Monthly Archives: September 2021

To Cut Inequality, Face Hard Choices

In her new book The Right To Sex, Amia Srinivasan mentions my post on “sex redistribution”: 

Hanson asked on his blog why progressives are preoccupied with redistributing wealth but not with redistributing sex. He was widely decried—a Slate headline read, “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?” But Hanson, who is an opponent of wealth redistribution, was charging progressives with hypocrisy. His question was: if wealth inequality is an injustice that demands to be corrected, why isn’t sex inequality, too?

Now in fact I have neither supported nor opposed wealth redistribution; I instead just noted the odd fact that the groups interested in income and sex redistribution don’t overlap much. And Srinivasan never answers my question, why redistribute income but not sex? She seems sympathetic to income redistribution, but opposes sex redistribution, and yet offers no principle on which to base this different treatment:

Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. … We wouldn’t think it coercive were the teacher to encourage the other students to share with your daughter, or were they to institute an equal sharing policy. But a state that made analogous interventions in the sexual preference and practices of its citizens—that encouraged us to “share” sex equally—would probably be thought grossly authoritarian. …

giving sex-less men money to spend on prostitutes, or encouraging traditional norms of … “enforced monogamy.” The irony is that these proposals, like rape, are also coercive. Women sell sex, on the whole, because they need money; to give sex-less men money with which to pay for sex presupposes that there are women who need to sell sex to live. 

Okay, but why is sandwich-sharing not also unacceptably “grossly authoritarian” or coercive? Srinivasan offers no distinguishing principle, even though this question seems to go to the core of her book. Srinivasan doesn’t say why using taxes or subsidies to influence anything related to sex is unacceptably “coercive”, even as she supports tax-supported guaranteed income, housing, and childcare.

A partial resolution of this puzzle is, I think, that Srinivasan sees herself as having different plans to deal with two kinds of inequality, income and sex, and sees both plans as “non-coercive”. She plans a non-coercive socialism for income, and non-coercive efforts to “transfigure our desires” for sex. From her interview with with Tyler Cowen:

I have a huge amount of anxiety about state power … I broadly identify as a democratic socialist. … When you’re asking about what kind of socialist models, I’m not proposing — I don’t think any plausible socialist does propose — that what we need is a form of Soviet state socialism. I think what we need to be thinking about is the radical democratization of the institutions that shape political and social and family life.

Somehow the creation and maintenance of a “radical democratization” would greatly cut income inequality without requiring “coercion” as she defines it (she offers no definition). And with such socialism, it would become easier to “non-coercively” rethink our desires, after which sex inequality would also fall greatly. Srinivasan says she offers a “utopian feminist response to our current situation”, which apparently has little to say about what to do now about inequality, in our actual world, before her envisioned utopian revolutions.

Except, Srinivasan does seem to endorse current policies like guaranteed income, housing, and childcare. If she has some special definition wherein such policies are not “coercive”, why can’t that also cover policies to cut sex inequality? 

So what is really going on here? My best guess: Srinivasan just refuses to admit that we can’t have it all, at zero cost. She won’t admit that inequality is a robust natural result of many social and biological processes, and that we have a rather limited range of costly options to cut it. And her suggestion to cut sex inequality by reconsidering our desires seems no more promising than cutting wage inequality by asking employers to reconsider their employee preferences. 

We do have some options though. For example, if you don’t like the inequality that would naturally happen across your different possible future selves, you can buy insurance. Even more inequality might be cut if parents could commit their kids to such insurance. But we now see little interest in buying or promoting such options. What we see instead is great interest in cutting inequality via coercive government “social insurance”. Yes, a great many other policies can have minor effects on inequality, but in the absence of the sudden appearance of utopian socialism, which no one today seems to know how to arrange, these seem to be our main actual options today for big cuts.  

While government redistribution involves many costs and risks, for people sufficiently averse to inequality it can make sense to support that. I am not personally very averse to inequality, but as a professional economist I stand ready to advise others with preferences different from mine. 

However, such advisees must prepare to make hard choices. They will have to decide which kinds of inequality – among income, lifespan, progeny, popularity, sex, and more –  matter more to them and why. And advisees should accept that big cuts in inequality may come at big costs, and also require things that look a lot like “coercion”, either via governments or parents.

We must all face hard facts, make hard choices, and then live with the consequences. Regarding inequality, or most anything. 

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Yay Argument Orientation

Long ago I dove into science studies, which includes history, sociology, and philosophy of science. (Got a U. Chicago M.A. in it in 1983.) I concluded at the time that “science” doesn’t really have a coherent meaning, beyond the many diverse practices of many groups that called themselves “science”. But reflecting on my recent foray into astrophysics suggests to me that there may a simple related core concept after all.

Imagine you are in an organization with a boss who announces a new initiative, together with supporting arguments. Also imagine that you are somehow forced to hear a counter-argument against this initiative, offered by a much lower status person, expressed in language and using methods that are not especially high status. In most organizations, most people would not be much tempted to support this counter-argument; they’d rather pretend that they never heard of it.

More generally, imagine there is a standard claim, which is relevant enough to important enough topics to be worth consideration. This claim is associated with some status markers, such as the status of its supporters and their institutions, and the status of the language and methods used to argue for it. And imagine further that a counter-claim is made, with an associated argument, and also associated status markers of its supporters, languages, and methods.

The degree to which (status-weighted) people in a community would be inclined to support this counter-claim (or even to listen to supporting arguments offered) would depend on the relative strengths of both the arguments and the status markers on both sides. (And on the counter claim’s degree of informativeness and relevance regarding topics seen as important.) I’ll say that such a community is more “argument-oriented” to the degree that the arguments’ logical or Bayesian strengths are given more priority over the claims’ status strengths.

Even though almost everyone in most all communities feels obligated to offer supporting arguments for their claims, very few communities are actually very argument-oriented. You usually don’t contradict the boss in public, unless you can find pretty high status allies for your challenge; you know that the strength of your argument doesn’t count for much as an ally. So it is remarkable, and noteworthy, that there are at least some communities that are unusually argument-oriented. These include big areas of math, and smaller areas of philosophy and physics. And, alas, they include even smaller areas of most human and social sciences. So there really a sense in which some standard disciplines are more “scientific”.

Note that most people are especially averse to claims with especially low status markers. For example, when an argument made for a position is expressed using language that evokes in many people vague illicit associations, such as with racism, sexism, ghosts, or aliens. Or when the people who support a claim are thought to have had such associations on other topics. As such expressions are less likely to happen near topics in math, math is more intrinsically supportive of argument-oriented communities.

But even with supportive topic areas, argument-orientation is far from guaranteed. So let us try to identify and celebrate the communities and topic areas where it is more common, and perhaps find better ways to shame the others into becoming more argument-oriented. Such an orientation is plausibly a strong causal factor explaining variation in accuracy and progress across different communities and areas.

There are actually a few simple ways that academic fields could try to be and seem more argument-oriented. For example, while peer review is one of the main place where counter-arguments are now expressed, such reviews are usually private. Making peer review public might induce higher quality counter-arguments. Similarly, higher priority could be given to publishing articles that focus more on elaborating counter-arguments to other arguments. And communities might more strongly affirm their focus on the literal meanings of expressions, relative to drawing inferences from vague language associations.

(Note: that being “argumentative” is not very related to being “argument-oriented”. You can bluster and fight without giving much weight to logical and Bayesian strengths of arguments. And you can collect and weigh arguments in a consensus style without focusing on who disagrees with who.)

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Elite Biases Make Policy Biases

A 2014 paper predicted U.S. policy changes over four years for 1,779 issues, using the positions of four groups of influencers: business-based interest groups (55), mass-based interest groups (31), median public opinion (6), and elite public opinion (100), i.e. that of people at the 90th percentile of income. (I’ve listed their relative influence in parenthesis. Criticism says mid-class (not poor) influence is bigger.) While elite and median public opinion had a 0.78 correlation, the other pairs were uncorrelated. (A poll sets median influencer at 92% income percentile.)

What this says is that, even in a democracy, the ~90th percentile rich have the most influence, business interest groups have about half as much, and mass interest groups have about a third as much. We less rich folks only get what we want, to the extent we do, mainly because these elites mostly agree with us, and because we sometimes influence mass interest groups.

This median influencer household has income of $210K/yr and wealth of $1.2M, and households above this cut pay 70% of US Federal income taxes. This income is near the median doctor ($207K) and U.S. District Judge ($218K), more than the median full professor ($141K), lawyer ($139), lobbyist ($115K), judge ($109K), and CEO ($103K), and much more than the median federal civil servant ($64K) and high school teacher ($63K). (The median household made $64K, while the median CEO of the top 500 firms made $12.7M.)

These elites who set policy get most of their status and income from labor, not capital, and they are quite comfortable with, and in fact love, large bureaucratic organizations. Their highest hopes tend to be of gaining positions in, getting promoted in, or creating, such organizations. When they have dreams for the world, they dream of new versions with higher mandates and bigger budgets. (Think socialism.)

They can distinguish each other by their elite accomplishments, school credentials, org affiliations, and styles of talk, dress, etc. And their internal dynamics are dominated by status and gossip. That is, they are very social and join mutually-supporting coalitions which help get them the right jobs, party invites, speaking invites, etc. Via extensive gossip, they quickly form an apparent consensus on the policy issues of the day, on who is higher status among them, and on who should be ostracized and expelled from their ranks. Today these elite communities of gossip and status are integrated across the world.

Simple as it is, this account of who most influences policy seems to me promising as the basis of a theory of policy bias. That is, the natural biases of the group who most influences policy may plausibly explain many of our overall policy biases.

For example, policy set by elites may give elites too much benefit of the doubt, and defer too much to their status-gossip system. As elites tend to see their internal status-gossip processes as sufficient to discourage malfeasance and encourage excellence, they tend to see little need for other forms of track records, incentives, or accountability within elite professions and organizations, including government agencies. They see themselves as mostly good people, trying to do good things, who should be supported not hassled.

As another example, when there are groups that elites see as more outside of themselves, as rivals competing with them for power, then elites may push for policies that control, suppress, and disrespect such rivals.

The most obvious candidate for such a rival group is business. Even though these elites are richer than most of us, like most of us they focus more on those who are above them in status, relative to those who are below. Furthermore, the study above says that business is in fact their main rival for influence over policy. And while most business profits go to elites, elites don’t think of themselves as having their main influence on the world via business; elites instead identify more with their roles as org leaders and elite gossipers.

Furthermore, while elites see themselves as mostly well-meaning good people, they see business as transparently and dangerously selfish. Elites see businesses as tending to do what makes them more money, even when their leaders are ostracized and not invited to the right parties. Meaning that the usual pressures that work on most elites may not work on business and the super-rich. Thus elites support harsh, intrusive, and punitive business taxes, regulations, and legal liability. Yes when the super-rich are taxed, these elites are also taxed, but that may seem worth the price to take them down a peg or two. Most ordinary people miss this conflict by not distinguishing these two different kinds of “rich”.

Even though ordinary people seem to have little influence on policy, and mostly agree with elites on policy, elites are still wary of them as individuals. After all, we outnumber them at least five to one, we might revolt, and they must rely on us to do most of the things that need doing. So as employees, we must be tracked, assigned, and incentivized. As consumers and investors, we must be regulated. As authors and voters, our thoughts must be shaped and channeled via teachers, censors, media, interest groups, and politicians. As potential criminals we need to be tracked and threatened with punishment. And the poorest of us need even more direct management, such as via social workers and parole officers. All of which not only keeps us under control, but asserts elite status via the fact of their managing such controls.

Mass-based interest groups mostly don’t seem to scare elites as a whole, because usually such groups are dominated by elites at their top levels. It is only when a mass-based group seems to oppose elites as a whole that elites close ranks and warn against the dangers of such “populism”. While our society gives a lot of lip service to populism, populism is usually crushed aggressively whenever it actually seems threatening.

So how does this theory do empirically? It seems to me that policy does tend to be overly trusting of elites and their status-gossip system, and overly punitive and disrespectful of rival groups. For example, policy pushes us to pick docs, lawyers, and other prestigious professionals based more on the prestige of their affiliations, and less on track records or incentives. Business does seem greatly overly regulated, and taxes seem overly punitive. And policy seems to rely too much on the consensus of elite gossip, relative to more accurate sources like experts or prediction markets.

While roughly half of all regulation of individuals seems to be justified as protecting people from themselves, warnings seem just as helpful but would be far less controlling. Free speech (really free hearing) would be as effective at informing as is censorship. Pandemics could be more efficiently handled via law. And the poor could be helped more via simple cash transfers instead of expensive intrusive management of their lives.

Our legal system has high costs of suing people (from not using lotteries) but no required liability insurance. This makes law available to elites to sue each other, and to punish business, but not available to ordinary people to sue elites or each other. Elites can protect themselves well from ordinary people via strong prosecutor powers of plea bargaining together with broad surveillance and huge numbers of crime laws on the books, and also judges who are elites and give elites the benefit of the doubt. Oh and living, shopping, and working in separate neighborhoods.

And that’s my simple theory of who runs society, and policy biases that naturally result from their rule.

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Are You Your Best Career Agent?

The [proposed new tax] plans also call for raising the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6% from the current 37%. … result is a top marginal federal income tax rate of 46.4%. … In New York City, the combined top marginal state and city tax rate is 14.8%. So New York City taxpayers who earn more than $5 million a year would face a combined city, state and federal marginal rate of 61.2% under the House plan. (More)

While there are no truly convincing estimates of the long-run elasticity [of taxable income (ETI)] , the best available estimates range from 0.12 to 0.40. Proceeding mechanically, at the approximate midpoint of this rate—an ETI of 0.25—the marginal excess burden per dollar of federal income tax revenue raised is $0.195 for an across-the-board proportional tax increase, and $0.339 for a tax increase focused on the top 1 percent of income earners. (More)

I’ve posted before on how we could create career agents by auctioning off the right to be given the tax revenues that are paid by a particular taxpayer. Oddly to me, most of my Twitter followers and blog commenters opposed the idea. But I just realized that this same mechanism could mitigate another big problem: income taxes discouraging income. Which happens to be a topical issue, as Congress is now considering big income tax rises.

High income taxes destroy value by inducing those who face such taxes to earn less. Why should you work hard to earn another 100 dollars if the government takes 61 of them? Yes, you will gain some value from the leisure that you would practice instead, but overall we expect value to be destroyed if taxes change your actions.

But we can greatly reduce this effect, to all our benefit. Here’s how. Imagine that starting at adulthood, each year each taxpayer may pick some fraction of their remaining future income tax obligations to be auctioned off. Then in future tax years, each auction winner is pay their winning fractions of the taxes that this person pays to the government. These fractions are divided up among auction bidders so as to maximize auction revenue, and those who own rights to collect tax revenues can resell such rights to others. Taxpayers must reveal some basic info about themselves to auction participants (but only if there’s an auction), but auction winners gain no powers whatsoever regarding taxpayers; they just cash checks from the government.

So, for example, maybe in prior years Sue has already had 20% of her future taxes sold off. This year, Sue sets 5% to be sold at auction. Auction bidders say how much they would pay for various income fractions. This time, auction revenue is maximized by selling 3% to Ted, 1.5% to Mary, and 0.5% to Joe. Then next year 25% of the taxes that Sue pays will be redirected to various auction winners.

When private parties own the rights to be given this tax revenue, they in effect become career agents, as they have incentives to advise and promote this worker, so that this worker will later earn more money and pay more taxes. (To avoid a common pool problem, they may want to concentrate their rights in a single person.)

But when the worker buys these assets themselves, they in effect reduce their future income tax rates, and thus acquire stronger incentives to earn money! So if Sue wins the auction to get 5% of her tax revenue, she in effect cuts her tax rate by 5%. And that may benefit Sue more than the advice and promotion she might get from a career agent.

So now each taxpayer can choose how much of their tax revenue stays with the government, how much is diverted to fund career agents, and how much to cut their own tax rates. They choose how much stays with government by deciding how much gets auctioned off each year. And they decide how much to cut their own taxes, relative to creating career agents, by directly bidding in the auction. We can make sure the auction mechanism gives the taxpayer the last move, so that they can always increase their bid to grab all the tax revenue, if they are willing to pay enough. And if they have a limited budget, they can limit how much is auctioned each year to try to make sure they could buy it all.

Of course banks might loan people money to buy out their future tax obligations, and parents might help their kids by paying to cut their future tax rates. We might even let parents start this whole process when the kid is born, with parents choosing how much to sell each year, though my polls suggests many won’t like giving parents this power.

If we worry that auctions denominated in cash would distort the risk profile of government revenue, then either government could use that auction revenue to buy riskier assets, or the auction could itself be dominated in such risky assets (such as a stock index fund).

Yes, the taxpayer would likely have more info that other auction participants regarding their future tax revenue. But if we pick say an ascending price auction, and mark the taxpayer’s bid clearly for others to see, other participants can infer much from taxpayer bids. And any remaining overall advantages, which in effect let the taxpayer lower their taxes, could be compensated just by raising overall tax rates.

Regarding other worries, let me just repeat what I’ve said before:

You might fear that asset holders would lobby to increase taxes, but they are easily outvoted by ordinary taxpayers. Conversely, you might fear that governments would lower tax rates to please voters while hurting asset holders. But governments would fear cutting revenue in new auctions; governments similarly don’t usually inflate to pay off bonds for fear of raising their cost of new bonds. These tax assets can function as well as does government debt, which is pretty well. …

Yes, people might try to extort asset holders to sell their tax asset to them cheap via threatening to choose a tax-free life. But asset holders would likely call their bluff and just refuse to sell in such circumstances.

And that’s it; we could mitigate the harm of high income tax rates by auctioning off the right to collect income tax revenue. If the taxpayer wins the auction, they in effect lower their tax rate, to all our benefit. If others win, career agents are created. Both benefits basically come for free, so why not?

Added 5p: Note that high earners trying to look like low earners would thereby save on the price of lowering their taxes, but they’d also raise the auction price paid for low earners, which would induce more career agent efforts on their behalf.

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The Insular Fertile Future

Fertility (= kids per adult) has been falling worldwide for centuries. It seems to be correlated strongly with societal (not individual) wealth, and mediated by norms transmitted via mass media. World elite culture supports falling fertility by celebrating professional more than parenting accomplishment. Among many rich world elites, fertility has fallen below replacement level, and is still falling further. More others should join them as the world gets richer and more culturally integrated.

With seven billion humans today, if the population were to fall in half every two generations it would take roughly 1600 years for humanity to go extinct. So the risk isn’t immediate, and lots of things might change before then. (E.g., see my book Age of Em.) But as this trend has been consistent for centuries, it’s hardly crazy to think that it may continue for many more centuries.

Yes, extinction isn’t that likely, as a more likely scenario has selection stepping in to promote higher fertility. However, on reflection I think it also makes sense to worry about that better scenario, as the most likely way for selection to promote fertility is by promoting insular subcultures, especially re gender/mating/fertility. Let me explain.

Today the cultures associated with higher fertility tend to be more “traditional”, and less integrated with the dominant world elite culture. And a few small subcultures, like Mennonites and Amish, or Mormons and Orthodox Jews, even manage to maintain high fertility while staying closely connected to the dominant culture. However, as a big fraction of the youth of such subcultures leave them, it isn’t obvious that these subcultures can long sustain net growth.

But this does point to the plausibly winning strategy: subcultures that are both highly fertile and highly insular, keeping enough youth from wanting to defect from their subculture to join the dominant low fertility culture. Through some combination of genes, culture, and tech, they find a way isolate their members more from outside cultural influence, and thereby to support sustained population growth (or at least less rapid decline).

That scenario is a win relative to human extinction, but it should worry those who see much value embodied in the dominant culture, and much harm that could come from more cultural isolation, or from the religions or ideologies that might be used to sustain such insularity. For example, as traditional cultures are the main source today of insular fertile cultures, they seem likely to also be the main source of such winning subcultures in a few centuries. Maybe we’ll get a traditional culture who happens to take a lot from the dominant culture. But also maybe not.

What other options do we have? We could hope that genetic evolution will turn out to be faster than we fear, that global culture will change its mind and switch to promoting fertility, or that cheap nurturing robot parents will appear in time. But these seem faint hopes. The dominant culture may well seek to repress divergent insular fertile subcultures, but that would raise the risk of human extinction.

One possible fix that comes to mind here is for the dominant culture to tolerate and even encourage mating and gender variance among new cultural descendants of that dominant culture. That is, encourage the creation of new subcultures that inherit most of their cultural elements from the dominant culture, but that explore different approaches to mating, gender , and parenting within each subculture. Swinging, polyamory, and home schooling subcultures of today show that such cultural descendants are at least possible. Hopefully such subcultures would mainly be more culturally insular only regarding their mating, gender, and parenting aspects.

With enough such experiments, we might find new subcultures that promote much higher fertility, and yet which also inherit many aspects of dominant culture. And these might have a fighting chance against insular subcultures descended from more traditional cultures. Alas, this fix requires that the dominant culture become much more tolerant of local variations in gender, mating, and parenting, which may not be much more likely than their just coming to see the wisdom of promoting fertility. After all we are currently in an increasingly Puritan era of more not less conformity on such things.

I’m afraid I really don’t see a good solution here yet. But I at least want to flag the problem for consideration.

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Think of the (Alien) Children!

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren [in China].  Adam Smith

Among all the articles on UFOs I’ver read over the last half year, about half of them mentioned the possibility that some UFOs are aliens. But I can’t recall any giving thought to how such aliens might feel about the issue. Isn’t that awful self-centered of us? 

You may say that you can’t be bothered to empathize with only hypothetical creatures, and we just aren’t at all sure that UFO aliens exist. Fair enough. But then I will point you to grabby aliens; in my opinion we have strong enough evidence of their existence to say they are more likely to exist than not. If you recall, we need to explain why humans have arrived so early in the history of the universe, and a deadline set by grabby aliens who will soon fill up the universe seems our most robust explanation.

You may say that you can’t just take my word for this, that you must wait to see this argument endorse by standard academic astrophysics authorities. That, you say, is how “science” works. Fair enough. I hereby announce that our grabby aliens paper has been accepted for publication in one of the top astrophysics journals, aptly named Astrophysical Journal. (Here is a press release.) So now its not just speculation.

You may say that you still need to be sure they exist to care, and our results can’t support that level of certainty. But on the subject of global warming people often lament its effect on distant future generations, even though we can’t be sure that such future generations will exist. So you don’t need to be that sure, right?

You may argue that you’ll need to know more about these aliens before you can care about them. Fair enough. So let me tell you many things about them. They once were animals with minds and bodies like yours, but have since reimplemented themselves as artificial life. And they have been artificial life for millions of years; their tech is vastly more advanced than yours.

Even so, they are still more like you than all the other kinds of animals on Earth, as they should have trade, language, law, war, hierarchy, governance, tech, and much more. The first ones we meet will be frontier aliens, descendants of a long line who prioritized staying at the leading edge of expansion. At the expense of other things, such as world government. 

There, now do you know enough to care? Does it help to know that there are vastly more of them out there are humans on Earth?

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