Tag Archives: Elites

Status Trumps Argument

Are elites nicer than other people? No, but they are better at being nice contingently, in the right situations where niceness is rewarded. And also better at being mean contingently, in the situations where that is rewarded. Other people aren’t as good on average at correlating their niceness with rewards for niceness. A similar pattern applies to elites and arguments.

In a world with many strong prediction markets, social consensus would be set by the people willing and able to trade in those markets. Which could be most anyone. And those traders would in general be responsive to good arguments, as traders are on the hook to win or lose a lot of money if they fail to listen to good arguments. In this world, arguments would be a powerful force for producing better beliefs.

But in our world today, the perceived social consensus is mostly set by elites. That is, by whatever seems to be elites’ shared opinion. And so the power of arguments depends on elites being willing and able to listen to them. Do they?

Many elites are selected for their ability to generate and evaluate good arguments. So many are quite able to listen. But as with being nice, elites are especially good at contingent strategies: they generate and credit good arguments when they are rewarded for that, but not otherwise.

The key parameter that determines if an elite is rewarded for using and crediting good arguments is the relative status of the parties involved. When elites argue with equal status elites, their arguments may need to be good. At least if their particular audience values arguments.

But consider a case where two parties to a dispute are of very unequal status, and where the topic is one where there’s a perception that elite consensus agrees with the high status party. In this case, the higher status party only needs to offer the slim appearance of argument quality. Just blathering a few related words is often completely sufficient. Even if put together in context those words don’t really make much sense.

I have seen this happen many times personally. For example, if I argue with a higher status person, who for some reason engages with me in this context, and if my position is one seen as reasonable by the usual elite consensus, then my partner is careful to offer quality arguments, and to credit such arguments if I offer them. But if I take a position seen as against the current elite consensus, that same high status partner instead feels quite comfortable offering very weak and incoherent arguments.

(Yes, low status people follow this approach too, but high status people are better at executing this as a contingent strategy, and their choices matter more.)

Or consider all the crazy weak arguments offered by Project Bluebook to dismiss hard-to-explain UFO encounters. As they were confident that audiences would see UFO advocates as much lower status, they could blithely blather things like “swamp gas” that just didn’t fit case details.

Thus in our world today the quality of arguments only matters for positions “within the Overton window”. That is, positions that many elites are seen to take seriously. Which is why contrarians positions are so often unfairly dismissed. Even though, yes, most contrarian positions are wrong. And this is why we need to break out of our system of social consensus dominated so strongly by elites.

Added 20May: Note that this sort of thing can fool people who listen to such contrarian debates into underestimating the usual intellectual standards for non-contrarian topics. They may then think that arguments only modestly better than the ones elites use to dismiss them are of sufficient quality. But that isn’t remotely good enough.

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Explaining Regulation

During this pandemic, elites have greatly enjoyed getting to feel important by weighing in on big pandemic policy questions, such as masks, lockdowns, travel restrictions, vaccine tests, vaccine distribution, etc. Each elite can feel self-righteous in their concern for others, and morally outraged when the world doesn’t follow their recommendations. Don’t people know that this is too important for XYZ to get in the way of the world believing that they are right? Unconsciously, they seek to signal that they are in fact elites, by the facts that they agree with elites, that other elites listen to them, and that the world does what elites say.

Imagine that these key pandemic policy choices had been made instead by private actors. Such as vaccine makers testing, pricing, and distributing as they wished, airlines limiting travel as they wished, and legal liability via tracking discouraging overly risky behavior. Government could have influenced these choices indirectly via subsidies and taxes, but the key specific choices would still have been made privately.

In this scenario, talking head elites would have been a lot more frustrated, as they’d have to direct their advice to these private actors, who are much less visibly eager than public officials to slavishly follow elite advice. So elites could less clearly show that they are elites by the fact that the world promptly and respectably obeys their commands.

When these private actors made choices that later seemed like mistakes in retrospect, then elites who resented their neglect would make passionate calls to change legal standards in order to rain down retribution and punishment upon these private actors, to “hold them to account.” Even though they were not at fault according to prior legal standards. However, when private decisions seemed right in retrospect, there’d be few passionate calls to rain down extra rewards on them. As we’ve seen recently in the “opiod crisis”, or earlier with subprime loans, cigarettes, and nuclear power.

In contrast, when government authorities do exactly what elites tell them, and yet in retrospect those decisions look mistaken, there are few calls to hold to account these authorities, or the elites and media who goaded them on. We then hear all about how uncertainty is a real thing, and even good decisions can look bad in retrospect. Given these sort of “heads I win, tails we flip again” standards, it is no surprise that private actors would often rather that key decisions be made by government officials. Even if those decisions will be made worse, private actors can avoid frequent retribution for in-hindsight mistakes.

In principle, elites could argue at higher levels of abstraction, not about specific mask or travel rules, but about how best to structure the general institutions and systems of information and incentives in which various choices are made. Then elites could respond to a crisis by reevaluating and refining these more abstract systems. But, alas, most elites don’t know enough to argue at this level. Some people with doctorates in economics or computer science are up to this task, but in our world we use a great many weak indicators to decide who counts as “elites”, and the vast majority of those who quality simply don’t know how to think about abstract institution design questions. But masks, etc. they think they understand.

Yes, there are many other topics which require great expertise, such as for example designing nuclear reactors. In many such cases, elites realize that they don’t know enough to offer judgments on details, and so don’t express opinions at detail levels. When something goes wrong, they instead may just say “more must be done”, even though they almost never say “less must be done” after a long period without things going wrong. Or they may respond to a problem by saying “government-authorized authorities must oversee more of these details”, though again they hardly ever suggest overseeing fewer details in other situations.

So the problem with regulation is more fundamentally that elites focus on reacting to concrete failures, instead of looking for missed opportunities, and they don’t understand much more than “do more” and “oversee more” as the possible institutional responses to concrete problems that they see need expertise. Nor do they understand much about how to design better institutions other than to respond in these ways to more particular observed problems.

And that’s my simple theory of most regulation. Elites love to pontificate on the problems of the day, and want whatever consensus they produce to be quickly enacted by authorities. As government officials are far more prompt and subservient in such responses, elites prefer government authorities to have strong regulatory powers. Elites enforce this preference via asymmetric pressures on private actors, punishing failure but not rewarding success, yet doing neither for public actors and their elite supporters.

Elon Musk is in for a world of pain if any of his many quite risky ventures ever stumbles, as elites are mad at him for ignoring their advice that none of his ventures ever had a chance. Zuckerberg is already being credibly threatened with punishment for supposed missteps by Facebook, even though it isn’t at all clear what they did wrong, and with no gratitude shown for all the social value they’ve contributed thus far.

All this gives me mixed feelings when I see smart people offer good advice in elite discussions on concrete topics like masks, vaccines, etc. Yes, given that this is how decisions are going to be made, it is better to make good than bad choices. But I wish such advisors more often and visibly said that this isn’t how such decisions should made. We should instead design good general institutions we can trust to deal with each crisis without needing constant elite micromanagement.

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Why Openers Are Winning

Three main relevant groups have vied lately to influence pandemic policy: public, elites, and experts. Initially, public health experts dominated, even when they screwed up. But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity. At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.

Experts and the public demurred, and elites got their way. Everywhere in the world, all at once, strong lockdown polices began, and containment became the official goal. But elites did not insist on any particular standard containment policy. Such as, for example, the packages of polices that seem to have worked initially in Wuhan or South Korea. Instead elites seemed satisfied to let the politicians and experts in each jurisdiction craft their own policy packages, as long as they seemed “strong”, involving much public sacrifice. And they allowed official public messages suggesting that relatively short durations would be sufficient.

A few months later, those duration periods are expiring. And in the different jurisdictions, the diverse policies now sit next to quite diverse outcomes. In some places, infections are low or declining, while in others they are flat or increasing. The public is feeling the accumulated pain, and itching to break out. If these flat or increasing trends continue, containment will fail, and lockdown harms will soon exceed plausible future gains from preventing medical system overload.

Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain. When confronted with the discouraging recent trends, elites respond with a blizzard of explanations for local failures, and point to a cacophony of prophets with plans and white papers declaring obvious solutions.

But, and this is the key point, they mostly point to different explanations and solutions. For example, this polls shows very little agreement on the key problem:

So while the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions. If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.” But they aren’t saying this.

So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does. And that’s why the public will win. While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

Added 3p: Many are reading me as claiming that the public is unified in the sense of agreeing on everything. But I only said that the public pushes will will tend to be correlated in a particular direction, in contrast with the elite pushes which are much more diverse. Some also read me as claiming that strong majorities of the public support fast opening, but again that’s not what I said.

Added 6May: Here is data suggesting people are getting out more. Here is data suggesting increasing support for opening.

Added 7May: This poll suggests patience is thin. Lognormal fit says only willing to wait median of 1.2 months (mode 0.08, mean 4.7).

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