Skip Value Signals

Consider the following two polls I recently held on Twitter:

As writers, these respondents think that readers won’t engage their arguments for factual claims on a policy relevant topics unless shown that the author shares the values of their particular political faction. But as readers they think they need no signal of shared values to convince them to engage such an argument. If these readers and writers are the same group, then they believe themselves to be hypocritical. They uphold an ideal that value signals should not be needed, but they do not live up to this ideal.

This seems to me part of a larger ideal worth supporting. The ideal is of a community of conversation where everything is open for discussion, people write directly and literally, and people respond mostly analytically to the direct and literal meanings of what people say. People make direct claims and explicit arguments, and refer to dictionaries for disputes about words mean. There’s little need for or acceptance of discussion of what people really meant, and any such claims are backed up by direct explicit arguments based on what people actually and directly said. Even when you believe there is subtext, your text should respond to their text, not to their subtext. Autists may be especially at home in such a community, but many others can find a congenial home there.

A simple way to promote these norms is to skip value signals. Just make your claims, but avoid adding extra signals of shared values. If people who respond leap to the conclusion that you must hold opposing values, calmly correct them, pointing out that you neither said nor implied such a thing. Have your future behavior remain consistent with that specific claim, and with the larger claim that you follow these norms. Within a context, the more who do this, and the more who support them, then the more reluctant others will become to publicly accuse people of saying things that they did not directly say. Especially due to missing value signals.

Of course this is unlikely to become the norm in all human conversation. But it can be the norm within particular intellectual communities. Being a tenured professor who has and needs little in the way of grants or other institutional support, I am in an especially strong position to take such a stance, to promote these norms in my conversation contexts. To make it a bit easier for others to follow. And so I do. You are welcome.

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Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy

Hostile questioners tried to trap Jesus into taking an explicit and dangerous stand on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. … Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. (more)

Long ago, Jesus avoided political entanglements by appealing to a key distinction long made between “official” worlds like work, commerce, war, governance, and law, and “personal” worlds like friends, lovers, parenting, hobbies, religion, conversation, and art. Economists have long been identified with that official world, of work and money and material things. But over the last century economists have increasingly moved outside that official world, looking at mating, conversation, and much more. This has often irritated academics who study personal worlds; they’ve seen economists as having “imperialist” ambitions to “conquer” other academic areas.

Economists studying personal worlds have also bothered a public that hears of economic concepts applied to personal worlds, but using words originally associated with official worlds.  For example, “marriage markets”, “dollar value of a life”, “price of fame,” “below optimal crime”, or my recent “sex redistribution”. This can seem to violate common norms separating official and personal worlds, which I’ll call “world norms”, such as that money should stay out of friendship, or governments stay out of conversation. And this can make economics seem “creepy.” Continue reading "Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy" »

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A Pullable Thread of the Social Fabric

Political polarization has been long increasing in the U.S., where it also seems unusually high for a rich nation. As one side has dominated the heights of tech, culture, media, law, and academia, and our urban centers of wealth, the other has felt neglected and dissed. So they elected Trump, at least partly knowing his faults, to send a clear signal of their unhappiness.

And so a key question has become: has electing Trump somewhat satisfied his supporters’ desire for recognition, or are they instead emboldened to demand more? This is closely related to the question: is the other side now inclined more toward appeasement, or toward doubling-down on the conflict? Had the other side given them Trump, that could be seen as appeasement, plausibly inducing more conciliation from the Trump side. But I expect Trump supporters now mostly see the other side as having offered little appeasement, and instead escalating the conflict. From which I weakly predict that polarization will get worse before it gets better.

My tweet summarizing my recent post on Two Types of Envy induced a hostile tweet storm, one that offers weak clues on future polarization. In the post I riffed on recent attention to “incel” complaints that they suffer a lack of sex, and noted that one could see this as a concern about sex inequality comparable to the concern others express regarding income inequality. I noted that while the two groups focus on different axes of inequality, they each organize to induce envy and identity with a deprived status, to hint at the possibility of violence, and to lobby for “redistribution”, meaning a change in the distribution along their axis. And I was struck by the puzzling lack of overlap between the two groups.

A few engaged this in a more appeasement-like mode, accepting that many people are unhappy and expressing a willingness to consider redistribution policies like better training, legalizing prostitution, targeted cash transfers, or stronger promotion of monogamy. But the vast majority were quite hostile, rude, and insulting, wishing terrible things upon me and saying they’d work to get me fired and arrested. Though I’ve repeatedly denied supporting any redistribution policies, for income or sex, most presumed that not only did I support sex redistribution, I instead supported raping women! Most who admitted I didn’t support rape demanded I provide a detailed redistribution plan to critique. And most who admitted that I wasn’t supporting any policy still called me evil for even comparing sex and income inequality.

Those who argue against redistributing income often complain of the direct coercion that distribution can involve, and say the poor are largely responsible for their own problems. Some even say the world would be better off if the poor just died and didn’t leave descendants. People arguing against sex redistribution made the same arguments. In addition, they said that this is all about men repressing women, that sex is about people while income is about things, that you can’t die from a lack of sex, and that no one really cares much about sex so complainers must really have other agendas. Some said sex inequality is impossible because sex isn’t a commodity, or that it exists but policy can’t influence it because feelings and personal choices are involved.

Most ancient societies had policies that influenced the distribution of sex. Some strongly promoted monogamy, and as a result reduced sex inequality. Which to me suggests that policy can in fact influence sex inequality, and that many people have cared about this kind of inequality. Even if the exact package of sex, romance, respect, etc. that people care about is complex and hard to define. You may think you have good moral arguments why such policies are bad. But as with income inequality, you should admit that people who feel envious and empowered to push policy may not be much influenced by your moral arguments.

Perhaps I’m too close to this to be a good judge, but the extremity and one-sidedness of this reaction seems to me more than typical in what are framed as left responses to right proposals, such as regarding immigration. And this weakly suggests to me that this issue could be an especially potent “loose thread” of our social fabric, that could be pulled toward our unraveling. This hasn’t yet been a big issue on the right, but were they to embrace it, the left seems even less likely than usual to seek compromise or offer appeasement. If so, a big question becomes: how inclined is the right today to embrace a cause just to pick a fight, just to show their defiance? Another is: how inclined is the left to go out of their way to goad the right into such a position to start a fight?

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Aaronson on Caplan

Scott Aaronson just reviewed Caplan’s Case Against Education. He seems to accept most of Caplan’s specific analysis and claims:

It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable. He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college … we should support vocational education … Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople. … From adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.

And yet he can’t endorse Caplan’s recommendation:

I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.” … There’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates; the trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction. … Show me a case where this has worked. … In any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

You gotta distinguish Caplan’s favorite option, which is extreme, from the obvious cautious advice based on his book. Maybe huge school cuts haven’t been tried, but small cuts are being tried all the time, and the data Caplan points to suggests that we suffer little harm from those. Its overwhelmingly obvious that most such small cuts are not mainly spent “enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.” They are put toward all other government spending, and rebated to taxpayers. So the obvious advice here is to try somewhat bigger cuts, and slowly increase them as as long as things seem to be going okay.

Aaronson is also reluctant to cut school funding for fear of destroying innovation:

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signalling? And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose? …

It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything. But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.” What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments. …

I work in theoretical computer science: … the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.” Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago. … There’s also math that struck me as boutique scholasticism, until … someone else finally managed to explain … [that its] almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something.”

Yes of course, where government supports most basic research, most good work is funded by government. But this hardly implies that basic research is crucial, or that enough wouldn’t happen without government support. And as US governments spends roughly 25 times as much on schools as on basic research, we could double basic research funding while cutting school funding by only 5%, and have plenty left over. And even today 56% of U.S. basic research is funded outside of government.

More important, my reading of the innovation literature is that high prestige academics tend to vastly exaggerate the economic value of their work. Most economically-relevant innovation is not driven by basic research, and observed variations in basic research funding don’t much predict variations in rates of innovation. Cuts to government funding would move some basic researchers to private funding, and some to other activities. This wouldn’t hurt economic growth much, and might even help it.

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Two Types of Envy

I’ve long puzzled over the fact that most of the concern I hear expressed on inequality is about the smallest of (at least) seven kinds: income inequality between the families of a nation at a time (IIBFNAT). Expressed concern has greatly increased over the last half decade. While most people don’t actually know that much about their income ranking, many seem to be trying hard to inform those who rank low of their low status. Their purpose seems to be to induce envy, to induce political action to increase redistribution. They hope to induce these people to identify more with this low income status, and to organize politically around this shared identity.

Many concerned about IIBFNAT are also eager to remind everyone of and to celebrate historical examples of violent revolution aimed at redistribution (e.g., Les Misérables). The purpose here seems to be to encourage support for redistribution by reminding everyone of the possibility of violent revolution. They remind the poor that they could consider revolting, and remind everyone else that a revolt might happen. This strengthens an implicit threat of violence should redistribution be insufficient.

Now consider this recent news:

Shortly before the [recent Toronoto van] attack, a post appeared on the suspect’s Facebook profile, hailing the commencement of the “Incel Rebellion”. …There is a reluctance to ascribe to the “incel” movement anything so lofty as an “ideology” or credit it with any developed, connected thinking, partly because it is so bizarre in conception. … Standing for “involuntarily celibate”,… it [has] mutate[d] into a Reddit muster point for violent misogyny. …

It is quite distinctive in its hate figures: Stacys (attractive women); Chads (attractive men); and Normies (people who aren’t incels, i.e. can find partners but aren’t necessarily attractive). Basically, incels cannot get laid and they violently loathe anyone who can. Some of the fault, in their eyes, is with attractive men who have sex with too many women. …

Incels obsess over their own unattractiveness – dividing the world into alphas and betas, with betas just your average, frustrated idiot dude, and omegas, as the incels often call themselves, the lowest of the low, scorned by everyone – they then use that self-acceptance as an insulation.

Basically, their virginity is a discrimination or apartheid issue, and only a state-distributed girlfriend programme, outlawing multiple partners, can rectify this grand injustice. … Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, uploaded a video to YouTube about his “retribution” against attractive women who wouldn’t sleep with him (and the attractive men they would sleep with) before killing six people in 2014.  (more)

One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met. As with income inequality, most folks concerned about sex inequality might explicitly reject violence as a method, at least for now, and yet still be encouraged privately when the possibility of violence helps move others to support their policies. (Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.)

Strikingly, there seems to be little overlap between those who express concern about income and sex inequality. Among our cultural elites, the first concern is high status, and the later concern low status. For example, the article above seems not at all sympathetic to sex inequality concerns.

Added 27Apr: Though the news article I cite focuses on male complaints, my comments here are about sex inequality in general, applied to both men and women. Not that I see anything particular wrong with focusing on men sometimes. Let me also clarify that personally I’m not very attracted to non-insurance-based redistribution policies of any sort, though I do like to study what causes others to be so attracted.

Added 10p: 27Apr: A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality. (“Redistribute” literally means “change the distribution.”)  In the post I mentioned cash compensation; more cash can make people more attractive and better able to afford legalized prostitution. Others have mentioned promoting monogamy and discouraging promiscuity. Surely there are dozens of other possibilities; sex choices are influenced by a great many factors and each such factor offers a possible lever for influencing sex inequality. Rape and slavery are far from the only possible levers!

Many people are also under the impression that we redistribute income mainly because recipients would die without such redistribution. In rich nations this can account for only a tiny fraction of redistribution. Others say it is obvious that redistribution is only appropriate for commodities, and sex isn’t a commodity. But we take from the rich even when their wealth is in the form of far-from-commodity unique art works, buildings, etc.

Also, it should be obvious that “sex” here refers to a complex package that is desired, which in individual cases may or may not be satisfied by sexbots or prostitutes. But whatever it is the package that people want, we can and should ask how we might get more of it to them.

Finally, many people seem to be reacting primarily to some impression they’ve gained that self-identified “incels” are mostly stupid rude obnoxious arrogant clueless smelly people. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care; I’m focused on the issue that they help raise, not their personal or moral worth.

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Mysterious Motivation

Our lives are full of evidence that we don’t understand what motivates us. Kevin Simler and I recently published a book arguing that even though we humans are built to readily and confidently explain our motivations regarding pretty much everything we do, we in fact greatly misjudge our motives in ten big specific areas of life. For example, even though we think we choose medical treatments mainly to improve our health, we more use medicine to show concern about others, and to let them show concern about us. But a lot of other supporting evidence also suggests that we don’t understand our motivations. 

For example, when advertisers and sales-folk try to motivate us to buy products and services, they pay great attention to many issues that we would deny are important to us. We often make lists of the features we want in friends, lovers, homes, and jobs, and then find ourselves drawn to options that don’t score well on these lists. Managers struggle to motivate employees, and often attend to different issues to what employees say motivate them. 

While books on how to write fiction say motivation is central to characters and plot, most fiction attempts focused on the motives we usually attribute to ourselves fall flat, and feel unsatisfying. We are bothered by scenes showing just one level of motivation, such as a couple simply enjoying a romantic meal without subtext, as we expect multiple levels. 

While most people see their own lives as having meaning, they also find it easy to see lives different from theirs are empty and meaningless, without motivation. Teens often see this about most adult lives, and adults often see retired folks this way. Many see the lives of those with careers that don’t appeal to them, such as accounting, as empty and meaningless. Artists see non-artists this way. City dwellers often see those who live in suburbia this way, and many rural folks see city folks this way. Many modern people see the lives of most everyone before the industrial era as empty. We even sometimes see our own lives as meaningless, when our lives seem different enough from the lives we once had, or hoped to have.  

Apparently, an abstract description of a life can easily seem empty. Lives seem meaningful, with motivation, when we see enough concrete details about them that we can relate to, either via personal experience or compelling stories. I think this is so why many have call the world I describe in Age of Em a hell, even though to me it seems an okay world compared to most in history. They just don’t see enough relatable detail.  

Taken together, this all suggests great error in our abstract thinking about motivations. We find motivation in our own lives and in some fictional lives. And if our subconscious minds can pattern-match with enough detail of a life description, we might see it as similar enough to what we would find motivating to agree that such a life is likely motivating. But without sufficiently detailed pattern-matching, few abstract life descriptions seem motivating or meaningful to us. In the abstract, we just don’t understand why people with such lives get up in the morning, or don’t commit suicide. 

Motivation is pretty central to human behavior. If you don’t know the point of what you do, how can you calculate whether to do more or less, or something different? And how can you offer useful advice to others on what to do if you don’t know why they do what they do? So being told that you don’t actually understand your motives and those of others should be pretty shocking, and grab your attention. But in fact, it usually doesn’t.

It seems that, just as we are built to assume that we automatically know local norms, without needing much thought, we are also built to presume that we know our motives. We make decisions and, if asked, we have motives to which we attribute our behavior. But we don’t care much about abstract patterns of discrepancies between the two. We care about specific discrepancies, which could make us vulnerable to specific accusations that our motives violate norms in specific situations. Otherwise, as long as we believe that our behavior is achieving our actual motives, we don’t much care what those motives are. Whatever we want must be a good thing to want, and following intuition is good enough to get it; we don’t need to consciously think about it.  

I guess I’m weird, because I find the idea that I don’t know my motives, or what would motivate myself or others, quite disturbing.

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Prediction Machines

One of my favorite books of the dotcom era was Information Rules, by Shapiro and Varian in 1998. At the time, tech boosters were saying that all the old business rules were obsolete, and anyone who disagreed “just doesn’t get it.” But Shapiro and Varian showed in detail how to understand the new internet economy in terms of standard economic concepts. They were mostly right, and Varian went on to become Google’s chief economist.

Today many tout a brave new AI-driven economic revolution, with some touting radical change. For example, a widely cited 2013 paper said:

47% of total US employment is in the high risk category … potentially automatable over … perhaps a decade or two.

Five years later, we haven’t yet seen changes remotely this big. And a new book is now a worthy successor to Information Rules:

In Prediction Machines, three eminent economists recast the rise of AI as a drop in the cost of prediction. With this single, masterful stroke, they lift the curtain on the AI-is-magic hype and show how basic tools from economics provide clarity about the AI revolution and a basis for action by CEOs, managers, policy makers, investors, and entrepreneurs.

As with Information Rules, these authors mostly focus on guessing the qualitative implications of such prediction machines. That is, they don’t say much about likely rates or magnitudes of change, but instead use basic economic analysis to guess likely directions of change. (Many example quotes below.) And I can heartily endorse almost all of these good solid guesses about change directions. A change in the cost of prediction is a fine way to frame recent tech advances, and if you want to figure out what they imply for your line of business, this is the book for you.

However, the book does at times go beyond estimating impact directions. It says “this time is different”, suggests “extraordinary changes over the next few years”, says an AI-induced recession might result from a burst of new tech, and the eventual impact of this tech will be similar to that of computers in general so far:

Everyone has had or will soon have an AI moment. We are accustomed to a media saturated with stories of new technologies that will change our lives. … Almost all of us are so used the the constant drumbeat of technology news that we numbly recite that the only thing immune to change is change itself. Until have our AI moment. Then we realize that this technology is different. p.2

In various ways, prediction machines can “use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve the kinds of problem now [as of 1955] reserve for humans, and improve themselves.” We do not speculate on whether this process heralds the arrival of general artificial intelligence, “the Singularity”, or Skynet. However, as you will see, this narrower focus on prediction still suggests extraordinary changes over the next few years. Just as cheap arithmetic enabled by computers proved powerful in using in dramatic change in business and personal lives, similar transformations will occur due to cheap prediction. p.39

Once an AI is better than humans at a particular task, job losses well happen quickly. We can be confident that new jobs will arise with a few ears and people will have something to do, but that will be little comfort for those looking for work and waiting for those new jobs to appear. An AI-induced recession is not out of the question. p.212

And they offer a motivating example that would require pretty advanced tech:

At some point, as it turns the knob, the AI’s prediction accuracy crosses a threshold, changing Amazon’s business model. The prediction becomes sufficiently accurate that it becomes more profitable for Amazon to ship you the goods that it predicts you will want rather than wait for you to order them. p.16

I can’t endorse any of these suggestions about magnitudes and rates of change. I estimate much smaller and slower change. But the book doesn’t argue for any of these claims, it more assumes them, and so I won’t bother to argue the topic here either. The book only mentions radical scenarios a few more times:

But is this time different? Hawking’s concern, shared by many, is that this time might be unusual because AI may squeeze out the last remaining advantages humans have over machines. How might an economist approach this question? … If you favor free trade between countries, then you … support developing AI, even if it replaces some jobs. Decades of research into the effect of trade show that other jobs will appear, and overall employment will not plummet. p.211

For years, economists have faced criticism that the agents on which we see our theories are hyper-rational and unrealistic models of human behavior. True enough, but when it comes to superintelligence, that means we have glen on the right track. … Thus economics provides a powerful way to understand how a society of superintelligent AIs will evolve. p.222

Yes, research is underway to make prediction machines work in broader settings, but the break-through that will give rise to general artificial intelligence remains undiscovered. Some believe that AGI is so far out that we should not spend cycles worrying about it. … As with many AI-related issues, the future is highly uncertain. Is this the end of the world as we know it? not yet, but it is the end of this book. Companies are deploying AIs right now. In applying the simple economics that underpin lower-cost prediction and higher-value complements to prediction, your business can make ROI-optimizing choices and strategic decision with regard to AI. When we move beyond prediction machines to general artificial intelligence or even superintelligence, whatever that may be, then we will be at a different AI moment. That is something everyone agrees upon. p.223

As you can see, they don’t see radical scenarios as coming soon, nor see much urgency regarding them. A stance I’m happy to endorse. And I also endorse all those insightful qualitative change estimates, as illustrated by these samples: Continue reading "Prediction Machines" »

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How Best Help Distant Future?

I greatly enjoyed Charles Mann’s recent book The Wizard and the Prophet. It contained the following stat, which I find to be pretty damning of academia:

Between 1970 and 1989, more than three hundred academic studies of the Green Revolution appeared. Four out of five were negative. p.437

Mann just did a related TED talk, which I haven’t seen, and posted this related article:

The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future. But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection. Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist. There is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want.

Picture Manhattan Island in the 17th century. Suppose its original inhabitants, the Lenape, could determine its fate, in perfect awareness of future outcomes. In this fanciful situation, the Lenape know that Manhattan could end up hosting some of the world’s great storehouses of culture. All will give pleasure and instruction to countless people. But the Lenape also know that creating this cultural mecca will involve destroying a diverse and fecund ecosystem. I suspect the Lenape would have kept their rich, beautiful homeland. If so, would they have wronged the present?

Economists tend to scoff at these conundrums, saying they’re just a smokescreen for “paternalistic” intellectuals and social engineers “imposing their own value judgments on the rest of the world.” (I am quoting the Harvard University economist Martin Weitzman.) Instead, one should observe what people actually do — and respect that. In their daily lives, people care most about the next few years and don’t take the distant future into much consideration. …

Usually economists use 5 percent as a discount rate — for every year of waiting, the price goes down 5 percent, compounded. … The implications for climate change are both striking and, to many people, absurd: at a 5 percent discount rate, economist Graciela Chichilnisky has calculated, “the present value of the earth’s aggregate output discounted 200 years from now is a few hundred thousand dollars.” … Chichilnisky, a major figure in the IPCC, has argued that this kind of thinking is not only ridiculous but immoral; it exalts a “dictatorship of the present” over the future.

Economists could retort that people say they value the future, but don’t act like it, even when the future is their own. And it is demonstrably true that many — perhaps most — men and women don’t set aside for retirement, buy sufficient insurance, or prepare their wills. If people won’t make long-term provisions for their own lives, why should we expect people to bother about climate change for strangers many decades from now? …

In his book, Scheffler discusses Children of Men … The premise of both book and film is that humanity has become infertile, and our species is stumbling toward extinction. … Our conviction that life is worth living is “more threatened by the prospect of humanity’s disappearance than by the prospect of our own deaths,” Scheffler writes. The idea is startling: the existence of hypothetical future generations matters more to people than their own existence. What this suggests is that, contrary to economists, the discount rate accounts for only part of our relationship to the future. People are concerned about future generations. But trying to transform this general wish into specific deeds and plans is confounding. We have a general wish for action but no experience working on this scale, in this time-frame. …

Overall, climate change asks us to reach for higher levels on the ladder of concern. If nothing else, the many misadventures of foreign aid have shown how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned people from one culture to know how to help other cultures. Now add in all the conundrums of working to benefit people in the future, and the hurdles grow higher. Thinking of all the necessary actions across the world, decade upon decade — it freezes thought. All of which indicates that although people are motivated to reach for the upper rungs, our efforts are more likely to succeed if we stay on the lower, more local rungs.

I side with economists here. The fact that we can relate emotionally to Children of Men hardly shows that people would actually react as it depicts. Fictional reactions often differ greatly from real ones. And I’m skeptical of Mann’s theory that we really do care greatly about helping the distant future, but are befuddled by the cognitive complexity of the task. Consider two paths to helping the distant future:

  1. Lobby via media and politics for collective strategies to prevent global warming now.
  2. Save resources personally now to be spent later to accommodate any problems then.

The saving path seems much less cognitively demanding than the lobby path, and in fact quite feasible cognitively. Resources will be useful later no matter what are the actual future problems and goals. Yes, the saving path faces agency costs, to control distant future folks tasked with spending your savings. But the lobby path also has agency costs, to control government as an agent.

Yes, the value of the saving path relative to the lobby path is reduced to the degree that prevention is cheaper than accommodation, or collective action more effective than personal action. But the value of the saving path increases enormously with time, as investments typically grow about 5% per year. And cognitive complexity costs of the lobby path also increase exponentially with time, as it becomes harder to foresee the problems and values of the distant future. (Ems wouldn’t be grateful for your global warming prevention, for example.)

Wait long enough to help and the relative advantage of the saving path should become overwhelming. So the fact that we see far more interest in the lobby path, relative to the savings path, really does suggest that people just don’t care that much about the distant future, and that global warning concern is a smokescreen for other policy agendas. No matter how many crocodile tears people shed regarding fictional depictions.

Added 5a: The posited smokescreen motive would be hidden, and perhaps unconscious.

Added 6p: I am told that in a half dozen US it is cheap to create trusts and foundations that can accumulate assets for centuries, and then turn to helping with problems then, all without paying income or capital gains taxes on the accumulating assets.

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Between Property and Liability

Last October I posted on Eric Posner and Glen Weyl’s proposal to generalize self-assessed property taxes. For many items, such as land and buildings, you’d pay an annual tax that is a standard percentage of your self-set sale-offer price for the item. This would avoid administrative property valuations, discourage people from sitting on stuff they don’t use, and make it much easier to assemble property into large units. Eminent domain would no longer be needed. They have a new book, Radical Markets, coming out in a few weeks, that I will review soon.

Some libertarian types disapprove on the grounds that this weakens property rights. Which it can, relative to a simple absolute property right. But simple property and liability have long been two quite different, and extreme, solutions to legal problems. Neither one is always best. In this post I want to point out that this alternate approach can be used not only to change traditional property to be more like liability, it can also be used to change traditional liability to be more like property. It is an interesting intermediate form between traditional property and liability. One I expect libertarian types to look on more favorably when applied to liability.

Today if someone smashes their car into yours, you can sue them for damages. But even if you convince the court that the event happened and that the party you sued was at fault, the amount of the damages will be set by a court’s judgement. They will mostly look at your demonstrable financial costs, and mostly ignore your value of leisure time, disability, pain, etc. You can’t do much to convince them that you suffer a higher cost from such events than others do.

To apply self-assessment to liability, we’d ask each person to estimate a function that outputs their loss in dollars, and takes as input different scenarios of events that could hurt them. The function would say how much they suffer in each scenario. (The function might interpolate between a set of concrete scenarios which the person rated.) We’d convolve this function with an official distribution over how often such events happen, and a tax rate function, to find each person’s total tax. This is like paying a tax for each property item you hold, but is instead adding up a tax for each possible scenario where you might be hurt.

Then if someone actually hurts you in some event, you could sue for the amount of damages your function declares for that event. Once the court was persuaded that the event happened and that the person you sued was at fault, the court could mostly just believe your estimate of harm, instead of trying to estimate it themselves. In this way the court could cheaply and accurately account for losses of limbs, time, pain, etc. As you’d set the damage levels yourself, this approach makes traditional liability more like property.

Added 15Apr: A reminder: this doesn’t have to produce any net tax revenue. It could just take from those who declare larger than average values of harms done to them, and rebate to those who declare lower than average values.

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Like the Ancients, We Have Gods. They’ll Get Greater.

Here’s a common story about gods. Our distant ancestors didn’t understand the world very well, and their minds contained powerful agent detectors. So they came to see agents all around them, such as in trees, clouds, mountains, and rivers. As these natural things vary enormously in size and power, our ancestors had to admit that such agents varied greatly in size and power. The big ones were thus “gods”, and to be feared. While our forager ancestors were fiercely egalitarian, and should thus naturally resent the existence of gods, gods were at least useful in limiting status ambitions of local humans; however big you were, you weren’t as big as gods. All-seeing powerful gods were also useful in enforcing norms; norm violators could expect to be punished by such gods.

However, once farming era war, density, and capital accumulation allowed powerful human rulers, these rulers co-opted gods to enforce their rule. Good gods turned bad. Rulers claimed the support of gods, or claimed to be gods themselves, allowing their decrees to take priority over social norms. However, now that we (mostly) know that there just isn’t a spirit world, and now that we can watch our rulers much more closely, we know that our rulers are mere humans without the support of gods. So we much less tolerate strong rulers, their claims of superiority, or their norm violations. Yay us.

There are some problems with this story, however. Until the Axial revolution of about 3500 years ago, most gods were local to a social group. For our forager ancestors, this made them VERY local, and thus typically small. Such gods cared much more that you show them loyalty than what you believed, and they weren’t very moralizing. Most gods had limited power; few were all-powerful, all-knowing, and immortal. People mostly had enough data to see that their rulers did not have vast personal powers. And finally, rather than reluctantly submitting to gods out of fear, we have long seen people quite eager to worship, praise, and idolize gods, and also their leaders, apparently greatly enjoying the experience.

Here’s a somewhat different story. Long before they became humans, our ancestors deeply craved both personal status, and also personal association with others who have the high status. This is ancient animal behavior. Forager egalitarian norms suppressed these urges, via emphasizing the also ancient envy and resentment of the high status. Foragers came to distinguish dominance, the bad status that forces submission via power, from prestige, the good status that invites you to learn and profit by watching and working with them. As part of their larger pattern of hidden motives, foragers often pretended that they liked leaders for their prestige, even when they really also accepted and even liked their dominance.

Once foragers believed in spirits, they also wanted to associate with high status spirits. Spirits increased the supply of high status others to associate with, which people liked. But foragers also preferred to associated with local spirits, to show local loyalties. With farming, social groups became larger, and status ambitions could also rise. Egalitarian norms were suppressed. So there came a demand for larger gods, encompassing the larger groups.

In this story the fact that ancient gods were spirits who could sometimes violate ordinary physical rules was incidental, not central. The key driving force was a desire to associate with high status others. The ability to violate physical rules did confer status, but it wasn’t a different kind of status than that held by powerful humans. So very powerful humans who claimed to be gods weren’t wrong, in terms of the essential dynamic. People were eager to worship and praise both kinds of gods, for similar reasons.

Thus today even if we don’t believe in spirts, we can still have gods, if we have people who can credibly acquire very high status, via prestige or dominance. High enough to induce not just grudging admiration, but eager and emotionally-unreserved submission and worship. And we do in fact have such people. We have people who are the best in the world at the abilities that the ancients would recognize for status, such as physical strength and coordination, musical or story telling ability, social savvy, and intelligence. And in addition, technology and social complexity offer many new ways to be impressive. We can buy impressive homes, clothes, and plastic surgery, and travel at impressive speeds via impressive vehicles. We can know amazing things about the universe, and about our social world, via science and surveillance.

So we today do in fact have gods, in effect if not in name. (Though actors who play gods on screen can be seen as ancient-style gods.) The resurgence of forager values in the industrial era makes us reluctant to admit it, but a casual review of celebrity culture makes it very clear, I’d say. Yes, we mostly admit that our celebrities don’t have supernatural powers, but that doesn’t much detract from the very high status that they have achieved, or our inclination to worship them.

While it isn’t obviously the most likely scenario, one likely and plausible future scenario that has been worked out in unusual detail is the em scenario, as discussed in my book Age of Em. Ems would acquire many more ways to be individually impressive, acquiring more of the features that made the mythical ancient gods so impressive. Ems could be immortal, occupy many powerful and diverse physical bodies, move around the world at the speed of light, think very very fast, have many copies, and perhaps even somewhat modify their brains to expand each copy’s mental capacity. Automation assistants could expand their abilities even more.

As most ems are copies of the few hundred most productive ems, there are enormous productivity differences among typical ems. By any reasonable measure, status would vary enormously. Some would be gods relative to others. Not just in a vague metaphorical sense, but in a deep gut-grabbing emotional sense. Humans, and ems, will deeply desire to associate with them, via praise, worship and more.

Our ancestors had gods, we have gods, and our descendants will like have even greater more compelling gods. The phenomena of gods is quite far from dead.

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