Search Results for: conformity

The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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The Insular Fertile Future

Fertility (= kids per adult) has been falling worldwide for centuries. It seems to be correlated strongly with societal (not individual) wealth, and mediated by norms transmitted via mass media. World elite culture supports falling fertility by celebrating professional more than parenting accomplishment. Among many rich world elites, fertility has fallen below replacement level, and is still falling further. More others should join them as the world gets richer and more culturally integrated.

With seven billion humans today, if the population were to fall in half every two generations it would take roughly 1600 years for humanity to go extinct. So the risk isn’t immediate, and lots of things might change before then. (E.g., see my book Age of Em.) But as this trend has been consistent for centuries, it’s hardly crazy to think that it may continue for many more centuries.

Yes, extinction isn’t that likely, as a more likely scenario has selection stepping in to promote higher fertility. However, on reflection I think it also makes sense to worry about that better scenario, as the most likely way for selection to promote fertility is by promoting insular subcultures, especially re gender/mating/fertility. Let me explain.

Today the cultures associated with higher fertility tend to be more “traditional”, and less integrated with the dominant world elite culture. And a few small subcultures, like Mennonites and Amish, or Mormons and Orthodox Jews, even manage to maintain high fertility while staying closely connected to the dominant culture. However, as a big fraction of the youth of such subcultures leave them, it isn’t obvious that these subcultures can long sustain net growth.

But this does point to the plausibly winning strategy: subcultures that are both highly fertile and highly insular, keeping enough youth from wanting to defect from their subculture to join the dominant low fertility culture. Through some combination of genes, culture, and tech, they find a way isolate their members more from outside cultural influence, and thereby to support sustained population growth (or at least less rapid decline).

That scenario is a win relative to human extinction, but it should worry those who see much value embodied in the dominant culture, and much harm that could come from more cultural isolation, or from the religions or ideologies that might be used to sustain such insularity. For example, as traditional cultures are the main source today of insular fertile cultures, they seem likely to also be the main source of such winning subcultures in a few centuries. Maybe we’ll get a traditional culture who happens to take a lot from the dominant culture. But also maybe not.

What other options do we have? We could hope that genetic evolution will turn out to be faster than we fear, that global culture will change its mind and switch to promoting fertility, or that cheap nurturing robot parents will appear in time. But these seem faint hopes. The dominant culture may well seek to repress divergent insular fertile subcultures, but that would raise the risk of human extinction.

One possible fix that comes to mind here is for the dominant culture to tolerate and even encourage mating and gender variance among new cultural descendants of that dominant culture. That is, encourage the creation of new subcultures that inherit most of their cultural elements from the dominant culture, but that explore different approaches to mating, gender , and parenting within each subculture. Swinging, polyamory, and home schooling subcultures of today show that such cultural descendants are at least possible. Hopefully such subcultures would mainly be more culturally insular only regarding their mating, gender, and parenting aspects.

With enough such experiments, we might find new subcultures that promote much higher fertility, and yet which also inherit many aspects of dominant culture. And these might have a fighting chance against insular subcultures descended from more traditional cultures. Alas, this fix requires that the dominant culture become much more tolerant of local variations in gender, mating, and parenting, which may not be much more likely than their just coming to see the wisdom of promoting fertility. After all we are currently in an increasingly Puritan era of more not less conformity on such things.

I’m afraid I really don’t see a good solution here yet. But I at least want to flag the problem for consideration.

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UFO Stylized Social Facts

Even though many or even most UFO sightings are best explained as delusions, hoaxes, and ordinary stuff misunderstood, there appears to be a large remnant (>1000) that are much harder to explain, and which show consistent patterns. Such as ~30-1000 second episodes peaking near ~9pm (tied to local sideral time), at random spatial locations, of quiet lights or objects in the sky with intelligent purposes and amazing speeds and accelerations. Sometimes confirmed by many people and recorded by many instruments.

If they aren’t delusions, hoaxes, or misunderstandings, the main remaining explanations are a) some sort of secret society or agency that arose on and is tied to Earth, or b) some sort of aliens. I’m not saying its aliens, but in this post, it’s aliens. That is, here I want to “go there”, and think about how best to explain UFOs, if they are in fact aliens.

Many have worked on trying to explain UFOs in terms of their immediate physical effects. I kinda like “laser pointers for cats” style theories wherein aliens in orbit send beams to paint a local disturbance, while using telescopes to watch local reactions. But these details aren’t that important for whether we believe that UFOs are aliens, as aliens would almost surely be a lot more advanced than us, and so plausibly capable of a wide range of such approaches.

No, it seems obvious to me that the main reason that most resist believing that UFOs are aliens (or secret societies for that matter) is the apparent implausibility of the social thesis. We find it hard to integrate this hypothesis with the rest of our social world views. That is, with our views on what agents can exist, how they are socially organized, and the sorts of behaviors that we expect of social agents within particular kinds of organizations. If aliens are around, why haven’t they made more direct contact, or built more obvious stuff, or traded with us, or conquered or killed us?

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. As I’m such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens. And if we can’t, we can at least confirm more expertly that the usual reluctance is justified; the social theories you’d have to invoke are so crazy unlikely that yeah, we gotta attribute UFOs to delusions, hoaxes, and misunderstandings, no matter what our eyes and instruments seem to say.

In social science, we often prepare for theorizing about a topic by first summarizing its “stylized facts”. These are key data patterns in need of explanation, phrased in language that is closer to theory. In this post, I will attempt this “stylized fact” exercise for UFOs-as-aliens. In my next post I’ll take my shot at explaining them. Here are three key stylized facts:


1. LIMITATION – The very idea that UFOs are aliens, rather than a secret society on Earth, implies either a completely independent origin from us, or that any common ancestor was long ago. (~100Myr+.) So unless aliens civilizations are very short-lived, then any modest randomness in the timing along either evolutionary path implies that one of us reached our current level of civilization millions of years before the other. And since we just got here, it must be they who reached our level millions of years ago.

(Note that having a civilization last for many millions of years is itself quite an achievement. Which raises obvious questions: what sort of genetic, cultural, organizational, etc. changes were required to achieve that, and at what cost came such longevity?)

If UFOs on Earth are aliens from elsewhere, then there are in fact aliens out there, who can and do travel between the stars. Because here they are, aliens who have actually traveled between the stars. So right off the bat we must reject theories that say that such travel is impossible or crazy impractical. Or that some motivational convergence ensures that advanced life almost never does actually travel.

Now put these two facts together: they’ve been around for many millions of years, and they can and do travel between the stars. With so many millions of years and this same tech they used to get here, they could have gone everywhere. The big dramatic implication: they could have remade the universe, or at least a big chunk including our galaxy, but have not done so. Somehow they have self-limited their expansion.

(Note that in addition to limiting their expansion, aliens behind UFOS also seem to have limited their tech; UFO tech seems advanced, but not 100Myr+ level advanced.)

Now one possibility that I want to note, and set aside, is that the universe is in fact chock full of aliens who have in fact remade it, but that we are fooled to see otherwise by crazy advanced tech wielded by a vast tightly-coordinated alien conspiracy based on arbitrary inscrutable motives. Like theories of powerful intrusive gods and simulation managers with arbitrary inscrutable motives, it is not that such theories are impossible, but that they offer little room for structured analysis. I see little to gain from discussing them.

Stylized fact #1: UFO aliens are very old, and could have remade universe, but some self-limit stops them.


2. CORRELATION – This failure to remake the universe gets more puzzling the more common are aliens in space and time. If UFOs-as-aliens are as thick on all planets at all times as they are here and now, then there must be a crazy huge number of well-hidden alien facilities out there where UFO equipment is made, repaired, refueled, staffed, etc. All strongly limited to ensure that it never remakes its local universe.

Worse, there have been literally an astronomical number of opportunities for any one deviant alien to start to remake its local universe. If a deviation could last long enough, to acquire enough local resources and power, other aliens would have a hard time shutting it down without also acquiring similar levels of local resources, and thus also remaking their local universe. Even if some sort of local conformity pressure tends to stop most deviations, that pressure has to be crazy extreme reliable to work everywhere always in a vast densely populated universe.

The simplest way to resolve this puzzle is to posit that aliens are in fact pretty rare, and that they coordinate to preserve that rarity. After all, the fewer are the possible alien travel events, the higher of a deviant event chance that we can tolerate in our theory of their behavior.

(If aliens are very short-lived, then there have to be even huger numbers of them for one to be here now, requiring an even more crazily-low chance of any of them allowing any deviations.)

Besides perhaps interstellar travel being impractical, advanced life arising very extremely rarely is the simple story most of us most start out with to explain our empty universe. And even if one must postulate that aliens are only extremely rare, not very extremely rare, to explain humanity’s early arrival in the universe, that still means aliens are so rare that we won’t meet them for roughly a billion years.

But for aliens that rare we have a different problem: why are they right here right now, but almost nowhere else? Something has caused a huge correlation between them and us, so that even though aliens are rare enough for their facilities to stay hidden, and even though they have created local pressures to ensure that they only rarely travel or have opportunities to try to remake the universe, they’ve made an exception for traveling to be with us here now.

The rarer are such aliens, the more time they’d need to get here from where they started. So either they’ve been around for a very long time, and decided to come here based on what Earth looked like a very long time ago, or they happened to start very close to us, a remarkable spatial coincidence in need of explanation.

Stylized fact #2: UFO aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.


3. INDIRECTION –  We can think of a number of plausible practical motives for rare self-limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are explicit and intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And note the big the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. A third possible motive that can explain this is that the origins of independent aliens like us are a rare valuable datapoint to them on far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer, and then maybe destroy us later.

Note that all of these motive theories suggest a substantial ability of these aliens to organize and plan actions on the basis of such abstract, collective, and long-term considerations. A very decentralized alien society might not be capable of it, nor perhaps of maintaining whatever pressures prevent their own travel and remaking the universe.

The most striking fact about UFO encounter events is how little they seem to accomplish, not for any of these goals, nor for any other easily identifiable practical goals. Advanced aliens could surely monitor us sufficiently from a distance unseen, and to control us via commands or threats would require much more direct contact. These UFO events don’t seem to much help them collect useful info or resources, nor do they much limit or expand our info, powers, or resources. Yes, they show some of us that the universe can look weird, but surely they know that we know that fact regardless.

Now we humans are widely known to often act on indirect motives, not tied very closely to simple direct practical outcomes. Many animals “play.” Human ancestors who did things for “symbolic” reasons are often seen as especially “advanced”. People today often have “obsessions” that make them spend far more on some things than simple practical ends can explain. Lazy secure organizations are at times quite “wasteful”, doing things that pretend to achieve practical ends, but in fact achieve them at best quite ineffectively. And I’ve recently coauthored a book on how common are hidden motives in humans today; many things we do just don’t much accomplish the goals to which we give lip service, like learning at schools, and healing at hospitals.

So it isn’t crazy to think that aliens might have indirect obsessive lazy motives for UFO encounters, motives hidden perhaps even from themselves. But this case, of overcoming the usual coordinated limits to take eons to fly to a distant star just to glow-buzz their treetops, seems spectacularly extravagant even by the standards of dreamtime humans today.

For this to happen, aliens need a sufficient level of “slack” resources available to spend on such symbolic activities. And even with hidden motives and lazy organizations, we humans usually at least make up vague stories about practical ends served by our actions, even when such stories don’t stand up to close scrutiny. So a decent theory of aliens should explain their level of slack, and suggest some ideas for what stories aliens are telling themselves about the ends they accomplish via UFO encounters. And why they haven’t just destroyed us.

Stylized fact #3: Alien-driven UFO encounters accomplish little, yet must somehow be justified to them. 


And those are the key stylized facts that a social theory of aliens must explain. Again, it is the lack of seeing a sufficiently plausible explanation of such facts that is why most are reluctant to believe in UFOs-as-aliens. (Yes, many are not so reluctant, but mostly because they don’t understand enough to be puzzled.)

Added 31Mar: My explanation attempt is here.

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Prestige As Mob-Enforced Dominance

Humans distinguish two kinds of status, about which we are quite moralistic. There’s the good kind, prestige, and the bad, dominance. These are commonly described as pro-social vs. selfish:

Social status can be attained through either dominance (coercion and intimidation) or prestige (skill and respect). (more)

As Machiavelli noted, love [prestige] and fear [dominance] are both valuable assets that can be used to influence others. (More)

Dominance: Deference is demanded and is a property of the actor.
Prestige: Deference is freely conferred and is a property of the beholder. … Creation of authentic and lasting relationships … High in need for affiliation; high in authentic pride. (more)

Back in 2015, my co-author Kevin Simler argued for a “more cynical” view:

Central question [about prestige is] … What’s in it for the admirer? I know of two answers … first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White … second … by Amotz Zahavi … and … Jean-Louis Dessalles … This [second] account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Henrich and Gil-White [say] … admiration … acts as a bribe. Admirers … are sycophants. … hoping to learn from their superiors. …

[But I say] prestige [is] … a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each [babbler bird] has done for others. … Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.” …

We [humans] voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn … we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. [we] cultivate access to such people … by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige. …

Pinker … says, [prestige] is “the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.” … Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process. (More)

But honestly, this view doesn’t seem that cynical to me. As they say, “hold my beer”. Consider my last post:

Elite employers … focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees. … don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. … Even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. … What they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around [their] advice. … Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. (More)

Firms in this scenario aren’t just “freely giving” prestige, nor is this about learning, “love”, “authenticity”, nor rewarding generous allies. These firms instead face strong incentives from audiences to assign prestige in the way that key audiences think prestige should be assigned.

Consider academic “peer” review. Reviewers formally decide who gets how much prestige. But if they gave good reviews “freely” to whomever they most “authentically” “loved”, they might not get invited to review again, and their own prestige may suffer. When you hope to gain prestige by hosting an academic conference, you will be punished if you don’t invite the speakers that your key audiences think you should invite.

Or consider “cancelling”, which is in effect a form of negative prestige. While I still have my job, many events and organizations tell me that they can’t afford to publicly invite, fund, or associate with me because of what mobs say about me. They say they don’t personally have a problem with anything I’ve said or done, but they don’t want the hassle that mobs could impose.

In all these cases, we aren’t at all looking at each person just “freely” assigning to others the respect and evaluation that they privately think appropriate. Instead, evaluators face strong conformity pressures to agree with the evaluations of others.

Both dominance and prestige are expressions of power. In dominance, the power is direct, what that person can do to or for you. But with prestige, the power is indirect, enforced via a local mob. You must “freely” accord each person the respect that your relevant mob says is due, or risk their wrath. But make no mistake, there is a power that enforces prestige, just as with dominance.

Note that “socialists” tend to explicitly frame unequal money or physical power as unacceptable “domination”, and yet greatly admire historical cases where outraged and active mobs tried to fix such problems.

Added 6Nov: Mercer & Sperber’s Enigma of Reason similarly assumes that while those who present arguments might be biased, evaluators of arguments are neutral and fair.

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How Many Judges?

“Wow, that was sure a long slow legal process we just went through to get X punished for Y. Surely many such cases are never punished, because this process is just too hard.”

“I’ve heard that in some places it is much simpler and faster. If you have a complaint, you call over the local police officer, and he or she soon looks into it, and then makes a decision, usually that day. Fast and easy, no need for lawyers, courts, etc. Doesn’t that sound better?”

“No, that sounds terrible! What if that local police is corrupt, or biased, or stupid? Our checks and balances help correct for such problems.”

“Well in our system, after a slow expensive complex process, judges usually make the final decision. So what stops judges from being as corrupt, biased, or stupid as police?”

“Well there are a lot fewer judges than police, so we can focus our attention on a smaller number of them. For example, we can send in people undercover to try to bribe them, and arrest those who accept bribes.”

“But we almost never actually do that with judges. And we could also do that with police.”

“With judges we have an appeals system, where appeals judges fix other judges’ mistakes. And the process is public, so anyone can point to problems.”

“We could do an appeals system with police too – if there’s a complaint, call nearby police to see if they want to come make a quick appeals decision. And that process could be public.”

“We elect judges, or those who appoint them. That holds them accountable to citizens.”

“So why can’t we elect police, or those who appoint them?”

“Judges are more prestigious than police. They are picked for being the lawyers who are most respected by other lawyers.”

“Our actual police are also the most respected among people who apply to police academy.”

“Yeah but overall lawyers are more prestigious than police. They go to college, know big words, make more money.”

“And that makes them less corruptible or biased, and more just?”

“Well elites are more eager to conform, and are better able to conform, so either they will almost all be corrupt and biased or almost none will be.”

“Not sure I feel better about that. And aren’t they better at knowing how to tell when they can get away with things, so that they will be better at finding the loopholes where we are not checking, to be more corrupt and biased there? And doesn’t their conformity better help them coordinate to get away with stuff together?”

“Look, humans have long chosen to be ruled by prestigious elites, its our nature. So it must work somehow. We pick prestigious lawyers to run law, prestigious doctors to run medicine, and prestigious academics to run teaching and research. And those work well, right?”

“Okay, if it is better to be ruled by a smaller group of more prestigious people, making judges better than police, why isn’t it even better to be ruled by one most prestigious of all dictator? Who appoints and fires police or judges as they want?”

“No no, that’s terrible too! That’s too much concentration of power. This dictator could rule with impunity, because even if some of us know of his/her corruption or bias, we’ll be afraid to say so in public. He/she could crush us for our opposition.”

“But can’t judges crush us for opposing them?”

“No, that never happens. When have you ever heard of judges crushing opponents?”

“In a dictatorship, would you actually hear of the dictator crushing opponents?”

“I’m sure I would. And dictators don’t tend to be the most prestigious; they tend to be brutal thugs.”

“But won’t everyone say they are prestigious, out of fear of retaliation? And if it is better to spread out a dictator’s power, among many judges, why isn’t it even better to spread out that power among even more police?”

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How To Not Die (Soon)

You don’t want to die. If you heard that an asteroid would soon destroy a vast area around your home, you’d pay great costs to help you and your loved ones try to move. Even if you’d probably fail, even of most of your loved ones might not make it, and even if success meant adapting to a strange world far from home. If that’s not you, then this post isn’t for you.

Okay, you think you don’t want to die. But what exactly does that mean?

“You” are the time sequence of mental states that results from a certain large signal processing system: your “brain.” Each small part in this system takes signals in from other parts, changes its local state in response, and then sends signals out to other parts. At the border of this system, signals come in from “sensors”, e.g., eyes, and are sent out to “actuators”, e.g., hands.

You have differing mental states when these signals are different, and you live only as long as these signals keep moving. As best we can tell, from all the evidence we’ve ever seen, when these signals stop, you stop. When they stop for good, you die. As your brain is made out of completely ordinary materials undergoing quite well understood physical processes, all that’s left to be you is the pattern of your brain signals. That’s you; when that stops, you stop. (So yes, patterns feel.) Continue reading "How To Not Die (Soon)" »

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Radical Signals

Many people tout big outside-the-Overton “radical” proposals for change. They rarely do this apologetically; instead, they often do this in a proud and defiant tone. They seem to say directly that their proposal deserves better than it has gotten, and indirectly that they personally should be admired for their advocacy.

Such advocacy also tends to look a lot like costly signaling. That is, advocates seem to go out of their way to pay costs, such as via protests, meetings, writing redundant boring diatribes, accosting indifferent listeners at parties, implying that others don’t care enough, and so on. But it so, what exactly are they signaling?

If you recall, costly signaling is a process whereby you pay visible costs, but make sure that those costs are actually less when some parameter X is higher. If you get a high enough payoff from persuading audiences that X is high, you are plausibly willing to pay for these costly signals, in order to produce this persuasion. For example, you pay to go to school, but since school is easier if your are smart and conformist, going to school shows those qualities to observers.

Here are six things you might show about a radical proposal:

Investment – It is a good financial investment. You pay costs to initiate or improve a business venture or investment fund that includes variations on this proposal. Doing so is less costly, and even net profitable for you, if this turns out to be a profitable project. By visibly paying costs, you hope to convince others to join your investment.

Popularity – It will eventually become more popular. You lend your time, attention, and credibility to a “movement” in favor of this proposal. This effort on your part may be rewarded with praise, prestige, and attention if this movement becomes a lot more popular and fashionable. You hope that your visible support will convince others to add their support.

Morality – You, and the other supporters of this proposal, are unusually moral. You pick a proposal which, if passed, would impose large costs in the service of a key moral goal. For example, you might proposal a 90% tax on the rich, or no limits on encryption. Others have long been aware of those extreme options, but due to key tradeoffs they preferred less extreme options. You show your commitment to one of the values that are traded off by declaring you are willing to lose big on all the other considerations, if only you can win on yours.

Conformity – You are a loyal member of some unusual group. You show that loyalty by burning your bridges with other groups, via endorsing radical proposals which much put off other groups. This is similar to adopting odd rules on food and dress, or strange religious or ideological beliefs. Once a radical proposal is associated with your group for any reason, you show loyalty to that group by supporting that proposal.

Inventive – You are clever enough to come up with surprising solutions. You take a design problem that has vexed many, and offer a new design proposal that seems unusually simple elegant, and effective. Relative to someone who wanted to show effectiveness, your proposal would be simpler and more elegant, and it would focus on solving the problems that seem most visible and vexing to observers, instead of what are actually the most important problems. It would also tend to use theories that observers believe in, relative to theories that are true.

Effective – If adopted, your proposal would be effective at achieving widely held goals. To show effectiveness, you incur costs to show things that are correlated with effectiveness. For example, you might design, start, or complete related theoretical analyses, fault analyses, lab experiments, or field experiments. You might try to search for problematic scenarios or effects related to your proposal, and search for design variations that could better address them. You might search for plans to do small scale trials that can give clearer cheaper results, and that address some key potential problems.

In principle showing each of these things can also show the others. For example, showing that something is moral might help show its potential to become popular. Still, we can distinguish what an advocate is more directly trying to show, from what showing that would indirectly show.

It seems to me that, among the above options, the most socially valuable form of signaling is effectiveness. If we could induce an equilibrium where people tried to show the other things via trying to show effectiveness, we’d induce a lot more useful effort to figure out what variations are effective, which should help us to find and adopt more and better radical proposals. If we can’t get that, inventiveness seems the second best option.

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Libertarian Varieties

Here at GMU Econ we tend to lean libertarian, but in a wide range of ways. For example, here are two recent posts by colleagues:

Don Boudreaux:

The economy is an emergent and dynamic order that was not, and could not possibly be, designed – and, hence, that cannot possibly be successfully engineered. … the economy is not a device or an organization with a purpose. It is, instead, the result of the multitude of interactions of hundreds of millions of diverse individual entities – persons, households, firms, and governments – each pursuing its own purposes. …

Competent intro-economics professors keep their aspirations modest. In my case, these are two. The first is to impress upon my students the full weight of the fact that the economy is an inconceivably complex order of interactions that cannot possibly be engineered. The second is to inspire students always to ask questions that too often go unasked – questions such as “From where will the resources come to provide that service?” “Why should Sam’s assessment of Sally’s choices be regarded more highly than Sally’s own assessment?” “What consequences beyond the obvious ones might result from that government action?” And, most importantly of all, “As compared to what?”

Students who successfully complete any well-taught economics course do not have their egos inflated with delusions that they can advise Leviathan to engineer improvements in society. Quite the opposite. But these students do emerge with the too-rare humility that marks those who understand that the best service they can offer is to ask penetrating and pertinent questions that are asked by almost no others. (more)

I’m a big fan of learning to ask good questions; it is great to be able to see puzzles, and to resist the temptation to explain them away too quickly. However, I’m less enamored of teaching people to “ask questions” when they are supposed to see certain answers as obvious.

And the fact that a system is complex doesn’t imply that one cannot usefully “engineer” connections to it. For example, the human body is complex, and yet we can usefully engineer our diets, views, clothes, furniture, air input/outputs, sanitation, and medical interventions.

Yes, most students are overly prone to endorse simple-minded policies with large side effects that they do not understand. But I attribute this less to a lack of awareness of complexity, and more to an eagerness to show values; they care less about the effects of polices than about the values they signal by supporting them. After all, people are also prone to offer overly simple-minded advise to the individual people around them, for similar reasons.

Dan Klein:

Government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs [= classical liberals] and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic. …
But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. (more)

Along with Dan, I only lean against government intervention; that presumption can be and is often overcome. But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

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Who Complains How About Whom

We humans like to complain. And while we might pretend that the main purpose of our complaints is to help others adjust their behavior, more likely we like to collect successful complaints as a resource. Collect enough complaints, and maybe you can trade them for some compensation, or at least sympathy. 

One way to collect complaints is to find others who are violating social norms. But complaints are much more socially valuable to us when we can frame them as something done to us personally. Which is why we prefer to complain about people who are associated with us in some concrete way. 

Our associates vary both in how strong is our interaction with them, and also in how much responsibility we have for them, and they for us. Consider the difference between a consultant and an employee, or between a lover and a spouse. The former types of associates can have just as strong an influence on us, but we are seen socially as more responsible for what happens to the latter types, who I will call “allies”.  

Since our associates do things that influence us, we can in principle complain whenever their impact could be framed as negative to observers. But we have to be careful complaining about allies. We often have norms that complaints between allies should be kept private. Also, as we are in part responsible for what our allies do, and thus in part responsible for what they do to hurt us. So we feel more free to complain when less-ally associates do things that impact us negatively.

While we are less able to complain publicly about specific effects of our allies, we are more able to complain about their loyalty as allies. If they are responsible for us, we can complain that they have not done enough to help us, especially when we are in unusual need. We can also complain that by their actions they are taking unjustified risks. Their actions can risk their running into problems that would lead to needing help from us, and can also lead to complaints by others, which would then reflect badly on us because of our ally relation.

Notice that this analysis predicts some general patterns in our relations to allies and to non-ally associates (this is of course really a spectrum). We do more to help allies, but we more limit their behavior. We feel less free to break off our relation with an ally, or even to visibly shop around for substitutes. Non-ally associates, in contrast, can take more risks, and thereby gain both more upsides and downsides. We demand that allies more conform to social norms, and more avoid what we consider risky behavior. It is more okay to have non-ally associates who are greedy, arrogant, or braggarts, even assholes. 

Another important way in which our associates vary is in their dominance “size”.  We humans still feel the pull of egalitarian forager norms, norms which disapprove of some agents having, and seeming willing to use, more “power”, whether physical or monetary. We often have associations where one party is seen as larger in this sense. These include relations between parents and children, firms and individual customers or employees, bosses and subordinates, rich and poor friends or family, and between men and women.  

In an association between a “big” and a “small” agent, observers tend to hold the larger agent to a higher “ally” standard. The larger agent is supposed to do more to help the smaller agent when they are in need, and to do less that might risk the safety of that smaller agent. The larger agent is also seen as more entitled to regulate the behavior of the smaller agent. In contrast, the smaller agent is less obligated to help the larger agent in need, and if they are less allied they are less entitled to regulate the behavior of the larger agent.  

Of course it is possible for a large and a small agent to have a strong ally relation, in which case the small agent will then be expected do a lot to help the large one when that agent is in need. It is just less acceptable for the larger agent to not treat the smaller one more like an ally. When the small agent is not held to an ally standard, the large agent is seen as more free to take risks, as the smaller agent will less be held responsible for them.  

Note that a smaller agent who is to be treated by a larger associate as an ally, but who need not treat that associate as an ally, has maximal opportunities to complain. They are less restrained from complaining about particular negative effects, and they can also complain if their associate isn’t sufficiently loyal or fair in ally terms.

This whole analysis seems to be particularly useful for understanding relations between men and women, and between firms and their customers and employees. Women tend to complain more about men, compared to vice versa, women tend more to initiate breakups, and they tend more to be protected from downside risks (e.g. via welfare). More conformity is demanded of women, while men are allowed to take more risks, from which they can gain larger upsides but suffer larger downsides. It is more okay for men to act harshly, even as assholes, such as in management.

Similarly, individuals tend to complain more about big business, and it is more okay for an individual to quit a firm than for a firm to quit an individual. We protect individuals much more from downsides, and also regulate their behaviors more. We mainly regulate firms to limit the harm they might cause to individuals, and to ensure they treat individuals “fairly” as an ally should, e.g., avoiding unfair discrimination.

Note that I’m not claiming that these patterns are genetic, or that they can’t be changed. (I’m not claiming the opposite either.) These patterns have a logic, but there may be other important logics at play. These may also be only patterns in social perceptions in our society, which need not exist in all societies and which need not correspond to reality in our society.

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Youth As Abundance

Many technologies and business practice details have changed greatly over the last few centuries. And looking at the specifics of who did what when, much of this change looks like selection and learning. That is, people tried lots of things, some of these worked, and then others copied the winning practices. The whole pattern looks much like a hard to predict random walk.

Many cultural attitudes and values have also changed greatly over those same few centuries. However, the rate, consistency, and predictability of much of this change makes it hard to tell a similar story of selection and learning. This change instead looks more like how many of our individual human behaviors change over our lifespans – the execution of a previously developed strategy. We need not as individuals learn to explore more when young, and exploit more when old, if our genetic and cultural heritage can just tell us to make these changes.

The idea is that some key context, like wealth, has been changing steadily over the last few centuries, and our attitudes have changed steadily in response to that changing context. Just as individuals naturally change their behaviors as they age, cultures may naturally change their attitudes as they get rich. In addition to wealth, other plausibly triggering context factors include increasing health, peace, complexity, work structure, social group size, and alienation from nature.

Even if wealth isn’t the only cause, it seems a big cause, and it likely causes and it caused by other key causes. It also seems quite plausible for humanity to have learned to change our behavior in good times relative to bad times. Note that good time behavior overlaps with, but isn’t quite the same as, how individual behavior changes as individuals get rich, but their society doesn’t. The correlation between individual behavior and wealth is probably influenced a lot by selection: some behaviors tend more to produce individual wealth. Selection has less to do with how a society’s behaviors change as it gets rich.

I’ve written before on a forager vs. farmer account of attitude changes over the last few centuries. Briefly, the social pressures that turned foragers into farmers depended a lot on fear, conformity, and religion, which are complemented by poverty. As we get rich those pressures feel less compelling to us, and we less create such pressures on others. I think this forager-farmer story is helpful, but in this post I want to outline another complementary story: neoteny. One of the main ways that humans are different from other animals is our neoteny; we retrain youthful features and behaviors longer into life. This helps us to be more flexible and also learn more.

Being young is in many ways like living in a rich society. Young people have more physical energy, face less risk of physical damage, and have fewer responsibilities. Which is a lot like being rich. In a rich society you tend live longer, making you effectively younger at any given calendar age. And when young, it makes more sense to be more playful, to learn and explore new possibilities rather than just exploit old skills and possibilities, and to invest more in social connections and in showing off, such as via art, music, stories, or sport. All these also make more sense in good times, when resources are plentiful.

If living in a rich society is a lot like being young, then in makes sense to act more youthful during good times. And so humanity might have acquired the heuristic of thinking and acting more youthful in good times. And that right there can help explain a lot of changes in attitudes and behaviors over the last few centuries. I don’t think it explains quite as many as the back-to-foragers story, but it is very a priori plausible. Not that the forager story is that implausible, but still, priors matter.

From 2006 to 2009, Bruce Charlton wrote a series of articles exploring the idea that people are acting more youthful today:

A child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge is probably adaptive in modern society because people need repeatedly to change jobs, learn new skills, move to new places and make new friends. (more)

Yes, the world changes more quickly in the industrial era than it did in the farming era, but that rate of change hasn’t increased much in the last century. So this one-time long-ago change in the social rate of change seems a poor explanation for the slow steady trend toward more youthful behavior we’ve seen over the last century. More neoteny as a response to increasing wealth makes more sense to me.

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