Tag Archives: World

Prestige is Political

Imagine an ancient forager band had a conflict. For example, imagine some were eating foods that induced stinky farts which bothered others who slept nearby. There are several generic ways to deal with such a conflict:

  1. Force – someone strong might destroy the stinky foods, or threaten to beat up those who eat them.
  2. Deal – those bothered by the smell might compensate others for not eating stinky foods.
  3. Exit – those bothered by the smell might leave and find or form another band.
  4. Prestige – prestigious folks could push the idea that eating stinky foods is low prestige, to shame people into not eating them.

I think foragers had a strong preference for this last type of solution. But note that prestige is not available as a solution to conflicts unless prestige is in part political. If prestige were a fixed thing, say some fixed weighting of smart, strong, tall, etc., then it couldn’t be changed to solve problems. But if prestige is somewhat flexible, a dominant political coalition can try to flex it to encourage desired outcomes.

Now consider an analogous global conflict today, such as global warming. It seems to me that people also intuitively prefer a prestige solution. Instead of forming a world government powerful enough to impose its will, or making a deal where rich nations pay poor ones whatever it takes to get them to sign, what elite nations actually seem to be doing is visibly cutting back on carbon, and trying to shame other nations into following their lead. They’d rather risk failing to solve the problem than having to resort to a non-prestige solution. Arguably prestige is in part how world elites actually pushed for changes such as more democracy, less slavery, and better protected environments.

I’m also reminded of how people seem to prefer to choose their lawyers, doctors, investment advisors, etc. via prestige, instead of via track records or incentive contracts. And how people want to change who succeeds in the world via pushing elite colleges and institutions to change their admissions process, instead of reducing barriers to competition to make success more meritocratic.

There are two kinds of status, sometimes called “prestige” vs. “dominance.” Both exist, but on the surface at least we want the former to matter more than the latter. And we often seem to categorize gaining via trade or personal effort as gaining via dominance. Which is in part why we often dislike market based solutions. But note that these two kinds of status could also be called “politics” vs. “non-political reality”. We prefer social outcomes to be determined by prestige that can be influenced by dominant political coalitions, and fear and suspect social outcomes determined by nature, personal effort, or social competition, even when such competition is peaceful.

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Against DWIM Meta-Law

Smart capable personal assistants can be very useful. You give them vague and inconsistent instructions, and they “do what I mean” (DWIM), fixing your mistakes. If you empower them to control your interactions, you need less fear mistakes messing up your interactions.

But one thing a DWIM personal assistant can’t help you so much with is your choice of assistants. If assistants were empowered to use DWIM on your choice to fire them, they might tend to decide you didn’t really mean to fire them. So if you are to have an effective choice of assistants, and thus effective competition among potential assistants, then those same assistants can’t protect you much from possible mistakes in your meta-choices regarding assistants. They can protect you from other choices, but not that choice.

The same applies to letting people choose what city or nation to live in. When people live in a nation then that national government can use regulation to protect them from making many mistakes. For example, it can limit their legally available options of products, services, and contracts. But if people are to have an effective choice to change governments by changing regions, then such governments can’t use regulation much to protect people from mistakes regarding region choice. After all, a government authorized to declare your plan to move away from it to be a mistake can stop you from rejecting it.

Similarly we can elect politicians who pass laws to protect us from many mistakes. But if we are to have an effective choice of politicians to represent us, then they can’t protect us much from bad choices of politicians to represent us. We can’t let our current elected leaders much regulate who we can elect to replace them, if we are to be able to actually replace them.

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of private law, wherein people can stay in the same place but contract with different legal systems, which then set the rules regarding their legal interactions with others. Such rules might in effect change the laws of tort, crime, marriage, etc. that people live under. And so such competition between private laws might push the law to evolve toward more efficient laws.

One of the things that legal systems tend to do is to protect people from mistakes. For example, contract law won’t enforce contracts it sees as mistakes, and it fills in contract holes it sees resulting from laziness. Law is often DWIM law. Which can be great when you trust your law to choose well. But if one is to have an effective choice of private law, and real competition for that role, then one’s current law shouldn’t be able to overrule one’s choice of a new law. Instead, one’s choice of a private legal system, like one’s choice of nation, needs to be a simple clear choice where one is not much protected from mistakes.

Today we don’t in fact have such private law, because our standard legal system won’t enforce contracts we sign that declare our intent to use different legal systems. To achieve private law, we’d need to change this key feature of our standard legal system.

Your choice to change nations, either for temporary travel or for permanent moves, can be a big mistake. It might result from temporary mood fluctuations, or from misunderstandings about the old nation or the new. Nevertheless we have little regulation of such choices. Instead individuals are mostly fully exposes to their possible mistakes. For example, while Europe is heavily regulated in general, European teens today can decide to go join ISIS, even when many others greatly regret such choices. We disapprove of nations that prevent people from leaving because that cuts competition between nations to serve people.

Similarly, if we want completion between legal systems without forcing people to move, we’ll have to change our law to accept our not protecting people from bad choices of legal systems. There will have to be a simple clear act by which one chooses a law, a choice not much subject to legal review and reversal. We’d want to encourage people to take such choices seriously, but then to accept the choices they make. Freedom of choice requires a freedom to make mistakes. For big choices, those can be big mistakes.

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You Don’t Rule The World

In far mode we emphasize basic values a lot more, relative to practical constraints; in near mode we do the opposite. … This certainly fits my more detailed opinions on large scale policy and the future. You have to pay attention to an awful lot of detail in order to figure out which policies are best, or what is likely to actually happen in the distant future. But most people seem to quickly form opinions on such topics using simple value associations. When they can identify a clear value association, people seem pretty willing to form opinions, which seems to me a vastly overconfident attitude. (more)

When people talk about larger social scales, like nations or the world, or when they talk about long time scales, they prefer to talk values, not practical facts and constraints. One might argue that people neglect physical and organizational constraints because they don’t understand such things well. But people also tend to ignore political constraints, which they usually say that they understand pretty well.

That is, people tend to show a lot of interest in tracking the various political coalitions, and their varying power and preferences. But people show far less interest in working out what sort of political compromises might be feasible and desirable. Instead, people usually prefer to talk about what they’d do if they personally ruled the world, if their nation ruled the world, or if their favored coalition ruled the world or their nation.

Yes, figuring out what you personally want can sometimes be a useful first step. You might then reevaluate what coalitions to support, and then focus on which possible political comprises and deals you’d be most interested in helping to promote. But people rarely go beyond that first step — talking about what they personally want. And people are usually rather reluctant, even hostile, to discussing specific compromises proposed by others.

The obvious interpretation here is that politics isn’t about policy. While people talk as if they care about outcomes and want to discuss big issues in order to influence outcomes, what they really want is to declare and express values. Expressing values helps them to signal loyalty to like-minded folks, and a commitment to norms their community holds dear. Discussing compromise, in contrast, risks your seeming a traitor to your allies, and lacking firm value principles.

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Did Industry Cause Nations?

An interesting claim: the nation-state didn’t exist before, and was caused by, the industrial revolution. Oh there were empires before, but most people didn’t identify much with empires, or see empires as much influencing their lives. In contrast people identify with nation-states, which they see as greatly influencing their lives. More:

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. … If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. …

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. … Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. … Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. …

The industrial revolution … demanded a different kind of government. … “In 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” … Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around. …

“nation building” … required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s Dunbar circle of family and friends. That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. … Nationalist feelings … arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education. Continue reading "Did Industry Cause Nations?" »

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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)


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


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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