Tag Archives: Status

On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)


As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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School Status Stops Kids

More support for the theory that fertility has fallen because status now puts more weight on having well educated kids:

Discussions … typically assume that the poor have more children than the rich. Micro-data from [62,146 women in] 48 developing countries suggest that this assumption was false until recently. …

In earlier birth cohorts (mostly of the 1940s and 1950s), both the number of ever-born siblings and the number of surviving siblings are positively associated with years of education in 25 countries and negatively associated in two. In contrast, in later birth cohorts (mostly of the 1980s), 20 countries exhibit negative associations between both measures of sibship size and education, while seven show the opposite. …

Changes in women’s labor force participation, sectoral composition, GDP per capita, [urbanization,] and child mortality do not predict changes in the education-sibship size association. Instead, one variable stands out …: the average educational attainment of the parent generation. …

Two explanations … stand out. … The first involves subsistence consumption constraints. … This explanation is somewhat difficult to square with the finding that economic growth is uncorrelated with changes in the education-sibship size association. … The second explanation is … that mass education induces widespread change in fertility norms … [and so] increases the importance of child quality relative to quantity in the utility function, [with] the preferences of the most educated couples [being] most sensitive. (more)

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Future Story Status

Orson Scott Card on story characters:

Four basic factors … are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. … milieu, idea, character, and event.

  • The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
  • The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
  • Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
  • The events of the story are everything that happens and why. …

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story. …

All [these] factors are present in The Lord Of The Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord Of The Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many characters about who we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story. …

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” … [But] other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way. ….

It is a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. .. If you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story. (more; pp.62,63,74,75; see also)

Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline. Someone will write such a damn impressive milieu, idea, or event story that others seeking to look impressive will try their hand, making that structure the ideal of a “good” story.

I’d guess that rising incomes contributed to the rising status of the character story. Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features. Also, our psychological aversion to seeing ourselves clearly has made those who can overcome such aversions more clearly impressive. However, if our descendants are less rich, less free to change their social roles, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling. My weak bet is on the eventual rise in status of the milieu story, as I’ve recently come to see how very hard it can be to describe a coherent yet different world.

Added 8:30p: I went searching for criticism of Card’s framework here, and couldn’t find any. Odd.

Added 7a: On reflection, it is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.

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French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper: Continue reading "French Fertility Fall" »

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Delay Cosmology

We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

Such discovery brings status. Many are proud to live in the schools, disciplines, cities, or nations from which discovery is seen to originate. We are also proud to live in this age of discovery. While this discovery divides us to some extent, making us jealous of top discoverers, it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available. Some of these discoveries will give practical help, and aid our ability to grow our economy, and thereby help future generations. For those sorts of discoveries the future may on net benefit because we discover them now, rather than later.

But many other sorts of discoveries are pretty unlikely to give practical help. By choosing to discover these today, we on average hurt future eras, depriving them of the joy and pride of discovery, and its ability to unite them around their shared status. This seems inefficient, because many kinds of discovery should get cheaper over time, because there are probably diminishing returns to the joy of more discoveries in the same generation, and because the future may have stronger needs for ways to unite them.

This all suggests that we consider delaying some sorts of discovery. The best candidates are those that produce great pride, are pretty unlikely to lead to any practical help, and for which the costs of discovery seem to be falling. The best candidate to satisfy these criteria is, as far as I can tell, cosmology.

While once upon a time advances in cosmology aided advances in basic physics, which lead to practical help, over time such connections have gotten much weaker. Today, the kinds of basic physics that cosmology is likely to help is very far from the sort that has much hope to give practical aid anytime soon. Such basic physics is thus also a sort of discovery we should consider delaying.

I’m not saying we create strong international law to prohibit such discovery. Much could go wrong with that to turn net gains into net losses. But we might at least locally offer more social disapproval and less status to such discoveries, in recognition of their greedy grab from future generations. Why praise the discoverers of today, who help little else and take glory and unity away from the future?

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Why Play Concert Piano?

Concert pianist James Rhodes on the nobility of his lifestyle:

I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. … My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, …

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper … and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. … And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. (more; HT Pete Boettke)

For me, he then ruins it with his ending:

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to because Harry Styles has done it. … Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

Alas knowing that it is usually easier to motivate people to be against someone than for something, Rhodes doesn’t stop at saying his life is hard but satisfying to him. He also suggests we share his anger that others do not financially subsidize his favored arts, and that other kinds of musicians get more attention.

Me, I can admire his dedication, but I can’t see much net social value from subsidizing his favored art over others, via money or status, or even from so subsidizing art in general. I can see the point of subsidizing innovation, at least innovation that can accumulate to benefit many future generations. But by great practice getting nearly as good as the best at intuitively understanding a 300 year old composer? How can that accumulate? Pop music at least somewhat more clearly accumulates over generations, though it isn’t clear that’s a net gain over the losses from fighting for top pop status.

Just because something is impressive, even at a very deep visceral level, doesn’t make it worth subsidizing.

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Real Drama

I’ve now seen all nine of the 2013 Best Picture Oscar nominees. Metacritic.com rates Zero Dark Thirty highest at 95, but gives second highest at 94 to my favorite, Amour. (Intrade gives Argo, rated 84, a 72% chance, and Lincoln, rated 86, a 23% chance, to win.)

There’s an apt old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Which highlights the fact that while we like stories with drama, we don’t actually want drama in our lives. If you ignore the very end, and the fact that the characters are very high status artists, Amour is quite realistic and by far the drama most likely to actually be experienced by many of you. Which is why most folks don’t like it, because they don’t actually want to see realistic ordinary drama.

Amour is about a women who gets sick and then dies. I was stuck by the fact that what most bothered her and her husband were the insults to her pride. They could mostly handle the pain, the drudgery, and the loss of opportunity. But the loss of status, oh that stung.

I was struck by something similar lately while reading the classic Studs Terkel book Working, in which dozens of ordinary workers tell how they feel about their jobs. While they sometimes complain about being bored or tired, they seem mostly ok with this. What really bothers them is when other people don’t give them as much respect or pay as they think they deserve. Again, it is status that seems to drive them most.

I found this quote interesting:

I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say, “See, that’s me over there on the forty-fifth floor. I put the steel beam in.” Picasso can point to a painting. What can I point to? A writer can point to a book. Everybody should have something to point to. (Studs Terkel, Working)

I’d guess that if building makers could get this if they were willing to take a 5% pay cut to pay for it, and that it doesn’t happen because such workers don’t want it that much. Anyone know how much of a pay cut people take to get their name in the credits of a movie? How much of a pay cut to get your name shown as author of a novel? Do artists care more about getting visible public credit more than construction workers? If so, why?

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Is Paper Low Status?

“Virginia has a lot of electronic voting and in general has an election system where it’s very hard to get recounts,” says Dill. “So I might worry about Virginia, depending on how close it is.” … It’s a lot easier to modify electronic records than to modify paper records which is why banking and a lot of other critical activities like that still rely on paper when there’s an ultimate disaster and electronic records are lost or corrupted. (more)

When I voted this morning in Virginia I noticed a line of 6-8 people waiting to use the electronic voting machines, but one could vote immediately on paper. Yet paper voting is less corruptible. I asked Alex Tabarrok and he said he puzzled over the same thing when he voted: why is paper voting so unpopular?

A fb comment noted that it is mostly old folks voting on paper. And that was true at my place as well. Which leads me to suggest that this is a status effect – people stand in line to vote less securely in order to signal that they aren’t old folks scared by or incompetent at electronics. Yes, it seems surprising that people are willing to spend an extra few minutes just to look hip to strangers. But what other explanation is there?

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On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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The Functions Of Faith

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian songs of 2012:

I fall into Your arms, Right where I belong, Your everlasting arms. And where would I be Without You. I’d be packin’ my bags when I need to stay.

I want to live like that. Am I proof That You are who you say. You are That grace can really change a heart.

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before. O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. (more)

Lyrics from 3 of the most popular Christian hymns ever:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.

Thou canst hear though from the wild, Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish’d, outcast and reviled.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee; Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty! (more)

A few weeks ago I attended a Christian church service, where my dad gave the sermon, and my brother ran the music. My other brother gave a sermon at an evening service, and my mom continues to write and publish Christian novels for tween girls. Yeah, we are a pretty religious family.

I’m an atheist, and atheists usually emphasize their reasons for disagreeing with religious dogma. But attending the service, I was reminded that church is mostly not about dogma. Church services, and religion more generally, serve many useful functions for their participants. Browsing the song lyrics above helps one see such functions:

  • Acceptance – With unusual eagerness and sincerity, churches adopt the classic forager norm of heart-felt acceptance and inclusion, on nominally equal terms, of anyone who supports their community and its norms. Its ok to violate such norms sometimes, as long as you try not to. People really do deeply crave belonging somewhere.
  • High Status Ally – We are truly stressed by our conflicts with higher status others. We’d rather have even higher status allies, so we can say “He told me to do this; if you don’t like it, take it up with him.” God can be such a comforting high status ally. Christians affirm this ally relationship by showing their eagerness to submit to God’s dominance. They praise the nice things he’s done, and apologize for ways they may have disappointed him. We humans don’t just enjoy dominating others – we also sincerely enjoy submitting, at least if our target seems worthy. Especially if such an ally has a reputation for severely punishing those who oppose him.
  • Self-Control – Religion evolved from forager spirituality to help farmers resist temptations to forager-natural behaviors. Church highlights such temptations, assures folks that everyone suffers them, and offers concrete suggestions for resisting. A balance is struck between celebrating those who succeed and not overly rejecting those who fail. Gratitude toward, and a reluctance to disappoint, one’s high status ally and community, helps with self-control. Atheists often seem surprisingly lacking in such self-control.
  • Ritual – While we don’t understand how exactly rituals help and comfort it us, it seems pretty clear that they do.

When atheists try to make substitutes for religion, they often do pretty well on acceptance, and on collecting specific self-control mechanisms. But they find it hard to substitute for the high-status ally, the added comfort and self-control this allows, and the rituals this makes more powerful. Yes, if there isn’t a God, and you don’t believe in him, you win points for having more true beliefs. But you may well lose in your ability to get things done that you want done. There is simply no general guarantee that humans will get more done when they believe more truths.

I’d like to know more about how industry era religion differs from farmer era religion. This might help me to project how em era religion might differ yet again.

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