Tag Archives: World

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

The world has many problems and some of them are global. That is, some problems like war, global warming, and promoting innovation can benefit substantially from large scale coordination to address them. To judge from my Facebook feed, many think the main thing we need to solve such problems is more preaching – if only more folks would rail against the immorality of those who opposed their favored solutions. Another widely held view, expressed in a great many inspirational TED talks, is that we need more smart emphatic activists and inventors. But the following take is a more expert and believable:

Addressing Global Environmental Externalities: Transaction Costs Considerations. Is there a way to understand why some global environmental externalities are addressed effectively whereas others are not? … Property rights are supplied by international agreements that specify resource access and use, assign costs and benefits including outlining the size and duration of compensating transfer payments and determining who will pay and who will receive them. Four factors raise the transaction costs [and hence the difficulty] of assigning property rights: (i) scientific uncertainty regarding mitigation benefits and costs; (ii) varying preferences and perceptions across heterogeneous populations; (iii) asymmetric information; and (iv) the extent of compliance and new entry. (more)

While this paper doesn’t discuss it, another big issue is the strength and capacity of our institutions of global governance. For example, a lot of these problems would get solved a lot better with a high capacity world government. Such a government could better reduce uncertainty and secrets, enforce compliance, and promote compromises between conflicting interests.

If just you want to show off your moral outrage that problems aren’t being solved, by all means continue to preach that we must do better. But if you actually want to solve these problems, you should focus on identifying and dealing with their fundamental causes. Especially including the development of better mechanisms of global governance, and working to better understand what limits their deployment.

Btw, I tend to think that we hear the most preaching not about the problems that cause the most damage, but about those that best fit our schemas for moral outrage. For example, I tend to agree with Matt Ridley that global warming is a relatively minor problem, compared with for example overfishing and innovation promotion.

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World Inequality Is Down

From the Nov. ’13 Review of Income and Wealth:

This paper provides a full decomposition of world [individual purchasing-power-parity income] inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, in the period 1970–2009. (more; ungated)

WorldInequality

The top two lines show total world inequality over time as estimated by this paper and by another previous paper. Both agree that worldwide income inequality has been falling consistently over four decades, especially in the last decade.

Of course this ignores non-financial inequality and inequality across time.

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Testing An Idealistic-Tech Hypothesis

Katja:

Relatively minor technological change can move the balance of power between values that already fight within each human. [For example,] Beeminder empowers a person’s explicit, considered values over their visceral urges. … In the spontaneous urges vs. explicit values conflict …, I think technology should generally tend to push in one direction. … I’d weakly guess that explicit values will win the war. (more)

The goals we humans tend to explicitly and consciously endorse tend to be more idealistic than the goals that our unconscious actions try to achieve. So one might expect or hope that tech that empowers conscious mind parts, relative to other parts, would result in more idealistic behavior.

A relevant test of this idea may be found in the behavior of human orgs, such as firms or nations. Like humans, orgs emphasize more idealistic goals in their more explicit communications. So if we can identify the parts of orgs that are most like the conscious parts of human minds, and if we can imagine ways to increase the resources or capacities of those org parts, then we can ask if increasing such capacities would move orgs to more idealistic behavior.

A standard story is that human consciousness functions primarily to manage the image we present to the world. Conscious minds are aware of the actions we may need to explain to others, and are good at spinning good-looking explanations for our own behavior, and bad-looking explanations for the behavior of rivals.

Marketing, public relation, legal, and diplomatic departments seem to be analogous parts of orgs. They attend more to how the org is seen by others, and to managing org actions that are especially influential to such appearances. If so, our test question becomes: if the relative resources and capacities of these org parts were increased, would such orgs act more idealistically? For example, would a nation live up to its self-proclaimed ideals more if the budget of its diplomatic corps were doubled?

I’d guess that such changes would tend to make org actions more consistent, but not more idealistic. That is, the mean level of idealism would stay about the same, but inconsistencies would be reduced and deviations of unusually idealistic or non-idealistic actions would move toward the mean. Similarly, I suspect humans with more empowered conscious minds do not on average act more idealistically.

But that is just my guess. Does anyone know better how the behavior of real orgs would change under this hypothetical?

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Is Govt Over-Regulated?

I heard a talk recently by Jal Mehta on his new book Allure of Order, where he says how he’d reform US (pre-college) schools. He wants the US to do like Finland where schools are great: select smarter folks as teachers, train them more, and give them more respect, time to prepare, and freedom to structure classes. When I asked him directly how he would pay for all this, he said to cut administration.

It seemed to me that Mehtra’s main complaint is that US teachers are over-regulated. And it occurs to me that this is a common complaint about US government. For example, we hear that US police are over-constrained by rules. And a similar problem would befall US single player health plans — while the UK National Health Service has lots of discretion that is mostly accepted by the UK public, US versions would instead be regulated in great detail.

If you think that private actors in the US tend to be over-regulated, you should wonder why. Perhaps it is because government regulators just act spitefully toward non-government actors, but more plausible are over-confidence and do-something biases. When problems occur, people want something done, and more regulations are something to do. Voters and regulators both overestimate their ability to anticipate future problems and what would help them.

But if this is why US private actors are over-regulated, then US government actors should be over-regulated too. For example, people should see things go wrong in schools, and so add more rules to “do something,” rules that assume too much about what rules can do, and that require too many administrators to implement.

This view suggests that being pro- or anti-regulation isn’t the same as being pro- or anti-government, and it suggests a possible left-right deal: reduce regulation in both private and public sectors. Have more trust in private competition to deal with the problems we leave to the private sphere, and in smart well-trained civil servants to deal with the problems we leave to the public sphere. And have less trust in lawyers, judges and rule-specialists of all sorts to fix our problems with more rules.

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Individualism Is Far

Four studies show that an independent self-view is associated with abstract representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more distant future, whereas an interdependent self-view is associated with concrete representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more proximal future. …

Individuals with an accessible independent self-view (a characteristic of members of most Western cultures) place high values on self-reliance and autonomy. They strive toward being unique, different, and separate from others. Of key importance to the independents is the “inner core” of the self—internal attributes and traits that are enduring and invariant over time and context. In contrast, individuals with a more accessible interdependent self-view (a characteristic of members of many Eastern cultures) value relationships with others and interpersonal harmony. They view the self as part of a social group and strive toward blending and fitting in. …

There are reasons to believe that the two distinct self- views are associated with different levels of construal and psychological distances. First, interdependents are concerned about relationship harmony and are sensitive to the interconnectedness between people and events. From this perspective, it is both desirable and necessary that they pay close attention to the immediate environment to ensure that relationship harmony is attained and preserved. This attention to the “here” and “now” likely prompts a low-level construal and its corresponding proximal temporal perspective. Second, feelings of agency and control may also lead to higher construal levels among those with an independent self-view. (more)

This suggests that westerners tend to think more in a far view, which suggests that they are more idealistic, plan further into the future, are more socially inclusive, and think more via analogy.

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Policy Trial By Combat

It was once thought appropriate to settle legal disputes by combat – the winner of a physical fight won the case. This accomplished two key functions of a legal system: it clearly settled cases, and in a way that seemed legitimate to most observers. The fact that who won was poorly correlated with the truth of their claims mattered less.

Today we have better legal systems, but our policy debate system has a big element of trial by combat. I was reminded of this while reading The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam, which he was nice enough to send me. Like many respected policy books, it is well written at a sentence and paragraph level, takes positions on important subjects, and is full of engaging and entertaining examples. The book makes many claims, illustrating them with simple plausible supporting arguments and detailed examples. Most of these claims are accepted by some relevant community of experts, and in fact I agree with most of them.

My problem with such books is this: little is said that is is original, and the arguments and examples given are mostly not the main reasons that relevant experts say are why they accept such claims. So experts shouldn’t change their beliefs on the basis of such a book. And if ordinary people knew this fact, they shouldn’t change their beliefs that much either, except as the prominence and acceptance of the book signals that experts agree with it.

But it is easy to see why such books are popular. Readers want to affiliate with impressive authors, and want to collect impressive sounding and unlikely-to-be-embarassingly-wrong examples and arguments with which to impress associates in conversation. So of course policy book authors compete to be eloquent and engaging while taking the sort of positions readers will find plausible and worthy of embracing. Given such a competition, the policy positions that gain the most public support are those, among the popularly plausible positions, that can attract the best writers. This is policy trial by writing combat.

Yes, if this is the game and you want your position to win, you want a good writer like Naam to write a book like his supporting your position. And yes you can infer something from the fact that such a person has been enticed to write such a book, and that the powers that be have endorsed it or at least not criticized it. But one could wish for another world where the popularity of policies was more strongly correlated with good arguments and evidence.

To illustrate my criticism, here is Naam on why the US should unilaterally tax carbon heavily:

I believe the United States should press ahead with adopting a carbon price and driving our emissions down by 80 percent by 2050, even if China and India don’t. Why? Three reasons.

First, we created this mess. Carbon dioxide lingers in the air for an average of 100 years before breaking down. …On that basis the rich countries are responsible for two-thirds of the heating of the planet that is happening today. …

Second, its in our best interests. Shifting away from oil and coal will shield us from recessions cause by global oil and coal price spikes. It’ll reduce the dollars we send to the Middle East and Russia. It’ll drive our long-term energy costs down by further fueling innovation in capturing the nearly endless supply coming from the sun. If we want energy independence, health economic growth, and long-term cheap energy, a carbon price is the way to go.

Third, the best way to get China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the developing world off of fossil fuels is to drive down the price of the alternatives. If it’s cheaper to produce electricity from solar and wind that it is from coal, if if that electricity can be supplied 24/7, then countries will switch. Make it cheaper, and they will come. And the best way to make it cheaper is to invest in R&D in those areas, and to shift business and consumer spending into them.

Here Naam takes a position that many experts have taken, and he gives plausible supporting arguments. But he doesn’t consider the contrary arguments that I find on net to undermine this position. Such policy books rarely consider contrary arguments – since such arguments usually require more sophisticated conceptual understanding to engage, most readers won’t want to hear about them unless they are especially likely to actually encounter such arguments when they pontificate on the subject.

FYI, here are the contrary arguments that persuade me. First, if rich countries should be blamed for hurting the rest of the world via past carbon emissions, they should be credited with helping much more via their past innovations. On net the world owes them, not vice versa. Second, it is bad economics to not buy the cheapest product that does what you need just because its price fluctuates. Paying steadily more for something else is a worse deal.

Third, it requires a coincidence of magnitudes for a big carbon tax and solar research subsidies to be a good selfish unilateral policy for the U.S., but not for smaller nations like China, India, and Brazil. If our best explanation for these smaller nations not unilaterally adopting big carbon taxes and subsidizing solar energy research is that they correctly expect to selfishly lose by such plans, even if the world overall gains, then we should guess the same is true of the US, which in PPP terms has only twice the GDP of China. The cutoff nation size for this being a selfishly good vs. bad policy would have to just happen to fall between the size of China and the US, and even then because we’d be near the cutoff it wouldn’t hurt us that much to pick the wrong policy. And Naam offers no arguments for why this cutoff just happens to fall in this range.

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Is World Government Inevitable?

Several sources lately incline me to think of world (or solar) government as very likely in the long run. First, I read Betrand Russell, in a 1950 essay The Future of Mankind, advocating violence to make a world government:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are:

I. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
II. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
III. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war. …

A world government is desirable. More than half of the Amerian nation, according to a Gallup poll, hold this opinion. But most of its advocates think of it as something to be established by friendly negotiation, and shrink from any suggestion of the use of force. In this I think they are mistaken. I am sure that force, or the threat of force, will be necessary. …

The governments of the English-speaking nations should then offer to all other nations the option of entering into a firm alliance, involving a pooling of military resources and mutual defense against aggression. In the case of hesitant nations, … great inducements, economic and military, should be held out to produce their cooperation. … When the Alliance had acquired sufficient strength, any Great Power still refusing to join should be threatened with outlawry, and, if recalcitrant, should be regarded as a public enemy. The resulting war … (more)

Russell was right that Americans then favored a world government:

In March 1951, nearly half (49%) of Americans thought the United Nations should be strengthened to make it a world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations, including the United States, while 36% thought it should not. (more)

Seems they still favored it in 1993:

In a [1993] telephonic survey financed by the WFA, 58% of 1200 adult American citizens polled thought that to have practical law enforcement at home and abroad, a limited, democratic world government would be essential or helpful (with 35%) disagreeing). For effective enforcement of laws, 66% of those questioned felt there should be a world constitution, more than double the number who disagreed. … 82% of respondents felt the UN Charter should be amended to allow the UN to arrest individuals who commit serious international crimes, and 83% felt that leaders making war on groups within their country should be tried by an International Criminal Court. (more)

In 2007, much of the world also agreed:

A total of 21,890 people were interviewed between July 2006 and March 2007 [in 19 nations: US, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France, Pales. Terr., Israel, Australia, S. Korea, Thailand, China, Indonesia, India, Philippines, Iran.] …

■ Large majorities approve of strengthening the United Nations by giving it the power to have its own standing peacekeeping force, regulate the international arms trade and investigate human rights abuses.
■ Most publics believe the UN Security Council should have the right to authorize military force to address a range of problems, including aggression, terrorism, and genocide. (more)

Finally, the history of China suggests that, once started, “world” government becomes hard to stop:

This study explores the ways in which the Chinese imperial system attained its unparalleled endurance. … I do not pretend to provide a comprehensive answer. … Rather, I shall focus on a single variable, which distinguishes Chinese imperial experience from that of other comparable polities elsewhere, namely, the empire’s exceptional ideological prowess. As I hope to demonstrate, the Chinese empire was an extraordinarily powerful ideological construct, the appeal of which to a variety of political actors enabled its survival even during periods of severe military, economic, and administrative malfunctioning. …

Centuries of internal turmoil that preceded the imperial unification of 221 BCE … were also the most vibrant period in China’s intellectual history. Bewildered by the exacerbating crisis, thinkers of that age sought ways to restore peace and stability. Their practical recommendations varied tremendously; but amid this immense variety there were some points of consensus. Most importantly, thinkers of distinct ideological inclinations unanimously accepted political unification of the entire known civilized world—“All-under-Heaven”—as the only feasible means to put an end to perennial war; and they also agreed that the entire subcelestial realm should be governed by a single omnipotent monarch. These premises of unity and monarchism became the ideological foundation of the future empire, and they were not questioned for millennia. (more)

Even if a world (or solar) government is inevitable, it is still probably best to not start it too early, before we are able to coordinate sufficiently well.

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Why National Med?

People offer many noble rationales for public education, but the data suggest they were adopted to create patriotic citizens for war. I suspect a similar data analysis could show why so many nations have recently adopted national medical systems:

Even as Americans debate … Obama’s healthcare law and its promise of guaranteed health coverage, … many far less affluent nations are moving in the opposite direction – to provide medical insurance to all nations.

China … is on track to .. cover more than 90 percent of the nation’s residents. … Two decades ago, many former communist countries … dismantled their universal health-care systems amid a drive to set up free-market economies. but popular demand for insurance protection has fueled an effort in nearly all these countries to rebuild their systems. Similar pressure is coming from the citizens of fast-growing nations int Asia and Latin America. …

Some countries have set up public systems like those in Great Britain and Canada. But many others are relying on a mix of government and commercial insurance, as in the United States. …

In countries such as India, politicians have learned that one of the surest says to secure votes is to promise better access to health care.  … The Thai system, set up a decade ago, has survived years of political upheaval and a military coup. “No party dares touch it.” …

Columbia’s universal system, set up in 1993, has cost more than twice what as expected.  (Today’s Post, article by Levey, p. A11; link will go here when available)

My guess: for our distant ancestors, medicine was a way to show that they care about each other. So today there is a demand for medicine to be provided by units of organization toward which we, or they, want us to feel solidarity. But I’m not sure what are the most direct and proximate causes of such a need for solidarity.

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Testing My Growth Model

I have suggested that long run growth can be described as a sequence of exponential growth modes, from primates to foragers to farmers to industry, where mode transitions are similar in their degree of suddenness and growth rate change factors. This model will be tested in the future – it suggests that within a century or so we’ll see a change within five years to a new mode where the economy doubles every month or faster.

But my model can also be tested against the past. Our data on the animal, forager, and early farming eras is pretty poor. My hypothesis suggests that the forager era was one big growth mode similar to the farming or industry eras, with a relatively smooth rate of growth in capacity (even if rare disasters temporarily disrupted the use of that capacity), and that the forager to farming transition has a level of smoothness similar to that of the farming to industry transition.

Contrary to my model, many have suggested there was an important comparable revolution in human behavior around 50,000 years ago. My model predicts that growth accelerated smoothly from around 100,000 years ago to the near full speed farming world of about 5000 years ago, similar to the way growth accelerated from 1600 to 1900.

The latest results seem to support my model:

Back in 2000, a now famous scientific paper called “The Revolution That Wasn’t” argued that the then-conventional wisdom that modern human behavior had erupted in a “creative explosion” about 50,000 years ago in Europe was wrong. Rather, anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks contended that modern behavior, including creativity, has deep and ancient roots, going back some 300,000 years ago in Africa (Science, 15 February 2002, p. 1219).

At a meeting here last month, researchers heard new evidence that human evolution took a gradual, rather than revolutionary, course during two other key junctures in prehistory. A study of ancient stone tools from South Africa concludes that hunters manufactured spears with stone points—a sign of complex behavior—200,000 years earlier than had previously been thought. And new excavations at a 20,000-year-old settlement in Jordan, laden with artifacts typical of much later sites, suggest that the dramatic rise of farming villages in the Near East also had early and deep roots. … Many archaeologists now think that apparent “revolutions” are due to gaps in the record or to behavioral shifts triggered by changing conditions, rather than sudden advances in cognition. What appear to be precociously sophisticated behaviors are really reflections of what prehistoric humans were capable of all along. (more)

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Tube Earth Econ

Imagine someone plans to build a gas station far out in an isolated desert. They plan to sell gas and snacks to the truck drivers who come out to deliver gas and snacks. Want to invest?

No? How about if they also sell gas and snacks to passing explorers, out there to signal toughness? Yes, explorers won’t look as tough if they buy gas and snacks from your station. But if the station can lure enough not-so-tough explorers, maybe you’d want to invest.

How about if they also plan to dig oil wells and an oil refinery to make the gas they sell, and a hothouse farm and food processing factory, to grow food for the snacks they sell? How about if they plan to run all this entirely by robots? This plan would make me even less likely to invest. After all, you’d need even more customers to justify a larger scale operation, and I had doubts about enough explorer customers to justify a simple gas station.

This is my reaction to the recent news that some famous investors will spend millions trying to mine asteroids (see here, here, here). Their first product would be rocket fuel to sell to passing NASA rockets. I’m skeptical that NASA wants to buy enough fuel to cover their costs, and I don’t see a flood of other customers eager for robot space gas stations. This new firm also talks about shipping metals like platinum back to Earth, but that seems even crazier anytime soon.

To explore this general issue, let us imagine Tube Earth. While our Earth is a sphere of rock with a 40,000 km circumference, Tube Earth is a very long cylinder of rock with a circumference 1/6 as large, to give it the same surface gravity as Earth. Tube Earth also rotates 24 hours in a day, and has a sun nearby.  The closest spot on the tube to the sun is its “center,” which has Earth-like average surface temperature and seasonal variation. There would be less local temperature variation, as all nearby parts of a tube get the same sunlight.

A length of this tube about twice Earth’s circumference would have about the same surface area as Earth. Imagine that an area of this size held a mix of land and water similar to Earth’s continents. Imagine also that more such clusters of continents are spread all along this tube, spaced roughly twenty Earth circumferences apart. In between is mostly open ocean, with a few small islands.

The tube slowly gets colder millions of km from its center, as those places are further from it sun. Life is spread all along the tube, but so far humans and civilization have only evolved on one near-center cluster of continents. It would take an old style (~12 knot) sailing ship about 4 years to travel in a straight line from one cluster to another, and it would take a jet airliner about 40 days to fly there. Both would need refueling along the way.

My big question here is: how would history, and economic growth, have played out differently on Tube Earth? With all that land out there to colonize, how much more activity would be dedicated to spreading out across the tube? How far would be the furthest flag, subsistence farming town, and modern industrial city at any one time?

My guess is that Tube Earth would look a lot more like our Earth than most space colonization fans expect. Explorers would not have even reached the nearest other continent cluster until the 1800s, and even now there’d be only a few small colonizes there, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. A several year shipping time would make it very expensive to import modern equipment, and greatly discourage the shipping of mining minerals or farmed food back to the central cluster. Mostly they’d work harder to get more minerals and food from nearby mines and farms.

By 2010 Tube Earth would be lucky to have one monthly airline flight to the next cluster, and a very expensive but welcomed internet connection. Lots of stories would take place there, and it would offer an escape for well-off religious or political refuges. But overall it wouldn’t matter much, because of its huge transport costs.

The key point to note here is that other continent clusters on a Tube Earth are vastly more hospitable and easier to reach than the nearest asteroids or the Moon are from Earth. And the rest of the solar system is even worse. So if other continent clusters would by now matter little for a Tube Earth, asteroids aren’t going to matter much on Earth for a long time to come.

Added: Karl Smith calls it “Invest for Prestige/Get Conned”

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