‘The Profit’ Socialism Challenge

My very favorite TV show ever is The Profit, because it so well concretely illustrates the essence of capitalism. (My favorite board game is Imperial, for a similar reason.) Season 8 is airing now, and supposedly it will be the last. (See 10min episodes.) Alex summarizes:

The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis. In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. …

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage–a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.…

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases. …

Another lesson from The Profit is that firm problems are personal problems. The son who can’t step out from the shadow of the father and the father who can’t let go. The two brothers who haven’t gotten over the death of their father and the problems this creates in the firm they have inherited. The siblings who are still fighting to get their parent’s attention. If Lemonis has a genius skill it’s in keeping his temper and working through bullshit problems to get to the real festering issues that are at the root of inefficiencies. …

It’s difficult to run a business like a business. The analytical mindset that can separate business problems from personal problems isn’t natural. Many people cannot separate business decisions from their own preferences and emotional biases, which is one reason why great business leaders are rare.

The Profit does a great job of illustrating common small business problems and solutions. Furthermore, it shows why capitalism tends to do a good job of getting people to actually adopt such value-increasing solutions to these problems. It is the capital that Marcus has to offer that makes business owners listen to him; he’d mostly get ignored if he were just a business consultant asking instead to be paid for his advice.

In fact, I’m so impressed with how well The Profit scenarios illustrate the value of capitalism that I now build upon it a challenge to socialists: please describe in detail how The Profit style enterprise reform would happen under socialism.

I’ve heard that, under socialism, workers would vote on who they want to be managers, or that some government agency would allocate capital to applicants asking to create or expand their ventures. But I just can’t see those processes going well in these concrete cases, getting someone to look in detail at their problems and then use the prospect of capital as a lever to get venture managers to change their ways. Show me some plausible stories of how these or other socialist processes could achieve such value-increasing changes remotely as well as does Marcus Lemonis, and I’ll pledge my support and allegiance to socialism.

Added 3Nov: Bizarrely to me, many have interpreted my challenge as “offer some good arguments for socialism”. No, I asked for something very specific, namely plausible scenarios for how socialist mechanisms would help in these very particular cases. 

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An ‘Amazon’ of Online College?

Once upon a time, stores sold things. Some stores specialized in selling particular things, while “department” stores sold a wider range of things. While there were some scale economies in branding and distribution, they were mild enough to allow many different department stores. With the internet, however, much bigger stores have been favored. Not only can huge online stores hold more variety, with scale economies in storage and distribution a single store can dominate that industry. Hence, Amazon.

While the internet favors a few huge platforms for some types of products and services, the strength of this effect varies with the kind of product or service. For example, there seems to be room for many movie streaming services, as there seem to be fewer scale or scope economies there. Yes, one can better price discriminate by selling many movies rather than just one, but that still leaves room for many services each of which has many movies. Though perhaps the current variety of streaming services won’t last long.

What about college? In the past, students attended class in person, and so each college arranged to have many classes all close enough that one could live nearby and travel to all of its classes. So travel time between classes set a maximum feasible size for a college. But now there are (for many non-lab-or-hands-on topics) online classes which one can attend from anywhere in the world. In a future of online college classes (and tests), will we still have the same size colleges, or will much larger platforms take over?

Clearly there is a big potential for much larger individual classes. Instead of a thousand profs teaching the same class all over the world to thirty students each, maybe only ten profs will teach to three thousand students each. At least when individual grading and talk isn’t the main cost. And if students can choose from classes made all over the world, a far wider variety of classes can be made available to each student, classes on more topics, at more levels, and with more different teaching/learning styles.

Yes, the most elite colleges would probably be the last to contribute their courses to large online catalogs of courses. They’d say, “if you want the very best college experience, you should come here and limit yourself to our classes.” But that pitch wouldn’t work so well coming from mid-rank colleges.

Still I wonder: will the thirty or so classes on a future student college transcript be mostly from teachers who all produce their classes near each other at the same “college”, or will student transcripts instead contain classes from twenty or more different sources? And if the latter, how many distributors or platforms will there be? That is, will there be a single “Amazon” from which most all students select their classes, or will there be many different strongly competing distributors of classes, more like movie streaming services today. Another way to ask this question is: what are the scale and scope economies that might favor a few big college class distributors, instead of the thousands of colleges we have today?

As mentioned above, price discrimination offers one scope economy, but this runs out near the scale of a typical college, so won’t push for much larger units. A similar logic applies to other scale and scope economies that mostly run out near the scale of typical colleges today. For example, an online college class platform may want to select and evaluate the classes that if offers, to judge which classes could serve as prerequisites for which other classes, and maybe also to select and evaluate students for their suitability for various classes. And yes, these tasks look easier for larger platforms. But such effects still seem to allow a lot of room for many competing platforms.

However, here is a scale and scope effect that may push more toward a more Amazon-like scenario: giving students grades that are comparable over wide scopes. Today employers mostly look at a college graduate’s school and major, and sometimes also at their GPA. This works because schools have known reputations, and majors are pretty similar across many colleges.

This is in stark contrast to most jobs that students might take instead of going to college; it is much harder to know how to compare letters of recommendation based on typical job performance. Even US military veterans face this problem; employers find it hard to know what school/major/GPA record is comparable to 2 years as a “helicopter repairer”. Superior college comparability is a big reason many go to college instead of starting work (or the military) right after high school.

Imagine a college class platform that gives you a transcript showing what classes you took, and what grades you got in each class, but that doesn’t do much to help employers know how to compare the grades obtained from different sources. That wouldn’t be so valuable. In contrast, a college platform is much more valuable to future employers, and thus to students, if it can rank and categorize student performance in comparable and meaningful ways.

One simple way to do this is to sometimes randomize which classes students take. That is, flatter, pay, or cajole many students into letting the platform sometimes pick which particular class they take, out of a set of similar classes offered on the platform. With enough students taking enough classes that give enough feedback on student performance, standard statistical models could estimate individual student abilities and specializations. Which helps not only future employers, but also the providers of classes when deciding which students to admit into their classes. It also helps to estimate student satisfaction in particular classes as expressed by student evaluation of classes.

Yes, if all student class performance info were made available to all platforms, many of them could produce similar statistical estimates. But the largest platforms may use privacy excuses to successfully resist efforts to force them to share their customer info, as have social media giants today. Yes, platforms with less data might claim that they had found clever uses of machine learning etc. that give similar quality evaluations of students. But it isn’t clear why students and employers should believe such claims.

Scale economies in using customer data to make student performance comparable across a wide scope of classes may push toward a single huge Amazon-like catalog of online college classes.

From a conversation with Phil Magness.

Added 9a: College admissions and grading has recently become a political battleground. While today such battles are limited by the fact that colleges must compete with each other, such limits might be less when one of a few big orgs dominated the online college catalog market.

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What Makes Stuff Rot?

Here is a deep and important theory question: What determines when familiar systems and other structures decay and become less functional, versus when they remain stable or improve in functionality with time? I call this a theory question because we basically know the physics of all the familiar systems around us, so this question is in principle answerable with careful enough theory analysis.

Yes, thermodynamics says that all structures will eventually decay down to a small set consistent with max entropy. But what about long before then?

In biology, most all individual cells and organisms at first grow and become more capable, but then later decay and die. Even whole species typically decay, though the extreme rare tail of species that improve eventually have far more descendant species, so that whole biospheres improve over time.

Small human organizations like clubs and firms often grow when small, but then consistently ossify and decay when old; few last for centuries. Even whole human civilizations and empires seem to follow a similar pattern, over a several century timescale. And yet our entire human civilization has consistently become more capable over time.

In software engineering, we find that most all computer systems become gradually more fragile and harder to usefully modify over time, and eventually are replaced wholesale. “Refactoring” can delay this, but only for a while and at substantial cost.

All of this might be summarized as saying that whole competitive fields often improve over time, while each competing item tends to rise and then fall. Life grows, but living things die.

But this summary just isn’t good enough to address a big important question: what will happen as we introduce more and more “global” (i.e., civilization-wide) structures? Such as global governance bodies, global professional associations, global integration of academic disciplines, global trading networks, or global conversation communities. Are these structures more like entire biospheres that improve or more like individual organisms that eventually die and must be replaced?

The question is important because such global structures face much weaker threats from outside competition. So pressures to improve may have to mainly come from inside them. And if they effectively repress internal dissent, they may persist for a very long time, even if they greatly decay and rot. The weight of such decay on overall progress and growth might eventually outweigh other sources of improvement, to permanently hinder our civilization’s overall growth and limit our long term potential.

So we must decide how wary to be of allowing global structures to repress internal dissent and efforts to end or replace them wholesale. And to inform those key choices, it would help to better understand: what makes stuff rot?

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Are Political Freedoms a Fluke?

Through most of history, econ density and development went with less political freedom:

For most of the past 5,000 years, … kingdoms and empires were ‘exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority. (More)

In contrast, over the last few centuries we’ve seen increasing levels of peace, democracy, and political freedoms. Many take these trends to be strong and nearly inevitable consequences of industry. Here is some interesting skepticism about such views, by Daniel H. Deudney in his great book Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village:

United States of America … a “new order of the ages,” distinctive both from the early republican city-states and the “republic” of Europe. … Widely recognized as being “exceptionalistic” in several ways. … It combined familiar forms of popular sovereignty, formal state equality, balance of power, and division of power to create a negarchic political order novel in its overall configuration. (p.161)

The American founding occurred on the eve of the industrial revolution, whose main external security consequence was to increase sharply the scope of the state system and the size of viable units within it. … In this brutally competitive interstate environment, the only reason that republican politics would plausibly survive, let allow prevail, was that the United State of America had combined republication government with empirelike size via feral unions. All other democratic republics were implausible candidates for survival in the global-industrial era, except as allies of the United States. … In the World War II phase of the struggle, democratic republics at the Western core, already shrunk o a handful in northwester Europe, ere either overrun by Nazi German armies, were neutrals vulnerable to assured eventual conquest by Germany, or were snatched from conquest by massive American aid and Hitler’s quixotic grand strategy. Outside of the European core, democracies were few, scattered, and weak. They were spared immediate Axis conquest only by their remoteness and American assistance or their proximity to the United States.

After the defeat of Axis imperialism, liberal democracies faced another mortal peril from communist Russia and China, and the survival, reconstruction, and expansion of democracy in the second half of the twentieth century vitally depended on American military and economic power. … “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that since World War I, the” fortunes of democracy worldwide have largely depended on American power.” …

Looking at the overall picture, two facts stand out. First, without American power, there would probably not be any democracies at the end of the twentieth century. Second, the democracies that have behaved so impressively pacifically toward one another have largely been junior allies of the United States in a very hostile ad competitive interstate environment. (pp.183-185)

Consider the counterfactual world where the American continents never existed. In that counterfactual, there is never a new big place available to try out a new form of government, which then comes to control a huge empire. Most empires are based on more traditional governance forms, which then mostly win the big world wars, and mostly run the world today.

Democratic governments which ensure many political and economic freedoms may be nothing like an inevitable consequence of industry-era changes. In which case it seems less likely that such freedoms will continue long into the future.

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How Do Aliens Differ?

Someone recently tweeted the question of if aliens would be more or less benevolent than us. My first reaction was “how could we possibly know how we differ from aliens?” But on reflection, that was hasty, and it seems that we could productively think about how we may differ from aliens.

If we are talking about aliens that we might meet soon, one big obvious difference is that they’d be far more advanced. Because aliens substantially less advanced than us couldn’t meet anyone. If we are nearly the least advanced creatures who could possibly cause or recognize a meeting, then they are almost surely much more advanced. Also, the rareness of having exactly the same origin time (i.e., date at which one becomes advanced enough to meet) implies that any aliens we meet soon must have had an origin time long before us. Millions of years at least, and perhaps billions of years.

What about aliens that we might meet many millions of years in our future, when we are then far more advanced? Can we predict how they might differ from us then? Our best bet seems to be to predict how their past (relative to then) might have differed from our past, as we at least know many things about our history up to today. And the most interesting such differences in histories would be ones that might more strongly “lock in”, causing differences that persist until that future date.

But how can we predict differences in alien histories? One approach is to look for spectrums where we seem near one end. For example, at some point humans became an “apex predator”, who preyed on other creatures but where no other creatures preyed on them. As this is at the end of a spectrum, we can say that other aliens were either also once an apex predator, or they were not. So we might expect that on average ancestors of aliens were more afraid of being preyed upon than were our ancestors.

A second example is that only 5% of stars are more massive, and thus shorter-lived, than our stars. Which suggests that most aliens might be connected to longer-lived stars than ours. A third example is that political units like nations today are nearly the size of the world, even though they were far smaller in the past. Which suggests that aliens tended to have smaller political units, relative to their worlds.

Of course for any feature where our history seems to differ from possible alternatives, we have to wonder how much success (in the sense of giving rise to an alien civilization that might meet others) could be caused by that feature. For example, maybe big stars are more likely to give rise to life, or give life more metabolism to evolve faster. Maybe predators tend to be smarter, and smarter creatures are more likely to give rise to civilizations. Or maybe the formation of nearly world size political units is a prerequisite for expanding into the universe. The more plausible is a strong selection effect for a feature, the less plausible it is that we can predict how aliens differ on that feature.

Okay, I’ve suggested that it is possible in principle to think productively about this topic, but also that this doesn’t seem easy. But a first task seems relatively easy: just collect candidate lists of features where we seem plausibly different, and where selection effects may not be overwhelming. Seems such a project could even be crowd sourced, via asking many people to contribute suggestions. What do you think world, wanna do this together?

Some places maybe to start: kinds of stars and planets, and more generally over places aliens might be found. Alternate kinds of biospheres. Alternate kinds of smart or social creatures. Alternate structures of civilized societies.

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Status Explains Lots

Some complain that I try to explain too much of human behavior via signaling. But the social brain hypothesis and common observations suggest that we quite often do things with an eye to how they will make us look to others.

Here’s another big influence on human behavior strongly supported by both theory and common sense: status. While it seems obvious that dominance and prestige matter greatly in human behavior, even so it seems to me that we social scientists neglect them, just as we neglect signaling. In this post, I will try to support this claim.

Humans have only domesticated a tiny fraction of animal species, even smart primates. In fact, apes seem plenty smart and dexterous enough to support a real Planet of the Apes scenario, wherein apes do many useful jobs. The main problem is that apes see our giving them orders as an attempt to dominate them, which they sometimes fiercely resist.

And humans are if anything more sensitive to domination than are other primates. After all, while other primates had visible accepted dominance hierarchies, human foragers created “reverse dominance hierarchies” wherein the whole band (of ~20-50) coordinated to take down anyone who would try to overtly dominate them. Which both makes it plausible that dominance matters a lot to humans, and also raises the question of how it is that we’ve come to accept so much of it.

Farmers accepted more domination that did foragers; farmers had kings, classes, wealth inequality, slavery, and generals in war. But most farmers didn’t actually spend much time being directly dominated. War wasn’t the usual condition, most workers had no bosses, and most of their interactions were with people at their same level.

But in the modern world, most workers put up with far more than would most foragers or farmers. Our performance is frequently evaluated, we are ranked in great detail compared to many others around us, and we are given many detailed orders, and not just during an apprenticeship period. All of which allows our complex modern organizations and social interactions, the key to industrial-era wealth, but which raises the key question: how did we get Dom-averse humans to accept all this?

Bosses: It might seem odd to ask what bosses are for, as they have so many plausible functions to perform in orgs. Yet to explain many details, such as the kinds of people we pick for management, and the ways they spend their time, we must still ask which of these functions are the most important. And my guess is that one of the most important is to give workers excuses to obey them.

Here’s the simple story: we often have a choice about whether to frame an interaction as due to dominance or prestige. Humans are supposed to hate dominance, but to love prestige. So if we can frame our boss as prestigious, not dominant, we can tell ourselves and others that we are following their lead out of admiration and wanting to learn from them, not from fear of being fired. If so, firms will want to spend extra on hiring prestigious bosses, who are handsome, articulate, tall, well-educated, pro-social, smooth, etc., even if those features don’t that much improve management decisions. Which does in fact seem to be the case.

School: I’ve discussed several times my story that schools use prestige to train people to take orders:

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. … How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? … prestigious schools. … if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people. … Start with prestigious teachers [teaching prestigious topics]. … Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” … Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes.… give … complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions,… lots of students per teacher, … to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn.

In two recent twitter polls, I found a 7-2 ratio saying college teachers were more impressive/prestigious than one’s job supervisor then, and a 2-1 ratio for high school teachers. Many descriptions of teaching describe the impressiveness and status of teachers as central to the teaching process.

Governance: we are even more sensitive to dominance in our political leaders than in our workplace bosses. Which was why all though history, each place tended to think they had a noble king, while neighbors had despicable tyrants. And why prestige was so important for kings. In the last few centuries we upped the ante via democracy, a supposedly prestigious mechanism wherein we pretend that all of us are really “ultimately” in control of the government, allowing us to claim that we are not being dominated by our leaders.

The main emotional drive toward socialism, regulation of business, and redistribution from the rich seems to me to be resentment of domination, which is how most people frame the fact that some have more money than others. Our ability to use democracy to frame government as prestige not domination lets us not see government agencies who regulate and redistribute as domination. Furthermore, aversion to dominance by foreigners is the main cause of world poverty today:

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

Disagreement: I spent many years studying the topic of rational disagreement, and I’m now confident both that rational agents who mainly wanted accurate beliefs would not knowingly disagree, and that humans often knowingly disagree. Why implies that humans have some higher priorities than accuracy. And the strongest of these priorities seems to me to be to avoid domination. People often interpret being persuaded to move toward someone else’s position as being dominated by them. Why is why leaders so often ignore good advice given publicly by rivals. Pride is one of our main obstacles to rationality; it is the main reason we disagree. Prediction markets are able to induce an accurate consensus even in the presence of such pride, but pride prevents such markets from being allowed or adopted.

Mating: Dominance and submission seen central to mating; relations are often broken due to one party being either too dominant, or not dominant enough. See also clear evidence in BDSM:

~30% of participants in BDSM activities are females. … 89% of heterosexual females who are active in BDSM [prefer] the submissive-recipient role … [&] a dominant male, … 71% of heterosexual males preferred a dominant-initiator role … 19.2% of men and 27.8% of women express a desire to attempt in masochistic behavior

So in this post I’ve outlined how status is central to bosses, school, governance, disagreement, and mating, more central than you might have realized. Status really does explain lots.

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‘Long Reflection’ Is Crazy Bad Idea

Some futurist philosophers have recently become enthused by what seems to me a spectacularly bad idea. Here is their idea:

Some effective altruists … have argued that, if humanity succeeds in eliminating existential risk or reducing it to acceptable levels, it should not immediately embark on an ambitious and potentially irreversible project (such as space colonization) of arranging the universe’s resources in accordance to its values, but ought instead to spend considerable time— “centuries (or more)” (Ord 2020), “perhaps tens of thousands of years” (Greaves et al. 2019), “thousands or millions of years” (Dai 2019), “[p]erhaps… a million years” (MacAskill, in Perry 2018)—figuring out what is in fact of value. The long reflection may thus be seen as an intermediate stage in a rational long-term human developmental trajectory, following an initial stage of existential security when existential risk is drastically reduced and followed by a final stage when humanity’s potential is fully realized (Ord 2020). (More)

The long reflection. Perhaps it’s a period of a million years or something. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands. There’s really not the kind of scarce commodity, so there are various stages to get into that state. The first is to reduce extinction risks down basically to zero, put us a position of kind of existential security. The second then is to start developing a society where we can reflect as much as possible and keep as many options open as possible. William MacAskill

It seems that first comes computer science and global governance and coordination and strategy issues, and then comes long time of philosophy. Lucas Perry (more)

And here is Toby Old from his book The Precipice, quoted at length so we can all be very clear about what is this idea:

I find it useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, … what all humans would do if we were sufficiently coordinated and had humanity’s long term interest at heart. … We should [proceed]… in three phases: 1. Reaching existential security 2. The long reflection 3. Achieving our potential … A place where existential risk is low and stays low. I call this existential security. …

This will involve major changes to our norms and institutions (giving humanity the prudence and patience we need), as well as ways of increasing our general resilience to catastrophe. … Take our time to reflect upon what we truly desire, … call this the Long Reflection. … What is essential is to be sufficiently confident in the broad shape of what we are among at before taking each bold and potentially irreversible action – each action that could plausibly lock in substantial aspects of your future trajectory. … For example, … genetically improving our biology … or giving people the freedom to adopt a stunning diversity of new biological forms.

We could think of these first two steps of existential security and the Long Reflection as designing a constitution for humanity. … We can’t rely on our current institutions and institution that have evolved to deal with small- or medium-scale risks. … Humanity typically manages risk via a heavy reliance on trial and error. …But this reactive trial and error approach doesn’t work at all when it comes to existential risk. …. This will require institutions with access to cutting edge information about the coming risks, capable of taking decisive actions, and with the will to actually do so. For many risks, this action may require swift coordination between many or all of the world’s nations.

There would be benefits to centralizing some of this international work on safeguarding humanity. … Our options range from incremental improvements to minor agencies through to major changes to key bodies such as the UN Security Council, all th way up to entirely new institutions for governing the most important world affairs. …

Some important early thinkers on existential risk suggested that the growing possibility of existential catastrophe required moving toward a form of world government. … But the term [world government] is also used to refer to a politically homogenized word with a single point of control (roughly, the world as one big country). This is much more contentious and could increase over existential risk via global totalitarianism, or by permanently locking in bad values. Instead my guess is that existential security could be better achieved with the bare minimum of internationally binding constraints needed to prevent actors in one or two countries from jeopardizing humanity’s future.

Okay, they want to first greatly cut our risk of extinction, and then somehow stop irreversible change and have us talk and think for a very long time, after which we would then act again once we had reached a sufficiently strong consensus. But that’s kinda crazy, as discussed here by Felix Stocker:

Is there any way humanity could reach a ‘Long Reflection’ period? Could we sustain it? Could it really discover the way to the ‘optimal’ future? … Can we actually eliminate x-risks without taking any momentous and irreversible decisions, … we would have to have radically different political and governmental structures – perhaps a global government, or a global hegemon … it seems really hard to achieve and sustain. … a significant number of individuals and groups would be forced to sacrifice short term gains … authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest. … We couldn’t expect to be able to ‘solve moral philosophy’ just by doing it in a vacuum. … I’m struggling to see the Long Reflection as anything other than impossible and pointless. … If we genuinely could engage in a collective philosophy project for 10,000 years, why would we ever want to stop?

In our world today, many small local choices are often correlated, across both people and time, and across actions, expectations, and desires. Within a few decades, such correlated changes often add up to changes are which are so broad and deep that they could only be reversed at an enormous cost, even if they are in principle reversible. Such irreversible change is quite common, and not at all unusual. To instead prevent this sort of change over timescales of centuries or longer would require a global coordination that is vastly stronger and more intrusive than that required to merely prevent a few exceptional and localized existential risks, such as nuclear war, asteroids, or pandemics. Such a global coordination really would deserve the name “world government”.

Furthermore, the effect of preventing all such changes over a long period, allowing only the changes required to support philosophical discussions, would be to have changed society enormously, including changing common attitudes and values regarding change. People would get very used to a static world of value discussion, and many would come to see such a world as proper and even ideal. If any small group could then veto proposals to end this regime, because a strong consensus was required to end it, then there’s a very real possibility that this regime could continue forever.

While it might be possible to slow change in a few limited areas for limited times in order to allow a bit more time to consider especially important future actions, wholesale prevention of practically irreversible change over many centuries seems simply inconsistent with anything like our familiar world.

So how did all these people get so stuck on such a crazy bad idea? My guess is that they don’t talk enough to social scientists. But that’s just my guess.

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Beware Centralization

Imagine merging three public firms, by making each firm into a division of a single new firm with one new boss. In principle, this new boss has the option to keep these firms running exactly as before. The prior CEOs could become division heads, with complete freedom to run their divisions as before, and paid the same, such as via options on new assets that track the new profits of each division. Under this arrangement, the profits of the new firm could arguably be the same of the profits of the old firms, minus a little bit for the salary of the new boss.

However, this new boss would also have the option to do other things. Like cutting redundancies between some subdivisions, such as shipping or human resources. Or reviewing the major decisions of division managers. Or sharing technology between firms. Or using the larger size of this new firm to negotiate better deals with unions, suppliers, or politicians.

Arguably the fact that there is the option to get at least the old profit levels, combined with many new options for making and using synergies across these firms, suggests that such merged firms can in general make more profits than they could separately. Which suggests that firms should just keep on merging until they are very large. But in fact firms do not do this, because their investors do not support it. For example, firms with more than 250 employees employed only 55% of the private US work force in 2020.

So why don’t firms merge to achieve these gains? Yes, regulators and tax authorities may treat larger firms less favorably. Yes, maybe customers and employees dislike larger firms and so treat them worse. But the typical scale of most firms seems far smaller than can be explained by these effects. There seem to be much stronger reasons why most firms are not much larger.

One usual story is that the manager of the new merged firm just can’t help interfering with and inter-connecting these divisions. After all, he or she has career ambitions which are poorly served by a complete hands-off management style. But after such manager “help”, it becomes harder to evaluate the performance of each division independently from the rest. And the quality of the people wiling to work as heads of these divisions, instead of as CEOs of them as independent firms, gets lower. These costs of size are said to be larger than the benefits to be found from exploiting synergies, which is why firms are not larger.

A similar thing happens with government agencies assigned to manage sectors of society. Imagine that we created a government agency in charge of food for the whole nation. This agency is given an authorization so broad that it could allow exactly the existing food practice and industries, such as farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and personal kitchens. Or it could completely nationalize all these resources, and use tax revenue to reorganize them as it saw fit. Or it could do anything in between. Imagine that such an agency had been created in the U.S. in 1970.

It seems obvious to me that by now such a food agency would have intervened in food production, processing, and distribution far more extensively that has been the case in our actual history. Large government agencies would have formed with many thousands of employees, many of them directly managing food activities. Everyone would get access to some food, and some government activities would achieve larger scale economies than seen in the private sector. But this would be achieved in part via more uniformity, standardization, and stability of food processes. Government managed food would end up with less variety and adaptation to individual circumstances and preferences, and this food would improve and innovate less over time.

The amazing thing is that all this would happen even with high quality oversight and accountability by agencies to politicians, and politicians to voters. Voters would tell politicians about things they liked more and less, politicians would pass on these messages to agencies, and agencies would often change their policies and strategies in the suggested directions. But even in the absence of much corruption, civil servant selfishness, or partisan rancor, and even with the best political processes that we can imagine, a food industry managed by a government agency with broad powers would still probably end up creating a worse world of food over the long run.

Similarly, a new firm that merged three random prior firms would typically earn less profits, even with the sincere and helpful advice of its investors, boards of advisors, and management consulting firms, and even in the absence of stupid or corrupt firm managers and advisors. Processes of governance and oversight can and do help, but they are generally insufficient to cancel the harms from an overly centralized organization structure.

These patterns, if true, are seem important regarding the ideal scales of both business and government. And I fear the U.S. public is insufficiently aware of them, as we seem to be on the verge of a historic increase in the scale and depth of government management of society.

Added 4Oct: Let me emphasize that what I’m describing is theoretically puzzling, in that it isn’t very directly implied by our standard models of profit maximization or democratic accountability. There is something important that we don’t understand well going on here.

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To Cut Inequality, Face Hard Choices

In her new book The Right To Sex, Amia Srinivasan mentions my post on “sex redistribution”: 

Hanson asked on his blog why progressives are preoccupied with redistributing wealth but not with redistributing sex. He was widely decried—a Slate headline read, “Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?” But Hanson, who is an opponent of wealth redistribution, was charging progressives with hypocrisy. His question was: if wealth inequality is an injustice that demands to be corrected, why isn’t sex inequality, too?

Now in fact I have neither supported nor opposed wealth redistribution; I instead just noted the odd fact that the groups interested in income and sex redistribution don’t overlap much. And Srinivasan never answers my question, why redistribute income but not sex? She seems sympathetic to income redistribution, but opposes sex redistribution, and yet offers no principle on which to base this different treatment:

Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. … We wouldn’t think it coercive were the teacher to encourage the other students to share with your daughter, or were they to institute an equal sharing policy. But a state that made analogous interventions in the sexual preference and practices of its citizens—that encouraged us to “share” sex equally—would probably be thought grossly authoritarian. …

giving sex-less men money to spend on prostitutes, or encouraging traditional norms of … “enforced monogamy.” The irony is that these proposals, like rape, are also coercive. Women sell sex, on the whole, because they need money; to give sex-less men money with which to pay for sex presupposes that there are women who need to sell sex to live. 

Okay, but why is sandwich-sharing not also unacceptably “grossly authoritarian” or coercive? Srinivasan offers no distinguishing principle, even though this question seems to go to the core of her book. Srinivasan doesn’t say why using taxes or subsidies to influence anything related to sex is unacceptably “coercive”, even as she supports tax-supported guaranteed income, housing, and childcare.

A partial resolution of this puzzle is, I think, that Srinivasan sees herself as having different plans to deal with two kinds of inequality, income and sex, and sees both plans as “non-coercive”. She plans a non-coercive socialism for income, and non-coercive efforts to “transfigure our desires” for sex. From her interview with with Tyler Cowen:

I have a huge amount of anxiety about state power … I broadly identify as a democratic socialist. … When you’re asking about what kind of socialist models, I’m not proposing — I don’t think any plausible socialist does propose — that what we need is a form of Soviet state socialism. I think what we need to be thinking about is the radical democratization of the institutions that shape political and social and family life.

Somehow the creation and maintenance of a “radical democratization” would greatly cut income inequality without requiring “coercion” as she defines it (she offers no definition). And with such socialism, it would become easier to “non-coercively” rethink our desires, after which sex inequality would also fall greatly. Srinivasan says she offers a “utopian feminist response to our current situation”, which apparently has little to say about what to do now about inequality, in our actual world, before her envisioned utopian revolutions.

Except, Srinivasan does seem to endorse current policies like guaranteed income, housing, and childcare. If she has some special definition wherein such policies are not “coercive”, why can’t that also cover policies to cut sex inequality? 

So what is really going on here? My best guess: Srinivasan just refuses to admit that we can’t have it all, at zero cost. She won’t admit that inequality is a robust natural result of many social and biological processes, and that we have a rather limited range of costly options to cut it. And her suggestion to cut sex inequality by reconsidering our desires seems no more promising than cutting wage inequality by asking employers to reconsider their employee preferences. 

We do have some options though. For example, if you don’t like the inequality that would naturally happen across your different possible future selves, you can buy insurance. Even more inequality might be cut if parents could commit their kids to such insurance. But we now see little interest in buying or promoting such options. What we see instead is great interest in cutting inequality via coercive government “social insurance”. Yes, a great many other policies can have minor effects on inequality, but in the absence of the sudden appearance of utopian socialism, which no one today seems to know how to arrange, these seem to be our main actual options today for big cuts.  

While government redistribution involves many costs and risks, for people sufficiently averse to inequality it can make sense to support that. I am not personally very averse to inequality, but as a professional economist I stand ready to advise others with preferences different from mine. 

However, such advisees must prepare to make hard choices. They will have to decide which kinds of inequality – among income, lifespan, progeny, popularity, sex, and more –  matter more to them and why. And advisees should accept that big cuts in inequality may come at big costs, and also require things that look a lot like “coercion”, either via governments or parents.

We must all face hard facts, make hard choices, and then live with the consequences. Regarding inequality, or most anything. 

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Yay Argument Orientation

Long ago I dove into science studies, which includes history, sociology, and philosophy of science. (Got a U. Chicago M.A. in it in 1983.) I concluded at the time that “science” doesn’t really have a coherent meaning, beyond the many diverse practices of many groups that called themselves “science”. But reflecting on my recent foray into astrophysics suggests to me that there may a simple related core concept after all.

Imagine you are in an organization with a boss who announces a new initiative, together with supporting arguments. Also imagine that you are somehow forced to hear a counter-argument against this initiative, offered by a much lower status person, expressed in language and using methods that are not especially high status. In most organizations, most people would not be much tempted to support this counter-argument; they’d rather pretend that they never heard of it.

More generally, imagine there is a standard claim, which is relevant enough to important enough topics to be worth consideration. This claim is associated with some status markers, such as the status of its supporters and their institutions, and the status of the language and methods used to argue for it. And imagine further that a counter-claim is made, with an associated argument, and also associated status markers of its supporters, languages, and methods.

The degree to which (status-weighted) people in a community would be inclined to support this counter-claim (or even to listen to supporting arguments offered) would depend on the relative strengths of both the arguments and the status markers on both sides. (And on the counter claim’s degree of informativeness and relevance regarding topics seen as important.) I’ll say that such a community is more “argument-oriented” to the degree that the arguments’ logical or Bayesian strengths are given more priority over the claims’ status strengths.

Even though almost everyone in most all communities feels obligated to offer supporting arguments for their claims, very few communities are actually very argument-oriented. You usually don’t contradict the boss in public, unless you can find pretty high status allies for your challenge; you know that the strength of your argument doesn’t count for much as an ally. So it is remarkable, and noteworthy, that there are at least some communities that are unusually argument-oriented. These include big areas of math, and smaller areas of philosophy and physics. And, alas, they include even smaller areas of most human and social sciences. So there really a sense in which some standard disciplines are more “scientific”.

Note that most people are especially averse to claims with especially low status markers. For example, when an argument made for a position is expressed using language that evokes in many people vague illicit associations, such as with racism, sexism, ghosts, or aliens. Or when the people who support a claim are thought to have had such associations on other topics. As such expressions are less likely to happen near topics in math, math is more intrinsically supportive of argument-oriented communities.

But even with supportive topic areas, argument-orientation is far from guaranteed. So let us try to identify and celebrate the communities and topic areas where it is more common, and perhaps find better ways to shame the others into becoming more argument-oriented. Such an orientation is plausibly a strong causal factor explaining variation in accuracy and progress across different communities and areas.

There are actually a few simple ways that academic fields could try to be and seem more argument-oriented. For example, while peer review is one of the main place where counter-arguments are now expressed, such reviews are usually private. Making peer review public might induce higher quality counter-arguments. Similarly, higher priority could be given to publishing articles that focus more on elaborating counter-arguments to other arguments. And communities might more strongly affirm their focus on the literal meanings of expressions, relative to drawing inferences from vague language associations.

(Note: that being “argumentative” is not very related to being “argument-oriented”. You can bluster and fight without giving much weight to logical and Bayesian strengths of arguments. And you can collect and weigh arguments in a consensus style without focusing on who disagrees with who.)

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