Monthly Archives: July 2020

Incentivized Guardians

Tyler recently reminded me of a key institution design problem:

There is an entire category of American adults being denied almost all of their basic legal rights: to hold a job, choose a residence, determine their health care, enter into contracts and even decide what to do with their own body. These are adults under legal guardianship — a court-imposed process, in Ohio as elsewhere, “by which a person is relieved of the right to make personal life decisions and another is appointed to make those decisions on that person’s behalf.” (more)

Claiming that some people can’t be trusted to run their own lives, legal judges give other people great power to run their lives for them:

In the United States, a million and a half adults are under the care of guardians, either family members or professionals, who control some two hundred and seventy-three billion dollars in assets, … states do not keep complete figures on guardianship cases—statutes vary widely—and, in most jurisdictions, the court records are sealed. …

In Nevada, as in many states, anyone can become a guardian by taking a course, as long as he or she has not been convicted of a felony or recently declared bankruptcy. …
court placed no limits on guardians’ fees, as long as they appeared “reasonable.” … a quarter of guardianship petitions in New York were brought by nursing homes and hospitals, sometimes as a means of collecting on overdue bills. … Approximately ten per cent of people older than sixty-five are thought to be victims of “elder abuse” …

When a friend tried to take him shopping, [his guardian] Parks prevented the excursion because she didn’t know the friend. [His wife] Rennie [North] had also tried to get more clothes. “I reminded ward that she has plenty of clothing in her closet,” Parks wrote. “I let her know that they are on a tight budget.” The Norths’ estate was charged $180 for the conversation. (more)

428,000 children are in foster care in the United States. 135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year. (more)

If you worry about the accountability and wisdom of government officials who regulate what ordinary folks can do, you should worry more about such things regarding legal guardians, and those who pick them. Continue reading "Incentivized Guardians" »

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Innocent Verdicts

From David Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours:

Athenian Law: The Work of a Mad Economist …

Most law cases were either public or private. A public case corresponded roughly to our criminal cases; it was supposed to be for an offense that injured not merely a single person but the whole community. At one time such cases may have been prosecuted by magistrates but by our period that was possible only for minor charges. The ordinary procedure was for the case to be privately prosecuted by any male citizen who chose to do so. The prosecutor would, for many but not all sorts of cases, receive a substantial fraction of any resulting fine, sometimes as much as half, as his reward. If the case was based on the claim that the defendant was holding property that properly belonged to the state, a successful prosecution would result in half of the property forfeiting to the state, half to the prosecutor.

Such a system raises the risk of suits against innocent defendants believed to be rich, unpopular, or both. One solution was a provision of the law under which, in many public cases, a prosecutor who failed to get at least a fifth of the jurors to vote for conviction was himself both fined and barred from any future suits of the same kind. The fine was 1000 drachmas, roughly two years’ wages for an ordinary craftsman. It was also possible to charge a prosecutor with the crime of sycophancy, abusive prosecution, although such charges were limited to at most three citizens and three metics each year. (pp. 262-263)

On reflection this is a nice design feature, to discourage prosecuting the innocent. So I propose: every trial should have three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and innocent. If the verdict is innocent, then not only does the accused go free, the other side is declared guilty of knowingly prosecuting the innocent. And punished somehow, perhaps including being fired and/or paying damages to the accused.

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School Vouchers As Pandemic Response

Politico asked me and 17 others:

If you were in charge of your school district or university, how would you design the fall semester?

My answer:

Let 1,000 vouchers bloom. Schools face very difficult choices this fall, between higher risks of infection and worse learning outcomes. We should admit we don’t know how to make these choices well collectively, and empower parents to choose instead. Take the per-student school budget and offer a big fraction of it to parents as a voucher, to pay for home schooling they run themselves, for a neighbor to set up a one-house schoolhouse, for a larger private school, or to use at a qualifying local public school. Each option would set its own learning policies and also policies on distancing and testing. Let parents weigh family infection risks against learning quality risks, using what they know about available options, and their children’s risks, learning styles and learning priorities.

Yes, schools may suffer a large initial revenue shortfall this way; maybe they could rent out some rooms to new private school ventures. Yes, some children will end up with regretful schooling outcomes, though that seems inevitable no matter what we do. Yes, there should be some limits on teaching quality, but we should be forgiving at first; after all, public schools don’t know how to ensure quality here either. And maybe let any allowed option start a month or two late, if they also end later next summer; after all, we aren’t giving them much time to get organized.

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Beware RightTalkism

Some religions put “right belief” as a core principle in their qualifications for belonging, if not for eternal salvation. I have coined this religious phenomena as “Beliefism”. (More)

[In contrast to Christianity,] In Rome, individual expression of belief was unimportant, strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals was far more significant, thereby avoiding the hazards of religious zeal. (More)

“A purely symbolic congressional act is one expressing an attitude but prescribing no policy effects. … The term symbolic can also usefully be applied where Congress prescribes policy effects but does not act (in legislating or overseeing or both) so as to achieve them. … in a large class of legislative undertakings the electoral payment is for positions rather than for effects.” David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection

The word professionalism originally applied to vows of a religious order. By at least the year 1675, the term had seen secular application and was applied to the three learned professions: Divinity, Law, and Medicine. The term professionalism was also used for the military profession around this same time. (More)

A profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. … There is considerable agreement about defining the characteristic features of a profession. They have a “professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control… (and) code of ethics” (More)

Robin Hanson argued some time ago that politics isn’t about policy. … “We (unconsciously) don’t care much about the consequences of such policies – we instead support policies to make ourselves look good” … How would we know if Robin was wrong? I think that no matter what your policy priors are, there are some obvious things policy should incorporate if in fact we did care about policy outcomes. The lack of these policy features suggests to me that Robin is correct. (More)

Folk activism … leads activists to do too much talking, debating, & proselytizing, & not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political & intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives. (More)

The numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” … anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” … likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.” (More)

The answer to racist policing … starts with hiring. The majority of police officers do not have four-year college degrees. They don’t start their career with a foundational education that will broaden their worldview, make them empathetic to other cultures or understand human psychology. (More)

The Chinese legal system originated over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, Legalist and Confucian. The Legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, were accused by later writers of advocating harsh penalties to drive the crime rate to near zero. They supported a strong central government and equal treatment under law. Confucianists argued for modifying behavior not by reward and punishment but by teaching virtue. …

resembles the conflict between 18th and 19th century British approaches to crime and punishment. The dominant view in the eighteenth century saw criminal penalties as deterrence, their purpose to make crime unprofitable. The dominant view in the nineteenth century saw criminals as victims of their own ignorance and irrationality, the purpose of penalties to reform them, make them wiser and better. … Both approaches survive in modern legal theory and modern legal systems. …

One might interpret the [Chinese] examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination. …Those who had fully internalized that way of thinking would be better able to display it in the high-pressure context of the exams. … The Confucian solution was education and example, making people want to be good and teaching them how. The ideal Confucian Emperor would never punish anyone for anything, merely set an example of virtuous behavior so perfect that it would inspire all below him. Seen from that standpoint, it made some sense to set up a system designed to produce good men, put them in power and then leave them alone. (More)

An “ism” is a system of beliefs, and many isms are versions of “righttalkism”. That is, they are systems which claim that one of if not the most important way to make the world better is to push most everyone to more oft and loudly express good and deny bad beliefs. Such pushing is done via early-life education, later-life sermons and retraining, favoring right-thinkers for prestigious positions, and seeking out and punishing deviant heretics.

As the examples of Christianity and Confusianism illustrate, righttalkism has been quite common in history, though righttalkists have varied somewhat in where and how much they tolerate deviants. Rightalkism is arguably the main justification offered today in support of most religious activity, education, news, licensed trained professionals, social media conflict, etc. Which adds up to a big fraction of human behavior.

While widely expressed beliefs surely do have some causal effect on the world, most versions of righttalkism seem to me clearly false in far over-stating that influence. That is, pushing right talk is vastly over-emphasized as a way to make a better world. And the reason why seems obvious: political coalitions continually vie for dominance, and when beliefs are markers of coalition membership, then coalitions can win by promoting those who share their markers and hindering those with conflicting markers. That is, coalitions win by helping us and hurting them.

Yes, right talk can sometimes help to promote right policy. And coalitions can gain by promoting policies that favor coalition members, and also policies that help larger social units, at least when such gains will be widely recognized and credited to the wisdom and generosity of that coalition. Its just that coalitions gain far less from righttalk via these channels than via more directly helping members to win over members of other coalitions.

While politics is usually less about policy than people pretend, it could be that you are unusual in caring more than most do about good policy outcomes. In that case, you should care less than do most others about righttalk. You should care less about changing the rightness of what is said via news, schools, social media, care less about how many people are exposed to such messages, and care less about the righttalk of people chosen for prestigious positions.

Instead, care more about concrete non-talk actions, and about talk that can’t be easily classified as supporting or opposing existing coalitions. Instead of joining in on existing political battles, pull the tug-o-war rope sideways.

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Future Timeline, in Econ Growth Units

Polls on the future often ask by what date one expects to see some event X. That approach, however, is sensitive to expectations on overall rates of progress. If you expect progress to speed-up a lot, but aren’t quite sure when that will start, your answers for quite different post-speed-up events should all cluster around the date at which you expect the speed-up to start.

To avoid this problem, I just did 20 related Twitter polls on the distant future, all using econ growth factors as the timeline unit: “By how much more will world economy grow between now and the 1st time when X”.

POLLS ON FUTURE (please retweet)

World economy (& tech ability) increased by ~10x between each: 3700BC, 800BC, 1700, 1895, 1966, 2018. In each poll, assume more growth, & give best (median) guess of how much more grow by then.

Note that I’ve required a key assumption: growth continues indefinitely.

The four possible growth factor answers for each poll were <100, 100-10K, 10K-1M, and “>10M or never”. If the average growth rate from 1966 to 2018 continues into the future at a constant growth rate, then these factor milestones of 100, 10K, 1M will be reached in the years 2122, 2226, and 2330. That is, the world economy has been growing lately by roughly a factor of 100 every 104 years.

I’ve found that lognormals often fit well to poll response distributions over positive numbers that vary by many orders of magnitude. So I’ve fit these poll responses to a lognormal distribution, plus a chance that the event never happens. Here are the poll % answers, % chance it never happens, and median dates (if it happens) assuming constant growth. (Polls had 95 to 175 responses each.)

Many of these estimates seem reasonable, or at least not crazy. On the whole I’d put this up against any other future timeline I know of. But I do have some complaints. For example, 21 years seems way too short for when <10% of human protein comes from animals. And 35 years until <20% of energy comes from fossil fuels seems more possible, but still rather ambitious.

I also find it implausible that median estimates for these four events cluster so closely: ems to appear, frozen humans to be revived, and AI to earn 9x humans, and AI to earn 9x humans+ems. They are all in the same ~2x growth factor range (factors 670-1350), and thus all appear in the same constant-growth 16 year period 2165-2181. As if these are very similar problems, or even the same problem, and as if they reject what seems obvious to me: it is much harder for AI to compete cost-effectively with ems than with humans. (Note also that these are far later dates than often touted in AI forecasts.)

My main complaint, however, is of overly high chances that things never happen. Such high chances make sense if you think something might actually be completely impossible. For example, a 46% chance of never finding aliens makes sense if aliens just aren’t there to be found. A 25% chance that human lifespan never goes over 1000 might result if that is biologically impossible, and a 11% chance of no colony to another star could fit with such travel being physically impossible.

A 31% chance nukes never give >50% or energy could result from them being fundamentally less efficient than collecting sunlight. And a 6% chance that AI never beats humans, an 12% chance that we never get ems, and an 19% chance that AI never beat ems could all make sense if you think AI or ems are just impossible. (Though I’m not sure these numbers are consistent with each other.) Most of these impossibility chances seem too high to me, but not crazy.

But high estimates of “never” make a lot less sense for things we know to be possible. If there is a small chance of an event happening each time period (or each growth doubling period), then unless that chance is falling exponentially toward zero, the event will almost surely happen eventually, at least if the underlying system persists indefinitely.

So I can’t believe a 50% chance that the human population never falls to <50% of its prior peak. Some predict that will result from the current fertility decline, and it could also happen when ems becomes possible and many humans then choose to convert to becoming ems. Both of these scenarios could fit with the estimated median growth factor 152, date 2132. But a great many other events could also cause such a population decline later, and forever is a long time.

The situation is even worse for an event where we have theoretical arguments that it must happen eventually. For example, continued exponential economic growth seems incompatible with our physical universe, where there’s a speed of light limit and finite entropy and atoms per unit volume. So it seems crazy to have a 22% chance that growth never slows down. Oddly, the median estimate is that if that does happen it will happen within a century.

The 13% chance that off Earth never gets larger than on-Earth economy seems similarly problematic, as we can be quite sure that the universe outside of Earth has more resources to support a larger economy.

For many of these other estimates, we don’t have as strong a theoretical reason to think they must happen eventually, but they still seem like things that each generation or era can choose for itself. So it just takes one era to choose it for it to happen. This casts doubt on the 39% chance that the biosphere never falls to <10% of current level, the 28% chance that ten nukes are never used in war, the 24% chance that authorities never monitor >90% of spoken & written words, and the 22% chance we never have whole-Earth government.

The 28% chance that we never see >1/2 of world economy destroyed in less than a doubling time is more believable given that we’ve never seen that happen in our history. But in light of that, the median of 70 years till it happens seems too short.

Perhaps these high estimates of “never” would be suppressed if respondents had to directly pick “never”, or if polls explicitly offered more larger growth factor options, such as 1M-1B, 1B-1T, 1T-1Q, etc. It might also help if respondents could express both their chances that such high levels might ever be reached, separately from their expectations for when events would happen given that such high levels are reached. These would require more than Twitter polls can support, but seem reasonably cheap should anyone want to support such efforts.

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Thomas More on How to Corrupt Law

From More’s famous book Utopia, a description of three standard ways to corrupt the law:

“But what, if I should sort with another kind of ministers, whose chief contrivances and consultations were by what art the prince’s treasures might be increased? …

A third offers some old musty laws that have been antiquated by a long disuse (and which, as they had been forgotten by all the subjects, so they had also been broken by them), and proposes the levying the penalties of these laws, that, as it would bring in a vast treasure, so there might be a very good pretence for it, since it would look like the executing a law and the doing of justice.

A fourth proposes the prohibiting of many things under severe penalties, especially such as were against the interest of the people, and then the dispensing with these prohibitions, upon great compositions, to those who might find their advantage in breaking them. This would serve two ends, both of them acceptable to many; for as those whose avarice led them to transgress would be severely fined, so the selling licences dear would look as if a prince were tender of his people, and would not easily, or at low rates, dispense with anything that might be against the public good.

Another proposes that the judges must be made sure, that they may declare always in favour of the prerogative; that they must be often sent for to court, that the king may hear them argue those points in which he is concerned; since, how unjust soever any of his pretensions may be, yet still some one or other of them, either out of contradiction to others, or the pride of singularity, or to make their court, would find out some pretence or other to give the king a fair colour to carry the point. For if the judges but differ in opinion, the clearest thing in the world is made by that means disputable, and truth being once brought in question, the king may then take advantage to expound the law for his own profit; while the judges that stand out will be brought over, either through fear or modesty; and they being thus gained, all of them may be sent to the Bench to give sentence boldly as the king would have it; for fair pretences will never be wanting when sentence is to be given in the prince’s favour. It will either be said that equity lies of his side, or some words in the law will be found sounding that way, or some forced sense will be put on them; and, when all other things fail, the king’s undoubted prerogative will be pretended, as that which is above all law, and to which a religious judge ought to have a special regard.

Thus all consent to that maxim of Crassus, that a prince cannot have treasure enough.

That is, you can gain more fine revenue by newly enforcing old long-ignored laws, by adding many more laws to prohibit more things, and by using discretion to let people pay you to excuse them in particular cases. Also, the more than you can get judges to be selected from, trained in, and socialize within social world that you dominate, the more you can get judges to rule in our favored directions.

Our law seems to have been corrupted in all these ways, among others.

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We Colonize The Sun First

Space is romantic; most people are overly obsessed with space in their view of the future. Even so, these remain valid questions:

  1. When will off-Earth economy be larger than the on-Earth?
  2. Where in the solar system will that off-Earth economy be then?

Here is a poll I just did on this last question:

(“Closer” here really means ease of transport, not spatial distance.)

On (1), for many centuries the economics gains from clumping have been very important, and we’ve only spend a few percent of income on energy (and cooling) and raw materials. Also, human bodies are fragile and designed for Earth, making space quite expensive for humans. As long as all these conditions remain, economic activity beyond Earth will remain a small fraction of our total economy.

However, eventually ems or other kinds of human level robots will appear and quickly come to dominate the economy. Space is much easier for them. And eventually, continued (exponential) growth will cause Earth to run out of stuff. At recent rates of growth probably not for at least several centuries, but it will happen.

On (2), human level robots probably appear before Earth runs out of stuff. So even though most science fiction looks at where humans would want to be off Earth, to think about this point in time you should be thinking instead about robots; where will robots want to be? Robots can do fine in a much wider range of physical environments. So ask less which locations are comfortable and safe for robots, and ask more where is there useful stuff to attract them.

Clumping will probably remain important; the big question is how important. The more important is clumping, the longer that the off-Earth economy will be concentrated near Earth, even when other locations are much more attractive in other ways.

Since the main reason to leave Earth at this point in time is that it is running out of energy (and cooling) and raw materials, the key attractions of other locations in the Solar System, aside from nearness to Earth, is their abundance of energy (and cooling) and raw materials.

Robots running reversible computing hardware should spend about as much on making their hardware as they do on the energy (and cooling) to run it. And the sum of these expenses should be a big fraction of an em or other robot economy. So from this point of view, both energy and raw materials are important, and about equally important.

However, it seems to me that planet Earth has a lot more raw materials than it does energy. Our planet is huge; its energy is more limited. And raw materials can be recycled, while energy cannot. So my guess is that Earth will run out of energy long before it runs out of raw materials. Thus the main attraction of non-Earth locations, besides nearness to Earth, will be energy (and cooling). And for energy, the overwhelmingly obvious location is the Sun. Which has the vast majority of mass as well, and is also on average located “closer” to most things.

Yes, the sun is very hot, and while at some cost of refrigeration robots could live in or on the Sun itself, it is probably cheaper to live a bit further away, where materials are stable without refrigeration. But that would still be a lot closer to the Sun than to anything else. Dense robot cities on Earth would have already pushed to find computer hardware that can function efficiently at high temperatures. Being near the Sun makes it a lot easier to collect the Sun’s energy without paying extra energy transport costs. And once others are there, they all gain economies of clumping by being together.

Hydrogen and helium are plentiful in the Sun, and for other elements it is probably cheaper to transport mass to the Sun than to transport energy away from it. Probably mostly from Mercury for a long while. Some say computers are more efficient when run at low temperatures, but I don’t see that. So it seems to me that once our descendants go beyond merely clumping around Earth to be near activity there, the main place they will want to go is near the Sun.

Oddly, though space colonization is a hugely popular topic in science fiction, I can’t find examples of stories set in this scenario, of most activity cramming close to the Sun. Some stories mention energy collection happening there, but rarely much other activity, and the story never happens among dense Sun-near activity. As in the poll results above, most stories focus on activity moving in the other direction, away from the Sun. Oh there are a few stories about colonies on Mercury, and of scientific or military visits to the Sun. But not the Sun as the main place that our descendants hang out near after Earth.

In fact, “colonizing the sun” is a well known example of a crazy impossible idea, considered worthy of ridicule. (“Oh, we’ll do it at night, when its cooler.”) So the actual most likely scenario, according to my analysis, is also the one thought the most crazy, and never the setting of stories. Weird.

Added 9July: Some tell me that atoms for fusion can be gained more easily from large gas giant planets than from the Sun, at least until those run out, and that they expect a long period when that is the cheapest way to make energy. For the period when those atoms, or that energy, is transported to near Earth, that is consistent with what I’ve said above.

But if the economy is pushed to move first en mass closer to those gas giants to avoid transport costs of energy or atoms, that would contradict my claim above that the Sun is the first place our descendants move after Earth. Note that we are now entering an era of mass solar energy, which will advance that tech more than fusion tech.

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Utopia’s Garden, World, and Wall

Imagine that you lived in the “human quarter” of a vast city full of diverse aliens, all on a planet far from Earth. These aliens are quite strange and hard to understand in many ways, and so cannot simply be trusted, though your city does manage to usually maintain basic overall peace and law. As your human quarter is too small to be self-sufficient, it must trade and interact a lot with the rest of the city. Not just in physical goods, but also in work and social coordination. As a result, many humans participate in many alien-dominated orgs.

In this “human quarter in an alien city” scenario, your social concerns would come in three areas: (a) close relations between humans (b) global coordination among all species across a city or larger scales, and (c) humans interactions with aliens. That last area of concern is the one that seems the most interesting to me, and where I have the most to say.

Close human relations are harder to reason about abstractly, and can depend greatly on human nature and local culture. Global coordination is the sort of topic that many compete to discuss, making it unlikely that I can add much, or that the world would listen to me if I did. But it seems more feasible to find interesting and general things to say about how very different and distrusting species can usefully interact.

Consider this in terms of “utopia” (or “heaven”). If it were possible, we’d all like to built and maintain utopias. And utopias have three key issue areas, which I’ll call “garden”, “world”, and “wall”.

Well inside each utopia is a “garden”, full of rich detailed life, energy, color, aromas, passions, conflict, and play. Gardens give deep and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction, but depend crucially on complex opaque details of residents. Each utopia may have very different gardens, all full of life, but living very different lives. Making it hard to say much in general about how to manage gardens. Each utopia may have to mostly learn on its own here.

Utopias all exist in a larger “world”, a larger world that will try to coordinate in many ways, but will also fail to coordinate in as many ways. How exactly that grand coordination should be organized will always be a big political issue, on which many will compete fiercely to influence. Your utopia will want to play its part in this larger game, but can’t expect to have great influence there.

As David Lloyd Dusenbury argues in a thoughtful essay:

The basic intuition of all utopian fiction [is that] the perfect modern state—like the optimal city of antiquity—is sheltered by strong borders.

If your utopia is a small part of a nearby larger world, then to achieve many of their ends residents will want to interact with that larger world in many ways. And as those other parts of the larger world aren’t part of your utopia, you will have to be careful about how you do this. The world today is actually full of creatures that may look human-like and understandable, but are actually quite alien and inscrutable. You’d do better to treat them as aliens than as friends.

Thus your utopia must have a “wall”, i.e., an interface between it and the world. You can’t presume that those you interact with out there share your utopian norms, culture, attitudes, or feelings of utopian solidarity. And if you try to make your interactions depend on the details of their norms, culture, etc., you’ll need to do that differently for each of the different kinds of others with which you interact.

There thus may be a place for thinking in general about utopian walls. About how your utopia’s precious garden might be better promoted via the right levels and types of interactions with outsiders. And instead of using a different type of interaction for each different type of outsider, it may work better to find good general ways that people from different utopias and sub-worlds can reliably and useful interact. That is, utopias may well want to have rather similar walls, even if they have very different gardens.

This is how I’ve come to think about my work onpaying for results.” It is a hands-off distant relation, in which you admit that you don’t know much about how to judge the expertise you are trying to buy, and you don’t seek close emotionally-satisfying relations with such experts. Thus you are willing to consider simple general interaction policies, designed to let you get as much as possible out of the relation, while also allowing as much skepticism as possible about those strange outsiders and their odd and untrustworthy ways.

I fully admit that it isn’t enough for a utopia to merely have good walls, or to sit in a good-enough world. It will also need good gardens, and arms-length paying for results may be poorly suited for that. But good walls are an important element, and that is at least something where abstract thinking and analysis of the sort I’m good at may well have a lot to offer.

Added: In this Twitter poll, my answer is least popular:

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Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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Seeking Robust Credible Expertise Buyers

On Jan 19, 2000, I posted an email to the Extropians mailing list, giving the first public mention of the futarchy idea. (I also have a detailed PPT on the idea dated June 22, 2000, and the first pdf paper I posted is dated “July 2000.”) So the general idea is just over two decades old now.

Coincidentally, some new prediction platforms have been announced recently, and some have asked me why I do not act more excited about them. So this seems a good time to review my agenda.

I seek to jumpstart stable decision-advising info markets, wherein bias-robust widely-credible expertise is bought and sold. Let’s walk through these terms one at a time.

By jumpstart stable I mean that I’m seeking to start a new regular practice, not just proof-of-concept demonstrations of related technologies. I’m okay with some party subsidizing them at first, to help move to a new equilibria. But that sponsoring party either needs to stay indefinitely, or the market must soon find a way to pay its way without that subsidy. To become a regular practice, relevant parties need to see a long enough track record of how such info markets have worked and performed in their particular topic areas.

By decision-advising info I mean that my goal isn’t to add to or change general talk, gossip, and chatter, much of which is too vague to see what exactly it means, and most of which influences little outside the world of chatter. My goal is instead to influence real and important decisions, via better info. So I want to see info markets that sell clear, precise consensus estimates that can be understood in probability terms, so they can be fed into traditional decision analysis.

To better influence decisions, these estimates should also be as actionable as possible. That is, estimates should sit clearly close to actual decisions, so that decision-makers can see their relevance, and see how different estimates naturally lead to different decisions.

By bought and sold, I mean that we need two kinds of participants, buyers and sellers. While there will sometimes be an overlap, in general the people who know things, the info sellers, just aren’t the same as the people who want to know things, the info buyers. And we can’t presume that the sellers will sell info for free. Instead, buyers must offer sufficient rewards to distract sellers from alternate activities.

By markets I mean to integrate these new systems with our many other markets in our mostly market economy. This isn’t a world apart. Most individuals and organizations in our society should be free to participate, if they so choose, as either buyers or sellers of info. And we should expect money to be the usual currency used to make deals.

By expertise, I mean that estimates should be accurate, due to embodying more information. While we must accept that there will be error, i.e., differences between estimates and truth, but on average errors should be minimized. More precisely, for each topic on which the markets offer an estimate, I want that estimate to be as accurate as possible given the costs paid for it. And it should usually be possible to pay more to get more accuracy.

By credible, I mean that estimates need to not just be accurate, but also to seem accurate to key audiences. And by widely I mean credible not just to a few audiences, but to many audiences. There should be a widely held common belief in their accuracy. For the set of topics to which they are said to apply, and holding constant the cost spend, these estimates need not usually seem more accurate than other key sources, but they should rarely seem to be much less accurate.

So I’m not just trying to create a tool that some people will see as useful, if they have certain compatible abilities and attitudes, and after they’ve practiced with it and developed a personal style of usage. Not just a private advisor who might happen to be trusted by a particular decision maker. I’m instead looking for an institution that many people with different goals and agendas can share, and trust together. That is, I seek the most accurate institution that many can share, even if some Individuals think they know of better sources.

For example, the accuracy of estimates shouldn’t depend greatly on the quality of management by key central administrators. Unless most everyone can agree on a reliable way to achieve high management quality, it just isn’t enough to have some people believe in a high quality of current management, if many others are skeptical. If any parts of these markets require central management, we need ways to pick managers that which don’t require unusual and unshared confidence in particular administrators.

The key attraction of widely credible info markets is that they can be used by decision makers who seek not just to make good decisions, but also to convince key audiences that they have made good decisions. And this can help us all to more easily trust agents who make decisions on our behalf. By checking that decisions made match the estimates from related info markets, we can check on decision makers. Or if market estimates can be make directly relevant and actionable enough, we might must put them directly in charge of key decisions.

By robust, I indicate that I want estimate accuracy to be high not just sometimes, but across a wide range of topics and information contexts. And by bias-robust I mean that I want estimates that are robust to situations where many parties would like to bias and distort the estimates, consciously or unconsciously, to influence decision makers. It is no good having something that works well in the lab, or on small unimportant topics, but falls apart when the stakes get high. To be a shared institution on important topics for parties with differing goals and agendas, we need a wide perception that accuracy persists even when many parties seek to distort and manipulate the estimates.

Okay, now that I’ve explained what I want, I can better explain when I get excited.

In the last few decades, dozens of groups have written new software to support info markets of varying forms. Such software is almost always tied to a particular project, and when that project fails the software almost never becomes available for other projects. And most of these groups see software and management as the only project parts worth paying for, in cash, stock, etc. Other parts are left as an exercise for to-be-determined “users”. So I find it hard to get excited about software unless it is tied to an exciting further project. Even software that comes with new features.

Sometimes sponsors are found to help pay to collect a set of regular users (i.e., info sellers) who talk on a set of regular topics. Sometimes it is the users themselves who are the sponsors, willing to pay in time and money to express their opinions on topics of interest to them. But rarely do such projects put much effort into soliciting participation and support from particular info buyers, choosing topics close to their key decisions. And, alas, the rare projects that at least pitch to potential info buyers tend to pick system designs sensitive to management quality, and less clearly robust to manipulation efforts.

Yet to my mind it is the info buyers who should come first in info market project planning. Info sellers are second, and software last. First find a set of estimates that would be useful in advising some set of important decisions. Especially where there’s a plausible trust advantage from widely-credible estimates, so that key audiences can better trust decision makers. Find parties to whom more credible accuracy would be valuable, and ask them how much they’d be willing to pay for it. They don’t need to be convinced of such accuracy in the start, but they do need to be willing to pay once sufficient accuracy is demonstrated. If you can’t find info buyers, you can’t make info markets.

Yes, when many potential info buyers want similar info, they can each be tempted to free ride on the efforts of others. So it makes sense to look more to cases where info gains are concentrated in a few parties. Alas, an even larger obstacle to finding info buyers is that we often justify our activities in terms of info collection and processing, when those activities are better described as local politics. We pretend to want accurate info far more often than we actually do.

I’m quite willing to work with most any group that seems to have at least a chance of putting together all the needed parts. But my best guess for the most promising project is still the one I first posted on over 24 years ago: fire the CEO markets re the Fortune 500. I doubt I have another 24 years, so I do hope someone tries this before then. For this project the plausible info buyers are firm investors, represented by the board of directors, who subsidize these markets. Likely info sellers are stock analysts and stock traders, who would profit from trading in these markets.

Simple money-based conditionally-called-off stock markets should produce bias-robust widely-credible estimates, at least if trading liquidity is high enough. That has been a widely shared belief on speculative financial markets for many decades. To get high liquidity, use large market-maker based subsidies on only a few firms to start with, firms chosen via a prize system as most likely to see fire-CEO recommendations. Once these prices get enough attention, especially from CEOs trying to manipulate them to make themselves look good, their liquidity can be self-reinforcing, and subsidies can be transferred to the next set of firms.

Yes, this fire-the-CEO project faces substantial legal obstacles if anyone is allowed to participate; may have to do this one offshore. Legal issues are much less of a problem for most projects that ask firm employees and contractors to advise firm decisions, as the firm can pay for their initial stake. For those projects the main obstacle is political disruption; existing players in the firm tend to be bothered to see their advice contradicted by a system with higher proven accuracy.

Of course I can get excited by a great many other project concepts; I’ve posted on many here over the years. But to get excited about an info market concept, I need to at least hear about the intended info buyers willing to pay to get bias-robust widely-credible expertise. A mere project to develop software, or even to collect a regular set of users, not so much.

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