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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.

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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.

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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.

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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" »

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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?" »

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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.

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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.

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Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism

“The Tudor landowning justice of the peace (J.P.) was the greatest of of paternalists, rivaled only by the Tudor judges and privy councilors who who controlled the J.P.s. … They wanted to regulate the prices of bread, beer, and wool, the games one played, the amount one drank, the nature of one’s apprenticeship, and the clothes one wore. They arrested drunkards, fined those who did not attend church, and penalized the adulterous. …  a paternal state … only the 20th century has come to eclipse it” (more)

I spent most of the day Tuesday reading papers on paternalism, which was the topic of my job talk paper long ago, and one that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. Alas, almost all writings on the topic seek to argue for or against paternalism, rather than trying to explain it. Now if it were typically efficient, that would in fact be a reasonable explanation. And there are many papers that reasonably argue for the plausible efficiency of mild paternalistic “nudges”, weakly enforced.

But in actual fact we see a huge amount of quite strong paternalism, vigorously enforced. People are greatly discouraged from suicide, and prevented from selling themselves into slavery. Professional licensing limits who can do what, and sex laws limit who can do what with who. Censorship limits what you can read or see. Regulations limit the availability and uses of land, buildings, cars, planes, power plants, food, drugs, and much much more. To prevent “exploitation”, many prices are regulated, purchase is required of schools, doctors, and more. Finally, contract law greatly limited the kinds and levels of penalties that contracts can impose, and the kinds of contracts to which you can agree. And by far the most common rationale offered for all of this is that you are being protected from hurting yourself, not from hurting others. 

This is another one of those subjects where everyone thinks they know the answer, but they all know different answers, almost none of which actually hold up under scrutiny. The most commonly offered explanation is that regulators know more than those they regulate. But then why can’t regulators just tell what they know, such as via very visible certification? If the info for certification is underproduced, why not subsidize it. If it is too easy to forget to check certification, why not offer “would have banned“ stores, where customers must pass a test showing they understand it only sells stuff is otherwise have been banned by regulations. 

Of course it is plausible that some parties extract big selfish gains from these rules, and we do see many examples, such as professionals whose wages are increased via the supply cuts caused by professional licensing. But we need to explain why most everyone else goes along – most actual paternalism is in fact very popular among most people. So for that we’ll need benefits that are much more widely distributed. (In the usual “Bootleggers and Baptists” story, we need to explain the Baptists.) 

The closest I can find to an efficiency explanation is the idea that people make random but correlated mistakes, at which times they are too proud to listen to advice, and at other times they can’t accept that this might later happen to them. Temporary mistakes are easy to fix by requiring modest waiting periods, and temporary individual mistakes can be fixed by requiring groups of associates to choose something together. (Or equivalently, close associates who can veto individual choices.)

But the hypothesis here is that every once in a while a whole group of associates will all go kinda crazy, a “childish” kind of craziness which may last for quite a while. In this rare but correlated childish-crazy mode, this hypothesis says people tend to be especially unwilling to listen to advice, perhaps out of pride. Maybe they see themselves in a status contest with authorities, and are eager to show independence or defiance. Furthermore, people somehow just can’t accept that this problem might happen later to them, and so aren’t inclined to voluntarily choose to commit ahead of time to some more local paternalistic process which would protect them later.

That’s the best I can come up with, and yes this could in fact explain some paternalism. However, I just can’t see it as sufficient to explain the actual typical huge levels of paternalism that we see. So I must look elsewhere. A year ago, I favored this story: 

Thus another possible explanation for min-quality regulations is that, by officially declaring common lower class choices to be bad choices, regulators support upper class claims to be better people. And by forcing everyone to visibly accept this declaration via their not visibly defying the bans, everyone appears to support this claim that elite choices are better choices. … Why would so many non-elites support these policies as voters? Plausibly because they aspire to elite status, and by publicly displaying their agreement with elite attitudes, they affirm that they are themselves good candidates for higher status. (More)

Prestige is a key human process, and a key element is that we all seek to copy the behavior of the prestigious, and to associate with them. So a strong eagerness to push everyone to do what elites do, and what they say that one aught to do, seems completely to be expected. 

Even so, this explanation has still seemed somewhat insufficient to me. There is so so much paternalism! So in this post, let me add one more factor that I think complements the above stories, but also adds substantially to them. 

The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world. (Think of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and Dwight from The Office.) These people specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves? 

So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or from their patterns of praise and criticism. 

Now think of the incentives of observers. A declares that B has violated a rule, and audience C has a choice to support A or B in this situation. The rule might be obsolete, A may be stretching its meaning to fit this case, or declaring a new rule from related prior cases. Even so, if B is associated with C, it may seem like corruption for C to support B. If the rule is justified as protecting some folks, then by supporting B you seem to not care about those protected folks. And maybe folks will suspect C of wanting to violate this rule themselves, or of already having violated it. Most of these considerations seem to lean toward supporting A in their case against B.

For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments mostly don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do most pro-hat arguments.)

It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.

At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. And between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules. 

This sort of tendency to create excess rules can help to explain why many organizations seems to be afflicted by excess “legalism”, including government.

And I’m not sure exactly how, but I suspect that this process is mutually supportive of processes that push for a lot of discretion in rule enforcement: 

To the extent that there are rules, there seems to be a preference for authorizing some people to have discretion to make arbitrary choices, regarding which they are not held strongly to account. … Most people mainly favor discretion … to project to associates an image of being the sort of person who is confidently supports the elites who have discretion, and who expects in general to benefit from their discretion. … The sort of people who are eager to have a fair neutral objective decision-making process tend to be losers who don’t expect to be able to work the informal system of favors well. (More)

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Yay Parliaments

Voters may like the idea of direct democracy, but as Garett Jones mentions in 10% Less Democracy, most scholars agree that representative democracy produces better outcomes. Similarly, while voters may thrill more to directly choose their top leader, better outcomes come from having voters pick legislators who then pick, and can remove, the top leader.

Here’s Arend Lijphart with some simple theory:

In parliamentary systems, only the legislature is popularly elected and is the clear and legitimate representative of the people, but in presidential systems both president and legislature are popularly elected and are both legitimate representatives of the people—but it is quite possible and even likely that the president and the majority of legislators have divergent political preferences. … There is no democratic principle to resolve such disagreements. … second problem is “rigidity”: presidents are elected for fixed periods of time. … third serious problem is the “winner take all” nature of presidential elections. … The fourth serious drawback of presidentialism is that presidential election campaigns encourage the politics of personality … instead of … competing parties and … programs.

In his new book Why Not Parliamentarism? Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos collects much evidence favoring that option: Continue reading "Yay Parliaments" »

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Why Not Clearer Legitimacy?

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime, … a system of government, … without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. … Unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. …

In moral philosophy, the term legitimacy is often positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government’s actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government. (More)

Legitimacy is a common belief among the governed that they prefer their current system of government to possible alternatives. This is widely seen as a good thing, and in its absence many say that violent revolt or foreign influence is justified. So you might think that regimes would be eager to show their legitimacy to those they govern, and to the world.

Now the absence of a recent violent revolt is evidence for some degree of legitimacy. But let us define the degree of legitimacy of a regime as the cost that its governed would be willing to pay to keep that regime from changing. In this case, the absence of recent revolt only places a rather low and negative lower bound on the degree of legitimacy. So you might think regimes would be eager to show much higher degrees of legitimacy. Perhaps even positive degrees.

A second way to show legitimacy is to offer an official way to change the system. Many regimes have a constitution that can in principle be changed if enough people lobby hard and long enough to trigger the various official acts required by that constitution to effect change. But while this sets a higher (negative) lower bound than does the absence of revolt, honestly it isn’t usually that much higher. The governed could still strongly prefer an alternative system of government, and yet not care enough to coordinate to sufficiently push the usual constitutional process.

A third way to show legitimacy is to advertise the results of polls of the governed on the topic. But not only are such polls almost never done, observers can reasonably question their neutrality and relevance. Who is trusted to do them, and how well do citizen responses to random questions on the subject out of the blue indicate what they’d say if they thought about the topic more?

Regular referenda seem like a more informative approach. Hold elections at standard intervals wherein the governed is asked to endorse either the status quo or change. (In the system, not the people.) In this case, discussion leading up to the election could induce more thought, and give change advocates a better chance to make their case and persuade voters.

Voters might be asked to pick one of several directions of change, or they might just initiate a process that will soon generate more concrete alternatives and then offer them to the electorate. I’m sure that a lot could be said about the best way to run such referenda, but for today my focus is on the fact that almost no regimes ever hold such referenda. Not even bad ones intended to prevent regime change and produce the appearance of more legitimacy than actually exists.

Regimes the world over give lip service to the idea of regime legitimacy, saying both that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy, and claiming that they in particular have high legitimacy. Yet in fact the most that regimes usually do is to include in their constitutions very slow difficult processes for regime change, processes that are rarely ever actually invoked. Regimes point to that plus the lack of recent revolts as sufficient evidence of their legitimacy. They do not institute regular legitimacy referenda.

Of course most ordinary people are not very upset about this fact. If they were to demand such referenda, then politicians might run on platforms which support them, and they might happen. Yet if asked these same ordinary people would also probably claim that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy. Especially their own. It seems that both the governed and their governors pretend to care more about legitimacy than they do.

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