Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Randomize Judges Widely

According to the American Bar Association, hiring local counsel is a must for every trial. Even if you hire a specialty lawyer in addition to local counsel, the expense of having someone who is intimately familiar with the court system can be very worthwhile. …

It might seem like justice should be the same everywhere in the country, but the reality is that there are different ways to go about achieving it. A local counsel service is the best option to ensure that you will not be hurt by the various customs and legal differences of a particular court. (more)

Who’s going to be deciding your case? Does the judge have an implicit bias against out-of-towners? Is the jury going to take issue with or love your southern drawl? For example, on a case my firm tried, a Louisiana judge was a stickler for formality—don’t let calling your witness “Bob” instead of “Mr. Smith” ruin your rapport with the decision maker! Be sure to have local counsel who can guide you through these latent landmines. (more)

In most ancient societies, you didn’t need a lawyer to use the law, and in many ancient societies you weren’t even allowed a lawyer. Today we’ve made the law and legal procedures so complex that everyone needs an expensive lawyer. Worse: if you have to participate in a legal process away from where your lawyer is based, you’ll have to pay extra to hire an extra local lawyer.

This isn’t so much because laws are that different in different places; your lawyer can look up the local law and apply that to your case. And it seems crazy to let rules of legal procedure to vary so much from place to place that lawyers from elsewhere couldn’t follow those rules. If that were the case, we should standardize procedures.

Yes, local lawyers can know the local jury pool better, both how to read them and how to appeal to them. And jurors may be biased to favor locals. However, while juries once decided most cases, today they are rare; judges decide most cases.

Apparently, these are the two main reasons to hire a local lawyer:

  • A) Individual judges are known by locals for how they deviate from an average judge, and knowing those deviations can help you win.
  • B) Judges better treat lawyers that are are respected within the local law community. The most prestigious lawyers and judges in each area socialize and gossip a lot together, creating a local status hierarchy. And a judge’s reputation can be hurt if they do not treat each lawyer with the respect seen their due by a local community.

If these two effects were weak they wouldn’t justify hiring a local lawyer. But in fact it is common wisdom that if you have an important case in some area, you must hire not only a local lawyer but one from the top of that local pecking order. Getting an even better lawyer from elsewhere just won’t do. So these affects must be strong.

But these two affects being strong seems quite a damning fact about the neutrality and fairness of our law. You should be able to get a fair trial without your lawyer pandering to individual judge biases, or having socialized with your judge for years.

There seems to be an obvious fix: randomize judges over a wide area, perhaps even nationwide. Either do the trials over zoom/skype or make the judges travel around from court to court. Maybe even you don’t know who is your judge until the trial starts; have some other random judge handle pre-trial issues. (Maybe even you don’t know who is the judge during the trial; that is only revealed afterward.)

With judges randomly picked from a wide area, it would be very hard to pick a lawyer who socializes with the judge, or who knows his or her quirks well. And if you don’t know the judge until the trial starts (or even during it), you can’t pick your trial strategy based on knowing judge details. You’ll have to prepare your case, and negotiate with the other party, expecting a random judge. Which would put everyone in the same situation judge-wise. In addition, bribes and other judge corruption become harder for random non-local judges.

Added 9am: It could also make sense to randomize jurors widely, to avoid local bias. I ago see several other easy fixes. Police misconduct should be dealt with by distant police agencies, instead of an internal affairs division of a local agency. Distant police should try often to entrap judges into accepting bribes and other corrupt practices. And judge corruption cases should be decided by juries, not judges.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

What Are Parents Owed?

In the ancient world, most relationships were seen as asymmetric in terms of dominance, and both sides had obligations to each other. This included parent-child, husband-wife, boss-worker, landlord-tenant, king-subject, god-mortal, and professional-client relations. Some of these obligations were enforced strongly by law, while others were enforced more weakly via social norms. 

In the modern world we continue with most of these relations, but because our newly-encouraged forager-selves resent dominance, we have tended to adjust these obligations, adding them on the more dominant side, and taking them away on the less dominant side. So our political leaders have more obligations to us, while we have fewer to them. Our bosses have more obligations to us, such as to pay for our healthcare, and we have fewer to them, such as to work overtime or treat them respectfully. (And UBI advocates seek to move that further.)

This change is especially dramatic regarding the parent-child relation. Children were once obligated not only to treat parents respectfully, but to obey them on many topics, including on who to marry and what jobs to take. And kids had to take care of parents when they were old. But today we face far weaker pressures to care for older parents, or to take their advice on dating or work. And to many it is now okay to publicly criticize their parents, re how they were raised or even for being born at all. 

Yet parental obligations have increased. Not only are corporal punishment and child labor now disapproved, but many consider parents to be bad if they do not arrange for kids to attend an expensive college, or host their 30 year old kids at home when out of work or pursuing a music career. When kids are young, parents are expected to spend far more time interacting with them and shuttling them around to activities. 

Many were quite indignant that in my last post I suggested overcoming inefficient abortion by paying women to instead have kids, and then later taxing those kids to pay for it. These indignant folks see any debt that a child might owe their parents as literal “slavery”. (Somehow pushed by capitalists as a way to immiserate workers.) Nevermind that they are fine with our collectively endowing kids with debt via national (and state and city) debt. [$345K per US taxpayer at fed level alone.] To them it is the worse possible moral outrage for kids to ever individually owe anything to their parents. No matter how much they also get, they may never owe. Not even gratitude.

Over this same period of time when we’ve been adding to parent obligations and cutting child obligations, we’ve seen a huge reduction in fertility. More people choose to delay being parents, and more end up having fewer kids. Many explicitly say it doesn’t look like they’d get as much pleasure in life out of parenting, compared to their alternatives. 

Which may well be true, given our current set of parent-child obligations. But consider that these obligations are a choice we’ve made; they weren’t imposed on us from above. Maybe if parents were owed more by kids, there’d be more parents, and more kids, to everyone’s benefit.

By the way, notice an interesting exception: we have not much increased the obligations of professionals relative to those of clients, or intellectuals and journalists relative to readers, or of artists and entertainers relative to fans. As those are framed more in terms of prestige than dominance, they’ve escaped the anti-dominance trends.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Win-Win Babies As Infrastructure

I recently used cost-benefit analysis, and estimates of the dollar value of life, to consider the sensitive issue of covid masks, lockdowns, etc. While it can be emotionally hard to compare money and lives, we must do so if we are to think carefully about such things. Hey, as long as you and I have already paid that cost, why don’t we continue on to deal with another even more sensitive topic: abortion.

In the US about 18% of pregnancies end in abortion, for a total of 862K abortions per year. Many see this as a terrible moral wrong, while others consider it more wrong to limit mothers’ choices. When framed as a moral issue, we get stuck, and so one side or the other just wins if they have more political power. I’d like to frame this issue instead in terms of economic efficiency, and see if we can’t make more progress.

First, is abortion efficient? In the US today, mean GDP per capita is $67K, while mean lifespan is 78.5 years. Given the reasonable estimate that one life year is worth three years of income, the total value of a life at birth becomes $16M. All abortions in a year are then a loss of $13.7T, which is more than the $10.9T estimated loss that the US will suffer from covid from all causes for all time. So abortions are objectively a big deal. (Total US annual GDP is $20.5T.)

Middle income parents apparently spend $234K to raise a kid over the entire childhood, not including labor costs. And a poll I just did suggests that about 70% of abortions would be prevented by offering the woman $100K cash. So if the total cost to create a kid is about $0.5M, while the value created is $16M, that’s a 32 to one return on investment! Yes, taking interest rates into account would reduce the rate of return. And if we used the median income of women who abort today (75% of them make <$31K), instead of average income, that might cut life value to $4M, though it may also cut the costs to raise a child by a similar factor.

But still, it sure looks like abortion is quite often inefficient in a cost-benefit sense. And there may be even larger inefficiencies associated with failing to create more children more generally. After all, the calculation seems similar; the value the child gains from their life seems to often be far more than the cost the mother incurs to create that child.

This analysis suggests that we should seek ways to reduce abortions, and encourage fertility. Perhaps even via finding a way make these into win-win deals. You see, there’s a general econ theorem to the effect that it is always possible to find a set of cash transfers to make everyone prefer the package of those transfers added to any economically efficient policy. (For example, we might have freed the slaves by paying slave-owners, and that would have been cheaper than fighting the US civil war.) So if avoiding abortion is efficient, there should be win-win deals to make that happen.

The obvious win-win deal to consider here is to have the child later pay back the the cost of creating and raising them. That is, if not for legal barriers, pregnant women not inclined to raise their children would in effect pay others to raise their kids and endow those kids with debt, or equity-like obligations, that they must pay back over their lifetimes. If children usually end up valuing their lives more than the cost of creating and raising them, then we expect people to find the win-win deals possible here. In these deals, the mother prefers to have the kid, someone prefers to raise them, and the kid is grateful to exist, all relative to the alternate scenario of the kid having been aborted.

However, in actual practice we don’t allow adoptive parents to pay the original mother more than limited expenses, nor do we allow parents to endow their kids with debt or equity that they must repay and cannot easily evade via bankruptcy or emigration. So it seems we have two choices:

  • A) expand freedom of contract to allow such deals between moms, child-raisers, and children, or
  • B) have the government step in and try to produce a similar effect, suffering its usual reduced flexibility and adaptation to context.

When expanding freedom of contract, we might try to use something like incentivized guardians to negotiate on behalf of the children-to-be.

A government-based solution could look like this. The government pays each mother per child born, and pays people to raise those children, giving preference to the mother if she’s willing. When children are grown, they pay taxes to compensate for these expenses. Either the money comes out of general tax revenue, or just from those whose moms were paid to have them. Maybe these policies are very uniform, with every mother getting the same payment and every person paying the same taxes. Or maybe payments and policies vary by context, such as by the income or genetic fitness of the mother, or estimated values of these for the child. Maybe we give the mom the option to not accept payments up front, if in trade the child owes fewer taxes later. Such adaptation to context is something that private contracting tends to do better, but still the government maybe be able to do some things.

Note that I haven’t talked about whether to allow or ban abortion, which seems a separate issue. I’ve instead talked about how to entice mothers into not having abortions, and perhaps to even plan to have more kids.

This sort of government policy looks a lot like the “infrastructure investment” that people talk a lot about these days, because interest rates are so low. But instead of paying to build roads or power plants, this pays to build people. The usual problem with infrastructure investment is trusting the government to choose the types and amounts of different kinds of spending, and trusting them to choose efficient suppliers, instead of taking bribes to approve inefficient suppliers. Relative to roads, etc., investing in babies looks easier to manage, and requires citizens to less trust the details of government choices.

So, win-win babies seem an especially good government infrastructure investment.

Added noon: Many are mad that I described two approaches, one based on contract and the other on direct government transfers. They say my post would be fine if it only mentioned their favored approach, but that I look evil if I mention the other approach. They are evenly split re which side they favor.

Added 27Oct: Many say endowing kids with debt is slavery. But the US federal government endows each child at birth with $345K in debt. Cities & states add to that. Yes you could might escape this debt by moving to another nation, but the US might not let you take all your assets with you, and you can usually escape all kinds of debt if you are willing to run far enough away. Yes nations can inflate away or repudiate their debt, but this are expensive acts, which is why they are rare. Individuals can also go bankrupt, or use the threat of that to renegotiate their debt, but these are also expensive acts. So in practice the main difference is that national debt is collective.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Optimum Prevention

Assume you use prevention efforts P to reduce a harm H, a harm which depends on those efforts via some function H(P). If you measure these in the same units, then at a prevention optimum you should minimize P+H(P) with respect to P, giving (for an interior optimum) dH/dP = -1.  And since in general dlnX = dX/X, this implies:

-dlnH/dlnP = P/H.

That is, the elasticity of harm with respect to prevention equals the ratio of losses from prevention to losses from harm. (I previously showed that this applies when H(P) is a power law, but here I’ve shown it more generally.)

Yesterday I estimated that for Covid in the U.S., the ratio P/H seems to be around 5.3. So to be near an optimum of total prevention efforts, we’d need the elasticity -dlnH/dlnP to also be around 5.3. Yet when I’ve done polls asking for estimates of that elasticity, they have been far lower and falling. I got 0.23 on May 26, 0.18 on Aug. 1, and 0.10 on Oct. 22. That most recent estimate is a factor of 50 too small!

So you need to argue that these poll estimates are far too low, or admit that in the aggregate we have spent far too much on prevention. Yes, we might have spent too much in some categories even as we spent too little in others. But overall, we are spending way too much.

Note that if you define P to be a particular small sub-category of prevention efforts, instead of all prevention efforts, then you can put all the other prevention efforts into the H, and then you get a much smaller ratio P/H. And yes, this smaller ratio takes a smaller elasticity to justify. But beware of assuming a high enough elasticity out of mere wishful thinking.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

We Are Over-Preventing Covid

In the Oct. 12 JAMA, David Cutler and Lawrence Summers estimate the total costs that the U.S. will suffer from the covid pandemic. Here is their key table:

So their numbers imply that we will lose $6.95T due to covid harms (deaths and impairments), and $9.17T from efforts to prevent those harms (lost income and mental impairment). Note that Cutler and Summers didn’t divide these costs into prevention versus harm prevented; that’s my division. And note that while they included the main covid harms, they missed some big costs from prevention, such as children getting worse schooling, less socializing, and a general dislike of wearing masks.

If we just look at the costs that Cutler and Summers consider, we get a prevention to harm cost ratio of 1.32, which is optimal if on average 1.0% more prevention effort cuts health harms by about 1.3%. I don’t know if that’s right, but at least it doesn’t seem crazy.

However, those virus harm estimates come from assuming a $7M value for each of these lives lost, and that I say does seem crazy. (They also assume 625K total virus deaths, 2 people impaired by 35% per death, and $7.6T income lost over the next ten years.)

As I’ve discussed before, it makes much more sense to value life-years lost, relative to income. And as we’ve so far seen 9.2 life-years lost on average per covid death (in U.S. through July 11), this $7M value estimate translates to a life-year lost being worth 12.1 years of income. And that’s crazy high.

For such crazy high estimates, we have no one to thank more than Kip Viscusi. He arguably started the literature estimating the value of life, and he’s been a big influence on it ever since, via co-authoring a huge number of papers (a big % of papers he cites in his review articles are by him), and editing a major journal that publishes stuff on the topic (J. of Risk & Uncertainty). And Viscusi is proud to present himself as a crusader for higher life-value estimates:

The watershed event that led to the adoption of the [Value of Statistical Life] was the 1982 conflict between the US Department of Labor and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over the proposed hazard communication regulation. The agency had valued the reduced mortality risks by the ‘cost of death’, leading to relatively modest benefit values. In its review of the regulatory proposal, the OMB concluded that the proposed regulation failed the required test that benefits must exceed costs. The Department of Labor appealed the decision to then Vice President George H.W. Bush, and I was asked to resolve the dispute. The only change I made to the OMB’s critique is that I introduced my VSL estimates into the agency’s analysis. Use of my VSL figure of US$7.4 million (in 2015 dollars) increased the estimated benefits of the regulation by a factor of 10. (more)

As I’ve noted before, since a lot of government regulation is justified as protecting citizen lives, those who seek to justify more regulation tend to seek higher value of life estimates. Just a year before, in 1981, Viscusi had just published an estimate that each U.S life was worth $17.9M in 1976$, implying a life-year lost was worth 20.3 years of income! That’s much higher than most of the estimates he’s published since, and his estimates tend to be higher than those of other authors. Also, Viscusi has long been skeptical of the idea of adjusting the value of life for the number of life years left – he says the value of life doesn’t depend on age.

A few months ago I went through five other papers, mostly lit reviews, on the value of life, and I translated the favored median estimate in each paper into a median life-year-to-income ratio:

  • A 2002 review of 33 job papers found 1.76.
  • A 2003 review of 30 road safety papers found 2.92.
  • A 2011 review of 850 stated preference estimates found 2.98.
  • A 2003 study of 76 US federal regulations (the ones Viscusi is proud to have influenced) found 3.34.
  • A 2003 Viscusi review found 4.53 re 30 US labor market papers, 5.94 re 22 non-US labor market papers, and 1.88 re 11 U.S. housing and product market papers.

Setting aside the estimates Viscusi influenced, I’m comfortable with accepting an estimate of 3.0. But if we apply that to the covid estimates Culter and Summers used, we’d get only $1.08T and $0.64T for covid death and impairment harms, which gives a prevention to harm cost ratio of 5.31. (Which is close to the 5.2 median estimate from my most recent poll.)

And its crazy to think that on average we are getting a 5.31% cut in covid harm for each 1% increase in prevention cost we pay! But that’s what it would take to justify this level of prevention spending relative to harms prevented. In fact, in most recent poll, the median estimate is that we’d instead get only a 0.10% cut in covid harm from 1% more prevention. Over a factor of 50 weaker than needed. And that’s why I say we are way over-preventing covid. (A scenario I warned against back in March.)

Note that I’m not blaming all this excess prevention on government; private choices clearly drive much of it. I’m talking about the U.S.; prevention elsewhere may have been more effective. I’m not saying all prevention efforts are equally effective. And I’m not weighing in here on exactly what are the best prevention strategies, nor on what is their maximum possible effectiveness. Sure, the best probably are far more effective than what we are and have been doing. But, alas, doing less than what we have been doing seems to me a far more politically feasible option than proposing to identify and switch to far better strategies. (Like maybe trying variolation or vouching.)

I’ve long said that we spend way too much on medicine, because the marginal value is far below our marginal costs.  (A topic on which Cutler and I sparred before.) Seems that sort of thing continues to hold in a pandemic. And governments, instead of correcting for this problem, mainly just make it worse.

Added 26Oct: Tyler says this sort of marginal analysis is irrelevant due to “non-linearities”. Doesn’t really say more than that. But most econ systems are not linear, yet that doesn’t stop econ elsewhere. He could say because of “non-convexities”, but this requires that either we are at a boundary or that there be big moves from the status quo that beat all small moves. Yet for that to be a relevant critique here, Tyler needs to be able to point to big changes that we should adopt soon, and likely will adopt soon. Absent that, critiques of small changes to the status quo remain quite relevant.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Personal Energy Apps

Long ago I noticed that the most successful people I had met also tended to have pretty high personal ‘energy.’ They talked fast, fidgetted, moved around a room more, needed less sleep, could drink more before they collapsed, etc. It seems to me that high energy people are quite visibly impressive to the people around them, and that personal energy is one of the visible features that impresses people most, especially re men.

I’ve talked recently about publishing objective low-dimensional measures of individual health, wealth, and smarts. (And previously on status apps.) These three features seem quite feasible to measure reasonably well when people cooperate in their measurement. But with energy it seems plausible that we could often measure personal energy with high accuracy even without their cooperation.

Sure if they’d let us film them 24/7, that’s probably plenty enough to measure energy well, but we can probably see a lot about energy from just short recordings. For example, student evaluations of  few-second-long videos of teachers without sound correlated substantially with student evaluations of those teachers.

So we could have people evaluate a large dataset of long audio or video recordings, and then use machine learning to find and apply patterns in that to a much larger space of videos. I’d bet a lot of the variance will be explained by some pretty low level features. And then we might have another well-measured feature of people that we wouldn’t have to put quite so much effort into discerning or showing off.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety

These events probably happened in the reverse order, but imagine if humans inventing counting after herding. That is, imagine a community long ago which herded animals, and where having a better herd was a big mark of higher status. Since they could not count, these humans gossiped about who had the better herd. For example, they traded anecdotes about times when someone’s herd had seemed especially awe-inspiring or dingy. And via gossip (and its implicit coalition politics), they formed a rough consensus on who had the best herds. A consensus where the opinions of high status folks tended to count for more.

Then someone invented counting and said “This will help us ensure that we aren’t missing stragglers when we bring our herds back from grazing”, and “Now we can objectively measure who has the larger flock”. While this community might be grateful for that first feature, I predict that they would hate the second one.

Folks would point out that size isn’t the only factor that matters for a better herd, that counting mistakes are possible, and that gossip about herd counts might inform herd thieves about who to target. Some say this won’t stop people from gossiping lots about whose herd is better, while others say that it will cut gossiping but that’s bad as gossip is good. Better to ban counting, they all say.

Don’t believe me? Consider these poll results (and attached comments): Continue reading "Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Socialism: A Gift You’d Exchange?

After reading and reviewing a book by a socialism critic, I then did a book by an advocate. Then some told me “No, here is the advocate book you should have read.” I tried one of them: Nathan Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist, said to be “A primer on Democratic Socialism for those who are extremely skeptical of it.”

Robinson won’t commit himself to what exactly is socialism’s proposal, other than pushing for big changes in light of some vague and widely-shared values (mostly equality and democracy). He says conservatives are mean and liberals are wimpy; liberals have similar goals, but are to be disdained for not calling for bigger changes. Yet the only specific changes he’ll clearly endorse are smaller changes widely endorsed by liberals. I’ll get to some of those below, but instead of writing a whole review, I’d rather make one big point, riffing off of these quotes: Continue reading "Socialism: A Gift You’d Exchange?" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

What Do Workers Want?

I’m old enough to remember that within a society pushing more traditional gender roles, men often asked each other “what do women want?” It was widely believed, and I think then true, that it was much easier (for men) to predict what men wanted. Men would tell you what they wanted, and would in fact be relatively content, at least for a while, if they got what they had asked for. In contrast, while women would often express opinions on what they might like, it was harder to predict how content women might be with getting various things.

As a negotiation strategy, I think this kinda made sense for women as response to their having less direct and overt control within traditional male-female relations. A man who could more make the official choices for the couple might be tempted to try to figure out the minimum he needed to spend to satisfy his woman, after which he could spend all the rest on himself. Her evasiveness and ambiguity re what it would take to satisfy her let her extract a larger fraction of their joint surplus. She could keep him in real doubt as to whether she might become very unhappy and tempted to take extreme actions.

Our gender roles today do not have men being as strongly dominant. But such strong dominance does continue in employee-employer relations. Employees can quit, but if they don’t they mostly have to do what their employers say. In this situation, employees may also feel (perhaps mistakenly) that they benefit from evasiveness and ambiguity about what they want, and what it takes to satisfy them.

I just did two sets of polls that seems to confirm this. I asked people in two different ways about the importance of eight different features of jobs/careers: money, control, respect, time, health, flow, happiness, and meaning. Here are the weights, relative to money, via asking to choose between four options (N = 376-432), and via (a median lognormal fit to) asking for a weight number (N= 170-218).

Both methods found a lot of individual variation, but only weak and inconsistent differences in aggregate importance. And I just don’t believe the low priority put here on respect.

This looks to me like people just don’t like to be pinned down on which of these factors are more important to them. So they do not know what they prefer, or don’t like what they prefer being clearly known to others. Worker lists or scoresheets of ideal job features seem no more realistic or useful than lists or scoresheets of ideal romantic partner features, and probably fail for similar reasons.

What do workers want? I’m sure you’d love to know, wouldn’t you boss-man. Which is why I won’t tell. And may not know. I won’t give you the satisfaction of knowing just how much you could demand from me before I’d quit. On that, I want you to remain forever uncertain. Even if that comes at the cost of my not getting what I want, because I don’t really know what I want.

Alas, this worker reluctance to say directly what they want is probably an obstacle to widespread adoption of career agents. And note that this is a different mechanism for producing hidden motives from those I’ve discussed before: trying to present good motives or evading norm enforcement.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

The Socialist Manifesto

As I’ve read criticisms of socialism, I thought I should read some advocates. This seemed promising:

Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (April 2019) … What, exactly, is socialism? And what would a socialist system in America look like? The editor of Jacobin magazine, Sunkara shows that socialism, though often seen primarily as an economic system, in fact offers the means to fight all forms of oppression, including racism and sexism. The ultimate goal is not Soviet-style planning, but … to create new democratic institutions in workplaces and communities. A primer on socialism for the 21st century.

I’ve just finished it. Alas, the vast majority of its 288 pages is an “inside baseball” history of socialist movements in history. Who inspired them, ran them, and joined or supported them. How they allied with and fought each other and outsiders, and rarely, what policies they pushed for or how they ran things. Generally, Sunkara’s heros are those who “called for” the most “radical” change, regardless of their actual impact on people or policies.

Amazingly for something called a “manifesto” and “primer”, there’s little effort to argue for why socialism is good; we are supposed to find that obvious. More on that below.

Yes, big failures like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China are acknowledged, but blamed on their being insufficiently “democratic”. Sunkara doesn’t discuss why that seems to happen so often, nor how to stop it from happening again. The actual socialist-like government that he seems most willing to embrace is that of Sweden until a few decades ago. But he has little discussion of why Sweden has since moved far away from that, other than to blame it on business media campaigns and bad strategy choices by politicians.

Much is packed into Sunkara “democracy” concept, as he often blames the failure of socialists to gain more influence as due to capitalist influences on votes. Apparently any elections done within capitalism can’t be fully “democratic.” The US today is also said to be “undemocratic” because our system tends to favor having two main parties. Sunkara also says having things decided by local governments is less democratic, as capitalists have more influence at smaller scales. Sometimes merely voting is seen as insufficiently democratic; Sunkara instead prefers the pressure that comes from mobs, especially mobs willing to break the law. I don’t really see a coherent “democracy” concept here, other than that “democracy” is whatever leads to Sunkara’s favored policies.

Socialism is said to be the solution not only to inequality and oppression, but also to racism and global warming:

People can overcome their prejudices in the process of mass struggle over shared interests.

Democratic socialism would do far better at keeping humanity flourishing along with the wider ecology. …Worker-controlled firms don’t have the same ‘grow or die’ imperative as capitalist ones. A more empowered citizenry, too, would be better able to weigh the costs and benefits of new development.

Though Sunkara does call for

avoiding a narrow ‘call-out culture’ along with the kinds of identity politics that, taken to its extreme, will lead us down the path to a hyper-individualized and anti-solidaristic politics. Hyperbole and the politics of personal shaming are a recipe for demoralization, paranoia, and defeat.

So what exactly is “socialism”? It is not the end of competition or inequality. Under socialism, there is still personal private property allocated by competitive markets. Romantic and friend relations are set by competitive markets for association. Competitive labor markets still allocate jobs, which result in differing wages and working conditions. People compete under democracy to see who gets to run firms and the government, and people compete to gain government approval to start and grow firms:

Collectively you and your coworkers now control your company. … You have to pay a tax on its capital assets, in effect renting it from society as a whole. … Everyone [must] participate in management on an equal footing. … [Your firm picks] a representative system of governance. … From the unit supervisor’s perspective, she has the duty to make sure everyone is doing their share. [A lazy worker] goes through a progressive disciplinary process – first comes a warning, with concrete suggestions for improvement, then a suspension with pay, then finally, dismissal with three months of severance. …

There is still market competition, and firms still fail, but the grow-or-die imperative doesn’t apply. … There’s pressure to make sure janitorial and other ‘dirty’ jobs are well compensated. …

Capital goods tax … funds are invested into … national planning projects. What’s left is given to regions on a per capita basis … channels by regional investment banks (public of course) that … apportion … to new or existing firms. Applicants are judged on the basis of profitability, job creation, and other criteria including environmental impact. … These tradeoffs are political decisions. … Since you’re starting the firm, you have some discretion in setting the initial operating agreement. … To attract workers [you decided on] income differentials. … you are rewarded for your invention with a small amount of state prize money, and you do end up earning more as an elected manager.

Sunkara says that you wouldn’t be scared to lose your job as you “can get by on the state’s basic income grant and supplement it by taking a guaranteed public sector job.” No mention is made of savings, so it seems you can’t forgo consumption today to save more for you or your children’s future.

Sunkara offers this as his definition of “socialism”, but he doesn’t do anything to assure us that others agree with his definition. From what I’ve read before on the subject, there’s a lot of disagreement on that question.

I have serious doubts that such a system will work as well as familiar ones for choosing products and methods of production. Why are they better for creating efficiency and growth, or for happiness and meaning? Seems to me people would try a lot less hard to figure out better ways to do things. They’d instead figure out how to pander to and lobby the more ignorant politicized panels that allocate capital. As we’ve seen in “socialist” regimes before.

You probably have such doubts too. Yet Sunkara offers zero arguments to allay our fears. No theory arguments. No systematic data comparing how different systems have worked in practice. Not even a few detailed anecdotes on which we might hang our hopes. Nothing, other than perhaps invoking a faith that more democracy must improve all things.

To anyone tempted in the future to write a “manifesto” for some radical proposal, I suggest: actually argue for it. With theory, data, anecdotes, something. And you’d do best to argue for particular concrete trials to test your proposal. Call for more such trials, but don’t call for everyone everywhere to adopt your proposal in the absence of generally positive results from a series of trials of increasing scale and difficulty.

Given how much experience the world has had with regimes that were called “socialist”, I don’t see how anyone could seriously propose more of it without a review of some data drawn from these experiences. While we do have some such data regarding “democracy” of various forms, that data isn’t especially encouraging. Data on government panels deciding what new production ventures to try, and what old ones to maintain, seems to me even more sparse and less encouraging. But do show us that’s wrong, if you can.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,