Tag Archives: Politics

Who Wants Standards?

Most of us live in worlds of conversation, like books or blogs or chats, where we tend to give many others the benefit of the doubt that they are mostly talking “in good faith.” We don’t just talk to show off or to support allies and knock rivals – we hold our selves to higher standards. But let me explain why that may often be wishful thinking.

I’ve previously suggested that coalition politics infuses a lot of human behavior. That is, we tend to use all available means to try to help “us “and hurt “them”, even if on average these games hurt us all. Coalition politics is a dirt that regularly accumulates in most any corner that is not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

This view predicts that coalition politics also infuses a lot of how writings (and speeches, etc.) are evaluated. That is, when we evaluate the writings of others, we attend to how such evaluations may help our coalitions and hurt rival coalitions. Especially for writings on subjects that have little direct relevance for how we live our lives. Like most topics in most blogs, magazines, journals, books, speeches, etc.

However, while we may find such cynicism plausible as a theory of rivals, we are reluctant to consciously embrace it as theory of ourselves. We instead want to say that we mostly evaluate the writings of others using different criteria. And when we are part of a group that evaluates writings similarly, we want to say this is because our group shares key evaluation criteria beyond “us good, them bad.”

Now some groups can offer concrete evidence for their claims to be relatively clean of coalition politics. These are groups who declare specific “objective” standards to judge writing. That is, they use standards that are relatively easy for outsiders to check. For example, outsiders can relatively easily check groups who evaluate writings based on word count, or on correctness of spelling and grammar. Yes, a commitment to such standards may favor some groups over others, such as good spellers over bad spellers. But it can’t be adjusted very easily to shifting coalitions. Which makes it a poor tool for supporting coalition politics.

Some groups say they judge writings based on their popularity in some audience. And yes, it can be pretty easy to evaluate the popularity of writings. However, it could easily be the audience that is using coalition politics to decide what is popular. Thus using popularity to evaluate writings doesn’t at all ensure that coalition politics doesn’t dominate evaluations.

Some groups claim to evaluate written “maps” based on how well they match intended “territories”. And when it is easy for many clearly-neutral outsiders to visit a territory, it can be easy for outsiders to check that territory-matching is actually how this group evaluates maps. But the harder it is for outsiders to see territories, or to read their supposedly matching maps, and the more easily that outside critics can be credibly accused of political bias, the more easily a group could pretend to evaluate maps based on territory matches, but actually evaluate them via coalition politics. For example, anthropologists watching the private lives of the very rich might write descriptions of those lives that pander to academic presumptions about the very rich, since few academics ever see those lives directly, and the few who do can be accused of biased by association.

Some groups use objective criteria for evaluations, but don’t give those criteria enough weight to stop coalition politics from dominating evaluations. For example, economic theory journals can claim that they only publish articles containing proofs without obvious errors. And the ability of readers to seek errors may ensure that this criteria is usually satisfied. But such journals may still reject most submissions that meet this criteria, allowing coalition politics to dominate which articles are accepted. Winning coalitions may be constrained to include only members capable of constructing proofs without obvious errors, but this need not be very constraining to them.

Another approach is to only use objective evaluation criteria, but to use many such criteria and to be unclear about their relative weights. The more such criteria, the greater the chance of finding criteria to reach whatever evaluation one wants. For example, in many legal areas there is wide agreement on the relevant factors, and on which directions each factor points to in a final decision. Nevertheless, given enough relevant factors, courts may usually have enough discretion to favor either side.

For any one group and their declared criteria of evaluation, it can be hard for outsiders to judge just how much leeway that group has left for coalition politics to influence evaluations. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to our own groups, but not to rivalrous groups. For example, pro-science anti-religion folks may presume that peer review in scientific journals is mainly used to enforce good evidence norms, but that religious leaders mainly use their discretion in interpreting scriptures to favor their allies.

If they were honest, each group would either declare objective evaluation criteria that leave little room for coalition politics, or accept that outsiders can reasonably presume that coalition politics probably dominates their evaluations. And everyone should expect that even if their group now seems an exception where other criteria dominate, it will probably not remain so for long. Because these are in fact reasonable assumptions in a world where collation politics is a dirt that regularly and rapidly accumulates in any corner not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

Hey there reader, I’m really am talking about you and the worlds of writing where you live. Do you presume that your worlds are mostly dominated by politics, where different coalitions vie to support allies and knock rivals? Or do you see the groups you hang with as holding themselves to higher standards? If higher standards, are they standards that outsiders can easily check on? Or do you in practice mostly have to trust a small group of insiders to judge if standards are met? And if you have to trust insiders, how sure can you be their choices aren’t mostly driven by coalition politics?

Years ago I struggled with this issue, and wondered what evaluation criteria a group could adopt to robustly induce their writings to roughly tract truth on a wide range of topics, and resist the corrupting pressures of coalition politics to say what key audiences want or expect to hear. I was delighted to find that for a wide range of topics open prediction markets offer such robust criteria. Each trade can be an “edit” of the highly-evaluated “writing” that is the current market odds on each topic. Such edits are rewarded or punished via cash for moving the consensus toward or away from the truth.

I had hoped that many groups would be anxious to avoid the appearance that coalition politics may dirty their evaluations, and thus be eager to adopt new standards that can avoid such an appearance. So I hoped that many groups would want to adopt prediction markets, once they were clearly shown to be feasible and practical. Alas, that seems to not be so.

Today’s winning coalitions seem to prefer to let coalition politics continue to determine who wins in each group. This seems like how police departments would like to appear free from corruption, but not enough to actually make their internal affairs departments report to someone other than the chief of police. We are fond of tarring rival groups with the accusation that coalition politics dominates their evaluations, and we are fond of pretending that we are different. But not enough to visibly block that politics.

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One Cam Net To Rule Them All?

The costs of surveillance hardware is falling rapidly. Soon it will be very cheap to install dense networks of cameras and microphones, to record what everyone does and says. (And the potential of vector microphones is neglected and huge.) So which networks are installed and used where will mainly come down to property rights – who is allowed to install and operate such networks where? And property rights will depend a lot on enforcement costs – how easy is it to detect and punish violations?

Governments who want to install and operate such networks would seem to face few obstacles. Decentralized attempts to sabotage those nets face the problem that the nets makes it easy to identify and track saboteurs.

What about private networks? Clearly they could work, if the government fully supported them. But what if the government opposes them? Some have argued that it would be too hard to enforce rules against unapproved surveillance networks. They argue that if everyone has a cam and mic in their phone, eyeglasses, etc., the government can’t control them all. But it is one thing to have a camera and mic available, and quite another thing to make those function effectively as part of a shared surveillance network.

Imagine that some community tried to pool their cameras, mics, etc. to make a service that continually broadcasted the sight and sounds from a large set of locations. You could go to their website, pick a location, and then see and hear what was happening there now. And imagine that the authorities wanted to stop this, at least for particular times and locations. What happens then?

If the authorities can go to this same website, they can not only see what others can see, they can also use that view to figure out where the cams and mics are. Even if those cams and mics are moving around, a continual broadcast should make it easy to find and disable them.

So how can private surveillance networks function in the face of official disapproval? One approach is to only broadcast with a long delay. The delay must be long enough so one can afford to move or replace the cam/mics without revealing who helped. Another approach is to only rarely offer widespread access – the net turns on only for rare special events. A third approach is to process the raw cam/mic info into new versions that hide their exact location origins, but still convince outsiders of their accuracy. That seems hard to me, but maybe it could work eventually.

All of these approaches seem to result in substantial reductions in the value of the surveillance info offered, and substantial increases in the cost to maintain the net. I conclude that governments can give themselves big cost and value advantages in the use of surveillance networks. If they choose, governments can see and hear much more than can the rest of us.

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Freedom As Identity

At a big wonk dinner last night there was a long discussion of NSA policy. People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms. Instead, people argued that changing technologies require us to change laws and policies in order to uphold basic principles such as that policies should be accountable to the public, avoid possibilities for corruption, and offer some substantial limits on government powers. But I wondered: how strongly does the public really support such principles?

You may recall I posted on survey results saying a US majority thought Snowden was wrong to expose NSA intelligence-gathering efforts. Also, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph of 2013 is one showing that the US public trusts the military and police far more than the courts, media, congress, or even the president. At the dinner many talked about wanting to avoid the abuses uncovered by the Church committee, but I’ll bet few in the public even remember what that was, and even fewer remember the Church committee as the good guys.

It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers. We were also told similar things about why the Nazis were bad. And in support of all this, schools tell kids that the US started because we objected to England’s arbitrary powers over us.

But as the cold war and WWII fade into history, we define ourselves less in opposition to enemies whose governments have arbitrary powers. We instead fall back more onto presuming that our status quo laws and policies are sufficient to support whatever principles we might have. Because in fact we don’t really support abstract principles of governance. We instead support the general presumptions that they are bad and we are good, and that our existing laws and policies are good unless someone can show otherwise via specific demonstrated harms. If today “they” are terrorists, then we assume that whatever we do to hurt them under existing policies is probably good too.

If there is a hope here, it would be that political elites feel a much stronger attachment to political principles, and that the public will over time come to adopt elite beliefs. But for now that seems a slim or distant hope. World of mass government surveillance, here we come.

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Next Step, Exogamy?

Integration seems one of the great political issues of our era. That is, people express great concern about factional favoritism based on race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, age, etc., and push for laws and policies to prevent it, or to encourage mixing and ties across factional boundaries. I’ve tended to assume that such policies have been sufficient, and perhaps even excessive.

But a student, Randall McElroy, wrote a paper for my grad law & econ class, that got me thinking. He wrote about how the Hopi indians dealt with mass immigration in part by defining newcomers as a new clan, and then forbidding within-clan marriage. Such “exogamy” has apparently been a common strategy in history: force mixing and friendly ties between factions by requiring all marriages to be between factions.

I was reminded of Cleisthenes redesigning the political system of ancient Athens to break up the power of region-based alliances that had caused endemic political conflict. He created ten equal tribes, where a third of each tribe was taken from a different type of region, plain, coast, or hills, and made these tribes the main unit of political organization.

Cleisthenes’ approach had seemed drastic to me, but its costs were small compared to the Hopi approach. After all, the costs of substantially limiting who people can marry must be very high. So many societies must have perceived even higher costs from factional divisions. Which makes sense if, as I’ve suggested, coalition politics is central to human sociality. So I’ve raised my estimate of the costs induced by factional favoritism.

I still expect that our factional divisions are mild enough for mild policies to be sufficient. But if I’m wrong, we might consider at least a mild form of exogamy: financially subsidizing marriages between distinct defined factions. We could similarly subsidize other close relations that mix factions, such as roommates, or interacting closely in the same church or workplace.

How would people would react to such suggestions? I see very different reactions depending on the faction in question. Many are quite ok today with requiring marriages to be between genders, but not out of concern for factional politics. Many would be ok with subsidizing marriages between races and ethnicities. But many would object to subsidizing marriages between ages or classes, as they see existing examples of this as exploitive or disgusting, and try to discourage them via informal social pressures.

Many would object to subsidizing marriages between religions, seeing it important for couples to share a common religion. Relatedly, the US today is becoming increasingly split geographically by a “red vs. blue” ideological divide, and I’d expect many would object to subsidizing marriages across this divide. After all, many live where they do because they want to live with their own kind, and don’t like to mix with “those people.”

Our lack of interest so far in exogamy solutions makes me suspect people don’t think our factionalism problem is especially serious. Expressing concern about ethnic or religious factionalism is probably often used as a way to say “rah the liberal faction,” as that faction is seen as caring less about ethnic or religious factions. I suspect this is a general pattern: policies to reduce factionalism along some dimensions are usually pushed because they favor particular factions along other dimensions. Which doesn’t mean such policies can’t have net benefits.

Overall, my guess is that factionalism in our society will have to get a lot worse before we are willing to consider solutions like exogamy that other societies have used to deal with such problems. We don’t now see a big problem.

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Wyden Puff Piece Errors

In the latest New Yorker, Ryan Lizza writes on “State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?” Which would be an interesting topic. Alas Lizza says little about it. Instead he summarizes the history of NSA spying on US citizens, supported via misleading statements and tortured legal interpretations, and talks the most about one Senator Ron Wyden’s heroic fight against the NSA.

Even though Wyden hasn’t actually succeeded at much. Lizza tells us that Wyden attached sunset provisions to the Patriot Act (which he supported), and asked the question at a Senate hearing where the NSA head’s answer was later shown to be misleading. Lizza speculates that Wyden’s many secret memos “repeatedly challenging the NSA’s contention that [a particular] program was effective” caused the NSA to drop that program. Oh and Wyden voted against some bills that passed, introduced bills that didn’t pass, and argued with Obama.

Here is the concrete Wyden accomplishement for which Lizza gives the most detail:

Three months later, the Defense Department started a new program with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness. T.I.A. was based inside the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office, which was headed by Admiral John Poindexter. In the nineteen-eighties, Poindexter had been convicted, and then acquitted, of perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He wanted to create a system that could mine a seemingly infinite number of government and private-sector databases in order to detect suspicious activity and preëmpt attacks. The T.I.A. system was intended to collect information about the faces, fingerprints, irises, and even the gait of suspicious people. In 2002 and 2003, Wyden attacked the program as a major affront to privacy rights and urged that it be shut down.

In the summer of 2003, while Congress debated a crucial vote on the future of the plan, Wyden instructed an intern to sift through the Pentagon’s documents about T.I.A. The intern discovered that one of the program’s ideas was to create a futures market in which anonymous users could place bets on events such as assassinations and terrorist attacks, and get paid on the basis of whether the events occurred. Wyden called Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, who was also working to kill the program. “Byron, we’ve got what we need to win this,” he told him. “You and I should make this public.” Twenty-four hours after they exposed the futures-market idea at a press conference, Total Information Awareness was dead. Poindexter soon resigned.

It was Wyden’s first real victory on the Intelligence Committee. (more)

That “futures market” program mentioned was called the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). As I was a chief architect, I happen to know that this discussion is quite misleading:

  1. TIA was a DARPA research project to develop methods for integrating masses of info; it wasn’t an actual program to handle such info masses.
  2. I’ve been told by several sources that TIA research didn’t stop, it just moved elsewhere. PAM, in contrast, did stop.
  3. PAM was not part of TIA; the only relation is that both were among the score of research programs under Poindexter in the DARPA management hierarchy.
  4. Though Wyden called it “Terrorism Futures,” PAM was mainly about forecasting geopolitical instability in the MidEast. The basis for the claim that it was about terrorism was a single website background screen containing a concept sample screen which included a small miscellaneous section listing the events “Arafat assassinated” and “North Korea missile strike.”

All those errors in just two paragraphs of a 12,500 word article. Makes me wonder how many more errors are in the rest.

It is hard to believe that Lizza’s article didn’t get a lot of input from Wyden. So Wyden is likely responsible for most of these errors. Thus to fight the NSA’s spying supported by lying, Wyden eagerly lied about an unrelated research program, in order to kill a research program with a symbolic tangential relation to NSA spying. Which wasn’t actually killed. Seems a bit underwhelming as a reason to make Wyden the main actor in a story on NSA spying. I see better candidates.

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Why Aren’t Cities Taller?

Urban economics studies the spatial distribution of activity. In most urban econ models, the reason that cities aren’t taller is that, per square meter of useable space, taller buildings cost more to physically make. (Supporting quotes below.) According to this usual theory, buildings only get taller when something else compensates for these costs, like a scarce ocean view, or higher status or land prices.

Knowing this, and wondering how tall future cities might get, I went looking for data on just how fast building cost rises with height. And I was surprised to learn: within most of the usual range, taller buildings cost less per square meter to build. For example, for office buildings across 26 US cities, 11-20 stories tend to be cheaper than 5-10 stories, which are cheaper than 2-4 stories (quote below). I also found data on two sets of Chinese residential buildings. Here is cost to build per square meter (on Y axis) vs. height in meters (on X axis) for 24 buildings 3 to 39 stories tall, built in Hong Kong in the early 1990s:

HongKongBuildingGraph

Here are 36 buildings 2 to 37 stories tall, built in Shanghai between 2000 and 2007:

ShnghaiBuildingGraph

The Shanghai buildings don’t get more expensive till after about 20 stories, while Hong Kong buildings are still cheap at 40 stories.

Now I have no doubt that some elements of cost, like structural mass, rise with height, and that there is some height where such costs dominate. But since there are scale economies in making bigger buildings, it isn’t obvious theoretically where rising structure costs overwhelm scale economies.

Perhaps the above figures are misleading somehow. But we know that taking land prices, higher status, and better views into account would push for even taller buildings. And a big part of higher costs for heights that are rarely used could just be from less local experience with such heights. So why aren’t most buildings at least 20 stories tall?

Perhaps tall buildings have only been cheaper recently. But the Hong Kong data is from twenty years ago, and most buildings made in the last years are not at least 20 stories tall. In fact, in Manhattan new residential buildings have actually gotten shorter. Perhaps capital markets fail to concentrate enough capital in builders’ hands to enable big buildings. But this seems hard to believe.

Perhaps trying to build high makes you a magnet for litigation, envy, and corrupt regulators. Your ambition suggests that you have deeper pockets to tax, and other tall buildings nearby that would lose status and local market share have many ways to veto you. Maybe since most tall buildings are prevented local builders have less experience with them, and thus have higher costs to make them. And many few local builders are up to the task, so they have market power to demand higher prices.

Maybe local governments usually can’t coordinate well to build supporting infrastructure, like roads, schools, power, sewers, etc., to match taller buildings. So they veto them instead. Or maybe local non-property-owning voters believe that more tall buildings will hurt them personally. (The big city nearest me actually has a law against buildings over 40 meters tall.)

Note that most of these explanations are variations on the same theme: local governments fail to coordinate to enable tall buildings. Which is in fact my favored explanation. City density, and hence city size, is mainly limited by the abilities of the conflicting elements that influence local governments to coordinate to enable taller buildings.

Remember those futurist images of dense tall cities scraping the skies? The engineers have done their job to make it possible. It is politics that isn’t yet up to the task.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Why Aren’t Cities Taller?" »

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Careers Need Allies

Orgs coordinate activity. And if coordination is hard, we should expect orgs to only barely accomplish this task. That is, we should expect org decisions to be dominated by coalition politics. Orgs that face competitive pressures, like firms, would slowly get more efficient, and thus larger, as we slowly found and spread org innovations to better channel coalition politics efforts in productive directions.

If coalition politics dominates org decisions, then the obvious career strategy advice is to make good alliances. Pick allies valued by strong coalitions who are likely to stay loyal to you, and offer such allies your loyalty as well as efforts and abilities valuable to them. That is, look for pair-wise win-win gains between you and potential allies. You don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like you.

We often hear other advice, like: seek associates you are comfortable with, or who have things in common with you, or who can give you good advice. Or that you should focus on showing your value to your org as a whole. But these seem to me to be the usual fig leaf excuses. That is, these are things one can admit doing openly without violating the standard forager norms against overt coalition politics.

What smart folks probably really mean when they suggest that you get a mentor, is that you get a powerful ally. And while allies in high places can be especially valuable to you, to make it a win-win relation you are going to have to offer them a lot of value in return. You will even have to figure out how you can help them, and help them first; they don’t have the time, and don’t trust you yet. And when you succeed in finding such a powerful ally, you will submit and they will dominate. That doesn’t sound nearly as nice to say, however.

But sometimes people do say it, out loud and everything: Continue reading "Careers Need Allies" »

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Beware Value Talk

Decisions depend on both values and facts. Values are about us and what we want, while (beliefs about) facts are about everything else, especially the way everything else changes how what we get depends on what we do. Both values and facts are relevant to decisions.

But honestly, facts usually matter far more. Yes, sometimes we err by mistaking our values, and sometimes our values are more complex than we realize. But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts. (If you review the last ten decisions you made, I think you’ll see this is obvious.)

Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less. To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them. So compared to thinking about values, talking values seems even less useful for informing decisions. That is, we have better ways to coordinate to discover the world we share than to coordinate to learn our individual values. Yet we seem to spend an awful lot of time discussing values. Especially on grand topics like politics, religion, charity, sex/love, the arts, the future, etc., we seem to spend more time talking values than facts. (We also love to drop names on these topics.) Why?

Such topics tend to put us in a far mental mode, and far modes focus us on basic values relative to practical constraints. Which makes sense if far modes function more to manage our social impressions. That is, value-focused talk makes sense if such talk functions less to advise decisions, and more to help us look good. By talking values we can signal our loyalties and the norms we support, and we can covertly hint about norm violations we might overlook. (Dropping names also lets us covertly signal our loyalties.)

This is what bugs me personally about most discussions of grand topics — they are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions. The modes that we prefer for such topics, such as stories, music, testimonials, and inspirational speeches, are much better for transmitting values than facts. Worse, people love to revisit the same value topics over and over, even though their values rarely change; it is info about facts that change, and so justify revising topics often. Also, the “experts” we prefer on these grand topics are mostly those whose main celebrated credentials are about their values and their abilities to move values, not about their understanding of facts.

I’m glad to be an academic, since our standard mode of talk is better suited to discerning and sharing facts than values. And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts. Of course even so most academic discussion isn’t very well targeted at improving decisions; we are far more interested in getting better credentialed as being impressive. But at least we mostly talk facts.

If you think you are one of the rare folks who actually cares more about making better decisions than about signaling loyalties, and if you wanted to find other like minded folks to work with, I’d think you’d tend to avoid talking values, as that would be a bad sign about your interests. But in fact most folks who say they are the rare ones who care mainly about better decisions, and who take lots of personal time talk about it, seem in fact to spend most of their time talking values. They even tend to prefer the value focused modes and experts. Why are so few folks willing to even pretend to focus on facts?

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On End Of Period Spending

Last week US federal agencies were in a hurry to spend the last of their annual budget. Agencies that don’t spend all of their budget not only don’t get to save it for next year, next year’s budget will likely be reduced by the unspent amount. And the manager sacked. This last minute burst of spending is usually less carefully considered, and less useful, than other spending. (More about it all here.)

This situation is mildly puzzling. Why is not spending all of a budget such a bad sign? If needs and opportunities vary in time, spending that varies in time seems appropriate. Perhaps incompetent managers who just can’t plan induce more spending fluctuations. But is that really so much more likely than varying needs and opportunities? Some say that spending less than budgeted shows an agency “needs” less overall. But any tendency for agencies that sometimes spend less than budget to be less valuable seems to me much weaker than the tendency of last minute spending to be less valuable. So why aren’t bursts of last minute spending seen as just as bad or worse?

One explanation is that we developed habits of judging organizations and managers based on their budget habits in contexts where it was much harder to observe the time pattern of spending than the total amount spent. We developed the social norm of disapproving of unspent budgets in that context, and have been slow to adapt to a world where the time pattern of spending is visible.

A related explanation is while spending more near period end looks bad, there is a less clear bright line to coordinate on to say which time patterns of spending look bad. So while we each privately know last minute spending bursts look bad, we don’t coordinate to say it together.

Perhaps there are other plausible explanations. But one relatively robust conclusion here I think is that the political process can be pretty terrible at coordinating to react to simple easily visible info. It isn’t enough that we can all know something. We have to all know that we can know and then coordinate to switch new social norms, so that we all know that we all expect us all to actually look at this visible info sometimes, and to react in a certain easily verified way to that info.

Not very encouraging for folks who hope that government will finally sit up and notice other kinds of relevant policy info that it has long neglected.

Added 11Oct:

Spending in the last week of the year is 4.9 times higher than the rest-of-the-year weekly average. … Quality scores for year-end projects are 2.2 to 5.6 times more likely to be below the central value. Allowing agencies to roll over unused funding into the subsequent year can improve efficiency. We calibrate a dynamic model of spending and show that allowing rollover leads to welfare gains of up to 13 percent. … The one federal agency that has the ability to roll over unused funding for I.T. projects does not exhibit a year-end spike in spending or drop-off in quality in this category of spending. (more)

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The ‘What If Failure?’ Taboo

Last night I heard a  group of smart pundits and wonks discuss Tyler Cowen’s new book Average Is Over. This book is a sequel to his last, The Great Stagnation, where he argued that wage inequality has greatly increased in rich nations over the last forty years, and especially in the last fifteen years. In this new book, Tyler says this trend will continue for the next twenty years, and offers practical advice on how to personally navigate this new world.

Now while I’ve criticized Tyler for overemphasizing automation as a cause of this increased wage inequality, I agree that most of the trends he discusses are real, and most of his practical advice is sound. But I can also see reasonable grounds to dispute this, and I expected the pundits/wonks to join me in debating that. So I was surprised to see the discussion focus overwhelmingly on if this increased inequality was acceptable. Didn’t Tyler understand that losers might be unhappy, and push the political system toward redistribution and instability?

Tyler quite reasonably said yes this change might not be good overall, and yes there might well be more redistribution, but it wouldn’t change the overall inequality much. He pointed out that most losers might be pretty happy with new ways to enjoy more free time, that our last peak of instability was in the 60′s when inequality was at a minimum, that since we have mostly accepted increased inequality for forty years it is reasonable to expect that to continue for another twenty, and that over history inequality has had only a weak correlation with redistribution and instability.

None of which seemed to dent the pundit/wonk mood. They seemed to hold fast to a simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.

I think we see something similar with other trends framed as negatives, like global warming, bigger orgs, or increased regulation. Once such a trend is framed as an official bad thing which public policy might conceivably reduce, it becomes (mildly) taboo to seem to just accept the change and analyze how to deal with its consequences.

All of which seems bad news for my book, which mostly just accepts the “robots take over, humans lose wages and get sidelined” scenario and analyzes its consequences. No matter how good my reasons for thinking politics will fail to prevent this, many will react as did Nikola Danaylov, with outrage at my hostility toward the poor suffering losers.

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