Tag Archives: Inequality

Evaluating “Feminism”

My close friend and colleague Bryan Caplan has a new book, “Don’t Be a Feminist”. In general, I’m reluctant to embrace or oppose vague political slogan terms like “feminist”, preferring instead to stick to terms that are better defined. But I accept that his definition isn’t greatly wide of how I’ve seen the term usually used:

Feminism is the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women.

His summary assessment on fairness is:

What then is the big picture? The fairness of the treatment that men and women receive in our society is remarkably equal. And if there is a disparity, it is probably in women’s favor. This is especially true if we ponder one last gender gap: Men endure far more false accusations of unfairness than women do.

Caplan’s essay seems to reasonably summarize what we know about the ways in which men and women are favored or not, and I agree that over all things look roughly equal. I’m more skeptical that including false accusations against men changes this overall assessment; I’d say we still don’t know which side is favored more overall. And given how close things seem, I find it hard to care much about the overall sign.

Here’s another key Caplan claim:

Feminism is so rhetorically dominant that critics fear opening their mouths. … Most intellectual movements make an effort to distinguish wrong-doers from bystanders. … Feminist thinkers, in contrast, routinely and self-righteously do otherwise. … Most self-identified feminists are probably just regular people … Unfortunately, most vocal feminists are fanatics – and rank-and-file feminists tend to defer to them.

Here I also mostly agree, and can in fact attest via personal experience. Most of my “cancellation” (which has substantially harmed my career) has been due to people who saw themselves as feminists aggressively misinterpreting a few neutral things I said as anti-feminist, and most observers going along with that move. A great many have disagree with me over the years, but few others have treated me this way.

Caplan didn’t directly address what I see as the most common “feminist” issue raised: is it okay to have, and act on, gender-conditional expectations about behavior? Seems to me that this is okay when such expectations are based primarily on observed behaviors. This implies that it can be okay to have gender roles, if these result from gendered expectations.

Yes, one should be open to the possibility of seeing outlier cases, of behaviors changing with time or context, and that gender-behavior correlations might result from gendered-expectations. That is, we should look out for ways to change our matching sets of behaviors and expectations. Which is to say, we should look for ways to switch to superior game theory equilibria.

But that needn’t require us denying observed facts about behaviors in the equilibria that we have seen so far. Bryan is roughly right, both on the overall balance of gender unfairness, and on feminist rhetorical aggression.

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Beware Upward Reference Classes

Sometimes when I see associates getting attention, I wonder, “do they really deserve more attention than me?” I less often look at those who get less attention than me, and ask whether I deserve more. Because they just don’t show up in my field of view as often; attention makes you more noticeable.

If I were to formalize my doubts, I might ask, “Among tenured econ professors, how much does luck and org politics influence who gets more funding, prestige, and attention?” And I might find many reasons to answer “lots”, and so suggest that such things be handed out more equally or randomly. Among tenured econ professors, that is. And if an economist with a lower degree, or a professor from another discipline, asked why they aren’t included in my comparison suggested redistribution, I might answer, “Oh I’m only talking about econ researchers here.”

Someone with a college econ degree might well ask if those with higher credentials like M.S., Ph.D., or a professor position really deserve the extra money, influence, and attention that they get. And if someone with only a high school degree were to ask why they aren’t included in this comparison, the econ degree person might say “oh, I’m only talking about economists here”, presuming that you can’t be considered an economists if you have no econ degree of any sort.

The pattern here is: “envy up, scorn down”. When considering fairness, we tend to define our comparison group upward, as everyone who has nearly as many qualification as we do or more, and then we ask skeptically if those in this group with more qualifications really deserve the extra gains associated with their extra qualifications. But we tend to look downward with scorn, assuming that our qualifications are essential, and thus should be baked into the definition of our reference class. That is, we prefer upward envy reference classes to justify our envying those above us, while rejecting others envying us from below.

Life on Earth has steadily increased in its abilities over time, allowing life to spread into more places and niches. We have good reasons to think that this trend may long continue, eventually allowing our descendants to spread through the universe, until they meet up with other advanced life, resulting in a universe dense with advanced life.

However, many have suggested that this view of the universe makes us today seem suspiciously early among what they see as the relevant comparison group. And thus they suggest we need a Bayesian update toward this view of the universe being less likely. But what exactly is a good comparison group? For example, if you said “We’d be very early among all creatures with access to quantum computers?”, I think we’d all get that this is not so puzzling, as the first quantum computers only appeared a few year ago.

We would also appear very early among all creatures who could knowingly ask the question “How many creatures will ever appear with feature X”, if the concept X applies to us but has only been recently introduced.  We’d also be pretty early among among all creatures who can express any question in language, if language was only invented in the last million years. It isn’t much better to talk about all creatures with self-awareness, if you say only primates and a few other animals count as having that, and they’ve only been around for a few million more years.

Thus in general in a universe where abilities improve over time, creatures that consider upward defined reference classes will tend to find themselves early. Often very early, if they insist that their class members have some very recently acquired abilities. But once you see this tendency to pick upward reference classes, the answers you get to such questions need no longer suggest updates against the hypothesis of long increasing abilities.

Furthermore, in an any universe that will eventually fill up, creatures who find themselves well before that point in time can estimate that they are very early relative to even very neutral reference classes.

It seems to me that something similar is going on when people claim that this coming century will be uniquely important, the most important one ever, as computers are the most powerful tech we have ever seen, and as the next century is plausibly when we will make most of the big choices re how to use computers.  If we generally make the most important choices about each new tech soon after finding it, and if increasingly powerful new techs keep appearing, then this sort of situation should be common, not unique, in history.

So this next century will only be the most important one (in this way) if computers are the last tech to appear that is more powerful than prior techs. But it we expect that even more important techs will continue to be found, then we shouldn’t expect this one to be the most important tech ever. No, I can’t describe these more important yet-to-be-found future techs. But I do believe they exist.

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You Choose Inequality

A simple but reasonable definition of inequality says that moving any part of a distribution toward its median value (while holding the rest of the distribution constant) reduces the inequality in that distribution. Moving a part away from the median value increases inequality.

The median adult income worldwide is ~$1000 ($3000 per household), and median wealth is $7500. If you make/have more than those amounts, and if you are trying to increase your personal income and wealth, then if successful your efforts will increase inequality in those distributions. The same applies for any distribution where you are above the median; your efforts to increase your personal value are efforts to increase inequality.

Thus you are trying to increase inequality if you try to increase your number of Twitter followers but have more than 200 now. And that’s compared to other people on Twitter. Compared the the median human, even going from zero to one Twitter followers increases inequality.

The median firm has four employees, so if your firm is larger, and you try to grow your firm, you are trying to increase inequality across firms. The median publication has one citation, and the median human has zero publication, so your trying to increase either of those numbers regarding yourself is trying to increase inequality.

Medians for the US are an IQ of 98, reading comprehension of 7th/8th grade, 4 books read per year, and 6.3/4.3 lifetime sex partners (M/F age 25-49). So if you are in US, your personal figures are higher, and you try to increase those figures, you are trying to increase US inequality. And if US numbers are higher than the world, you also increase world inequality, and that’s even true for many lower personal values.

You might try to justify improving any one above-median X by pointing to other Y on which you are below median, saying that you are a loser overall trying to improve your overall position. But are you really a loser compared to all humans alive today, or all humans ever so far, or all creatures ever so far?

Sometimes people try to justify their above-median efforts by claiming that they mainly fight against those who are even higher in the distribution than they. For example, their firm competes mainly with even larger firms, or their publications compete mainly with even more popular publications. But this just can’t be true for as many people as try to claim this justification. So how can we judge who are in fact the rare above-median Robin Hoods, taking from the even richer?

For everyone else, it seems you should admit that either (A) you count for more than others, so that your increases are more worthwhile than theirs, or (B) while reducing inequality is a nice goal, you have judged that it is just not as worthy a goal as just increasing these numbers in general, for anyone and everyone.

Added 6am: Sure, if your efforts to raise yourself also happen to also raise the entire rest of the distribution by the same proportion or amount, or cause especially big rises for some below median folks. then that may not increase inequality. But if your efforts raise yourself more than they raise others, the inequality effect issue remains.

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Why Inequality Fell Then Rose

Back in 2003 & 2007, Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez [PS] published tax-record-based estimates of U.S. top income shares from 1917 until then. They found inequality rose until 1930, fell until WWII, stayed flat until 1980, and then rose again until today. They blamed WWII tax policy and the absence of similar taxes today.

Since then, seven studies have used these same tax records to find much lower estimates of the size of this inequality and its rise since 1980. Now my colleague Vincent Geloso and three coauthors find, again using the same tax records, much lower estimates of these parameters for before 1960. Everyone agrees roughly that inequality rose til 1930, fell to WII, and then rose after 1980, but they disagree on the magnitudes and on the mix of causes. 

Geloso et al. find that half of the fall happened during the Great Depression, and another sixth of it in the decade after WWII. Others find inequality to also fall a lot 1960-1980.

But overall, this all seems to confirm the main claim of Scheidel’s The Great Leveler,  that inequality mainly falls in bad times and rises in good times. You don’t want inequality to fall, as that mostly likely indicates bad times that you don’t want.

This post is my Christmas present to Vincent.

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Me on Tyler on Bryan on Labor

Bryan Caplan has a new book, Labor Econ Versus the World, a collection of his blog posts on the topic. Tyler Cowen says that while “I agree with a great deal of what is in this book, … let’s focus on where we differ”:

Bryan for instance advocates open borders (for all countries?). I think that would be cultural and political suicide, most of all for smaller countries, but for the United States too. You would get fascism first, if anything.

That seems a crazy extreme claim to me. First you’d get lots of immigrants! Then a big economic boom. Any fascism would come much later, and I doubt it would ever come, at least as a result of immigration. (Fascism is pretty rare for US-like places.)

Bryan on education, he believes most of higher education is signaling. In contrast, I see higher education as giving its recipients the proper cultural background to participate in labor markets at higher productivity levels. I once wrote an extensive blog post on this. That is how higher education can be productive, while most of your classes seem like a waste of time.

[From that 471 word “extensive” blog post:] By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.

Note how much they agree; both say the usual “material” taught in school isn’t worth much. It is not crazy to think school adds value by pushing modern work culture into students. But it is harder to believe that such a process needs to extend past high school; can the extra years of college and graduate school really be essential to such cultural transmission? Most cultures in human history have finished pushing their culture onto kids well before age 18. Seems more plausible to me that these later years of school are mostly about showing that you embody modern work culture.

[Bryan:] Unless government requires discrimination, market forces make it a marginal issue at most. Large group differences persist because groups differ largely in productivity.

I would instead stress that most of the inequity occurs upstream of labor markets, through the medium of culture. It is simply much harder to be born in the ghetto! … Bryan is not paying enough attention to what is upstream of labor markets, or to how culture shapes human decisions. …

On poverty, Bryan puts forward a formula of a) finish high school, b) get a full time job, and c) get married before you have children. All good advice! But I find that to be nearly tautologous as an explanation of poverty. To me, the deeper and more important is why so many cultures have evolved to make those apparent “no brainer” choices so difficult for so many individuals. … One simple question is why some cultures don’t produce enough men worth marrying, … once you incorporate these messy “cultural upstream” issues, much of labor economics becomes more complicated than Bryan wishes to acknowledge. Much more complicated.

So Tyler doesn’t disagree at all with Bryan on these topics; Tyler instead complains that Bryan’s book on labor econ doesn’t spend enough time on topics outside of labor econ. I think Bryan sees himself correctly has not having much useful advice to offer on how to change cultures, and also sees culture as influencing action largely via the channel of preferences. He thinks it often okay to blame people for choices that result from from their preferences, and to let them suffer consequences from such choices.

If many labor market outcome differences result from differing preferences that result in part from different cultures, then how exactly can outsiders help someone else’s culture change the preferences that it induces? One simple approach is cultural imperialism: actively suppress insider culture and forceable replace it with outsider culture. Such as via school. Another approach is to induce stronger culture competition and selection, such as was once induced by frequent wars.

These approaches are now widely repudiated. But what other plausible options are on the table? I don’t blame Bryan for not offering more concrete advice to solve such a very hard problem in a book on a different topic. I do blame Tyler for complaining that Bryan hasn’t offered a solution to a problem to which Tyler also offers no solution. He just says the topic is “complicated”. Which along with “let’s have a conversation on X” is a usual way to “talk” about a hard subject X without really saying much.

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How Group Minds Differ

We humans have remarkable minds, minds more capable in many ways that in any other animal, or any artificial system so far created. Many give a lot of thought to the more capable artificial “super-intelligences” that we will likely create someday. But I’m more interested now in the “super-intelligences” that we already have: group minds.

Today, groups of humans together form larger minds that are in many ways more capable than individual minds. In fact, the human mind evolved mainly to function well in bands of 20-50 foragers, who lived closely for many years. And today the seven billion of us are clumped together in many ways into all sorts of group minds.

Consider a four-way classification:

  1. Natural – The many complex mechanisms we inherit from our forager ancestors enable us to fluidly and effectively manage small tightly-interacting group minds without much formal organization.
  2. Formal – The formal structures of standard organizations (i.e., those with “org charts”) allow much larger group minds for firms, clubs, and governments.
  3. Mobs = Loose informal communities structured mainly by simple gossip and status, sometimes called “mobs”, often form group minds on vast, even global, scales.
  4. Special – Specialized communities like academic disciplines can often form group minds on particular topics using less structure.

A quick web search finds that many embrace the basic concept of group minds, but I found few directly addressing this very basic question: how do group minds tend to differ from individual human minds? The answer to this seems useful in imagining futures where group minds matter even more than today.

In fact, future artificial minds are likely to be created and regulated by group minds, and in their own image, just as the modularity structure of software today usually reflects the organization structure of the group that made it. The main limit to getting better artificial minds later might be in getting better group minds before then.

So, how do group minds differ from individual minds? I can see several ways. One obvious difference is that, while human brains are very parallel computers, when humans reason consciously, we tend to reason sequentially. In contrast, large group minds mostly reason in parallel. This can make it a little harder to find out what they think at any one time.

Another difference is that while human brains are organized according to levels of abstraction, and devote roughly similar resources to different abstraction levels, standard formal organizations devote far fewer resources to higher levels of abstraction. It is hard to tell if mobs also suffer a similar abstract-reasoning deficit.

As mobs lack centralized coordination, it is much harder to have a discussion with a mob, or to persuade a mob to change its mind. It is hard to ask a mob to consider a particular case or argument. And it is especially hard to have a Socratic dialogue with a mob, wherein you ask it questions and try to get it to admit that different answers it has given contradict each other.

As individuals in mobs have weaker incentives regarding accuracy, mobs try less hard to get their beliefs right. Individual in mobs instead have stronger incentives to look good and loyal to other mob members. So mobs are rationally irrational in elections, and we created law to avoid the rush-to-judgment failures of mobs. As a result, mobs more easily get stuck on particular socially-desirable beliefs.

When each person in the mob wants to show their allegiance and wisdom by backing a party line, it is harder for such a mob to give much thought to the possibility that its party line might be wrong. Individual humans, in contrast, are better able to systematically consider how they might be wrong. Such thoughts more often actually induce them to change their minds.

Compared to mobs, standard formal orgs are at least able to have discussions, engage arguments, and consider that they might be wrong. However, as these happen mostly via the support of top org people, and few people are near that top, this conversation capacity is quite limited compared to that of individuals. But at least it is there. However such organizations also suffer from main known problems, such as yes-men and reluctance to pass bad news up the chain.

At the global level one of the big trends over the last few decades is away from the formal org group minds of nations, churches, and firms, and toward the mob group mind of a world-wide elite. Supported by mob-like expert group minds in academia, law, and media. Our world is thus likely to suffer more soon from mob mind inadequacies.

Prediction markets are capable of creating fast-thinking accurate group minds that consider all relevant levels of abstraction. They can even be asked questions, though not as fluidly and easily as can individuals. If only our mob minds didn’t hate them so much.

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‘The Profit’ Socialism Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Status Explains Lots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Separate-To-Make-Equal Vaccine Queues?

“Among the 23 states that report those details, Black and Latino people received far smaller shares of the vaccine than their share of cases and deaths, and compared to their share of the states’ populations.” (more)

In other areas of life, such as jobs and schools, critics call it unfair to insist on exact race or class proportionality, as other important yet blameless factors are correlated with race and class. But with a pandemic, cases and deaths are in fact good proxies for the main outcomes of interest, as they indicate not just who is more likely to be harmed if infected, but also who has more risky contacts, and so is both more likely to catch the disease and to pass it on to others. So it makes more sense to try to make vaccine access more proportional to the cases and deaths of particular demographic groups.

Some say that race/class equity is just not possible in vaccine distribution, as poor folks and people of color have fewer cars, fewer computers, more language obstacles, less time flexibility, and worse abilities to navigate complex public health systems. But that’s all assuming that the system doesn’t explicitly consider race and class.

It would be completely possible to just have different queues for different races and classes. (And I can’t believe queue-designers were unaware of this option.) Give each person a rank within their different queue, presumably according to various risk and priority indicators. Call them to come get the vaccine when everyone below their within-queue rank has been given the chance to get it.

Under this system, if poor folk and people of color are less able to find out when they are called, or less willing or able to come in when called, then other people further down in their queue would get it. This system could insure race and class equal vaccine distribution up until the point where so few in a particular queue come for a vaccine when called that vaccines end up wasted.

This is just one example of a type of queue not tried. There is a vast space of possible queues, and many problems attributed to queues are actually only problems with particular versions of queues.

For example, many think it obvious that while queues might work to allocate vaccines of predictable availability, unpredictably available vaccines, such as leftovers at day end, must be allocated via who has the connections and time flexibility to be at the right place at the right time. But even unpredictably available vaccines could still be allocated via the same basic queues. Once you give everyone their rank in a queue, you could use those ranks to pick who gets any vaccines, from among those who are at the right place and time. And of course we should try harder to tell everyone what those places and times are, and to standardize them more.

In general, I think the covid vaccine distribution would have been more efficient if we had just let a private markets allocate them by price, perhaps giving out (and paying for) price discount vouchers to those we thought extra deserving. Not only would this have cut much of the waste and inequality of people trying to “work” the system to jump queues, but it would have allocated vaccines better by customer-perceived value. Yes, people with more money would tend to get vaccines sooner, but that money they paid could be spent on encouraging a larger and earlier supply. (And allowing early challenge trials would have helped even more.)

When choosing whether or not to intervene in markets, policy makers usually focus on the constraints that competition and uncoordinated actions impose on markets, while assuming that governments can do anything they want. Yet this case of pandemic vaccines reminds us that while governments may be able to set aside some of the constraints that bedevil markets, governments come with whole other sets of constraints of their own.

We do not have the best government allocation mechanisms that are abstractly possible, but instead have whatever seemed easy and familiar to existing government agencies. Markets tend to create much stronger incentives to search and innovate within its sphere of constraints. And just because advocates say government intervention is needed to ensure racial or class equity, that doesn’t mean that is what government intervention actually produce or promote.

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Is Status-Seeking A Context-Neglecting-Value?

The main evolutionary function of sex for humans is obviously procreation. Yet our deep values regarding sex don’t seem to pay that much attention to info we have about if procreation is likely to actually happen in any given sex-related context. Consider our preferences regarding context for pornography, strip clubs, romance novels, and contraception. Oh our sex preferences do attend to cues that robustly correlated with procreation success for our distant ancestors. Such as the status of males and the youthfulness of females. But regarding kinds of context rare among our distant ancestors, our sex preferences seem drawn to the naive appearance of the possibility of successful sex, and neglect the more detailed context info that we have.

This sort of context-neglecting values also seems to happen with media. People seem to act as if the TV actors they watch regularly are actually their friends, and the sports stars they associate with are somehow going to raise their status. They feel they are raising their status by correcting strangers “wrong on the internet”. They also don’t seem to pay that much attention to how the processing of their food might change its nutrition, as long as it doesn’t hurt the taste.

Back in 2010 I posted on a context-neglecting-values theory to explain the demographic transition, i.e., the puzzlingly low fertility that seems to happen as societies get rich. I suggested that women who find that they are rich presume that they are relatively rich, and this have a shot at being “queens”, i.e., at mating with a high status man and producing high status kids. Or a shot at having their kids become kings or queens. This can justify delaying her own fertility to invest in status markers, or justify having fewer kids to let each kid gain more status markers. When entire societies get rich, each person neglects the fact that being absolutely rich doesn’t make you relatively rich. Plausibly among our distant ancestors, societies almost never got very rich for very long, and so this neglect wasn’t much of a problem back then.

Recently I realized that I should consider generalizations of this theory. What if, when societies get rich, we all feel like we have high relative status, and a decent chance to get even more, neglecting the fact that most everyone around us is also richer as well? In this case we’d be primed to take the sort of actions that makes sense for ambitious people with high relative status.

This might explain two big puzzles that I’ve long pondered. The first puzzle is our strong taste for variety in the last few centuries, which doesn’t seem to actually produce that much net value for us. Making new unusual choices can make sense for the high status, if they can use this as a way to show that they are leaders. That is, if they pick or do something different, and lots of people follow their example, they may prove to observers that they are a “thought” leader. And if we all see ourselves as strong leader candidates, we may all be attracted to such strategies.

The other big puzzle I’ve long pondered is our strong taste for paternalism, especially in the last few centuries, which seems to mostly hurt us on average. Instead of showing our high status by showing that others copy us when we do unusual things, we can also show our high status by our visible ability to stop others from doing unusual things. If people hear that we have such power and regularly use it, they have to conclude that we are “somebody.” And so ordinary people lend their support to paternalist policies in the hope that they will be personally credited for it. Much like people seem to think their status will be raised if they associate with celebrities who have never heard of them.

So my new suggestion in this post is that, because in a rich world we all greatly overestimate our relative status, we intuit that it makes sense to try to raise our status either by choosing variety and getting others to copy it, or by showing off our ability to stop others from choosing variety. These both actually make less sense for most of us as ways to gain status, because we aren’t actually high in relative status. But our intuitions don’t notice that.

Why would our preferences neglect context so? The idea is that they are coded in us at very deep levels, at places where our conscious thoughts just can’t change them. Such changes mostly require slower genetic and cultural selection processes.

Should welfare analysis focus on the context-neglecting preferences that we currently express, or on the ones that we would have if we took context more into account. That depends on if you care more about the immediate surface feelings of people today, or longer term outcomes and descendants.

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