plausible that the public is getting more polarized, egalitarian, and complainy over decades, but I see other plausible causes of such trends, if in fact these are real trends. Gurri didn’t convince me that info costs are more than a minor contributing factor here.

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Can We Trust Deliberation Priests?

In Science, academic “deliberation” experts offer a fix for our political ills:

Citizens to express their views … overabundance [of] … has been accompanied by marked decline in civility and argumentative complexity. Uncivil behavior by elites and pathological mass communication reinforce each other. How do we break this vicious cycle? …

All survey research … obtains evidence only about the capacity of the individual in isolation to reason about politics. … [But] even if people are bad solitary reasoners, they can be good group problem-solvers … Deliberative experimentation has generated empirical research that refutes many of the more pessimistic claims about the citizenry’s ability to make sound judgments.

Great huh? But there’s a catch:

Especially when deliberative processes are well-arranged: when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and oversight by a facilitator … These effects are not necessarily easy to achieve; good deliberation takes time and effort. Many positive effects are demonstrated most easily in face-to-face assemblies and gatherings, which can be expensive and logistically challenging at scale. Careful institutional design involv[es] participant diversity, facilitation, and civility norms …

A major improvement … might involve a randomly selected citizens’ panel deliberating a referendum question and then publicizing its assessments for and against a measure … problem is not social media per se but how it is implemented and organized. Algorithms for ranking sources that recognize that social media is a political sphere and not merely a social one could help. …

It is important to remain vigilant against incentives for governments to use them as symbolic cover for business as usual, or for well-financed lobby groups to subvert their operation and sideline their recommendations. These problems are recognized and in many cases overcome by deliberative practitioners and practice. … The prospects for benign deployment are good to the degree that deliberative scholars and practitioners have established relationships with political leaders and publics—as opposed to being turned to in desperation in a crisis.

So ordinary people are capable of fair and thoughtful deliberation, but only via expensive processes carefully managed in detail by, and designed well in advance by, proper deliberation experts with “established relationships with political leaders and publics.” That is, these experts must be free to pick the “balance” of info, experts, and participants included, and even who speaks when how, and these experts must be treated with proper respect and deference by the public and by political authorities.

No, they aren’t offering a simple well-tested mechanism (e.g., an auction) that we can apply elsewhere with great confidence that the deployed mechanism is the same as the one that they tested. Because what they tested instead was a mechanism with a lot of “knobs” that need context-specific turning; they tested the result of having particular experts use a lot of discretion to make particular political and info choices in particular contexts. They say that went well, and their academic peer reviewers (mostly the same people) agreed. So we shouldn’t worry that such experts would become corrupted if we gave them a lot more power.

This sure sounds like a priesthood to me. If we greatly empower and trust a deliberation priesthood, presumably overseen by these 20 high priest authors and their associates, they promise to create events wherein ordinary people talk much more reasonably, outputting policy recommendations that we could then all defer to with more confidence. At least if we trust them.

In contrast, I’ve been suggesting that we empower and trust prediction markets on key policy outcomes. We’ve tested such mechanisms a lot, including in contexts with strong incentives to corrupt them, and these mechanisms have far fewer knobs that must be set by experts with discretion. Which seems more trustworthy to me.

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To Oppose Polarization, Tug Sideways

Just over 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” … nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” … “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” Some 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans do think [so]. … “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said [between] “a little” to “a lot.” (more)

Pundits keep lamenting our increasing political polarization. And their preferred fix seems to be to write more tsk-tsk op-eds. But I can suggest a stronger fix: pull policy ropes sideways. Let me explain.

Pundit writings typically recommend some policies relative to others. In polarized times such as ours, these policy positions tend to be relatively predictable given a pundit’s political value positions, i.e., the positions they share with their political allies relative to their political enemies. And much of the content of their writings work to clarify any remaining ambiguities, i.e., to explain why their policy position is in fact a natural result of political positions they share with their allies. So only people with evil values would oppose it. So readers can say “yay us, boo them”.

Twelve years ago I described this as a huge tug-o-war:

The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War “ropes” set up in [a] high dimensional policy space. If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are “one of them,” you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions. That is, pick a rope and pull on it. (more)

To oppose this tendency, one idea is to encourage pundits to sometimes recommend policies that are surprising or the opposite of what their political positions might suggest. That is, go pull on the opposite side of a rope sometimes, to show us that you think for yourself, and aren’t driven only by political loyalty. And yes doing this may help. But as the space of political values that we fight over is multi-dimensional, surprising pundit positions can often be framed as a choice to prioritize some values over others, i.e., as a bid to realign the existing political coalitions in value space. Yes, this may weakens the existing dominant political axis, but it may not do much to make our overall conversation less political.

Instead, I suggest that we encourage pundits to grab a policy tug-o-war rope and pull it sideways. That is, take positions that are perpendicular to the usual political value axes, in areas where one has not yet taken explicit value-oriented positions. For example, a pundit who has not yet taken a position on whether we should have more or less military spending might argue for more navy relative to army, and then insist that this is not a covert way to push a larger or smaller military. Most credibly by continuing to not take a position on overall military spending. (And by not coming from a navy family, for whom navy is a key value.)

Similarly, someone with no position on if we should punish crime more or less than we currently do might argue for replacing jail-based punishments with fines, torture, or exile. Or, given no position on more or less immigration, argue for a particular new system to decide which candidates are more worthy of admission. Or given no position on how hard we should work to compensate for past racism, argue for cash reparations relative to affirmative action.

Tugging policy ropes sideways will frustrate and infuriate loyalists who seek mainly to praise their political allies and criticize their enemies. Such loyalists will be tempted to assume the worse about you, and claim that you are trying to covertly promote enemy positions. And so they may impose a price on you for this stance. But to the extent that observers respect you, loyalists will pay a price for attacking you in this way, and raising their overall costs of making everything political. And so on average by paying this price you can buy an overall intellectual conversation that’s a bit less political. Which is the goal here.

In addition, pulling ropes sideways is on average just a better way to improve policy. As I said twelve years ago:

If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy. On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled. (more)

Yes, there is a sense in which arguments for “sideways” choices do typically appeal to a shared value: “efficiency”. For example, one would typically argue for navy over army spending in terms of cost-effectiveness in military conflicts and deterrence. Or might argue for punishment via fines in terms of cost-effectiveness for the goals of deterrence or rehabilitation. But all else equal we all like cost-effectiveness; political coalitions rarely want to embrace blatant anti-efficiency positions. So the more our policy debates emphasize efficiency, the less political polarized they should be.

Of course my suggestion here isn’t especially novel; most pundits are aware that they have the option to take the sort of sideways positions that I’ve recommended. Most are also aware that by doing so, they’d less enflame the usual political battles. Yet how often have you heard pundits protest that others falsely attributed larger value positions to them, when they really just tried to argue for cost-effectiveness of A over B using widely shared effectiveness concepts? That scenario seems quite rare to me.

So the main hope I can see here is of a new signaling equilibria where people tug sideways and brag about it, or have others brag on their behalf, to show their support for cutting political polarization. And thereby gain support from an audience who wants to reward cutters. Which of course only works if enough pundits actually believe a substantial such audience exists. So what do you say, is there much of an audience who wants to cut political polarization?

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Consider Reparations

First … ally of President Trump’s. “We are in a civil war,” he said. “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.” The next day … Trump critic … agreed with him — although she placed the blame squarely on the president. Trump, she said, “greenlit a war in this country around race. (more) 

Frequently in human history, one party has complained about how they’ve been treated by another. Typically, the first party suggests that the issue be resolved in particular ways, and the second party tries to avoid giving in to such demands. To pressure the other party to give in, such parties often act less cooperatively toward one another, and try to enlist allies to assist in this stance. Such conflicting coalitions can grow large, and the resulting feuds can be quite destructive, sometimes escalating into full scale war.

The larger society has an interest in resolving such disputes fairly, as the expectation of fair future resolutions can encourage better behavior. But that larger society has an even stronger interest in just resolving disputes somehow, anyhow, to prevent the accumulation of destructive feuds. So for roughly a million years, humans have used informal group norm enforcement. If a forager had a complaint about someone else, they could tell their band, and that band would discuss it and come to a consensus on how to resolve the issue. The band would then apply increasing pressures to get the disputing parties to abide by their decision, and to stop any feud.  

During the farming era, we formalized this practice as law, which lowered costs of making and enforcing group decisions on how to resolve particular conflicts. But the key idea remains: prevent escalating feuds via having relatively independent judges declare resolutions, and pressuring parties to respect them. Hopefully fair resolutions, but more importantly clear and widely accepted ones. Pressure parties and their allies not only to do what resolutions say, but also to publicly accept such decisions as resolving their conflicts. 

That is, we want people who have been loudly declaring their dispute to publicly put it behind them. For example, by treating ex-cons as “having paid their debt to society”. We’d like these legal resolutions to be reliable and predictable, to give people incentives to behave well and not do things that cause disputes. And when disputable events happen, we want the involved parties to have incentives to quietly make a deal to resolve them, so as to avoid larger social conflict and the need for a formal legal resolution. 

For a very long time, most legal conflicts have been resolved via cash transfers. Not always, of course; crimes often need more punishment than fines can produce. (At least without selling people into slavery or requiring crime insurance.) But cash makes many things easier, including trade and charity. Yes, cash doesn’t always make the best symbolic statement. Even so, law usually uses cash because it is an admirably robust measure of value across a wide range of groups and social contexts.  

Which brings me to the current US political conflict, and the topic of reparations for slavery and racism. Our political climate seems today to be drifting toward a war-like lack of restraint. And “grievances” seem an important part of this conflict. One side at least claims to represent wronged parties, parties whose wrongs have not been adequately addressed. And one especially big and long-lasting grievance has been about our history of raced-based slavery, and related racism. Many say that we have not adequately addressed this complaint. 

My main point here is that cash reparations for past slavery and racism harms make a lot of sense in the context of the general history and purpose of law. We have been suffering from a costly long-standing political feud, a law-like resolution could help us resolve and get past that feud, and cash transfers are our standard go-to way to resolve law-like conflicts.

I’m not going to argue for any particular level of compensation, nor for any particular interpretation of particular cases of precedent. I can believe that precedent isn’t clear here, and that many issues and complexities are in play. But complexity needn’t prevent resolution; we rely on law all the time to resolve complex disputes. In fact, in terms of avoiding wider social conflict, law is probably more socially valuable in more complex cases. 

Yes, reparations today for wrongs from long ago does require some form of vicarious liability, wherein the people who lose and those who gain from a cash transfer aren’t the same as those who did wrongs and who were harmed. But we actually use many forms of vicarious liability in law today, and ancient societies used it a lot more.  

Some fear that even after paying reparations, racism-complaint-based conflict would persist unabated. Others fear the opposite, that many would feel that we could cut back on other responses to racism, such as affirmative action, and “put the issue behind us”, risking complacency on future problems. Here I must come down strongly in favor of risking complacency. 

One of the main goals of law, and of humanity’s more ancient norm enforcement, has been to try to get disputes resolved, to give them a better chance of fading away. Yes, it remains possible that past wrongs will be repeated in the future. But to always presume that is to never allow disputes to be resolved, and to instead accumulate escalating complaints and feuds until war becomes nearly inevitable. 

If our national legal system isn’t up to the task of resolving this conflict, or isn’t seen as neutral enough by important audiences, I have a simple proposal: randomly pick 13 adults from the whole world, let them each pick one legal advisor, then isolate them all in a room and have them work together as a jury to pick a resolution. When they must pick a number, let them just use a median vote (each submits a number, the median of which is the answer). Finally, let the whole world apply social pressure to get everyone to accept this as the most neutral and independent resolution likely to be available anytime soon. Accept it, implement it, and then let it go. (If you worry about one side betraying the resolution later, consider spreading cash payments out over a long time period.) 

When conflict appears in a marriage, the couple sometimes seeks a counselor, who often offers neutral independent advice on how to resolve their conflict. Which is helpful when partners actually do want to resolve a conflict. But sometimes they prefer war, and the marriage ends. Similarly an independent reparations recommendation can’t force us to resolve our conflict over racism and slavery, if what we really want is all out war. But as with a feuding couple, if we think there’s still a chance that we’ll want to stay together, we might still give the independent counselor thing a try.  

Yes, like you I hear of many who seem eager for all-out war, as they feel confident they will win. For example, some intend to crush all opposition within the elite professions that they expect to dominate, such as journalism, academia, government, social media tech, and even law. But while such people do exist, social media exaggerates their numbers. It is not yet too late to step back from the brink, and reconcile. Via something like law. 

In a recent Twitter poll, I found that 800 respondents favored cash reparations (CR) 4-1 over affirmative action (AA) as a way to deal with past and present racism, including race-based slavery:

My 73 facebook poll respondents favored CR over AA 87% to 13%. Yes, there are reasons to doubt a wider public shares this judgment, but three different polls find at least that majorities of blacks favor cash reparations. The idea isn’t crazy.

Added 3pm: Over the weekend, I paid for nationally representative surveys via Google Surveys. When I asked the above question except with “just show results” replaced by “I don’t know” (IDK), then out of 220, IDK got 77%, AA 14%, and CR 9%. I initially paid for a much bigger survey, but bailed when I saw so many IDK. I tried again without the IDK option, and out of 1154, AA got 53% and CR 47%. I agree that these stats aren’t very supportive of a majority favoring CR over AA.

I interpret these stats as Google Survey respondents trying to answer as fast as they can to get paid more faster, and so only giving accurate opinions when such can be generated very quickly. If the question looks at all complex, then they pick an IDK or “none of the above” if they see one, and otherwise pick randomly. I’d pay a lot more for surveys where the same person is asked the same question a week apart, and only gets paid if their answers match.

Added 6Mar: Almost all responses are critical, from folks who apparently don’t want any reparations. They mainly complain that this case would be difficult to judge from a legal precedent point of view. But we almost never refuse to have a legal proceeding on the basis of difficulty of judging. If it seems plausible that a judge might find for the plaintiff, the case goes forward. A judge might then rule for the defendant because it seems too hard to find a clear enough reason to rule otherwise. But that’s after a proceeding, not before. I’m okay if the jury of 13 that I suggested picks, after much deliberation, a median compensation of zero; no reparations.

Added 8Mar: David Brooks comes out in favor of reparations:

Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

George Will opposes reparations because they’d be complicated.

Added 10Mar: A Postily poll of 283 finds 28% prefer AA, 36% prefer CR, 36% say IDK. Non-whites like CR more across the board, but even whites favor it 33% to 27%. Masters degrees & higher prefer AA. Democrats prefer AA over CR 45% to 26%. Oddly, all regions but the South preferred AA over CR.

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Fine Grain Futarchy Zoning Via Harberger Taxes

Futarchy” is my proposed system of governance which approves a policy change when conditional prediction markets give a higher expected outcome, conditional on that change. In a city setting, one might be tempted to use a futarchy where the promoted outcome is the total property value of all land in and near that city. After all, if people don’t like being in this city, and are free to move elsewhere, city land won’t be worth much; the more attractive a city is as a place to be, the more its property will be worth.

Yes, we have problems measuring property values. Property is only traded infrequently, sale prices show a marginal not a total value, much land is never offered for sale, sales prices are often obscured by non-cash terms of trade, and regulations and taxes change sales and use. (E.g., rent control.) In addition, we expect at least some trading noise in the prices of any financial market. As a result, simple futarchy isn’t much help for decisions whose expected consequences for outcomes are smaller than its price noise level. And yes, there are other things one might care about beside property values. But given how badly city governance often actually goes, we could do a lot worse than to just consistently choose policies that maximize a reasonable estimate of city property value. The more precise such property estimates can be, the more effective such a futarchy could be.

Zoning (and other policy that limits land use) is an area of city policy that seems especially well suited to a futarchy based on total property value. After all, the main reason people say that we need zoning is because using some land in some ways decreases how much people are willing to pay to use other land. For example, people might not want to live next to a bar, liquor store, or sex toy store, are so are willing to pay less to buy (or rent) next to such a place. So choosing zoning rules to maximize total property value seems especially promising.

I’ve also written before favorably on Harberger taxes (which I once called “stability rents”). In this system, owners of land (and property tied to that land) must set and may continuously adjust a declared property “value”; they are taxed per unit time as a percentage of momentary value, and must always agree to sell their property at their currently declared value. This system has great advantages in inducing property to be held by those who can gain the most value from it, including via greatly lowering the transaction costs of putting together big property packages. With this system, there’s no more need for eminent domain.

I’ve just noticed a big synergy between futarchy for zoning and Harberger taxes. The reason is that such taxes allow the creation of prices which support a much finer grain accounting of the net value of specific zoning changes. Let me explain.

First, Harberger taxes create a continuous declared value on each property all the time, not just a few infrequent sales prices. This creates a lot more useful data. Second, these declared values better approximate the value that people place on property; the higher an actual value, the higher an owner will declare his or her taxable value to be, to avoid the risk of someone taking it away. Third, these declared values are all relative to a standard terms of trade, not the varying terms of actual sales today. Thus the sum total of all declared property values can be a decent estimate of total city property value. Third, it is possible to generalize the Harberger tax system to create zoning-conditional property ownership and prices.

That is, relative to current zoning rules, one can define a particular alternative zoning scenario, wherein the zoning (or other property use limit) policies have changed. Such as changing the zoning of a particular area from residential to commercial on a particular date. Given such a defined scenario, one can create conditional ownership; I own this property if (and when) this zoning change is made, but not otherwise. The usual ownership then becomes conditional on no zoning changes soon.

With conditional ownership, conditional owners can make conditional offers to sell. That is, you can buy my property under this condition if you pay this declared amount of conditional cash. For example, I might offer to make a conditional sale of my property for $100,000, and you might agree to that sale, but this sale only happens if a particular zoning change is approved.

The whole Harberger tax system can be generalized to support such conditional trading and prices. In the simple system, each property has a declared value set by its owner, and anyone can pay that amount at any time to become the new owner. In the generalized system, each property has a declared value for each (combination of) approved alternative zoning scenario. By default, alternative declared values are equal to the ordinary no-zoning-change declared value, but property owners can set them differently if they want, to be either higher or lower. Anyone can make a scenario-conditional purchase of a property from its current (conditional) owner at its scenario-conditional declared value. To buy a property for sure, buy it conditional on all scenarios.

(For concreteness, assume that only one zoning change proposal is allowed per day per city region, that a decision is made on that proposal in that day, and that the proposal for each day is chosen via open public auction a month before. The auction fee can subsidize markets in bets on if this proposal will be approved and markets in tax-revenue asset conditional differences (explained below). A week before the decision day of a proposal, each right in a property is split into two conditional rights, one conditional on this change and one on not-this-change. At that point, owner declared values conditional on this change (or not) become active sale prices. Taxes are paid in conditional cash. Physical control of a property only transfers to conditional owners if and when a zoning scenario is actually approved.)

Having declared values for all properties under all scenarios gives us even more data with which to estimate total city property value, and in particular helps with estimating the difference in total city property value due to a zoning change. To a first approximation, we can just add up all the zoning-change-conditional declared values, and compare that sum to the sum from the no-change declared values. If the former sum is consistently and clearly higher than the latter sum over the proposal’s decision day, that seems a good argument for adopting this zoning proposal. (It seems safer to choose the higher value option with a chance increasing in value difference, and this all works even when other factors influence a decision.) At least if the news that this zoning proposal seems likely be approved gets spread wide and fast enough for owners to express their conditional declared values. (The bet markets on which properties will be effected helps to notify owners.)

Actually, to calculate the net property value difference that a zoning change makes, we need only sum over the properties that actually have a conditional declared value different from its no-change declared value. For small local zoning changes, this might only be a small number of properties within a short distance of the main changes. As a result, this system seems capable of giving useful advice on very small and local zoning changes, in dramatic contrast to a futarchy based on prices estimating total city property values. For example, it might even be able to say if a particular liquor store should be allowed at a particular location, or if the number of required parking spots at a particular shopping mall can be reduced. As promised, this new system offers much finer grain accounting of the net value of specific zoning changes.

Note that in this system as described, losers are not compensated by winners for zoning rule changes, even though we can roughly identify winners and losers. I’ve thought a bit about ways to add a extra process by which winners compensate losers, but haven’t been able to make that work. So the best I can think of is to have the system look at the distribution of wins and losses, and reject proposed changes where there are too many big losers relative to winners. That would force a search for variations which spread out the pain more evenly.

We are close to a workable proposal, but not quite there yet. This is because we face the problem of owners temporarily inflating their declared values conditional on a zoning change that they seek to promote. This might tip the balance to get a change approved, and then after approval such owners could cut their declared values back down to something reasonable, and only pay a small extra tax for that small decision period. Harberger taxes impose a stronger penalty for declaring overly-low values than overly-high values.

A solution to this problem is to use, instead of declared values, prices for the purely financial assets that represent claims on all future tax revenue from the Harberger tax on a particular property. That is, each property will pay a tax over time, we could divert that revenue into a particular account, and an asset holder could own the right to spend a fraction of the funds in that account. Such tax-revenue assets could be bought and sold in financial markets, and could also be made conditional on particular zoning scenarios. As such assets are easy to create and duplicate, the usual speculation pressures should make it hard to manipulate these prices much in any direction.

A plan to temporarily inflate the declared value of a property shouldn’t do much to the market price for a claim to part of all future tax revenue from that property. So instead of summing over conditional differences in declared-values to see if a zoning change is good, it is probably better to sum over conditional differences in tax revenue assets. Subsidized continuous market makers can give exact if noisy prices for all such differences, and for most property-scenario pairs this difference will be exactly zero.

So that’s the plan for using futarchy and Harberger taxes to pick zoning (and other land use limit policy) changes. Instead of just one declared value per property, we allow owners to specify declared values conditional on each approved zoning change (or not) scenario, and allow conditional purchases as well. By default, conditional values equal no-change values. We should tend more to adopt zoning proposals when, during its decision day, when the sum of its (tax-revenue-asset) conditional differences clearly and consistently exceeds zero.

Thanks to Alex Tabarrok & Keller Scholl for their feedback.

Added 11pm: One complaint people have about a Harberger tax is that owners would feel stressed to know that their property could be taken at any time. Here’s a simple fix. When someone takes your property at your declared value, you can pay 1% of that value to get it back, if you do so quickly. But then you’d better raise your declared value or someone else could do the same thing the next day or week. You pay 1% for a fair warning that your value is too low. Under this system, people only lose their property when someone else actually values it more highly, even after considering the transaction costs of switching property.

Added 2Feb: I edited this post a bit. Note that with severe enough property limits, negative declared property values can make sense. For example, if a property must be maintained so as to serve as a public park, the only people willing to become owners are those who get paid when they take the property, and then get paid per unit time for remanning owners. In this way, city services can be defined and provided via this same decision mechanism.

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Do I Offend?

The last eight months have seen four episodes where many people on Twitter called me a bad offensive person, often via rude profanity, sometimes calling for me to be fired or arrested. These four episodes were: sex inequality and redistribution, chances of a delayed harassment complaint, morality-induced overconfidence on historical counterfactuals, and implicit harassment in A Star Is Born. While these topics have occupied only a small fraction of my thought over these months, and a much smaller fraction over my career, they may have disproportionate effects on my reputation. So I’ve tried to pay close attention to the reasons people give. 

I think I see a consistent story. While in these cases I have not made moral, value, or political claims, when people read small parts of what I’ve claimed or asked, they say they can imagine someone writing those words for the purpose of promoting political views they dislike. And not just mild views that just a bit on other side of the political spectrum. No, they attribute to me the most extreme bad views imaginable, such as that I advocate rape, murder, slavery, and genocide. People say they are directly and emotionally traumatized by the offensive “creepy” feeling they get when they encounter someone with any prestige and audience seeming to publicly promote views with which they strongly disagree.

Some plausibly contributing factors here include my sometimes discussing sensitive topics, our increasing political polarization, the ease of making mobs and taking words out of context on Twitter, increasing ease of making new accusations similar to previous ones, and my terse and analytic writing style combined with my adding disclaimers re my allegiance to “correct” views. There’s also my following the standard poll practice of not telling those who answer polls the motives for those polls. And I’m a non-poor older white male associated with economics in general and GMU econ in particular; many see all these as indicators of bad political views. 

Digging a little deeper, trauma is plausibly increased by a poll format, which stokes fears that bad people will find out that they are not alone, and be encouraged to learn that many others share their views. I suspect this helps explain complaints that my poll population is not representative of my nation or planet.  

I also suspect bad faith. Long ago when I had two young kids, they would sometimes pick fights, for example on long car trips. One might start singing, to which the other would complain. We might agree that singing is too much for such a small space. Then the first might start to quietly hum, which we might decide is okay. Then first might hum more loudly and triumphantly, while the second might writhe, cover their ears, and make a dramatic display of suffering. 

Similarly, I suspect bad faith when some a) claim to experience “harassment” level suffering due to encountering political views with which they disagree, and yet are fine with high levels of sex, violence, and profanity in TV & movies, b) infer indirectly from my neutral analytical text that I promote the most extreme views imaginable, and c) do not notice that such claims are both a priori implausible and inconsistent with my large corpus of public writing; they either haven’t read much of it or purposely mischaracterize it. 

The idea of a large shared intellectual sphere wherein we can together analyze difficult topics holds a strong appeal to me. The main criteria for consideration in such a sphere should be the coherence and persuasiveness of specific relevant arguments. When evaluating each arguments, there is usually little need to infer distantly related positions of those who offer arguments. Usually an argument either works or it doesn’t, regardless of who says it or why.

I try to live up to such ideals in how I write and talk. I hope that many who read and follow me share these ideals, and I appreciate their support. I’m thus not favorably inclined toward suggestions that I stop discussing sensitive topics, or that adopt a much more elaborate disclaimer style, or that I stop asking my followers questions, to prevent others from being traumatized by hearing their answers, and or to keep followers from finding out that others share their opinions.

Added 29Dec:  I did 4 follow up polls to probe tendencies to take offense, focusing on the Nazi case. Respondents said the fraction of tweeters who actually wish Nazis had won WWII is tiny; 63% said it is <0.1%, though 4% gave >10%. And 79% said that this Nazi fraction is <3% among those “who mention `Nazis’ neutrally in a tweet, without explicitly praising or criticizing them, and who explicitly claim otherwise”, though 10% said >15%. Also, 58% said that for a tweet to be considered “offensive” or “harassment”, it would need to suggest a chance >50% that its author actually wishes Nazis had won WWII. However, 10% gave a threshold of <3% and 19% gave one <15%.

Finally, 43% gave a <3% “chance the author of a Twitter poll which asks about chance world would have been better off had Nazis won WWII, actually wishes that Nazis had won WWII”. However 20% gave a chance >50%, and 37% gave a chance >15%.

A obvious conclusion here is that, even among those who respond to my twitter polls, a substantial fraction have set hair-triggers for offense. For example, it seems >20% say merely asking if the world would have been better off if Nazis had won justifies a high enough chance of a Nazi author to be offensive. Explicit denials may help, but if the offended are much more vocal than are others, a vocal choir of objection seems largely inevitable.

This makes me wonder again if the “silent majority” might benefit from juries or polls which show them that the vocal offended are a minority. Though that minority will likely also express offense re such juries or polls.

Added 28Jan: A recent burst of outrage on the Star is Born episode confirms this account to some extent.

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Open Policy Evaluation

Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. La Rochefoucauld, Maximes

In some areas of life, you need connections to do anything. Invitations to parties, jobs, housing, purchases, business deals, etc. are all gained via private personal connections. In other areas of life, in contrast, invitations are made open to everyone. Posted for all to see are openings for jobs, housing, products to buy, business investment, calls for proposals for contracts and grants, etc. The connection-only world is often suspected of nepotism and corruption, and “reforms” often take the form of requiring openings to be posted so that anyone can apply.

In academia, we post openings for jobs, school attendance, conference attendance, journal publications, and grant applications for all to see. Even though most people know that you’ll actually need personal connections to have much of a chance for many of these things. People seems to want to appear willing to consider an application from anyone. They allow some invitation-only conferences, talk series, etc., but usually insist that such things are incidental, not central to their profession.

This preference for at least an appearance of openness suggests a general strategy of reform: find things that are now only gained via personal connections, and create an alternate open process whereby anyone can officially apply. In this post, I apply this idea to: policy proposals.

Imagine that you have a proposal for a better policy, to be used by governments, businesses, or other organizations. How can you get people to listen to your proposal, and perhaps endorse it or apply it? You might try to use personal connections to get an audience with someone at a government agency, political interest group, think tank, foundation, or business. But that’s stuck in the private connection world. You might wait for an agency or foundation to put out an open call for proposals, seeking a solution to exactly the problem your proposal solves. But for any one proposal idea, you might wait a very long time.

You might submit an article to an open conference or journal, or submit a book to a publisher. But if they accept your submission, that mostly won’t be an endorsement of whether your proposal is good policy by some metric. Publishers are mostly looking at other criteria, such as whether you have an impressive study using difficult methods, or whether you have a book thesis and writing style that will attract many readers.

So I propose that we consider creating an open process for submitting policy proposals to be evaluated, in the hope of gaining some level of endorsement and perhaps further action. This process won’t judge your submission on wit, popularity, impressiveness, or analytical rigor. Their key question is: is this promising as a policy proposal to actually adopt, for the purpose of making a better world? If they endorse your proposal, then other actors can use that as a quality signal regarding what policy proposals to consider.

Of course how you judge a policy proposal depends on your values. So there might be different open policy evaluators (OPE) based on different sets of values. Each OPE needs to have some consistent standards by which they evaluate proposals. For example, economists might ask whether a proposal improves economic efficiency, libertarians might ask if it increases liberty, and progressives might ask whether it reduces inequality.

Should the evaluation of a proposal consider whether there’s a snowball chance in hell of a proposal being actually adopted, or even officially considered? That is, whether it is in the “Overton window”? Should they consider whether you have so far gained sufficient celebrity endorsements to make people pay attention to your proposal? Well, those are choices of evaluation criteria. I’m personally more interested in evaluating proposals regardless of who has supported them, and regardless of their near-term political feasibility. Like how academics say we do today with journal article submissions. But that’s just me.

An OPE seems valid and useful as long as its actual choices of which policies it endorses match its declared evaluation criteria. Then it can serve as a useful filter, between people with innovative policy ideas and policy customers seeking useful ideas to consider and perhaps implement. If you can find OPEs who share your evaluation criteria, you can consider the policies they endorse. And of course if we ever end up having many of them, you could focus first on the most prestigious ones.

Ideally an OPE would have funding from some source to pay for its evaluations. But I could also imagine applicants having to pay a fee to have their proposals considered.

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Moral Choices Reveal Preferences

Tyler Cowen has a new book, Stubborn Attachments. In my next post I’ll engage his book’s main claim. But in this post I’ll take issue with one point that is to him relatively minor, but is to me important: the wisdom of the usual economics focus on preferences:

Sometimes my fellow economists argue that “satisfying people’s preferences” is the only value that matters, because in their view it encapsulates all other relevant values. But that approach doesn’t work. It is not sufficiently pluralistic, as it also matters whether our overall society encompasses standards of justice, beauty, and other values from the plural canon. “What we want” does not suffice to define the good. Furthermore, we must often judge people’s preferences by invoking other values external to those preferences. …

Furthermore, if individuals are poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent— as nearly all of us are, at times— the notion of “what we want” isn’t always so clear. So while I am an economist, and I will use a lot of economic arguments, I won’t always side with the normative approach of my discipline, which puts too much emphasis on satisfying preferences at the expense of other ethical values. … We should not end civilization to do what is just, but justice does sometimes trump utility. And justice cannot be reduced to what makes us happy or to what satisfies our preferences. …

iI traditional economics— at least prior to the behavioral revolution and the integration with psychology— it was commonly assumed that what an individual chooses, or would choose, is a good indicator of his or her welfare. But individual preferences do not always reflect individual interests very well. Preferences as expressed in the marketplace often appear irrational, intransitive, spiteful, or otherwise morally dubious, as evidenced by a wide range of vices, from cravings for refined sugar to pornography to grossly actuarially unfair lottery tickets. Given these human imperfections, why should the concept of satisfying preferences be so important? Even if you are willing to rationalize or otherwise defend some of these choices, in many cases it seems obvious that satisfying preferences does not make people happier and does not make the world a better place.

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.) When we look at those other people, we can use the choices that they make to infer their wants (called “revealed preferences”), and then we can then make our moral choices in part to help them get what they want.

In this context, Tyler accurately describes common morality, in the sense that the moral choices of most people do not depend only on what those other object people want. Common moral choices are instead often “paternalistic”, giving people less of what they want in order to achieve other ends and to satisfy other principles. We can argue about how moral such choices actually are, but they clearly embody a common attitude to morality.

However, if these moral choices that we are to agree on satisfy some simple consistency conditions, then formally they imply a set of “revealed preferences”.  (And if they do not actually satisfy these conditions, we can see them as resulting from consistent preferences plus avoidable error.) They are “our” preferences in this moral choice situation. Looked at this way, it is just not remotely true that “ ‘What we want’ does not suffice to define the good” or that “Justice cannot be reduced to … what satisfies our preferences.” Our concepts of the good and justice are in fact exactly described by our moral preferences, the preferences that are revealed by our various consistent moral choices. It is then quite accurate to say that our moral preferences encapsulate all our relevant moral values.

Furthermore, the usual economics framework is wise and insightful because we in fact quite often disagree about moral choices when we take moral action. This framework that Tyler seems to use above, wherein we first agree on which acts are moral and then we act, is based on an often quite unrealistic fiction. We instead commonly each take moral actions in the absence of agreement. In such cases we each have a different set of moral preferences, and must consider how to take moral action in the context of our differing preferences.

At this point the usual economists’ framework, wherein different agents have different preferences, becomes quite directly relevant. It is then useful to think about moral Pareto improvements, wherein we each get more of what we want morally, and moral deals, where we make verifiable agreements to achieve moral “gains from trade”. The usual economist tools for estimating and calculating our wants and the location of win-win improvements then seem quite useful and important.

In this situation, we each seek to influence the resulting set of actual moral choices in order to achieve our differing moral preferences. We might try to achieve this influence via preaching, threats, alliances, wars, or deals; there are many possibilities. But whatever we do, we each want any analytical framework that we use to help us in this process to reflect our actual differing moral preferences. Yes, preferences can be complex, must be inferred from limited data on our choices, and yes we are often “poorly informed, confused, or downright inconsistent.” But we rarely say “why should the concept of satisfying [my moral] preferences be so important?”, and we are not at all indifferent to instead substituting the preferences of some other party, or the choice priorities of some deal analyst or assistant like Tyler. As much as possible, we seek to have the actual moral choices that result reflect our moral preferences, which we see as a very real and relevant thing, encapsulating all our relevant moral values.

And of course we should expect this sort of thing to happen all the more in a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral “dealmaking” process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all. In this more political case, we don’t at all say “my preferences are poorly informed, confused, and inconsistent and hardly matter so they don’t deserve much consideration.” Instead we each focus on causing choices that better satisfy our moral preferences, as we understand them. In this case, the usual economist tools and analytical frameworks based on achieving preferences seem quite appropriate. They deserve to sit center stage in our analysis.

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Vulnerable World Hypothesis

I’m a big fan of Nick Bostrom; he is way better than almost all other future analysts I’ve seen. He thinks carefully and writes well. A consistent theme of Bostrom’s over the years has been to point out future problems where more governance could help. His latest paper, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis, fits in this theme:

Consider a counterfactual history in which Szilard invents nuclear fission and realizes that a nuclear bomb could be made with a piece of glass, a metal object, and a battery arranged in a particular configuration. What happens next? … Maybe … ban all research in nuclear physics … [Or] eliminate all glass, metal, or sources of electrical current. … Societies might split into factions waging a civil wars with nuclear weapons, … end only when … nobody is able any longer to put together a bomb … from stored materials or the scrap of city ruins. …

The ​vulnerable world hypothesis​ [VWH] … is that there is some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed unless … civilization sufficiently exits the … world order characterized by … limited capacity for preventive policing​, … limited capacity for global governance.​ … [and] diverse motivations​. … It is ​not​ a primary purpose of this paper to argue VWH is true. …

Four types of civilizational vulnerability. … in the “easy nukes” scenario, it becomes too easy for individuals or small groups to cause mass destruction. … a technology that strongly incentivizes powerful actors to use their powers to cause mass destruction. … counterfactual in which a preemptive counterforce [nuclear] strike is more feasible. … the problem of global warming [could] be far more dire … if the atmosphere had been susceptible to ignition by a nuclear detonation, and if this fact had been relatively easy to overlook …

two possible ways of achieving stabilization: Create the capacity for extremely effective preventive policing.​ … and create the capacity for strong global governance. … While some possible vulnerabilities can be stabilized with preventive policing alone, and some other vulnerabilities can be stabilized with global governance alone, there are some that would require both. …

It goes without saying there are great difficulties, and also very serious potential downsides, in seeking progress towards (a) and (b). In this paper, we will say little about the difficulties and almost nothing about the potential downsides—in part because these are already rather well known and widely appreciated.

I take issue a bit with this last statement. The vast literature on governance shows both many potential advantages of and problems with having more relative to less governance. It is good to try to extend this literature into futuristic considerations, by taking a wider longer term view. But that should include looking for both novel upsides and downsides. It is fine for Bostrom to seek not-yet-appreciated upsides, but we should also seek not-yet-appreciated downsides, such as those I’ve mentioned in two recent posts.

While Bostrom doesn’t in his paper claim that our world is in fact vulnerable, he released his paper at time when many folks in the tech world have been claiming that changing tech is causing our world to in fact become more vulnerable over time to analogies of his “easy nukes” scenario. Such people warn that it is becoming easier for smaller groups and individuals to do more damage to the world via guns, bombs, poison, germs, planes, computer hacking, and financial crashes. And Bostrom’s book Superintelligence can be seen as such a warning. But I’m skeptical, and have yet to see anyone show a data series displaying such a trend for any of these harms.

More generally, I worry that “bad cases make bad law”. Legal experts say it is bad to focus on extreme cases when changing law, and similarly it may go badly to focus on very unlikely but extreme-outcome scenarios when reasoning about future-related policy. It may be very hard to weigh extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting more governance against extreme but unlikely scenarios suggesting less governance. Perhaps the best lesson is that we should make it a priority to improve governance capacities, so we can better gain upsides without paying downsides. I’ve been working on this for decades.

I also worry that existing governance mechanisms do especially badly with extreme scenarios. The history of how the policy world responded badly to extreme nanotech scenarios is a case worth considering.

Added 8am:

Kevin Kelly in 2012:

The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time. To restate that: An individual — a person working alone today — can’t kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.

Anders Sandberg in 2018:

Added 19Nov: Vox quotes from this article.

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