Tag Archives: Forager

Firms Are Not Aliens

The title of Tyler Cowen’s new book, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, is pretty clear on its topic and stance:

Business, quite simply, has become underrated, and thus I am writing a contrarian book that ought not to be contrarian at all. All of the criticisms one might mount against the corporate form—some of which are valid—pale in contrast to two straightforward and indeed essential virtues. First, business makes most of the stuff we enjoy and consume. Second, business is what gives most of us jobs.

You might think Cowen would defend the claim that big business is a better source for stuff and jobs, compared to other sources like government agencies, non-profits, worker cooperatives, small business, communes, sharing, or self-employment & home production. But in fact Cowen shows little interest in comparing big business to such alternatives. Instead, his book seems to be all about “mood affiliation”, to use a Cowen term. Two reviewers agree:

His theme is correct. Big Business is not the ogre it is made out to be. It is no more deserving of being scapegoated than are other familiar targets. (more)

The book does have a slightly catalogue-ish feel to it, as though Professor Cowen has been (as I suspect) keeping a list of college students’ most common complaints about Big Business (and about capitalism generally) and addressing them in series. (more)

While most of Cowen’s responses to complaints seem spot on to me, this whole situation seems a sad commentary on our complainy culture. Complaints are mainly useful when they push us to evaluate particular proposed fixes. But our political culture today seems largely a game of trying to max the people* time*loudness volume of complaints heard about rivals, regardless of the relative validity or importance of such complaints. Supporting this game, Cowen doesn’t talk much about possible fixes; his focus seems on the overall complaint score.

My main disagreement with Cowen, and its a big one, is that, in his last chapter, his “love” letter reads more like this “praise” of men from the movie Dangerous Liaisons: 

Men enjoy the happiness they feel. We [women] can only enjoy the happiness we give. [Men] are not capable of devoting themselves exclusively to one person. So [for a woman] to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief. (more)

Cowen tells us to love big businesses, but not to expect them to love us back, as they are incurably selfish aliens:

Why is business so often so unpopular? I think the answers are pretty deeply rooted in human nature: we cannot help judging business by many of the same standards we apply to people. …We turn corporations into people in our minds, and also in our hearts. … we imbue them with human qualities. … It can mislead us, and it is a kind of shorthand that has pitfalls and hazards. … [are] external, autonomous, selfish corporate agents — agents who take our wishes into account only insofar as it suits them. … should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. … It is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior. …

We judge companies as we might judge a person, sometimes even a family member: in terms of connection and standards of integrity. This is a mistake, because corporations are legal constructs and abstract entities, and they do not have purposes, goals, or feelings of their own. … Precisely because we tend to judge corporations by the standards we use to judge people, it is hard for us to accept the partially venal or sometimes amoral pecuniary or greedy motives operating behind the scenes, and so we moralize about companies instead of trying to understand them. …

When it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. …

It doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or bylaws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Oddly, Cowen spends much of his book arguing differently, saying why firms have incentives to, and in fact do, act more trustworthy and reliably than do most humans and other organizations. And that firms are not in fact simple profit maximizers:

The common portrait of corporations as consisting entirely of selfish or greedy individuals is not the best understanding of big business. … Goals other than simple profit maximization often end up boosting both business profits and social benefits. For example, the people who work at SpaceX, … often really do believe in the dream of colonizing other planets and the stars. … Friedman failed to understand that the cultural, intellectual, ideological, and even emotional foundations of business go far beyond an attachment to profit. People care about what they do, and they seek meaning through their jobs. Profit maximization is best thought of as a convenient fiction that does a fairly good job boosting profits precisely because it rejects a sole emphasis on profits as a goal. … most successful businesses have a kind of messianic view of their role in society … A business that instills in its workers and managers a sincere belief in such goals has a better chance of building a durable competitive advantage than a business that does not. …

I’m more likely to think of a corporation as a carrier of reputation and a kind of metaphorical personhood, and less likely to think of a corporation as a means of minimizing transactions costs, as many mainstream economists have suggested.

Yet in the end Cowen wants to warn us that all this good stuff is an illusion covering an incurably selfish core. His whole picture seems greatly at odds with the view I elaborate in my book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life: that we humans are similarly selfish at core and yet induced to act and look good by our social context and incentives. As friends, we may not consciously consider “each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed”, but unconsciously we very much consider such things. I say that big business is no more essentially selfish than are ordinary humans, and that Cowen has offered no evidence to the contrary.

We humans have had many thousands of years of experience relating to people who need us but are much more powerful than us, and to large social organizations that sit in similar human-like social roles. These are the kinds of human-like relations that we can reasonably expect to have with big business today, and that we do actually have. In those expected roles, big business is not disappointing us nor fooling us; they are in fact more reliable and trustworthy than most of our other relation partners. They can and do meet high standards of integrity. In their roles, they very much do have understandable and relatable “purposes, goals, or feelings of their own”. After so many millennia, this isn’t some strange new situation to which we are poorly adapted. We aren’t at all fooled into thinking of big business as equal lovers or drinking buddies.

Why then do we complain so much about big business, via words, taxes, regulations, and a low political influence? Because just by being big, having money, and seeking money, big business violates ancient forager norms against inegalitarian distribution, overt selfishness, and especially against overtly selfish efforts to achieve unequal dominance. (Money is seen a power to dominate).

We know that the continued existence of those forager norms primes audiences to accept most any complaint we might make against big business. And as in a marriage, we are happy to take advantage of opportunities to complain, even when we have no intention of breaking off the relationship.

Added 5p 22Apr: On his blog, Cowen cryptically replies:

For purposes of context, I see Robin as leading a sustained mood affiliation crusade against hypocrisy, rather than performing comparative analysis of hypocrisy vs. the relevant alternatives.

That may be true, but I don’t see how it is responsive to my critique. Hypocrisy is when someone’s real motives differs from those they present. But I’m struggling to understand Cowen’s comment via somehow mapping the hypocrisy concept onto my post above. The most obvious example of hypocrisy in the above is when ordinary folks pretend to mind big firms behavior, but really mind don’t mind nearly as much as they pretend. I didn’t complain about that hypocrisy in the above, and I can’t see how that application of the hypocrisy concept is relevant to the disagreement that I identify, where he says firms at core just can’t and shouldn’t be trusted and I say they can be trusted as well as other individuals and organizations. So I guess I’m just not understanding him.

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Explaining Sex Rate Changes

According to the Post, polls say 28% of US men age 18-30 report not having sex in the last year, almost 3 times as many as a decade ago. Women that age show a much smaller increase, and other ages don’t show noticeable changes:

Even if much of this change is due to random polling error, I’d bet there is still a real effect here to explain. I asked via a Twitter poll if the young women switched to sex with older men, or with more desirable younger men, and by 3-2 (out of 11,456!), they favored the latter theory. Yes, in principle women could be switching to sex with other women, but I’d bet that’s not the biggest effect here.

So there’s probably a real effect here to explain: regarding heterosexual sex, over the last decade many more young men are having no sex, compared to other ages and genders, and with their potential partners switching to more desirable young men and older men. That’s a pattern we might want to explain.

If we think of sex as a mating market, using simple supply and demand concepts, then the (quality weighted) quantity of sex that each person gets should depend on 1) how much they value sex, 2) how much they have to offer potential partners, and 3) how much those partners value them. In addition, 4) search and other deal frictions can make it harder to find and sustain pairings.

So the young men who have less to offer, relative to average young men, might get even less sex over time because they become even less desirable in the eyes of women, because those women now find other options more attractive, because these young men are less eager for sex, or because of increased costs to find and proposition well-matched women.

These are categories of proximate causes, and are consistently with many distal causes. For example, longer lifespans could cause changes in youthful desire, or changes in outside options. Yes, each of these categories can be broken down further. For example, young men might be less eager for sex either because young women have changed and become less desirable to them, or because those men now find other activities more enjoyable.

In one of my most popular Twitter polls to date (with 4940 responses), I asked people to pick from three cause categories:

While there is no strong consensus, respondents did favor pickier young women by almost 2-1 over each of the other two options (less male desire and less desirable men). The stories of pickier women and less desirable men will in practice be pretty hard to distinguish, especially as there can be feedback loops, such as where men who succeed less get discouraged and try less hard. So let us just bundle these stories together into: PW+LDM. In my poll, that bundle is favored 3-1 over the men want sex less story.

While my poll induced many commenters to offer theories, most did not think very carefully about how to explain social changes. So let me elaborate here on that. If real, this particular pattern is regarding one particular subset of people, less-desirable young men (LDYM), who are losing out over a particular decade to another particular subset, young more-desirable men, for a particular thing, sex. So any explanation of this pattern needs to be specific to these two groups, this outcome (sex), and this time period.

Thus it won’t at all do to point to effects that are constant in time, such as people not always telling the truth in polls, or men having lower standards for sex partners. It also won’t do to point to changes over this time period that effected all ages and genders similarly, such as obesity, porn, video games, social media, dating apps, and wariness re harassment claims. They might be part of an answer, but can’t explain all by themselves. To explain an unusual burst over the last decade, it is also problematic to point to factors (e.g., computing power) that changed over the last decade, but changed just as much over prior decades.

A good theory instead needs to identify why its favored effect was much stronger in this past decade, especially for the package of LDYM. Consider the explanations mentioned by the Post:

There are several potential explanations … Labor force participation among young men has fallen, particularly in the aftermath of the last recession. … 54% of unemployed Americans didn’t have a steady romantic partner, compared with 32% among the employed. … Young men also are more likely to be living with their parents than young women: In 2014, for instance, 35% of men age 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ home, compared with 29% of women in that age group. …

One final factor that may be affecting Americans’ sexual habits at all ages is technology. “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago,… Streaming video, social media, console games, everything else.” (more)

But streaming video and social media effect all ages, genders, and desirability levels, not just LDYM. The other two effects are at least specific to LDYM, but there’s no mention of just how much living at home has changed among young men, and the drop in labor force participation (e.g., 79.6-73.0% for men age 20-24 from ’06-’16) seems much less than increase in the sexless.

A related effect the Post didn’t mention is women going further in school than men now, and women being reluctant to date men with less school. There’s been a big change in that over the last 15 years:

Note that these 3 possible causes, schooling differences, labor force participation declines, and living at home, all more plausibly act through the PW+LDM channel, relative to less male desire or higher deal frictions channels.

In December, the Atlantic outlined a great many possible theories:

Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. … But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with. …

It might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido. …

Rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time. …

In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. … Unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. … Tinder … logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. … overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex. … #MeToo movement … less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. … Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. … porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. … Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping. …

Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift … Designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” … May also be newly worried about what they look like naked. … Social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. … a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. … Women will say … ‘It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ “ …

There may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80% will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. (more)

Note that many of these channels result in women being less interested in or open to male sex proposals, and are thus within the PW+LDM channel. These include less child sex abuse, feeling less pressured, prioritizing careers, women feeling more anxious about their bodies, and more #MeToo disapproval of sex proposals. (Though that last one can also be seen as higher deal frictions.) Overall, both my polls and MSM stories seem to agree that PW+LDM is the most likely channel of change here.

Note also that the “waiting too long” problem can contribute to cohort specific sex cultures. That is, age cohorts often generate distinct tastes in music, food, and hobbies, tastes which can last a lifetime. Similarly, age cohorts can generate distinct lasting sex cultures, cultures that are especially sensitive to the conditions around when that cohort first started to have sex. In general, age cohorts seem eager to change from the fashions of prior cohorts, to define themselves via distinct music, etc. And in addition, dramatic events like 9-11, the great recession, and #MeToo could help push a new age cohort to switch to a new cultural equilibrium, which might then stick around for a while, at least until the next such disruption.

It seems that, whether due to recent cultural events or random cultural drift, the latest age cohort has switched to a new sex culture wherein the less desirable half of young men are now seen as even less desirable by young women than previous cohorts would have seen them. And within this culture it is seen as more acceptable for young women to share the more desirable half of young men, relative to the higher (but never maximal) priority previous cohorts put on more monogamous ties.

Random future cultural changes could of course move back the other way. But my increasing-wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager story about the direction of modern cultural changes predicts otherwise for the long run. Via marriage, foragers were more promiscuous and less monogamous than farmers, and this recent age cohort sex culture change continues this predicted farmer-to-forager movement.

Added 10p: Some evidence against the porn story.

Added 10Apr: TGGP reviews data & concludes:

Between the two explanations, I would thus conclude that a shift toward older men relative to the 18-29 group fits better than an increase in variance within 18-29.

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Why Grievances Grow

We have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity. (more)

A full 80% [of US] believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” … The woke are in a clear minority across all ages. … Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30% see it as a problem. … Compared with the rest of the [nation], progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. … What people mean by “political correctness.” … [is] their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them. (more)

While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems [with transit construction], especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope. (more)

Chronic Complainers: These folks live in a constant state of complaint. If they’re not voicing about their “woe is me” attitude, they’re probably thinking about it. Psychologists term this compulsory behavior rumination, defined as “repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.” Rumination is, unfortunately, directly relayed to the depressed and anxious brain. (more)

Customers with high status tended to register more service failures and to complain more frequently than customers of lower social status. All three social status distinctions explored in this study (gender, education, and age) correlated negatively with formal complaint, but only age correlated negatively with informal complaint. … Two cultural dimensions [power distance and uncertainty avoidance] had the expected negative effect on intention to complain, and moderated the relationship between social status and intention to complain. (more)

My favorite one-factor theory of social attitude (and value) change over the last few centuries is that increasing wealth has induced a drift from farmer back to forager attitude (and values). (A theory I also outline in Age of Em.) Which plausibly helps explains changing attitudes toward fertility, gender, slavery, crime, democracy, war, leisure, art, and travel. In this post I want to suggest a (to me) new hypothesis about forager attitudes, which could help explain some recent attitude trends.

Foragers are fiercely egalitarian. They share many kinds of food and other resources, and enforce a norm of quickly and aggressively squashing any signs of attempts to use or threaten to use force, or any inclinations to do so. In fact, this is probably the uber-norm that drove the evolution of norms in the first place. Bragging about your physical strength is a no-no, as that can be interpreted as an implicit threat to use that strength. Even bragging about your intelligence or other resources is discouraged, as those might also be seen as threats, or as attempts to form coalitions that might threaten. Forager group decisions are to be made by consensus, after everyone has had a chance to weigh in.

Now consider foragers attitudes about complaining. When someone more dominant makes a complaint to someone less dominant, that can often be interpreted as a threat to use power if the complaint isn’t fixed. Which is a big forager no-no. But when a less dominant person complains to a more dominant person, it is harder to see that as a threat to use power. So complaints down are discouraged more than complaints up, just as punching down is more of a no-no than punching up. And we’ll tend to interpret complaints as a pro-down positions.

A complaint that is made to third parties fits the standard norm-enforcement pattern, a pattern of which foragers greatly approve. Thus having A complain to B about how a more dominant person C is treating a less dominant person D badly should generally meet with approval. This is A helping out with norm enforcement, and can be seen as “speaking truth to power.” If A is a high prestige person, and B is a wise and moral audience, this pattern should be especially approved. After all, we naturally believe prestigious people more than others. And if a complaint leads to action of which we later approve, that can increase the prestige of the complainers.

Yes, people who complain a lot tend to seem unhealthy, and we tend to think less of frequent complainers. Even so, foragers likely a big soft spot in their hearts for prestigious people who complain to the whole group that some low dominance people are being treated badly by high dominance people. Those complaints, foragers respected.

In our society today, we tend to frame big firms, governments, rich folks, and larger demographic groups as more dominant actors. So when a local neighborhood group complains about a government plan for a transit construction project, we tend to see that as a low dominance actor complaining about a high dominance actor, and habitually sympathize. And to the extent that we have forager-like attitudes about such situations, this increases the political negotiating power of such complainers, inducing governments to give in to them, and raising the costs of transit construction projects. Similar processes likely increase the power of neighborhood groups who demand rent, zoning, and private construction restrictions, resulting in less new buildings and housing.

Forager-like attitudes similarly prime us to favor ordinary consumers or employees who complain about big firms, and this encourages regulations focused mostly on consumer and employee welfare, relative to the welfare of investors, who are framed as rich and thus dominators. Even rich high status people feel comfortable complaining about how big firms treat them, and in fact they feel more comfortable than low status folks. Their higher prestige can make them feel like respected moral crusaders for all.

As larger race/ethnicities are framed as dominators relative to smaller ones, forager-like attitudes prime us to sympathize with complaints that the former mistreat the latter. Similarly for complaints on how the larger groups who have more standard gender and sexual preferences treat the smaller groups who have more deviant genders and sexual preferences. Men’s higher physical strength and participation in war, and higher percentage among top positions at most organizations, has long induced us to frame men as more dominant relative to women.

Thus when we have more forager-like attitudes, we naturally sympathize when high prestige people complain that these more dominant groups are mistreating the less dominant groups. And in fact people with the potential for high prestige can seek to cement and increase their prestige via such complaints. Which is plausibly why it is high prestige folks who participate most in “grievance studies” type complaining.

Forager-like attitudes should make us sympathize with most any complaint about how rich people treat less rich people. Including how they conspire to mess up markets, political systems, or legal systems. Also, when criminals are committing crimes, they can seem like illicit dominators relative to ordinary citizens. But police, courts, and prisons can seem like dominators relative to criminals, thus inducing us to sympathize with complaints that criminals are being treated too harshly by the legal system. Perhaps explaining why prestigious folks seem to consistently push for weaker criminal punishments.

My wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager-attitudes story says that this complaint-sympathizing effect has been slowly getting stronger as we’ve been getting richer and more forager-like. It is strongest in the richest nation, which is currently the US, and it will continue to get stronger world-wide as the world gets richer. And these grievances accumulate when we do not use law to try and settle them.

And that’s my story. Hyper-egalitarian foragers were especially sympathetic to complaints by prestigious folks that high-dominance folks were mistreating less-dominant others, and with increasing wealth we’ve been slowly increasing our embrace of this forager attitude. And so we’ve been listening more to such complainers, and giving them more political and social power, which has encouraged more high prestige folks to present themselves as such crusading complainers. Which results in a growing accumulation of such grievances.

What to do about this will have to wait for another post.

Added 10Mar: The conceptual power here is that this theory is more specific than the general idea that we dislike inequality and dominance, and so work consistently to reduce them. A habit of favoring specific complaints against more dominant parties can actually increase inequality and dominance in many cases.

Added 11Mar: Martin Gurri’s book Revolt of the Public can be seen as describing a switch to a focus on popular complaints. He describes many new social movements around 2011 that focused on complaining loudly to an enthusiastic public, but which due to egalitarian ideals weren’t interested in or capable of negotiating concrete demands or working within the usual political systems.

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School Is To Submit

Most animals in the world can’t be usefully domesticated. This isn’t because we can’t eat their meat, or feed them the food they need. It is because all animals naturally resist being dominated. Only rare social species can let a human sit in the role of dominant pack animal whom they will obey, and only if humans do it just right.

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.

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. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.

The farming mode required humans to swallow many changes that didn’t feel nice or natural to foragers. While foragers are fiercely egalitarian, farmers are dominated by kings and generals, and have unequal property and classes. Farmers work more hours at less mentally challenging tasks, and get less variety via travel. Huge new cultural pressures, such as religions with moralizing gods, were needed to turn foragers into farmers.

But at work farmers are mostly autonomous and treated as the equal of workers around them. They may resent having to work, but adults are mostly trusted to do their job as they choose, since job practices are standardized and don’t change much over time. In contrast, productive industrial era workers must accept more local domination and inequality than would most farmers. Industry workers have bosses more in their face giving them specific instructions, telling them what they did wrong, and ranking them explicitly relative to their previous performance and to other nearby workers. They face more ambiguity and uncertainty about what they are supposed to do and how.

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? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.

While human foragers are especially averse to even a hint of domination, they are also especially eager to take “orders” via copying the practices of prestigious folks. Humans have a uniquely powerful capacity for cultural evolution exactly because we are especially eager and able to copy what prestigious people do. So 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.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people. But 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.

Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and 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 and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.

This point of view can help explain how schools could help workers to accept habits of modern workplaces, and thus how there could have been selection for societies that substituted schools for early jobs or other child activities. It can also help explain unequal gains from school; some kinds of schools should be less effective than others. For example, teachers might not be prestigious, teachers may fail to show up on time to teach, teacher evaluations might correlate poorly with student performance, students might not have much choice of classes, school tasks might diverge too far from work tasks, students may not get prestigious jobs, or the whole process might continue too long into adulthood, long after the key habituation has been achieved.

In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

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Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers

Scott Alexander in 2013:

Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment. … “Take actions that would be beneficial to survival in case of a zombie apocalypse” seems to get us rightist positions on a lot of issues. We can generalize from zombie apocalypses to any desperate conditions in which you’re not sure that you’re going to make it and need to succeed at any cost.

What about the opposite? Let’s imagine a future utopia of infinite technology. Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. … Even death itself has disappeared. What policies are useful for this happy state? …

If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. … Leftism wins over time because technology advances over time which means societies become more secure and abundant over time. …

Both Greece and Rome were relatively leftist, with freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas. After the Fall of Rome, when Europe was set back technologically into a Dark Age, rightism returned with a vengeance. …

“So you mean rightism is optimized for tiny unstable bands facing a hostile wilderness, and leftism is optimized for secure, technologically advanced societies like the ones we are actually in?” And this conclusion, too, I will mostly endorse. (more)

Much of this is pretty compatible with the forager-farmer perspective I outlined in 2010. To review, as foragers our attitudes and inclinations were well adapted to our environment, but the farming environment was so different that to become effective farmers we had to drastically change such things in a short time. So we cranked up the pressure on social conformity, religion, etc. in order to enforce strong new social norms favoring new farming behaviors. But because these were built on fear, and went somewhat against our deeper natures, rich safe elites have often drifted back toward forager styles, and the whole world has drifted that way together since we’ve all gotten rich and safe with industry. This view makes sense of many long term trends over the last few decades, such as trends toward more leisure, travel, product variety, egalitarianism, democracy, peace, and slavery aversion.

However, in addition to the forager-farmer or survive-thrive distinction, there is another related distinction that I think I, and Scott above, haven’t been thinking clearly enough about. And that is the distinction between supporting specific ways of foragers and farmers, and generalizing their attitudes toward simpler more general principles. Let me explain. Continue reading "Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers" »

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Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Forager Mating Returns" »

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The Up Side Of Down

In her new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle takes some time to discuss forager vs. farmer attitudes toward risk.

Forager food sources tended to be more risky and variable, while farmer food sources are more reliable. So foragers emphasized food sharing more, and a tolerate attitude toward failure to find food. In contrast, farmers shared food less and held individuals responsible more for getting their food. We’ve even seen the same people switch from one attitude to the other as they switched from foraging to farming. Today some people and places tend more toward farmer values of strict personal responsibility, while other people and places tend more toward forager forgiveness.

McArdle’s book is interesting throughout. For example, she talks about how felons on parole are dealt with much better via frequent reliable small punishments, relative to infrequent random big punishments. But when it comes to bankruptcy law, a situation where the law can’t help but wait a long time to respond to an accumulation of small failures, McArdle favors forager forgiveness. She points out that this tends to encourage folks who start new businesses, which encourages more innovation. And this does indeed seem to be a good thing.

Folks who start new businesses are pretty rare, however, and it is less obvious to me that more leniency is good overall. It is not obvious that ordinary people today face more risk than did most farmers during the farming era. The US apparently has the most lenient bankruptcy law in the world, and that is indeed some evidence for its value. However, it seems to me more likely that US forager forgiveness was caused by US wealth than vice versa. McArdle says the US got lenient bankruptcy in the late 1800s via lobbying by senators representing western farmers in debt to eastern banks. And it is even harder to see how farming in the US west then was more risky than has been farming throughout the whole farming era.

Most likely what changed was the wealth of US farmers, and their new uppity attitudes toward rich elites. This fits with debt-forgiveness being a common liberal theme, which fits with liberal attitudes being more forager-like, and becoming more common as rising wealth cut the fear that made farmers. If lenient bankrupts is actually better for growth in our world, this would be another example of Caplan’s idea trap, where rising wealth happens to create better attitudes toward good policy.

Overall I found it very hard to disagree with anything that McArdle said in her book. If you know me, that is quite some praise. 🙂

Added 2May: The fact that most farmer cultures were clannish may be part of an explanation here. The strict farmer morality is mostly about how to deal with outsiders, distant from your immediate family. The clan is punished severely, but it is usually more forgiving internally. If farmer clans had lower risk than do isolated families today, that could be a reason to have more forgiving bankruptcy law today.

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Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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Reward or Punish?

Many reality TV shows, like Project Runway, Hell’s Kitchen, or Survivor, focus on punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. Not only do viewers seem to find that more interesting, it actually works better to incentivize performance (many quotes below). Punishment works better to encourage lone behavior, to encourage behavior in a group, and as a tool for letting some group members encourage others.

The puzzle is that in most of our social worlds we instead focus on rewarding the best, not punishing the worst. If you search for “punish reward” you will mostly find the issue raised about how to treat kids; we are mainly willing to use punishment flexibly on them. And this when young kids are the main exception – for them punishment works worse. For adults, we tend to limit punishment’s use to extreme behavior that we all strongly agree is bad, like crime. And when you ask adults, they much prefer to be part of a group that uses rewards, not punishment.

As a college teacher, I expect that I’d get more effort from most students by regularly pointing out the worst student in the class than the best. But I also expect students to hate it and give me low evaluations. Similarly, I expect that if I wrote the occasional post criticizing a bad blog commenter here, instead of praising a good one, I’d get more change in commenting behavior. But I also expect that person to complain long and loud about how I was biased and unfair, and others to come to their defense. I expect a lot less complaining about bias in picking the best.

In both the class and comment cases, I expect people to see me as mean and cruel for punishing the worst, but kind and generous for rewarding the best. This even though all of these effects are relative – punishment would raise the rest of the class, or the rest of the commenters, up above the worse.

Note that rewarding the best is in practice more elitist than punishing the worse; punishing creates an underclass, not an overclass. And in fact our hyper-egalitarian forager ancestors were quite reluctant to overtly reward or praise; they focused their social coordination on having the group punish norm violators. Our hyper sensitivity to being punished, and our elaborate instinctual strategies to give excuses and to coordinate to retaliate against any who might suggest we should be punished, are probably human adaptations to that forager history. And they make us especially unwilling to accept punishment by an authority, instead of by the informal consensus of the group.

This seems an interesting example of our seeking to avoid aspects of the forager way of life. Our forager evolved aversion to being singled out for social shame is so strong that we’d rather create elites instead. At least this applies when we are relatively rich and comfortable. If we really feared being destroyed for lack of sufficient efforts, as farmers often did, we’d probably be a lot more eager to raise overall efforts by punishing the worse. I suspect that foragers themselves didn’t punish much in good times; punishment was invoked more, and mattered more, in hard times. In good times foragers probably more tolerated praising some as better, and weak forms of bragging.

In a more competitive future, with organizations and individuals that compete harder to survive, I’d expect more use of punishment, in addition to reward.

Today if you have a group that really needs to succeed, and to induce strong efforts all around, consider paying the social disruptions costs of punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. You will probably get more effort that way, even if people end up hating you and calling you evil for it. And if your group doesn’t punish and fails, know that your reluctance to punish was probably a contributing factor.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Reward or Punish?" »

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Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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