Monthly Archives: November 2021

Argument Foreplay

The most prestigious articles in popular media tend to argue for a (value-adjacent) claim. And such articles tend to be long. Even so, most can’t be bothered to define their terms carefully, or to identify and respond to the main plausible counter-arguments to their argument. Such articles are instead filled with anecdotes, literary allusions, and the author’s history of thoughts on the subject. A similar thing happens even in many academic philosophy papers; they leave little space for their main positive argument, which is then short and weakly defended.

Consider also that while a pastor usually considers his or her sermon to be the “meat” of their service, that sermon takes a minority of the time, and is preceded by a great many other rituals, such as singing. And internally such sermons are usually structured like those prestigious media articles. The main argument is preceded by many not-logically-necessary points, leaving little time to address ambiguities or counter-arguments.

And consider sexual foreplay. Even people in a state where they are pretty excited, attracted, and willing are often put off by a partner pushing for too direct or rapid a transition to the actual sex act. They instead want a gradual series of increasingly intense and close interactions, which allow each party to verify that the other party has similar feelings and intentions.

In meals, we don’t want to get straight to a “main dish”, but prefer instead a series of dishes of increasing intensity. The main performers in concerts and political rallies are often preceded by opening acts. Movies in theaters used to be preceded by news and short films, and today are preceded by previews. Conversations often make use of starters and icebreakers; practical conversations are supposed to be preceded by small-talk. And revolutions may be preceded by increasingly dramatic riots and demonstrations.

What is going on here? Randall Collins’ book Interaction Ritual Chains explained this all for me. We humans often want to sync our actions and attention, to assure each other than we feel and think the same. And also that our partners are sufficiently skilled and impressive at this process.
The more important is this assurance, the more we make sure to sync, and the more intensely and intricately we sync. And where shared values and attitudes are important to us, we make sure that those are strongly salient and relevant to our synced actions.

Regarding media articles and sermons, a direct if perhaps surprising implication of all this is that most of us are often not very open to hearing and being persuaded by arguments until speakers show us that they sufficiently share our values, and are sufficiently impressive in this performance. So getting straight to the argument point (as I often do) is often seen as rude and offensive, like a would-be seducer going straight to “can I put it in.”

The lack of attention to argument precision and to counter-arguments bothers them less, as they are relatively wiling to accept a claim just on the basis of the impressiveness and shared values of the speaker. Yes, they want to be given at least one supporting argument, in case they need justify their new position to challengers. But the main goal is to share beliefs with impressive value allies.

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The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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Will World Government Rot?

We have seen a centuries-long increase in the scale and scope of governance, and today we see many forms of global governance. While the literature has so far identified many costs and benefits of global governance, I here suggest that we add one so-far-neglected consideration to the list: rot. While many kinds of systems tend to innovate and grow with time, other kinds of systems tend to rot, decay, and die. We should consider the risks that global governance may increase the rot of our total world system.

Global Governance

Over the last millennia, the scale of nations has increased, as has the scope and intensity of governance. Particular governance functions have tended to migrate to larger scales, from local to regional to national to global. At the global level, we have increasingly many organizations with increasing abilities to coordinate policy in many particular areas.

In addition to formal organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, we also see an increasingly strong informal global convergence of policy across many areas, such as regarding pandemics, medicine, finance, schools, nuclear, aviation, telecom, and media. This is plausibly due to an increasingly integrated global community of elites and policy-makers, an integration which makes policy-makers in each nation reluctant to deviate far from global policy consensus.

How much wider and stronger might global governance become, and what might be the costs and benefits of such changes? An old literature had identified many relevant factors (Glossop 1993; Alesina & Spolaore 2003; Deudney 2008).

On the plus side, larger scale governance allows for wider standardization, and more trade and migration over larger scales. It also allows for more production of larger-scale public goods such as the promotion of innovation, and dealing with global problems such as CO2 warming. Also, global governance can suppress inter-state warfare.

On the minus side, however, large scale governance encompasses more diverse places, cultures, and populations, and this diversity is an obstacle to coordination. It suggests more internal conflicts within these global systems, and more difficulty reaching consensus, perhaps even leading to armed rebellion. Also, as the threat of external competition weakens, larger scale political processes become freer to focus on internal conflicts and rent seeking, and governance units become freer to suppress dissent and to entrench themselves. Global governance also becomes a single point of failure for the globe, for example increasing risks of both global suicide and of a global totalitarian regime well-entrenched against resistance.

The purpose of this short paper/post is to add one more consideration to this list: rot.

The Question of Rot

Some kinds of systems rot and decay, while other kinds grow and improve. To better judge the potential for rot in our total world system, we need to better understand what distinguishes these two kinds of systems.

For example, over time whole biospheres like Earth seem to slowly accumulate innovations and to spread into more environmental niches. But the individual organisms of which such biospheres are made tend to decay and die, after an initial period of growth. Most individual species, adapted to relatively stable environments, may slowly rot, to be outweighed by the few rare species adapted to varied and changing environments, forcing them to abstract and remain flexible.

Non-trivial software systems seem to consistently rot and decay (Kruchten et al. 2012; Izurieta & Bieman 2013). Software changes resulting from new features and changing hardware and customer environments tend to be haphazard, resulting in more interdependences between previously relatively modular subsystems. This interdependence makes further changes increasingly expensive, so that the system becomes more inflexible and changes less.

While efforts to “refactor” such systems, by streamlining their overall structures, can temporarily increase flexibility, large software systems are almost always eventually discarded, to be replaced by new systems rewritten from scratch.

Over time, legal systems seem to similarly become more complex, interdependent, and resistant to change. Sometimes legal systems are “refactored” to increase flexibility, such as when the Roman emperor Justinian arranged for a restructuring and simplification of the Roman legal code. This Justinian code was later adapted by Napolean, who spread it across Europe, after which European conquests spread it across the world.

While the rate at which firms die does not seem to depend on age (Daepp 2015), older firms do tend to grow at a lower rate (Hosono et al. 2020). That is, individual firms rot.

While industries supplied by many diverse firms seem to consistently grow and innovate, such innovation is greatly reduced when industries are dominated by a very small number of firms (Peneder & Woerter 2014; Delbono & Lambertini 2020). Industry innovation can also be greatly reduced by intrusive and globally coordinate regulations. For example, in the nuclear industry strong regulation has resulting in greatly increasing costs, greatly curtailing its potential (Haas 2019; Hall 2021).

Across human history, entire civilizations and empires also seem to consistently rise and then fall, suggesting that empires also rot (Turchin & Nefedov 2009). Will today’s integrated world economy and culture also rot for similar reasons, or will some important difference in today’s world civilization prevent that?

Does World Government Rot?

So now we reach the crucial question: are our new systems of global governance more like an open field of competition that innovates and grows, as do open industries and biospheres? Or are they more like individual organisms, firms, empires, and software and legal systems, or like overly-concentrated or overly-regulated industries? Which tend to decay and rot. What are the key parameters that determine renewal versus rot, and how can they be mapped onto systems of global governance? And can we identify the safest least-rotting variations to recommend? Is it sufficient to keep such systems very simple and modular, allowing few dependencies?


Alberto Alesina, Enrico Spolaore (2003) The Size of Nations, The MIT Press, November 7.

Madeleine I. G. Daepp , Marcus J. Hamilton , Geoffrey B. West and Luís M. A. Bettencourt 2015. “The mortality of companies” Interface 6, May.

Flavio Delbono, Luca Lambertini (2020) “Innovation and product market concentration: Schumpeter, arrow, and the inverted U-shape curve.” Oxford Economic Papers, November,

Daniel H. Deudney (2008) Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. Princeton University Press, November 9.

Ronald J. Glossop (1993) World Federation?: A Critical Analysis of Federal World Government.
McFarland Publishing, July 1.

Reinhard Haas, Stephen Thomas, Amela Ajanovic (2019) “The Historical Development of the Costs of Nuclear Power” in The Technological and Economic Future of Nuclear Power, pp.97-115.

J. Storrs Hall (2021) Where Is My Flying Car? Stripe Press, November 30.

Kaoru Hosono, Miho Takizawa, Kenta Yamanouchi (2020), “Firm Age, Productivity, and Intangible Capital.” RIETI Discussion Paper 20-E-001.

Clemente Izurieta & James M. Bieman (2013) “A multiple case study of design pattern decay, grime, and rot in evolving software systems” Software Quality Journal 21:289–323.

Philippe Kruchten; Robert L. Nord; Ipek Ozkaya (2012) “Technical Debt: From Metaphor to Theory and Practice” IEEE Software 29(6):,18 – 21, Nov-Dec.

Peter Turchin, Sergey A. Nefedov (2009) Secular Cycles Princeton University Press, August 9.

Peneder M. Woerter M. (2014) “Competition, R&D and innovation: testing the inverted-U in a simultaneous system.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 24:653–87.

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Minds Almost Meeting

Many travel to see exotic mountains, buildings, statues, or food. But me, I want to see different people. If it could be somehow arranged, I’d happily “travel” to dozens of different subcultures that live within 100 miles of me. But I wouldn’t just want to walk past them, I’d want to interact enough to get in their heads.

Working in diverse intellectual areas has helped. So far, these include engineering, physics, philosophy, computer science, statistics, economics, polisci, finance, futurism, psychology, and astrophysics. But there are so many other intellectual areas I’ve hardly touched, and far more non-intellectual heads of which I’ve seen so little.

Enter the remarkable Agnes Callard with whom I’ve just posted ten episodes of our new podcast “Minds Almost Meeting”:

Tagline: Agnes and Robin talk, try to connect, often fail, but sometimes don’t.

Summary: Imagine two smart curious friendly and basically truth-seeking people, but from very different intellectual traditions. Traditions with different tools, priorities, and ground rules. What would they discuss? Would they talk past each other? Make any progress? Would anyone want to hear them? Economist Robin Hanson and philosopher Agnes Callard decided to find out.

Topics: Paradox of Honesty, Plagiarism, Future Generations, Paternalism, Punishment, Pink and Purple, Aspiration, Prediction Markets, Hidden Motives, Distant Signals.

It’s not clear who will be entertained by our efforts, but I found the process fascinating, informative, and rewarding. Though our audio quality was low at times, it is still understandable.

Agnes is a University of Chicago professor of philosophy and a rising-star “public intellectual” who often publishes in places like The New Yorker. She and I are similar in both being oddball, hard-to-offend, selfish parents and academics. We both have religious upbringings, broad interests, and a taste for abstraction. But we differ by generation, gender, and especially in our intellectual backgrounds and orientations (me vs. her): STEM vs. humanities, futurist vs. classicist, explaining via past shapings vs. future aspirations, and relying more vs. less on large systems of thought.

Before talking to Agnes, I hadn’t realized just how shaped I’ve been by assimilating many large formal systems of thought, such as calculus, physics, optimization, algorithms, info theory, decision theory, game theory, economics, etc. Though the core of these systems can be simple, each has been connected to many diverse applications, and many larger analysis structures have been built on top of them.

Yes these systems, and their auxiliary structures and applications, are based on assumptions that can be wrong. But their big benefit is that shared efforts to use them have rooted out many (though hardly all) contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherences. So my habit of trying when possible to match any new question to one of these systems is likely to, on average, produce a more coherent resulting analyses. I’m far more interested in applying existing systems to big neglected topics than in inventing new systems.

In contrast, though philosophers like Agnes who rely on few such structures beyond simple logic can expect their arguments to be accessible to wider audiences, they must also expect a great many incoherences in their analysis. Which is part of why they so often disagree, and build such long chains of back and forth argumentation. I agree with Tyler, who in his conversation with Agnes said these long chains suggest a problem. However, I do see the value of having some fraction of intellectuals taking this simple robust strategy, as a complement to more system-focused strategies.

Thank you Agnes Callard, for helping me to see a wider intellectual world, including different ways of thinking and topics I’ve neglected.

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What I Hold Sacred

Someone recently told me that I stood out compared to other writers in never seeming to treat anything as sacred. Which seemed to them awkward, odd, and implausible, as much as the opposite writers who seem to treat most all topics and issues as sacred. More plausibly, most people do treat some minority of things as especially sacred, and if they don’t reveal that in their writing, they are probably hiding it from others, and maybe also from themselves.

This seems plausible enough that it pushes me to try to identify and admit what I hold sacred. When I search for ways to identify what people hold sacred, I find quite a lot of rather vague descriptions and associations. The most concrete signs I find are: associating it with rituals and symbols, treating it with awe and reverence, unwillingness to trade other things for it, and outrage at those who disrespect it.

The best candidate I can find is: truth-seeking. More specifically: truth-seeking among intellectuals on important topics. That is, the goal is for the world to learn more together on key abstract topics, and I want each person who contributes substantially to such projects to add the most that they can, given their constraints and the budgets they are willing to allocate to it. I don’t insist anyone devote themselves wholly to this, and I’m less concerned with each person always being perfectly honest than with us together figuring stuff out.

I admit that I do treat this with reverence, and I’m reluctant to trade it for other things. And I’d more often express outrage at others disrespecting it if I thought I’d get more support on such occasions. Yes, most everyone gives great lip service allegiance to this value. But most suggest that there are few tradeoffs between this and other values, and also that following a few simple rules of thumb (e.g., don’t lie, give confidence intervals) is sufficient; no need to dig deeper. In contrast, I think it takes long-sustained careful thought to really see what would most help for his goal, and I also see many big opportunities to sacrifice other things for this goal.

How can you better affirm this value? Its simple, but hard: Continually ask yourself what are the most important topics, what are the most promising ways to advance them, and what are your comparative advantages re such efforts. Do not assume that answers to these questions are implicit in the status and rewards that others offer you for various activities. The world mostly doesn’t care much, and so if you do care more you can’t focus on pleasing the world.

So why do I seem reluctant to talk about this? I think because I feel vulnerable. When you admit what is most precious to you, others might threaten it in order to extort concessions from you. And it is hard to argue well for why any particular value should be the most sacred. You run out of arguments and must admit you’ve made a choice you can’t justify. I so admit.

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