Monthly Archives: July 2022

Who Should Be Our “Adults”?

Adult: “a mature, fully developed person. An adult has reached the age when they are legally responsible for their actions.”
“to attend to the ordinary tasks required of a responsible adult” “children should be accompanied by an adult” “responsibility, independent decision-making, and financial independence”

Mature: “fully grown physically” “developed mentally and emotionally and behave in a responsible way” “a lot of careful thought”

Responsible: “liable to be called to account” “able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations; trustworthy” “involving important duties, independent decision-making, or control over others.”

The usual concept of “adult” combines both a style in a role, “mature, responsible, independent”, and a description of who we let fill that role, “fully grown human”. In this post I want to reconsider who should fill that role.

The main role of an “adult” is to think carefully about what to do, and then do it reliably, with action choices that account well for their effects on others. That is, an adult has autonomy, self-control, and intelligence to make choices well and reliably, but also faces social incentives adequate to make them play well with others. Or at least play similarly well to the other available adults. Adults can be relied on to do the important things than need doing, and yet can be given great autonomy to decide what to do how and why.

A key subsidiary adult role is to manage “dependents” who are not up to filling this role. Such as children, animals, machines, the mentally ill, and the infirm. Not all adults need take this role, but those who do take this role must be adults. We match each such dependent to an adult “guardian”, allow that guardian to limit dependent behavior, and hold that guardian responsible for such behavior. In order to limit guardian mistreatment of dependents, sufficiently able dependents may be allowed to choose their guardians,

The prototype for this relation is that between human parents and their children. Parents limit their children, and are responsible for them to outsiders. Compared to their children, parents are more free to choose their actions and relations, are more held responsible for their actions, and are more trusted to do important things.

A common “libertarian” vision is to treat all fully grown humans as “adults” in this sense. But in fact such humans have usually not been full trusted, free, or responsible. Among foragers, the band as a whole, discussing together, was more of an “adult”, trusted to limit the behavior of band members. Later on, during the farmer/herder era, family clans were more the “adults”, held responsible for member behavior and able to limit those individuals. Larger nations and empires have also been treated by the world as “adults”, free to choose and to be destroyed. And at times such units have decided to limit the freedoms of particular family clans, treating them as less than fully adult.

Such higher level “adult” social units have at times treated particular fully grown humans as also “adult”, judging them to be sufficiently reliable and responsible to be treated in that way. But many other fully grown humans have been treated more as dependents. And the usual rule has been that such dependents must be associated with particular controlling adults who were more reliable and could be more held more responsible.

The industrial revolution was primarily driven by the rise of new larger orgs, such as for-profits, non-profits, and government agencies. (Science & tech were side effects of those new orgs.) And once such orgs became available, we soon came to treat them as the main “adults” of our world. Such orgs are arguably just smarter and more thoughtful and reliable than individual humans. They are now trusted to manage our most important activities, and are allowed to make deals and relations with each other quite freely, with almost no regulations.

Today we do not treat most fully grown humans as fully “adult”; we instead require each such human to pair up with a nation-state. Nation-states then limit the choices of their fully grown human members, and are held responsible by other nations-states for the actions of such members. We also usually support a norm that humans should be free to switch nations, if the new nation will take them. Nations don’t always play well with each other, but no other orgs at that level can force them to behave better.

However, I propose that we seriously consider instead treating smaller organizations (for-profits and non-profits) as the main responsible “adults” with which we pair each fully grown human. These smaller orgs are arguably on average even smarter, more thoughtful, and more reliable than are nations, they arguably play better with each other, and we are more willing and able to hold them strictly responsible.

Furthermore, these are the orgs that we actually trust to do most of our important activities. Competition between such orgs is what mainly ensures adaptation and innovation in our world, far more than does competition between nation-states. And allowing humans to choose between these as their adults gives them far more effective choice than when choosing between nations.

Today employers are in part treated as “adults” relative to their employees. And requiring each fully grown human to pair up with a sufficiently responsible firm is the essence of my “vouching” proposal for criminal law reform. The main formal requirement to be a voucher is having enough money to pay client fines, which makes such an org much easier to hold responsible for they and client actions. In addition, I expect most to be for-profit firms, and thus smarter and more reliable than are most fully-grown humans. With vouchers responsible for individual behavior, and able to regulate that behavior, we’d have less need for government regulation to limit individual behavior.

Compared to themselves, children see their parents taking on more important roles in the world, being held more responsible for their actions, being more careful in their choices, and being more free to choose as they like. While most children eventually grow into such roles, many are disappointed to learn that few fully grown humans are treated fully as ideal “adults”. In our world, that role is reserved for nation-states.

Some are so disappointed to learn this that they propose “libertarian” reforms to make fully grown humans be the “adults” of our world, mostly unregulated and strongly responsible for their actions. If you ask them why children should not also be treated this way, a few will bite that bullet, but most will point to children being less reliable, thoughtful, and knowledgable, and to our being less willing to hold them fully responsible for their actions.

But even though my intuitions pull libertarian, I have to admit that many fully grown humans also look this way, at least compared to our larger orgs. (Three recent movies, Nitram, Red Rocket, and Fourteen, brought this point home to me.) Such humans can also be pretty random, unreliable, and unthoughtful, and knowing this fact most people aren’t willing to hold them fully responsible for their actions, and are willing to authorize regulation instead to greatly limit their behavior.

However, even though we aren’t willing to treat most children as ideal “adults”, this doesn’t mean that nation-states must directly manage them. Instead we all understand that it probably works better to tie each young human to a fully grown human, who is more thoughtful than, and can be held more responsible than, that child.

So similarly, even if we also aren’t willing to treat most fully grown humans as ideal “adults”, this also doesn’t mean that they should be directly subject to limitations by nation-states. As we can instead tie each fully grown human to a larger voucher org, who we are in fact willing to treat as an ideal “adult”. Because such orgs are in fact more thoughtful, reliable, and able to be held responsible, and we are more willing to actually hold them strictly responsible.

To review, the concept “adult” has two parts, a social role that can be filled, and a description of who fills that role. The role is that of the thoughtful reliable responsible party, who can be trusted to do important things, who can be given great discretion re how to do them, and who can manage non-adults. In the context of small families, then compared to their children to a first approximation that adult role can be filled by fully grown parents.

However, in our larger society we do not in fact trust most fully grown humans to fully fill that role, as we have available to us more thoughtful, reliable, and responsible orgs. We have so far been putting nation-states into the ideal adult role.

But I argue that we’d do better to put smaller orgs in that role. That is, I propose to require each fully grown human to pair up with a “responsible adult” org, ready to pay for all they do wrong, and able to limit their behavior. To avoid mistreatment and allow adaptation to varying context, allow those fully grown humans the freedom to choose a mutually-agreeable adult, but require them to pick one.

If someone can find a voucher willing to back their being treated fully as an adult, well then I’m okay with that person being treated that way. But if no voucher is willing to back that stance, I don’t see why I should back it either. This may be as libertarian as I’m willing to go.

Added 11a: As Stefan Schubert notes, we can also see adult-dependent status in they ways that parties talk to each other. Complaining “kids” talk differently.

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Beware Upward Reference Classes

Sometimes when I see associates getting attention, I wonder, “do they really deserve more attention than me?” I less often look at those who get less attention than me, and ask whether I deserve more. Because they just don’t show up in my field of view as often; attention makes you more noticeable.

If I were to formalize my doubts, I might ask, “Among tenured econ professors, how much does luck and org politics influence who gets more funding, prestige, and attention?” And I might find many reasons to answer “lots”, and so suggest that such things be handed out more equally or randomly. Among tenured econ professors, that is. And if an economist with a lower degree, or a professor from another discipline, asked why they aren’t included in my comparison suggested redistribution, I might answer, “Oh I’m only talking about econ researchers here.”

Someone with a college econ degree might well ask if those with higher credentials like M.S., Ph.D., or a professor position really deserve the extra money, influence, and attention that they get. And if someone with only a high school degree were to ask why they aren’t included in this comparison, the econ degree person might say “oh, I’m only talking about economists here”, presuming that you can’t be considered an economists if you have no econ degree of any sort.

The pattern here is: “envy up, scorn down”. When considering fairness, we tend to define our comparison group upward, as everyone who has nearly as many qualification as we do or more, and then we ask skeptically if those in this group with more qualifications really deserve the extra gains associated with their extra qualifications. But we tend to look downward with scorn, assuming that our qualifications are essential, and thus should be baked into the definition of our reference class. That is, we prefer upward envy reference classes to justify our envying those above us, while rejecting others envying us from below.

Life on Earth has steadily increased in its abilities over time, allowing life to spread into more places and niches. We have good reasons to think that this trend may long continue, eventually allowing our descendants to spread through the universe, until they meet up with other advanced life, resulting in a universe dense with advanced life.

However, many have suggested that this view of the universe makes us today seem suspiciously early among what they see as the relevant comparison group. And thus they suggest we need a Bayesian update toward this view of the universe being less likely. But what exactly is a good comparison group? For example, if you said “We’d be very early among all creatures with access to quantum computers?”, I think we’d all get that this is not so puzzling, as the first quantum computers only appeared a few year ago.

We would also appear very early among all creatures who could knowingly ask the question “How many creatures will ever appear with feature X”, if the concept X applies to us but has only been recently introduced.  We’d also be pretty early among among all creatures who can express any question in language, if language was only invented in the last million years. It isn’t much better to talk about all creatures with self-awareness, if you say only primates and a few other animals count as having that, and they’ve only been around for a few million more years.

Thus in general in a universe where abilities improve over time, creatures that consider upward defined reference classes will tend to find themselves early. Often very early, if they insist that their class members have some very recently acquired abilities. But once you see this tendency to pick upward reference classes, the answers you get to such questions need no longer suggest updates against the hypothesis of long increasing abilities.

Furthermore, in an any universe that will eventually fill up, creatures who find themselves well before that point in time can estimate that they are very early relative to even very neutral reference classes.

It seems to me that something similar is going on when people claim that this coming century will be uniquely important, the most important one ever, as computers are the most powerful tech we have ever seen, and as the next century is plausibly when we will make most of the big choices re how to use computers.  If we generally make the most important choices about each new tech soon after finding it, and if increasingly powerful new techs keep appearing, then this sort of situation should be common, not unique, in history.

So this next century will only be the most important one (in this way) if computers are the last tech to appear that is more powerful than prior techs. But it we expect that even more important techs will continue to be found, then we shouldn’t expect this one to be the most important tech ever. No, I can’t describe these more important yet-to-be-found future techs. But I do believe they exist.

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Hating On Personal Equity

The New Yorker has new article called “Is Selling Yourself The Wave of the Future?”, purportedly on entrepreneurs Daniil and David Liberman efforts to finance their careers via equity (i.e., shares of future income) instead of debt or self-funding, and to entice others to do likewise. But like most New Yorker articles, most of its 8300 words are a profile with many personal details, with hardly any of the article actual discussing this idea.

But as I’ve often written on this concept, a concept close to others I’m fond of, let me take this chance to revisit the topic. In this article, I find five complaints voiced about financing careers vis equity:

Their model isn’t so much digging young people out of their predicament as replacing one kind of weight with another. The vulnerable are still vulnerable, and it remains a long way from the bottom to the top.

Yes, equity doesn’t eliminate poverty. But equity might still improve on debt or no funding, approaches that many vulnerable now use.

“Yes, if you’re the kind of person who wants to work at a job you love and it’s predictable how much money you’re going to make, it’s a bad instrument,” Sam Lessin, the venture capitalist, told me. “It works only when someone can squint and say, O.K., you’ll probably fail, but if you work we’re going to make a ton of money.

If the price of such instruments are set by market forces, I don’t see how they would be bad investments on average. Yes there are transaction costs to create equity, perhaps adverse selection in who sells them, and selling your equity can cut your incentive to work. But on the other side are two key gains. First, equity might fund good career investments that would not otherwise happen. And second, equity can help to align the incentives of advisors and promoters, as we already do now with most career agents.

(Note that in my favorite equity variation, wherein the government auctions off the rights to receive fractions of the stream of tax revenue that it would otherwise get from a taxpayer, there is no added disincentive to work, and in fact an improved incentive to work when that taxpayer wins auctions to buy their own revenue streams.)

Investors give money to promising youths—usually through middleman companies such as Upstart—in exchange for a percentage of their future incomes. The traditional knock against such schemes has been that they’re exploitative or worse, a form of indentured servitude.

This seem empty mud-raking slander. What exactly makes equity exploitive or bad? I think the following two complaints get to the heart of what most people really object to, as I’ve also heard them often when I’ve discussed related proposals:

If the young have to present themselves in a particular way to the older generations so that they will find their life trajectory appealing, I could totally see how there could be a social hierarchy you typically just have between benefactors and those who receive those funds. …

One economist told me he doubts that normal people, even with technical protections, could be free of shareholder influence. (“There is reason to expect that a system that starts out that way will evolve under pressure from investors,” he said. “We saw this with changes in bankruptcy law in 2005 that gave the holders of credit-card debt more power vis-à-vis credit-card debtors by making it harder to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7.”) As most C.E.O.s know, not even success brings freedom from shareholder pressure.

That is, the key complaint is that whomever buys your equity might try to lobby you or your associates to influence your behavior. Or they might try to lobby the government for favorable treatment and powers. That is, they might ask you to agree to changes as a condition of their investment. Or as investors they might try to cosy up to your associates to get them to lobby you toward behavior they prefer.

Note that your associates, in addition to wanting to promote and help you, also have various ways that they want your behavior to change. And they already coordinate with each other to lobby you about these. Such associates include family, friends, lovers, employers, landlords, shared-club members, and business partners. Note further that we already allow you to borrow money, by which once strangers acquire a financial interest in both promoting and lobbying you re your future income.

Once we see that your debt owners, employers, and many other associates already want to promote and lobby you and the government re your behavior, I find it very hard to see how letting you sell shares in your future income adds much to this problem. Especially if we let you decide who if anyone can buy such shares. This seems to me more like a simple anti-capitalist instinct that just isn’t very sensitive to the specifics of this situation.

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Cook’s Critique of Our Earliness Argument

Tristan Cook has posted an impressive analysis, “Replicating and extending the grabby aliens model.” We are grateful for his detailed and careful work. Cook’s main focus is on indexical inference, showing how various estimates depend on different approaches to indexical analysis. But he has an appendix, ‘Updating n on the time remaining”, wherein he elaborates a claim that some of our analysis is “problematic”, “a possible error”, is “incompatible” with his, and that

“These results fail to replicate Hanson et al.’s (2021) finding that (the implicit use of) SSA implies the existence of GCs in our future.”

In this post I respond to that critique.

Cook quotes our claim:

If life on Earth had to achieve n “hard steps” to reach humanity’s level, then the chance of this event rose as time to the n-th power. Integrating this over habitable star formation and planet lifetime distributions predicts >99% of advanced life appears after today, unless n < 3 and max planet duration <50Gyr. That is, we seem early.

He also replicates this key diagram of ours:

This shows that humanity looks very early unless we have a low value of either n (the number of hard steps needed to create advanced life like us) or Lmax (max habitable planet duration). We suggest that this be explained via a grabby-aliens-fill-the-universe deadline coming soon, though we admit that either very low n or very low Lmax are other possible explanations.

But Cook claims instead that “large n and large Lmax … are incompatible.” Why? He offers a simple Bayesian model with a uniform prior over n, equal numbers of two types of planets all born at the same time with lifetimes of 5 and 100 billion years, and updating on the fact that humans appeared on one of these planets after 4.5 billion years. He shows (correctly) that the Bayesian posterior then overwhelmingly favors n=1, with almost no weight on n>2.

But this seems to me to just repeat our point above, that without a grabby aliens deadline one needs to assume either low n or low Lmax. If you allow large Lmax with no deadline, that will force you to conclude low n; no surprise. (Also, it seems to me that all of Cook’s n estimates do not update on all of the varied evidence that has led other authors to estimate higher n.)

The body of Cook’s paper describes a much more elaborate Bayesian model, a model which includes the deadline effect. And the posteriors on Lmax there also very strongly favor low Lmax, for all the indexical reasoning cases that he considers. Does this show that Lmax is “incompatible” with large n?

No, because this result is easily attributed to the fact that his prior on Lmax strongly favors both low n and low Lmax. Cook considers three priors on n, with medians of 0,1,3. And while he allows Lmax to range from 5 to 20,000 Gyr, the median of his prior is ~10 Gyr. Even though actual median planet lifetime is 5,000 Gyr. An analysis that won’t allow large Lmax or large n can’t tell us is those two are compatible.

Note that the priors in Cook’s main Bayesian analysis are not designed to express great ignorance, but instead designed to agree with estimates from several prior papers that Cook likes. So Cook’s main priors exclude the possibilities that grabby alien civs might expand slowly, or that there are a great many non grabby civs for each grabby one. And he tunes his prior to ensure a median of exactly one intelligent civilization per observable universe volume.

However, in another appendix of Cook’s paper, “Varying the prior on Lmax”, he also considers a wider prior on Lmax. (He retains all his other prior choices, including a prior on n with median 1.) Namely a lognormal with a median of 500 Gyr and a one sigma range of 110 to 2200 Gyr. His posterior from this has a median Lmax of 7Gyr, and a 90th percentile at ~100 Gyr. Which means that compared to Cook’s prior on Lmax, his posterior has substantially lower values of Lmax. Does this prove his claim that high Lmax is incompatible with high n?

I think not, because 60% of this posterior is on cases with less than one grabby civ per observable universe volume, and it takes a much higher density of such civs to create a grabby aliens deadline effect.

Look, the fact that we now find ourselves on a planet that has only lasted for 4.5Gyr should boost low Lmax hypotheses in two ways. The first, and weaker effect, is that the lower is Lmax, the fewer planets there are below Lmax, and thus the higher becomes the prior on our particular planet. This is a count effect, which boosts our planet’s posterior by a factor of ten for every factor of one hundred by which Lmax falls. As the total dynamic range of Lmax under consideration here is a factor of 4000, that’s a real but modest effect.

The second effect is much larger. Without a grabby aliens deadline effect, then for n=1 a planet that lasts for 4000 times longer becomes 4000 times more likely to birth an intelligent civilization. For n=2, it becomes eight million times more likely. And this factor gets even bigger for larger n. Thus observing that we appear on a planet that has lasted only 4.5Gyr can force a huge additional update toward lower Lmax. Without a deadline, that’s the only way to explain how we appear on such a short lived planet if there is no grabby aliens deadline. This strong effect plausibly explains the strong Lmax updating effects we see in Cook’s wider Lmax prior analysis, as most of the posterior weight there is on scenarios with no deadline effect.

Bottom line: I happily admit there is a count effect that prefers lower Lmax in a posterior compared to a prior. But this effect is weak; a factor of ten in posterior per factor of one hundred in Lmax. This effect happens regardless of whether a grabby aliens deadline effect applies. But the other much stronger Lmax update effect is cancelled by a grabby aliens deadline. Yes, if aliens are so rare that there’s no deadline effect, the update toward low Lmax seems to be strong. But there is an important sense in which such a deadline is an alternate explanation to human earliness. This is what we claimed in our paper, and I don’t see that Cook’s analysis changes this conclusion.

P.S. Cook doesn’t actually simulate a stochastic model where alien civs arise then block each other. He instead uses a simple formula following “following Olson (2015).” So his distributions over civ size only include variance over time, but not other kinds of variance. I worry that this formula assumes an independence of alien volume locations that isn’t true. Though I doubt the errors from this simplification make that big of a difference.

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Beware Sacred Cows

We often think we are immune to a cognitive bias if we are aware that it exists, and understand why it happens. But in fact, general awareness is usually quite insufficient to eradicate a bias; you have to put effort into particular cases to make headway. (For example, each new generation greatly underestimates how far we are from AGI, even when they know the prior record of bias.)

Psychologists reviewing our book Elephant in the Brain said that our main thesis, that we are often ignorant of our main motives, was well known in psychology, and thus not news. But our news was applying this known fact to ten big areas of life, wherein area experts had mostly ignored this possibility. General facts are often not applied to particular topic areas.

Most everyone has heard the phrase “sacred cows”, and understands that it suggests a bias, most likely resulting from a hidden motive. But I’ll bet most still usually fail to actually avoid this bias. Thus it seems well worth reviewing the nature of this bias, and seeing what it suggests about many particular application areas. In this post, I’ll just review the phenomena itself.

First, here is a table, based on recent polls, on relative sacredness for 16 ares of life:

As you can see, while traditionally our ancestors saw religion as most sacred, today that area is ranked number five, below family/friends,sex/birth, nature, and education. Note also that we treat many things as pretty sacred, but that these likely have varied a lot across societies.

We know of many correlates of perceived sacredness. (See this summary article, for example.) Let me organize these correlates around five major themes of sacred things and activities:


THEY ARE VALUABLE – Sacred things are special, often long lasting and sometimes eternal. They bring us awe, joy, and other ecstatic experiences, not disgust or revulsion. We revere, venerate, and respect them, and see them as much larger than ourselves. We prioritize them, sacrifice to connect to them, aspire to connect better, and often dedicate places and things to them. Our “priests” who are especially associated with each sacred area gain unusual prestige as a result.

THEY UNITE US – Views on what is sacred bind us into groups, and we often use group rituals and stories to learn and affirm this. We are each emotionally attached to and committed to these choices, and we pay substantial costs to signal these commitments. Doing so is seen as pro-social, and we feel more equal within our group regarding our sacred areas, than re other areas of life.

THEY ARE IDEALIZED – Sacred things are seen as suffering less from the usual defects of ordinary things. They less often decay or break or have misleading appearances. They are more pure, clean, long-lasting, and are sometimes said to be eternal, ultimate, perfect, and at the core of existence. (Much of this is consistent with sacred things being far, not near.) When homogeneous is good, then they are more like that, but when uniqueness is good, then they are more like that. We are less often forced to choose between different sacred goods, as they less conflict with each other.

THEY ARE SHARPLY DISTINGUISHED – Sacred things are said to “transcend” our physical or animal natures, and are contrasted with ordinary messy everyday life. They are “set apart’; the sacred and mundane are not to be mixed together, and we should not make tradeoffs that sacrifice any amount of the sacred for more of the ordinary. Thus sacred things should not have money prices, and we should not enforce rules that promote other things at the possible expense of the sacred.

WE MUST FEEL NOT THINK THEM – The sacred commands our emotions, (e.g., love, devotion, fear) more than our rational thought. It is associated with flow, wherein we act with less conscious control. Our desire for the sacred is said to be “for itself”, so we can’t see deeper causes. The sacred can’t be well understood cognitively, and is said to not fit well with self-interest, competition, or with our usual kinds of calculation and analysis. It is to come automatically and authentically. It is hard to measure progress toward sacred goals. We are not to think we made it, even by convention; it is fully real and it transforms us.


We can plausibly understand all of these themes as resulting from this core function of the sacred: it unites groups. After all, if we are united via a shared value, then that needs to be an important value. And our shared commitment to a value is likely enhanced by idealizing it, and by discouraging calculating thought about it. However, we don’t want to discourage everyday practical thought. So by drawing a sharp line between the sacred and the mundane, we can limit how much our thoughtlessness regarding the sacred infects our practical choices.

The last three themes of sacredness above seem to risk biases. Societies have varied greatly in what they consider as how sacred, and most consider many things to be sacred. But these areas of life are probably not actually that idealized or sharply distinguished, and thinking and analysis does likely help to manage them. So treating these areas of life as if they were otherwise likely induce biases.

Yes, gains from group cohesion may be worth paying the costs of these biases, but these costs do seem likely to be real and substantial. In fact, on reflection it seems to me that many of the most powerful insights I’ve come across in my life have resulted from treating sacred things as if they were mundane, for the purpose of analysis. I thus have to suspect there are many more such insights to be found.

FYI, here are a few psych study results on the related concept of “awe”:

“in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness, and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures” (more)

“dispositional awe-proneness, but not dispositional joy or pride, was associated with low Need for Cognitive Closure … and increased emphasis on membership in “universal” categories in participants’ self-concepts” (more)

“awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior” (more)

Added 6Aug: Here is a two more themes re correlates of sacred things and activities:

THEIR EXPERTS ARE “PRIESTS” – When some folks are seen as having expertise in a sacred area, those experts tend to be seen as more prestigious and are trusted more to act for the general welfare, instead of acting selfishly. So we prefer then to have more self-rule with less outside oversight, to run related orgs, and to have more job security. We thus more dislike for-profit orgs in such areas, relative to non-profits and government agencies. We are not supposed to resent such priests being unequal with us, as differences between people regarding sacred areas are said to count less toward problematic human inequality.

THEY INFUSE OBJECTS, SPACES, & TIMES – Sacred activities done with or at objects and spaces can make those things into reminders and invokers of those sacred activities, after which their use can strengthen any such rituals. Same for special days or hours. Such things are then treated with the care and reverence accorded to sacred activities. Nostalgia is comfort from remembering things, places, or events infused by the sacred.

Added 28Aug: Maybe another correlate of the sacred is that either all of us, or very few of us, are entitled to have an opinions on it. We all feel entitled to have opinions on friendship, love, art, religion, and politics. But very few are entitled to opinions on science and medicine. Non-sacred subjects are more in the middle, with folks more entitled to opinions in proportion to the efforts they take to learn a subject. The common element seems to be that little thinking or analysis is required by ordinary people when all or none of them are entitled to an opinion.

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Objectification As Emotional Labor

“Emotional labor … [is] activities that are concerned wit the enhancement of others’ emotional well-0being and with the provision of emotional support. … captures people’s attempts to effectively managed the emotional climate within a relationship. (more; see also)

Some complain that women do much emotional labor, labor which is overlooked and undervalued. Others point to male emotional labors that also seems overlooked: suffering more explicit rejection, suggesting options for others to shoot down, suppressing their own fears and complaints while indulging partners’, and flattering partners while doing without flattery themselves.

In this post I want to point out another kind of especially male emotional labor, a kind I have not heard others speak of: men pretend they love women for who they are, but let women admit they love men for those mens’ love. That is, men “objectify” women.

Let me explain. Usually the strongest things we all want from our mates is to be wanted and loved for our direct objective features, like our looks, personality, smarts, kindness, etc. Wanted at least by someone who is good enough in key ways. But two people who have this as their main mating motive are poorly matched. If the other person mainly loves you for the fact that you love them, then they aren’t loving you so much for your direct features, which is what you wanted them to love you for. So you aren’t getting what you wanted.

This problem is cut if one of the parties will at least pretend to mainly want the other for their direct features. And this men (tend to) do. Leading to stereotypes that male desires are simple and low and deceptive, allowing men to be freely denigrated and suspected of foul play. In contrast, the female desire to be loved is framed as deep, giving, and spiritual. For example, male consumption of porn is denigrated much more than is female consumption of romance novels.

Such pretense carries risks. Men who believe it too much can be surprised to find sex alone doesn’t satisfy, while women who believe it too much may withhold sex, demand too much for access to it, and be surprised when their man gives up on the pretense.

Added 7p: Maybe what all parties really want is to be matched with a high status partner, which would as a result raise their own status. So matches between similar status people do give people as much of what they want as they’d think feasible to get. Under this hypothesis, all the stuff they say about wanting to be wanted for features is misleading.

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For What Do We Want To Be Wanted?

We often make ideal mate checklists, with features like “beautiful, bubbly, caring, charismatic, considerate, creative,” etc. Though famously the mates that we actually choose don’t tend to rate highly on our checklists. Suggesting that we don’t know very well what we actually want.

A feature conspicuously absent from most such lists is: how much someone wants you. Obviously this isn’t the only thing we want, or we’d accept offers from anyone who wanted us lots. But its importance is shown in this poll:

Note that my poll respondents are mostly male, and most observers see this effect as likely even stronger for females. We can thus conclude “wanting to be wanted” is one of the biggest things we want from our mates, even more than sex itself.

Now you can find many articles on this idea that we “want to be wanted”. (Even an academic article.) But most such articles seem to be critical of this practice, and suggest how to avoid it. And nothing I’ve found seems to notice just how ambiguous is this concept. That is, it isn’t at all clear what exactly we want to be wanted for.

Note that we could in principle be wanted as a footstool, as a bottomless wallet, as an on-demand-chore-doer, or as an easy-butt-of-jokes. But few of us actually want to be wanted in these ways. Thus we are clearly picky about what we are wanted for; we don’t just want to be wanted. Which raises a key question: when can it work that each of us is actually wanted for what we want to be wanted for?

For example, consider a couple A and B, where both A and B are pretty, and where what both A and B want is to be paired with someone who is pretty. This match works, at least as long as they both remain pretty. It would also work to have A want to be paired with someone caring, and B want to be paired with someone smart, if in fact A is smart and B is caring. So matches can also work with asymmetric wants.

Now imagine that what A mainly wants is to be paired with a partner they see as pretty, as before, but what B mainly wants is to be paired with someone who mainly wants a pretty partner. This pairing also works, as they are each getting what they want. But note this is asymmetrical; A and B now want different things from each other.

Note also that a symmetrical version of this wanting-to-be-wanted desire pairing does not work. Imagine we take what B wants in this previous case, and give that motive to both A and B in a new case. So now what both parties want is to be paired with someone who mainly wants a pretty partner, and who sees them as pretty. These wants are mismatched. In a pairing, neither of them get what they want from the other. So this match doesn’t work.

This seems to be a pretty general problem actually. No two preferences of the same form “I want them to want me for my wanting them for their … for they (or my) having ground feature X” seem to work when paired with each other. Because in these cases, the other isn’t wanting you for what you wanted them to want you for. And this isn’t just a hypothetical problem; the following poll suggests that most couples actually suffer from it:

Here ~82% of respondents say they want others to want them mainly for their ground features, like their body. But the prior poll showed that what most people actually want most from their partners is for the other to want them. So if these poll results are to be believed, then direct and simple desire, instead of wanting to be desired, is the element most often missing in the world, preventing good matches. And thus it seems that the most pro-social change you could make in yourself, to benefit others, is to make your desires more grounded and less meta. Just directly and simply want their body, their mind, etc.

Perhaps more plausibly, what we really want is all of these levels at once. That is, both sides in a pair might put symmetric weights on wanting the others’ features, and wanting to be wanted for our features, and wanting them to want to be wanted, and so on up the infinite hierarchy of meta wants.

Or more directly, each side wants to be together in a state of “mutual wanting” which implies the same mix of all of these wants at once. (I’m making an analogy here to how the concept of “common belief” summarizes a whole hierarchy of meta beliefs. I’ll bet meta wants can be similarly formalized.)

Or maybe we usually want somewhat different things from each other, but still close enough wants that we are each still getting a lot of what we want from our mutual wanting. After all, we don’t usually seem to be very confused about or unhappy with the matchings of our meta-level wants. And it seems to me that our relation problems usually sit at much more basic levels.

Added 10a: The random match doesn’t work, with each side mainly wanting to be wanted for some base features, like looks. The simplest fix seems to be for one side to switch, and at least pretend that they mainly want the other person for their base features. And the side most likely to switch is the side who seems naturally closer to that position, and who has a worse negotiating position in the match. Typically: men (when matched to women).

Plausibly leading to stereotypes that male desires are simple and low, so men can be freely denigrated and suspected of foul play. Females can more admit to the common desire to be loved, which they frame as deep, giving, and spiritual. Male consumption of porn is denigrated, but female consumption of romance novels is not. Men who believe this lie too much can be surprised to find sex alone doesn’t satisfy, and women who believe it too much may withhold sex and demand too much for access to it, and be surprised when their man gives up on the whole pretense.

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Why We Blame Victims

A “hazard” model is common statistical model used to explain rare events. In such a model, the chance of a certain kind of event happening (e.g. death) goes as the product of rate contributions from various factors. (E.g., a factor each for age, gender, income, smoking, etc.) Each value of each factor then contributes a “hazard ratio”, a factor by which that value increases or decreases the event chance, relative to some standard value.

Let us postulate that most of us use a related product model to predict “crimes”, i.e., bad events that we blame on particular people:

B = C*E*V*N*R.

Here B is the how bad was an event, C is a factor contributed by a “criminal”, E is a factor contributed by other “enabler” people, V the factor contributed by the victim, N a factor contributed by nature, and R a randomness factor required to complete the model.

For example, the chance of a bad automobile accident may depend on how often and fast a reckless driver drives, and also on how often a victim driver drives. Nature adds to the chances with road conditions and bad weather, and in addition we need a big randomness factor to explain any given accident. After all, most reckless driving never results in a bad accident.

Each of these factors can be used to “blame” or “explain” the crime in two different ways. First, the person behind a factor might be blamed for setting their factor to a stably high level. Someone who consistently drives recklessly can be blamed for resulting auto accidents. Second, if these factor values vary from case to case, we might try to explain variations in B in terms of variations in these factors. In this sense we may explain accidents more in terms of the factors that vary the most.

If we accepted this general functional form above, we might tend to see most crimes as accidental, mainly the result of enablers, nature and randomness, with only a minor contribution from the “criminal”, and a similar contribution from the “victim”. Then we might not feel very inclined to punish the criminal. “These things happen”, we might say.

Thus to better motivate punishment, and to make our story easier to tell and remember, we might try to simplify it. We have to keep the victim in the story, else there’s no reason to punish. But we could drop or deemphasize the enabler, nature, and randomness terms, leaving

B = C*V.

Furthermore, we could postulate that C is consistently set to a high level. After all, if the criminal just occasionally fell into a foul destructive “mood”, we might see this as “temporary insanity”, worthy of only mild punishment. And we might look around them for what other context might have pushed them into such a mood, and blame that context.

So instead we postulate that this criminal consistently tries to do things that hurt others. And with that story, we can feel more free to blame and punish them. They are B-B-B-B-Bad, Bad to the bone, and need to be taught a lesson to set their C parameter consistently low instead of high.

The problem here is, we all still know that high values of B are rare things. Most of the time, nothing goes wrong. Murders and rapes are rare, after all. So there must be a lot of variation in B across cases. But if C doesn’t vary much to contribute to B variation, the only thing have left now within our simplified model to explain B variation is variation in V; victims must be varying across cases in how much they contribute to bad things happening.

And thus we can end up naturally “blaming the victim”. To help us justify our punishing “criminals”, we de-emphasize the contributions of enablers, nature, and randomness, and we suppress variation in criminal contributions. Which leaves victim variations as our only way to explain why bad things happen only rarely. It must be, we conclude, that in the rare cases where bad things happened, the victim did something substantially different to cause that. The rape victim dressed provocatively, the murder victim was insolent, or the cancellation victim talked on an sensitive subject while lacking proper progressive credentials.

Note that I’m not saying that victims do not often actually contribute a lot with substantial variations in their V factor. I’m instead suggesting that our simplification strategy to help us blame criminals backs us into a corner wherein consistency forces us to expect large V variations. Even when when such variations are not actually there.

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Space Econ HowTo

In Age of Em, I tried to show how far one could get using standard econ analysis to predict the social consequences of a particular envisioned future tech. The answer: a lot further that futurists usually go. Thus we could do a lot more useful futurism.

My approach to futurism should work more generally, and I’ve hoped to inspire others to emulate it. And space is an obvious application. We understand space tech pretty well, and people have been speculating about it for quite a long time. So I’m disappointed to not yet see better social analysis of space futures.

In this post I will therefore try to outline the kind of work that I think should be done, and that seems quite feasible. Oh I’m not going to actually do most of that work here, just outline it. This is just one blog post, after all. (Though I’m open to teaming with others on such a project.)

Here is the basic approach:

  1. Describe how a space society generally differs from others using economics-adjacent concepts. E.g., “Space econ is more X-like”.
  2. For each X, describe in general how X-like economies differ from others, using both historical patterns and basic econ theory.
  3. Merge the implications of X-analyses from the different X into a single composite picture of space.

Here are some candidates Xs, i.e., ways that space econs tend to differ from other econs. Note that we don’t need these various X to be logically independent of one another. But the more dependencies, the more work we will have to do in step 3 to sort those out.

First, space is further away than is most stuff. Which makes activity there less dense. So we first want to ask: how does economic and social activity tend to differ as it becomes further away from, and less dense than, the rest of the economy? E.g., in terms of distance, travel and communication cost and time, and having a different mix of resources, risks, and products? If lower density induces less local product and service variety, then how do less varied economies differ?

Space also seems different in being a harsher environment. On Earth today, some places are more like the Edens where humans first evolved, and so are less harsh for humans, while other places are more harsh. Such as high in mountains, on or under the sea, or in extreme latitudes. How does econ activity tend to differ in harsher environments? Harsh environments tend to be correlated with less natural biological activity; how does econ activity vary with that?

Space differs also in its basic attractions, relative to other places. One of those attractions is raw inputs, such as energy, atoms, and volume. Another attraction is that space contains more novelty, which attracts scientific and other adventurers. A third attraction is that space has often been a focal place to stage demonstrations of power and ability. Such as in the famous Cold War space race.

A fourth attraction is that growth in space seems to open up more potential for further growth in similar directions. In contrast perhaps to, for example, colonizing tops of mountains when there are only a limited number of such mountains available. How does the potential for further growth of a similar sort influence activity in an area? A fifth attraction is that doing things in space seems a complement to our large legacy of fiction set in space. For each of these attractions, we can ask: in general how does activity driven by such attractions differ from other activity?

Regarding “how does activity differ?”, here are some features Y that one might ask about. How capital intensive is activity? How automated? How long are supply chains? What disasters hit how hard with what frequency? What are typical mixes of genders, ages, and education levels? In what size firms, with how many layers of management, is commercial activity done? How fast do firms last, and how fast do they grow? How many different kinds of jobs are there, and how long are job tenures? How much commitment do firms demand from employees and how easy is it to move to a competing firm in a similar role? How easy is it to move where you live or shop?

In these kinds of societies does growth tend to happen slowly, continuously, in an uncoordinated manner? Or are there instead big gains to actors coordinating to all grow together in a big lump at related places and times? If so, who usually coordinates such lumps, and how do they get paid for it?

These are just a few examples of a long list of questions that economists and other social scientists often ask about different kinds of social activity. I’m not suggesting that one try hard to address how Y differs regarding X-like areas, for every possible combination of X and Y. I’m instead suggesting that one be opportunistic, searching in that big space for easy wins. For where we have empirical data, or simple theory, that gives tentative answers. As I did in Age of Em.

While the above can help us guess how a space economy will differ, we might also want to guess how fast it will grow. So we’d like a past time series and perhaps supporting theory to help predict how fast travel and other costs will fall, and how fast activity expands with falling costs.

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Hiding Motives From Yourself

When experts study animal behavior, they identify many key “motives” that likely drive such behavior, even if those animals aren’t consciously aware of them. Such as getting food, avoiding predation, and making and raising babies. Most such motives also apply to humans, as do several new human-specific motives. Biologists and social scientists have had great success over centuries explaining animal and human behavior using these motives. And ordinary people also commonly and successfully use such motives to explain the behaviors of distant humans and animals.

We humans also use a standard related set of motives to explain and choose our future behaviors, and to persuade associates to choose behaviors. Such as when we are trying to decide between careers, schools, romantic partners, hobbies, etc. For example, one might suggest that an associate try a particular hobby based on its financial or time costs, health benefits, satisfaction from a sense of mastery, the variety and novelty it lets you experience, prestige conferred, connections to valued communities, or chances to see nature, meet people, or gain recognition. Most people are comfortable with roughly predicting who might adopt, or drop, which hobbies based on such considerations. E.g., an invalid is less likely to pick a physically demanding sport.

But for many big decisions, our tune tends to change once we have repeated such a choice for long enough for it to become a habit. At that point, we tend more to say that we do such things because they are “fun” or “enjoyable” or “for their own sake”. And we are reluctant to explain such enjoyment in terms of the other usual factors that we use to explain human behavior from a distance. Oh, we might admit that such factors would make us more likely to make the choose we did, all else equal. But we are reluctant to grant that enough such factors could add up to most of an explanation. We instead insist, “The main explanation for my choice is just that I like it.”

For example, consider someone who “likes to drive”. The explanation that they do this “for its own sake” will not help us much to predict how fast, how attentive, in which kinds of cars, on which roads, or at which times of day or climates. Or how often they choose to drive alone or be a passenger, or how much a driving video game might substitute. But these sorts of details can usually be explained via other factors such as their wanting distraction, liking control and mastery, liking wind in their hair, wanting to be alone, liking to see new things, or liking to feel the car’s vibrations. While a driver might admit that these factors do help to explain such details, they still may insist that these aren’t the main reasons they drive, they just drive “for its own sake”.

And yet surely humans didn’t evolve a special mental module that promotes driving cars. So if humans do like to drive on average, that must be via support from mental modules adapted to ancestral human environments. (Including modules that say to keep doing whatever you have been doing.) So a good explanation of our inclinations to drive would list typical supporting modules, and why they tend to be triggered to support driving in modern environments. Which seems pretty close to a list of factors that explain why we like driving, and quite different from “driving for its own sake”.

Now it does makes sense that when we look inside ourselves, our mind parts might tell us “we are pretty sure of this choice, so you don’t need to reconsider it”. But we are pretty sure of many other choices where we are also able to reason abstractly about what drives those choices and what might make us change them. For example, we are usually pretty sure we don’t want to stay underwater long, but we admit we’ll reconsider if scuba gear is offered. So something different is going on with “for its own sake”.

Note that in related areas, we often criticize people who are too aware of certain influences on their choices. For example, people who pursue some kinds of art because it will make them popular or respected are often called “inauthentic posers”.

Note also that while we often try to explain our relationship choices in this way, e.g., “I just like you”, our partners often push us to identify factors to explain our choice, e.g., “you are smart” or “you are pretty”. Except that our partners usualy do not want us to embrace the implication that we’d swap them for someone who ranked higher on such considerations. Here it seems there is no way to win except to just squirm, and maybe this is mainly just a test of how much you are willing to squirm for them.

Your mind lies to you, and lies to you about whether it lies. Which makes it hard for you to see such lies. So I offer this clear example. See those habits of yours where you feel like you just do them “for their own sake”? That is just where your mind doesn’t want you to think about the factors that cause you to adopt or not drop such habits. It makes you quickly look away, just as you do when you glance at the sun.

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