Argument Foreplay

The most prestigious articles in popular media tend to argue for a (value-adjacent) claim. And such articles tend to be long. Even so, most can’t be bothered to define their terms carefully, or to identify and respond to the main plausible counter-arguments to their argument. Such articles are instead filled with anecdotes, literary allusions, and the author’s history of thoughts on the subject. A similar thing happens even in many academic philosophy papers; they leave little space for their main positive argument, which is then short and weakly defended.

Consider also that while a pastor usually considers his or her sermon to be the “meat” of their service, that sermon takes a minority of the time, and is preceded by a great many other rituals, such as singing. And internally such sermons are usually structured like those prestigious media articles. The main argument is preceded by many not-logically-necessary points, leaving little time to address ambiguities or counter-arguments.

And consider sexual foreplay. Even people in a state where they are pretty excited, attracted, and willing are often put off by a partner pushing for too direct or rapid a transition to the actual sex act. They instead want a gradual series of increasingly intense and close interactions, which allow each party to verify that the other party has similar feelings and intentions.

In meals, we don’t want to get straight to a “main dish”, but prefer instead a series of dishes of increasing intensity. The main performers in concerts and political rallies are often preceded by opening acts. Movies in theaters used to be preceded by news and short films, and today are preceded by previews. Conversations often make use of starters and icebreakers; practical conversations are supposed to be preceded by small-talk. And revolutions may be preceded by increasingly dramatic riots and demonstrations.

What is going on here? Randall Collins’ book Interaction Ritual Chains explained this all for me. We humans often want to sync our actions and attention, to assure each other than we feel and think the same. And also that our partners are sufficiently skilled and impressive at this process.
The more important is this assurance, the more we make sure to sync, and the more intensely and intricately we sync. And where shared values and attitudes are important to us, we make sure that those are strongly salient and relevant to our synced actions.

Regarding media articles and sermons, a direct if perhaps surprising implication of all this is that most of us are often not very open to hearing and being persuaded by arguments until speakers show us that they sufficiently share our values, and are sufficiently impressive in this performance. So getting straight to the argument point (as I often do) is often seen as rude and offensive, like a would-be seducer going straight to “can I put it in.”

The lack of attention to argument precision and to counter-arguments bothers them less, as they are relatively wiling to accept a claim just on the basis of the impressiveness and shared values of the speaker. Yes, they want to be given at least one supporting argument, in case they need justify their new position to challengers. But the main goal is to share beliefs with impressive value allies.

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The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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Will World Government Rot?

We have seen a centuries-long increase in the scale and scope of governance, and today we see many forms of global governance. While the literature has so far identified many costs and benefits of global governance, I here suggest that we add one so-far-neglected consideration to the list: rot. While many kinds of systems tend to innovate and grow with time, other kinds of systems tend to rot, decay, and die. We should consider the risks that global governance may increase the rot of our total world system.

Global Governance

Over the last millennia, the scale of nations has increased, as has the scope and intensity of governance. Particular governance functions have tended to migrate to larger scales, from local to regional to national to global. At the global level, we have increasingly many organizations with increasing abilities to coordinate policy in many particular areas.

In addition to formal organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, we also see an increasingly strong informal global convergence of policy across many areas, such as regarding pandemics, medicine, finance, schools, nuclear, aviation, telecom, and media. This is plausibly due to an increasingly integrated global community of elites and policy-makers, an integration which makes policy-makers in each nation reluctant to deviate far from global policy consensus.

How much wider and stronger might global governance become, and what might be the costs and benefits of such changes? An old literature had identified many relevant factors (Glossop 1993; Alesina & Spolaore 2003; Deudney 2008).

On the plus side, larger scale governance allows for wider standardization, and more trade and migration over larger scales. It also allows for more production of larger-scale public goods such as the promotion of innovation, and dealing with global problems such as CO2 warming. Also, global governance can suppress inter-state warfare.

On the minus side, however, large scale governance encompasses more diverse places, cultures, and populations, and this diversity is an obstacle to coordination. It suggests more internal conflicts within these global systems, and more difficulty reaching consensus, perhaps even leading to armed rebellion. Also, as the threat of external competition weakens, larger scale political processes become freer to focus on internal conflicts and rent seeking, and governance units become freer to suppress dissent and to entrench themselves. Global governance also becomes a single point of failure for the globe, for example increasing risks of both global suicide and of a global totalitarian regime well-entrenched against resistance.

The purpose of this short paper/post is to add one more consideration to this list: rot.

The Question of Rot

Some kinds of systems rot and decay, while other kinds grow and improve. To better judge the potential for rot in our total world system, we need to better understand what distinguishes these two kinds of systems.

For example, over time whole biospheres like Earth seem to slowly accumulate innovations and to spread into more environmental niches. But the individual organisms of which such biospheres are made tend to decay and die, after an initial period of growth. Most individual species, adapted to relatively stable environments, may slowly rot, to be outweighed by the few rare species adapted to varied and changing environments, forcing them to abstract and remain flexible.

Non-trivial software systems seem to consistently rot and decay (Kruchten et al. 2012; Izurieta & Bieman 2013). Software changes resulting from new features and changing hardware and customer environments tend to be haphazard, resulting in more interdependences between previously relatively modular subsystems. This interdependence makes further changes increasingly expensive, so that the system becomes more inflexible and changes less.

While efforts to “refactor” such systems, by streamlining their overall structures, can temporarily increase flexibility, large software systems are almost always eventually discarded, to be replaced by new systems rewritten from scratch.

Over time, legal systems seem to similarly become more complex, interdependent, and resistant to change. Sometimes legal systems are “refactored” to increase flexibility, such as when the Roman emperor Justinian arranged for a restructuring and simplification of the Roman legal code. This Justinian code was later adapted by Napolean, who spread it across Europe, after which European conquests spread it across the world.

While the rate at which firms die does not seem to depend on age (Daepp 2015), older firms do tend to grow at a lower rate (Hosono et al. 2020). That is, individual firms rot.

While industries supplied by many diverse firms seem to consistently grow and innovate, such innovation is greatly reduced when industries are dominated by a very small number of firms (Peneder & Woerter 2014; Delbono & Lambertini 2020). Industry innovation can also be greatly reduced by intrusive and globally coordinate regulations. For example, in the nuclear industry strong regulation has resulting in greatly increasing costs, greatly curtailing its potential (Haas 2019; Hall 2021).

Across human history, entire civilizations and empires also seem to consistently rise and then fall, suggesting that empires also rot (Turchin & Nefedov 2009). Will today’s integrated world economy and culture also rot for similar reasons, or will some important difference in today’s world civilization prevent that?

Does World Government Rot?

So now we reach the crucial question: are our new systems of global governance more like an open field of competition that innovates and grows, as do open industries and biospheres? Or are they more like individual organisms, firms, empires, and software and legal systems, or like overly-concentrated or overly-regulated industries? Which tend to decay and rot. What are the key parameters that determine renewal versus rot, and how can they be mapped onto systems of global governance? And can we identify the safest least-rotting variations to recommend? Is it sufficient to keep such systems very simple and modular, allowing few dependencies?

References

Alberto Alesina, Enrico Spolaore (2003) The Size of Nations, The MIT Press, November 7.

Madeleine I. G. Daepp , Marcus J. Hamilton , Geoffrey B. West and Luís M. A. Bettencourt 2015. “The mortality of companies” Interface 6, May.

Flavio Delbono, Luca Lambertini (2020) “Innovation and product market concentration: Schumpeter, arrow, and the inverted U-shape curve.” Oxford Economic Papers, November,

Daniel H. Deudney (2008) Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. Princeton University Press, November 9.

Ronald J. Glossop (1993) World Federation?: A Critical Analysis of Federal World Government.
McFarland Publishing, July 1.

Reinhard Haas, Stephen Thomas, Amela Ajanovic (2019) “The Historical Development of the Costs of Nuclear Power” in The Technological and Economic Future of Nuclear Power, pp.97-115.

J. Storrs Hall (2021) Where Is My Flying Car? Stripe Press, November 30.

Kaoru Hosono, Miho Takizawa, Kenta Yamanouchi (2020), “Firm Age, Productivity, and Intangible Capital.” RIETI Discussion Paper 20-E-001.

Clemente Izurieta & James M. Bieman (2013) “A multiple case study of design pattern decay, grime, and rot in evolving software systems” Software Quality Journal 21:289–323.

Philippe Kruchten; Robert L. Nord; Ipek Ozkaya (2012) “Technical Debt: From Metaphor to Theory and Practice” IEEE Software 29(6):,18 – 21, Nov-Dec.

Peter Turchin, Sergey A. Nefedov (2009) Secular Cycles Princeton University Press, August 9.

Peneder M. Woerter M. (2014) “Competition, R&D and innovation: testing the inverted-U in a simultaneous system.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 24:653–87.

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Minds Almost Meeting

Many travel to see exotic mountains, buildings, statues, or food. But me, I want to see different people. If it could be somehow arranged, I’d happily “travel” to dozens of different subcultures that live within 100 miles of me. But I wouldn’t just want to walk past them, I’d want to interact enough to get in their heads.

Working in diverse intellectual areas has helped. So far, these include engineering, physics, philosophy, computer science, statistics, economics, polisci, finance, futurism, psychology, and astrophysics. But there are so many other intellectual areas I’ve hardly touched, and far more non-intellectual heads of which I’ve seen so little.

Enter the remarkable Agnes Callard with whom I’ve just posted ten episodes of our new podcast “Minds Almost Meeting”:

Tagline: Agnes and Robin talk, try to connect, often fail, but sometimes don’t.

Summary: Imagine two smart curious friendly and basically truth-seeking people, but from very different intellectual traditions. Traditions with different tools, priorities, and ground rules. What would they discuss? Would they talk past each other? Make any progress? Would anyone want to hear them? Economist Robin Hanson and philosopher Agnes Callard decided to find out.

Topics: Paradox of Honesty, Plagiarism, Future Generations, Paternalism, Punishment, Pink and Purple, Aspiration, Prediction Markets, Hidden Motives, Distant Signals.

It’s not clear who will be entertained by our efforts, but I found the process fascinating, informative, and rewarding. Though our audio quality was low at times, it is still understandable.

Agnes is a University of Chicago professor of philosophy and a rising-star “public intellectual” who often publishes in places like The New Yorker. She and I are similar in both being oddball, hard-to-offend, selfish parents and academics. We both have religious upbringings, broad interests, and a taste for abstraction. But we differ by generation, gender, and especially in our intellectual backgrounds and orientations (me vs. her): STEM vs. humanities, futurist vs. classicist, explaining via past shapings vs. future aspirations, and relying more vs. less on large systems of thought.

Before talking to Agnes, I hadn’t realized just how shaped I’ve been by assimilating many large formal systems of thought, such as calculus, physics, optimization, algorithms, info theory, decision theory, game theory, economics, etc. Though the core of these systems can be simple, each has been connected to many diverse applications, and many larger analysis structures have been built on top of them.

Yes these systems, and their auxiliary structures and applications, are based on assumptions that can be wrong. But their big benefit is that shared efforts to use them have rooted out many (though hardly all) contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherences. So my habit of trying when possible to match any new question to one of these systems is likely to, on average, produce a more coherent resulting analyses. I’m far more interested in applying existing systems to big neglected topics than in inventing new systems.

In contrast, though philosophers like Agnes who rely on few such structures beyond simple logic can expect their arguments to be accessible to wider audiences, they must also expect a great many incoherences in their analysis. Which is part of why they so often disagree, and build such long chains of back and forth argumentation. I agree with Tyler, who in his conversation with Agnes said these long chains suggest a problem. However, I do see the value of having some fraction of intellectuals taking this simple robust strategy, as a complement to more system-focused strategies.

Thank you Agnes Callard, for helping me to see a wider intellectual world, including different ways of thinking and topics I’ve neglected.

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What I Hold Sacred

Someone recently told me that I stood out compared to other writers in never seeming to treat anything as sacred. Which seemed to them awkward, odd, and implausible, as much as the opposite writers who seem to treat most all topics and issues as sacred. More plausibly, most people do treat some minority of things as especially sacred, and if they don’t reveal that in their writing, they are probably hiding it from others, and maybe also from themselves.

This seems plausible enough that it pushes me to try to identify and admit what I hold sacred. When I search for ways to identify what people hold sacred, I find quite a lot of rather vague descriptions and associations. The most concrete signs I find are: associating it with rituals and symbols, treating it with awe and reverence, unwillingness to trade other things for it, and outrage at those who disrespect it.

The best candidate I can find is: truth-seeking. More specifically: truth-seeking among intellectuals on important topics. That is, the goal is for the world to learn more together on key abstract topics, and I want each person who contributes substantially to such projects to add the most that they can, given their constraints and the budgets they are willing to allocate to it. I don’t insist anyone devote themselves wholly to this, and I’m less concerned with each person always being perfectly honest than with us together figuring stuff out.

I admit that I do treat this with reverence, and I’m reluctant to trade it for other things. And I’d more often express outrage at others disrespecting it if I thought I’d get more support on such occasions. Yes, most everyone gives great lip service allegiance to this value. But most suggest that there are few tradeoffs between this and other values, and also that following a few simple rules of thumb (e.g., don’t lie, give confidence intervals) is sufficient; no need to dig deeper. In contrast, I think it takes long-sustained careful thought to really see what would most help for his goal, and I also see many big opportunities to sacrifice other things for this goal.

How can you better affirm this value? Its simple, but hard: Continually ask yourself what are the most important topics, what are the most promising ways to advance them, and what are your comparative advantages re such efforts. Do not assume that answers to these questions are implicit in the status and rewards that others offer you for various activities. The world mostly doesn’t care much, and so if you do care more you can’t focus on pleasing the world.

So why do I seem reluctant to talk about this? I think because I feel vulnerable. When you admit what is most precious to you, others might threaten it in order to extort concessions from you. And it is hard to argue well for why any particular value should be the most sacred. You run out of arguments and must admit you’ve made a choice you can’t justify. I so admit.

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‘The Profit’ Socialism Challenge

My very favorite TV show ever is The Profit, because it so well concretely illustrates the essence of capitalism. (My favorite board game is Imperial, for a similar reason.) Season 8 is airing now, and supposedly it will be the last. (See 10min episodes.) Alex summarizes:

The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis. In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. …

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage–a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.…

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases. …

Another lesson from The Profit is that firm problems are personal problems. The son who can’t step out from the shadow of the father and the father who can’t let go. The two brothers who haven’t gotten over the death of their father and the problems this creates in the firm they have inherited. The siblings who are still fighting to get their parent’s attention. If Lemonis has a genius skill it’s in keeping his temper and working through bullshit problems to get to the real festering issues that are at the root of inefficiencies. …

It’s difficult to run a business like a business. The analytical mindset that can separate business problems from personal problems isn’t natural. Many people cannot separate business decisions from their own preferences and emotional biases, which is one reason why great business leaders are rare.

The Profit does a great job of illustrating common small business problems and solutions. Furthermore, it shows why capitalism tends to do a good job of getting people to actually adopt such value-increasing solutions to these problems. It is the capital that Marcus has to offer that makes business owners listen to him; he’d mostly get ignored if he were just a business consultant asking instead to be paid for his advice.

In fact, I’m so impressed with how well The Profit scenarios illustrate the value of capitalism that I now build upon it a challenge to socialists: please describe in detail how The Profit style enterprise reform would happen under socialism.

I’ve heard that, under socialism, workers would vote on who they want to be managers, or that some government agency would allocate capital to applicants asking to create or expand their ventures. But I just can’t see those processes going well in these concrete cases, getting someone to look in detail at their problems and then use the prospect of capital as a lever to get venture managers to change their ways. Show me some plausible stories of how these or other socialist processes could achieve such value-increasing changes remotely as well as does Marcus Lemonis, and I’ll pledge my support and allegiance to socialism.

Added 3Nov: Bizarrely to me, many have interpreted my challenge as “offer some good arguments for socialism”. No, I asked for something very specific, namely plausible scenarios for how socialist mechanisms would help in these very particular cases. 

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An ‘Amazon’ of Online College?

Once upon a time, stores sold things. Some stores specialized in selling particular things, while “department” stores sold a wider range of things. While there were some scale economies in branding and distribution, they were mild enough to allow many different department stores. With the internet, however, much bigger stores have been favored. Not only can huge online stores hold more variety, with scale economies in storage and distribution a single store can dominate that industry. Hence, Amazon.

While the internet favors a few huge platforms for some types of products and services, the strength of this effect varies with the kind of product or service. For example, there seems to be room for many movie streaming services, as there seem to be fewer scale or scope economies there. Yes, one can better price discriminate by selling many movies rather than just one, but that still leaves room for many services each of which has many movies. Though perhaps the current variety of streaming services won’t last long.

What about college? In the past, students attended class in person, and so each college arranged to have many classes all close enough that one could live nearby and travel to all of its classes. So travel time between classes set a maximum feasible size for a college. But now there are (for many non-lab-or-hands-on topics) online classes which one can attend from anywhere in the world. In a future of online college classes (and tests), will we still have the same size colleges, or will much larger platforms take over?

Clearly there is a big potential for much larger individual classes. Instead of a thousand profs teaching the same class all over the world to thirty students each, maybe only ten profs will teach to three thousand students each. At least when individual grading and talk isn’t the main cost. And if students can choose from classes made all over the world, a far wider variety of classes can be made available to each student, classes on more topics, at more levels, and with more different teaching/learning styles.

Yes, the most elite colleges would probably be the last to contribute their courses to large online catalogs of courses. They’d say, “if you want the very best college experience, you should come here and limit yourself to our classes.” But that pitch wouldn’t work so well coming from mid-rank colleges.

Still I wonder: will the thirty or so classes on a future student college transcript be mostly from teachers who all produce their classes near each other at the same “college”, or will student transcripts instead contain classes from twenty or more different sources? And if the latter, how many distributors or platforms will there be? That is, will there be a single “Amazon” from which most all students select their classes, or will there be many different strongly competing distributors of classes, more like movie streaming services today. Another way to ask this question is: what are the scale and scope economies that might favor a few big college class distributors, instead of the thousands of colleges we have today?

As mentioned above, price discrimination offers one scope economy, but this runs out near the scale of a typical college, so won’t push for much larger units. A similar logic applies to other scale and scope economies that mostly run out near the scale of typical colleges today. For example, an online college class platform may want to select and evaluate the classes that if offers, to judge which classes could serve as prerequisites for which other classes, and maybe also to select and evaluate students for their suitability for various classes. And yes, these tasks look easier for larger platforms. But such effects still seem to allow a lot of room for many competing platforms.

However, here is a scale and scope effect that may push more toward a more Amazon-like scenario: giving students grades that are comparable over wide scopes. Today employers mostly look at a college graduate’s school and major, and sometimes also at their GPA. This works because schools have known reputations, and majors are pretty similar across many colleges.

This is in stark contrast to most jobs that students might take instead of going to college; it is much harder to know how to compare letters of recommendation based on typical job performance. Even US military veterans face this problem; employers find it hard to know what school/major/GPA record is comparable to 2 years as a “helicopter repairer”. Superior college comparability is a big reason many go to college instead of starting work (or the military) right after high school.

Imagine a college class platform that gives you a transcript showing what classes you took, and what grades you got in each class, but that doesn’t do much to help employers know how to compare the grades obtained from different sources. That wouldn’t be so valuable. In contrast, a college platform is much more valuable to future employers, and thus to students, if it can rank and categorize student performance in comparable and meaningful ways.

One simple way to do this is to sometimes randomize which classes students take. That is, flatter, pay, or cajole many students into letting the platform sometimes pick which particular class they take, out of a set of similar classes offered on the platform. With enough students taking enough classes that give enough feedback on student performance, standard statistical models could estimate individual student abilities and specializations. Which helps not only future employers, but also the providers of classes when deciding which students to admit into their classes. It also helps to estimate student satisfaction in particular classes as expressed by student evaluation of classes.

Yes, if all student class performance info were made available to all platforms, many of them could produce similar statistical estimates. But the largest platforms may use privacy excuses to successfully resist efforts to force them to share their customer info, as have social media giants today. Yes, platforms with less data might claim that they had found clever uses of machine learning etc. that give similar quality evaluations of students. But it isn’t clear why students and employers should believe such claims.

Scale economies in using customer data to make student performance comparable across a wide scope of classes may push toward a single huge Amazon-like catalog of online college classes.

From a conversation with Phil Magness.

Added 9a: College admissions and grading has recently become a political battleground. While today such battles are limited by the fact that colleges must compete with each other, such limits might be less when one of a few big orgs dominated the online college catalog market.

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What Makes Stuff Rot?

Here is a deep and important theory question: What determines when familiar systems and other structures decay and become less functional, versus when they remain stable or improve in functionality with time? I call this a theory question because we basically know the physics of all the familiar systems around us, so this question is in principle answerable with careful enough theory analysis.

Yes, thermodynamics says that all structures will eventually decay down to a small set consistent with max entropy. But what about long before then?

In biology, most all individual cells and organisms at first grow and become more capable, but then later decay and die. Even whole species typically decay, though the extreme rare tail of species that improve eventually have far more descendant species, so that whole biospheres improve over time.

Small human organizations like clubs and firms often grow when small, but then consistently ossify and decay when old; few last for centuries. Even whole human civilizations and empires seem to follow a similar pattern, over a several century timescale. And yet our entire human civilization has consistently become more capable over time.

In software engineering, we find that most all computer systems become gradually more fragile and harder to usefully modify over time, and eventually are replaced wholesale. “Refactoring” can delay this, but only for a while and at substantial cost.

All of this might be summarized as saying that whole competitive fields often improve over time, while each competing item tends to rise and then fall. Life grows, but living things die.

But this summary just isn’t good enough to address a big important question: what will happen as we introduce more and more “global” (i.e., civilization-wide) structures? Such as global governance bodies, global professional associations, global integration of academic disciplines, global trading networks, or global conversation communities. Are these structures more like entire biospheres that improve or more like individual organisms that eventually die and must be replaced?

The question is important because such global structures face much weaker threats from outside competition. So pressures to improve may have to mainly come from inside them. And if they effectively repress internal dissent, they may persist for a very long time, even if they greatly decay and rot. The weight of such decay on overall progress and growth might eventually outweigh other sources of improvement, to permanently hinder our civilization’s overall growth and limit our long term potential.

So we must decide how wary to be of allowing global structures to repress internal dissent and efforts to end or replace them wholesale. And to inform those key choices, it would help to better understand: what makes stuff rot?

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Are Political Freedoms a Fluke?

Through most of history, econ density and development went with less political freedom:

For most of the past 5,000 years, … kingdoms and empires were ‘exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority. (More)

In contrast, over the last few centuries we’ve seen increasing levels of peace, democracy, and political freedoms. Many take these trends to be strong and nearly inevitable consequences of industry. Here is some interesting skepticism about such views, by Daniel H. Deudney in his great book Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village:

United States of America … a “new order of the ages,” distinctive both from the early republican city-states and the “republic” of Europe. … Widely recognized as being “exceptionalistic” in several ways. … It combined familiar forms of popular sovereignty, formal state equality, balance of power, and division of power to create a negarchic political order novel in its overall configuration. (p.161)

The American founding occurred on the eve of the industrial revolution, whose main external security consequence was to increase sharply the scope of the state system and the size of viable units within it. … In this brutally competitive interstate environment, the only reason that republican politics would plausibly survive, let allow prevail, was that the United State of America had combined republication government with empirelike size via feral unions. All other democratic republics were implausible candidates for survival in the global-industrial era, except as allies of the United States. … In the World War II phase of the struggle, democratic republics at the Western core, already shrunk o a handful in northwester Europe, ere either overrun by Nazi German armies, were neutrals vulnerable to assured eventual conquest by Germany, or were snatched from conquest by massive American aid and Hitler’s quixotic grand strategy. Outside of the European core, democracies were few, scattered, and weak. They were spared immediate Axis conquest only by their remoteness and American assistance or their proximity to the United States.

After the defeat of Axis imperialism, liberal democracies faced another mortal peril from communist Russia and China, and the survival, reconstruction, and expansion of democracy in the second half of the twentieth century vitally depended on American military and economic power. … “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that since World War I, the” fortunes of democracy worldwide have largely depended on American power.” …

Looking at the overall picture, two facts stand out. First, without American power, there would probably not be any democracies at the end of the twentieth century. Second, the democracies that have behaved so impressively pacifically toward one another have largely been junior allies of the United States in a very hostile ad competitive interstate environment. (pp.183-185)

Consider the counterfactual world where the American continents never existed. In that counterfactual, there is never a new big place available to try out a new form of government, which then comes to control a huge empire. Most empires are based on more traditional governance forms, which then mostly win the big world wars, and mostly run the world today.

Democratic governments which ensure many political and economic freedoms may be nothing like an inevitable consequence of industry-era changes. In which case it seems less likely that such freedoms will continue long into the future.

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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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