Monthly Archives: April 2019

Huemer On Disagreement

Mike Huemer on disagreement:

I participated in a panel discussion on “Peer Disagreement”. … the other person is about equally well positioned for forming an opinion about that issue — e.g., about as well informed, intelligent, and diligent as you. … discussion fails to produce agreement … Should you just stick with your own intuitions/judgments? Should you compromise by moving your credences toward the other person’s credences? …

about the problem specifically of philosophical disagreement among experts (that is, professional philosophers): it seems initially that there is something weird going on, … look how much disagreement there is, … I think it’s not so hard to understand a lot of philosophical disagreement. … we often suck as truth-seekers: Bad motives: We feel that we have to defend a view, because it’s what we’ve said in print in the past. … We lack knowledge (esp. empirical evidence) relevant to our beliefs, when that knowledge is outside the narrow confines of our academic discipline. … We often just ignore major objections to our view, even though those objections have been published long ago. … Differing intuitions. Sometimes, there are just two or more ways to “see” something. …

You might think: “But I’m a philosopher too [if you are], so does that mean I should discount my own judgments too?” Answer: it depends on whether you’re doing the things I just described. If you’re doing most of those things, it’s not that hard to tell.

Philosophy isn’t really that different from most other topic areas; disagreement is endemic most everywhere. The main ways that it is avoided is via extreme restrictions on topic, or strong authorities who can force others to adopt their views.

Huemer is reasonable here right up until his last five words. Sure we can find lots of weak indicators of who might be more informed and careful in general, and also on particular topics. Especially important are clues on if a person listens well to others, and updates on the likely info value of others’ opinions.

But most everyone already knows this, and so typically tries to justify their disagreement by pointing to positive indicators about themselves, and negative indicators about those who disagree with them. If we could agree on the relative weight of these indicators, and act on them, then we wouldn’t actually disagree much. (Formally we wouldn’t foresee to disagree.)

But clearly we are severely biased in our estimates of these relative indicator weight, to favor ourselves. These estimates come to us quite intuitively, without needing much thought, and are typically quite confident, making us not very anxious about their errors. And we mostly seem to be quite sincere; we aren’t usually much aware that we might be favoring ourselves. Or if we are somewhat aware, we tend to feel especially confident that those others with whom we disagree are at least as biased as we. I see no easy introspective fix here.

The main way I know to deal with this problem is to give yourself much stronger incentives to be right: bet on it. As soon as you start to think about how much you’d be willing to bet, and at what odds, you’ll find yourself suddenly much more aware of the many ways you might be wrong. Yes, people who bet still disagree more than is accuracy-rational, but they are much closer to the ideal. And they get even closer as they start to lose bets and update their estimates re how good they are on what topics.

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Taboo Gradations

Saturday I visited Monticello, and was struck by hearing this story:

Thomas Jefferson (TJ) brought slaves Sally & James Hemings with him to Paris. After 5 yrs, at ages 16 & 24, they could have stayed free in Paris, but they instead agreed to return to US as slaves. TJ agreed to free Sally’s future kids, and that James would be free in US after training replacements. The rest of their family had remained in US, she was pregnant w/ TJ child, James knew French & had a trade, and the French revolution had started.

Overall my opinion of Jefferson declined, and I tweeted:

Visiting Monticello, I’m not inclined to see Jefferson as more sincere then the typical politician. Articulate, charismatic, well connected, but not especially sincere.

As the Hemmings were famous slaves, they seem an interesting example of people who apparently voluntary chose to become slaves. I’ve long thought this was an interesting category, which includes the historically more common category of debt bondage. Even if one disapproves of enticing someone into voluntarily agreeing to slavery, that still seems less blameworthy than enslaving people via direct physical force. So I tweeted:

There should be a word for slaves who agreed to be salves, w/o extortion or other illegitimate pressures. E.g. Sally Hemings & brother made deals w/ Jefferson. Different word could highlight its lower moral culpability.

I soon added a link to a summary of this history, and the clarification:

Note: I’m not claiming that it is obvious that these two people were not subject to illegitimate pressures, only that it seems plausible that they were not. Allowing them to serve as an example of the concept I ask about.

Let me also now clarify, if it isn’t obvious, that a lower moral culpability can still be a very high level of culpability.

I have so far been subject to a storm of disapproving, and often quite rude, responses (1K comments so far). Most do not make any argument or intellectual point, but there are exceptions. One big set disapproves of making moral distinctions between different cases of slavery; many have said so quite explicitly. Apparently saying that some cases of slavery are worse than others is seen as excusing the less worse cases. They similarly see the claim that not all Nazis were equally bad as a pro-Nazi stance. They apparently see this as a signaling game wherein speaking this truth is taboo, and where violations have bad motives.

In response to a comment (explained below), I said:

Slave owners did many bad things, but each owner didn’t do every single one.

This received a similar storm of disapproval, as did this question:

Do you think all Nazis were equally bad?

Again, hard to see my statement or question as incorrect, but many see pointing to moral variations among slave owners or Nazis as praising them.

To see how many agreed with my claim on moral culpability differences, I did two Twitter polls. By a 2 to 1 margin out of 660 votes, they said that there exist plausible history, options, & preferences to make a scenario where someone got someone else to agree to be a slave less morally culpable than if they had enslaved them via direct physical force. By a 5 to 2 margin out of 486 votes, they said that Jefferson specifically would have been more culpable if he had instead physically forced the Hemmings to return to the US. So they clearly agree with me that we can distinguish different degrees of culpability here.

Another big set of responses to my original tweet that mentioned the Hemmings claimed that their deals did in fact involve “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. I did a poll here and found folks agreeing with this claim, 2 to 1 out of 409 votes. A followup poll finds that out of four options I gave, most see the illegitimate pressures as due to their having been slaves before, and having family remaining in the US.

I teach law & economics, and so am familiar with the usual legal reasons given for not enforcing contracts, because the deals are not seen as legitimate. For example, when a contract itself has bad effects, as with contracts for assassinations or for price collusion. Or when the context of a contract suggests that it is a mistake, such as with ignorance, mental defects, or fraud. Or when one party induces a contract by threatening to cause harms in illegal ways, such as with a gun. Or when one party has an unusual degree of market power, inducing outcomes far from supply & demand, such as may happen when rescuing someone in the desert.

These are the sort of things I had in mind re “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. It is fine to dislike the Hemmings’ deal because you just dislike slavery, full stop. But that’s saying the contract itself is bad, not that it was induced in a bad way. To show that it was induced badly, you need to show something like that threats of force were made, or that excess market power was used.

The fact that they were both slaves before shows that they understood what they were agreeing to, and so makes it less likely that this contract was due to a mistake or fraud. And our world is full of people who live far from their family, and full of others who might help them see their family. Surely we don’t want to reject deals just because one party is motivated by wanting to see their family.

Should we reject an airline ticket purchase because the traveler is going to see family? Should we reject a rental agreement because the tenant wants to live near neighbors they like? Should we say that most people are enslaved by their nation because they are reluctant to leave due to wanting to live near family? Should we forbid a church from offering a deal to avoid excommunication, as that act could cut one off from family? I doubt most people in history would agree to be a slave just to live near family, especially when they are young adults already apart for five years, so I’m skeptical this was the main reason the Hemmings agreed to this deal. In this poll of 10K, 90+% say they & most people in history wouldn’t do that.

A number of people argued that we should presume that Jefferson had threatened, if the Hemmings didn’t agree to his terms, to kill their family in the US, and to pay people to hunt them down and kill them. Because some slave owners had in fact threatened such things at times. (That’s the context in which I tweeted “Slave owners did …”) But until we find more specific evidence to suggest that, that seems a crazy extreme assumption to me to make about Jefferson in Paris, where the local law would treat such acts as murder. And I expect the rate at which owners killed the families of escaped slaves in retaliation to be quite low.

Added 1May: Many have argued that slaves are conditioned to obey and avoid risk, and this invalidates the Hemmings’ agreement. That would make more sense if they had just returned to the US without complaint. But (according to our best evidence) they actually explicitly threatened to stay, and negotiated directly with Jefferson on terms; they acted willing to disobey. And if they thought slavery was as terrible as people say, returning to slavery seems the larger risk. I get that harsh circumstances can change you, but I don’t yet see that as a reason to question the choices of such people.

Also, many have said they can’t see any point to making moral distinctions between behaviors if there aren’t people in front of us today that we might punish differently. But I’m an intellectual who specializes in conceptual theory, and who explores radical alternatives to existing institutions. The military draft, prison as a punishment for crime, and debt bondage are all conceptually related to slavery, as are many similar institutions that we might consider.

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Who Complains How About Whom

We humans like to complain. And while we might pretend that the main purpose of our complaints is to help others adjust their behavior, more likely we like to collect successful complaints as a resource. Collect enough complaints, and maybe you can trade them for some compensation, or at least sympathy. 

One way to collect complaints is to find others who are violating social norms. But complaints are much more socially valuable to us when we can frame them as something done to us personally. Which is why we prefer to complain about people who are associated with us in some concrete way. 

Our associates vary both in how strong is our interaction with them, and also in how much responsibility we have for them, and they for us. Consider the difference between a consultant and an employee, or between a lover and a spouse. The former types of associates can have just as strong an influence on us, but we are seen socially as more responsible for what happens to the latter types, who I will call “allies”.  

Since our associates do things that influence us, we can in principle complain whenever their impact could be framed as negative to observers. But we have to be careful complaining about allies. We often have norms that complaints between allies should be kept private. Also, as we are in part responsible for what our allies do, and thus in part responsible for what they do to hurt us. So we feel more free to complain when less-ally associates do things that impact us negatively.

While we are less able to complain publicly about specific effects of our allies, we are more able to complain about their loyalty as allies. If they are responsible for us, we can complain that they have not done enough to help us, especially when we are in unusual need. We can also complain that by their actions they are taking unjustified risks. Their actions can risk their running into problems that would lead to needing help from us, and can also lead to complaints by others, which would then reflect badly on us because of our ally relation.

Notice that this analysis predicts some general patterns in our relations to allies and to non-ally associates (this is of course really a spectrum). We do more to help allies, but we more limit their behavior. We feel less free to break off our relation with an ally, or even to visibly shop around for substitutes. Non-ally associates, in contrast, can take more risks, and thereby gain both more upsides and downsides. We demand that allies more conform to social norms, and more avoid what we consider risky behavior. It is more okay to have non-ally associates who are greedy, arrogant, or braggarts, even assholes. 

Another important way in which our associates vary is in their dominance “size”.  We humans still feel the pull of egalitarian forager norms, norms which disapprove of some agents having, and seeming willing to use, more “power”, whether physical or monetary. We often have associations where one party is seen as larger in this sense. These include relations between parents and children, firms and individual customers or employees, bosses and subordinates, rich and poor friends or family, and between men and women.  

In an association between a “big” and a “small” agent, observers tend to hold the larger agent to a higher “ally” standard. The larger agent is supposed to do more to help the smaller agent when they are in need, and to do less that might risk the safety of that smaller agent. The larger agent is also seen as more entitled to regulate the behavior of the smaller agent. In contrast, the smaller agent is less obligated to help the larger agent in need, and if they are less allied they are less entitled to regulate the behavior of the larger agent.  

Of course it is possible for a large and a small agent to have a strong ally relation, in which case the small agent will then be expected do a lot to help the large one when that agent is in need. It is just less acceptable for the larger agent to not treat the smaller one more like an ally. When the small agent is not held to an ally standard, the large agent is seen as more free to take risks, as the smaller agent will less be held responsible for them.  

Note that a smaller agent who is to be treated by a larger associate as an ally, but who need not treat that associate as an ally, has maximal opportunities to complain. They are less restrained from complaining about particular negative effects, and they can also complain if their associate isn’t sufficiently loyal or fair in ally terms.

This whole analysis seems to be particularly useful for understanding relations between men and women, and between firms and their customers and employees. Women tend to complain more about men, compared to vice versa, women tend more to initiate breakups, and they tend more to be protected from downside risks (e.g. via welfare). More conformity is demanded of women, while men are allowed to take more risks, from which they can gain larger upsides but suffer larger downsides. It is more okay for men to act harshly, even as assholes, such as in management.

Similarly, individuals tend to complain more about big business, and it is more okay for an individual to quit a firm than for a firm to quit an individual. We protect individuals much more from downsides, and also regulate their behaviors more. We mainly regulate firms to limit the harm they might cause to individuals, and to ensure they treat individuals “fairly” as an ally should, e.g., avoiding unfair discrimination.

Note that I’m not claiming that these patterns are genetic, or that they can’t be changed. (I’m not claiming the opposite either.) These patterns have a logic, but there may be other important logics at play. These may also be only patterns in social perceptions in our society, which need not exist in all societies and which need not correspond to reality in our society.

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Firms Are Not Aliens

The title of Tyler Cowen’s new book, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, is pretty clear on its topic and stance:

Business, quite simply, has become underrated, and thus I am writing a contrarian book that ought not to be contrarian at all. All of the criticisms one might mount against the corporate form—some of which are valid—pale in contrast to two straightforward and indeed essential virtues. First, business makes most of the stuff we enjoy and consume. Second, business is what gives most of us jobs.

You might think Cowen would defend the claim that big business is a better source for stuff and jobs, compared to other sources like government agencies, non-profits, worker cooperatives, small business, communes, sharing, or self-employment & home production. But in fact Cowen shows little interest in comparing big business to such alternatives. Instead, his book seems to be all about “mood affiliation”, to use a Cowen term. Two reviewers agree:

His theme is correct. Big Business is not the ogre it is made out to be. It is no more deserving of being scapegoated than are other familiar targets. (more)

The book does have a slightly catalogue-ish feel to it, as though Professor Cowen has been (as I suspect) keeping a list of college students’ most common complaints about Big Business (and about capitalism generally) and addressing them in series. (more)

While most of Cowen’s responses to complaints seem spot on to me, this whole situation seems a sad commentary on our complainy culture. Complaints are mainly useful when they push us to evaluate particular proposed fixes. But our political culture today seems largely a game of trying to max the people* time*loudness volume of complaints heard about rivals, regardless of the relative validity or importance of such complaints. Supporting this game, Cowen doesn’t talk much about possible fixes; his focus seems on the overall complaint score.

My main disagreement with Cowen, and its a big one, is that, in his last chapter, his “love” letter reads more like this “praise” of men from the movie Dangerous Liaisons: 

Men enjoy the happiness they feel. We [women] can only enjoy the happiness we give. [Men] are not capable of devoting themselves exclusively to one person. So [for a woman] to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief. (more)

Cowen tells us to love big businesses, but not to expect them to love us back, as they are incurably selfish aliens:

Why is business so often so unpopular? I think the answers are pretty deeply rooted in human nature: we cannot help judging business by many of the same standards we apply to people. …We turn corporations into people in our minds, and also in our hearts. … we imbue them with human qualities. … It can mislead us, and it is a kind of shorthand that has pitfalls and hazards. … [are] external, autonomous, selfish corporate agents — agents who take our wishes into account only insofar as it suits them. … should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. … It is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior. …

We judge companies as we might judge a person, sometimes even a family member: in terms of connection and standards of integrity. This is a mistake, because corporations are legal constructs and abstract entities, and they do not have purposes, goals, or feelings of their own. … Precisely because we tend to judge corporations by the standards we use to judge people, it is hard for us to accept the partially venal or sometimes amoral pecuniary or greedy motives operating behind the scenes, and so we moralize about companies instead of trying to understand them. …

When it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. …

It doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or bylaws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Oddly, Cowen spends much of his book arguing differently, saying why firms have incentives to, and in fact do, act more trustworthy and reliably than do most humans and other organizations. And that firms are not in fact simple profit maximizers:

The common portrait of corporations as consisting entirely of selfish or greedy individuals is not the best understanding of big business. … Goals other than simple profit maximization often end up boosting both business profits and social benefits. For example, the people who work at SpaceX, … often really do believe in the dream of colonizing other planets and the stars. … Friedman failed to understand that the cultural, intellectual, ideological, and even emotional foundations of business go far beyond an attachment to profit. People care about what they do, and they seek meaning through their jobs. Profit maximization is best thought of as a convenient fiction that does a fairly good job boosting profits precisely because it rejects a sole emphasis on profits as a goal. … most successful businesses have a kind of messianic view of their role in society … A business that instills in its workers and managers a sincere belief in such goals has a better chance of building a durable competitive advantage than a business that does not. …

I’m more likely to think of a corporation as a carrier of reputation and a kind of metaphorical personhood, and less likely to think of a corporation as a means of minimizing transactions costs, as many mainstream economists have suggested.

Yet in the end Cowen wants to warn us that all this good stuff is an illusion covering an incurably selfish core. His whole picture seems greatly at odds with the view I elaborate in my book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life: that we humans are similarly selfish at core and yet induced to act and look good by our social context and incentives. As friends, we may not consciously consider “each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed”, but unconsciously we very much consider such things. I say that big business is no more essentially selfish than are ordinary humans, and that Cowen has offered no evidence to the contrary.

We humans have had many thousands of years of experience relating to people who need us but are much more powerful than us, and to large social organizations that sit in similar human-like social roles. These are the kinds of human-like relations that we can reasonably expect to have with big business today, and that we do actually have. In those expected roles, big business is not disappointing us nor fooling us; they are in fact more reliable and trustworthy than most of our other relation partners. They can and do meet high standards of integrity. In their roles, they very much do have understandable and relatable “purposes, goals, or feelings of their own”. After so many millennia, this isn’t some strange new situation to which we are poorly adapted. We aren’t at all fooled into thinking of big business as equal lovers or drinking buddies.

Why then do we complain so much about big business, via words, taxes, regulations, and a low political influence? Because just by being big, having money, and seeking money, big business violates ancient forager norms against inegalitarian distribution, overt selfishness, and especially against overtly selfish efforts to achieve unequal dominance. (Money is seen a power to dominate).

We know that the continued existence of those forager norms primes audiences to accept most any complaint we might make against big business. And as in a marriage, we are happy to take advantage of opportunities to complain, even when we have no intention of breaking off the relationship.

Added 5p 22Apr: On his blog, Cowen cryptically replies:

For purposes of context, I see Robin as leading a sustained mood affiliation crusade against hypocrisy, rather than performing comparative analysis of hypocrisy vs. the relevant alternatives.

That may be true, but I don’t see how it is responsive to my critique. Hypocrisy is when someone’s real motives differs from those they present. But I’m struggling to understand Cowen’s comment via somehow mapping the hypocrisy concept onto my post above. The most obvious example of hypocrisy in the above is when ordinary folks pretend to mind big firms behavior, but really mind don’t mind nearly as much as they pretend. I didn’t complain about that hypocrisy in the above, and I can’t see how that application of the hypocrisy concept is relevant to the disagreement that I identify, where he says firms at core just can’t and shouldn’t be trusted and I say they can be trusted as well as other individuals and organizations. So I guess I’m just not understanding him.

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Downfall

On Bryan Caplan’s recommendation, I just watched the movie Downfall. To me, it depicts an extremely repulsive and reprehensible group of people, certainly compared to any real people I’ve ever met. So much so that I wonder about its realism, though the sources I’ve found all seem to praise its realism. Thus I was quite surprised to hear that critics complained the movie didn’t portray its subjects as evil enough!:

Downfall was the subject of dispute … with many concerned of Hitler’s role in the film as a human being with emotions in spite of his actions and ideologies. … The German tabloid Bild asked, “Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?” in their newspaper. … Cristina Nord from Die Tageszeitung criticized the portrayal, and said that though it was important to make films about perpetrators, “seeing Hitler cry” had not informed her on the last days of the Third Reich. Some … felt the time was right to “paint a realistic portrait” of Hitler. Eichinger replied to the response from the film by stating that the “terrifying thing” about Hitler was that he was human and “not an elephant or a monster from Mars”. Ganz said that he was proud of the film; though he said people had accused him of “humanizing” Hitler. (more)

For example, the New Yorker:

But I have doubts about the way [the makers’] virtuosity has been put to use. By emphasizing the painfulness of Hitler’s defeat Ganz has certainly carried out the stated ambition … he has made the dictator into a plausible human being. Considered as biography, the achievement (if that’s the right word) of “Downfall” is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous—that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did? (more)

The conclusion I have to draw here is that no remotely realistic depiction of real bad people would satisfy these critics. Most people insist on having cartoonish mental images of their exemplars of evil, images that would be contradicted by any remotely realistic depiction of the details their actual lives. I’d guess this is also a problem on the opposite end of the spectrum; any remotely realistic depiction of the details of the life of someone that people consider saintly, like Jesus Christ or Martin Luther King, would be seen by many as a disrespectful takedown.

This is probably the result of a signaling game wherein people strive to show how moral they are by thinking even more highly of standard exemplars of good and even more lowly of standard exemplars of bad, compared to ordinary people. This helps me to understand self-righteous internet mobs a bit better; once a target has been labeled evil, most mob members probably don’t want to look too close at that target’s details, for fear that such details would make him or her seem more realistic, and thus less evil. Once we get on our self-righteous high horse, we prefer to look up to our ideals in the sky, and not down at the complex details on the ground.

Added 11p: This attitude of course isn’t optimal for detecting and responding to real evil in the world. But we care more about showing off just how outraged we are at evil than we care about effective response to it.

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Publish Tax Returns

Our simplest model of an economy is: supply and demand. This model has many simple implications for policy. Now we know of many much more complicated economic models, which often have quite different policy implications. But often we are not sure which more complex models actually apply well to any given situation. So we have to worry that people favor more complex models mainly to justify their preferred policies. Knowing this pushes me toward weakly recommending the policies implied by supply and demand, unless I see unusually clear evidence to support a different economic model. (FYI, the evidence that fixed costs exists seems plenty clear, so I really mean supply & demand with fixed costs.)

In our simplest modes of information, people are better off when they have more information, and also when information is distributed more symmetrically. There is a vast world of much more complicated models, but it is often hard to tell which more complex models apply well to given situations, and many probably favor particular models to justify preferred policies. So as with supply and demand, this uncertainty pushes me to weakly favor the simplest info models, and their policy recommendations favoring more info and more symmetric info.

Now we do have some relatively clear exceptions where privacy seems a better policy. For example, it is better to not let extortionists know that you know that they’d actually carry out threats. Private keys and passwords are powerful tools for protecting property from theft. Many place large values on privacy re their naked bodies, and such info typically has much less value to others. And to create incentives to discover info, we often need to let people keep that info secret, at least until they make key sales or trades.

Most other cases, however, are much less clear. Which usually pushes me toward favoring openness, transparency, and symmetry of info, as these are the implications of our simplest info models. Which brings us to recent proposals to make all tax returns public, such is now done in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Wisconsin, and such as we now do with US property taxes. The US tried this for income taxes for the first ten years after they were imposed in 1861, and also in 1924:

In October 1924, the federal government threw open for public inspection the files that recorded the incomes of American taxpayers, and the amounts they had paid in taxes. … Journalists soon began to note the curious absence of some conspicuously wealthy people from the lists of top taxpayers. Congress had ordered the disclosure as a weapon against tax fraud. … There is every reason to think that sunlight served the desired purpose. One important piece of evidence is that wealthy Americans absolutely hated the disclosure law, and soon persuaded Congress to execute a U-turn. (more)

Reducing tax evasion seems a substantial benefit to this policy; in 2010 US Federal tax revenue was cut by 14% due to tax evasion. Offering bounties to anyone who showed a tax fraud would increase this gain. In addition, a Twitter survey I just started suggests that over 80% of people would not be willing to pay 1% of their income to keep their taxes private. This suggests the policy can pay for itself in in tax terms alone. Other purported benefits:

Disclosure also could help to reduce disparities in income … Inequality is easier to ignore in the absence of evidence. … Public corporations are required to report the compensation of top executives — who check disclosures of rival companies to ensure they are not underpaid. … Another benefit would be identifying patterns of illegal discrimination against women or minorities. … People who know how much their co-workers are paid — and how much people are paid at other companies, and in other industries — can make better career decisions. Tax data also is a rich source of information about American life. (more)

Tyler Cowen, however, disagrees:

The world can figure out a lot about the rest of your life [from your taxes] … Let’s say, for instance, that you just got out of prison — should that be commonly available public information? … Let’s say … you haven’t yet had a high-paying job. With tax-record publication, it will be harder to pitch yourself as a quality hire with upside potential. … [In] the dating market, tax transparency would give high-earning men and women a bigger advantage and hurt their lower-earning competitors. …

Is it better if your parents and all your friends can see how well your new job is going or how much in royalties your last book earned? As it stands, … your close associates assume the best or at least give you the benefit of the doubt. … [Norway] tax-record publication … “negatively affected the well-being of poorer Norwegians while at the same time boosting the self-esteem of the rich.” …

Residents in poor zip codes pay higher premiums, even after adjusting for their level of risk. If insurers had data on everyone’s exact level of income, these kinds of discrimination might become worse yet. … Let’s say you have medical expenses high enough that they are deductible against taxable income. All of a sudden, the whole world will know that you were sick, and how much you were spending to get better. …

Presumably your tax-deductible charitable contributions would become public information as well, including which religious institutions you gave to. Many people give away large sums of money to charities, but do so anonymously to avoid being deluged with requests for money and fawning sycophants. Making it harder to donate anonymously probably would result in fewer charitable contributions. (more)

Anonymous donations are a tiny fraction of charity overall, and protecting rich folks from being bothered by charity requests seems a pretty small consideration. Insurance market usually get more efficient when insurers know more about customers, as do labor markets when workers know more about wages. Re Norway happiness, no net harm was shown, just some doing better and some doing worse. Re showing off to mates etc., more visible income would make people try harder to gain higher income, and try less hard to display income via clothes, cars, etc.; that seems a win to me. And the rest of Cowen’s objections are about the privately perceived value of privacy, which must be small if people aren’t willing to pay much for it, as suggested by my survey.

I’m open to seeing stronger effects, but so far my usual presumption for symmetric info plus apparently large corruption-detection advantages here lean me to tentatively favor publishing tax returns.

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Identity Norms

Over the weekend I did a series of Twitter polls on identity. Seeing a survey showing that 74% of blacks but only 15% of whites find race to be central to their identity, I asked if this attitude is good for either group, and found that 83% saw it as bad for both groups. Asking a similar question on sex, answers were more split, with 50% saying it is bad for both and 43% saying it is good for both. In both the race and sex cases, less than 8% said it was good for one group but bad for the other.

I then picked 16 features and asked which one is best for most people to treat as most central to their identity. I got these relative weights: personality 28%, family 14%, smarts 8%, fav hobby 8%, ideology 7%, job 7%, age 6%, religion 5%. gender 4%, class 3%, race 2.2%, urban area 1.6%, fav fiction 0.7%, looks 0.7%.

Finally, I asked if seeing someone else treating a feature as a central to their identity tempts you more (or less) to treat it as central to your identity, and how that depends on if they have same or different value of that feature from you. I found that for features we approve of for identity, like personality, family, or favorite hobby, people think they’ll make a feature more central when they see others treat it as central, and that happens more when those others share their feature value. But for features we disapprove of for identity, like race, gender, or class, it was the opposite; seeing others treat it as central makes them less likely to treat it as central, an effect that is stronger when those others have a different feature value.

To make sense of these results, let me invoke two theories of identity, and two relevant social norms.

One theory is that identity is a way to simplify ourselves to be more easily understood and predicted:

We are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well. This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on. Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details. … Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities. In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.

Another theory is that identity is a way to coordinate on our social/political coalitions; we ally with folks like us. Sarah Constantin:

Dasein is … self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type? “Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein. But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. …

One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to. … Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. … Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

One common human norm is that sub-group coalitions are mildly illicit. We aren’t supposed to break into factions that fight other factions; we are supposed to all work together toward common goals, and treat each other as individuals. As with other norms against fighting, it is more okay for a group to defend itself against attacks from others, but you aren’t supposed to start a fight.

This norm against factions explains a lot of the above poll data. Regarding what features to have as central to your identity, we approve of features which are actually useful to predict individual behavior, features where people with different feature values tend to complement each other, and features which are hard to use for coalitions because they are too granular (e.g., families). In contrast, we disapprove of features that could more easily be used, and that have recently been used, as the basis of factional fights.

People who treat less approved features as more central to their identity compensate by claiming that there is already a pre-existing faction fight along that feature in which they are they underdogs; the other side started the fight, and isn’t fighting fair (e.g, via dominance and not prestige). They invoke our common human norm that requires independent observers to support the side of a fight that is favored by justice and fairness.

Combining these theories and norms we can say that we have a licit and an illicit reason to choose identities: simplifying ourselves and joining coalitions. We often pretend to do the former while we actually do the latter. And when it gets too obvious that we are doing the latter, we try the excuses that they started it or that they aren’t fighting fair.

From all this I conclude that we have a limited tolerance for identity politics. The more different features that become a basis for explicit coalitional fights, the less happy we will all become, and the less tolerance we will have for each fight. We can together only handle a few big factional fights at any one time, and so we’ll have to set a high bar for how clear is the evidence in each case that they started it and are not fighting fair. And when we do see justice and fairness as clearly favoring one side of a fight, we’ll want to aid that side, make justice happen, and then end the fight.

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Rebooting Justice

In 2017, I read a WSJ review of Rebooting Justice by Barton & Bibas:

When it comes to securing justice in an efficient and affordable fashion, lawyers can in fact be the primary obstacle. … Even basic legal services at small or mid-size firms may cost more than $200 an hour, placing meaningful legal representation beyond the reach of many Americans. … Why … costs of legal education and guildlike restrictions on entry to the profession … increasing complexity of legal processes, … choosing to represent oneself is … on the rise … [but puts one] at a severe disadvantage. … There’s no reason that paralegals, notaries, social workers and others with relevant training could not [help]. … inexpensive, downloadable forms to cover basic legal matters, like living wills or articles of incorporation. … computer-assisted mediation … Their more radical suggestion is to restructure the system so that many processes are specifically designed to omit lawyers. … The biggest obstacle to such reforms could well come from the legal profession itself.

This book was also reviewed in the New York Times:

In many contexts the presence of more lawyers actually reduces the speed and effectiveness of achieving justice. …
Few realize that the long-accepted understanding that courts have the final say on the interpretation of laws in general is not explicitly established by the Constitution. … State courts have simply asserted that they have “inherent authority” over the administration of the legal system. Under this view, rules governing lawyers, as “officers of the court,” and the practice of law in theory are “not subject to legislative reversal or encroachment.” … [Lawyers] benefit from a secretive disciplinary process that almost never results in penalties or expulsion, combined with aggressive policing of the “unauthorized practice of law” … The most powerful innovations documented in “Rebooting Justice” appear to have sprung from the creative minds of nonlawyers.

Every review I’ve found has been positive. Yet the book only got 6 reviews at Amazon (all 5 star), and only 2 at Goodreads. I bought the book back then, but only now just finished it. So the book is far from a page turner, and obviously didn’t sell many copies. But all reviews I’ve seen say it is basically right:

It is hard to argue with most of the arguments in this book: the present legal system is predicated on the assumption of litigants with relatively equal legal representation; however, in the modern age, this is all too frequently an unmet assumption. (more)

One review argued that deregulating who can practice law won’t be enough:

It is far from clear that it is the high cost of legal services—driven by alleged overregulation—that is preventing Americans from obtaining legal assistance. A recent study … found that cost explains the decision to not seek legal assistance in less than a fifth of civil justice situations. … In several states, one can become a lawyer without attending an ABA-accredited law school; some do not require attending a brick-and-mortar law school at all. … The United Kingdom began allowing corporations, known as alternative business structures (ABS), to own law firms and offer legal services since 2007. … not led to the collapse of the legal system. But … also not had an appreciable effect on access to justice.

Which is probably right. But no review disputed the book’s most radical suggestion: switch to an inquisitorial legal system, wherein judges take the initiative. From the book:

We can learn from the American system of administrative law judges and from European courts. We can adapt the inquisitorial system, in which court officials actively investigate the facts and probe the evidence instead of relying on the parties’ lawyers. That approach can cut through distracting procedural games to focus on the facts and issues at the heart of a case. Though inquisitorial judging sounds like an exotic foreign transplant, American administrative agencies already use similar methods to adjudicate unemployment and Social Security disability claims, and so do small claims courts. … Most courts in the world, including virtually all of the courts in continental Europe and most of the courts in Asia, South America, and Africa, run on an inquisitorial system.

This system is not only used in most of the world, in US administrative law, and in our small claims courts, it was also the main legal system in ancient societies, and it is used today by most non-government dispute-resolution systems, such as in churches, schools, firms, and families. This system is usually paired with a less precedent-based and more text-based system for deciding are the legal rules.

We in Anglo societies are often told that our different more adversarial and precedent-based system is superior, because it less allows corrupt judges. But as the book says,

[In a precedent based legal system] exceptions and balancing tests offer judges great discretion to adjust the law to reach almost any set of facts. They also create a massive amount of uncertainty in the system.

And if the main issue were corrupt judges, we could easily spend far more on that. For example, allow entrapment and pay many to try to bribe judges. Make 10% of court cases be fake cases designed to test judges. Often have several judges review the same case independently, and compare judge ruling stats. Monitor judge activities full time. Billion dollar bounties to those who prove corruption. Death penalties for the guilty.

Today most people simply can’t afford to use the courts to sue, and if accused of a crime they must mostly settle as if guilty, even if they are innocent, all because the system is now crazy expensive. (It didn’t use to be.) Inquisitorial judges would change that, and give most people meaningful access to a legal system to defend themselves.

By the way, requiring legal liability insurance would be another way to make sure both sides have equal access to effective lawyer support.

Here are a few more interesting quotes from the book: Continue reading "Rebooting Justice" »

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Agency Failure AI Apocalypse?

Years ago my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky and I argued here on this blog about his AI risk fear than an AI so small dumb & weak that few had ever heard of it, might without warning, suddenly “foom”, i.e., innovate very fast, and take over the world after one weekend. I mostly argued that we have a huge literature on economic growth at odds with this. Historically, the vast majority of innovation has been small, incremental, and spread across many industries and locations. Yes, humans mostly displaced other pre-human species, as such species can’t share innovations well. But since then sharing and complementing of innovations has allowed most of the world to gain from even the biggest lumpiest innovations ever seen. Eliezer said a deep conceptual analysis allowed him to see that this time is different.

Since then there’s been a vast increase in folks concerned about AI risk, many focused on scenarios like Yudkowsky’s. (But almost no interest in my critique.) In recent years I’ve heard many say they are now less worried about foom, but have new worries just as serious. Though I’ve found it hard to understand what worries could justify big efforts now, compared to later when we should know far more about powerful AI details. (E.g., worrying about cars, TV, or nukes in the year 1000 would have been way too early.)

Enter Paul Christiano (see also Vox summary). Paul says:

The stereotyped image of AI catastrophe is a powerful, malicious AI system that takes its creators by surprise and quickly achieves a decisive advantage over the rest of humanity. I think this is probably not what failure will look like, and I want to try to paint a more realistic picture. …

If I want to convince Bob to vote for Alice, I can experiment with many different persuasion strategies … Or I can build good predictive models of Bob’s behavior … These are powerful techniques for achieving any goal that can be easily measured over short time periods. But if I want to help Bob figure out whether he should vote for Alice—whether voting for Alice would ultimately help create the kind of society he wants—that can’t be done by trial and error. To solve such tasks we need to understand what we are doing and why it will yield good outcomes. …

It’s already much easier to pursue easy-to-measure goals, but machine learning will widen the gap by letting us try a huge number of possible strategies and search over massive spaces of possible actions. … Eventually our society’s trajectory will be determined by powerful optimization with easily-measurable goals rather than by human intentions about the future. …over time [our] proxies will come apart:

Corporations will deliver value to consumers as measured by profit. Eventually this mostly means manipulating consumers, capturing regulators, extortion and theft. Investors … instead of actually having an impact they will be surrounded by advisors who manipulate them into thinking they’ve had an impact. Law enforcement will drive down complaints and increase … a false sense of security, … As this world goes off the rails, there may not be any discrete point where consensus recognizes that things have gone off the rails. … human control over levers of power gradually becomes less and less effective; we ultimately lose any real ability to influence our society’s trajectory. …

Patterns that want to seek and expand their own influence—organisms, corrupt bureaucrats, companies obsessed with growth. … will tend to increase their own influence and so can come to dominate the behavior of large complex systems unless there is competition or a successful effort to suppress them. … a wide variety of goals could lead to influence-seeking behavior, … an influence-seeker would be aggressively gaming whatever standard you applied …

If influence-seeking patterns do appear and become entrenched, it can ultimately lead to a rapid phase transition … where humans totally lose control. … For example, an automated corporation may just take the money and run; a law enforcement system may abruptly start seizing resources and trying to defend itself from attempted decommission. … Eventually we reach the point where we could not recover from a correlated automation failure. (more)

While I told Yudkowsky his fear doesn’t fit with our large literature on economic growth, I’ll tell Christiano his fear doesn’t fit with our large (mostly economic) literature on agency failures (see 1 2 3 4 5).

An agent is someone you pay to assist you. You must always pay to get an agent who consumes real resources. But agents can earn extra “agency rents” when you and other possible agents can’t see everything that they know and do. And even if an agent doesn’t earn more rents, a more difficult agency relation can cause “agency failure”, wherein you get less of what you want from your agent.

Now like any agent, an AI who costs real resources must be paid. And depending on the market and property setup this could let AIs save, accumulate capital, and eventually collectively control most capital. This is an well-known AI concern, that AIs who are more useful than humans might earn more income, and thus become richer and more influential than humans. But this isn’t Christiano’s fear.

It is easy to believe that agent rents and failures generally scale roughly with the overall important and magnitude of activities. That is, when we do twice as much, and get roughly twice as much value out of it, we also lose about twice as much potential via agency failures, relative to a perfect agency relation, and the agents gain about twice as much in agency rents. So it is plausible to think that this also happens with AIs as they become more capable; we get more but then so do they, and more potential is lost.

Christiano instead fears that as AIs get more capable, the AIs will gain so much more agency rents, and we will suffer so much more due to agency failures, that we will actually become worse off as as result. And not just a bit worse off; we apparently get apocalypse level worse off! This sort of agency apocalypse is not only a far larger problem than we’d expect via simple scaling, it is also not supported anywhere I know of in the large academic literature on agency problems.

This literature has found many factors that influence the difficulty of agency relations. Agency tends to be harder when more relevant agent info and actions are hidden both to principals and other agents, when info about outcomes get noisier, when there is more noise in the mapping between effort and outcomes, when agents and principals are more impatient and risk averse, when agents are more unique, when principals can threaten more extreme outcomes, and when agents can more easily coordinate.

But this literature has not found that smarter agents are more problematic, all else equal. In fact, the economics literature that models agency problems typically assumes perfectly rational and thus infinitely smart agents, who reason exactly correctly in every possible situation. This typically results in limited and modest agency rents and failures.

For concreteness, imagine a twelve year old rich kid, perhaps a king or queen, seeking agents to help manage their wealth or kingdom. It is far from obvious that this child is on average worse off when they choose a smarter more capable agent, or when the overall pool of agents from which they can choose becomes smarter and more capable. And its even less obvious that the kid becomes maximally worse off as their agents get maximally smart and capable. In fact, I suspect the opposite.

Of course it remains possible that there is something special about the human-AI agency relation that can justify Christiano’s claims. But surely the burden of “proof” (really argument) should lie on those say this case is radically different from most found in our large and robust agency literatures. (Google Scholar lists 234K papers with keyword “principal-agent”.)

And even if AI agency problems turn out to be unusual severe, that still doesn’t justify trying to solve them so far in advance of knowing about their details.

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Space Fund

At a space conference this last weekend, I was inspired to ponder the key problem I see regarding space colonization: how to recruit the great passion among so many to support and participate somehow in the topic today, while avoiding the vast waste that most likely results when that passion is directed to greatly premature near term projects.

Someday humans will colonize Antartica, the top of the Himalaya mountains, and the bottom of Earth oceans. But this won’t happen until these colonies are in the ballpark of cost-effective relative to more familiar locations. Quirky preferences or religious devotion can make a modest difference, but can’t overcome huge cost differences.

The same applies to colonization of space, a place much harder to colonize. While extra passion and quirky preferences can make a modest difference, mostly space colonization just can’t happen until near when it would be feasible given more ordinary motives. Efforts spent well before that time are mostly wasted, unless they are especially well targeted toward easing later efforts when such colonization is nearly feasible.

Here’s my decision-market idea for tying current passion to useful future efforts:

  1. Create a space fund that passively reinvests its assets to grow over a long period, a fund to which anyone can donate,
  2. Define an ex-post measure of successful space colonization. For example, LNYD = Log of number N people living in space for at least Y years by date D.
  3. For a modest fee, let anyone at anytime submit a proposal for how to spend the entire space fund. Any proposal is fair game, including transferring all of this fund to a new fund managed a new way.
  4. Create financial assets $LNYD that pay in proportional to this measure LNYD. (This may require setting a min & max value for the measure.) Let people trade these assets for cash, creating a LNYD market price.
  5. Each proposal submission is evaluated via a LNYD-based decision market. That is, for each proposal, on a particular unique pre-announced date, market speculators may trade LNYD assets for cash, in trades that are called off if (or if not) this proposal is approved. If the LNYD price difference between approval and non-approval is clearly positive, the proposal is approved. (The price difference threshold used here should reflect the fact that this system should reject a great many proposals, and approve only one.)

Under this system, people today who want to feel involved with space colonization can do so in three ways: 1) donate to the space fund, 2) develop and submit proposals for approval, or 3) trade in the markets that decide if to approve proposals. Later, when space colonization is nearly feasible, so that money spent can actually make a difference, these decision markets should make good choices about when and how to spend this fund to best create maximal colonization, according to the initially- chosen measure.

That’s the basic idea. Now here’s a variation, designed to avoid incentives for sabotage. When a donor donates $2 to the space fund, $1 goes into the fund, and this donor gets back a $LNYD asset whose value is guaranteed to fall within [$0,$1]. They can then trade this $LNYD asset in the decision markets. The remaining $(1-LNYD) asset is put into in a new space fund tied to a new goal defined regarding some date D’ after date D. In this system, only this new fund holds the $(1-LNYD) assets that might tempt a holder to sabotage the space colonization effort.

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