Monthly Archives: March 2022

We Trust The Statusful

The ancient world heavily favored aristocrats for important social positions. Yes, they were probably on average more competent in many ways, but many have claimed that good family connections were favored more strongly than can be explained by this effect.

You might argue that aristocrats were just conspiring to favor themselves, but it seems that others also shared their preference. For example, many stories (e.g.) describe someone seeking an audience with a high official, out of a belief that higher officials must be less corrupt and more concerned with general welfare, relative to the lower ones. “If only the king would hear, he’d do something.”

It seems to me that humans have generally trusted higher status people more, and that we still do so today. For example, status is the main way we trust doctors, lawyers, CEOs, fund managers, and many other professionals (instead of track records or incentive contracts).

As another example, even though people say that they trust smaller orgs more than big ones, people say they trust those at the top of orgs more than those at the bottom. Yes, top people get more easily spread their messages blaming lower folks for problems, and can more easily repress lower folks who blame them. But it seems most people don’t correct for this, or don’t see it as a big correction.

Furthermore, consider our criminal law system. Whether and how much a possible criminal is accused or punished is influenced by many parties. First police, then prosecutors, then judges, then appellate judges, then executives who can pardon, and finally prison wardens and parole boards who influence prison duration and severity. All of these parties are either politicians, political appointees, or folks appointed directly or indirectly by such appointees, and thus should all have incentives to please such people.

Yet if you ask people who they trust to make choices in this system, they consistently prefer the higher status people. In some recent polls, I’ve found that they trust prosecutors more than police, trust judges more than prosecutors, trust judges more than prison wardens or parole boards, and trust executives whose pardons overrule judges. Furthermore, people only proposed recently to “defund” the lowest status among these groups, and one of the main proposals to make police more trustworthy is to require more years of education, i.e., to raise their status.

Some people say this is because the higher status groups have better incentives. But we have chosen the incentives that each of these parties to be what they are, and we could, if we wanted, give all these other groups the same incentives we now give the most trusted group, judges. The relative status of these groups seems to me a cleaner explanation.

I think we are suffering enormous losses from trusting based on status, instead of using other methods. But it seems very hard to displace our innate trust of the high status enough to get people to consider such alternatives. We don’t seek solutions when we don’t think we have a problem.

Added 6Apr: I failed above to mention that we are reluctant to ask for track records or incentives from our statusful suppliers in part because we see that as weakening the connection by which their status raises our status. We want it to look like we mutually trust each other, as that’s the kind of relation by which associates gain status from each other.

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Sensible Antitrust

Most people distrust for-profit firms, relative to individuals and other kinds of orgs. And they distrust such firms more when they get larger, and serve a larger fraction of their industries. This fear expresses itself in criticism, suspicion, and support for politicians who increase the regulations and taxes on such orgs.

This fear is often justified by pointing to potential harms that might result from selfish firms exercising their market power, i.e., their ability to influence prices. (Somehow they can’t believe government or charities would do similarly.) Most people are thus especially eager to see “antitrust” regulation, which purports to directly focus on and address this issue.

Thus most people are surprised when scholars like me (and others) tell them that, historically, regulation with that label seems to been worse than useless; it has done net harm. While simple theory says that harmful market power would be used to raise prices and restrict supply, antitrust regulation has often punished firms for lowering prices and increasing supply.

But a valid question remains: if theory suggests that market power can be harmful, why don’t we see beneficial regulation to limit such harm? Is government so incompetent that it can’t even on average help to limit the harms from market power?

My main point in this post is just to say: actually we do have a lot of regulation that usefully limits market power. It just doesn’t go under the name “antitrust regulation”. It instead goes under the name “utilities regulation”.

We quite commonly have regulation that controls to varying degrees the organizations that supply water, sewer, gas, electricity, phone, cable TV, internet, roads, mail, and other common city services. This is because of a strong widespread consensus that it wouldn’t go well to allow most such organizations full freedom to choose the prices that they charge for such services. It is often prohibitively expensive to build infrastructure to allow multiple competing suppliers of such services, and a single supplier could charge crazy high prices.

Now it might in fact be feasible and even preferable to have such services be supplied by fully private organizations constrained by long term contracts with their customers. But most everywhere instead solves such problems with utilities regulation. Suggesting a widespread consensus that there is in fact a real problem with market power in these cases, and that regulation is usually a reasonable solution.

So the lesson to learn here is not that governments can’t effectively regulate market power. The lesson is that market power has to get pretty extreme before that approach works. Regulating roads and sewer services, that can make sense. But regulating suppliers of oil, aluminum, cameras, or computer operating systems, when suppliers face actual competitors offering such products to customers, doesn’t make sense.

Yes there is often substantial market power there, and thus some potential for harm, and the logical possibility that smart well-intentioned regulators could improve on unregulated behavior. But given typical abilities of firms to capture regulators, and use their powers as a club to limit competition, it doesn’t actually make sense. The state of the art is: either turn an industry into a regulated utility, or just leave it alone.

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Friends, Factions, And Status

We have three different kinds of reasons to favor others: friends, factions, and status. First, we favor those to whom we have relatively direct connections: friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, sport teammates, church-mates, etc. Second, we favor other members of our self-promoting groups, where each such group makes up a substantial fraction of our relevant society. Such as groups who share gender, ethnicity, education level, or religion. Third, we favor people we see as having prestige or dominance, and are thus accepted by most everyone as being better than others.

Over time, groups can move between these roles. For example, Christianity started out as small groups who favored each other due to their direct connections. Then it became a repressed minority faction within the Roman Empire, then a large faction, and then the largest dominant fraction, where it repressed others. Over the following centuries Christianity became so dominant, at least in areas near Europe, that it became part of the local concept of status; Christians were higher status than heathens or atheists, and status within Christianity counted as social status more generally. Lately, Christianity has retreated to become more of a strong faction.

Similarly, science started out as small community, then became a minor faction, but by now has become entrenched and dominant in our society. That is, most everyone accepts that being more scientific is better overall for your status. Anti-science factions are repressed factions, when they are allowed at all. For example, we fight over if economics is “science” as a way to fight over it s status.

Another example is prestigious college degrees. Once these were an optional and contested status marker, but now they are almost universally seen as a powerful marker, quite often required for any elite position.

Over the last few centuries, “liberation” movements have succeeded in moving some group differences in the other direction, from status to faction. For example, regarding aristocrats, ethnicities, gender, and sexual preferences. Previously these were all widely accepted as status markers, with some types better than others, but recently they have come more to be seen as just more ways that people can be different. Some now try to induce similar changes in how we treat looks, age, and urban/rural, but they have so far largely failed.

Humans have long worried that allegiances to friends or factions would interfere with loyalty to other shared units. So regarding friends and family favoritism, firms limit nepotism, judges recuse themselves when they have personal connections, and teachers aren’t supposed to grade their friends, family, or lovers.

Regarding faction favoritism, humans have long had neutrality norms to limit such favoritism. As a result, faction favoritism is a common “hidden motive” to which we are often consciously blind, like other hidden motives we discuss in our book Elephant in the Brain.

For example, you are supposed to set aside faction allegiances when you rule as a judge, or grade as a teacher, or review a journal article. As a firm representative or responsible professional, you aren’t supposed to give better or cheaper service to customers who share your factions. In a firm, you are supposed to argue for choices of personnel, projects, or policies based on what is good for the firm as a whole, not for your within-firm factions.

Some legal rules of evidence, and common norms of good debate, can be seen as trying limit factional support. For example, rules against hearsay can discourage factions from getting their members to lie for each other, and rules against revealing prior criminal convictions to jurors may prevent conviction-correlated faction action. And debate norms that discourage group-based insults or appeals to authority or popularity can also discourage factional coordination.

In most ancient societies, there was usually a single dominant power coalition, and this still holds for most democratic cities today. The founders of US democracy worried a lot about democratic polities plagued by factions. They thought they had a fix (many small ones), but they were wrong; in larger democratic polities, we’ve often seen a consistent split into two main roughly-equally-strong political factions.

Which subgroups comprise these two factions changes during rare “political realignments.” And in such polities, people like judges, teachers, or generals who represent the polity as a whole are usually expected to set aside their affiliations with these two political factions when making key decisions.

In such polities, it is more okay to say that you favor particular political candidates because they favor your factions. But even there we prefer factions to say that they are trying to do good for the polity as a whole. Valid factions, we say, merely hold different opinions on what is good for us all.

Yes, we are aware that factions may hypocritically pretend to serve the general good while actually serving themselves. We are also aware that high status groups like the top-college-educated may in part just be self-favoring factions so powerful that they suppress any substantial opposition. Even so, we prefer hypocrisy to more overt factional self-dealing, and we prefer to suppress the factions that we can suppress rather than to suppress none at all.

In the U.S. since WWII, we have seen increasing and now record “polarization” between the main two political factions. And recently we’ve seen the relatively new phenomena of “reverse discrimination”, whereby some groups which were first seen as low in status, and then second were supposed to be treated neutrally as just another faction, are now third to be treated in key selection processes as if they were actually higher in status, to correct for their past lower status. Is this a new political realignment?

I actually think it is even bigger; we are now seeing a political faction make a bid for promotion, from faction to status. They want most everyone to accept that their side is just morally better. This faction has come to dominate the most prestigious high ends of many social high grounds: tech, academia, media, civil service, finance, charity, and more. And this faction has induced those arenas to set aside their usual professional neutrality norms regarding political factions, to strongly favor this faction.

In wider public discourse, this faction has used direct control over media and tech, and also the threat of punishment in other arenas it controls, to silence disliked parties and points of view. The opposing faction now mainly retains control of roughly half of top political positions, of peripheral locations of all sorts, and of professions like construction, engineering, and the military wherein they still proudly apply professional norms of factional neutrality. Which looks to me like a weak and losing position.

The main thing I can see that could derail this fast strong train is factional infighting. Such as between those focused on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism, and pro-immigration. There are plausible cleavages there, but I don’t see them opening much anytime soon; this alliance really does show extreme ideologue/religion/etc levels of passion and bonding. Which has long been the origin of new empires in history.

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Unblinding Our Admin Futures

Our job as futurists is to forecast the future. Not exactly of course, but at least to cut the uncertainty. And one of the simplest way to do that is to take relatively stable and robust past long term trends and project them into the future. Especially if those trends still have a long way that they could continue before they hit fundamental limits. For example, futurists have tried to apply this method to increasing incomes, leisure, variety, density, non-violence, automation, and ease of communication and transport.

It seems to me that one especially promising candidate for this method is also plausibly the fundamental cause of the industrial revolution: bureaucracy. For centuries we humans have been slowly learning how to manage larger more complex networks and organizations, via more formal roles, rules, and processes. (That is, we have more “admin”.) As a result, our orgs have been getting larger and have wider scope, governments have been doing more, and government functions have moved up to larger scale units (cities to states to nations, etc.).

For example, a twitter poll just found respondents saying 1o-1 that the org they know best has been getting more, as opposed to less, bureaucratic over the last decade. And our laws have been getting consistently more complex.

If formal roles, rules, and processes increase over the next century as much as they have over the last century, that should make our future quite different from today. But how exactly? Yes, we’ll use computers more in admin, but that still leaves a lot unsaid. You might think science fiction would be all over this, describing our more admin future in great detail. Yet in fact, science fiction rarely describes much bureaucracy.

In fact, neither does fantasy, the other genre closest to science fiction. Actually, most stories avoid org complexity. For example, most movies and TV shows focus on leisure, instead of work. And when bureaucracy is included, it is usually as a soul-crushing or arbitrary-obstacle villain. It seems that we’d rather look away than acknowledge bureaucracy as a key source of our wealth and value, a pillar and engine of our civilization.

To try to see past this admin blindspot, let us try to find an area of life that today has relatively few formal rules and procedures, and then imagine adding a lot more of them there. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this area of life becomes more restricted and limited compared to today. But it does mean that whatever processes and restrictions there are become more formal and complex.

Public conversation comes to my mind as a potential example here. The rise of social media has created a whole lot more of it, and over the last few years many (including me) have been criticized for saying things the wrong way in public. The claim is often made that it is not the content of what they said that was the problem, it was the way that they said it. So many people say that we accept many complex rules of public conversation that are often being violated.

Thus I’m inclined to imagine a future where we have a lot more formal rules and processes regarding public conversations. These might not be seen as a limit on free speech, in that they only limit how you can say things, not what you can say. These rules might be complex enough to push us to pay for specialist advisors who help us navigate the new rules. Perhaps automation will make such advisors cheaper. And people of that era might prefer the relatively neutral and fair application of these complex rules to the more opportunistic and partisan ways that informal norms were enforced back in the day.

Now I’m not very confident that this is an area of life where we will get a lot more bureaucracy. But I am confident that there will be many such areas, and that we are so far greatly failing to imagine our more bureaucratic future. So please, I encourage you all to help us imagine what our more admin future may look like.

Added 11a: I’m about to attend an event whose dress code is “resort casual”. Whatever that means. I can imagine such dress rules getting a lot more explicit and complex.

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From Norms to Law In War

Humans have long had norms against “starting” fights. Even so, those who start fights are often able to point to things that the other side did first to “really” start the fight. For example, Putin says that actions by the West forced his hand in Ukraine.

Within a nation, law is usually able to draw a clear enough line to decide who started a fight. But if you think about it, at the global level the world is not very clear on what counts as an “act of war”. Many have said the following are not acts of war: selling weapons, econ sanctions, cyberattacks, troop advisors, and even bombings.

You might agree that we haven’t written down an exact clear rule, yet still feel like that it seems pretty clear in most cases. But due to “automatic norms” this is usually less clear than we think. Me four years ago:

categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. … we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. … “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.” (more more more)

For war, this norm ambiguity is especially unfortunate, as it causes more war. What we should hope for instead is to deal with war less via vague informal norms, and more via formal law.

You might object that without a strong central world government, we can’t really have law; we can only have treaties enforced informally, by a threat of shame in the eyes of a world community. But actually, the world has long seen many different kind of legal systems, including legal systems that are stronger than informal norms, yet using powers short of a strong central government.

For example, in one classic legal system, courts issue rulings without having any further power to enforce their rulings. Their threat is just that if you don’t do what they say, they may officially label you an “outlaw”, after which anyone is free to harm you without fear of legal penalties.

Such a classic legal system could be further strengthened if its subjects were to give it hostages. For example, a financial hub which holds many financial assets of subjects could also serve as a legal system, if those assets held could be forfeit in the case of adverse legal rulings. (And if that hub were run by a distinct non-partisan community proud to serve in its legal role, and sufficiently able protect itself from outside attack.)

Thus it seems possible for the world to have a legal system wherein a widely-used sufficiently-defended financial hub agreed to enforce treaties between the nations whose assets were held there. Then if a nation violated its treaty, and refused to abide by this court’s ruling against it, then this law could declare that nation an outlaw, and grab its held assets.

How is that different from a large world alliance spontaneously agreeing to treat a nation as an outlaw and then grab whatever assets they can? It would be the difference between norms and contract law. An alliance might not be fair. It might instead not protect a once-ally if that were inconvenient, or it might opportunistically use its power to unfairly dump on a nation if that happened to be convenient. In contrast, with a more formal law, we might have more (though hardly infinite) hope for principled consistent non-partisan rulings.

The world doesn’t need to have a strong world government to have a functioning contract law between nations. Treaties can be more than expressions of hope.

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Make Law Like Couches, Not Cars

Action movies often show fights in complex environments like factories, ships, kitchens, warehouses, or construction sites. In such cases, whomever knows more details of that environment can have big advantages in the fight. However, when people instead try to arrange a “fair fight”, they usually choose simple environments that combatants can know similarly well, like an empty flat walled square or circle.

Lawyers often fill their offices with big shelves full of law books. As if to say “Law is a vast complex machine you wouldn’t want to mess with without access to an engineer like me who knows all its details.” Or more relevant, “The arena of law is as complex a place for a fight as is a factory or kitchen. You don’t want to fight there without a warrior like me who knows all those complex details.”

However, the essence of law is for a judge to hear A complain about B, and then to issue a ruling to reward or punish A or B. And the main point of such law is to induce better behavior via shared expectations of such rulings. For that purpose, what matters about the law is those shared prior expectations; further legal detail beyond that has little social value.

Actually, added legal complexity and detail can hurt, by tempting people to learn more legal details in order to gain strategic advantages. Just as warriors fighting in a kitchen would need to learn kitchen details, people with possible legal conflicts can need to learn about arbitrary legal details, or to hire lawyers who learn them, even if those details do little to help guide prior actions by A or B.

Imagine that two people will hold a verbal debate in some physical space. Law without needless details is like the debaters sitting on a simple couch to do their debate. Such a couch has little other structure besides that which is needed to coordinate their locations and orientations. Which is good.

Now imagine a couch with lots of little pockets holding weapons or controls to make the couch poke people, change shape, get hot, or make noises. Something like a car. If you were to be in a debate on such a complex couch, you’d want to invest in learning those details. For example, you might be able to poke your opponent out of view at just the right moment. Even though that is a social waste.

Is a minimal couch-like law possible? Consider juries. Imagine there is little formal law, so that juries can rule most any way they choose. In this case legal expectations are just expectations over jury rulings. So if A and B know the community from which jurors are chosen well enough, then they know that they have shared legal expectations. And they know that there’s not much either of them can do to gain more info on that. Their law is a couch, not a car.

Of course it is not enough just to have shared legal expectations; one also wants those expectations to do well at taking into account situation details known to both A and B. Thus one problem with a simple jury system is that random juries many not know important situation details that are known by both A and B. So each pair A and B might prefer that a case between be judged by a jury chosen from a community closer to them, so that this jury knows more of their shared context.

But you also couldn’t pick jurors who are too closely connected to A and B, as these might not be willing to function as independent jurors. So, for example, if A and B are both in the movie industry, it might make sense to give them a jury from the movie industry, who could then understand movie practices. But maybe not jurors who are currently working on the very same movie as they.

150 years ago, the US had something closer to this simple jury system, as stated laws were few and vague, juries made most decisions, lawyers were cheap and less often needed, and plea bargaining wasn’t yet much of a thing. Since then, US law has accumulated far more detail. Yet little of this detail seems to be an adaptation to a more complex world; most is just random. And we must pay lawyers who learn this detail if we hope to win at court.

Worse, regulations greatly restrict who can be a lawyer, slower more expensive legal processes add to our costs, and few of us have sufficient assets to pay if we lose. Thus US law has rotted in a great many ways. When will we notice that, and consider big changes?

By the way, one feature that we might want in a legal system is an ability ask it for prior approval for behavior. “Would it be legal or not-negligent if I did it this way?” And you might hope that a very detailed legal system could at least offer this advantage over a simple jury-based version. You’d just look up the relevant detailed law. But in fact our very complex detailed legal system doesn’t offer this feature. You just can’t ask what acts might be legal; you can only do stuff and find out later if you are punished.

Added 11a: Jury decisions can vary. To reduce the impact of that in particular parties, we could  have the consequences for them be set by prediction markets on jury decisions. Those market predictions would be far more consistent across cases.

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Are Firms Today’s Low Class?

In the ancient world, there were different classes of people, who were treated differently. Some had more freedoms than others, such as to own property, make contracts, start lawsuits, speak in public forums, or travel on their own. On the street, some had to stay silent, to wear distinctive clothing, to give way to others, and to show on demand who vouched for them.

Today we are proud that we make fewer such distinctions among individuals. (Though we do distinguish kids and convicts.) But that may be less because of our liberality, and more because of the rise of large organizations, of which the ancient world had far fewer. Today we require many distinctions between individuals, for-profit firms, non-profit orgs, and government agencies.

For example, we ban many kinds of discrimination by firms that we allow by individuals, and we hold firms to higher standards of truthfulness. We require more public disclosures by them. And many want to further limit their abilities to speak in public debates.

We today are horrified to hear that an unwed mother might have once been required to wear a “Scarlet A” in public to display her status, and are similarly horrified by rumors of a Chinese “social credit” system to weigh many indicators of social approval and disapproval. (Though we seem okay with credit scores, relating only to our dealings with firms.)

But we seem fine with legally requiring firms to disclose Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) scores, which score firms by adding up dozens of particular “do-gooder” indications. A social credit score for firms. So far laws have not yet required us to shun the firms that rate poorly, though many suspect such laws are coming. But such scores today clearly help mobs to coordinate to punish firms, just as Scarlet As do for individuals.

Government agencies, in contrast, often have more privileges than both firms and individuals. For example, US police have “qualified immunity” protecting them from lawsuits. Government, academic and think tank studies are taken at face value, yet firm versions are considered suspect. Non-profits like universities are allowed to collude in ways that firms cannot.

Thus we today still do maintain formal class ladders in custom and law, but more ladders of orgs than of people. Now you might say this is fine, as class ladders are mean to individuals, making them feel bad, but organizations can’t feel bad. But in fact our class ladders of orgs influence how people in those orgs feel.

As individuals today largely gain status via association with orgs, the status of those orgs directly effects the status of individuals. So when we shame or honor an org, we also shame or honor the people associated with it. Formal class ladders continue today.

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