Monthly Archives: November 2020

Universal Basic Dorms

Poor people have too little money. So why don’t we just give them more money, instead of giving them many specific things? The main theory in the literature is paternalism:

The traditional justification for in-kind transfers has been “paternalism.” … If members of society care about the consumption patterns of the poorest rather than their utility, then the unconstrained choices of the poor may create negative externalities for those who care about them. … while income inequality per se may be acceptable, all individuals should receive adequate food, medical service, and housing. … Parents may not take full account of the utility of their children when making decisions, or they may neglect to factor in externalities. … attempt to redistribute from parents to children within the family. … a sense that the poor cannot be trusted with cash. … it is hard to escape the conclusion that paternalism remains a fundamental underlying rationale for in-kind transfers. (more)

You may not be surprised to hear I have an elaboration of this account based on signaling and status. Let’s start with this result:

[A] 2010 paper … makes a strong case that in fact the outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (Two followup papers find the same result for outcomes of psychological distress and nine measures of health.) They looked at 87,000 Brits, and found that while income rank strongly predicted outcomes, neither individual (log) income nor an average (log) income of their reference group predicted outcomes, after controlling for rank (and also for age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities). (more)

So if satisfaction and preference go simply as income rank, then there is simply no way to to use income redistribution to help with such things. Whatever you give to some comes at the expense of others, for no net gain. You can still want to help the poor, but that requires that your concern about their lives not be mediated directly by their satisfaction or preferences. That is, what you want regarding them can’t equal what they want or what makes them happy.

For example, compared to the poor, you might put less weight on their desires to signal, and to rise in status via positional goods (like winning a sporting contest). Because you can see the negative externalities associated with such things. That is, you might put more weight than they do on the remainder of their preferences, which we might call their “direct welfare”.

If there are diminishing returns to direct welfare, then you can want to reduce the overall variance of direct welfare, by giving more of it to the poor, at the expense of the non-poor. But you can reasonably fear that if you just give them cash they will spend too much of that on the kinds of non-direct welfare that have negative externalities. So you can want to constrain their choices, to better ensure that it is direct welfare that you are giving them.

The big problem here is: how to distinguish the goods, i.e., products and services, that put more weight on signaling and status, relative to those that put more weight on direct welfare. The usual political equilibrium is to give the poor the sorts of goods that people tend to praise and admire, at least for others. Like jobs, medicine, education, libraries, art, churches, and fresh vegetables. And to withhold from the poor goods that people tend to criticize and dislike, at least for others. Like parties, drugs, sex, fast food, social media, movies, and video games.

But alas, typical admired goods don’t obviously have smaller positional components, nor do they obviously contribute less to signaling. For example, both education and medicine, widely given to the poor, have huge signaling and status components, plausibly even larger than for most goods. If we cannot in practice distinguish the goods that do more to promote direct welfare, we should give up on in-kind transfers and just give the poor cash. And then only to the extent that we think direct welfare has strongly diminishing returns in terms of cash.

I have a (perhaps not original) idea. We have good reasons to think that in general most product and service variety emphasizes signaling and status, relative to standard goods that can achieve large scale economies. So if we can make especially cheap cars, homes, clothes, food, etc. via mass production with a small range of variety, then we should prefer to spend our budget on helping the poor via such standard goods.

That is, assume that we the non-poor have a budget that we are willing to spend on helping the poor. We have two reasons to prefer to spend this budget on standard goods. First, standard goods can be provided much more cheaply, allowing us to give more to each person, or to help more people. Second, because these goods have a lower signaling and status components, the poor who consume them hurt the rest of us less via making us look worse by comparison, and rising in status relative to us. We should thus be wiling to increase the budget that we spend on the poor, in compensation.

Of course the poor may resent this policy, even if it results in larger budgets. Exactly because we choose these standard goods to have lower signaling and positional components, the poor will know that others who see that they are using such standard goods designed for the poor may think less of them as a result. That may not be quite the same as a “stigma” assigned to such goods, but it may have a similar effect. Even so, this looks like an efficient arrangment.

So how exactly can we give standard goods to the poor? There’s an obvious risk that the government, or a charity, managing such poverty assistance might overly micromanage the specific standard goods offered, inducing their design, variations, production, and maintenance. Resulting in greatly increased costs and lower quality, as we’ve often seen with public housing.
So it seems better to just offer the poor credits that they could spend at any competing private supplier of standard goods packages.

That is, let us offer to pay qualifying private “dorms” a fixed budget per resident served per day. Each dorm would give its residents its standard package of a bed, clothes, food, and services for transport, entertainment, schooling, and medicine. Then the qualified poor could choose the dorms they see as offering the best combination of location, other residents, and standard services. If there were many competing dorms, and if residents could change dorms frequently (say at least once a year), competition should force dorms to offer efficient and relatively attractive packages. (We may also need to change zoning and regulation to allow such dorms to be offered.)

History seems to suggest that direct welfare can often be provided more cheaply and reliably via dorm-like living. Such as we’ve seen in colleges, the military, orphanages, hospitals, prisons, and retirement homes. So it doesn’t seem a crazy idea to help the poor live cheaply via dorms as well. But I do see a few complications.

Limiting Variety – If not constrained by some rules, competing private dorms won’t necessarily offer standard goods, instead of more varied goods of a lower quality. After all, that is what the poor seem to choose in the market today. So there would have to be some rules enforcing a degree of standardization of the goods offered. Thus there would be limits on the variety that dorms offer in their rooms, clothes, food etc. I don’t have specific proposals regarding these rules to offer now.

Unusual Variety – Some of the poor will actually be unusually different from the others, and thus need unusually different services. Such as some disabled folks, or parents with young children. These might be offered something different than the standard options proposed here.

Added Variety – Even if we push for less variety and more standardization in what we give the poor, there’s no need to go to extremes on this. Internet connections would offer the usual immense variety of outside sites to which one could connect. And some fraction of the budget paid to dorms might be paid directly to the poor as “allowances,” from which residents could pay for unusual expenses and added variety, such as for some food or clothing occasionally bought outside the dorm. Perhaps the poor who insist on more variety than this dorm system offers could be offered a cash budget to spend on their own, a substantially lower amount than the budget offered to qualified dorms to host them.

Transitions – It is probably more expensive for dorms to deal with residents who come and go, relative to residents who stay. So it would probably be better if dorms were paid some extra amount for resident changes. Residents might have a limited budget of such changes, or maybe they’d have to pay for change fees out of an allowance.

Universal Offer – I see no reason not to allow dorms to let the non-poor to pay to be residents. In addition, some may argue for paying dorms the same budgets to let anyone stay there, not just the qualified poor. Then anyone could choose to live in these dorms, and save on living expenses. This would be “Universal Basic Dorms” instead of a “Universal Basic Income”. It would be much cheaper than U.B.I., as fewer ordinary people would be willing to stay in such dorms.

Valuing Neighbors – If these dorms only housed the qualified poor, then such poor may have a worse pool of associates and role models. Thus it might make sense to pay dorms some added amount per non-poor residents who mingle with their poor residents. This makes sense not only in terms of benefits to the poor, but also in terms of compensating such non-poor residents for the status hit they take by moving to such dorms.

Crime – My understanding is that crime is the other big thing that tended to go very wrong with public housing, in addition to mismanagement. So things might go very wrong if dorms were not allowed to reject residents they deem too likely to cause problems. In addition, things would probably go even better with a crime voucher system. Offer each resident a budget to pay a voucher to cover all the crime they may commit as a resident. If they can’t get a voucher to agree at that price, no matter what the other contract terms, such a resident does not qualify for dorm living. This might be a good test environment for a crime voucher system.

And that’s my proposal. Offer to pay dorms per resident who stays there, with rules to encourage less-varied more-standard dorm goods which achieve scale economies. Residents would then get more direct welfare, even if they’d gain less status and send less attractive signals. That lower status should make the rest of us more willing to increase dorm budgets well over the cash budget we might offer the poor to live outside dorms.

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We Will Never Learn More On Consciousness

Some complained that I didn’t include a question on consciousness in my list of big questions. My reason is that I can’t see how we will ever know more than we do now. There’s nothing to learn:

Zombies are supposedly just like real people in having the same physical brains, which arose the through the same causal history. The only difference is that while real people really “feel”, zombies do not. But since this state of “feeling” is presumed to have zero causal influence on behavior, zombies act exactly like real people, including being passionate and articulate about claiming they are not zombies. People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a “hard question” regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel. (And which other systems feel as well.)

The one point I want to make is: if zombies are conceivable, then none of us will ever have any more relevant info than we do now about which systems actually feel. Which is pretty much zero info! You will never have any info about whether you ever really felt in the past, or will ever feel in the future. No one part of your brain ever gets any info from any other part of your brain about whether it really feels.

These claims all follow from our very standard and well-established info theory. We get info about things by interacting with them, so that our states become correlated with the states of those things. But by assumption this hypothesized extra “feeling” state never interacts with anything. The actual reason why you feel compelled to assert very confidently that you really do feel has no causal connection with whether you actually do really feel. (More)

Your brain is made out of quite ordinary physical materials, driven by ordinary physical processes that we understand very well at near-atomic levels of organization. It is only processes at higher levels of organization that we haven’t traced out in detail. We will eventually be able to trace in great detail and at all levels the causes of what makes you, or an em, or any variation on either, inclined to passionately claim, and believe, that you really do feel. And that will let us predict well what changes to you, or anything, might induce you, or it, to claim or believe something different.

But if you insist that none of that can possibly verify that you, or an em, actually do feel, then it can’t add any info on that issue. Yes, maybe you have intuitions inside you that often tell you if you think something that you see in front of you really feels. But such intuitions are already available to you now. Just imagine various things you might see, note your intuitions about each, compare those to others’ intuitions, and then draw your conclusions about consciousness. After all, we already have a pretty good idea of all the things we will eventually be able to see.

Okay, yes, you are probably in denial about how much the intuitions of others would influence yours, and about how strong would be the social pressures on your intuitions to accept that ems feel, if in fact you lived in a would where ems dominated. I predict that in such a situation most would accept that ems feel. Not because new info has been offered, but because of familiar social pressures. And yes, we can learn more about how our intuitions respond to such pressures. But that won’t give us any more info on the truth of what “really” feels.

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Join The Universe

If you spend most of your time arguing with your immediate family, then even the family members with whom you most disagree are at the center of your world, and greatly define you. Or if you spend most of your time focusing on the “hot” topics and status conflicts within a particular academic community, then even the people there with which you most disagree are your close colleagues, and greatly define you. Or if you spend most of your time arguing about US politics, then even those who disagree with you most about that are near the center of your world, and define you.

That is, in general you are defined more by the topics on which you argue, and the communities in which you argue, than by which side you take on such topics. The people you most hate, you hate exactly because they are close to you, and in your way, as they are in your world.

These worlds I listed, even the US politics world, seem to me just too small and provincial to spend all my time there. So I invite you to instead, at least some of the time, come join my favorite world. Join the place where we argue about the biggest issues we can find in the universe. A conversation that may eventually be joined by creatures across many eras and perhaps even civilizations. Even if I completely disagree with you on such things, if you focus on arguing about them, then you are in my world. And you will help define me.

Here are 42 BIG questions:

  1. Did there have to be something, rather than nothing?
  2. Is the universe infinite, in spacetime or entropy?
  3. Why is entropy always lower in past directions?
  4. Are the speed of light, and forward causation, hard limits on info & influence?
  5. What is most of the universe made of, & can the other stuff make complex life & civs?
  6. Where are the universe’s largest reservoirs of extractable negentropy, and how fast can they flow?
  7. How cheaply can these reservoirs be defended & maintained, and thus how long can they last?
  8. In which of the many possible filter steps does most of the great filter usually lie?
  9. How far away is the nearest alien civilization?
  10. What % of alien civs evolve intelligence via routes other than our social conflict route?
  11. How willing are most aliens to cooperate with us, instead of competing?
  12. When will growth in tech abilities slow down due to running out of useful things to learn?
  13. When will growth of solar system economy slow down due to congestion & exhaustion?
  14. When will growth of Earth economy slow down due to congestion & exhaustion?
  15. When will artificial machines replace biology in running & doing things?
  16. Will that be late enough for genetic engineering or global warming to matter much?
  17. When will the dominant creatures around take a long view, or an abstract view?
  18. What types of competition and coordination (e.g., governance) institutions will dominate in which social areas when and where?
  19. What forms of governance will be most common in which different future eras?
  20. When will mental organization of dominant creatures deviate greatly from that of humans now?
  21. After that point, which kinds of minds will win which competitions where?
  22. After that point, what units of mental or social organization will matter most, and when or where?
  23. After that point, what will minds value, and at what levels will they most encode and coordinate values?
  24. What were the key causes and enablers of each past key growth mode (life, brains, foraging, farming, & industry)?
  25. When will the next growth mode start, what will enable it, and how will it differ?
  26. When, if ever, will all that we caused and care about end and die?
  27. What will be our deepest future collapse, short of extinction, how deep will that be, and how long to recover?
  28. When will be the next major civilization collapse, what % of world will that take down, and how different is the next civ?
  29. When will be the next big war, and will many nukes be used?
  30. When, if ever, will external genetic, econ, or military competition again drive large scale policy & governance choices?
  31. Where in space-time are most of the human like creatures who believe they are experiencing our place in space-time?
  32. What are our strongest levers of influence today over the universe?
  33. How long will how much non-human nature remain, and how wild will that be?
  34. What are the actual motivations that drive most human behavior today?
  35. What has been driving the main changes in values and attitudes over the last few centuries, and what further changes will they induce?
  36. What new practices and institutions can enable greatly increased rates of innovation?
  37. When, if ever, will more general & reliable truth-oriented institutions (e.g., prediction markets) offer estimates on a wide range of subjects?
  38. When, if ever, will average human fertility stop falling, and total human population rise?
  39. When, if ever, will human per-capita income stop rising?
  40. Will human per-capita energy usage ever start rising greatly again?
  41. When will humans become effectively immortal, and least re internal decay?
  42. For where did Earth life originate, and when did it start there?

(I will add more to this list as I hear good suggestions.)

Hamming’s famous question is “What are the most important problems in your field”, followed quickly by “Why aren’t you working on them?” If one of your fields is the universe, then why aren’t you working on one of these big questions?

Added 9a: I’ve mostly left out questions where it is unclear if the usual debates are about something real, rather than about how we use words.

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Six Struggles Surrounding Status

Struggle For Function – These are struggles that individuals and organizations have to achieve non-status things. Keep a boat from sinking, don’t burn dinner, or have a wedding plan work out. Your status may depend on how well you do these things.

Struggle For Allies – You want to be liked by, and allied with, particular people that you encounter. Your status may help, but if you succeed they may well end up liking you much more than similar-status others.

Struggle For Status – Status is a widely shared estimate of esteem, within some status community. It is a weighted average of widely shared estimates of many admirable features. It combines direct power (dominance) and indirect power (prestige).

Struggle For Fashion – The weights of status vary with time, like fashions do. People form coalitions to push for more weight onto favorable features. In part via pushing to put their people into particular positions of power.

Struggle For Worlds – Status is usually not global, but instead relative to a community. These communities compete for influence in a wider world. People may care about how their local status struggles influences who wins there.

Struggle Over Struggles – All these struggles compete for the attention of individuals and organizations. Individuals, allies, coalitions, and communities can try to influence which struggles matter most.

The struggles for status, and for the fashion that sets status, tend to be zero-sum, at least directly. But the struggle for function clearly allows for mutual gains and higher efficiency. To a lessor extend, so does the struggle for allies; in principle we really can all have more lovers, friends and co-workers.

So if status puts more weight on function and allies, that can give added encouragement to attend to those struggles. And when people in a community care more about the struggle for worlds, they will want to put more status weight on such things. Especially on the kinds of functions and allies that most help win struggles over worlds.

It is also possible for a community to put less weight on status. For example, when status is the only visible quality marker re lawyers and doctors, customers must use it to pick those experts. But if customers can see visible track records, or use strong incentive contracts to pay for results, their status matters less. That can help to promote such functions, and also help a community to win the struggle over worlds.

Personally, I’m most engaged by the struggle over struggles. I’d like function and allies to matter more. And by reminding people of this struggle over worlds, I hope to influence the struggle for fashion to put more status weight on function, allies, and worlds. Yes, if I personally did better at the struggle for status, I could have more influence over the struggle for fashion. But at this point in my life, the opportunity cost of that seems quite high.

So I’ll content myself for now to point all this out to you, my readers. And invite you to join me in pushing to make status matter less, and to put more weight on function and allies. Such as via more trials with, and fewer legal barriers to, using track records and incentive contracts to substitute for status in picking experts.

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Prestige As Mob-Enforced Dominance

Humans distinguish two kinds of status, about which we are quite moralistic. There’s the good kind, prestige, and the bad, dominance. These are commonly described as pro-social vs. selfish:

Social status can be attained through either dominance (coercion and intimidation) or prestige (skill and respect). (more)

As Machiavelli noted, love [prestige] and fear [dominance] are both valuable assets that can be used to influence others. (More)

Dominance: Deference is demanded and is a property of the actor.
Prestige: Deference is freely conferred and is a property of the beholder. … Creation of authentic and lasting relationships … High in need for affiliation; high in authentic pride. (more)

Back in 2015, my co-author Kevin Simler argued for a “more cynical” view:

Central question [about prestige is] … What’s in it for the admirer? I know of two answers … first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White … second … by Amotz Zahavi … and … Jean-Louis Dessalles … This [second] account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Henrich and Gil-White [say] … admiration … acts as a bribe. Admirers … are sycophants. … hoping to learn from their superiors. …

[But I say] prestige [is] … a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each [babbler bird] has done for others. … Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.” …

We [humans] voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn … we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. [we] cultivate access to such people … by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige. …

Pinker … says, [prestige] is “the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.” … Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process. (More)

But honestly, this view doesn’t seem that cynical to me. As they say, “hold my beer”. Consider my last post:

Elite employers … focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees. … don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. … Even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. … What they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around [their] advice. … Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. (More)

Firms in this scenario aren’t just “freely giving” prestige, nor is this about learning, “love”, “authenticity”, nor rewarding generous allies. These firms instead face strong incentives from audiences to assign prestige in the way that key audiences think prestige should be assigned.

Consider academic “peer” review. Reviewers formally decide who gets how much prestige. But if they gave good reviews “freely” to whomever they most “authentically” “loved”, they might not get invited to review again, and their own prestige may suffer. When you hope to gain prestige by hosting an academic conference, you will be punished if you don’t invite the speakers that your key audiences think you should invite.

Or consider “cancelling”, which is in effect a form of negative prestige. While I still have my job, many events and organizations tell me that they can’t afford to publicly invite, fund, or associate with me because of what mobs say about me. They say they don’t personally have a problem with anything I’ve said or done, but they don’t want the hassle that mobs could impose.

In all these cases, we aren’t at all looking at each person just “freely” assigning to others the respect and evaluation that they privately think appropriate. Instead, evaluators face strong conformity pressures to agree with the evaluations of others.

Both dominance and prestige are expressions of power. In dominance, the power is direct, what that person can do to or for you. But with prestige, the power is indirect, enforced via a local mob. You must “freely” accord each person the respect that your relevant mob says is due, or risk their wrath. But make no mistake, there is a power that enforces prestige, just as with dominance.

Note that “socialists” tend to explicitly frame unequal money or physical power as unacceptable “domination”, and yet greatly admire historical cases where outraged and active mobs tried to fix such problems.

Added 6Nov: Mercer & Sperber’s Enigma of Reason similarly assumes that while those who present arguments might be biased, evaluators of arguments are neutral and fair.

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Prestige in US Today

Lauren A. Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs is a depressing book because it tells how the world works:

Pedigree takes readers behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really gets hired for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs, who doesn’t, and why.

A big % of graduates of elite colleges take such jobs, and the other jobs they take don’t make nearly as much money. The other big employers, such as hedge funds, private equity firms, and tech firms, choose similarly. And elite colleges use similar criteria to pick their students. So this is a window into how we pick a big % of the top elites in the US today.

While I often assume that prestige is a big driver of human behavior, my poll respondents hardly admitted to putting much weight on prestige when picking experts. And many complain that I put too much emphasis on the concept. However, these elite employers strongly confirm my view, as they focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees.

They only recruit at the most elite colleges, and they want recruits to be attractive, energetic, articulate, socially smooth, and have had elite personal connections, jobs, and extracurriculars. They don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious.

I noticed several interesting patterns worth pondering. For example, employers have little patience with candidates who didn’t pick the most prestigious possible college or job, but were swayed by other considerations. Such as topics of interest, limited money, or the needs of a spouse or family. A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.

Yet for extracurriculars, you are not supposed to connect those to your career plans, as “nerds” do. You must instead do something with no practical value, but that is prestigious. Like varsity athletes in lacrosse or crew, sports that are too expensive for ordinary folks to pursue. Excess interest in ideas marks you as a “boring” “tool”.

An interesting criteria is that you must tell a mesmerizing story about your life, a story told almost entirely in terms of choices that you made to pursue your internal goals, without external constraints having much influence. And even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. You were instead pursuing other goals, and prestige just happened as a side effect. Lucky you.

The author convincingly argues that this is not that much of a “meritocracy”, in that the features sought are much easier for elite parents to promote in their kids, and many of them are not actually that useful to society. But it does look like an equilibrium, in the sense that firms who picked differently would probably be punished.

It seems that while these firms do sell concrete consulting services to their customers, what they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around that advice. So firms that hired less prestigious workers would likely be punished. Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. And so on.

All of this seems to fit my experience in academia, where at the highest levels the focus is overwhelming on gaining the endorsement of prestigious schools, journals, jobs, funders, etc. Whether the work you do is useful to society or even accurate is someone else’s job; your job to gain prestige and so you only do those other things if your prestige incentives encourage them.

Some of these features that these firms look for probably count for prestige in most any society. Such as looks, energy, intelligence, connections, and social savvy. But in other ways the particular packages of features most sought here now are probably a local equilibrium; other societies have valued different packages.

So a crucial question is: to what extent is it possible to move our prestige equilibrium to a different and more useful one? Where say it might be prestigious to actually do something useful for the world. Seems a worthy topic of study.

Some book quotes to confirm my claims above: Continue reading "Prestige in US Today" »

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Why Abstaining Helps

Misunderstandings that I heard in response to these tweets has encouraged me to try to explain more clearly the logic of why most eligible voters should abstain from voting.

Think of each vote cast between two candidates as being either +1 or -1, so that the positive candidate wins if the sum of all votes cast is positive; the negative candidate wins otherwise. Abstaining is then a vote of 0. (If the vote sum is zero, the election is a tie.)

Assume that there is one binary quality variable that expresses which of the two candidates is “better for the world”, that these two options are equally likely, that each voter gets one binary clue correlated with that quality, and that voters vote simultaneously. What we should want is to increase the chance that the better candidate wins.

While all else equal, each voter may prefer a higher quality candidate, they need not be otherwise indifferent. So if, based on other considerations, they have a strong enough preference for one of the candidates, such “partisan” voters will pick that candidate regardless of their clue. Thus their vote will not embody any info about candidate quality. They are so focused on other considerations that they won’t help make for a more informed election, at least not via their vote. The other “informed” voters care enough about quality that their vote will depend on their quality clue.

Thus the total vote will be the sum of the partisan votes plus the informed votes. So the sum of the partisan votes will set a threshold that the informed votes must overcome to tip the election. For example, if the partisan sum is -10, then the informed votes must sum to at least 10 to tip the election toward the positive candidate. For our purposes here it won’t matter if there is uncertainty over this sum of partisan votes or not; all that matters is that the partisan sum sets the threshold that informed votes must overcome.

Now in general we expect competing candidates to position themselves in political and policy spaces so that on average the partisan threshold is not too far from zero. After all, it is quite unusual for everyone to be very confident that one side will win. So I will from here on assume a zero threshold, though my analysis will be robust to modest deviations from that.

Assume for now that the clues of the informed voters are statistically independent of each other, given candidate quality. Then with many informed voters the sum of informed votes will approach a normal distribution, and the chance that the positive candidate wins is near the integral of this normal distribution above the partisan threshold.

Thus all that matters from each individual voter is the mean and variance of their vote. Any small correlation between a voter’s clue and quality will create a small positive correlation between quality and their mean vote. Thus their vote will move the mean of the informed votes in the right direction. Because of this, many say that the more voters the better, no matter how poorly informed is each one.

However, each informed voters adds to both the mean and the variance of the total vote, as shown in this diagram:

What matters is the “z-score” of the informed vote, i.e., the mean divided by its standard deviation. The chance that the better candidate wins is increasing in this z-score. So if a voter adds proportionally more to the standard deviation than they add to the mean, they make the final vote less likely to pick the better candidate, even if their individual contribution to the mean is positive.

This is why poorly informed voters who vote can hurt elections, and it is why the relevant standard is your information compared to that of the other voters who don’t abstain. If you are an informed voter who wants to increase the chance that the better candidate wins, then you should abstain if you are not sufficiently well informed compared to the others who will vote.

In a previous post I considered the optimal choice of when to abstain in two extreme cases: when all other informed voters also abstain optimally, and when no one else abstains but this one voter. Realistic cases should be somewhere between these extremes.

To model inequality in how informed are various voters, I chose a power law dependence of clue correlation relative to voter rank. If the power is high, then info levels fall very quickly as you move down in voter rank from the most informed voter. If the power is low, then info levels fall more slowly, and voters far down in rank may still have a lot of info.

I found that for a power less than 1/2, and ten thousand informed voters, everyone should vote in both extreme cases. That is, when info is distributed equally enough, it really does help to average everyone’s clues via their votes. But for a power of 3/4, more than half should abstain even if no one else abstains, and only 6 of them should vote if all informed voters abstained optimally. For a power of 1 then 80% should abstain even if no one else does, and only 2 of them should vote if all abstain optimally. For higher powers, it gets worse.

My best guess is that a power of one is a reasonable guess, as this is a very common power and also near the middle of the distribution of observed powers. Thus even if everyone else votes, for the purpose of making the total vote have a better chance of picking the better candidate, you should abstain unless you are especially well informed, relative to the others who actually vote. And the more unequal you estimate the distribution of who is how informed, the more reluctant you should be to vote.

Many have claimed that it hurts to tell people about this analysis, as low informed voters will ignore it, and only better informed voters might follow it. But this analysis gives advice to each and every voter, advice that doesn’t depend on who else adopts it; every added person who follows this advice is a net win. Yes, people can be uncertain about how unequal is the info distribution, and about where they rank in this distribution. But that’s no excuse for not trying to make best estimates and act accordingly.

Note that the above analysis ignored the cost of getting informed and voting, and that people seem to in general be overconfident when they estimate their informedness rank. Both of these considerations should make you more willing to abstain.

In the above I assumed voter clues are independent, but what if they are correlated? For the same means, clue correlation increases the variance of the sum of individual votes. So all else equal voters with correlated clues should be more willing to abstain, compared to other voters.

Yes, I’ve used binary clues throughout, and you might claim that all this analysis completely changes for non-binary clues. Possible, but that would surprise me.

Added 7a: Re the fact that it is possible and desirable to tell if you are poorly informed, I love this saying:

If you’re playing a poker game and you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.

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Why Do We ‘Rest’?

From Age of Em, paperback edition, p. 195-6:

Today, mental fatigue reduces mental performance by about 0.1 percent per minute. As by resting we can recover at a rate of 1 percent per minute, we need roughly one-tenth of our workday to be break time, with the duration between breaks being not much more than an hour or two. We seem to prefer to take a break once an hour, relative to having breaks more often. Breaks help productivity more when they are short and frequent, when they happen in the morning relative to afternoon, and when the activities during breaks are preferred, social, work-related, and outside the office. There is also evidence suggesting productivity gains from napping for ten to thirty minutes one or a few times a day; a thirty-minute nap four times a day seems enough to stop performance deterioration.

While we seem to “need” breaks from work, many of our break activities often look a lot like “work”, in being productive and taking energy, concentration, and self-control. So what exactly is “restful” about such “rest”? Yesterday, I realized that the continuing generosity of a few hundred my Twitter followers to answer many poll questions offers a way to dig a big deeper:

Here are the results, sorted by mean restfulness:

As this mean uses the midpoint of each range, it overestimates near 10, as then most responses are in the lowest range. I’ve marked in red and blue two clumps with close means.

Note that even the blue clump is only half of maximum restfulness, and that one item in the red clump is to continue with work, but switch to rarer tasks. Clearly we can’t be doing this stuff only to regain productivity, or we’d either pick the max restfulness activity or do a “restful” work activity. Note also that there are clearly break activities that don’t give much rest at all. So this can’t be only about changing what you do periodically.

So why do we “rest”?

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