How Do Aliens Differ?

Someone recently tweeted the question of if aliens would be more or less benevolent than us. My first reaction was “how could we possibly know how we differ from aliens?” But on reflection, that was hasty, and it seems that we could productively think about how we may differ from aliens.

If we are talking about aliens that we might meet soon, one big obvious difference is that they’d be far more advanced. Because aliens substantially less advanced than us couldn’t meet anyone. If we are nearly the least advanced creatures who could possibly cause or recognize a meeting, then they are almost surely much more advanced. Also, the rareness of having exactly the same origin time (i.e., date at which one becomes advanced enough to meet) implies that any aliens we meet soon must have had an origin time long before us. Millions of years at least, and perhaps billions of years.

What about aliens that we might meet many millions of years in our future, when we are then far more advanced? Can we predict how they might differ from us then? Our best bet seems to be to predict how their past (relative to then) might have differed from our past, as we at least know many things about our history up to today. And the most interesting such differences in histories would be ones that might more strongly “lock in”, causing differences that persist until that future date.

But how can we predict differences in alien histories? One approach is to look for spectrums where we seem near one end. For example, at some point humans became an “apex predator”, who preyed on other creatures but where no other creatures preyed on them. As this is at the end of a spectrum, we can say that other aliens were either also once an apex predator, or they were not. So we might expect that on average ancestors of aliens were more afraid of being preyed upon than were our ancestors.

A second example is that only 5% of stars are more massive, and thus shorter-lived, than our stars. Which suggests that most aliens might be connected to longer-lived stars than ours. A third example is that political units like nations today are nearly the size of the world, even though they were far smaller in the past. Which suggests that aliens tended to have smaller political units, relative to their worlds.

Of course for any feature where our history seems to differ from possible alternatives, we have to wonder how much success (in the sense of giving rise to an alien civilization that might meet others) could be caused by that feature. For example, maybe big stars are more likely to give rise to life, or give life more metabolism to evolve faster. Maybe predators tend to be smarter, and smarter creatures are more likely to give rise to civilizations. Or maybe the formation of nearly world size political units is a prerequisite for expanding into the universe. The more plausible is a strong selection effect for a feature, the less plausible it is that we can predict how aliens differ on that feature.

Okay, I’ve suggested that it is possible in principle to think productively about this topic, but also that this doesn’t seem easy. But a first task seems relatively easy: just collect candidate lists of features where we seem plausibly different, and where selection effects may not be overwhelming. Seems such a project could even be crowd sourced, via asking many people to contribute suggestions. What do you think world, wanna do this together?

Some places maybe to start: kinds of stars and planets, and more generally over places aliens might be found. Alternate kinds of biospheres. Alternate kinds of smart or social creatures. Alternate structures of civilized societies.

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Status Explains Lots

Some complain that I try to explain too much of human behavior via signaling. But the social brain hypothesis and common observations suggest that we quite often do things with an eye to how they will make us look to others.

Here’s another big influence on human behavior strongly supported by both theory and common sense: status. While it seems obvious that dominance and prestige matter greatly in human behavior, even so it seems to me that we social scientists neglect them, just as we neglect signaling. In this post, I will try to support this claim.

Humans have only domesticated a tiny fraction of animal species, even smart primates. In fact, apes seem plenty smart and dexterous enough to support a real Planet of the Apes scenario, wherein apes do many useful jobs. The main problem is that apes see our giving them orders as an attempt to dominate them, which they sometimes fiercely resist.

And humans are if anything more sensitive to domination than are other primates. After all, while other primates had visible accepted dominance hierarchies, human foragers created “reverse dominance hierarchies” wherein the whole band (of ~20-50) coordinated to take down anyone who would try to overtly dominate them. Which both makes it plausible that dominance matters a lot to humans, and also raises the question of how it is that we’ve come to accept so much of it.

Farmers accepted more domination that did foragers; farmers had kings, classes, wealth inequality, slavery, and generals in war. But most farmers didn’t actually spend much time being directly dominated. War wasn’t the usual condition, most workers had no bosses, and most of their interactions were with people at their same level.

But in the modern world, most workers put up with far more than would most foragers or farmers. Our performance is frequently evaluated, we are ranked in great detail compared to many others around us, and we are given many detailed orders, and not just during an apprenticeship period. All of which allows our complex modern organizations and social interactions, the key to industrial-era wealth, but which raises the key question: how did we get Dom-averse humans to accept all this?

Bosses: It might seem odd to ask what bosses are for, as they have so many plausible functions to perform in orgs. Yet to explain many details, such as the kinds of people we pick for management, and the ways they spend their time, we must still ask which of these functions are the most important. And my guess is that one of the most important is to give workers excuses to obey them.

Here’s the simple story: we often have a choice about whether to frame an interaction as due to dominance or prestige. Humans are supposed to hate dominance, but to love prestige. So if we can frame our boss as prestigious, not dominant, we can tell ourselves and others that we are following their lead out of admiration and wanting to learn from them, not from fear of being fired. If so, firms will want to spend extra on hiring prestigious bosses, who are handsome, articulate, tall, well-educated, pro-social, smooth, etc., even if those features don’t that much improve management decisions. Which does in fact seem to be the case.

School: I’ve discussed several times my story that schools use prestige to train people to take orders:

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. … How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? … prestigious schools. … if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people. … Start with prestigious teachers [teaching prestigious topics]. … Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” … Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes.… give … complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions,… lots of students per teacher, … to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn.

In two recent twitter polls, I found a 7-2 ratio saying college teachers were more impressive/prestigious than one’s job supervisor then, and a 2-1 ratio for high school teachers. Many descriptions of teaching describe the impressiveness and status of teachers as certain to the teaching process.

Governance: we are even more sensitive to dominance in our political leaders than in our workplace bosses. Which was why all though history, each place tended to think they had a noble king, while neighbors had despicable tyrants. And why prestige was so important for kings. In the last few centuries we upped the ante via democracy, a supposedly prestigious mechanism wherein we pretend that all of us are really “ultimately” in control of the government, allowing us to claim that we are not being dominated by our leaders.

The main emotional drive toward socialism, regulation of business, and redistribution from the rich seems to me to be resentment of domination, which is how most people frame the fact that some have more money than others. Our ability to use democracy to frame government as prestige not domination lets us not see government agencies who regulate and redistribute as domination. Furthermore, aversion to dominance by foreigners is the main cause of world poverty today:

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

Disagreement: I spent many years studying the topic of rational disagreement, and I’m now confident both that rational agents who mainly wanted accurate beliefs would not knowingly disagree, and that humans often knowingly disagree. Why implies that humans have some higher priorities than accuracy. And the strongest of these priorities seems to me to be to avoid domination. People often interpret being persuaded to move toward someone else’s position as being dominated by them. Why is why leaders so often ignore good advice given publicly by rivals. Pride is one of our main obstacles to rationality; it is the main reason we disagree. Prediction markets are able to induce an accurate consensus even in the presence of such pride, but pride prevents such markets from being allowed or adopted.

Mating: Dominance and submission seen central to mating; relations are often broken due to one party being either too dominant, or not dominant enough. See also clear evidence in BDSM:

~30% of participants in BDSM activities are females. … 89% of heterosexual females who are active in BDSM [prefer] the submissive-recipient role … [&] a dominant male, … 71% of heterosexual males preferred a dominant-initiator role … 19.2% of men and 27.8% of women express a desire to attempt in masochistic behavior

So in this post I’ve outlined how status is central to bosses, school, governance, disagreement, and mating, more central than you might have realized. Status really does explain lots.

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‘Long Reflection’ Is Crazy Bad Idea

Some futurist philosophers have recently become enthused by what seems to me a spectacularly bad idea. Here is their idea:

Some effective altruists … have argued that, if humanity succeeds in eliminating existential risk or reducing it to acceptable levels, it should not immediately embark on an ambitious and potentially irreversible project (such as space colonization) of arranging the universe’s resources in accordance to its values, but ought instead to spend considerable time— “centuries (or more)” (Ord 2020), “perhaps tens of thousands of years” (Greaves et al. 2019), “thousands or millions of years” (Dai 2019), “[p]erhaps… a million years” (MacAskill, in Perry 2018)—figuring out what is in fact of value. The long reflection may thus be seen as an intermediate stage in a rational long-term human developmental trajectory, following an initial stage of existential security when existential risk is drastically reduced and followed by a final stage when humanity’s potential is fully realized (Ord 2020). (More)

The long reflection. Perhaps it’s a period of a million years or something. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands. There’s really not the kind of scarce commodity, so there are various stages to get into that state. The first is to reduce extinction risks down basically to zero, put us a position of kind of existential security. The second then is to start developing a society where we can reflect as much as possible and keep as many options open as possible. William MacAskill

It seems that first comes computer science and global governance and coordination and strategy issues, and then comes long time of philosophy. Lucas Perry (more)

And here is Toby Old from his book The Precipice, quoted at length so we can all be very clear about what is this idea:

I find it useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, … what all humans would do if we were sufficiently coordinated and had humanity’s long term interest at heart. … We should [proceed]… in three phases: 1. Reaching existential security 2. The long reflection 3. Achieving our potential … A place where existential risk is low and stays low. I call this existential security. …

This will involve major changes to our norms and institutions (giving humanity the prudence and patience we need), as well as ways of increasing our general resilience to catastrophe. … Take our time to reflect upon what we truly desire, … call this the Long Reflection. … What is essential is to be sufficiently confident in the broad shape of what we are among at before taking each bold and potentially irreversible action – each action that could plausibly lock in substantial aspects of your future trajectory. … For example, … genetically improving our biology … or giving people the freedom to adopt a stunning diversity of new biological forms.

We could think of these first two steps of existential security and the Long Reflection as designing a constitution for humanity. … We can’t rely on our current institutions and institution that have evolved to deal with small- or medium-scale risks. … Humanity typically manages risk via a heavy reliance on trial and error. …But this reactive trial and error approach doesn’t work at all when it comes to existential risk. …. This will require institutions with access to cutting edge information about the coming risks, capable of taking decisive actions, and with the will to actually do so. For many risks, this action may require swift coordination between many or all of the world’s nations.

There would be benefits to centralizing some of this international work on safeguarding humanity. … Our options range from incremental improvements to minor agencies through to major changes to key bodies such as the UN Security Council, all th way up to entirely new institutions for governing the most important world affairs. …

Some important early thinkers on existential risk suggested that the growing possibility of existential catastrophe required moving toward a form of world government. … But the term [world government] is also used to refer to a politically homogenized word with a single point of control (roughly, the world as one big country). This is much more contentious and could increase over existential risk via global totalitarianism, or by permanently locking in bad values. Instead my guess is that existential security could be better achieved with the bare minimum of internationally binding constraints needed to prevent actors in one or two countries from jeopardizing humanity’s future.

Okay, they want to first greatly cut our risk of extinction, and then somehow stop irreversible change and have us talk and think for a very long time, after which we would then act again once we had reached a sufficiently strong consensus. But that’s kinda crazy, as discussed here by Felix Stocker:

Is there any way humanity could reach a ‘Long Reflection’ period? Could we sustain it? Could it really discover the way to the ‘optimal’ future? … Can we actually eliminate x-risks without taking any momentous and irreversible decisions, … we would have to have radically different political and governmental structures – perhaps a global government, or a global hegemon … it seems really hard to achieve and sustain. … a significant number of individuals and groups would be forced to sacrifice short term gains … authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest. … We couldn’t expect to be able to ‘solve moral philosophy’ just by doing it in a vacuum. … I’m struggling to see the Long Reflection as anything other than impossible and pointless. … If we genuinely could engage in a collective philosophy project for 10,000 years, why would we ever want to stop?

In our world today, many small local choices are often correlated, across both people and time, and across actions, expectations, and desires. Within a few decades, such correlated changes often add up to changes are which are so broad and deep that they could only be reversed at an enormous cost, even if they are in principle reversible. Such irreversible change is quite common, and not at all unusual. To instead prevent this sort of change over timescales of centuries or longer would require a global coordination that is vastly stronger and more intrusive than that required to merely prevent a few exceptional and localized existential risks, such as nuclear war, asteroids, or pandemics. Such a global coordination really would deserve the name “world government”.

Furthermore, the effect of preventing all such changes over a long period, allowing only the changes required to support philosophical discussions, would be to have changed society enormously, including changing common attitudes and values regarding change. People would get very used to a static world of value discussion, and many would come to see such a world as proper and even ideal. If any small group could then veto proposals to end this regime, because a strong consensus was required to end it, then there’s a very real possibility that this regime could continue forever.

While it might be possible to slow change in a few limited areas for limited times in order to allow a bit more time to consider especially important future actions, wholesale prevention of practically irreversible change over many centuries seems simply inconsistent with anything like our familiar world.

So how did all these people get so stuck on such a crazy bad idea? My guess is that they don’t talk enough to social scientists. But that’s just my guess.

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Beware Centralization

Imagine merging three public firms, by making each firm into a division of a single new firm with one new boss. In principle, this new boss has the option to keep these firms running exactly as before. The prior CEOs could become division heads, with complete freedom to run their divisions as before, and paid the same, such as via options on new assets that track the new profits of each division. Under this arrangement, the profits of the new firm could arguably be the same of the profits of the old firms, minus a little bit for the salary of the new boss.

However, this new boss would also have the option to do other things. Like cutting redundancies between some subdivisions, such as shipping or human resources. Or reviewing the major decisions of division managers. Or sharing technology between firms. Or using the larger size of this new firm to negotiate better deals with unions, suppliers, or politicians.

Arguably the fact that there is the option to get at least the old profit levels, combined with many new options for making and using synergies across these firms, suggests that such merged firms can in general make more profits than they could separately. Which suggests that firms should just keep on merging until they are very large. But in fact firms do not do this, because their investors do not support it. For example, firms with more than 250 employees employed only 55% of the private US work force in 2020.

So why don’t firms merge to achieve these gains? Yes, regulators and tax authorities may treat larger firms less favorably. Yes, maybe customers and employees dislike larger firms and so treat them worse. But the typical scale of most firms seems far smaller than can be explained by these effects. There seem to be much stronger reasons why most firms are not much larger.

One usual story is that the manager of the new merged firm just can’t help interfering with and inter-connecting these divisions. After all, he or she has career ambitions which are poorly served by a complete hands-off management style. But after such manager “help”, it becomes harder to evaluate the performance of each division independently from the rest. And the quality of the people wiling to work as heads of these divisions, instead of as CEOs of them as independent firms, gets lower. These costs of size are said to be larger than the benefits to be found from exploiting synergies, which is why firms are not larger.

A similar thing happens with government agencies assigned to manage sectors of society. Imagine that we created a government agency in charge of food for the whole nation. This agency is given an authorization so broad that it could allow exactly the existing food practice and industries, such as farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and personal kitchens. Or it could completely nationalize all these resources, and use tax revenue to reorganize them as it saw fit. Or it could do anything in between. Imagine that such an agency had been created in the U.S. in 1970.

It seems obvious to me that by now such a food agency would have intervened in food production, processing, and distribution far more extensively that has been the case in our actual history. Large government agencies would have formed with many thousands of employees, many of them directly managing food activities. Everyone would get access to some food, and some government activities would achieve larger scale economies than seen in the private sector. But this would be achieved in part via more uniformity, standardization, and stability of food processes. Government managed food would end up with less variety and adaptation to individual circumstances and preferences, and this food would improve and innovate less over time.

The amazing thing is that all this would happen even with high quality oversight and accountability by agencies to politicians, and politicians to voters. Voters would tell politicians about things they liked more and less, politicians would pass on these messages to agencies, and agencies would often change their policies and strategies in the suggested directions. But even in the absence of much corruption, civil servant selfishness, or partisan rancor, and even with the best political processes that we can imagine, a food industry managed by a government agency with broad powers would still probably end up creating a worse world of food over the long run.

Similarly, a new firm that merged three random prior firms would typically earn less profits, even with the sincere and helpful advice of its investors, boards of advisors, and management consulting firms, and even in the absence of stupid or corrupt firm managers and advisors. Processes of governance and oversight can and do help, but they are generally insufficient to cancel the harms from an overly centralized organization structure.

These patterns, if true, are seem important regarding the ideal scales of both business and government. And I fear the U.S. public is insufficiently aware of them, as we seem to be on the verge of a historic increase in the scale and depth of government management of society.

Added 4Oct: Let me emphasize that what I’m describing is theoretically puzzling, in that it isn’t very directly implied by our standard models of profit maximization or democratic accountability. There is something important that we don’t understand well going on here.

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To Cut Inequality, Face Hard Choices

In her new book The Right To Sex, Amia Srinivasan mentions my post on “sex redistribution”: 

Hanson asked on his blog why progressives are preoccupied with redistributing wealth but not with redistributing sex. He was widely decried—a Slate headline read, “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?” But Hanson, who is an opponent of wealth redistribution, was charging progressives with hypocrisy. His question was: if wealth inequality is an injustice that demands to be corrected, why isn’t sex inequality, too?

Now in fact I have neither supported nor opposed wealth redistribution; I instead just noted the odd fact that the groups interested in income and sex redistribution don’t overlap much. And Srinivasan never answers my question, why redistribute income but not sex? She seems sympathetic to income redistribution, but opposes sex redistribution, and yet offers no principle on which to base this different treatment:

Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. … We wouldn’t think it coercive were the teacher to encourage the other students to share with your daughter, or were they to institute an equal sharing policy. But a state that made analogous interventions in the sexual preference and practices of its citizens—that encouraged us to “share” sex equally—would probably be thought grossly authoritarian. …

giving sex-less men money to spend on prostitutes, or encouraging traditional norms of … “enforced monogamy.” The irony is that these proposals, like rape, are also coercive. Women sell sex, on the whole, because they need money; to give sex-less men money with which to pay for sex presupposes that there are women who need to sell sex to live. 

Okay, but why is sandwich-sharing not also unacceptably “grossly authoritarian” or coercive? Srinivasan offers no distinguishing principle, even though this question seems to go to the core of her book. Srinivasan doesn’t say why using taxes or subsidies to influence anything related to sex is unacceptably “coercive”, even as she supports tax-supported guaranteed income, housing, and childcare.

A partial resolution of this puzzle is, I think, that Srinivasan sees herself as having different plans to deal with two kinds of inequality, income and sex, and sees both plans as “non-coercive”. She plans a non-coercive socialism for income, and non-coercive efforts to “transfigure our desires” for sex. From her interview with with Tyler Cowen:

I have a huge amount of anxiety about state power … I broadly identify as a democratic socialist. … When you’re asking about what kind of socialist models, I’m not proposing — I don’t think any plausible socialist does propose — that what we need is a form of Soviet state socialism. I think what we need to be thinking about is the radical democratization of the institutions that shape political and social and family life.

Somehow the creation and maintenance of a “radical democratization” would greatly cut income inequality without requiring “coercion” as she defines it (she offers no definition). And with such socialism, it would become easier to “non-coercively” rethink our desires, after which sex inequality would also fall greatly. Srinivasan says she offers a “utopian feminist response to our current situation”, which apparently has little to say about what to do now about inequality, in our actual world, before her envisioned utopian revolutions.

Except, Srinivasan does seem to endorse current policies like guaranteed income, housing, and childcare. If she has some special definition wherein such policies are not “coercive”, why can’t that also cover policies to cut sex inequality? 

So what is really going on here? My best guess: Srinivasan just refuses to admit that we can’t have it all, at zero cost. She won’t admit that inequality is a robust natural result of many social and biological processes, and that we have a rather limited range of costly options to cut it. And her suggestion to cut sex inequality by reconsidering our desires seems no more promising than cutting wage inequality by asking employers to reconsider their employee preferences. 

We do have some options though. For example, if you don’t like the inequality that would naturally happen across your different possible future selves, you can buy insurance. Even more inequality might be cut if parents could commit their kids to such insurance. But we now see little interest in buying or promoting such options. What we see instead is great interest in cutting inequality via coercive government “social insurance”. Yes, a great many other policies can have minor effects on inequality, but in the absence of the sudden appearance of utopian socialism, which no one today seems to know how to arrange, these seem to be our main actual options today for big cuts.  

While government redistribution involves many costs and risks, for people sufficiently averse to inequality it can make sense to support that. I am not personally very averse to inequality, but as a professional economist I stand ready to advise others with preferences different from mine. 

However, such advisees must prepare to make hard choices. They will have to decide which kinds of inequality – among income, lifespan, progeny, popularity, sex, and more –  matter more to them and why. And advisees should accept that big cuts in inequality may come at big costs, and also require things that look a lot like “coercion”, either via governments or parents.

We must all face hard facts, make hard choices, and then live with the consequences. Regarding inequality, or most anything. 

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Yay Argument Orientation

Long ago I dove into science studies, which includes history, sociology, and philosophy of science. (Got a U. Chicago M.A. in it in 1983.) I concluded at the time that “science” doesn’t really have a coherent meaning, beyond the many diverse practices of many groups that called themselves “science”. But reflecting on my recent foray into astrophysics suggests to me that there may a simple related core concept after all.

Imagine you are in an organization with a boss who announces a new initiative, together with supporting arguments. Also imagine that you are somehow forced to hear a counter-argument against this initiative, offered by a much lower status person, expressed in language and using methods that are not especially high status. In most organizations, most people would not be much tempted to support this counter-argument; they’d rather pretend that they never heard of it.

More generally, imagine there is a standard claim, which is relevant enough to important enough topics to be worth consideration. This claim is associated with some status markers, such as the status of its supporters and their institutions, and the status of the language and methods used to argue for it. And imagine further that a counter-claim is made, with an associated argument, and also associated status markers of its supporters, languages, and methods.

The degree to which (status-weighted) people in a community would be inclined to support this counter-claim (or even to listen to supporting arguments offered) would depend on the relative strengths of both the arguments and the status markers on both sides. (And on the counter claim’s degree of informativeness and relevance regarding topics seen as important.) I’ll say that such a community is more “argument-oriented” to the degree that the arguments’ logical or Bayesian strengths are given more priority over the claims’ status strengths.

Even though almost everyone in most all communities feels obligated to offer supporting arguments for their claims, very few communities are actually very argument-oriented. You usually don’t contradict the boss in public, unless you can find pretty high status allies for your challenge; you know that the strength of your argument doesn’t count for much as an ally. So it is remarkable, and noteworthy, that there are at least some communities that are unusually argument-oriented. These include big areas of math, and smaller areas of philosophy and physics. And, alas, they include even smaller areas of most human and social sciences. So there really a sense in which some standard disciplines are more “scientific”.

Note that most people are especially averse to claims with especially low status markers. For example, when an argument made for a position is expressed using language that evokes in many people vague illicit associations, such as with racism, sexism, ghosts, or aliens. Or when the people who support a claim are thought to have had such associations on other topics. As such expressions are less likely to happen near topics in math, math is more intrinsically supportive of argument-oriented communities.

But even with supportive topic areas, argument-orientation is far from guaranteed. So let us try to identify and celebrate the communities and topic areas where it is more common, and perhaps find better ways to shame the others into becoming more argument-oriented. Such an orientation is plausibly a strong causal factor explaining variation in accuracy and progress across different communities and areas.

There are actually a few simple ways that academic fields could try to be and seem more argument-oriented. For example, while peer review is one of the main place where counter-arguments are now expressed, such reviews are usually private. Making peer review public might induce higher quality counter-arguments. Similarly, higher priority could be given to publishing articles that focus more on elaborating counter-arguments to other arguments. And communities might more strongly affirm their focus on the literal meanings of expressions, relative to drawing inferences from vague language associations.

(Note: that being “argumentative” is not very related to being “argument-oriented”. You can bluster and fight without giving much weight to logical and Bayesian strengths of arguments. And you can collect and weigh arguments in a consensus style without focusing on who disagrees with who.)

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Elite Biases Make Policy Biases

A 2014 paper predicted U.S. policy changes over four years for 1,779 issues, using the positions of four groups of influencers: business-based interest groups (55), mass-based interest groups (31), median public opinion (6), and elite public opinion (100), i.e. that of people at the 90th percentile of income. (I’ve listed their relative influence in parenthesis. Criticism says mid-class (not poor) influence is bigger.) While elite and median public opinion had a 0.78 correlation, the other pairs were uncorrelated. (A poll sets median influencer at 92% income percentile.)

What this says is that, even in a democracy, the ~90th percentile rich have the most influence, business interest groups have about half as much, and mass interest groups have about a third as much. We less rich folks only get what we want, to the extent we do, mainly because these elites mostly agree with us, and because we sometimes influence mass interest groups.

This median influencer household has income of $210K/yr and wealth of $1.2M, and households above this cut pay 70% of US Federal income taxes. This income is near the median doctor ($207K) and U.S. District Judge ($218K), more than the median full professor ($141K), lawyer ($139), lobbyist ($115K), judge ($109K), and CEO ($103K), and much more than the median federal civil servant ($64K) and high school teacher ($63K). (The median household made $64K, while the median CEO of the top 500 firms made $12.7M.)

These elites who set policy get most of their status and income from labor, not capital, and they are quite comfortable with, and in fact love, large bureaucratic organizations. Their highest hopes tend to be of gaining positions in, getting promoted in, or creating, such organizations. When they have dreams for the world, they dream of new versions with higher mandates and bigger budgets. (Think socialism.)

They can distinguish each other by their elite accomplishments, school credentials, org affiliations, and styles of talk, dress, etc. And their internal dynamics are dominated by status and gossip. That is, they are very social and join mutually-supporting coalitions which help get them the right jobs, party invites, speaking invites, etc. Via extensive gossip, they quickly form an apparent consensus on the policy issues of the day, on who is higher status among them, and on who should be ostracized and expelled from their ranks. Today these elite communities of gossip and status are integrated across the world.

Simple as it is, this account of who most influences policy seems to me promising as the basis of a theory of policy bias. That is, the natural biases of the group who most influences policy may plausibly explain many of our overall policy biases.

For example, policy set by elites may give elites too much benefit of the doubt, and defer too much to their status-gossip system. As elites tend to see their internal status-gossip processes as sufficient to discourage malfeasance and encourage excellence, they tend to see little need for other forms of track records, incentives, or accountability within elite professions and organizations, including government agencies. They see themselves as mostly good people, trying to do good things, who should be supported not hassled.

As another example, when there are groups that elites see as more outside of themselves, as rivals competing with them for power, then elites may push for policies that control, suppress, and disrespect such rivals.

The most obvious candidate for such a rival group is business. Even though these elites are richer than most of us, like most of us they focus more on those who are above them in status, relative to those who are below. Furthermore, the study above says that business is in fact their main rival for influence over policy. And while most business profits go to elites, elites don’t think of themselves as having their main influence on the world via business; elites instead identify more with their roles as org leaders and elite gossipers.

Furthermore, while elites see themselves as mostly well-meaning good people, they see business as transparently and dangerously selfish. Elites see businesses as tending to do what makes them more money, even when their leaders are ostracized and not invited to the right parties. Meaning that the usual pressures that work on most elites may not work on business and the super-rich. Thus elites support harsh, intrusive, and punitive business taxes, regulations, and legal liability. Yes when the super-rich are taxed, these elites are also taxed, but that may seem worth the price to take them down a peg or two. Most ordinary people miss this conflict by not distinguishing these two different kinds of “rich”.

Even though ordinary people seem to have little influence on policy, and mostly agree with elites on policy, elites are still wary of them as individuals. After all, we outnumber them at least five to one, we might revolt, and they must rely on us to do most of the things that need doing. So as employees, we must be tracked, assigned, and incentivized. As consumers and investors, we must be regulated. As authors and voters, our thoughts must be shaped and channeled via teachers, censors, media, interest groups, and politicians. As potential criminals we need to be tracked and threatened with punishment. And the poorest of us need even more direct management, such as via social workers and parole officers. All of which not only keeps us under control, but asserts elite status via the fact of their managing such controls.

Mass-based interest groups mostly don’t seem to scare elites as a whole, because usually such groups are dominated by elites at their top levels. It is only when a mass-based group seems to oppose elites as a whole that elites close ranks and warn against the dangers of such “populism”. While our society gives a lot of lip service to populism, populism is usually crushed aggressively whenever it actually seems threatening.

So how does this theory do empirically? It seems to me that policy does tend to be overly trusting of elites and their status-gossip system, and overly punitive and disrespectful of rival groups. For example, policy pushes us to pick docs, lawyers, and other prestigious professionals based more on the prestige of their affiliations, and less on track records or incentives. Business does seem greatly overly regulated, and taxes seem overly punitive. And policy seems to rely too much on the consensus of elite gossip, relative to more accurate sources like experts or prediction markets.

While roughly half of all regulation of individuals seems to be justified as protecting people from themselves, warnings seem just as helpful but would be far less controlling. Free speech (really free hearing) would be as effective at informing as is censorship. Pandemics could be more efficiently handled via law. And the poor could be helped more via simple cash transfers instead of expensive intrusive management of their lives.

Our legal system has high costs of suing people (from not using lotteries) but no required liability insurance. This makes law available to elites to sue each other, and to punish business, but not available to ordinary people to sue elites or each other. Elites can protect themselves well from ordinary people via strong prosecutor powers of plea bargaining together with broad surveillance and huge numbers of crime laws on the books, and also judges who are elites and give elites the benefit of the doubt. Oh and living, shopping, and working in separate neighborhoods.

And that’s my simple theory of who runs society, and policy biases that naturally result from their rule.

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Are You Your Best Career Agent?

The [proposed new tax] plans also call for raising the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6% from the current 37%. … result is a top marginal federal income tax rate of 46.4%. … In New York City, the combined top marginal state and city tax rate is 14.8%. So New York City taxpayers who earn more than $5 million a year would face a combined city, state and federal marginal rate of 61.2% under the House plan. (More)

While there are no truly convincing estimates of the long-run elasticity [of taxable income (ETI)] , the best available estimates range from 0.12 to 0.40. Proceeding mechanically, at the approximate midpoint of this rate—an ETI of 0.25—the marginal excess burden per dollar of federal income tax revenue raised is $0.195 for an across-the-board proportional tax increase, and $0.339 for a tax increase focused on the top 1 percent of income earners. (More)

I’ve posted before on how we could create career agents by auctioning off the right to be given the tax revenues that are paid by a particular taxpayer. Oddly to me, most of my Twitter followers and blog commenters opposed the idea. But I just realized that this same mechanism could mitigate another big problem: income taxes discouraging income. Which happens to be a topical issue, as Congress is now considering big income tax rises.

High income taxes destroy value by inducing those who face such taxes to earn less. Why should you work hard to earn another 100 dollars if the government takes 61 of them? Yes, you will gain some value from the leisure that you would practice instead, but overall we expect value to be destroyed if taxes change your actions.

But we can greatly reduce this effect, to all our benefit. Here’s how. Imagine that starting at adulthood, each year each taxpayer may pick some fraction of their remaining future income tax obligations to be auctioned off. Then in future tax years, each auction winner is pay their winning fractions of the taxes that this person pays to the government. These fractions are divided up among auction bidders so as to maximize auction revenue, and those who own rights to collect tax revenues can resell such rights to others. Taxpayers must reveal some basic info about themselves to auction participants (but only if there’s an auction), but auction winners gain no powers whatsoever regarding taxpayers; they just cash checks from the government.

So, for example, maybe in prior years Sue has already had 20% of her future taxes sold off. This year, Sue sets 5% to be sold at auction. Auction bidders say how much they would pay for various income fractions. This time, auction revenue is maximized by selling 3% to Ted, 1.5% to Mary, and 0.5% to Joe. Then next year 25% of the taxes that Sue pays will be redirected to various auction winners.

When private parties own the rights to be given this tax revenue, they in effect become career agents, as they have incentives to advise and promote this worker, so that this worker will later earn more money and pay more taxes. (To avoid a common pool problem, they may want to concentrate their rights in a single person.)

But when the worker buys these assets themselves, they in effect reduce their future income tax rates, and thus acquire stronger incentives to earn money! So if Sue wins the auction to get 5% of her tax revenue, she in effect cuts her tax rate by 5%. And that may benefit Sue more than the advice and promotion she might get from a career agent.

So now each taxpayer can choose how much of their tax revenue stays with the government, how much is diverted to fund career agents, and how much to cut their own tax rates. They choose how much stays with government by deciding how much gets auctioned off each year. And they decide how much to cut their own taxes, relative to creating career agents, by directly bidding in the auction. We can make sure the auction mechanism gives the taxpayer the last move, so that they can always increase their bid to grab all the tax revenue, if they are willing to pay enough. And if they have a limited budget, they can limit how much is auctioned each year to try to make sure they could buy it all.

Of course banks might loan people money to buy out their future tax obligations, and parents might help their kids by paying to cut their future tax rates. We might even let parents start this whole process when the kid is born, with parents choosing how much to sell each year, though my polls suggests many won’t like giving parents this power.

If we worry that auctions denominated in cash would distort the risk profile of government revenue, then either government could use that auction revenue to buy riskier assets, or the auction could itself be dominated in such risky assets (such as a stock index fund).

Yes, the taxpayer would likely have more info that other auction participants regarding their future tax revenue. But if we pick say an ascending price auction, and mark the taxpayer’s bid clearly for others to see, other participants can infer much from taxpayer bids. And any remaining overall advantages, which in effect let the taxpayer lower their taxes, could be compensated just by raising overall tax rates.

Regarding other worries, let me just repeat what I’ve said before:

You might fear that asset holders would lobby to increase taxes, but they are easily outvoted by ordinary taxpayers. Conversely, you might fear that governments would lower tax rates to please voters while hurting asset holders. But governments would fear cutting revenue in new auctions; governments similarly don’t usually inflate to pay off bonds for fear of raising their cost of new bonds. These tax assets can function as well as does government debt, which is pretty well. …

Yes, people might try to extort asset holders to sell their tax asset to them cheap via threatening to choose a tax-free life. But asset holders would likely call their bluff and just refuse to sell in such circumstances.

And that’s it; we could mitigate the harm of high income tax rates by auctioning off the right to collect income tax revenue. If the taxpayer wins the auction, they in effect lower their tax rate, to all our benefit. If others win, career agents are created. Both benefits basically come for free, so why not?

Added 5p: Note that high earners trying to look like low earners would thereby save on the price of lowering their taxes, but they’d also raise the auction price paid for low earners, which would induce more career agent efforts on their behalf.

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The Insular Fertile Future

Fertility (= kids per adult) has been falling worldwide for centuries. It seems to be correlated strongly with societal (not individual) wealth, and mediated by norms transmitted via mass media. World elite culture supports falling fertility by celebrating professional more than parenting accomplishment. Among many rich world elites, fertility has fallen below replacement level, and is still falling further. More others should join them as the world gets richer and more culturally integrated.

With seven billion humans today, if the population were to fall in half every two generations it would take roughly 1600 years for humanity to go extinct. So the risk isn’t immediate, and lots of things might change before then. (E.g., see my book Age of Em.) But as this trend has been consistent for centuries, it’s hardly crazy to think that it may continue for many more centuries.

Yes, extinction isn’t that likely, as a more likely scenario has selection stepping in to promote higher fertility. However, on reflection I think it also makes sense to worry about that better scenario, as the most likely way for selection to promote fertility is by promoting insular subcultures, especially re gender/mating/fertility. Let me explain.

Today the cultures associated with higher fertility tend to be more “traditional”, and less integrated with the dominant world elite culture. And a few small subcultures, like Mennonites and Amish, or Mormons and Orthodox Jews, even manage to maintain high fertility while staying closely connected to the dominant culture. However, as a big fraction of the youth of such subcultures leave them, it isn’t obvious that these subcultures can long sustain net growth.

But this does point to the plausibly winning strategy: subcultures that are both highly fertile and highly insular, keeping enough youth from wanting to defect from their subculture to join the dominant low fertility culture. Through some combination of genes, culture, and tech, they find a way isolate their members more from outside cultural influence, and thereby to support sustained population growth (or at least less rapid decline).

That scenario is a win relative to human extinction, but it should worry those who see much value embodied in the dominant culture, and much harm that could come from more cultural isolation, or from the religions or ideologies that might be used to sustain such insularity. For example, as traditional cultures are the main source today of insular fertile cultures, they seem likely to also be the main source of such winning subcultures in a few centuries. Maybe we’ll get a traditional culture who happens to take a lot from the dominant culture. But also maybe not.

What other options do we have? We could hope that genetic evolution will turn out to be faster than we fear, that global culture will change its mind and switch to promoting fertility, or that cheap nurturing robot parents will appear in time. But these seem faint hopes. The dominant culture may well seek to repress divergent insular fertile subcultures, but that would raise the risk of human extinction.

One possible fix that comes to mind here is for the dominant culture to tolerate and even encourage mating and gender variance among new cultural descendants of that dominant culture. That is, encourage the creation of new subcultures that inherit most of their cultural elements from the dominant culture, but that explore different approaches to mating, gender , and parenting within each subculture. Swinging, polyamory, and home schooling subcultures of today show that such cultural descendants are at least possible. Hopefully such subcultures would mainly be more culturally insular only regarding their mating, gender, and parenting aspects.

With enough such experiments, we might find new subcultures that promote much higher fertility, and yet which also inherit many aspects of dominant culture. And these might have a fighting chance against insular subcultures descended from more traditional cultures. Alas, this fix requires that the dominant culture become much more tolerant of local variations in gender, mating, and parenting, which may not be much more likely than their just coming to see the wisdom of promoting fertility. After all we are currently in an increasingly Puritan era of more not less conformity on such things.

I’m afraid I really don’t see a good solution here yet. But I at least want to flag the problem for consideration.

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Think of the (Alien) Children!

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren [in China].  Adam Smith

Among all the articles on UFOs I’ver read over the last half year, about half of them mentioned the possibility that some UFOs are aliens. But I can’t recall any giving thought to how such aliens might feel about the issue. Isn’t that awful self-centered of us? 

You may say that you can’t be bothered to empathize with only hypothetical creatures, and we just aren’t at all sure that UFO aliens exist. Fair enough. But then I will point you to grabby aliens; in my opinion we have strong enough evidence of their existence to say they are more likely to exist than not. If you recall, we need to explain why humans have arrived so early in the history of the universe, and a deadline set by grabby aliens who will soon fill up the universe seems our most robust explanation.

You may say that you can’t just take my word for this, that you must wait to see this argument endorse by standard academic astrophysics authorities. That, you say, is how “science” works. Fair enough. I hereby announce that our grabby aliens paper has been accepted for publication in one of the top astrophysics journals, aptly named Astrophysical Journal. (Here is a press release.) So now its not just speculation.

You may say that you still need to be sure they exist to care, and our results can’t support that level of certainty. But on the subject of global warming people often lament its effect on distant future generations, even though we can’t be sure that such future generations will exist. So you don’t need to be that sure, right?

You may argue that you’ll need to know more about these aliens before you can care about them. Fair enough. So let me tell you many things about them. They once were animals with minds and bodies like yours, but have since reimplemented themselves as artificial life. And they have been artificial life for millions of years; their tech is vastly more advanced than yours.

Even so, they are still more like you than all the other kinds of animals on Earth, as they should have trade, language, law, war, hierarchy, governance, tech, and much more. The first ones we meet will be frontier aliens, descendants of a long line who prioritized staying at the leading edge of expansion. At the expense of other things, such as world government. 

There, now do you know enough to care? Does it help to know that there are vastly more of them out there are humans on Earth?

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