Tag Archives: Charity

“If We Win, You Win”

One of the big wins of capitalism is that it creates strong private incentives for some kinds of social change. If someone has an idea for change, they can get investors and employees to work with them, in the hope of rewards if the change earns profits.

Alas, the most fundamental problem with social change in our world is that capitalism doesn’t encourage many other kinds of changes. Yes, under democracy elected politicians can get some weaker rewards for proposing changes. But for anything but small local changes, it isn’t worth a politican’s time to work out change details, explain it to voters, and organize support. That sort of thing is left to social movements and organized interest groups.

While many will deny it, the main promise that movements make to potential recruits is this: “If we win, you win”. Thus we mainly see movements around changes that can credibly make such promises. For example, crypto promises to reward investors with more money, and workers with valued job skills. Academic and technical movements promoting particular tools promise rewards to those who invest in these tools, relative to those who invest in competing tools.

Sometimes a movement has a vague label, and the real message is “As we ‘own’ this label, if our movement grows then we can send rewards to the high status loyalists among us.” Sometimes the movement’s implicit message is simply “We need to replace old folks with young folks like us in positions of influence.”

In entertainment and fashion movements, the reward can just be looking and sounding more knowledgable and “with-it”. For example, if I watch a lot of Game of Thrones, and it is popular, then in conversations I can relate to and say more about what others discuss. If locally sourced foods get popular, then I can seem more with-it when I cook such foods or recommend their restaurants. And if I grow or sell local food, I can gain even more. If I do or don’t wear masks, and then my mask side wins, I can brag that I supported the winning side.

The key point is that there are a lot of good ideas for change, including ideas that most people will admit are good ideas upon examination, where it is hard to organize supporting movements this way. For example, you can make a movement around a new way to teach kids, as you might start a school or be a teacher that uses it, or you might have your kid taught with it. But it is much harder to make a make a movement around the idea that there should just be a lot less school, unless you push a particular alternative to school.

Colleges rate professor teaching via student evaluations, which seems to have zero correlation with how much students learn, even though learning is the main reason given to attend college. But it seems hard to start a moment to fix this. We probably could construct ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness at student learning, but that would take resources away from other things, and would interfere with letting teachers teach any way they like. And a movement to just stop using current evaluations would admit to the public that we don’t care much about teaching quality.

More generally, when the public will mainly listen to people who specialize in X regarding changes in X, it is hard to make a movement to cut back on X. You can have movements to increase investments in X, or change how X is done, but the people who gain from cutting X are not the people listened to much on X.

Note that early on, movements can just promise gains via personal association with prestigious founders. It is later on when movements need to offer other rewards.

Futarchy would solve this, as it could give much stronger rewards for initiating changes. (At least for problems that government can solve.) But what would be gained by those who joined a movement to promote futarchy? The mechanism is simple, so there’s little to gain from investing in learning how to use it. It doesn’t promise to promise the young over the old, or to promote any particular policies for which we could identify the winners. Just making the world, or your nation better, inspires little passion.

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Universal Basic Dorms

Poor people have too little money. So why don’t we just give them more money, instead of giving them many specific things? The main theory in the literature is paternalism:

The traditional justification for in-kind transfers has been “paternalism.” … If members of society care about the consumption patterns of the poorest rather than their utility, then the unconstrained choices of the poor may create negative externalities for those who care about them. … while income inequality per se may be acceptable, all individuals should receive adequate food, medical service, and housing. … Parents may not take full account of the utility of their children when making decisions, or they may neglect to factor in externalities. … attempt to redistribute from parents to children within the family. … a sense that the poor cannot be trusted with cash. … it is hard to escape the conclusion that paternalism remains a fundamental underlying rationale for in-kind transfers. (more)

You may not be surprised to hear I have an elaboration of this account based on signaling and status. Let’s start with this result:

[A] 2010 paper … makes a strong case that in fact the outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (Two followup papers find the same result for outcomes of psychological distress and nine measures of health.) They looked at 87,000 Brits, and found that while income rank strongly predicted outcomes, neither individual (log) income nor an average (log) income of their reference group predicted outcomes, after controlling for rank (and also for age, gender, education, marital status, children, housing ownership, labor-force status, and disabilities). (more)

So if satisfaction and preference go simply as income rank, then there is simply no way to to use income redistribution to help with such things. Whatever you give to some comes at the expense of others, for no net gain. You can still want to help the poor, but that requires that your concern about their lives not be mediated directly by their satisfaction or preferences. That is, what you want regarding them can’t equal what they want or what makes them happy.

For example, compared to the poor, you might put less weight on their desires to signal, and to rise in status via positional goods (like winning a sporting contest). Because you can see the negative externalities associated with such things. That is, you might put more weight than they do on the remainder of their preferences, which we might call their “direct welfare”.

If there are diminishing returns to direct welfare, then you can want to reduce the overall variance of direct welfare, by giving more of it to the poor, at the expense of the non-poor. But you can reasonably fear that if you just give them cash they will spend too much of that on the kinds of non-direct welfare that have negative externalities. So you can want to constrain their choices, to better ensure that it is direct welfare that you are giving them.

The big problem here is: how to distinguish the goods, i.e., products and services, that put more weight on signaling and status, relative to those that put more weight on direct welfare. The usual political equilibrium is to give the poor the sorts of goods that people tend to praise and admire, at least for others. Like jobs, medicine, education, libraries, art, churches, and fresh vegetables. And to withhold from the poor goods that people tend to criticize and dislike, at least for others. Like parties, drugs, sex, fast food, social media, movies, and video games.

But alas, typical admired goods don’t obviously have smaller positional components, nor do they obviously contribute less to signaling. For example, both education and medicine, widely given to the poor, have huge signaling and status components, plausibly even larger than for most goods. If we cannot in practice distinguish the goods that do more to promote direct welfare, we should give up on in-kind transfers and just give the poor cash. And then only to the extent that we think direct welfare has strongly diminishing returns in terms of cash.

I have a (perhaps not original) idea. We have good reasons to think that in general most product and service variety emphasizes signaling and status, relative to standard goods that can achieve large scale economies. So if we can make especially cheap cars, homes, clothes, food, etc. via mass production with a small range of variety, then we should prefer to spend our budget on helping the poor via such standard goods.

That is, assume that we the non-poor have a budget that we are willing to spend on helping the poor. We have two reasons to prefer to spend this budget on standard goods. First, standard goods can be provided much more cheaply, allowing us to give more to each person, or to help more people. Second, because these goods have a lower signaling and status components, the poor who consume them hurt the rest of us less via making us look worse by comparison, and rising in status relative to us. We should thus be wiling to increase the budget that we spend on the poor, in compensation.

Of course the poor may resent this policy, even if it results in larger budgets. Exactly because we choose these standard goods to have lower signaling and positional components, the poor will know that others who see that they are using such standard goods designed for the poor may think less of them as a result. That may not be quite the same as a “stigma” assigned to such goods, but it may have a similar effect. Even so, this looks like an efficient arrangment.

So how exactly can we give standard goods to the poor? There’s an obvious risk that the government, or a charity, managing such poverty assistance might overly micromanage the specific standard goods offered, inducing their design, variations, production, and maintenance. Resulting in greatly increased costs and lower quality, as we’ve often seen with public housing.
So it seems better to just offer the poor credits that they could spend at any competing private supplier of standard goods packages.

That is, let us offer to pay qualifying private “dorms” a fixed budget per resident served per day. Each dorm would give its residents its standard package of a bed, clothes, food, and services for transport, entertainment, schooling, and medicine. Then the qualified poor could choose the dorms they see as offering the best combination of location, other residents, and standard services. If there were many competing dorms, and if residents could change dorms frequently (say at least once a year), competition should force dorms to offer efficient and relatively attractive packages. (We may also need to change zoning and regulation to allow such dorms to be offered.)

History seems to suggest that direct welfare can often be provided more cheaply and reliably via dorm-like living. Such as we’ve seen in colleges, the military, orphanages, hospitals, prisons, and retirement homes. So it doesn’t seem a crazy idea to help the poor live cheaply via dorms as well. But I do see a few complications.

Limiting Variety – If not constrained by some rules, competing private dorms won’t necessarily offer standard goods, instead of more varied goods of a lower quality. After all, that is what the poor seem to choose in the market today. So there would have to be some rules enforcing a degree of standardization of the goods offered. Thus there would be limits on the variety that dorms offer in their rooms, clothes, food etc. I don’t have specific proposals regarding these rules to offer now.

Unusual Variety – Some of the poor will actually be unusually different from the others, and thus need unusually different services. Such as some disabled folks, or parents with young children. These might be offered something different than the standard options proposed here.

Added Variety – Even if we push for less variety and more standardization in what we give the poor, there’s no need to go to extremes on this. Internet connections would offer the usual immense variety of outside sites to which one could connect. And some fraction of the budget paid to dorms might be paid directly to the poor as “allowances,” from which residents could pay for unusual expenses and added variety, such as for some food or clothing occasionally bought outside the dorm. Perhaps the poor who insist on more variety than this dorm system offers could be offered a cash budget to spend on their own, a substantially lower amount than the budget offered to qualified dorms to host them.

Transitions – It is probably more expensive for dorms to deal with residents who come and go, relative to residents who stay. So it would probably be better if dorms were paid some extra amount for resident changes. Residents might have a limited budget of such changes, or maybe they’d have to pay for change fees out of an allowance.

Universal Offer – I see no reason not to allow dorms to let the non-poor to pay to be residents. In addition, some may argue for paying dorms the same budgets to let anyone stay there, not just the qualified poor. Then anyone could choose to live in these dorms, and save on living expenses. This would be “Universal Basic Dorms” instead of a “Universal Basic Income”. It would be much cheaper than U.B.I., as fewer ordinary people would be willing to stay in such dorms.

Valuing Neighbors – If these dorms only housed the qualified poor, then such poor may have a worse pool of associates and role models. Thus it might make sense to pay dorms some added amount per non-poor residents who mingle with their poor residents. This makes sense not only in terms of benefits to the poor, but also in terms of compensating such non-poor residents for the status hit they take by moving to such dorms.

Crime – My understanding is that crime is the other big thing that tended to go very wrong with public housing, in addition to mismanagement. So things might go very wrong if dorms were not allowed to reject residents they deem too likely to cause problems. In addition, things would probably go even better with a crime voucher system. Offer each resident a budget to pay a voucher to cover all the crime they may commit as a resident. If they can’t get a voucher to agree at that price, no matter what the other contract terms, such a resident does not qualify for dorm living. This might be a good test environment for a crime voucher system.

And that’s my proposal. Offer to pay dorms per resident who stays there, with rules to encourage less-varied more-standard dorm goods which achieve scale economies. Residents would then get more direct welfare, even if they’d gain less status and send less attractive signals. That lower status should make the rest of us more willing to increase dorm budgets well over the cash budget we might offer the poor to live outside dorms.

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Missing Model: Too Much Do-Gooding

Grim view of human nature … is mistaken, a persistent and counterproductive myth. … the evidence for mass selfishness is extremely thin. … The surprising truth is that people tend to be­have decently in a crisis. To the British, the all-too-familiar example is the cheerful demeanour of Londoners during the Blitz. … New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina … rumours ran wild about the murder and rape of children inside the Louisiana Superdome; but when the national guard showed up, … met instead by a nurse asking for medical supplies. (more)

Friday I asked the author of a pandemic novel what he thought went most wrong in his fictional world. He said selfishness: blaming others, and not sacrificing enough to protect others from infection. He also said he was surprised to see people acting less selfishly than he predicted in our real pandemic.

As the above quote indicates, that’s a common mistake. In this pandemic I estimate that the bigger problem is people pushing for too much “helping”, rather than too little. That’s a common problem in health and medicine, and this poll says 2-1 that it is the more common problem:

Of course my Twitter followers are probably unusual by this metric; I’d bet most think selfishness is the bigger problem. One reason is that it can look suspiciously selfish to say there’s too much do-gooding, as if you were trying to excuse your selfish behavior. Another reason is that the theory of selfishness is simpler. In economics, for example, we teach many quite simple game theory models of temptations to selfishness. In contrast, it seems harder to explain the core theory of why there might be too much do-gooding.

This seems to suggest a good and feasible project: generate or identify some good simple game theory models that predict too much do-gooding. Not just personal signaling acts that do too much, but acts that push collective norms and decisions toward too much do-gooding. I’d be happy to help with such a project. Of course it would make only a small contribution to the problem, but still I’d guess one worth the trouble.

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Grabbing Now Versus Later

Today and yesterday’s Democratic debates suggests a big recent bump in tastes for regulation and redistribution, in order to lower the status of big business and the rich, and to spend more on the needy and worthy causes. South Korea, which I’ve just visited, sees a similar trend, as does Europe:

Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s. In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations. It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades. (more)

While I often hear arguments on the moral and economic wisdom of grabbing to redistribute, I rarely hear about the choice of whether to grab now versus later. The issues here are similar to those for the related choice in charity, of whether to give now versus later:

Then Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias got up and just started Robin Hansonning at everybody. First he gave a long list of things that people could do to improve the effectiveness of their charitable donations. Then he declared that since almost no one does any of these, people don’t really care about charity, they’re just trying to look good. … he made some genuinely unsettling points.

One of his claims that generated the most controversy was that instead of donating money to charity, you should invest the money at compound interest, then donate it to charity later after your investment has paid off – preferably just before you die. … He said that the reason people didn’t do this was that they wanted the social benefits of having given money away, which are unavailable if you wait until just before you die to do so. And darn it, he was totally right. Not about the math – there are severe complications which I’ll bring up later – but about the psychology. (more)

Others … argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But … if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need [for waiting to be better] are positive interest rates. (more)

You may be tempted to move resources from the rich and business profits to the poor and worthy projects, because you see business exploitation, you see low value in the rich buying mansions and yachts, you see others in great need, and you see great value in many worthy projects. But big business doesn’t actually exploit much, the consumption of the rich is less of real resources, and the rich tend to consume less relative to investing and donating.

So instead of grabbing stuff from the rich and businesses today, consider the option of waiting, to grab later. If you don’t grab stuff from them today, these actors will invest much of that stuff, producing a lot more stuff later. Yes, you might think some of your favorite projects are good investments, but let’s be honest; most of the stuff you grab won’t be invested, and the investments that do happen will be driven more by political than rate-of-return considerations. Furthermore, if you grab a lot today, news of that event will discourage future folks from generating stuff, and encourage those folks to move and hide it better.

Also, the rich put much of what they don’t invest into charity. And there’s good reason to think they do a decent job with their charity efforts. Most have impressive management abilities, access to skilled associates, and a willingness to take risks. And they can more effectively resist political pressures that typically mess up government-managed projects.

Finally, when the rich do spend money on themselves, much of that goes to paying for positional and status goods that generate much less in the way of real wastes. When they bid up the price of prestigious clubs, real estate, colleges, first-class seats, vanity books and conference talks, etc., real resources are transferred to those who get less prestigious versions. And our best model of status inequality says that allowing more of this doesn’t cause net harm.

So the longer you wait to grab from the rich, the longer they will grow wealth, donate it well, and transfer via status goods. Just as it is dangerous to borrow too much, because you may face big future crises, it can be unwise to grab from the rich today, when you could grow and farm them to create a crop available to harvest tomorrow. South Korea would have been much worse off doing big grabs in 1955, relative to waiting until today to grab.

Added 29June: Some people ask “wait how long?” One strategy would be to wait for a serious crisis. This is in fact when the rich have lost most of their wealth in history, in disasters like wars, pandemics, and civilization collapse. Another strategy would be to wait until there’s so much capital that market rates of return fall to very low levels.

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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Best Cause: New Institution Field Trials

“Altruist” is not one of my core identities, though many identities that I cherish (e.g., “accurate”, “innovator”) have altruistic effects. But over the last decade I’ve met many who identify directly as altruists. If you are such a person, this post is for you. In it, I will make the case for a particular altruistic cause, a cause that combines two big altruism levers: innovation and institutions.

Innovation: If you care about helping people, you should care a lot about the future, because most of the people you could help live there. In addition, typical interest rates put less weight on future consequences, compared to consequences today, which means that all else equal you can buy future help at a much lower cost.

The main reason that our world today is better off than past worlds is innovation; we have accumulated more better ways to do many things. This strongly suggests that innovation is the main way that people today will help the future. Which suggest that this is how you should also try to help. In addition, there seems to be too little innovation today because many innovations are hard to own, and even when owned most of their value leaks out to folks who pay little for them.

Many steps are typically required for successful innovation. A problem must be perceived, solutions invented, trials test, and winners diffused out to new contexts. Usually a lot of adaptation detail is required to enable a simple elegant idea to actually be useful in complex contexts, and also to readapt solutions that worked well in some contexts to new differing contexts. The most effective way to help innovation is to subsidize the steps that are now currently neglected. Our world typically offers larger rewards for generating simple ideas, and for adopting into ordinary practice well adapted and tested solutions. Thus one can help most by subsidizing the neglected efforts to adapt and readapt, especially in contexts where it is hard to own or sell an innovation. Such as:

Institutions: We each make many choices in our lives. And you can help others by advising their choices. However, when people are directly subject to the consequences of their choices, they tend to have good incentives to figure out their best choices. You can help more by subsidizing the individual choices that tend more to benefit others. This can include the choice to collect more decision related info, when that info could benefit many others with similar choices.

Most individual choices are made within larger social equilibria over which each person has little personal influence. For example, we each drive on the right side of the road mainly because everyone else drives on the right. That is, we tend to take larger equilibria and systems as given when making our individual choices. Yes we can try to coordinate to change these systems, but coordination is hard, most of benefits go to others, and it is hard to own most systems.

Collecting info to advise an effort to coordinate to change equilibria is especially neglected, as we tend to neglect both info and coordination. Info collection efforts are especially neglected when it is hard to claim person altruistic credit for the info that one has contributed, either because that effort gets mixed up with the efforts of others, or because non-altruistic motives are plausible.

Each social equilibria can be thought of a combination of a set of visible and relatively formal rules, together with other less visible “cultural” factors that produce matching expectations and behaviors. That first more visible part we call “institutions” or “mechanisms”. Useful changes of social equilibria require not just changes in visible institutions, but also well-matching changes to local culture.

It is easier to change systems when the new system that one might want to create is already working well in other social contexts. In such cases, we must only work to adapt existing systems into our new context, via some combination of analysis and trial and error, and also work to coordinate to actually make this change. It is easier to work explicitly and analytically on the more visible institutional parts; for the less visible cultural parts one is forced more to rely on simple trial and error. It is hardest to change systems when the desired new system is not already working well somewhere, and so it must be invented, adapted, and tested before it can be applied.

Innovating Institutions: You can gain especially strong altruism leverage by combining these two levers, innovation and institutions. That is, you can help to collect and share info to allow innovation of shared social systems. As the most neglected step in the innovation process is context-specific adaptation and re-adaptation, that is the highest leverage place to help. As social systems are very important but hardest for individuals to own or choose, innovators neglected these the most. And as institutions are the visible part of social systems that one can actually work on, that is where visible efforts must focus.

Back in 1993, at the age of 34, I started a Ph.D. program to study institution and mechanism design, exactly because I had come to this conclusion, that institution innovation had a huge neglected potential. I spent many years studying this academic area, and I can tell you now with confidence: academics know many useful things about institutions, and have many good elegant simple ideas for institution change, ideas that they have explored in math and lab experiments.

Some say that while past social innovations were important, future ones are not, because there is little left to learn about social systems; we know most all worth knowing. But that’s just very wrong. The space of possible social systems is vast, and we’ve hardly explored but a tiny corner of that vast space.

I can also tell you with confidence: academics usually drop the innovation ball after they’ve extracted the academic rewards that they can from an institution idea. Academics can be rewarded for studying existing social systems, including both institutional and cultural elements. They can also be rewarded for proving theorems about new institution ideas, and for testing predictions of these theorems in highly-abstracted lab experiments. Sometimes even in simple well-controlled field experiments. But academics are not rewarded for further efforts to adapt promising ideas to messy social worlds, and so they do little of this.

Business people are often willing to take a social innovation that has mostly been adapted well and do the last few adaptation steps, if those last steps are cheap enough and if they think they can own something about it (e.g. software), or if they can gain direct value from its application. However, business people are far less eager to contribute to earlier steps of the innovation process. Thus it is the intermediate innovation steps, of adaptation and re-adaptation, that are neglected by both academics and business.

As charities claim to be altruistic, you might think they would step in to pay for these key high leverage missing steps. But while many charities pay for academic research, and some pay to apply mostly-worked-out new institution ideas in charity contexts, almost none pay for the neglected adaptation of social innovation ideas in other contexts. Charity patrons either don’t understand why that would be helpful, or don’t think that the audience they seek to impress with their charity efforts would understand. But if you really are a direct altruist, who cares more about helping than about getting others to think you are helping, then this cause might be the one for you.

While money can help, the key resource needed for institution adaptation efforts is actually real organizations willing to risk disruption and distraction to work on adapting promising institution ideas. This is where I’m stuck with decision markets. There’s lots of money for abstract academic work, and many businesses ready to apply mostly-proven mechanisms. But organizations willing to do trial and error to search for less disruptive variations, those are hard to find. If you have or can create such an organization, you are sitting on altruism gold, if only you will dig it up.

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Long Legacies And Fights In A Competitive Universe

My last post discussed how to influence the distant future, using a framework focused on a random uncaring universe. This is, for example, the usual framework of most who see themselves as future-oriented “effective altruists”. They see most people and institutions as not caring much about the distant future, and they themselves as unusual exceptions in three ways: 1) their unusual concern for the distant future, 2) their unusual degree of general utilitarian altruistic concern, and 3) their attention to careful reasoning on effectiveness.

If few care much or effectively about the distant future, then efforts to influence that distant future don’t much structure our world, and so one can assume that the world is structured pretty randomly compared to one’s desires and efforts to influence the distant future. For example, one need not be much concerned about the possibility that others have conflicting plans, or that they will actively try to undermine one’s plans. In that case the analysis style of my last post seems appropriate.

But it would be puzzling if such a framework were so appropriate. After all, the current world we see around us is the result of billions of years of fierce competition, a competition that can be seen as about controlling the future. In biological evolution, a fierce competition has selected species and organisms for their ability to make future organisms resemble them. More recently, within cultural evolution, cultural units (nations, languages, ethnicities, religions, regions, cities, firms, families, etc.) have been selected for their ability to make future cultural units resemble them. For example, empires have been selected for their ability to conquer neighboring regions, inducing local residents to resemble them more than they do conquered empires.

In a world of fierce competitors struggling to influence the future, it makes less sense for any one focal alliance of organism, genetic, and cultural units (“alliance” for short in the rest of this post) to assume a random uncaring universe. It instead makes more sense to ask who has been winning this contest lately, what strategies have been helping them, and what advantages this one alliance might have or could find soon to help in this competition. Competitors would search for any small edge to help them pull even a bit ahead of others, they’d look for ways to undermine rivals’ strategies, and they’d expect rivals to try to undermine their own strategies. As most alliances lose such competitions, one might be happy to find a strategy that allows one to merely stay even for a while. Yes, successful strategies sometimes have elements of altruism, but usually as ways to assert prestige or to achieve win-win coordination deals.

Furthermore, in a world of fiercely competing alliances, one might expect to have more success at future influence via joining and allying strongly with existing alliances, rather than by standing apart from them with largely independent efforts. In math there is often an equivalence between “maximize A given a constraint on B” and “maximize B given a constraint on A”, in the sense that both formulations give the same answers. In a related fashion, similar efforts to influence the future might be framed in either of two rather different ways:

  1. I’m fundamentally an altruist, trying to make the world better, though at times I choose to ally and compromise with particular available alliances.
  2. I’m fundamentally a loyal member/associate of my alliance, but I think that good ways to help it are to a) prevent the end of civilization, b) promote innovation and growth within my alliance, which indirectly helps the world grow, and c) have my alliance be seen as helping the world in a way which raises its status and reputation.

This second framing seems to have some big advantages. People who follow it may win the cooperation, support, and trust of many members of a large and powerful alliance. And such ties and supports may make it easier to become and stay motivated to continue such efforts. As I said in my last post, people seem much more motivated to join fights than to simply help the world overall. Our evolved inclinations to join alliances probably create this stronger motivation.

Of course if in fact most all substantial alliances today are actually severely neglecting the distant future, then yes it can make more sense to mostly ignore them when planning to influence the distant future, except for minor connections of convenience. But we need to ask: how strong is the evidence that in fact existing alliances greatly neglect the long run today? Yes, they typically fail to adopt policies that many advocates say would help in the long run, such as global warming mitigation. But others disagree on the value of such policies, and failures to act may also be due to failures to coordinate, rather than to a lack of concern about the long run.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of future neglect is that typical financial rates of return have long remained well above growth rates, strongly suggesting a direct discounting of future outcomes due to their distance in time. For example, these high rates of return are part of standard arguments that it will be cheaper to accommodate global warming later, rather than to prevent it today. Evolutionary finance gives us theories of what investing organizations would do when selected to take a long view, and it doesn’t match what we see very well. Wouldn’t an alliance with a long view take advantage of high rates of return to directly buy future influence on the cheap? Yes, individual humans today have to worry about limited lifespans and difficulties controlling future agents who spend their money. But these should be much less of an issue for larger cultural units. Why don’t today’s alliances save more?

Important related evidence comes from data on our largest longest-term known projects. Eight percent of global production is now spent on projects that cost over one billion dollars each. These projects tend to take many years, have consistent cost and time over-runs and benefit under-runs, and usually are net cost-benefit losers. I first heard about this from Freemon Dyson, in the “Fast is Beautiful” chapter of Infinite in All Directions. In Dyson’s experience, big slow projects are consistent losers, while fast experimentation often makes for big wins. Consider also the many large slow and failed attempts to aid poor nations.

Other related evidence include having the time when a firm builds a new HQ be a good time to sell their stock, futurists typically do badly at predicting important events even a few decades into the future, and the “rags to riches to rags in three generations” pattern whereby individuals who find ways to grow wealth don’t pass such habits on to their grandchildren.

A somewhat clear exception where alliances seem to pay short term costs to promote long run gains is in religious and ideological proselytizing. Cultural units do seem to go out of their way to indoctrinate the young, to preach to those who might convert, and to entrench prior converts into not leaving. Arguably, farming era alliances also attended to the long run when they promoted fertility and war.

So what theories do we have to explain this data? I can see three:

1) Genes Still Rule – We have good theory on why organisms that reproduce via sex discount the future. When your kids only share half of your genes, if you consider spending on yourself now versus on your kid one generation later, you discount future returns at roughly a factor of two per generation, which isn’t bad as an approximation to actual financial rates of return. So one simple theory is that even though cultural evolution happens much faster than genetic evolution, genes still remain in firm control of cultural evolution. Culture is a more effective ways for genes to achieve their purposes, but genes still set time discounts, not culture.

2) Bad Human Reasoning – While humans are impressive actors when they can use trial and error to hone behaviors, their ability to reason abstractly but reliably to construct useful long term plans is terrible. Because of agency failures, cognitive biases, incentives to show off, excess far views, overconfidence, or something else, alliances learned long ago not to trust to human long term plans, or to accumulations of resources that humans could steal. Alliances have traditionally invested in proselytizing, fertility, prestige, and war because those gains are harder for agents to mismanage or steal via theft and big bad plans.

3) Cultures Learn Slowly – Cultures haven’t yet found good general purpose mechanisms for making long term plans. In particular, they don’t trust organized groups of humans to make and execute long term plans for them, or to hold assets for them. Cultures have instead experimented with many more specific ways to promote long term outcomes, and have only found successful versions in some areas. So they seem to act with longer term views in a few areas, but mostly have not yet managed to find ways to escape the domination of genes.

I lean toward this third compromise strategy. In my next post, I’ll discuss a dramatic prediction from all this, one that can greatly influence our long-term priorities. Can you guess what I will say?

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Be A Dad

A key turning point in my life was when my wife declared that her biological clock said she wanted kids now. I hadn’t been thinking of kids, and the prospect didn’t inspire much passion in me; my life had focused on other things. But I wanted to please my wife, and I didn’t much object, so we had kids. I now see that as one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. I thank my wife for pushing me to it.

Stats suggest that while parenting doesn’t make people happier, it does give them more meaning. And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Parenting does take time. (Though, as Bryan Caplan emphasized in a book, less than most think.) And many people I know plan to have an enormous positive influences on the universe, far more than plausible via a few children. But I think they are mostly kidding themselves. They fear their future selves being less ambitious and altruistic, but its just as plausible that they will instead become more realistic.

Also, many people with grand plans struggle to motivate themselves to follow their plans. They neglect the motivational power of meaning. Dads are paid more, other things equal, and I doubt that’s a bias; dads are better motivated, and that matters. Your life is long, most big world problems will still be there in a decade or two, and following the usual human trajectory you should expect to have the most wisdom and influence around age 40 or 50. Having kids helps you gain both.

And in addition, you’ll do a big great thing for your kids; you’ll let them exist. It isn’t that hard to ensure a reasonably happy and meaningful childhood. That’s a far surer gain than your grand urgent plans to remake the universe.

Having kids is actually the best-proven way to have a long term influence. So much so that biological evolution has focused almost entirely on it. By comparison, human cultural mechanisms to influence the future seem tentative, unreliable, and unproven, except when closely tied to having and raising kids. Let your portfolio of future influence attempts include both low-risk, as well as high-risk, approaches.

Added 2p: Of course our biases help us make our meanings, in parenting as elsewhere:

Belief in myths idealizing parenthood helps parents cope with the dissonance aroused by the high financial cost of raising children. (more; HT Eric Barker)

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Foom Justifies AI Risk Efforts Now

Years ago I was honored to share this blog with Eliezer Yudkowsky. One of his main topics then was AI Risk; he was one of the few people talking about it back then. We debated this topic here, and while we disagreed I felt we made progress in understanding each other and exploring the issues. I assigned a much lower probability than he to his key “foom” scenario.

Recently AI risk has become something of an industry, with far more going on than I can keep track of. Many call working on it one of the most effectively altruistic things one can possibly do. But I’ve searched a bit and as far as I can tell that foom scenario is still the main reason for society to be concerned about AI risk now. Yet there is almost no recent discussion evaluating its likelihood, and certainly nothing that goes into as much depth as did Eliezer and I. Even Bostrom’s book length treatment basically just assumes the scenario. Many seem to think it obvious that if one group lets one AI get out of control, the whole world is at risk. It’s not (obvious).

As I just revisited the topic while revising Age of Em for paperback, let me try to summarize part of my position again here. Continue reading "Foom Justifies AI Risk Efforts Now" »

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Presumed Selfish

Imagine that some person or organization is now a stranger, but you are considering forming a relation with them. Imagine further that they have one of two possible reputations: presumed selfish, or presumed pro-social. Assume also that the presumption about you is somewhere between these two extremes of selfish and pro-social.

In this situation you might think it obvious that you’d prefer to associate with the party that is presumed pro-social. After all, in this case social norms might push them to treat you nicer in many ways. However, there are other considerations. First, other forces, such as law and competition, might already push them to treat you pretty nicely. Second, social norms could also push you to treat them nicer, to a degree that law and competition might not push. And if you and they had a dispute, observers might be more tempted to blame you than them. Which could tempt them to demand more of you, knowing you’d fear an open dispute.

For example, consider which gas station you’d prefer, Selfish Sam’s or Nuns of Nantucket. If you buy gas from the nuns, social norms might push them to be less likely to sell you water instead of gas, and to offer you a lower price. But you might be pretty sure that laws already keep them from selling you water instead of gas, and their gas price visible from the road might already assure you of a low price. If you start buying gas from the nuns they might start to hit you up for donations to their convent. If you switched from them to another gas station they might suggest you are disloyal. You might have to dress and try to act extra nice there, such as by talking polite and not farting or dropping trash on the ground.

In contrast, if you buy gas from Selfish Sam’s, laws and competition could assure you that get the gas you wanted at a low price. And you could let yourself act selfish in your dealings with them. You could only buy gas when you felt like it, buy the type of gas best for you, and switch it all when convenient. You don’t have to dress or act especially nice when you are there, and you could buy a selfish snack if that was your mood. In any dispute between you and them most people are inclined to take your side, and that keeps Sam further in line.

This perspective helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling features of our world. First, we tend to presume that firms and bosses are selfish, and we often verbally criticize them for this (to others if not to their faces). Yet we are mostly comfortable relying on such firms for most of our goods and services, and on bosses for our jobs. There is little push to substitute non-profits who are more presumed to be pro-social. It seems we like the fact that most people will tend to take our side in a dispute with them, and we can feel more free to change suppliers and jobs when it seems convenient for us. Bosses are often criticized for disloyalty for firing an employee, while employees are less often criticized for disloyalty for quitting jobs.

Sometimes we feel especially vulnerable to being hurt by suppliers like doctors, hurt in ways that we fear law and competition won’t fix. In these cases we prefer such suppliers to have a stronger pro-social presumption, such as being bound by professional ethics and organized via non-profits. And we pay many prices for this, such as via acting nicer to them, avoiding disputes with them, and being reluctant to demand evaluations or to switch via competition. Similarly, the job of being a solider makes soldiers especially vulnerable to their bosses, and so soldier bosses are expected to be more pro-social.

As men tend to be presumed more selfish in our culture, this perspective also illuminates our male-female relations. Men commit more crime, women are favored in child custody disputes, and in dating men are more presumed to “only want one thing.” In he-said-she-said disputes, observers tend to believe the woman. Women tend more to initiate breakups, and find it easier to get trust-heavy jobs like nursing, teaching, and child-care, while men find it easier to get presumed-selfish jobs like investors and bosses. Female leaders are more easily criticized for selfish behavior, e.g., more easily seen as “bitchy”. Women tend to conform more, and to be punished more for nonconformity.

This all makes sense if men tend to feel more vulnerable to hidden betrayal by women, e.g. cuckoldry, while women can more use law and visible competition to keep men in line. In traditional gender roles, men more faced outsiders while women more faced inside the family. Thus men needed more to act “selfish” toward outsiders to help their families.

When those who are presumed selfish want to prove they are not selfish, they must sacrifice more to signal their pro-sociality. So men are expected to do more to signal devotion to women than vice versa. Conversely folks like doctors, teachers, or priests, who are presumed pro-social can often get away with actually acting quite selfishly, as long such choices are hard to document. Few with access to evidence are willing to directly challenge them.

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