Be The Emperor’s Kid

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me. (Why Missouri is “Show Me State”)

Emperor’s New Clothes: Two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. A succession of officials, and then the emperor himself, visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. Finally, the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They mime dressing him and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. Although startled, the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever. (More)

My long intellectual career has in part been a search for the most important questions. I study X until I realize “No, Y is really the more fundamental issue behind X.” I have now made another step forward in this journey; I now guess that the biggest obstacle to getting the world to adopt the many institution reform proposals I favor is our status-gossip-trust system. Let me explain.

Status is respect, shared at a distance. And one of our main ways to create shared distant respect estimates is to accept the gossip-shared judgements of high status people, especially on who else to respect. Furthermore, as we all judge those who are most closely connected to high status people as being higher status themselves, we often try to create closer connections to high status people by blindly trusting them.

That is, they tell us that of course they love us, that they are worth $1000/hr as a lawyer, that their expensive new med treatment will cure us, that their management advice will save our firm, that the articles they write or publish are the most reliable and useful guides to their topics, that their advice given to the halls of power will guide the nation well, and that the candidates praised by their letter of recommendation are worth high salaries. And then instead of checking these claims by watching their track records, giving them financial incentives, testing their abilities, or evaluating the details of their arguments, we just believe what they say. Not only believe, but also actively resist checking their claims, for fear of not seeming to trust them.

This helps explain why we make it hard (often illegal) to give strong incentives to or collect track records about prestigious professionals like lawyers and doctors. Why we care more about potential than accomplishment. Why we prefer grants to prizes, and managed funds over index funds. And why elites so rarely give solid arguments to back their claims. Furthermore, our getting more status mad over the last few centuries can help explain the decline in marriage, decline in legal sanctions against lies, and removing test scores from school applications.

I’m still quite uncertain how exactly to resist this status-trust pattern, but I expect it has something to do with raising the status of status skeptics, like the “show me” people of Missouri, or the kid who exposed the emperor.

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